My top 5 games (Nick O'Neill)
Last time I posted I wrote about my ever-changing collection and how I constantly adapt and refine it in order to reflect my current game-playing needs. Even in the few days since I wrote those words two further games have gone to new homes, maybe to be replaced by shinier and more suitable candidates in the future, but we shall see. I did post that I would write about some of my favourite games, and that has been suggested as a way for readers to get to know us, the posters here at WDYPTW. As it happens, I very roughly and unscientifically worked out my top fifty games recently, so here, without further ado, are ones at the very top of the tree, my top five.
#5 - Glen More
When people post a question asking about a small box game that packs a big box punch, then my thoughts immediately turn to Glen More. Granted, the box is small-to-medium rather than small, but the components take up very little space, and really it is the central board that needs the box. Glen More is a tile laying and activation game, coupled with a roundel mechanism that does several very old things in a fresh and different way. Players expand their villages by selected tiles from the clockwise trail of new tiles, and then are allowed to place them in their growing villages and activate those nearby. As always, there are restrictions, but the core of the game is in that short description. Where Glen More is especially clever is in the way that it incorporates a couple of tweaks that turn this game from good to great.
The player pawns on the central board follow the newly laid tiles in clockwise order, but it is always the player in last place on this train who gets the next turn. This means that somebody might want to skip ahead to grab a tasty tile, but in doing so gifts an opponent two, three or even more turns in a row. There is also an active market whose mechanism reflects the dynamics of supply and demand in a very simple but brutally effective way. One of the finest tweaks, though, is that at the end of the game the players with the largest villages incur a penalty for over-expansion. While at heart this allows players to hold back a runaway leader, it can also lead to some nasty surprises at the end of the game, and it is worth reminding new players of this several times so that they cannot complain that you did not tell them...
Glen More also plays well in two, the potentially awkward dummy player reduced to a simple die roll that has just enough effect on the game to make things tricky. Long out of print in an English version, I hear that this is due for a new edition, and I would recommend that players looking for something quirky and different in a crowded and increasingly generic gaming market give this a go. Hopefully the box will remain the same small size as well.
#4 - The Castles Of Burgundy
It may well be a sign of ever decreasing circles when a game receives the dice game and card game treatment, but The Castles Of Burgundy in its original incarnation remains at the top of this particular gaming tree for me. The game is cheap to pick up, and perhaps it is a little sad that the components are not entirely top notch, but if ever a game were to show that flashy components alone do not a game make, then The Castles Of Burgundy is that game. Dice rolling and tile placement, but in an interlinked and clever way that means that rolling low is just as useful as rolling high (or just as not useful at all, in my case), and a gradually evolving tableau of your lands that incorporates buildings, animals, knowledge, mines, shipping and so on. I won't use that horrible phrase that people tend to use for Stefan Feld's designs, but it is certainly true that points are handed out for nearly every action, and that scores will happily run into the hundreds.
However, I have always found that the multiplicity of ways to score leads to some absorbingly delicate decisions, in terms of what is going to yield the most value in the long-term. This also means that this game supports different strategies, and allows its players to go a-hunting elsewhere if their opponents have blocked off a particular avenue. As in Glen More, the selection of tiles is more or less it as far as player interaction goes, but keeping an eye on what your opponent is up to and acting accordingly can lead to opportunities to play quite sneakily, so sneakily, in fact, that you may be able to wreak havoc without your opponents quite knowing what you are up to.
#3 – Race For The Galaxy
Tom Lehmann's Race For The Galaxy has a reputation for being fearsomely difficult to learn, and I would be hard pushed to argue against that point of view, for our very first play of this game broke down thanks to the iconography on one of the cards, and it took us several months to muster up the energy to return to the game and attempt to crack it. However, just as I can testify to the difficulty the game can pose, equally I can testify to the fact that it is totally worth it, and we have since played our physical copy well over two hundred times. Lehmann's design is exquisite in the way it functions, a great deal of its tightness and cleverness coming from the order in which the chosen actions play out, meaning that producing and consuming goods is a process spread out over two rounds. In a game this short on time (it is a race for the galaxy, after all) it renders some potentially obvious strategies very tricky to pull off.
What is also so impressive about this game is that almost every avenue provides the possibility of victory – mining, military force, genes worlds, novelty goods and so on. Players need to have the flexibility to adapt to what the cards throw at them, but there are ways and means to seek out what you need, to tip the balance of probability enough in your favour to eke out those precious extra points. My solid recommendation, though, is to play this in the two-player advanced version, and preferably with the same opponent, for it becomes a delicately poised and balanced game of bluff and counter-bluff as you attempt to predict what your opponent is about to do and hopefully dovetail those choices with the means to achieve your own ends. A brilliant design.
#2 – Agricola
Agricola provided me with a genuine epiphany in my board gaming journey. Purchased relatively early in what would become my obsession with the hobby, the first time I played it the rules frazzled my tiny mind, but slowly and surely the haze lifted and the wheels and gears meshed together in an enthralling and beautiful way. Of all the manifold and enticing delights in this game and its gently thematic nature, it is the planting and growing of vegetables that most beguiles me. Odd, I know, but the way that simple process is depicted in tokens and cardboard makes me smile every time I encounter it.
In its Family Version this is a fairly streamlined play, but it really opens up with the various occupations of the bigger set of rules, necessitating a broader overview of what will work most effectively with whatever strategy you happen to pursue. In many ways it preempts Rosenberg's later big box games, such as Caverna, A Feast For Odin and so on, but Agricola is just so much more tight and unforgiving. I want to be challenged by a game, not to feel that it is letting me do whatever I like and then awarding me a medal simply for taking part. Agricola will let your people starve and punish you for it, and woe betide you if you get too attached to those animals. This is one of my desert island games, also because it comes with a decent solo option as well.
#1 – Tigris & Euphrates
Something very, very special indeed is going to have to come along in order to knock Tigris & Euphrates off the top of my gaming tree. Something very, very, very special. Tigris is a well-nigh perfect game of strategy, tactics, randomness and mitigation of that same randomness that plays out like a time lapse top-down montage of some ancient civilisation. Giving each player two choices in a turn rather than one gives them enough flexibility to do some of what they want, but never quite enough, and the chaos that can be unleashed through the placement of a single tile is like having a marauding army rampage through your kingdom., and you can comfortably dismiss all those people who say that Reiner Knizia doesn't do theme.
A wisely used catastrophe tile can completely scupper your opponents' plans or perhaps you might just sneak a new leader into their kingdom to incite revolt and take the points. Is it a diceless war game? An abstract? Or does it instead transcend genres? And it would be remiss of me not to mention the scoring that takes into account only your weakest area, so punishing to those who would specialise. Many of my happiest memories are of this game, especially earlier this year when, having settled our father's estate that day, I played it in the evening with my brother. I lost, he was entranced - thrilled, even - and immediately bought himself a copy. Timeless, unique, thematic, beautiful and an exquisite masterpiece, this is the game I would take to my desert island to play and lavish with paeans of praise - my favourite of them all, and I have never even won a game. Truly monumental!
So how do these tally with your top games? Am I way off the mark or are you already planning on popping over to my place for some marathon gaming sessions? Let me know!
My name is Nick O'Neill and I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including complete seasons of Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it. I review for GamesQuest UK, write for Yaah! Magazine and tweet gaming thoughts @meepleonboard. In real life I am @ukcomposer.