Zen Of Design

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

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#11: Star Wars: Rebellion

Designer: Corey Konieczka

Star Wars: Rebellion has frequently been called ‘Star Wars in a box’, and that’s pretty apt. You play as one of the two factions – Rebels or Imperials, and based on what you choose, you have an entirely different game experience. The Empire’s goal is to find and eliminate the rebel base. The Rebel’s goal is far simpler – survive.

The feel between playing the two sides is pretty stark. Playing as the rebels is smothering – the Imperials will at any given time have two to three times the number of ships on the board than you will, and some of them will be death stars. Their tactics will be limited to a game of sabotage, disruption and hit & run raids. The Empire, on the other hand, has overwhelming resources but quickly discovers it’s insufficient to quell a rebellion living by hit-and-run raids. They will need to split their focus between hunting for the base and more mundane pursuits, such as locking enemy agents in carbonite and blowing up planets for funsies.

One thing that does bear mentioning is that I don’t think I’ve ever played an assymetric game that is this well balanced before. Nearly every game I’ve played has really come down to the loser being one to two turns away from pulling it off. That being said, the game is long, and don’t be fooled by the player count on the box, it is meant to be played as a two-player experience. Also, frankly, combat is very clunky, far moreso than the rest of the game. Still, this is an excellent, excellent board gaming experience. And it will stroke all of your Star Wars feels.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough, there are tiny little death star figurines.

Key Mechanic: the Survival Timer. By default, the rebels need to survive roughly twelve turn to declare victory. But the rebels can shorten this by completing objectives, which are randomly drawn throughout the game. Defeating Darth Vader in a fight might shorten the timer by two, whereas freeing a subjugated system might be worth a point – if you have the card. In general, games tend towards 7-8 turns, in my experience.  But it makes for a compelling description of what the goal of the rebels is to do: simply survive.

These random missions really add to the frustrating feel of playing as the Empire attempting to deal with sporadic guerilla uprisings – you’re not sure WHY the rebels are attacking the places they’re attacking, and so you need to decide how to split your attention between countering their attacks and spreading out your search for the rebel base. Also, these missions really add to the overall thematic star wars feel of the game. There’s nothing like winning when you reveal that blowing up the death star grants you the victory points you need to steal a win when fighting in the same system as your rebel base.

Image result for star wars rebellion

(Photo Credit: Rock Paper Shotgun)

#12: Sagrada

Designers: Adrian Adamescu, Daryl Andrews

Probably the only game about building stained glass windows you’re likely to play. At the start of the game, players will choose a window pattern for their stained window, and then attempt to complete that pattern via dice drafting. Along the way, they’ll try to earn victory points by completing objectives on a couple of randomly drawn objective cards.

Sagrada takes about 30 minutes to play, looks extremely attractive and inviting on the table, and is easily grokked by even non-gamers. The primary downside is that the tools (a side mechanic you can use to mitigate bad rolls) tend to be a tad complex compared to the rest of the game. I’d consider playing the first game without them, even though they are essential for more competitive play to mitigate bad luck rolling.

Key Mechanic: Dice Drafting. Each round, one player rolls dice equal to twice the number of players plus one (i.e. 7 in a 3-player game). They then choose one die to add to their window, and then other players will choose clockwise until everyone has chosen, and then it goes back around (thus the player who rolls dice will get first and last pick).

One of the reasons that I love this game is that I love rolling dice, but I hate just rooting for big numbers. In Sagrada, you typically have a good reason to root for almost any number on the die. Still, just a great, great game and one of my surprise hits.

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(Photo Credit: Board Game Quest)

#13: 1960: The Making of the President

Designers: Christian Leonhard, Jason Matthews

Play as Nixon vs. Kennedy in a knife fight of a presidential campaign, which Nixon almost won by appealling to the most racist elements of America, but Kennedy managed to eke out a win based on pure charisma, a televised debate, and possibly by convincing some dead voters to get to the polls in Illinois.

1960: The Making of A President is a two player game made by the guys that made Twilight Struggle, and uses a very similar engine for the core mechanics. Many consider the latter to be one of the best board games ever made, but I prefer this one, because I’m a political junkie and this is by far the best game about American politics on the market.

Interesting Mechanic: Final Vote Tally. Counting victory points at the end of the game is normally not very interesting. However, in this game, you go state through state and decide who won the electoral votes. It feels very much like election night, and nails the overall theme of the game.

Now, just hope to god that no one updates this for 2016, because no one wants to relive that shit storm.

