Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Category: Board and Paper Gaming (page 1 of 11)

#1: Magic: the Gathering

Designers: Richard Garfield, Mark Rosewater, Many Others

In Magic, you are a mighty mage (called a ‘planeswalker’) who is locked in battle with another mage. You place land, activate (‘tap’) that land to gain mana, and use that mana to summon an army of creatures, or cast powerful spells in an attempt to defeat your opponent. If you do 20 points of damage to him or her, you win.

Magic:the Gathering is an easy number one game for me. It was already a brilliant, if rough, game when it was released in 1993, and since then has been constantly tuned and refined, and is now a finely honed machine. Each color has strong, unique mechanics. Multiple play styles are strongly encouraged. They release a new set of cards roughly every three months, which continue to evolve and reinvent each color, and to some extent, the game itself. Which is to say, the decks you are playing now – based on their delightful recent release, Ixalan, which is based on vampire conquistadors invading a lost world of dinosaurs and aztec-inspired mermen – will bear little relation to the decks you want a year from now.

It’s worth noting to would-be designers that Mark Rosewater’s Making Magic is probably game design’s longest running and best active game design blog.

The down side to Magic is, of course the price tag. If you want to play competitively, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny to have a top end deck. That price tag will only go up if you decide to play older formats such as Legacy that allow use of the full back catalog of cards that time has otherwise forgot. However, less spendy players can have quite a bit of fun with just some duel decks at their kitchen table, or build a decent collection just doing drafts.

Key Mechanic: The Stack. Magic has had so many good mechanics over the years that I literally could list a dozen I love (note to Mark Rosewater, ‘Evolve’ really needs to make a comeback). However, if I could choose one, I’d have to choose the one that makes Magic cast-and-respond work at all, which is the stack. The gist of it is that spells cast at instant-speed are resolved in last-in, first-out order.

The classic example is that if you cast a Lightning Strike, dealing 3 damage to my 1/1 creature (the second number is his toughness), I can cast my Giant Strength on that creature, giving him +3/+3 in response. These would resolve in reverse order – my Giant Growth lands, followed by the lightning strike, which would mean my 4/4 creature only takes 3 points of damage – enough to survive! However, if those spells were reversed, his lightning bolt would kill my creature before my giant growth had a chance to take effect.

It seems complex, but is actually shockingly simple and elegant, and is the cornerstone of reactive play in Magic: the Gathering, which makes it a highly interactive experience. And it’s an example of the great design thinking that has made Magic: the Gathering my #1 Game Of All Time, Or At Least For Right Now.

#2: Clank!

Designer: Paul Dennen

My easy winner for best new-to-me game of the year, this game first hit the table in late 2017 and instantly became a mainstay of the group. Clank! is a basic deckbuilder but with a board game attached. You are a thief trying to creep into a dungeon, grab more treasure than everyone else and try to get out. The cards you play determine how far you move, what you can fight, and how much dragon attention you draw (see below).

Clank’s only flaw is that the game can effectively be short-circuited by a player grabbing the closest treasure and just heading out. Other than that, it’s a silly but deep experience that generates a lot of excitement around the table, especially as the game ends. I’m very excited to try the recent expansion pack (Clank! Sunken Adventures), and the followup (Clank! in! Space!)

Interesting Mechanic: Clank (the mechanic). When players play cards, some of them may have ‘clank’ as an attribute. If so, you end up putting your health cubes aside. Other events may cause the dragon to attack. When this happens, you put all of those cubes in a bag (with any cubes from previous attack events), and draw out a number based on how angry the dragon is. If your cube is drawn, you take a point of damage. Take too many, and you die.

The ‘Clank’ mechanic adds a real push-your-luck factor to the game, which adds real excitement and variance to the experience, especially near the end of the game. I’ve now had multiple games where everyone manages to escape the dungeon, and a couple games where literally everyone died, once with 3 people dying one room from the exit.

Other Favorite Thing: Mister Whiskers. You’ll know why when you see him.


Image result for clank a deck building adventure

(Photo Credit: Here)




#3: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

Designers: Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock

The players are all a crack response team, responding to a worldwide epidemic. Based on the original Pandemic ruleset, Pandemic Legacy is a legacy game, meaning that your failures leave a lasting mark in the world. There is one scenario per month of the year, and by the time December rolls around, it’s very likely whole continents are smoking rubble as a testament to your failure.

Here’s how awesome Pandemic Legacy is:  It is not uncommon for players, at the end of a season, to frame the game board.

Pandemic Legacy also has serious narrative moments in the game. At key events in the game, players add new rules to the game, and open new boxes of entirely new characters, disease vectors and other game components. By the end, you’re playing an entirely different game.

Interesting Mechanic: Destroy This Card. When some guys say ‘destroy a card’ they mean ‘throw it into the discard pile’ or some other namby pamby bullshit. In Pandemic Legacy, you actually pick up the card and rip it in half. The first one of these happens in month one of Pandemic Legacy, and it immediately communicates to players the permanence of their decisions.

