Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

By John Harris

[Game Design Essentials returns with an extensive review of some of the most interesting non-electronic games, from traditional cultural games like Chess and Go through pen-and-paper role playing titles like Call of Cthulhu, European games like The Settlers of Catan, and much more -- each with a unique design lesson.]

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the fans, press, and developers of video and computer games. It's pedantic, but I don't care. The issue is this: so often they will refer to "gaming" as something that relates to the focus of their hobby alone. When you talk about gaming in such a manner, you are ignoring a rich tradition of culture, commercial games, and even sports, as if they were somehow of no account.

I'm not talking about cases where the meaning is obvious form context; I'm talking about people calling themselves "gamers". Long before Pong, there was a healthy wargaming community. Professional sports has existed for centuries, and Chess has been played for thousands of years. Using the term "game" as if it related only to computer software is gross chauvinism.

A symptom of this chauvinism is that, often, video game designers' influences come from a very small list. It seems almost like most designers have done little with their lives besides play games, read comics, and watch Hollywood movies.

Whether this is true or not, it is true that there is a super-abundance of pop cultural influence on game design. I consider this to be a grievous error, for it means that "hardcore" gaming has become insular.

I am of the opinion, and I think I could back it up if pressed, that the rising popularity of "casual" gaming is actually a rejection of the insular tropes that fuel most big-budget releases. It is a matter of particular concern to me because, back in 1983, I consider that it may have been just such an insularity helped accelerate the Great Video Game Crash and the death of the arcade scene that had chugged along until then for a decade.

Here is a great secret truth about creativity: it doesn't come from thin air. Like Francesco Redi's flies, it cannot arise spontaneously from nothing. To a degree, originality is a sham: all ideas are built out of other ideas. The more you know, the more you can invent. The key is in what you draw from, and how you draw from it.

The best designers, notably Shigeru Miyamoto himself, purposely cultivate outside influences like gardening, and look hard at what they can adapt to the computer game sphere. If movies and comic books are all that you know, then all you will ever create will look like a movie or a comic book. If all you do is play video games, then your game will look just like all the others. This is inescapable.

Previous Game Design Essentials entries have concentrated on the work of developers such as Atari Games or genres like open world games. Our concern this time is the wide field of non-computer gaming! Board games, card games, role-playing games and puzzles. A list of twenty such games each of which a game designer, looking to extend his interests and influences away from the growing wasteland of video gaming culture, can mine for ideas, to spark his ingenuity, to build from and mutate into something new.

Many of the games listed here have undergone extensive playtesting, to put it mildly, between me and a number of friends. Games are made of the players; the decisions made by the participants make each session of a well-designed game unique.

I feel I would be remiss to present this article to you without mentioning them by name and offering them thanks, both for helping me with my research and for putting up with my, at times, obsessive devotion to the letter of the rules. My playtesters were: Bryan Ricks, Larry Trowell, Amy Quirrel, Trevor Carroll, Ray "Tiny" Ginel, Ryan Downie, Matthew Chew, Dr. Julia Griffin, Jarrod Love, Sammiriah Guttmann, and Kati Berhow.

About These Write-ups

The most challenging thing about writing these has been to provide a synopsis of the rules. I have tried to give readers who have never seen a game a basic understanding of what it's like without spilling too many words on the subject. For some games this has maybe been a fool's errand, but I have done as good a job as I can.

In each write-up, some words are in italics. This is generally saved for when important game terms are introduced. If a word is italicized it'll probably come up again, so pay attention. I have refrained from describing terms that are not required to understand a game; this matters a lot in the piece on Contract Bridge, which has a large body of terminology and theory I do not describe. One of the distracting things about learning Bridge is swimming through the language, so this may help you to grasp the game if you have found it daunting before.

Of course, there are far more than 20 games of interest to computer game designers. These are games that are interesting, for one reason or another, but this list doesn't pretend to be definitive. A different article with 20 other games could be just as useful -- and it's a possibility.


1. Go

Cultural game

Type: Two-player abstract strategic territory claiming

Depth: Extreme

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: None

Description: Two players alternate placing stone on a grid, claiming territory and attacking groups of opposing stones.

Play Summary

At its core Go is a territory acquisition game. The players take turns placing stones, either white or black -- with each player placing one, on the intersections, or points, of a 19 x 19 grid.

A basic means of interaction between the players is capturing pieces, which is done by surrounding a contiguous group of enemy stones completely with your own so they have no liberties, or adjacent free points. Then the enemy stones are removed from the board and score the capturing player points. These essentially score twice: once for each captured piece, and again for the now-empty, surrounded territory left by them.

This generally means that players are penalized less for not contesting un-winnable regions, since trying to save them spends doomed stones and turns, but the question of what is and isn't winnable isn't always obvious. Any unoccupied space is legal for placement, with two exceptions; you cannot place a piece where it would be immediately captured (unless it captures in the process, saving itself), and you can't make a move that recreates a prior board state (which prevents capture loops).

Adjacent stones of the same color live (remain on the board) or die (are captured) together, as a unit. Larger clumps are more difficult to capture, but not proportionately so. Think on this: a single stone in the middle of the board requires four opponent stones to capture it, but a pair requires six, only 50 percent more. Strung-out groups are generally more viable than concentrated clumps.

However, single stones cannot capture territory, and larger groups can be harder to capture for other reasons. Notably, a group that is close to being captured can often saved if it can be joined with another, freer, group, combining their liberties

Territory is claimed by surrounding it with your color stones, but it isn't enough just to surround it; if the other player has stones within a field of territory that are viable, then the territory is contested and doesn't yet score. Territory is contested when it's possible for the opponent to form two eyes within it, contained liberties surrounded by stones. In practice this involves agreement between the players; if the players don't agree, then they must play out the situation until it's obvious whether the invading group will survive or must perish.

A consequence of the capturing rules is that a group of stones containing two eyes is impossible to capture unless the defender foolishly fills in one of the spaces himself. To make eyes requires space for the stones that define the eye and turns in which to place them, which may be interfered with by the defending player.

More advanced topics are the questions of whether a given region is large enough that an eye-containing cluster of stones can be made inside, how to go about forming that cluster, attacking the opponent's attempts to make such safe groups in your own territory, and high-level strategic play concerning staking out regions of the board and defending them from intrusion.

What can we draw from this game?

Go is one of the great classics. There remains almost an air of the exotic around it today; the first task of a non-Japanese learning to play is to get over that. It is substantially different from more Western-style board games, and is extremely deep, but it is not that hard to learn the basics.

Go is infamously difficult for computer programs to play well. While chess software has won against grandmasters, the best Go programs are routinely beaten by intermediate human players. One reason is that the combinatorial explosion of possible moves is even greater than that of chess, making it difficult to exhaust positions through brute force. Another part might be due to the importance of high-level strategy in the early game setting up the character of the board for the battle to come.

Further reading: The Interactive Way to Go is an excellent way to learn to play.


2. Chess

Cultural game

Type: Two-player abstract tactical piece-taking

Depth: Extreme

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: None

Description: Two players alternate moving pieces, with different movement and attack patterns, around a checkerboard to try to threaten the opposing side's king.

Play Summary

On a checkerboard of eight by eight squares two players engage in an abstract tactical battle. They each have 16 pieces of six different types. Each has a certain simple movement pattern unique to it.

On each turn, a player moves one, and only one, of his pieces. (There are a couple of exceptions to this, but they are beyond the scope of this interview. There are plenty of places to learn about Chess anyway.)

These are the pieces in the game:

Moving a piece into the same space as an opponent's piece "captures" it, removing it from the game and so reducing its owner's arsenal. No piece may move through another, which sometimes creates instances where one's own pieces limit movement and capturing options by getting in the way. This is especially the case at the beginning of the game, where the line of pawns at the front of each player's army block the attacks of the more-powerful pieces behind them.

The king is a weak piece in movement range and attack potential, but it is of great importance because its loss means losing the game. In practice the king is never actually captured; the game ends when it gets in a situation of inescapable danger.

The emphasis, thus, is not to capture the king through opponent error, hoping he does not notice a threat. Instead it is on engineering situations, covering escape routes and pinning down defenders. This emphasis on situations, creating and surviving them, as opposed to meta-game distractions, is an important distinction for serious gameplay. Chess enthusiasts take this to unequaled heights.

The various other pieces have their own movement styles, and studying how they interact and comparing their value is the core of the game. Ultimately chess is a game of tactics, of the worth of individual moves, but a good strategic sense of the game can greatly expand one's options.

What can we draw from this game?

If you're making a tactical wargame, then you can't go wrong from making a study of Chess, to which they owe a great debt. To pick a simple example: many video wargames give players a unit whose loss means immediate loss. Most of the time this unit is like the king in Chess -- fairly weak and so best left off the front lines.

Much has been made lately of the great strides made by computer chess programs. Their greatest strength is providing an immensely strong tactical machine, being able to search for strong moves by brute-force computation rather than human insight, but the sheer number of moves a tactics engine would have to examine to exhaust even a simple situation means that, even now, the best chess programs make use of heuristic, strategic play as well.

Another great advantage possessed by these programs is having a vast database of pre-considered situations to work from, histories of pre-played games stored in a database. This is of the greatest value at the beginning of a game, in which the situations encountered are common to many different games.

It has been observed that Chess has become somewhat mired in its vast history of play. Most multiplayer computer games, when you come down to it, have game-breaking strategies that become evident only after a lot of study. A key aim of the multiplayer game designer is to minimize the chances of this, which is difficult without the benefit of an extensive play history to study. No game has as extensive a play history as Chess; it is probably the most studied game in the world, and has innumerable lessons to teach.


3. Parcheesi

American adaptation of an Indian game

Type: Two to four player "Cross And Circle" race

Depth: Low

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: High

Description: From two to four players roll to have pieces enter a circular track. They attempt to get them around one complete circle and inter them home before other players capture them, while trying to capture opposing pieces themselves.

Play Summary

A variant of the Indian game Pachisi, which is played on a similar board. There are other games that take inspiration from Pachisi, such as the British game Ludo. They are both what is referred to as race games, where the players attempt to move their pieces along a track in order to get "home."

These games are usually played with dice, and because the number of spaces moves is determined through this random process, if poor rolls are made there is not much players can do to win. To some people this is actually a strength of the game, because it allows even children to win sometimes against experienced players. For more advanced players wishing to test their strategic mettle and master a game, it is annoying.

Parcheesi is called a Cross and Circle game, named such due to the shape of the board and off-sides areas. They give each of (typically) four players staggered start and home locations along a cyclic track. The way player pieces proceed, and how their paths intersect with those of opponent pieces, adds a little strategic interest to what is mostly a simple category of games.

In play, the players take turns rolling two dice and moving clockwise around the board, trying to get their pieces from a start location to a home location slightly counter-clockwise from it, so they end up traversing almost the whole board. Each side is trying to do this with multiple pieces, and the piece that is moved can be selected from those out on the journey, which adds a little more strategy.

The dice can be "split" between two different pieces as well; if a three and a five are rolled, one piece may be moved three spaces and another five, or one can be moved eight. In the event that doubles (both dice the same number) are rolled, then additionally the player may move the numbers of the reverse of the dice (which are always seven minus that number). Two threes, thus, would be supplemented by two fours.

If a piece can be made to land on an opponent's piece's space with an exact count of the dice, the other piece is captured and returned to that opponent's start, where it must be returned to the board before it can resume its journey. A roll of five, or a total of five, must be made in order to introduce pieces, so this makes the players even more vulnerable to bad die rolls.

A piece that is gotten home is safe and is an important step towards winning, but can no longer land on other pieces and hinder opponents. This puts an emphasis on having one's pieces slightly behind others on the track, giving the player the opportunity to capture pieces, and not have others' pieces behind his own, making his pieces vulnerable to capture.

Having multiple pieces on the board gives a player more capture options and allows him to better position pieces (since a roll can be given to any piece on the track), but also makes him more vulnerable to capture.

What can we draw from this game?

