Games that stand the test of time

The cover of the new edition of Merchant of Venus, reprinted over 20 years later.

While I have been writing a lot about how games have evolved, and whether older games stand the test of time, there are two games I want to call out as surviving the aging process better than most. One game that aged like a fine wine is Merchant of Venus, originally published in 1988. It is a pick up and deliver game, where players drive a ship between different planets trying to make the most money. Everyone starts with a crumby ship, and very little money and must scratch their way up to a space age fortune.

At first glance the game has a lot in common with other games I have criticized from that era. Roll and move is one of the central mechanics, so luck of the dice is definitely in play here. However, many of the aspects of the game are ahead of their time. There is a fantastic sense of exploration, as the 14 different cultures are randomly assigned face down to different board locations for each game. This provides not only variety, but creates an opening of the game where players must strike out and find the different cultures to make successful trade routes. In the mid game there is a risk reward factor, as to whether you want to keep exploring, or stick to the few planets you know to continue your trade routes.

Players zoom around the galaxy trying to trade their way to fame and fortune.

There is also a great ship upgrade system. You can buy new, bigger or faster ships or install shields to protect your ship from grazing asteroids. Most critically, you can upgrade your ship’s drive, which helps offset that crumby dice luck that I mentioned earlier. You see, every space on the board is either red, blue, or yellow. If you install a red or yellow drive, you can skip those colored spaces, and all of a sudden your ship is 33% faster than before. Install a  red/yellow combo drive and you are just zipping around the galaxy, but these drives take space and require an investment that might put you behind the chase to be the richest space merchant… so there are tradeoffs to consider.

Merchant of Venus also has a fantastic sense of humor. The products that different cultures sell always make me chuckle. Apparently Earth’s main export in the space age is rock videos, while other cultures sell things like impossible furniture or living toys. Very strange stuff, but who am I to second guess a successful business venture?

The game was out of print for decades after its initial publication, but built up a fanbase that was reverent enough to start putting together their own custom copies, painstakingly printing out custom boards, chits, and other components to recreate the original. Finally in 2012 Fantasy Flight put out a new edition that contained both the original and an updated version with new rules and gameplay in the same box. Even twenty years later there is still an audience for this unique board game.

I must admit, it is not the most exciting cover…

Another game that stands the test of time is a little bit younger, from 1995, but was born out of the same new Euro style game movement that gave us Catan. That game is El Grande by Wolfgang Kramer. El Grande is what’s called an area control game, and was one of the first to introduce this new gameplay mechanic.  In El Grande players take on the role of Lords in medieval Spain vying for power to become the next king.  The basic goal of the game is simple; have the most cubes (which represent knights called caballeros) in as many areas as possible when those areas score. The actual mechanics that drive this simple goal are what makes the game brilliant. While the theme, similar to Catan, is not going to light the world on fire, the gameplay runs like a clean, cutthroat machine.

One element that holds up even after 20 years are the two different card systems that drive putting additional knights out on the board. Each round of the game five different action cards are available that let you put out one to five knights respectively. The more powerful the ability of the card, the less knights a player can place out. In other words, the one knight cards have really awesome special actions, but players are giving up presence on the board to execute that power. Players bid for card selection using power cards numbered one to thirteen. But these, too, are a compromise. Higher cards make sure you are more likely to pick first, but lower cards let you recruit more knights to put out onto the board. It is common for players to voluntarily go last just got build up a pool of territory. to claim territory in the future.

Vying for control of Medieval Spain, the castillo featured on the right.

Another great part of El Grande is a chaotic element called the castillo. Every time players put knights out on the board they can choose to place them in a cardboard tower announcing how many they have placed. Once the knights are in there however, they are hidden, and it’s easy to forget just how many knights you or other players dropped in the tower. During the scoring round it’s always a surprise to see who wins scores for the castillo area of the board. Then to add just a little bit more fun players simultaneously select another location on the board to place those castillo knights, which can shift the balance of power quite a bit! My friends and I call this dive-bombing, and it’s fun to picture stodgy Spanish gentleman parachuting in on horseback, a lovely Don Quixote-like moment.

There are countless other classics that stand the test of time. While there are fantastic new games coming out every week, and the hobby itself has seen tremendous growth, sometimes it’s nice to play a game with proven staying power. Other pick up and deliver and area control games have come out since Merchant of Venus and El Grande, but each of these games still has an original spin on the formula that holds up decades later. What are some of your favorite classics?



