A Euro-Style Board Game Primer
by Megan Crane
Though it was released over a decade ago, the last couple of years have really pushed Settlers of Catan into the public consciousness. Once only known to a select minority of board game enthusiasts, Setters is well on its way to becoming a household name. Or one could argue it’s already there, since you can find the game in your local Target a couple of shelves away from Battleship and Candyland or because it’s already had its requisite high- profile newspaper trend piece. But really, that my dad has played it is my personal litmus test for knowing when something has reached mass appeal. The best part of Settlers’ ever growing popularity is that more people than ever are interested in playing and buying European-style strategy board or card games. In the last couple of years, I’ve watched several friends and acquaintances rapidly amass their own impressive game collections. So, for those of you or your friends who have just settled Catan and are wondering where to go next, I’ve compiled a list of five games that I’ve found to be fairly accessible to those new to the scene.
Carcassonne (2-5 players; 45 minutes)
Carcassonne is very simple to learn, while maintaining a decent level of strategic depth. I’ve always considered it one of the best gateway games for someone who has never played a Euro-style board game before. Carcassonne can be enjoyed by kids, olds, and hardened board game geeks alike. At its core it is a tile laying game, where walled cities, roads, cloisters, and farms of a French medieval countryside must be properly placed against each other. As players place a tile, they have the option of putting one of a limited number of their dudes (called meeples) on the tile to claim any city, road, or farm that connects to the one they have set up shop on, and receive the associated number of points at the end of the game. Since you can’t place a meeple anywhere already claimed, the only way to try to leech points from someone’s epic construction is to “sneak” in your meeple by placing a tile which doesn’t yet connect to their city/road/farm, but has the potential to later. Like other successful board games, Carcassonne has a mix of luck and skill, light social competition, and it’s often unclear who the winner is until after the last tile is played.
Dominion (2-4 players; 30 minutes)
Dominion has quickly gained a lot of popularity since its release just a few years ago. One of the main draws of the game is that it incorporates some fun mechanics and strategy into a game with a short play time. Players start with identical cards and purchase other cards as the game goes on, trying to build the perfect deck. Players can purchase victory points to win the game. So they have to balance between slowly collecting smaller amounts of victory points at the beginning of the game or collecting beneficial cards that help easily acquire higher level victory points at the end of the game. There are more card types than you can play with during one game. So if players find themselves mastering their strategy, there are many options for variation and new game play.
Pandemic (2-5 players; 60 minutes)
Pandemic is a cooperative game, so it’s you and your friends versus the board game. In this case, players work together to try to eradicate a series of killer viruses. Which can be frustratingly hard to do when it involves perfect coordination among multiple people and some luck with the card draws. It’s like playing whack-a-mole where the number of moles increases exponentially over time. Outbreaks spread and intensify, so you have to find a balance between treating the immediate threat or else spending your resources on finding a cure. It is a great alternative for those who want a break from the competitiveness of other games.
Munchkin (2-6 players; 60 minutes)
In my opinion, Munchkin is the wildest, most volatile game on this list, leading to some of the most heated games and highest potential for friendship break-ups. It plays like a bare bones Dungeons and Dragons, where players use cards with armor, weapons, spells and items to defeat monsters and gain levels. Other players can join up and help you or alternatively, help the monster take you down. The cards are often times hilarious and like to poke fun at their genre. Every card has the potential to turn the tables of a battle, leading to epic sessions of back and forth trumping. Due to its fast pace and dick-you-over nature, even the most passive among you will find yourself cackling manically over the destruction of your once friends, now enemies. And with several different flavors of the game, you are sure to find a version that appeals to your interests.
Battlestar Galactica (3-6 players; 180 minutes)
I’m naturally distrustful of any game (board, video or otherwise) that is based off of a popular movie or television show. They are usually just poor-man’s clones of an uninspired game. BSG plays a lot like pandemic, except now you have a saboteur working against the group, covertly trying to cause them to fail. Because they’re frakkin’ cylons, and that’s what cylons do. Paranoia runs rampant as the “human” players become suspicious of everyone. Halfway through, more cylons are thrown in the mix as players who thought they were human find out they were sleeper cylons and have to begin working for the other side. This game does take a while, and is better with a large group. This game is harder to learn than the other games on this list, but its unique play style and “us versus them” scenario make it a very successful party game. You don’t need to be a fan of the show to like the game, but it does add to the level of enjoyment.
This list only begins to scratch the surface of the overwhelming amount of intelligent and entertaining strategy board and card games on the market. For those of you just starting to get into these types of games, what have been some of your favorites? And for you grizzled veterans out there, what are the gateway games you share with your newbie friends? Sound off in the comments!