Parcheesi is ultimately too dependent on luck. Before you can even enter a piece you have to roll the right number, and if a piece gets captured you must roll it again. Nothing guarantees you'll be able to enter any pieces at all in your game, although the chances of that happening are slim.

I would not suggest that all randomness weakens a game. Also, while randomness can give a weak player an edge in some cases, this helps encourage those people to play and thus, maybe, get better. Over successive games it is rare for lucky streaks to hold. And in the games that use luck the best, even excellent die rolls are not enough to overcome a strong strategic player. Unfortunately, Parcheesi is not that good of a game by these standards.

Ancestors & descendants: The ancient Indian game of Ashta-kashte is a forerunner to Pachisi. Pachisi is an ancestor of both important cultural games like Backgammon and commercial games like Hasbro's Sorry!


4. Backgammon

Cultural game

Type: Two-player highly competitive race game

Depth: High

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: A race game, like Parcheesi. Unlike Parcheesi there are only two players, there are lots of pieces to move instead of four, they are all in play from the start, blocking opponent movement is an important part of the game, and the game offers a diabolical betting system. The result is a game with much more strategy than may first appear.

Play Summary

At a glance backgammon appears to have nothing in common with Circle and Cross games like Parcheesi, but the basic play is similar. The two players take turns rolling pairs of dice to move pawns around a linear track. They can split up the dice and move two pieces separately, or move one piece twice.

Unlike Parcheesi, the players move around the board in opposite directions, by each other. Multiple pieces of one player may rest on a single space, and these pieces are immune to capture and block enemy movement onto (but not beyond) that spot. Doubles count as four dice of the same number, facilitating extra movement.

All pieces begin on the board at various positions already along the way, which helps to remedy Parcheesi's game-slowing, luck-dependent initial introduction of pieces. When a capture is made, called a blot in the game's lingo, the enemy piece is sent to a storage location called the bar, and on the next turn the penalized player must use one of his dice to return that checker to the board on his opponent's home area, on the space matching the die's number, so it can resume its movement around the board.

Blots tend to be inevitable eventually, though careful movement of checkers can greatly minimize them. Returns are mandatory when available. It is possible for a return to be blocked by enemy pieces that have made it home, and if both numbers are blocked no return is possible and the player loses his turn.

This is called dancing. With careful play and a bit of luck, the entire home area can be so blocked, guaranteeing a perpetual dance until the home area is sufficiently cleared. There is no immunity for returning pieces, which are open to attack like any others, but returning pieces can blot single checkers.

When pieces are brought to the home board, the six spots closest to their destination, they may be borne off by rolling a die matching its space. The winner is the player who first bears off all his checkers.

The warring aspects of luck and strategy make Backgammon a favorite game for betting, and most sets come with an infernal little device called a doubling cube. The cube is usually an ordinary die with the powers of 2 on its sides, up to 64. If in use, then before a player's turn, if he is reasonably confident of winning, he may place the cube on the table and set it to 2.

This raises the stakes for the game; any wagered amount is doubled, or if the game is worth points towards a match, those are doubled. The other player must either concede immediately, giving the win to the doubling player at original stakes, or agree to the increased stakes. The player accepting the double may later double it again if he thinks his chances are good. There are many other rules surrounding the doubling cube; it is a source of continued innovation in the rules to Backgammon.

What can we draw from this game?

It might not seem so at first, but the increase in number of pieces, blocking play, and counter movement directions makes Backgammon much more strategic than the Circle and Cross games. Careful placement of blocks, made while mindful of the limits of piece ranges, can force opposing checkers to moving separately, opening up opportunities for blots, or even preventing movement altogether, wasting turns.

Although luck plays an inescapable role, high-level play can make a player appear luckier. The idea is to place your checkers so that fewer possible numbers rolled will be useful to the opponent, and more are useful to yourself, thus requiring good luck from the enemy while hedging against bad luck for yourself.

The doubling aspect helps to hurry the game. In cases where a player is strongly favored to win, it is in his best interest to double, potentially ending the game immediately. This helps keep up the game's pace; when it becomes obvious one player will win, the incentive is to end immediately instead of drawing it out. There are a wide array of house and tournament rules regarding use of the cube. These make for interesting reading; the Wikipedia page on Backgammon lists some popular variations.

It is a trend in board game circles to avoid games with a luck component, or minimize its presence in designs, but Backgammon shows that luck can play a strong role in a highly strategic game. The presence of dice need not restrict the game to being an immediate examination of tactics. A consideration of the odds of the dice may add tremendous strategic depth to a game.


5. Monopoly

Published by Hasbro

Type: Two to six player financial trading (three required for a good game, better with more)

Depth: Low to medium

Designed by: Charles Darrow, deriving from the work of Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips. (There is some degree of confusion -- even outright misinformation -- concerning the game's origins.)

Popularity: High

Luck factor: Large

Description: Players take turns rolling dice and moving around a square board, first buying properties, then more often paying rent as the game continues.

Once a property is purchased it brings money to the owner every time an opponent lands on it, but the amounts only become significant once an entire group is owned and houses are built on it.

Usually the players will not be able to acquire an entire group by themselves, so trading between players is important. The winner is the last player in the game after everyone else runs out of money.

Play Summary

Monopoly is the most popular commercial board game in the world, but many board game enthusiasts look down on it as being overly ruled by luck and taking much too long to play. They have a good point, but there are also things to like about it.

The game board is square, and cyclical, with various spaces marked out along the edges. Each player moves a token around the edge, according to die rolls. Completing a cycle by passing Go awards a modest money award, called salary. Most of the spaces on the board list the name of a property, along with a purchase value. Landing on one grants the player the opportunity to buy it from the bank (which owns everything not owned by players), granting the player its title deed card as mark of ownership.

Owning a property brings money to the player whenever another player lands on it; if it is not purchased, it is auctioned to the other players. Die rolls basically simulate the passage of time. Early in a game they are a source of opportunity, but later they are dangerous.

Players begin with $1,500 in game currency, and in the true capitalist spirit this money is best spent in order to obtain opportunities for making more. Since opportunities are awarded from landing on unowned spaces, they are quasi-randomly distributed throughout the early game. The intent is to generate interesting trading situations, which are the heart of Monopoly. These situations are the real "game" here; the following hours of die rolling and movement that are a test that proves their quality.

Players may trade properties between each other for any in-game sum agreed upon, including trading properties for properties, or a combination of properties and cash. Properties can also be mortgaged to the bank for funds. Mortgaging can be done at a moment's notice to pay rent, get money for trading, or to meet the purchase (or auction) price of a property.

The deeds of mortgaged properties are turned over on the table; nothing can be built on these properties and they earn no rent. Properties can be returned to profitability by unmortgaging them, paying the bank the mortgage sum plus ten percent. Mortgaging instead of trading keeps one's options open, but mortgages only pay half the purchase value of a property. Mortgaged properties can be traded, but the buyer must immediately pay 10 percent interest and can't make use of the property without paying it off, so they are of degraded value as trade goods.

The gold mine of Monopoly is when, through trading or luck, a player manages to obtain all the properties in a given color group. Then that player may improve the group by buying houses for them. Rents for various numbers of houses are listed on each title deed card, and go up rapidly with houses built.

Even a single house greatly increases the charged rent for a property, but the third house provides a huge increase. The fifth and last house is called a hotel. Landing on a three-house space can be an emergency for a player; landing on a hotel is often fatal. A player who runs out of money and can't (or won't) raise the money through mortgages, house sales or trades is bankrupt, and leaves the game. All his property goes to the player who was owed, who often at this point acquires a game-winning advantage.

What can we draw from this game?

If you read this description and think it sounds more like a condemnation of capitalism than a celebration of it, you might be on to something. The early version of the game Charles Darrow cribbed from to create Monopoly, called The Landlord's Game, was rather more critical in tone.

Monopoly is somewhat burdened by its popularity. Many people who consider themselves fans of the game have actually never played it as intended, saddling it with awful house rules. Offering Free Parking jackpots and eliminating auctions make a long game longer, and a too-lucky game even worse.

Like Backgammon, Monopoly is a game of strategy masquerading as a game of luck. Well that's the idea -- really, Monopoly depends a bit more on luck than Backgammon does. It is easier for a player to be completely shut out by rolls of the dice, unable to meaningfully affect the game, and once a player starts to lose he'll probably keep losing, riding the passage of a multi-hour game down the drain, existing only as a source of funds for the better-heeled players. In this way Monopoly is like life -- and worse off for it.

A laudable design tendency of Eurogames, about which more will be said later, is that they tend to end just before a player begins to unquestionably dominate the game. In Monopoly it usually becomes obvious when a single player pulls far ahead of the others, but because all other players must go bankrupt to end the game this takes ages. The official rules list a "short game" option that gives players starting properties and that ends after the second bankruptcy, and that helps things a little.

Monopoly isn't all bad. One of the better aspects is that the choice of which color group to focus on is not obvious. The lowest-priced properties on the board, Mediterranean and Baltic Avenue, are not necessarily the worst investments, and the highest-priced, Park Place and Boardwalk, are not necessarily the best. The decision must factor in the relative probability of landing on each color group. But the dice are capricious, and different groups turn out valuable in different games.

The biggest flaw with Monopoly that I see is that too much of the game rides on the shoulders of single decisions, decisions that don't even involve most of the players. If two players trade in order to complete color groups before the others can, they can essentially lock them out.

A game of Monopoly in which the players refuse to trade becomes a simple matter of die-rolling and rent collecting. If the players won't unwind enough to trade to allow one player to complete a color group, that state will continue indefinitely. If there are no houses or hotels on the board, the players can expect a slight profit, on the average, on each visit to Go.

If you should get hold of a group that actually cares about making the best out of their situation, as competitive board gamers would, then most of the players will be extra careful about making trades that give opponents complete color groups without receiving a group of their own of at least equal value. This is not an atmosphere that encourages player commerce, yet without it the game is stalled. Because of this, two-player Monopoly is pointless since it's certain that the person you're trading with is your only enemy.


6. Scrabble

Published by Mattel worldwide, Hasbro in U.S. and Canada

Type: Two to four player tile-placing word board game

Depth: High

Designed by: Alfred Mosher Butts and James Brunot

Luck factor: Low to moderate

Description: Players take turns placing tiles on a grid of spaces in order to spell words that interlock with others already on the board.

Words are scored by letter value (from 1 to 10 depending mostly on rarity), special spaces covered (they multiply letter or word values depending on type) and whether they use all seven tiles in the player's hand (a flat 50-point bonus). The winner is the player with the highest score when the supply of letter tiles runs out.

Play Summary

Each player has a rack with seven randomly-drawn letter tiles on it. The remaining tiles go into a supply, here called the bag. And there is a 15 x 15 grid board with a star in the middle square. This is the battlefield.

Each participant takes turns places tiles spelling a legal word on the board, one letter per square. (Word legality may be determined, after a turn, by a dictionary of record.) The first player can play any word he can make from the tiles on his rack, but all later players must attach his word to the ones already in play.

There are two kinds of words produced thereby: there must be a primary word that is constructed using the tiles placed and those already on the board, and there may also be other words created by other tiles alongside the ones placed. No more tiles may be placed beyond those in the primary word.

Each word formed is scored. All new runs of two-or-more tiles must form legal words or the entire play is invalid. Two of the tiles are blanks; these are "wild" tiles, able to substitute for any letter, although they do not themselves score. Once used for a letter, the blank remains as that letter for the rest of the game.

Every tile except the blanks has a number on it denoting its score value. Playing a word awards the player the sum of the scores of the tiles in the word, both those he placed and those already on the board. Additionally, some spaces are marked with special bonuses, being: Double Letter Score, Double Word Score, Triple Letter Score, and Triple Word Score. These affect the scoring of a word according to its name.

While special spaces are placed sparsely to minimize the chances of it happening, they compound each other: a multiple word score also doubles any multiplied letter scores, and multiple word multiplier spaces can result in times-four or even times-nine scoring. Bonus squares only count if a tile is placed on one that turn. There is also a 50-point bonus, called a bingo for some unfathomable reason, for depleting your entire rack in a single play. Bingos are not affected by bonus squares. The starting square, the one with the star on it, counts as a Double Word Score.

