A Summer of Games

I've been playing quite a bit of board games this summer with roommates and friends. We've evolved well beyond the games of our childhood into German Style board games which involve more nuanced strategy and downplay the role of chance.

The gateway game which got me hooked was Settlers of Catan but here's a more exaustive list of what I've played recenty:

  • Settlers of Catan (awesome at first, a little too simple over time)
  • Puerto Rico (rich in strategy and complexity but too little conflict for my taste)
  • Ticket to Ride: Europe (Simple but very fun - only played once so far)
  • Small World (only played once but thought is was great)
  • Air Baron (have played a few times, interesting but got old fast)

I've also tried some cooperative games - i.e. games in which all players team up to defeat the board:

  • Pandemic (very fun but difficult)
  • Red November (cool concept but underwhelming in execution - too easy)
I love the idea of cooperative games because they:

  • Avoid the interpersonal drama of other games (Risk can end friendships)
  • Enable naches (Yiddish for the joy of helping others succeed)
  • Provide bonding as we work against a common foe

You can check out all the the games I mention on Board Game Geek

Why They're Great

I really enjoy playing these games and I think some of the big reasons are:

  • The obvious reason: they're intrinsically fun
  • It's a good excuse to spend time with friends
  • It's intellectually stimulating
  • It's a chance to scheme (I love scheming!)
  • Playing a new game allows you to enjoy mastering a learning curve - very satisfying
  • It's a good way to introduce random friends together

Interesting Mechanics

I've been talking with friends lately about different game mechanics we enjoy or dislike and why that might be...

Good Mechanics

Direct Competition

I like (non cooperative) games where there are clear zero sum encounters with other players. It doesn't have to be as extreme as Risk (where everything is zero sum); In Settlers of Catan there's a nice balance where you can be off building on your own but then suddenly race to build a settlement on a specific location.

Too much direct competition is a bad thing; it's nice to be able to have turns in which you don't screw your friends over...

For Puerto Rico, however, each player has their own island and there is fairly little direct/antagonistic play. To me, this feels a bit too much like we're playing a single player game at the same time and comparing scores at the end. To be fair, as you get better at Puerto Rico, there is a lot of nuanced antagonistic strategy you can do, with respect to phase selection, which brings me to: 

Variable Phase Order

Games like Puerto Rico have variable phase order - you don't always know which actions you'll be able to take each turn. This is great because it (1) Allows for extremely varied game play from one session to the next and (2) Keeps you on your toes as the rounds are selected... it's rare that you figure out your moves well in advance. Another bonus to this style is that it frequently has very quick rounds, my next point:

Frequent Actions

This is important because it keeps everyone engaged / stimulated. Few things are worse in a game then sitting around for a while, waiting for others to make decisions. As mentioned above, Variable Phase Order results in quick rounds as every player takes just one action.

Ticket to Ride has a twist on Variable Phase Order - each player chooses a phase for themselves (unlike Puerto Rico where each player chooses a phase for everyone). Because each turn is just one action, the turns themselves are short.

Low Luck

This is the hallmark of German Style games. I like it because low luck tends to correlate with a higher value to strategy. Strategizing is fun and often leads to:


Really fun games enable some degree of scheming. I think of this as going beyond just good tactics to develop interesting strategies that evolve degrees of risk or social nuance. They're extremely fun when pulled off successfully and sometimes feel like an evil genius. There a many ways to accomplish this but it occurs mainly through:

Alliances and Deals

I really like games with alliances and deals as they allow for a more social component to the game. It has elements of direct competition but allows for negotiations (so fun!) and non zero-sum outcomes (everyone loves a win-win trade). There's also the possibility for creative dealings - I once turned another player into a vassal state in Risk, rather than eliminate him from the game. I also set up complex multiparty deals in Monopoly to ensure I got second place (I was almost surly going to get last otherwise - the other players were not amused when they realized my ploy).

A side note here - this tends to work poorly if you only have 3 players - it's too easy to gang up on the leader which can lead to really long games.

Another note - I'm not a fan of backstabbing. My alliances are usually short lived but transparent in that intention. I like forming my alliances where both players have the intrinsic incentive to behave and then I rely on that incentive not on good faith.

Bad Mechanics

Pure Bluffing

Games like Mafia annoy me - there're not based in fact at all. While I can be pretty persuasive - persuasion as the sole mechanic isn't particularly enjoyable.

Extremely Clear Best Strategies

Some games have situations that have clear strings of moves which are optimal. One example is Chess, in which many books have been written about opening moves. I dislike this because there is a certain tyranny to it - choice feels restricted.

Opaque Scoring

Some of the games I mentioned have opaque or partially opaque scoring - it's unclear who is leading at any given time and you don't know the winner until the game is over. This makes the game feel a little less competitive.

I little bit of opacity is alright though, as it can lead to scheming and surprise wins at the last minute. One example of this done right is the Victory Point cards in Settlers. The rest of the scoring is transparent but the cards add a bit of nuance to the gameplay.

End Conditions

I dislike the ending conditions of almost every game I play. The three most common types are:

  • When a player reaches X victory points
  • When X resources have been used up
  • When X turns have elapsed
It's tricky to pin down why I don't like these but I think it's because they aren't satisfying on any narrative level. Most good stories have a clear arc (see Freytag's Pyramid) but board games often lack this.

One clear alternative is the Last One Standing endgame - rare in German Style games (where players are often not eliminated) but common in American games like Risk and Monopoly. While there's more satisfaction in winning these games, the winner is often clear far before the end and if a player is a eliminated, it's boring for them.

Do you know of any games with awesome end conditions?


That's all I have for this post... let me know if I'm missing out on some awesome games of if you'd like to play with us some time.