Evolution, rolling dice, and Russian spies

A couple of quick hits this week from the wonderful world of board games.

A few of my crazy creatures

First a great first impression with Evolution: Climate. This beautiful card game captures all of the turmoil and drama of nature and evolution in a nice tidy one hour playtime. Players create new species, add various traits, increase the population and size of their creatures and then hold on and try to survive the round without anything going hungry.

The basic gameplay is really approachable, but immediately some really interesting strategies arise from these simple rules. Do you make your species a carnivore, hoping there’s another player’s species that you can manage to eat this round? Do you focus on more herbivore traits and try to grab as much food at the central watering hole before other players snatch it all up? Do you change size or develop defensive traits to fend off that jerk across the table who keeps eating your mutant furry turtles? These are just a few of challenges of this deep card game. This particular version also includes a climate element so that animals that do not have the proper warmth or cooling can be in big trouble depending on how the weather changes!

And really, I can’t say enough about the art. These water color pictures could happily be wall art, but here there are dozens of these pieces tucked into a great game.

Roll for It!

The second game is one that I am surprised no one invented fifty years ago or so, as the basic concept of the game is incredibly simple. It’s called Roll for It!, and that’s exactly what you do. Players each have six dice, and there are cards laid out each turn that have a certain goal of what dice to roll, along with the points that card is worth. Players take turns rolling and assigning dice to cards, and if they complete the goal, they get the cards and the points. That’s it, roll the dice, assign to cards. The tactical decisions come from whether to go for the cards with more challenging six dice goals, or to go for simpler goals that take less dice to complete. Any dice actively assigned are dice that you are not rolling your next turn, so going big can mean not scoring many points at all if your luck doesn’t work out. A cute game to kill some time with, but not my favorite dice chucker by any means.


Red Scare

And finally, in news about upcoming games, here’s a strange new concept. A game about Russian spies called Red Scare where the innovative new element is a pair of special glasses that allow you to see text that other player’s can’t. I am always intrigued by a new gameplay concept, and maybe this will put a new twist on those betrayal and hidden role games I’ve written about before.

That’s all for this week. Happy gaming!

Is Catan still worth playing today?

Few things are as iconic in modern board gaming as the perennial classic Catan. This juggernaut has been an entry point into modern board games for over twenty years, and is still one of most powerful board gaming brands to arrive since the advent of Monopoly. However, my deep dark secret is that despite being passionate about board games, I never played a single game of Catan. That finally changed last Thursday, but the results were a bit… mixed.

But let me back up a moment and cover Catan itself. It’s not going to win any awards for a riveting premise, as the game is about resource gathering and building settlements and roads on an island in pseudo-europe. However, the game was a revolution compared to many of the popular games of the time. For one thing, it is not a roll and move game like Sorry, Monopoly and their ilk. It also has the concept of trading with other players, which acts as a natural catch up mechanism. That player in the lead? Don’t trade with them, but amongst players further behind some mutual cooperation can go a long way. Catan also has a hexagonal board that can be set up differently every time you play, for infinitely more variety than a lot of games at the time. It also has some lovely “take that” player interaction with the robber, an action which allows you to steal cards from other players and shut down their resource production.

Variable board game set up!

Catan was not the first game to do a lot of these things, but it broke through and became one of the first so called “Euro” style board games to be a hit in the US. For the twenty plus years since it first came out and to this day Catan has been a gateway for thousands of people into board games beyond Monopoly. Since then it has seen many expansions, different versions including a Star Trek edition, and even a novelization. Not sure how they accomplished that last one, but they made a movie out of Battleship, so I guess anything is possible!

However, by the time I joined the hobby some years ago, there were literally thousands of games to choose from. The group I joined thought Catan was old news, and so the opportunity to play it never really up. In the meantime I played hundreds of other games that followed in Catan’s footsteps, and truly fell in love with the hobby.

I am not sold on trading my time to play Catan

So sitting down to Catan last week was almost like a sort of time travel. I pulled up a chair with none of the nostalgia or reverence folks have for this game, and ultimately came away pretty disappointed. There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of decisions on a given turn, and for a game that looked to refine on the luck fests of the era, there was still plenty of luck at play here. For example, every turn players roll two dice to determine which corresponding tiles pay out resources to all players. If you have set yourself up poorly, or your luck on the other players’ rolls has been poor it could come to be your turn, and another poor roll just leaves you without much to do but pass the dice to the next player. The trading mentioned before is intended to mitigate this but there is a lot of reliance on dice rolls in general.