After playing and scoring, the player draws tiles from the bag to get his rack back up to seven. If he cannot play, or does not wish to, he may instead return none, some or all of his rack to the bag and draw a like number of replacement tiles. The game generally ends when the bag runs out of tiles, but official North American rules state it ends when either a player empties his rack when the bag is also empty, or six consecutive scoreless plays are made when the score is not zero-zero.

If a player plays a word that his opponent thinks is not legal, he may challenge. Challenge rules are different in different countries. By U.S. rules, If a player challenges and is found correct, the played word is removed and the challenged player loses his turn. If an incorrect word is played that is not challenged it is made legal, and likewise playing a good word that looks bad may inspire a spurious challenge, which causes the challenger to lose his next turn instead. Intermediate-level players may find it useful to bluff with obscure words or believable fakes.

Scrabble rules are subtly different in different countries. Other-language versions of the game use entirely different letter sets, with different score values, and make for substantially different games. Challenge rules also vary considerably between release territories.

What can we draw from this game?

Of all the popular commercial board games sold in the United States, arguably Scrabble is the one most suited to deep strategic play, and the one most worthy of study. The best Scrabble players are fearsomely great; a novice has little hope of defeating them, despite the important element of chance in drawing tiles. It takes a lot of work to reach that level, and Scrabble tournaments are fascinating enough to have been the subject of a book (Word Freak) and a documentary (Word Wars).

Word games present a challenge to traditional classifications of gaming because they need not rely either on luck or strategy. An important aspect of these games is straight knowledge, in that players are aided by having a large vocabulary. They are like trivia contests in this regard, which can be looked down upon as possessing limited game-like qualities, but Scrabble balances this out with strategic elements like covering special board spaces and blocking opposing moves.

One quality of games played by two or more players which are symmetrical in setup and ability and involve a race against each other for limited scoring opportunity is that, to a degree, they are self-balancing. By this I mean that the players' self-interest and move opportunity costs, provided that the variety of moves is rich enough and not too limiting to the opponent, provide a tension against each other that good play tries to satisfy.

These kinds of games also tend to be somewhat vulnerable to first-mover biases, since that player may act on a virgin board, both gaining initial, unopposed advantage over the other player and also setting the character of the battle to come.

While blocking is important to high-level Scrabble, the board generally becomes more open to possible moves over time, which keeps the focus more on maximizing one's own score, instead of limiting the other's. Still, really good Scrabble players play with caution when approaching valuable spaces, so as to reduce the possibility his opponent may get a big play off of them.

Further reading:

I present the only link to the New Yorker on this entire list, a letter (to the editor) on whether the tile values are suitable for 21st century play.

I would link to the piece to which this letter responds, but it's behind a pay wall.


7. Pente

Published successively by Parker Bros., Hasbro, then Winning Moves

Type: Two player line-forming board game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Gary Gabriel, possibly building on traditional sources

Luck factor: None

Description: A variant of the Japanese game Go-Moku. Two players take turns placing stones on a 19x19 grid. Yes, like Go. Instead of acquiring territory, players try to line up stones. The winner is the first to get five in a row or capture five pairs of opposing stones.

Play Summary

Two people take turns placing stones on a grid board trying to get a sequence of five of their color in a row orthogonally or diagonally while preventing their opponent from doing the same.

A pair of two (but not more) adjacent stones belonging to one player can be captured and removed from the board by the other player by bracketing it in a line with his own stones, but only if he completes the bracket (that is, playing two stones between opponent stones is safe). A player wins by either getting five stones of his color in a row or capturing five pairs.

Although it takes five pieces in a row to win, key to this is developing a board state in which one's opponent cannot prevent a five-in-a-row on the next turn. The simplest way to do this is to get what our group calls an "unbounded four," a row of four stones without a bordering enemy stone on either end.

Since only one end can be blocked on the next turn, this is a guaranteed victory unless there is an immediate win available elsewhere. Other ways include threatening to win two ways at once, and trying to confuse the opponent into not seeing a potential winning line before it is too late. That last is often an unsatisfying win, but it is still a victory.

One can also win by capturing five pairs. Advanced Pente players try to place stones in such a way that, to capture pairs, the other player must set himself up for a capture himself. It is possible for players to engineer long chains of these threats. Threatening to win in a way that blocking it creates a capture opportunity is another favorite tack.

To win the game, a player must usually get five in a row, and doing that with five simple placements is unlikely to be successful, so having more pieces on the board, provided they cannot be captured, is generally better in that it provides material. Diagonals are one of a good Pente player's most important tools in setting up long sequences: their lines are slightly harder to see, but more importantly they allow a player to easily set up several potential lines at once.

Because continuous lines are fairly easy to spot, because it is sometimes hard to extend a line of three from a line of two without a capture threat or a block, and because it helps to give one more line options, one strategy that sometimes works I find is to place pieces far from each other at first, with one or two spaces between them, and then close them up, knitting them together into a web of possible lines.

A drawback of this approach is that pairs tend to crop up often across lines as you work on orthogonal and diagonal sequences simultaneously; they can be attacked fairly easily, and in the process of blocking the capture, another pair can easily be formed.

The first player in Pente is known to have a significant advantage, a fact that is not, by itself, damning; the first-player advantage in Go is so well-known that it has been defined to be worth 5.5 points.

However, it is harder to handicap for in Pente. Many games have a first-player advantage, but the better ones seek to minimize or account for it. Some solutions suggested by enthusiasts to lessen the first player advantage is to limit certain second moves made by that player, to allow for captures of three stones instead of just two, and to allow the second player to switch sides a few moves in if he desires.

What can we draw from this game?

At the core of Pente are the techniques of forming multiple lines at once and setting up situations where the player must block a win into a capture. The more stones one has on the board the easier it is to knit them together into a winning line; losing a lot of pieces not only pushes one towards losing due to the capture count, it decreases your opportunities in forming multiple lines, which is how most games are won.

As for forming multiple lines, diagonal lines make this process much easier as they are both harder to see at a glance and tend to form naturally out of proximate orthogonal lines. However this is also a danger, as these situations tend to create pairs that can be attacked. A solid cluster of stones presents opportunities for both lines and captures. These tend to be mercilessly attacked by experienced opponents, so better Pente players will try to piece them together more slyly, joining them together from a distance, or making them piecemeal.

The capture rule is the most elegant piece of Pente's design; developers working on similar types of stone-placing games might begin by investigating both it and the versions suggested above by Pente enthusiasts.


8. The Settlers of Catan

Published by a variety of publishers, originally by Kosmos. Published by Mayfair Games in the U.S. and U.K., Strategy Games in Canada.

Type: Three-or-four player island colonization board game (up to six players with expansion)

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Klaus Teuber

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: Settlers of Catan is the best-selling of the Eurogames, or German-style board games. Every turn a pair of dice are rolled, which indicate which island spaces grant resources to players who have settlements bordering them.

Resources can be traded between players freely with each other, or to the bank in sets of four, and particular combinations can be spent to build roads, more settlements, cities and resource cards.

Players win when they reach a set level of development, measured in victory points. The island, and the numbers that indicate which resources pay off, are randomized each game, giving each game different strategic possibilities.

Play Summary

Before play, a set of hexagonal tiles are mixed up and dealt out to form the island of Catan. There are six kinds of terrain: woods, hills, mountains, plains, grassland, and desert. All the types except desert have a matching type of resource card, respectively: lumber, brick, ore, grain and sheep. (Desert produces nothing.)

Surrounding the island are harbors, one for each kind of resource and three "general" harbors. After the island has been dealt, a random corner is picked and the production number indicators are placed, counter-clockwise and in alphabetical order -- each counter bears a code letter -- in a spiral inward. The order of the letters combines with the numbers in a clever manner to provide a mix of valuable locations.

One common feature of Eurogames is a special consideration to lessening advantages and disadvantages of the play order. Settlers of Catan shows particular care here. Before the game proper begins, each player must place his initial two settlements and roads. The first player places his first settlement on a "corner," a location on the board where three hexes intersect, and then places an adjacent road along one of the edges between the tiles. Then the second player does the same, and so on through to the last.

Then the order reverses: the last player places his second, then the next-to-last player, and so on back to the first. In placing, no settlement may ever be put on an intersection adjoining another settlement; there must always be at least one "empty" intersection between settlements, regardless of owning player. This restriction severely limits available building sites, making planning for future expansion a challenge.

After initial pieces are placed the turn order begins, beginning with the first player. On each turn:

The Longest Road and Largest Army cards may change hands during the game. Once a player obtains one, another player can take it from him only if he manages to beat, not just tie, the owning player's accomplishment. Thus, if the longest road is six segments, another player can only take the card and its points if he can reach seven. The first player to reach ten points wins.

What can we draw from this game?

Settlers of Catan is a strategy game, but perhaps paradoxically it relies upon randomness. The best of plans can be undone if someone else draws all the victory point development cards (we've seen it happen), or a "common" number you were relying upon doesn't show up that game.

Higher-level play not only attempts to maximize the resources earned, but to claim many different numbers so as to provide a consistent income. One could possibly engineer a version in which the numbers "rolled" were according to a fixed schedule that matched the probability numbers of the dice. Such a game may even be interesting, but that certainty would be a big change.

It is difficult to spread out across the board because of the limits on settlement proximity and the need to connect new settlements to old ones via roads. One could counter this by concentrating on surrounding a small number of hexes, or building cities early, but both these strategies are vulnerable to the Robber. Beyond this, the Robber is actually underpowered in Settlers of Catan. It only affects one hex, it only steals one random resource, and it moves often.

This is a general property in German-style board games, in that they tend to reduce the means of attack between players. Often games will have players seek to maximize some personal system over which the opponents have little control, but must compete for resources with them in order to obtain the tools they need to affect that system. Settlers of Catan is more competitive than many other games of the type, but serves as a good introduction to the idea.

My favorite thing about the game is the random board generation mechanism. The production number system usually does an excellent job of spreading out the numbers. Cases where the common 6 or 8 rolls touch each other only happen rarely. It is an elegant algorithm, necessary when run by a human being rather than a microprocessor.

Software designers can use computing power to brute-force their way around problematic cases, but often the fixes are as bad, in a way, as the problem. The Eurogames are a goldmine of elegant play concepts and algorithms that computer strategy game designers can profit from studying.


9. Puerto Rico 

Published by Alea and Rio Grande Games

Type: Three to five player colony developing board game.

Depth: Very high

Designed by: Andreas Seyfarth

Luck factor: Low

Description: The players strive to produce the most victory points through the development their own portion of colonial Puerto Rico. This is done by building plantations and buildings, manning them with colonists, using them to produce goods, then shipping those goods back to the Old World.

These things happen when a player takes an appropriate role. When a role is taken, all players, not just that one, can perform that action. The player who takes it does get a small bonus, and also gets to act first in that phase. Clever players use those privileges to pull ahead of opponents.

Play Summary

In the few short years since it first saw print, Puerto Rico has seen an amazing rise in popularity. It polls highly among the patrons of the website BoardGameGeek. Its play contains very little room for luck, but despite that, the events of the game tend towards unpredictability.

Sometimes players can win by picking a plan and sticking with it, but about as often they will have to take advantage of situations that arise. Despite the many approaches to success and considerable interest in the game, no one strategy has been found that overpowers the others; many tactics will win in some cases, but lose in others. This makes adaptability essential.

The object of the game is to amass victory points. They are earned by shipping goods on the ships and purchasing buildings, with a bonus for building and manning large buildings at the end of the game. Each of these steps requires a considerable amount of coordination, and usually some inadvertent help from the other players.

There are six roles to choose from (more with more players) in each round. On each round each player selects one of them, and each role can only be picked once. Picking a role means that all the players, not just the one who chose the role, can perform some matching action allowed by that role, but the player who chose it gets a small, but significant, advantage, The roles are:

The players participate in an interesting system of concentric turn cycles. Each round one player, called the Governor and identified by a special card, gets first choice of role, with successive role choices that round proceeding clockwise. Within each role's phase the players also take turns performing the role actions, with the selecting player getting first choice.

