Stepping Up Your Board Game Collection

games Hello. My name is Brad, and I'm a recovering Ameritrash addict.

When most of you think of board games, a couple names likely come to mind immediately. Monopoly, Risk, Sorry!, or The Game of Life. All fun games, but all flawed terribly. Such is the way of so-called Ameritrash games. Some of the characteristics shared by the games above are typical of a lot of games designed in the US. You often have fancy looking plastic game pieces, a heavy thematic presence, and game mechanics driven almost entirely by chance. There's nothing inherently wrong with Ameritrash - Monopoly is still an all-time favorite of mine - but I was getting burnt out on our family game nights and needed something with more depth and strategy. Enter the Eurogames.

Eurogames are a term used to describe inherently strategic games that usually involve little to no player elimination, minimal luck and/or chance involved, and any thematic elements are often just a means to an end. They are games that reward skill over fortune, are usually fairly easy to learn, and once you start playing them, you'll never want to go back. Put it this way: much of my video game budget has been diverted here, and family game night have gone from once every other week to 2-3 times per week.

The biggest question that usually gets asked when jumping into this world though is "where do I start?" There are a lot of games out there, and it can be tough to find an entry point. Here I'll shed some light on five of my current favorites. All of these games offer the great depth of Eurogames without the tougher mechanics that come with some of the more difficult offering out there.

Ascension

StoneBlade Entertainment - $39.99 base sets/$29.99 expansions - 2-4 players (up to 6 w/ expansions added)

Ascension is the game that started me along my recent Eurogame craze (though one could argue Ascension isn't a Eurogame per se). I wrote a review of Ascension that you can check out to get a feel for the game's mechanics. Since I wrote that review, I have actually purchased all five of the other expansions for the game, and I'll say the most recent block which consists of Rise of Vigil and Darkness Unleashed is probably my favorite.

Ascension is a game that remains firmly in the game night rotation for my wife and I, and it's still recommended by me as a terrific game to give a whirl.

Carcassonne-board

Carcassonne

Z-Man games - $34.99 - 2-5 players (up to 6 with Inns and Cathedrals expansion)

If there was any Eurogame that could be described as a "gateway" game to fall in love with the genre, that game would be Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a tile-laying game where players match new tiles up with the existing and expanding play area while dropping workers (aka "meeples") into the cites, roadways, farms, and cloisters that are developed as the game progresses to score points. The gameplay is amazingly simple, and it's instantly learnable by anyone.

Carcassonne was the game that my wife became instantly enamored with after playing it just once, and it's probably the game we play more than any other still. It scales fairly well up to 4 players, though I wouldn't recommend playing with anymore than that. The fact that you create the game area as it progresses is a great mechanic and it ensures that every game of Carcassonne is different than the ones that came before. Another mechanic I love is that the two-player version can be quite a cutthroat affair if you want to play it that way, as you have the ability to steal point scoring opportunities from your opponent. Everyone I've ever introduced Carcassonne to has fallen in love with it, and when you get tired of the base game, there are oodles of expansions available for it to freshen up the game with new mechanics and tiles. Just a spectacular game.

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The Castles of Burgundy

Ravensburger Games - $39.99 - 2-4 players

The Castles of Burgundy is a newer game in my collection, but already the wife and I are quite enamored with it. It is designed by Stefan Feld who is known for designing games built around a singular central mechanic. In Castles players roll two dice each turn which are then used to take two actions. Your available actions are: to pull a structure tile from a communal center board and place it into your personal supply, to take a tile from your supply and place it on to your personal estate (which then activates a particular bonus depending on the tile placed), to sell a supply of "goods" tiles which earn you money and victory points, or to take two worker tiles which can then be used to adjust future die rolls to a number more favorable to what you need to take specific actions. All of this is done to progressively earn victory points and the winner is the player with the most after each phase of the game is complete.

Castles seemed very complex when we first opened the box (so many tiles!) but the game clicked with my wife and I very early into our inaugural game. The Castles of Burgundy is a great way to introduce yourself to some of the more complex mechanisms found in many Eurogames without overwhelming yourself with agonizing and complex decisions that you'd find in a game like Agricola. The even better part about Castles is that unlike many Eurogames which have a "sweet spot" of players (the number of players the game works best with), Castles plays equally as well with two as with four. Don't be put off by the bland art style and the seemingly vast amount of cardboard pieces; The Castles of Burgundy is a terrific game, and one that any board gamer should be happy to play.