Catan still has a place on a lot of people’s shelves, and fans will play it purely out of nostalgia as the game that introduced them to a newer style of board games. But in my experience, you can’t go back to a game like this if you have already found more modern board games that have evolved beyond it. There ARE some games from back then that do hold up, even under modern scrutiny, and I hope to cover two of those here in the coming weeks. But for Catan, it’s one I am glad I have checked of the list, but not one I need to return to.

Anime tragedies and Jupiter’s moons

I wanted to write about two quick hits from this weekend’s gaming explorations:

The first is Tragedy Looper, the game I mentioned in my SWA Game-a-thon write up. Initial impressions on this one are… a bit mixed.

Tragedies are just waiting to unfold. But where, and to who?

The game boils down to a puzzle where the time traveling players try to suss out what role each character has, and what scenario the opposing mastermind has set up. There are four variables at play that the mastermind or players tweak on each day (turn) of a particular loop. These are panic, goodwill, intrigue, and the physical location of the cards. So if for example the police officer has 3 panic, and is in the city, on the third day a certain event will happen.

It all felt very mechanical, and not terribly dramatic. Perhaps this was just because our mastermind for this session didn’t really tell a story using these different elements, but this felt like a case of seeing the wizard behind the screen and not feeling terribly invested in how things played out.

It was also repetitive. To be fair, that’s inherent to a game whose structure is built on going through the same “loop” multiple times to solve the puzzle. But is frustrating to ALMOST solve the scenario, only to have the tragedy occur and have to repeat 90% of your previous actions with one small tweak. I suppose I know just a little bit more about how Bill Murray’s character felt in Groundhog Day.

Still, there was a seed of something amazing here, and perhaps with the right group and a little bit more drama and roleplaying, this could be a great experience. Since we are all relatively new, we were playing the introductory scenario, which was a bit dry. This may be a game where practice makes perfect, but I am unable to tell whether it’s worth that commitment.

The other game I wanted to discuss is called Moons. It combines two of my favorite things, astronomy and trick-taking games (like Hearts or Spades). There are four suits, based on the four gas giants in our solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Each rank of card is represented by one of the many moons of that particular planet, including uber-nerdy flavor text about that moon. The basic gist of the game is to try to win tricks with the highest card in order to take planet tokens that are worth points at the end of the game. The wrinkle comes in that playing the lowest off-suit card can also win you tokens. Classical trick taking gambits are on full display here, and knowing when to lead, how to draw out cards from other players and when to relinquish control are all critical to success.

Never lead with Uranus…

Still, it’s hard to improve on the classics like Hearts. The art and theme go a long way, but we’ll see if has the staying power once the new coat of paint wears off.

It’s always fun to discover new games, I am looking forward to checking a few ones out this coming weekend and will definitely share them here if they make the cut!

SWA April game-a-thon

Looking to learn some new games or a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon? Schenectady Wargamers Association, the same folks that organize the annual Council of Five Nations gaming convention, hosts monthly Game-a-thon events at Proctor’s in Schenectady.

These happen on the second Saturday of every month. This month’s schedule looks to have some fantastic board games on the docket.


In the morning schedule:

Imperial Settlers is a great, cutthroat engine-building card game where players build up a village of structures in order to raze and pillage their opponents. It features multiple different civilization-based factions, from Egyptians to Japanese samurai. Definitely fun for gamers who like a more confrontational game, but also very skill based with minimal luck outside of the draw of the cards.



Tragedy Looper is the game I am most excited to try. The premise is that players are time travelers and they need to work together to prevent a tragedy from occurring. The game plays out in loops where players go through the same scenario but make different decisions. This repetition not only captures that sense of time travel, but is also an interesting gameplay mechanism. One player is the mastermind behind the tragedy and the other players try to solve it, combining cooperative and deduction like elements. Imagine Clue stuck in a timeloop.


In the evening schedule:

Colosseum is a fantastic classic about putting on a show in the Roman colosseum. This includes hiring performers from gladiators to comedians, and impressing the nobles. Tasty Minstrel  just reprinted this game after it being out of print for nearly a decade, and it’s great to have it available in the market again.




Village is possibly the worst name for game since Chess 2 (yes, really), but is a great game. Players choose what their villagers do throughout the town in order to score points. It’s got the classic worker-placement mechanism, where players decide what each family member does by placing that villager on a certain location on the board. However there’s a twist, time passes, and you villagers eventually pass away. How they die and how they are remembered is a morbid but intriguing way of scoring points!