Roles themselves can't be picked twice in a round, so players closer to the Governor have a better chance of getting the role, and the advantage, they want. When everyone has picked a role, Governorship moves one seat clockwise and everyone returns their role cards to be chosen again the next round. This may seem complicated but works smoothly in play; the Governor card and selected role cards help players keep track as to where they are in the various turn cycles.

Roles that go unpicked in a round get coins placed on them; the player picking a role gets all the coins on that role's card. There are not that many sources of money in the game, so this ensures that all roles get picked with reasonable frequency.

Many of the limitations of the roles can be circumvented by building certain buildings, many of which provide exceptions to the rules, but they cost money to erect and need a colonist to activate. Some examples: Office makes it easier to trade, Hospice and University provide free colonists for settling and building, and Warehouses prevent unshipped goods from rotting in the Captain phase. The Wharf lets players ship goods without having to use the public ships.

There are only two available copies of most buildings, freezing some players out of popular choices. Goods are also limited by supply; if all of one type of barrel has been distributed to players or is resting on ships, no one else can make any until some are removed from play through some means, freeing up those game pieces to be distributed again.

Although each player's board is autonomous, everyone competes for buying, shipping and trading opportunities. There are many subtle ways players can affect each other's progress. In addition to blocking the Trading House and ships, the players don't always get to pick the plantations they want, other players may buy the buildings they were hoping for, and they may pick Craftsman when there are already a lot of unshipped barrels circulating, to use the barrel supply limit to lock out competitors.

There are many other tricks as well. The game is a masterpiece of passive aggression; there are no direct attacks, but nearly every choice a player makes affects the overall game state in some way, and most can be used as a weapon at the right time.

What can we draw from this game?

Puerto Rico is a brilliant game. So many of its ideas come out of left field, and they interlock with each other so well, that playing it is bound to cause epiphanies for observant designers. The best suggestion I can offer is to play it, as soon as possible. It is difficult to overstate its importance. If any of you are new to German-style games, it demonstrates handily that a strategy game need not look like a war game, or like Monopoly, to be great.

All of Puerto Rico's various game systems interlock with each other, lending seemingly minor decisions great import. But not the same decisions in every game! The depth of the game is great enough that I don't feel qualified to explicate it satisfactorily. And yet it is not a complicated game to learn. Maybe offering some playing tips will help:


10. Ticket to Ride

Published by Days of Wonder

Type: Two to five player card-collecting, route constructing board game.

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Alan M. Moon

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: The board shows a map of a nation, with prominent cities marked and rail routes between them divided into colored train spaces. Players draw cards, either from the deck or from a bank of five face-up cards, to try to collect enough cards of a color to claim a route on the board of matching color. Claiming longer routes earns more points.

At the end of the game, players also get large point awards if they've managed to connect the cities listed on ticket cards they're holding, which are kept secret until the end of the game, but they lose points if they fail to complete the ticket.

Play Summary

Ticket to Ride comes in several editions, many with a different game board, different cities, different routes, different tickets, and slightly different rules. This article is written based on experience with the basic edition, U.S. map.

The board is marked with many cities, in geographically-accurate locations. They are connected by a web of routes, each sectioned off into car-shaped units. Every given route is marked in either one of ten colors, or in gray. Some routes are actually marked twice, side-by-side; in those cases, the twin routes are either of different colors, or are both gray. In a two- or three-player game only one side of such a twinned route can be claimed, but in four- or five-player games both can be claimed by different players.

The main goal of the game is to connect various cities on the board by placing car pieces on routes, claiming them and scoring points according to length. To claim a route, a player must spend matching cards. Longer routes score more points on an accelerating basis; a single three-car route is worth more points than three one-car routes.

Six-car routes, at 15 points, are especially valuable. Any open route may be claimed; they do not have to be built in sequence or connected, although doing so this may lessen the chance of your route being split up, which could prove harmful to your score.

At the beginning of the game, all the players are dealt three ticket cards, and each may (if he chooses) discard one of them. Each ticket names two cities to be connected, usually so far from each other that they can't be joined by a single route, and a score award for making it. To complete a ticket, a player must construct a contiguous chain of claimed routes that connects the two cities. Length doesn't matter, just that an unbroken path can be made.

Completed tickets are revealed and scored at the end of the game, which obscures standings until the end. Incomplete tickets lose the player as many points as their award would have been. Once a ticket is accepted by a player it cannot be discarded, so it is imperative both only to accept tickets you can finish, and to work hard towards completing them. The need to complete tickets keeps the game focused on route-making, as opposed to blocking.

A ten-point bonus is awarded at the end of the game to the player with the longest contiguous chain of cars, a small but significant bonus.

There are three kinds of actions possible on a player's turn, and only one of them can be performed on each:

Each player in the U.S. version begins with 45 train pieces. When any player gets down to two or fewer trains remaining, then every player, including that one, gets one more turn before final scoring begins.

Most player turns are spent drawing cards, at two per turn, and every car space filled costs one card to fill, so with his four starting cards at a minimum it takes a player twenty-one turns to cause the game to end, plus a few more for turns spent playing trains. A savvy player will make use of nearly all the cards he draws, and one possible strategy is to attempt to end the game before the other players can complete their tickets.

I have observed a tendency to spend the early game building up a huge hand of cards. More cards expand the number of moves possible, and at the beginning of the game deck draws, with their chance of low-cost wild cards, are very attractive. As routes are filled and the number of open routes between cities declines, fewer card types remain desirable.

With this tactic, often the first move a player makes is a high-scoring six-spacer. This tactic also helps to avoid pinning down a player's options to relying on certain routes to make his tickets, and helps to keep his plans obscure to his opponents.

What can we draw from this game?

Ticket to Ride is one of the less challenging of the German-style games described here. It is basically a card-collecting game, yet it still supports complex strategy. The question of the best way to go about making one's routes remains interesting even after much play, and the possibility of drawing more tickets, while increasing the influence of luck on the game, presents an interesting tactical choice.

Ticket to Ride is essentially about connecting points on a graph. All games are ultimately abstract simulations, although sometimes the thing simulated is itself abstract. Computer gaming has been going in two primary directions as of late: in action games, towards greater simulation of reality (or projected reality), and in casual and role-playing games, towards lip-service to realism while grafting on increasingly arbitrary rule systems.

In the first case this has produced first-person shooters with complicated physics systems, and in the second, quest adventures where the "fighting" is done with unusual mechanisms, such as a Tetris-like puzzle game.

The first goal is obviously a dead-end in the long run (where do we go after simulating reality is done well enough, or proves impossible to advance?), but the second could be seen as a sign of design decadence. Theoretically the act of playing Tetris, or a collectable card game, or Tower Defense, is no further removed from the physical act of combat as choosing options from a menu, but practically something is lost as game systems become ever more abstract.

The best German-style board games have a unique knack of marrying abstract play systems to a theme that somehow doesn't feel too far removed from the simulated activity. Ticket to Ride is good at this.


11. Carcassonne 

Published by Hans im Glück, Rio Grande Games and 999 Games

Type: Two to four player tile-placing, territory-claiming game.

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: The players jointly construct a land; before their eyes and through their efforts, a small kingdom sprawls forth across the table. Each tile contains portions of various terrain features that players try to connect with the tiles already laid down, in order to expand or complete regions.

When placing a tile, players may claim part of a region for themselves. Increasing the size of these regions, making sure they get completed before the end of the game, and minimizing the size of other players' regions, these are the primary objectives of a game of Carcassonne.

Play Summary

Carcassonne is another of those German-style games that prohibits direct attacks between players, but in which indirect battling is a strong aspect of the game.

The game begins with a single tile. Each turn a player picks a tile at random and then must place it somewhere touching a tile already placed. Tiles much match terrain with all edges touching it. Players may also choose to place one of their limited number of followers, or "meeple," on part of the tile placed. Since tile sides must match, terrain features tend to spread out into large, contiguous shapes. Placed meeple score depending on the size, type and adjacency of features "claimed" by placement.

Completed -- that is, bordered on all sides -- terrain usually results in immediate scoring, a score bonus, and return of the follower for use elsewhere. Incomplete features still score at the end of the game. Followers cannot be directly placed in a region already claimed, but strategic placement can still result in regions with multiple meeple. In these cases the player with the most meeple gets the points for the area and the others get nothing. Follower ties score for all tied players.

In basic Carcassonne, there are four types of terrain that score.

Tiles drawn from the pool must be placed if possible, even if it would be against the player's interests. It is possible to be forced to complete an opponent's city or road, scoring him points.

New meeple can only be placed on new face-down tiles, and only on the placing player's turn. And a meeple cannot be placed on a tile so that he would claim an already-occupied feature. This sometimes results in a run of bad luck for a player not getting the tile he needs to complete an area, or to claim a feature he wants.

Although meeple can't be placed in already-owned features, players can place tiles so that they connect two owned regions. Ties for the most meeple in a region score in full for all the tied players; if one player has more meeple than the others, then only he scores. The game's strategy revolves around figuring out how to sneak followers into features, so as to lessen or even nullify an opponent's scoring advantage.

An especially devious strategy is to place tiles around the spots needed to complete an opponent's region so as to make it difficult or impossible to complete. Incomplete cities, roads and chapels lock up claiming followers until they are finished, and cities also score much less. Each player only has seven meeple in the standard game, and meeple must be placed to score points, so this can easily be a decisive strategy, although it requires some tile-drawing luck.

Memorizing the number of tile types that have all of city, road and field edges and keeping track of which ones have been played, with an aim of knowing how easily an important region may be completed, is a good play technique. This is especially so in conjunction with placing tiles around a spot that must be filled to complete a region, for the more tiles adjacent to an empty spot, the more edges that must match if a tile is to be placed there.

The dynamics of most games change drastically with the switch from two to three players, and as a consequence most German-style games support three players at a minimum. Carcassonne is one of the relatively few games of this style that not only allows for two player games, but may actually be better that way.

Tying your opponent for feature occupancy is a much more potent tactic with only two players, since if both players score for an area the net gain is nil, while in a game with more players both will still receive a score advantage relative to their other opponents.

What can we draw from this game?

Oh, lots. In addition to the instructive change in the nature of the game from two players to three, Carcassonne is a territory-acquisition game with no combat mechanism at all. Tactical combat is arguably overused in computer gaming, so much so that a multiplayer game that doesn't feature it seems almost like a different kind of creature.

Note: Players who are already familiar with Carcassonne would do well to consult the Wikipedia page on the game, which notes significant scoring rules that have changed between editions.


12. Catan: The Card Game

Published by Kosmos and Mayfair Games

Type: Two player colony building card game.

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Klaus Teuber

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: Players build resources in order to spend them to play colony improvements from their hand, to earn victory points. Like Settlers of Catan, dice determine the resources produced, but unlike that game each side has his own land and, for the most part, only interact through competition for resources.

Play Summary

The game is surprisingly complex -- quite a bit more than just Settlers of Catan -- so this is a more cursory overview than the other write-ups.

Each player has a card layout before them that represents their kingdom. At the start of the game, it consists of two settlements and six regions, each with their own card. Each player gets these particular cards as part of the game setup; they have special backs to aid in dividing them up. While not identical between players, they are similar.

Like the board game Settlers of Catan, each region has a number on it. Two dice are rolled, but only one of them is a numbered die. The other, the event die, has special symbols on it that trigger various occurrences. Both dice are rolled at the start of a turn, so events are frequent. The number die determines which regions, on both sides, produce that turn. Each side has the same kinds of starting regions, but different production numbers, meaning players start out gaining resources at the same rate but of different types.

The regions are mostly similar to those of Settlers:

Unlike the Settlers of Catan board game, resources are not recorded by holding cards in hand. Each region card has icons along the sides indicating 0, 1, 2 or 3 resources. The region cards are rotated to indicate how many resources it holds. Some improvements specifically enhance the regions it is adjacent to in a player's layout.

