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?



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