(Photo Credit: Board Game Meeple Lady)


#14: Tzolk’in

Designers: Simone Luciani, Daniele Tascani

Tzolk’in is a worker placement game where you play as Mayan chieftain running a tribe. You will place workers in order to fish, farm, mine, build buildings and wonders, and erect temples to the gods. It would be a fairly straightforward worker placement game except for one thing.

Interesting Game Mechanic: The Wheel of Life. The game board is made up of six interlocking gears, which happen to be where you place your workers. The central wheel controls the pace of the game. The rest of them are where you place your heroes. During your turn, you must do one of two things: place one or more workers, or remove one or more workers, onto the wheels of life. When you place them, you must place them on the lowest possible slots for that wheel. When you remove them, the rewards you get are based on where you remove them. If you let a worker ride a gear for a couple turns, you’ll get a much larger reward, but wait too long and he’ll be crushed by the wheel of life!

Tzolk’in gains my favorite praise for any game – it breaks your brain in interesting ways. Mastering the timing of the wheels takes practice, and optimal slots are highly competitive. Also, the game looks gorgeous on the table – most gamers will want to play this game at least once. I will say that the balance isn’t perfect – a couple of strategies seem stronger than others – but this is still a good, solid euro game with a unique twist.

Also, if you’re really bored, check out some of the customized gears that fans have made for this game.

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(Photo Credit: Metagames)

#15: Alien Frontiers

Designer: Tory Neimann

You lead a corporation colonizing a new planet. To do so, you’ll need to mine the nearby asteroid belt, gather some solar rays from the nearby satellite array and occasionally crash a spaceship into the planet and tell its inhabitants to suck it up, plant your flag and start farming potatoes.

Interesting Mechanic: Aggressive Dice Placement. Alien Frontiers is a dice placement game, similar to Kingsburg, which is coming. =) However, this game varies  in a couple of ways. The first is that it looks more at patterns of dice – straights, or three-of-a-kinds for examples, which makes more dice viable on a given turn. But the second is more aggressive. There are only about 8 locations to place your dice, but multiple people can place their dice there. However, there are a limited number of slots, and the dice rolls may block your opponents — you can only mine if the die you are placing is equal to or higher than all other dice already placed.

This core mechanic makes for a quick-moving resource management game that still has a lot of player interaction, which is to say, don’t hoard your resources, or they won’t be yours for very long.

Image result for alien frontiers board game

(Photo Credit: Pixel Vallee)


#16: Yokohama

Designer: Hisasha Hayashi

Possibly my favorite new-to-me game of 2017, this game casts you as a businessman in Yokohama as it transitions from being a tiny fishing village to a major modern city.

Yokohama is an intimidating board, to be sure, and more casual gamers may be spooked, but it’s a real treat for more hardcore Eurogamers. I should note that one player at the table called the game “Istanbul on crack”. Not having played it, I can’t comment on that, other than to say that I guess I’m going to have to go try Istanbul now!

Yokohama is a dense, busy, and yet surprisingly approachable worker placement game. On one level, it is similar to Lords of Waterdeep – you place your worker, gain resources, and use them to complete orders (i.e. quests) cards you have collected.  But the assistants mechanic makes it far, far deeper.

Key Mechanic: Placing Assistants and Powering Up Action Squares. During the player’s turn, he either (a) places three assistants on three different squares or (b) places two assistants on the same square. He then walks from where he is to any other space that is connected to where he is – but every square he walks through must contain an assistant!

He then takes the action in that square, but the strength of the action is based on how many pieces are in there. For example, if there is one assistant, he takes two fish. If there are four, he takes five! He then picks up all assistants at that location, so they can be placed in future turns. In this way, he can plan ahead to power up to a big move – and his opponents can get a good sense of what he’s planning to do.

Here’s the catch, though: a player can also build structures throughout the gameboard – similar to houses and hotels in Monopoly. The primary effects of these structures is that they replace an assistant in ‘powering up’ a square, effectively allowing the player to lean into certain strategies.


(Photo Credit: Gameosity)


#17: Merlin

Designer: Stefan Feld

King Arthur is dead! And you are one of the ambitious sycophants vying to replace him as king! This game is one of Stefan Feld’s latest games, and also happens to be one of his more accessible! Players will roll dice, and use the die rolls to move to action spaces, which can be used to buttress their defenses, gather resources, curry favor with local lords and other actions.