The event die does various things. Describing them all would make a long write-up even longer, but two results are of particular note:

There are two general kinds of improvements that can be built, all of them paid for with resources. One kind is generally available, without having to have a special card. Of this type are roads (cost one wood and two brick, needed to build settlements), additional settlements (worth a victory point, each constructed can support its own stack of improvements and also adds two more producing regions to the kingdom from a region deck), and cities (played on top of settlements, covering and replacing them, worth an extra point and allows constructing city improvements, many of which worth points of their own).

All of these improvements are limited in number; if their supply runs out, neither player can build any more. There are an odd number of settlements, so one player will always end up with a production edge. The early game is often a race to acquire it.

The other kind of improvement is played from the player's hand. There are a wide variety of these, and they all have their own costs and effects which are printed on the card. The cards themselves represent the buildings themselves when played, and are placed above or below the settlement or city that hosts them.

Settlements can only host Green buildings, and only two, while Cities can support up to four of either Green or Red color. Many Red buildings are worth victory points. Balancing this, Cities are vulnerable to the Plague event unless defended with a special improvement.

Some of these cards are Actions which allow players some special one-time effect. Generally, Action cards are the only way to directly attack the other player's kingdom. One special kind of Action card is kept in hand, and can be used to counter some of these attacks reversing them against the attacker; there is always a chance of reversing them, but this makes it much more likely.

Some cards are knights, which build the military power of a kingdom. The kingdom with the highest power gets the Knight Token, worth a victory point while held and allows special privileges. Similar is the Windmill Token, also worth a point and signifies the kingdom with the best trade. Unlike the board game, ties towards earning a token result in it being owned by no-one. Noteworthy is the fact that the only way a player can lose points is by losing the bonus for having a Token, or if a Red building is attacked by a special Action card. The game is won at 12 points.

If a player doesn't get the resources he needs, he can either trade freely with his opponent (which in practice is kind of rare) or trade three of any single kind of resource for one of any other. Some improvements allow for trading at better rates.

Whenever a player ends his turn with less than his full hand, he may draw back up to his maximum hand size. If he already had a full hand, he may choose to discard one or two cards and draw. The draw mechanism is unique to this game: instead of having just one draw pile, there are five, evenly and randomly distributed at the start of play. Whenever players discard, they may choose which stack the discards go to, and whenever they draw they may choose the pile they take from.

Not only are there Actions and Events that allow for looking through stacks for specific cards, but any time a player draws he may choose to spend two resources of his choice to pick a stack and search it for the card he wants. High-level play involves memorizing the contents and order of a stack on such a draw so one can later draw what he wants.

What can we draw from this game?

A great deal! Few games play with the various physical game mechanisms for providing randomness, and for spoiling that randomness through clever player action, as Catan: The Card Game. It is a very innovative game in this respect. I could easily have written twice as much and still not covered every aspect. And yet, it's hard to point to one mechanism or another as being irrelevant. Everything fits together. Turn-based strategy designers should definitely be taking notes on it.

The play atmosphere is completely different from the Settlers of Catan board game. With three or four players in Settlers it is rare that one player becomes the exclusive target for what our play group calls the hate. This facilitates trade, and also encourages players to hold off on attacking opponents until one of them pulls into the lead, since you don't know until then which rival is the one to hit.

When you have a single opponent, like in the card game, then the mood of the game gets competitive fast. Don't let the relative lack of ways to attack the other guy fool you: when the attacks come, they hurt.

If you don't think Catan: The Card Game is complex enough, there are many expansions for it, each of which adding its own interesting complications to the mix. Visit BoardGameGeek if you want to know more.


13. Munchkin

Published by Steve Jackson Games

Type: Two-to-many-player competitive dungeon crawling card game

Depth: Low

Designed by: Steve Jackson

Luck factor: High

Description: In this popular beer-and-pretzels commercial card game, players take the role of "munchkins," gamer lingo for a type of role-player who cares only for pimping out his character and using "whatever gives the most pluses."

In Munchkin the monsters are tough, but the biggest dangers are the other players, most of whom would think nothing of using your corpse as a step to the heights of godhood, here defined as Level 10.

Play Summary

There are two decks of cards, the door deck and the treasure deck, each with their own type of cards distinguishable by back. Players begin with two of each. Generally, door cards represent hazards, events and opportunities in the dungeon, and treasure cards are magic items and similar advantages.

In the style of Magic: The Gathering, the great majority of cards bear special rule-modifying text, making it difficult to give a comprehensive overview of the design. This is compounded by the fact that many groups play with mixed sets, throwing in any of the over-two-dozen Munchkin sets sold. The rules somewhat encourage this, although playing a hyper-mixed game is sometimes awkward.

I'm going to describe the turn process here, but keep in mind that nearly all of this can be modified by the right card. Some of those cards, like races and classes, are actually common. But assuming no such interference, this is what an ordinary turn looks like:

The hundreds of special cards mean there's often an awful lot to remember in Munchkin, but the idea behind combat is simple at least. The player adds up his level and all the combat bonuses and penalties he has, whatever the source. He compares that to the monster's level added to its bonuses and penalties.

If the player has a higher total he wins, gains the listed levels (1 or 2) and draws the listed treasure cards (1 to 4). If he comes in lower or ties, he must try to flee (rolling a die and escaping on a roll of 5 or 6) or else the monster wins, and the player suffers bad stuff listed on the card. That stuff sometimes includes death, but death is entirely temporary in Munchkin; the other players split up your stuff, but you come back in on the next turn. You don't lose anything other than your stuff and your hand. That is how combat works. Except...

Except any time there is a fight, including after the bonuses are summed up, you or another player may choose to mess with it, playing monster modifier cards that can either make the fight easier or harder. The modifiers are usually adjectives or adjectival phrases, like "Giant" or "Incredibly Ancient," which it is traditional to add to the monster's name, as in, "You are fighting the Giant, Incredibly Ancient Dragon."

Another player, if he has a Wandering Monster card, may also add an entire additional monster to the fight. Multiple monsters are all fought together, adding in their levels and bonuses. The player may also, if he chooses, ask for help, requesting aid from another player in the fight. The other player may (and usually will) stipulate that he receive a share of the treasure for doing so, or payment of some other item.

The help comes in the form of adding up all the helper's levels and bonuses and adding them to the original fighter's. Helping in a combat provides no benefit to the helper besides the agreed upon payment; no levels are gained by the helper (unless he's an elf, but that's a special card). Other players may still interfere with the fight after aid has been accepted, but once aid is agreed to, the helper cannot back out.

If a player has a curse card in his hand, he may play it on another player "at any time." If he has a race or class card, he may play it on himself, likewise, at any time. They can even be discarded it at any time. There are many special abilities regarding classes and races, including ways to have more than one of either or each at a time.

Most of the treasure cards come in the form of some wearable piece of equipment. Each player has a limited number of slots which can hold equipment. Like, only one suit or armor, one helmet, two rings, and so on. He also has a limited number of hands for holding weapons, and can only carry one "Big" item.

These limits are in place in order to prevent players from building up huge bonuses by wearing all the items they find, but even with the limits in place it is common for the totaled bonus to dwarf level by a large margin. Races and classes that players may have also add in their own special benefits.

There are many, many exceptions and further special kinds of items scattered throughout the game and its expansions. The plethora of special cards can sometimes make remembering all the effects in operation on your character hard to remember. The tableaux in front of each player indicating all the things worn, carried, and in effect, can contain twenty or more cards laying face-up before each player.

What can we draw from this game?

Munchkin is what we might call a "grudge game". The primary reasons for attacking another player are to stop him when he's about to win, and as revenge from another attack. Making random attacks tends to form grudges and cause retaliation, which may even extend between games, ultimately reducing one's own chances of winning. Munchkin can be played with as few as two players but this changes the dynamics a lot, tending to make it into a game of direct and constant attacks.

Munchkin doesn't have much depth to speak of. Most cards represent either an immediate personal advantage or a screw-over opportunity against an opponent. Players get dealt a hand of these advantages/screwings at the beginning of the game, and they are replenished with every turn. Generally, you play the advantages as soon as you draw them, and save the ammo for whoever is about to win, when your target is clearly identified.

There are a few cards which represent defenses, but they are in short supply compared to the array of possible attacks wielded against you. So you react to the circumstances, attacking when you should attack, defending when you can defend, and generally unable to plan ahead further than the current turn. There are a number of other games of the type, and by definition none of them can support much strategic weight.

One thing we've noticed about Munchkin is that games tend to either last fifteen minutes or three hours, depending on how much screwing ammo is handed out and how determined the players are to win. This has actually made us somewhat reluctant to play, since a game of grudges and vengeance that lasts the entire evening rapidly blackens the soul.


14. Contract Bridge

Cultural game

Type: Four-player trick-taking card game

Depth: Very high

Designed by: Harold Stirling Vanderbilt

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: Four players, in teams of two, first bid to determine "trumps." The winning team then attempts to win a minimum number of tricks while the other side tries to stop them. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? But read on...

Play Summary

Two teams, or partnerships, of two players each sit alternating around a table. In the game's lingo, each seat has a name, North, East, South, and West in order. Thus, North and South are partners, and so are East and West.

13 cards are dealt out to each player, forming their hand. When play begins, each player plays one card, starting with the winner of the last trick. The player with the "best" card for the situation wins the trick. The best card is either the highest-value of the first suit laid down for that trick, or if a trump suit is played by anyone, the highest-value card of that suit. Each trick is one card from each player, so there's 13 tricks in a hand. The basic goal is to win as many of those tricks as possible.

But which suit is the trump suit? Before main play begins, but after everyone has looked at their hands, there is a phase called the auction. Starting with the dealer and going clockwise, each player offers a bid, a vow to win a minimum number of tricks in the action to come.

There are three types of bids. The primary type takes the form of a number and a suit, like: 1 Heart, or 3 Spades. The actual number of promised tricks are the number plus six, so respectively these bids are promises to win: seven tricks if trumps are Hearts, and nine tricks if trumps are Spades. A later player cannot bid lower than the current highest bid; if he chooses not to contest the bid, he passes, by saying, simply, "Pass."

(The suits have differing values: Clubs < Diamonds < Hearts < Spades < No Trump. No Trump is special; if wins bidding there is no trump suit that hand.) Bidding goes around until there are three consecutive passes. The uncontested bid then forms the contract, its promise is the one that counts (prior bids are forgotten), its suit becomes trump, and play may begin.

Instead of a bid or passing, a player may alternatively choose Double as a bid. This signifies that the player is fairly sure the other team cannot make the amount they have bid, and amounts to a dare for double points. The current bid leader, if he is sure that he can make the bid, may choose to redouble, increasing the stakes still further. If any other bids than passes are made then Double state is voided, and ordinary bidding resumes. Because of this, sometimes players will actually use Double bids as a way of signifying hand information to the other player. More on that in a bit...

When one player of a team wins bidding, he begins play by laying down the first card. But when his teammate's turn comes around, instead of playing he sets his cards face-up on the table, and may then leave if he likes. He is the dummy for this round; his teammate decides which cards from his hand are played. This is the only time in Contract Bridge when it is legal to have a look at another player's cards in hand, whether he be opponent or teammate.

The team who won bidding are the declarers, and the team who lost are the defenders. If the declarers make their bid and win the requisite number of tricks, they earn points according to a system that has made grown men weep. If they fail, then the defenders win points according to a different, usually lower-valued chart.

There are three play units in Bridge, the hand, the game and the match. A game is made of one or more hands; it ends when a team gets 100 total points below the line, which are only scored for making contracts. All other points go above the line. When game is won, the winning team gets his below-line points put above the line; the other side loses his below-line score.

It's possible for a team to win game but lose overall; a side that wins a hand but doesn't have enough points to win the game is said to be vulnerable and has increased bonuses and penalties; there are huge bonuses for winning slams, that is 12 or 13 tricks in a hand; winning declarers earn extra points for tricks above their bid but it's not as much as if they had bid higher; and the scoring subtly encourages teams to bid slightly above their expectations since the penalty points the other side will win are dwarfed by the potential bonuses. Whew!