The original Pandemic is a classic, but I’d played it so many times that I felt I was pretty much done with the game. Pandemic: Legacy takes the classic game formula and completely revitalizes it. I can’t wait to try Season 2.

Image result for pandemic legacy season 1 red

(Photo Credit: Cool Stuff Inc)

#4: Trajan

Designer: Stefan Feld

A brilliant worker placement game, and arguably Stefan Feld’s best work. The Dice Tower guys rag on Trajan for being just a standard worker placement point salad experience with a Mancala tacked on – and they aren’t entirely wrong. However, the Mancala is central to the game experience, and brilliantly executed.

The game’s not perfect. It’s not a very attractive game, and the trade action is kind of clunky and hard to describe. It’s also got limited interaction with other players. Still, trying to plan 2 or 3 turns ahead is very difficult, and breaks your brain in very interesting ways. Trajan is a game I’ll constantly push to the table if given a chance.

Key Mechanic: The Mancala-based action selection. Scholars estimate that the Mancala is a game that has existed at least 1300 years, and a variant of it is the centerpiece of Trajan’s worker placement engine. Each player has a six bowls in front of them in a circle, which correspond with six actions the players can take. On his turn, the player takes all the beads in a single bowl, and puts them into consecutive bowls. When he places the last bead, the bowl that bead goes in dictates which action he takes (military, merchant, trade, etc). Beads are different colors as well — getting certain colors into certain bowls can trigger secondary actions or benefits – edges which are necessary to succeed.

The mancala is an absolutely delightful gameplay element.  That being said, it can really befuddle players if they try to plan too many turns in advance. Which is frequently hilarious. If you like games that break your brain in interesting ways, this is a great one.

Image result for trajan board game

(Photo Credit: Metagames)

#5: Terraforming Mars

Designer: Jacob Fryxelius

You lead a corporation that stands on the precipice of colonizing Mars, probably for the express purpose of strip mining it aggressively. However, to do so, you’ll need to earn resources and money to engage in various tactics that make the planet more livable, which includes tactics such as developing predators that eat your opponent’s pets, and frequently throwing a wide variety of asteroids at the planet’s surface. You know, for fun!

The core mechanic of the game is to purchase cards, and then spend resources to put them in your tableau in front of you, which generally makes you more efficient and helps you to heat the planet, provide it oxygen, and colonize it. As you play cards, you’ll try to maximize synergies, which means it very much is what many consider an engine-building game.

Interesting Mechanic: Starter Corporations.  It seems like a minor thing, but I love the way they handle corporations for new players. In most games, you ask new players to choose a role, class or whatever before they understand the game. This creates an early bit of choice paralysis for those players, and a sense of dread they aren’t playing the game correctly because they miss the trigger or using powers they have. Terraforming Mars gets around this by creating very simple Starting Corporations that players can choose for their first game. This corporation gives them a mass of money and a wad of early cards, but has no ongoing benefits to track beyond this. While these corporations are nowhere near as powerful or useful as the other Corporations, they eliminate the early problems for learning players, so those players can instead focus on what’s in their hand, and learning the game in general.

Terraforming Mars is really one of my favorite games right now, and one of the real pleasant surprises of the last year. It does tend to get a little long if you play with the expert cards that come in the base box, but in general, no one seems to mind the longer game if it’s not their first. Highly recommended.

Image result for terraforming mars board game

(Photo Credit: Geek & Sundry)

#6: Chaos in the Old World

Designer: Eric M. Lang

There are many territorial control games, but this is the best one where you will regularly scream “Blood for the Blood God!”

Chaos in the Old World is a wargame that involves the four gods laying waste to an Old Earth where, to be clear, it very obviously sucks to be a human. On your path to conquest, you will populate the realm, go to war with your other gods, and kill just oodles of human flotsam that manages to wander in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Interesting Mechanic: High Assymetry. The interesting thing is that the four gods have entirely different mechanics, which are driven by their action decks. Khorne favors the direct approach of just killing everything, for example, whereas Nurgle seeks to infect the world with his plague, Tzeentch seeks to unlock hidden mystic arts, and Slaanesh seeks to help the world get its freak on. Not only are the actions each god can do strongly different, but the objectives they are trying to complete each turn is very different as well, and each is pursuing a very strongly different avenue of victory points.

Chaos in the Old World is a fantastic game – easily my favorite ‘wargame’. It’s pretty quick to teach, but can take a couple games for players to really master it (the assymetric nature of the Gods means its hard to understand what your opponents can and want to do until their second game). The game’s biggest flaw is that it pretty harshly requires 4 – the assymetric sides stumble a bit when one of the Gods no longer has to deal with certain mechanics meant specifically to counter it.

Also, the Horned Rat expansion makes the game even better. FIrst off, it makes the game play 5 pretty well, and it does a balance pass on some of the gods power cards. The new god that is added is just a crazy, crazy sea of rats that just add to the titular chaos.