Interesting Mechanic: The Round Table. At the start of each round, each player will roll four die – one white die and three dice in their color. On each turn, players will choose one of those die. The colored die can only be used to move their knight clockwise, whereas the white die can be used to move Merlin in either direction. Which order you choose to use the dice is crucial, and in the case of Merlin, you may want to wait to activate him until someone else has put him in a more interesting location for your plans.

Merlin is new in 2017, but I loved it. It was controversial at the games con I played it at – some players felt that it was too random. That being said, the game comes equipped with the tools necessary to mitigate the randomness (specifically with apples and banners, which can help manipulate the dice or their results). Still, it’s a beautiful game and should be pleasing to anyone who likes Eurogames with a hint of randomness.

Image result for merlin board game

(Photo Credit: Board Game Geek)

#18: Eclipse

Designer: Touko Tahkokallio

Want to play an epic 4X Space game, but don’t have 8-12 hours to play Twilight Imperium?  Eclipse provides most of the ambition of Twilight Imperium, in a game session that usually only runs 2-3 hours.

In Eclipse, you play as the leader of a great space civilization.  You initially start on a planet in isolated space.  You will need to explore (i.e. flip tiles) in order to find resources, find other civilizations and to find the center of the galaxy.  Along the way, players will fight NPC aliens, find ancient artifacts, discover new technology, colonize new worlds, and build their fleet in preparation for final combat.

Eclipse is a great game, although it’s not without it’s flaws.  The technology tree is great, for example, but requires moving around the table to examine.  Also, it is possible to be screwed by bad explore actions and be left in a relatively resource poor corner of the galaxy.  But overall, the game is by far my favorite in the space 4X genre.

Key Mechanic: Efficiency.  Many of these space games have a runaway winner problem, where players who claim early planets end up getting an insurmountable amount of momentum from the additional resource flow.  Eclipse has very nearly solved this problem by with their efficiency system.  Claiming a planet removes a cube from the playmat in front of you, which results in you paying higher upkeep costs per turn.  This system helps put the breaks on expanding too fast, in a way that is very easy and transparent to understand to the players.

Image result for eclipse the board game

(Photo Credit: Polyhedron Collider)



#19: Forbidden Desert

Designer: Matt Leacock

The goal of Forbidden Desert is pretty straightforward: Build an Airplane. Wait, what?

Forbidden Desert is a coop game where the party is trapped in the desert, and seeking the remnants of an airplane in order to escape. Each hero will have abilities that helps the party manage their water, search for the parts, move quickly around the board, and ultimately escape.

Interesting Mechanic: A Shifting Board. In most coop games, the board is relatively static. However, in this one, where you can go is limited. There may be too much sand in a location for you to traverse. On top of this, the board itself can shift – at the end of the player’s turn, he draws a Sand Storm card, which adjusts the board by moving around the tiles, and possibly reburying those tiles under sand (which players may need to adjust.

Interesting Mechanic: Part Clues. Players have to dig randomly to find the parts they need, but they don’t find the objects themselves. They find clues – one clue will give the horizontal position and the second will give the vertical, which allows you to triangulate on the part’s position. This works well with the grid-based foundation of the search.

Forbidden Desert (and it’s little brother, Forbidden Island) is a lot of fun, and provides a simpler and yet crazier coop experience than Pandemic, and is a game I find ideal for introducing new gamers to the concept of coop gaming.

Image result for forbidden desert game

(Photo Credit: Board Game Duel)


#20: Yedo

Designers: Thomas Vande Ginste, Wolf Planke

In Yedo, you are the patriarch of a powerful Japanese house, attempting to curry favor with the new Emperor. Yedo is often referred to as ‘Lords of Waterdeep with Ninjas’, as mechanically they share a lot in common. You send our your agents (i.e. ninjas) to gather resources and kill people, which are used to satisfy quest cards you’ve picked up.

Yedo does have several advantages over Lords of Waterdeep, though, including a much richer theme and much more gorgeous production values. It also differs on other key ways, including an auction system to grant some initial resources each turn, and which helps to keep the gap between the leaders and the laggers somewhat close.  It also plays much longer.

Favorite Mechanic: the Watchman. Yedo is a worker placement game, but any space the Watchman is in, your Ninja is arrested. Watchmen have a predictable movement pattern, but action cards you can acquire can allow you to manipulate the Watchman, making this one of the most aggressive worker placement games you’re likely to play.

Yedo games tend to go a little long, and it often feels like the auction portion is too rewarding compared to the worker placement portion of the game. Still, if you like Lords of Waterdeep, this is a good step up.

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(Photo Source: Red Meeple)



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