One of the most surprising things about Contract Bridge is how seriously players take the nature of the game being one of limited information. It is an offense to communicate with your partner. Everything you know about the state of the game is supposed to be deduced entirely through the cards that have been seen before, the contents of your own hand, and the contents of the dummy hand. During the game, serious players demand silence.

One advanced technique is to use specific bids during the auction to communicate information about your hand to your partner, but even this technique is regulated; if such conventional bidding is used, it is demanded that the system be known to their opponents.

What can we draw from this game?

Bridge is highly interesting for being a game of great depth, while also of relatively low player agency. The only decisions you make in a game are in the bidding round and in which cards to play each trick. The limited scope for action actually helps the game; your opponents are similarly constrained, and knowing this aids one in deducing the contents of their hands.

The "dummy" rule is unique. The declarers are helped because they have complete knowledge of their hands, but they're hurt because the defenders also know half of their cards. It is an interesting asymmetry, which is part of what elevates Contract Bridge above other trick-taking card games.

The importance of the auction phase cannot be overstated. It's not a betting round as in poker; it has the power to actively affect the game through its deciding of the trump suit. Often this means if either side wins with a low bid, they'll be able to make their contract with the added push of having sympathetic trump.

While a game of great skill, Contract Bridge is still ultimately a card game and thus vulnerable to lucky deals. The most enthusiastic Bridge players get together and play tournaments involving a form called duplicate bridge, which is one of the scariest things I've ever heard of.

Most of the above applies, except players gather together into tables of four each. Each table gets four identical hands of cards, dealt ahead of time by the tournament organizers. They record how they did in each hand, and afterward compare scores with those of other tables. In this way they effectively eliminate the role of luck in the game. Designers seeking to preserve the benefits of randomness in their games while lessening possible lucky bias should study this system.


15. Arkham Horror

Published by Chaosium, later in a substantially modified form by Fantasy Flight Games

Type: One to eight-player cooperative adventure board game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Richard Launius

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: The horrible monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos are trying to break through to our world in the New England town of Arkham. The players take the role of the few ordinary people who know of them, who have taken it upon themselves to save the world. They do this by searching for clues, gathering tools, fighting monsters and sealing gates.

Play Summary

This one's a biggie. This description of the rules will be unavoidably incomplete, but are presented as fully as the space allows. This writeup describes the version currently published by Fantasy Flight Games; the original version has many differences.

A period of interdimensional instability has caused gates to other worlds to open throughout the various locations of the town of Arkham. Not only do horrible monsters come through these gates, but if enough of them are left unchecked they will awaken an Ancient One, a terrible alien god who will come through and threaten the Earth.

The Ancient One is determined randomly from an assortment that comes with the game before play begins, and each has special rules that affect the game both before and after it awakens. The players combat this by traveling around town, entering and exploring the other worlds, then closing the gates.

If the players can close all the gates, and have collected at least as many gate trophies (at one per gate closed) as there are players in the game, then the players win. If they are slow in their task, the doom track, which measures how close the Ancient One is to awakening, will fill up.

If it fills all the way, the players will have to engage in combat with it. All the Ancient One fights are unbalanced in favor of the monster; the fight itself is only intended to be a last-ditch effort to win the game, not a strategy the players can rely upon.

There are three kinds of "spaces" in the game players can move around, in order of interest: Arkham Streets, Arkham Locations, and Other Worlds. The monster movement rules cause them to cluster into the streets, and all locations require street travel to get to. Arkham Locations are color-coded to match one of the nine location decks, (yes, nine, and that's only about half the decks in all, because there are few games like Arkham Horror for cards) each of which additionally describing an encounter for every location of its color.

These can be good or bad. A few Locations have special events players can utilize instead of drawing, usually providing a basic bonus like refilling health or purchasing an item. Other Worlds are entered from the gates players are trying to close; they tend to have somewhat more damaging encounters than Locations. When two turns have been spent in an Other World, the player may emerge from any gate matching that world and attempt to close it.

Players have two kinds of "health," stamina and sanity. Running out of either causes him to lose half his items and immediately get sent to either the Hospital or Sanitarium spaces, wasting time. In order to regain more than a single point of either depleted value, the player must spend extra time and maybe money there.

If a player runs out of either in an Other World, he ends up Lost In Time And Space, which is sort of like the cosmic hospital, delaying the investigator for a short while before he returns to the game with a little of the depleted resource restored. If a player ever somehow runs out of both stamina and sanity at once he is devoured. The character is out of the game but not the player; at the start of the next turn he picks another character from those included and begins from scratch. (Once the final battle begins a lot more things cause devouring, and players don't return afterwards.)

One of the most interesting rules is the skill allocation system. Every player has a number of skill sliders on their character board. These are a list of six skills, paired into three groups of two: Fight/Will, Speed/Sneak, and Luck/Lore. Each has a row of matched numbers by it, numbered so that the highest values for each paired skill are at opposite sides of the slider. So, a character might have Fight that reads 6/5/4/3, but Will that reads 1/2/3/4.

At the start of play oval frame pieces are placed over one pair of numbers in the pair, defining what these skill values are. Because of the paired numbers, having a high score in one requires having a low score in the other. All the skills are important, but at different times. Sliders may be moved around a limited number of stops at the start of each turn. Part of the process of getting better at the game is to figure out which skills to focus on at which times.

Players collect money, items, allies, gate and monster trophies, and other benefits throughout the game, but the primary resource the players acquire is clue tokens, which begin scattered throughout the board and are gained by collecting them or through special encounters. Some encounters cost clues to take advantage of, and players may also spend clues to give themselves extra chances to make a roll. This may even be done after failing the roll, and continually, so long as the player has clue tokens to spend.

The most important use of clue tokens, however, is in sealing gates. After surviving an Other World closing a gate isn't hard, and grants the player a gate trophy, but leaves it to reopen later. Spending five clue tokens while closing a gate (or one of the special Elder Sign items that might be found during the game) will seal it.

Sealed gates cannot be reopened, typically; if a gate tries to open on a sealed location nothing happens: no gate, no monsters and no doom track advance. Sealing gates is one of the best things the players can do -- but five tokens is a lot, clues become less common as the game continues, and spending them to get a roll bonus is tempting.

At the end of each turn there is the Mythos phase, which is basically an automated portion of the game where the monsters get to move and special events occur. All of these things are decided by drawing a Mythos card, on each of which is printed a sort of package of events to occur. Each lists a special game event (some of which persist over multiple turns, and some quite nasty), a location for a new clue token to appear at, a location for a new gate to appear at, and a set of symbols that determine which monsters move.

The places on the board each have a black and a white arrow pointing from them; when a Mythos card with a matching symbol on it is drawn, the monsters with the same symbol move along the color arrow that matches the symbol's color on the card.

When a new gate is placed during the Mythos phase, a doom token is added to the doom track. When that fills up, the Ancient One fight begins and the game is probably lost. If there is already a gate there then no gate opens and no doom token is added, but there is a monster surge, where monsters pour from the gates. This may slow the players down, or it may be a useful opportunity to win monster trophies, which can be spent to gain advantages.

If a gate is closed, there is nothing to prevent it from reopening, so with some gates it may be more effective to leave them open; some locations turn up much more often in the Mythos deck than others, so closing gates there repeatedly is a recipe for disaster because a doom token is added each time. Gates in these locations are prime targets for sealing, since they usually prevent both new gates from opening and a new doom token being added.

What can we draw from this game?

The card-fueled monster movement system is elegant: partly random, partly deterministic. It is mostly a system for making sure monsters don't all pile up and cluster in a single space, but there is probably greater use other designers can make of the system. It is an effective and efficient way to automate quasi-randomized monster movement; if you've ever played the Munchkin spinoff Munchkin Quest, the monster movement in that game is basically an elaboration upon of the movement in Arkham Horror.

The game is chaotic enough that relating some useful strategies we've found might be helpful, as a way of noting which decisions end up being important in play. The Magic Shop Location has a special ability that allows drawing three items from the Unique Items deck and buying any one of them; the six Elder Sign items are all in this deck, and are extremely useful in sealing gates.

Players are allowed to trade any items they are carrying if they're on the same spot, so delegating authority tends to be effective; one player can focus on collecting money, another on clearing out monsters, another on gathering clues, another on closing gates, and so on.

The gate opening locations in the Mythos deck are far from uniform, and four locations only show up on two cards each: the Science Building, the Historical Society, the Silver Twilight Lodge, and Hibb's Roadhouse. If a gate opens up on such a spot, it is probably better to just close it instead of spending to seal it, since it has relatively little chance of reopening.

If it looks like preventing the Ancient One from waking up will be impossible due to a nearly-full doom track and a lack of means of sealing, a good last-ditch strategy is to load up on what items you can get from the shops, taking out a Bank Loan to fund them if possible since money is useless in the final battle.

One of the great flaws of Arkham Horror, in my opinion, is the variety of special cases the designers had to account for in the rules. In the most recent edition of the game there are a number of things that, if they happen, immediately result in the Ancient One awakening.

If a gate opens but there are no more gate tokens to place because they're being horded as trophies, the Ancient One wakes up. If a monster needs to be drawn but there are none in supply, the Ancient One wakes up. If too many gates open at once, the Ancient One wakes up. If too many monsters are on the board at once, the Ancient One wakes up.

Alternatively, if six locations are sealed at the same time, the players immediately win. It seems that some of these may have been added in recent editions of the game to plug holes players found in the design. It is a fun and rewarding game, but the variety of rules* coupled with all the special cases makes it all very hard to grasp for new players, not to mention lending the game a sense of arbitrariness.

*Rules I wasn't able to cover here: the Outskirts, the Sky, the Terror Track, Blessings and Curses, Rumors and Environment cards, Retainers, getting Deputized, the variety of Outer Worlds, the variety of Ancient Ones, the many kinds of monsters, the interesting skill check dice pool system, and more.


16. Nuclear War

Published currently by Flying Buffalo

Type: Two to six player nuclear aggression-themed beer-and-pretzels card game.

Depth: Very low

Designed by: Douglas Malewicki

Luck factor: High

Description: The players all play the leaders of nuclear-armed nations. There are two types of attacks, but they only work during different game phases. One kind of attack gives you more people, but only works during peacetime.

The other kind takes two turns to pull off, but triggers war that prevents the other kind of attack from working. Running out of people puts you into "final retaliation" but out of the main game. The goal is to be the last player in the game. It is easily possible for everyone to lose.

Play Summary

For a change, this game is simple enough that I can fit nearly the entire rules here, and a little more.

There are two kinds of cards that come with the game, population cards and order cards. At the start of the game, population cards are dealt out to all the players. These cards each bear from 1 to 25 million people. A nation's population is analogous to its health: run out, and you're out of the game. The number of Population cards is known, but how many people are on them is hidden from other players during play, adding uncertainty to whoever is in the best condition.

During the game, "change" is made with unused cards if someone loses less population than is on a card. Players are also dealt a hand of order cards. Some of these cards bear special events, marked Secret; whenever a Secret is drawn, at any time, it is turned up for everyone to see and happens immediately, then another card is drawn to replace it. (The fact that Secrets are immediately known to all players is one of the game's many little sarcastic jabs at world events.) Secrets can immediately give a player a lot of people or kill off much of his population.

Every player has a placemat in front of them that bears several spots on which to place cards. The most important such spots are the orders. Before the first turn, players place two of their hand cards face down on these spots. These form a queue; when the player's turn rolls around, he first lays down a third order, then turns over the first order, which is his action that turn. Afterward, the second and third orders move up a space. In this way, players are forced to act two turns in advance, giving them a kind of inertia of action.

Other than Secret cards, there are only four kinds of cards. Propaganda cards are the easiest to use. When one of them turns up, that player may immediately take the listed number of people from any one other player. These are very powerful, and besides random Secrets are the only way to increase population, but they only work in peacetime.