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7 Wonders

Asmodee Editions - $49.99 - 2-7 players

7 Wonders is a civilization building game where the object is to build the strongest city themed around (shockingly!) one of the Seven Wonders of the World and score the most points. This is accomplished through a card-drafting mechanic. In each round, the supply of cards - each of which is used to build a variety of different structures - are divided into as many seven-card hands as there are players. After each player simultaneously play one card from their hand they pass their remaining card to the player next to them and likewise receive a different hand to play their next building from. This forces you to adapt and change your strategy around what cards you have in front of you at the time since the odds are - especially in a higher player count game - that the killer military card you want to build once you gain enough resources to construct it probably won't make its way back around to you. The game is played across three ages (aka rounds) before scores are calculated.

7 Wonders is a prime example of one of my favorite characteristics of most Eurogames: there is no one best strategy you can employ to win the game.  You can choose to build up a military powerhouse, a political stronghold, a scientifically advanced civilization, or more. Lastly, one strength 7 Wonders has unique to this list is that it can support up to seven players with only a minimal increase to the game length, so even larger groups can get in on the action together.

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Puzzle Strike

Sirlin Games - $59.99 - 2-4 players

There is a wonderful video game series called Puzzle Fighter that is basically a combative falling block puzzle game for two players. It's fun, frantic, and has a cutesy charm thanks largely to the Chibi-inspired design of the Capcom characters in the game. Sirlin Games took this concept and injected the deckbuilding premise of Dominion to create Puzzle Strike, and this game is glorious. Like in Dominion and other deckbuilders inspired by it, players begin with an opening deck of cards (well, awesome thick cardboard poker chips in the case of Puzzle Strike) and each turn draw five of them, and use them to perform various actions or to purchase other cards out of a communal pool. Those cards consist of either higher denominations of money cards (to buy more powerful cards later) or action cards that let players do different things on their turn. In most games like this, the aim is to collect whatever the cards are that provide victory points to decide the winner.

But Puzzle Strike is no mere deckbuilding game. There are no victory points to be found. Instead players in addition to their decks bags of puzzle chips have a game board of gems that continually fill throughout the game. If that gem pile reaches "the top" (aka if you have 10 gems inside it when your turn ends), you lose. Fortunately, you are able to play special "crash" gems that allow you to send gems from your pile on to your opponents board, attempting to bury them in a sea of gems. Also unlike most deckbuilding games, players don't start with identical opening hands. Instead there are 10 different characters of which players choose one at the beginning of the game. Each character has three unique ability chips that will determine your play strategy and what puzzle (action) chips you want to acquire from the bank throughout the game.

This may sound complex in explanation, but in practice, it's very simple. The strategy comes in not diluting your bag with chips that aren't good so you draw your more powerful chips often throughout the game. It can be tough to do since you are required to buy a chip from the bank every turn; even if you don't have any money you must at least take a "wound" chip which is a dead chip in your bag. My chief issue with many deckbuilders is that the game can sometimes become 2-4 player solitaire with players simply vying for the best action cards on the board, but having no real interaction other than that. Puzzle Strike is about as adversarial a game as there is. The final stroke of brilliance is that there is a terrific comeback mechanism in the game in that the higher your gem pile is, the more chips you get to draw for your next turn, which increases your odds of unleashing a slamming combo to reverse your fortunes. I can't tell you how many times I've been on the brink of death in Puzzle Strike only to roar back with a stunning victory when the combo I had been building toward finally comes to fruition.

I've rambled on about Puzzle Strike, but it's that damn good. It's made for two, but can also be played with 3 or 4 players, with an optional team play variation thrown in the 4 player version for good measure. The other reason Puzzle Strike stands out on this list in particular is the components are top-notch. The game includes almost 350 quality cardboard chips, bags, privacy screens and game boards for each player, and a chip tray in the box that holds it all perfectly. If you're like me and can be a stickler for component quality, you'll love this set. If you want a more complex game with that more competitive aspect, you can't miss Puzzle Strike.

Hopefully I've raised some awareness and interest for you, dear reader, on some of the awesome table top games you may be missing out on. Of course, there are thousands of board games out there to choose from, and this is just a small sampling of some of my favorites. If you're looking for even more, a great reference is Board Game Geek's top games listing which you can find here. Do you guys have any favorite Eurogames of your own? List them in the comments below. Who knows; you may just turn me on to the next game that's going to hit my table on game night.