There is a small fee to play each game which goes towards renting the space at Proctors. Make sure to sign up in advance if you would like to save a spot in a certain game. There is also a board game flea market this weekend, which is a great chance to pick up gently used game, or sell some that are getting dusty on your shelves. I hope to see you all there!





The scientist of gaming: part 2

Ever since I was young, my favorite science topic was always astronomy. Perhaps it was those saturated color images of distant nebulas and planets, or just the seemingly surreal nature of what can exist out in space. I eagerly asked my parents to get me a telescope in 6th grade… and it lay dusty in the basement, moldering away, forgotten. For a time this love of space was forgotten, until the new version of Cosmos reignited a latent passion for the subject again. So when I discovered the joy and complexity of Bios Megafauna, the natural next step was to explore Phil Eklund’s game of near-future space travel: High Frontier. After all, what could be better than a game about space travel by a real rocket scientist?

Since I had survived the rulebook of Bios Megafauna, I knew what to expect. Still, when you take a look at the map that comes with the game, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s modern art, or some kind of science diagram vs a useable game board. The key aspect of Eklund’s space opus is that it is near-future. While the technology addressed in the game does not yet exist, all of it is theoretically possible. This is not your average Star Trek or Asimov fueled science fiction, but genuinely speculative science POSSIBLE.

Charting the burns of a rocket can be overwhelming at first…

In the game, each player takes on the role of a space agency aiming to make a profit in the solar system. Players auction technological patents, launch rockets, and plot space travel and mining operations right here orbiting the sun. Every site you can visit in the game, barring one named after Eklund’s wife, is a real place that we know about through our current scientific knowledge.

Not that it’s easy to get there! Eklund’s game is fantastic at capturing just how challenging the science and planning behind space travel really is. The brilliance really comes in the map, and the cards that represent the different technologies.

The map, which looks like a spider web of confusing spaghetti and iconography is really innovative. Eklund realized he could not represent the scale of space, even our immediate solar system, in a reasonably sized board. Even doing things “to scale” based on distance would result in a giant black empty map. Case in point. So the innovation was to represent the map in terms of energy vs. physical distance. The spaghetti lines represent possible courses through space, and each pink circle  represents a “burn” of rocket fuel. Mars is a minimum of 3 burns away, various asteroids are 4 or 5, etc. You can navigate the spider web of space travel in more energy costly ways, and more quickly if you have a lot of fuel… or you can slowly travel to a destination, one burn at a time over the course of several game turns, each representing a year of your space program. Through this genius change of scope, Eklund is able to represent a vast amount of information and travel destinations in a board that can fit on the table… if only barely.

Each black hexagon is a real charted part of our solar system, ready to be explored and mined.
A typical card, and in classic Phil EKlund style it could have come out of a science textbook.

The map would not be nearly as interesting without the technologies on the cards however. Each card represents a possible space technology, from solar sails, to orbital laser mining equipment. Players must combine the right combination of rocket parts to get to where they’re going, and it’s not possible to pack the kitchen sink here. The mass of your rocket is a very real problem, starting with just getting it off the earth in the first place! Then there is the puzzle of putting together technologies that actually work together. Different rockets, buggies, and refineries require specific types of generators, and reactors, which have their own cooling challenges along with their own mass. Planning a successful mission to Mars involves getting the right pieces of technology together, plotting a course and fuel to get there and quite possibly relying on the atmosphere to slow you down before you hit the surface, certainly the most terrifying die roll I’ve ever made. But all of this makes the missions feel meaningful and real. So much so that the group I play with has a house rule where we name all of our missions. I will never forget for example how Socrates II and its crew did not make it past earth’s radiation belt.

The great news is that High Frontier third edition just hit shelves and is the most refined version of this masterpiece yet.  I can’t wait to dive into the new changes as Eklund continues to refine rules and improve upon his gameplay systems, and the production of this latest edition really gives the game the components and quality it deserves. I’ll be sure to check in with a session report in the coming months, although it take a good afternoon to play this game so it might be a while.

Once again Eklund is puts on a master class of integrating real science with a board game. His games are intimidating for sure, but intensely rewarding. And he covers a broad range of subjects, and not just science. Bios Genesis covers the formation of life, right down to the acids, while his historical Pax Pamir and Pax Porfiriana cover Afghan and Mexican historical wars in incredible detail. I am thrilled to have stumbled upon his designs with Bios Megafauna and will be a fan for years to come.