Peacetime ends the moment a successful attack is made, and such an attack comes from using the second and third kinds of cards -- missiles and warheads. These cards must be used in concert with each other, over two consecutive turns. A missile must be launched in a turn, and a warhead matching one of the types listed on the missile used in the following turn, in order to launch an attack.

This allows one player to "fake" an attack during peace and possibly send the other players scrambling to mount attacks first. A successful attack causes a declaration of war. All players are at war from this point until one player is eliminated; all Propaganda cards in order queues are wasted turns at this point. The target of an attack is decided when it happens.

Each type of warhead lists the base number of deaths it causes, but before that happens, the attacker must spin the spinner, which is divided into a variety of random things that might happen to the attack, things like triple casualties, add or subtract a set number of deaths, or a dud attack. (One spinner item, if it comes up during an attack with the most powerful warhead, destroys the world, ending the game with no winners.)

The only defense against a missile is if you have a matching anti-missile card in your hand. There aren't very many such cards, but if you have it and are the target of an attack, you can then play it to immediately thwart the attack, and the game immediately advances to your turn.

During war, when one nation runs out of people, it is out of the game, but not before getting a round of Final Retaliation. The losing player may take up all his orders back into his hand, then immediately match missiles to warheads and make as many attacks as he likes right away. Naturally the player that launched the last attack against him is a prime target, but so are players with few population cards or whoever has the biggest missile about to go up.

Each attack is made with a spin on the spinner like normal. If another player runs out of people during this the he, too, gets to go into Final Retaliation when the current player is done. It is entirely possible for the last player to be eliminated this way, in which case no one wins. If there is one survivor then he wins the game; if there's more than one then peace is declared, everyone left may take back up his order cards, lay down two new orders, then the game resumes.

What can we draw from this game?

Nuclear War is a fast and fun game without a great amount of strategy. Obviously a lot of this is due to the jovially apocalyptic theme. The game was created in the 1960s, when nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high, and standards for game design depth were maybe a little low.

It must be said that some of its impact is lost today, but it is still fun to take it down and play End of the World sometimes. Like some of the other games on this list, it is really pointless to play it with two players, which is weird given the theme since the Cold War had just two major participants.

Nuclear War contains a couple of really good play mechanics. Hiding the true population of the players is excellent for toning down attacks calculated to knock individual players from the game. The queue-based order system is a clever idea that becomes meaningless the moment war is declared. Because war affects everyone, anyone can start it with two turns' notice, and it stops population hemorrhage from well-peopled nations, it is often begins at the earliest opportunity.

Another kind of ruined idea is the missile launch system; creating tension over which warhead is carried by a missile doesn't really affect the game much except to focus attacks-in-progress on the launching player -- but if he's wiped out, he goes into Final Retaliation, and gets to launch that attack immediately! About the only real strategy there is is to try to eliminate the last opponent with Propaganda cards, since that knocks someone out without triggering Final Retaliation. But he knows that too.

If you have a lot of bad luck, with population cards, anti-missiles, missiles, warheads, and/or with Secret cards, you're mostly doomed. Worst of all, if you end up with a hand full of Propaganda cards when war is declared, there's nothing you can really do except continue to make impotent attacks until you draw something with teeth.

It is difficult to make any heavy claims on Nuclear War's "strategy," which is mostly limited to attacking whatever players you think most deserves it, is furthest in the lead, or is the biggest jerk. The theme lends it an odd kind of appeal however, and that still puts it miles ahead of pop-culture drek games like Uno.


17. Paranoia (Troubleshooters)

Published first by West End Games, more recently by Mongoose Publishing

Type: Three-or-more participant dystopian competitive role-playing game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Greg Costikyan, Dan Gerber, Eric Goldberg, and Allen Varney (with some help from others)

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: A role-playing game. Players take the role of "troubleshooters," agents of a future Orwellian police state called Alpha Complex, sent forth to do the official will (seeking out subversives, punishing free thought, enforcing doctrine), often with powerful weaponry.

But what could be an incredibly dark game turns out to be amazingly hilarious and a tremendous amount of fun, all because the main focus of the players isn't so much the elimination of traitorous elements in the game world as stabbing each other in the back...

Play Summary

This is one of two pen-and-paper role-playing games on this list. Paranoia deserves special mention because of its great atypicality; it purposely de-emphasizes empathic immersion, and to some extent even storytelling, in favor of aggression between characters. It is a game that asks players to create personas that are thin shells for their own selves.

This suits the game well: it allows maximum scope for skullduggery and backstabbing (which work best as game mechanics if there is some aspect, however slight, that bleeds over into real life), and helps to keep the characters disposable, because, even for a game in which everyone gets six lives, character lifespans are short, and you'll be making up a new one before long.

Death is so common, both from missions and the machinations of other players, that players are given many lives, or "clones." There is sometimes no way to succeed at the mission, and failure is itself treasonous, so instead players must come up with excuses for why they fail. Often, these excuses involve scapegoating the other players.

So here's how it works. The players all play troubleshooters, agents of The Computer, the totalitarian ruler of Alpha Complex. Their job is to seek out and terminate traitors. There are a variety of missions, but eliminating this dread foe is always a sub-goal. The primary traitors are the hated Commies, but there are many paths to treason.

In particular, all secret society members and all mutants are traitors by definition. However, all player characters are secret society members and mutants, and often commit countless other forms of treason on missions besides. It is probable that everyone in Alpha Complex is a traitor in some way.

The catch is that The Computer doesn't know that, has a powerful military and secret police to back up its decisions, and is homicidally insane in a way GLaDOS could only dream about. Since it doesn't know it, you don't know it either -- if you know what's good for you. Furthermore, finding traitors is one of the few routes up the social ladder in Alpha Complex. As it happens, there are several potential traitors close-at-hand: the other players.

The players are given special objectives by their secret societies, many of which have to do with assassinating other players or ensuring the failure of the mission. They are also given many reasons to use their mutant abilities, which tend to be of the X-Men super power variety. But openly displaying either is a recipe for suicide. So is just shooting anyone; you can't just open fire on bystanders and teammates, you have to find evidence of their treason first, and that's what makes Paranoia more than just a shoot-'em-up.

The ultimate weapon in Paranoia is knowledge: knowledge of societies, knowledge of powers, knowledge of treason, and each player, in their society briefing, gets information the other players don't have. The intricate web of interlocking, often conflicting goals, opportunities and dangers make for an extremely rich game with experienced players. And yet, Paranoia's reputation is of a mindless blastfest. When run by a skilled GM, nothing is further from the truth.

This may be because it is so easy to die, and shooting your teammates is fun whether treachery or mere bloodlust is the reason. If a player deserves to die, kill him. There are five backups waiting in line, and making a new one is nearly painless, so why not? Emphasizing this, Paranoia has no hit points. Instead there is just a wound state, ranging from OK through Stunned, Wounded, Incapacitated, and Killed... and then one more, Vaporized, just for kicks. You're more likely to get killed outright than by degrees.

Recent versions of the game add an interesting new play mechanic, an evolution of "brownie points" from the classic RPG Ghostbusters, called perversity points. Whenever a player does something the GM finds clever or entertaining, at the drop of a hat really, he may award the player one or more of these points, typically given physical form as poker chips. They are intended to be used freely, and awarded just as freely.

Each chip represents a one-point (that is, 5 percent) bonus or penalty, of the player's choice, that can be bought on any die roll, for or against any player. Players can spend perversity to cause other characters to fail as readily as to help themselves succeed. This tends to mean the person who'd really want an accident to "mysteriously" happen can have it happen more often, but only if he's willing to pay. They also can be wielded against you, of course.

Perversity points are considered to be possessed by the player, not the character, so even if one character kicks the bucket for the final time these points carry over immediately to the next. Players whose characters perish in especially entertaining ways may thus find their next character starting off with an ample supply.

As stated before, treachery works best as a game motive when some aspect of it bleeds outside the game; perversity points recognize this fact. Ultimately, perversity points are a game realization of the idea of karma, that good things happen to good people, or players.

What can we draw from this game?

It's rather amazing that there aren't many other RPGs like Paranoia, where the players compete more than cooperate. Mark my words: the company that first adapts Paranoia, or the kind of play that Paranoia sponsors, successfully to the MMORPG sphere will go down in history. First-person shooters are a start, but are too direct to really work up the properly paranoid atmosphere, although the Spies of Team Fortress are something of a start.

The players matter for a lot for how the game atmosphere should run. Recent editions of Paranoia actually support three styles of play: Straight, Classic, and Zap, of escalating craziness.

Most people who enjoy the game consider Classic to be the true Paranoia, but some people who only know of the game from single sessions or reputation think it's Zap: a constant gunfight in a world with cartoon physics. Straight is relatively serious and offers the chance for long term, more traditional RPG play, but it might be a bit too much of a reaction against the excesses of Zap.


18. Call of Cthulhu

Published by Chaosium, Inc.

Type: Two-or-more player Lovecraftian horror role-playing game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis

Luck factor: Low to moderate

Description: A role-playing game. The players take the parts of investigators of the unknown, a curiosity which frequently brings them into contact with the terrible forces of the Cthulhu Mythos: alien gods and beings who care nothing for humanity. Not quite as lethal as Paranoia, but still quite deadly.

Play Summary

This is the second of two full role-playing games on this list.

H.P. Lovecraft was a horror writer who write in the 1920s and '30s. A staunch atheist, he had a profound sense of the meaninglessness and pettiness of human life compared to the unimaginable vastness of the universe, a philosophy that ceaselessly leaked into in his writing.

Lovecraft had many friends, and between them they created one of the most popular "shared universes" in literature, the Cthulhu Mythos, a pantheon of horrible alien gods with incredible power. The Cthulhu Mythos has grown so vast that a full role-playing system was created using it as a basis: Call of Cthulhu.

While the game dates back to the ascendance of Dungeons & Dragons, and bears some similarities (most notably the importance of attribute scores, here called characteristics), there are some important differences between the games.

For one thing, there is no experience system; the best players can advance in is the increase of skill points. For another thing, many monsters are not intended to be defeatable at all. It is a cliché in computer RP gaming, especially in JRPGs: the whole game you try to stop the villainous sorcerer-type from awakening his ancient god-thing to rule the earth, but at the end he always succeeds and you have to beat the god thing with a good old fashioned beatdown.

The similarity to the Cthulhu Mythos is too great to be accidental, but make no mistake, this would not happen in Call of Cthulhu. The titular entity, Great Cthulhu himself, is able to devour up to three human beings before him automatically per round, and that's just the appetizer. There is no way to slay Cthulhu either; he just reforms a half-hour later, at full strength.

Stats for these monsters are present in the book mostly so the GM can precisely lay out the doom to failing players, for if you encounter Cthulhu, or Yog-Sothoth, or (God help you) Azathoth, the best you can hope for is escape. The d20 system adaptation of the game doesn't even present stats for them, rightly concluding that their appearance on the stage will be merely the beginning of an elaborate "game over" scene. To win out in Call of Cthulhu, you stop the cult before they awaken the Great Old One.

Unlike most role-playing games, Call of Cthulhu characters often become less powerful over time. It is the opposite of an empowerment fantasy, and in fact the whole point of the Cthulhu Mythos is that humans, no matter how much magical power they acquire, are like insects before the gods.

Players have a sanity characteristic, abbreviated SAN, that goes up when successfully completing adventures or defeating monsters, but mostly goes down. Losing even relatively small amounts of sanity drives a character temporarily insane, which can be situationally fatal; losing all sanity makes one permanently insane and out of the game.

One of the most important skills in the game is named after the Cthulhu Mythos itself. Representing knowledge of the unimaginable alien nature of the true universe, increases in the Cthulhu Mythos skill lower maximum sanity. Many of the most important rolls in the game, when it comes down to it, are Cthulhu Mythos rolls, but the players with the best chance of succeeding at them are the ones least suited to the sanity-blasting sights of the investigating life.