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(Photo Credit: Board Game Geek)




#7: Power Grid

Designer: Friedemann Friese

Ever want to live the exotic life of an Enron executive with an interest in investing in literal garbage? Then Power Grid might be the game for you!

In Power Grid, you will buy power plants in an auction, and then buy the resources you need to power those power plants. You’ll then build buildings and connect them to your grid. The player who has managed to connect and power up the most buildings by the end of the game is the winner.

Interesting Feature: Resource Speculation. There are four resources for sale that power the various power plants you can build: coal, oil, garbage and uranium. The price is set firmly by the availability of the resource – resources heavily in demand will skyrocket in price, and savvy players will seek out plants that use underexploited resources. It’s a very simple yet elegant solution that creates healthy competition and encourages players to seek out alternative strategies.

Power Grid is somewhat of a dry subject matter, but it really is one of the best, most tightly balanced eurogames ever made. Players who like building infrastructure and auction mechanics should consider it a must-play.

Image result for power grid board game

(Photo Credit: Thoughts from the Gameroom)

#8: Kingsburg

Designers: Andrea Chiarvesio, Luca Iennaco

Kingsburg is a realm besieged. You have been tasked to defend it! However, Kingsburg is apparently a corrupt swamp, and the only way to actually defend it is to kiss the ass of various nobles, who after a little cajoling are willing to shell out the resources you need to defend the realm.

Interesting Mechanic: Dice Placement. You and everyone else will be rolling dice. Once rolled, you go in turn placing them – if you have a 1, 4 and a 5, you can place on the 1, 4, 5 spots with one die, the 6 and 9 spots with two dice, or the 10 spot with three dice. Each spot corresponds to a different advisor, and higher level advisors give more and better resources. Also, only one player can place on a spot at a time, meaning that good play requires tracking your opponent’s die rolls, and blocking their placement whenever possible.

After this phase, players use the resources to build buildings, which grant them victory points, defenses for the upcoming invasion, as well as various powers that let them break the rules (such as the ability to reroll dice in certain situations).

Kingsburg is a great game that never fails to get a good reaction, both from gamers and non-gamers, due to its simplicity but depth. Warning, though – if you get it, be sure to get the second edition. The first edition had a fatal flaw that required an expansion to fix, and that expansion is included in the second edition.

Image result for kingsburg board game review

(Photo Credit: Board Game Quest)

#9: Mission Red Planet

Designers: Bruno Cathala, Bruno Faidutti

You’re moving to colonize Mars, launching rockets from a steampunk-esque earth in Jules Vernian inspired spacecraft and assumedly while twirling your ridiculous Victorian moustache.

Mars is divided into several quadrants. Each quadrant will be scored based on who has the most colonists in them during each scoring phase. In addition, each player has secret objectives, that may strongly incentivize them to pursue specific locations or alternate strategies.

Interesting Mechanic: Role Selection. Each player is given 9 role cards, each of which allows them to try to get some colonists onto rockets (hopefully) heading for Mars, or to somehow mess with the board state. The explorer lets you move colonists on planet, for example, whereas the saboteur lets you destroy a rocket ship (and its inhabitants) on the launch pad. The roles are called in a specific order, which determines turn order, but two players may play the same role on the same turn. Several of the roles are fairly safe and go easy, but there are some high risk, high reward roles that may be ruined by the choices of players who have gone before them.

I love Mission: Red Planet. The art is fantastic, the gameplay is very simple, and yet it also has a significant (and somewhat surprising) amount of direct conflict with other players. This is a game a lot more people should be playing (and we likely will see more of now that it’s been reprinted).

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(Photo Credit: Board Game Geek)

#10: Francis Drake

Designer: Peter Hawes

In Francis Drake, you are a privateer raiding the Spanish Main.  You will need to provision your ship, filling it with cannons, crewmen, and trade goods.  Then you’ll go on a lackadaisical cruise through the Caribbean, trading, invading and pillaging as you see fit.

Interesting Mechanic: Provisioning.  Provisioning is interesting in Francis Drake.  Players walk a one-way path in a hero placement game.  They can’t place any place that anyone else placed, and they can’t go backwards, which means that players have to compete for more important resources, which may limit how far they can sail or how ambitious their military aims can be.  Mastering the provisioning game is the key to mastering Francis Drake.

Bonus Interesting Mechanic: Secret Location Choosing.  Once ships are placed, players take turns placing disks declaring their intention to go to a location.  Each disk is numbered from one to four, and is placed face-down.  Once all are placed, they are revealed, and players this do their turn in that order.  Given the first player to land on a location each turn gets additional benefits, this secret order placement allows for a certain amount of bluffing and posturing in order to make this interesting.

Super cool bonus thing: Treasure Chests.  When you capture silver, gold or gems, you get to hide it in a cool little cardboard chest.

Francis Drake is a very cool, superinteresting eurogame with several different innovations that will break your brain in interesting ways.

Image result for francis drake board game

(Photo Credit: Eagle Gryphon Games)

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