Additionally, many types of magic require the sacrifice of POW, a permanent characteristic, to use. This makes the game one in which characters do not rocket off into godhood over the course of adventures; instead, they tend to have limited lifespans, thus paradoxically making this game of supernatural horror one of the best RPG analogues for real life.

What can we draw from this game?

In play, the most interesting thing about Call of Cthulhu isn't fighting extra-cosmic monsters and holding on to your sanity, although that certainly is entertaining. But the fights tend to be lethal and the sanity losses, to a great degree, unavoidable.

The main avenue for player involvement lies in the process of investigation. Many scenarios begin with what might be called an investigation phase, where, given a job by a client or some other goal to accomplish, the players must go and learn all they can about it before facing the danger ahead.

Going in without being properly informed is usually a sure route to death; discovering even the nature of the threat takes a lot of digging and piecing together of disparate facts to uncover. Investigators are known to haunt City Hall, police stations, newspaper morgues, and above all libraries, seeking to gain whatever slight insight they can into the nature of the horror before them; the game is famous (or infamous) for the utility of its Library Use skill, an essential aid to research.

Other useful skills are Credit Rating (respectability being of great aid in gaining the trust of others), Psychology (for seeing through deceptions and discerning the motives of that strange goatee'd man who may be a sorcerer) and Spot Hidden (because at the end of the day, you still have to go down into the dungeon-like crypt and find the secret passage).

In addition to providing the needed information, and sometimes magic, needed to defeat the foe, atmospherically the game works wonderfully, as the mundane world of the 1920s slowly begins to drop hints of impossible horrors, like when it turns out that a house has been owned by a family for 400 years... always by a descendant with the same name... who always seems to be about 40 years old... none of whom anyone can find a death certificate for...


19. The Logic Puzzles of Nikoli

Published by Nikoli

Type: Solitaire logic puzzles

Depth: Moderate to High

Designed by: Various creators

Luck factor: None

Description: A sequence of inventive puzzle types published by Japanese puzzle magazine Nikoli. Counted among their number is Sudoku. They are all difficult straight-logic puzzles. Once one knows how to solve a given type, they usually aren't extremely difficult, but figuring out how to do that is an engrossing pastime.

Play Summary

Nikoli is a Japanese puzzle magazine famous for its inventive logic puzzles. It is not the ultimate origin of the puzzle most know as "Sudoku", but it is the original source of its popularity as well as its most popular name. Alongside it in the magazine are a variety of other wonderful logic puzzles of varied types. These puzzles all involve a diagram which must be completed in some way to satisfy an initial state.

In well-made puzzles of the kind, there is only one solution. For easier puzzles it is usually possible to work out the solution using elementary logic. Harder ones require more insight into the implications of the rules, and venture into trial and error. The hardest puzzles usually require experimentation or transcendent insight.

Everyone knows of Sudoku. To represent these puzzles, I chose a less well-known example of the type, a puzzle Nikoli calls Slitherlink. I tend to think of it by the name given to it by Simon Tatham's Puzzle Collection, which is Loopy. Illustrations presented here are from that computer adaptation, but the lessons involved work as well with the paper version. The various logic puzzles Nikoki publishes are varied, but Slitherlink is a good jumping-off point.

Slitherlink involves a grid of points that mark the page off into squares. In the middle of some of the squares are numbers. The solution to the puzzle involves connecting the dots along the invisible grid lines so that it forms a complete loop, with no stray lines, of straight and right-angled line segments. When the puzzle is solved, all of the numbered squares will have exactly that many filled in perimeter line segments. There is only one loop that can be drawn that satisfies these conditions, a fact that, itself, is sometimes a subtle clue.

Look at this unsolved diagram, an "Easy" puzzle made by Simon Tatham's Puzzle Collection. With practice, such a grid can often be completed in three minutes or less. What can we determine about it?

Well first, the 0 squares can have no lines adjacent. Of each of the 3 squares, if we ever discover any adjacent lines are blank, we can rest assured the other three must be filled in. That 3 in the upper-right corner must have its corner lines filled, because either both of those lines must be drawn or neither and 3s permit only one empty border.

Less obviously, adjacent 3s must have the lines between them and on either side of the pair filled in. The line must ultimately prove to be continuous without branches, so in cases where the line bends at a right angle through an intersection, the other two lines coming off it must be empty. These facts, combined with obvious points about 1s and 2s with relevant known lines adjacent, let us get to a state like this:

It is not particularly difficult to finish the whole grid from this point. Harder scenarios require more obscure observations about the nature of the puzzle, rely on using higher-order rules (such as the closed nature of the loop in Slitherlink), and may demand the solver make trial and error experiments.

All of these facts are also true about Sudoku and most of the other Nikoli puzzles. In this way, all of these puzzles are the same kind of thing. Once you learn the tricks to solving one type you can reliably solve up to medium difficulty puzzles of the breed without huge effort. But to get beyond that requires ever-more demanding resources of insight and memory. This is the realm in which expert solvers dwell. Even the best solvers cannot do the hardest Sudoku grids without a lot of work; using special tricks will only take one so far.

What can we draw from this game?

Of particular interest to game developers is the number of these puzzles that have been adapted into successful computer versions. In addition to Sudoku's starring rule as a sideline of Nintendo's Brain Age series, the open-source game Simon Tatham Puzzle Collection collects play modules for many of them, as well as fairly decent random puzzle generators, into a single package.

Lots of inspiration for puzzle games is to be found among the pages of Nikoki. Logic puzzles are extremely popular right now, and a lot of the popularity of Nintendo's Brain Age series probably derives from the excellent Sudoku collection and solving interface included with each of them. In addition, elements of the puzzles might be cannibalized for use as puzzle minigames in other genres.

Further reading:

Nikoli now maintains an English website, with puzzle instructions and puzzles to solve.

For English-speaking audiences, the premiere puzzle periodical has long been Games Magazine, the publication which birthed Will Shortz onto an unsuspecting world. Every issue provides a number of pencil puzzle pages, and usually among them are some of the Nikoli breed.


20. Crossword Puzzles

Cultural puzzle

Type: Solitaire word-fill puzzles

Depth: Low to High

Designed by: Arthur Wynne (an earlier version may have been designed by Giuseppe Airoldi)

Luck factor: None

Description: The reigning champion of puzzles. A grid of white and black boxes hides a set of intricately-crossed words. Every box is crossed both horizontally ("Across") and vertically ("Down"), and every word has a clue. But you had better believe there's a lot more to them than that.

Play Summary

Crossword puzzles are one of those types of amusements which it is easy for computer gamers to dismiss. In actuality they are fascinating and complex, a devious challenge that requires sharp reading skills, vocabulary, agility of mind, and in the more advanced cases lateral thinking skills. Some of the smartest people in the world beat their skulls against the New York Times' published puzzles, which start fairly easy on Mondays and get harder throughout the week, culminating in the diabolical Sunday puzzles.

In commercial puzzles, every white space is always checked two ways, Across and Down, giving solvers two separate resources towards figuring out which letter goes in each square. Each line of letters, keyed by small numbers in the corners of some squares, is an answer or fill. In a key to the puzzle are listed a number of clues, one for each answer.

The crossing of the answers is what elevates crosswords from simple quizzes to being puzzles. If a solver cannot figure out one clue, he can work on the crossing words, filling in letters one by one until he has enough letters to spark his memory towards finding the proper fill. Puzzle constructors know this, and so they fill grids with a mix of easy and hard clues. Even really good solvers won't be able to get many of the hard clues right off.

Crossword puzzles can either be solved in a non-linear fashion, filling in what you know then working out, or starting from an enclosed region and spreading from there. As the letter density in a region of the puzzle increases, the solver becomes more sure that his work is correct, since each answer lends support and confidence to those with which it crosses. This lends surety and a great sense of satisfaction when a puzzle is finished.

The basic mechanics of the puzzles are a bit interesting, but far beyond that are the tricks that puzzle constructors have invented over the decades. Learning these tricks is as important as general knowledge. Behind them all is an important principle: there should be a similarity between the clue and the answer.

For example, clues will usually be the same part of speech as the answer, so that they can be used interchangeably in sentences. If the clue is plural you can be reasonably certain the answer will be plural too. If there is an abbreviation, of any kind, in the clue then it is probable that the correct response is also an abbreviation or acronym. If a clue is written in a strange style, such as slang or using archaic phrasing, you can bet the answer will be similar.

Most clues (but not all!) outright state if its fill contains more than one word. Above all beware of clues that end in a question-mark, for that is a sign that the creator has been unusually sly (or shameless) in using wordplay, unexpected homonyms, non-traditional definitions, or outright puns in that clue.

Other tricks are used from time to time as well. You can often figure them out by being alert to unusual usage of words in clues, which is usually a tip-off that the answer will take similar form. It is also (usually) forbidden, in professional puzzles, to reuse a word, even in a different tense or form, in a grid, or to use the answer to a clue in any form in its definition.

(At this point, it should be note that British crosswords, known in the U.S. as cryptics, draw from a much larger variety of tricks than this. They require a larger body of trick knowledge than American puzzles, but once you know them, the gimmicks are not necessarily harder.)

The major innovation in crosswords in recent decades has been theme puzzles, which offer more hints to the clever solver. If the puzzle has a title you can bet it has a relevant theme, and often untitled puzzles will have a theme that is referred to by one or more of its clues. Usually the longest answers in the puzzle, especially if they stretch clear from one edge to the other, relate directly to the theme.

Occasionally other answers will relate too. Crossword puzzles are nearly always symmetrical in grid layouts, and often if one clue relates to the theme, its matching clues across from it will too. Once in a while a puzzle's theme will be something bizarre that breaks the normal rules. I have seen with my own eyes themes that play upon the arrangement of black squares in the puzzle, themes that give the same clue for many different answers, or themes that give the same answer to many different clues.

Probably the most diabolical of commonly-encountered crossword puzzles are rebus puzzles, which may require a number, symbol, or even an entire word be filled into single squares! When rebus puzzles are found, they always relate to the puzzle's theme. They are rare sights, but the would-be crossword puzzle enthusiast must be alert to their existence, for they are bound to come up sooner or later, and usually unheralded.

It may seem unfair at first, but experienced solvers become alert to the possibility of rebus answers by noting when a puzzle seems to contain entries that are impossible to fill normally, or that seem unusually difficult, and I can speak from personal experience that discovering the gimmick of a unexpected rebus puzzle and solving it is an exceptionally satisfying experience.

What can we draw from this game?

The Nintendo DS has no less than three crossword compilations, with puzzles from the New York Times (highly recommended), USA Today (not bad) and original puzzles (fairly crappy). (That original puzzle collection was published by Nintendo, and is oddly below their usual standards in game design.) Yet another crossword program was just made available on the DSi as downloadable software.

But don't think that this means writing a crossword puzzle applet is a path to easy riches; crosswords are remarkably difficult for the layperson to construct. Most professional crosswords you find in the wild are from a surprisingly small number of contributors, and many of them use special software to aid in construction. If you cultivate an appreciation for crosswords, you will doubtless come to recognize certain names, and eventually come to recognize the styles of various constructors.

As in Scrabble, which was heavily inspired by crossword puzzles, knowledge is an essential element of play. Many games have sought to eliminate the role of outside knowledge in their designs.

The legendary computer game Nethack is criticized by some for requiring players to build up a body of game lore to stand a chance of winning. And yet, requiring knowledge of a player is not intrinsically bad. It might be argued that it harms immersion, that sense that the game should be self-contained so a player can lose himself in it. But it certainly hasn't harmed the popularity of crosswords.

Note:

Some of these games, especially the "Eurogames" in the middle of the article, have slightly different rules among the different editions and published territories. For all relevant games discussed, the rules supplied in a recent U.S. edition are represented here.

After writing this article I found out about an excellent video series called Board Games With Scott. If you want to know more about Ticket to Ride or Puerto Rico in particular, or board games in general, Scott Nicholson's series is one of the best ways to learn. It provides far more complete information than space allows for here.

And one last time, an excellent place to learn about board games is the premier board game fan site on the internet, BoardGameGeek.

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