UPDATE: I’ve written a new post with three more great board games you’ll probably love too.
Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek TNG) has this quote about how gaming shaped his inner geek in many ways. It inspired me to write this article.
The games we play are an excuse to get together and escape the mundane reality of our daily lives… It’s talking about our kids and hoping that they grow up at least Neutral Good. It’s about making time to do something we love. Some people play softball on the weekends; we play Settlers of Catan. In the end, the result is the same: we all end up drunk and happy, with scrapes on our elbows that we can’t explain.
Therefore, today I’d like to present to you my 11 favorite geek board games. (Yes, “Mine goes to 11!”) If you claim to be a geek gamer and haven’t heard of at least a few of these games then your membership is hereby officially revoked. So say we all.
Defining a “Geek Game”
Before we begin I’ll define what I consider a “geek game”. A geek game is one that:
- Is social. Since I consider geeks to be on the social end of the [Geek...Nerd] continuum, I expect that a geek game is one that will encourage interacting with the other players in some form or another.
- Is fun. If you can’t expect to talk about the experience afterward and have another laugh, then it’s not fun.
- Is fun for non-geeks too. Can the game be played and enjoyed without having to have a lot of specialized knowledge or understanding of geeky inside jokes?
- Should also have some element of randomness. Allowing some random elements into the game prevents people from winning by simply having the deepest understanding of the rules and strategies. A first-time player should at least have a hope of winning.
- Isn’t mainstream. I’ve obviously left out almost everything you’d find at a department store. While they may be fun, I don’t consider Monopoly, Scrabble or Sorry to be geek board games. If my grandparents have heard of them then they are just plain old bored games.
- The Main Event
- The After Party
As a social gaming night begins at our house there are usually a few minutes spent waiting for someone to arrive. The following games are quick, fun and get us in the mood for playing more serious ones later in the evening.
Fluxx is a quick card game from Looney Labs and is one of the strangest games I’ve ever played. Every time a card is played some aspect of the game changes. Either the rules change, the goal changes or the players are forced to swap cards in some fashion. I love this game because of the hilarious situations the game puts you in over and over. For example, it is not unheard of for a player to win by accidentally having the right combination of cards in front of them as another player is forced to change the goal against their will.
As an appetizer Fluxx is perfect since it’s possible for new players to join the game in the middle of a hand and it can be watched to be learned.
As a warm up for a night of strategy games, Blokus really gets the blood flowing to your brain quickly. The main idea of Blokus is to get more of your pieces into play than anyone else. Since the rules can be explained and learned in less than two minutes anyone can join in the fun with ease. It’s a perfect appetizer.
As an abstract strategy game Blokus can’t be beat for fun and speed. On occasion Blokus tournaments have even taken center stage on our game nights as players have requested rematch after rematch.
Despite the fact that Blokus breaks my fourth and fifth criteria for a geek game (randomness and mainstream), the fact that it still has plenty of opportunity for back stabbing, aggressive play and the fact that some of the best players I know are 10 years old, I’m willing to make an exception. Try it, you won’t regret it.
Appetizer: Kill Doctor Lucky
Remember Clue? Why was it that the game started just as the fun stuff (the murdering) was ending? As a warm up game Kill Doctor Lucky starts off a night of silliness with a bang – that is if you use the civil war canon to kill the good Doctor. Each player attempts to be in the right place at the right time with a big stick (or other weapon) and no one else around. If you can engineer this challenging feat then you might win the game.
Playing this murderous game can take as much as 45 minutes so sometimes it’s a big time investment for an appetizer. Also, killing the good doctor is great with three or four people but as you get into higher numbers it can get slow and boring. Therefore, we use this game as a warm up when a couple of players are going to be arriving significantly later than the rest.
Another game that could be considered to be on the verge of going mainstream, Gobblet is simply a game you must own. It’s a two player game that is great for families. The rules and strategies land someplace between checkers and chess and its visual appearance makes it perfect for coffee table decoration. I include this game in the appetizers group since playing this game with my wife has on occasion led us to say “We should have another games night soon.”
The concept is simple. It’s a 4×4 tic-tac-toe played with stacking cups, three of each of four sizes. You may place a cup on any open space as well as any space that contains a smaller piece that could be “gobbled” up. This, in addition to the ability to move pieces that are already in play makes for a very challenging game. Two seasoned adult players might take 20 or 30 minutes for a single game as the back and forth duel continues. However the rules are simple enough that younger players (under 10) can learn and enjoy it very easily.
The Main Event
Once the pizza starts to get cold and everyone is primed and ready for some healthy competition the main event begins. These games can take anywhere from one hour to two or more depending on the number of players and expansions that are involved. Rarely are you going to get through these games more than once in an evening, though for a day or weekend-long marathon you might get all of them in.
Main Event: Candy Poker
Poker is the only game on this list that can be played with a standard 52-card deck. Many people would call the recent popularity of poker a fad, and I might be one of them. Thus, I propose not just plain-old-poker, but poker played with candy instead of money. The idea is simple, buy some of that left-over candy from Halloween or hit the bulk food store. Get together with friends (and kids!), agree on the general values of the candy (sugar sticks=1, chocolate bars=5) and play any variation of poker that you can think of or teach. Don’t worry about blinds, but maybe play with antes if you want to encourage larger pots.
The most fun aspect of playing candy poker is that each person assigns their own, private values to each item. I really don’t like Twix bars, so while they might be worth 5 units, I’ll stay in a pot with a weak hand if I can bet with the Twix that I don’t really care if I lose. Someone else might dive into a pot with a weak hand because they LOVE Twix bars. The dual value system makes it very, very interesting and quite a bit more fun and less competitive than regular poker games I’ve been in.
Some might claim that playing blackjack is better suited to the mathematical mind of some geeks. Others might claim that bridge or euchre are as socially geeky as games get. They might be right, but I invite them to write their own damn lists. Besides, how do you incorporate candy into any of them?
Main Event: Carcassonne
If I were ranking these games in order, Carcassonne would be number 1. The infinite replay value and the dynamic game board make every game unique and special. Players have different strategies for earning points and it’s not certain until late in the game which system will work best for any particular game.
Carcassonne is basically tile-laying game where all tiles need to “make sense” where placed. However, it deviates from other tile-laying games because the players can claim certain aspects of the tile they just played to earn points, and they have exactly one opportunity to do so — when the tile is played. The balance between reserving pieces for claiming future tiles and getting a few quick points on the tile you just played is the key to winning.
Another reason Carcassonne is my favorite game is the variety of expansions available. Each expansion adds more generic tiles as well as specialized tiles for the new rules they create. Moreover, all of the expansions are compatible with each other allowing for massive 200+ tile marathon games. I haven’t played them all myself, but I have yet to be let down by a single title/expansion in this franchise, so the odds are good that they are all as awesome as the onces I’ve tried.
Main Event: Puerto Rico and San Juan
If the folks over at BoardGameGeek.com (BGG) are anything to go by, Puerto Rico is the best game ever invented. It’s been at the top of their game rankings for as long as I’ve known about their site. In fact it was this #1 status that led me to buy this game in the first place. Describing the game would take many pages of text (basically the whole 8-page rule book). Instead I’ll just say that you’re a plantation owner in Puerto Rico in the mid 1800′s and you’re trying to build a larger empire than the other players.
One of the nice things about Puerto Rico is that there is just enough random chance influencing the game. The most important aspect is that as each player makes his or her move it influences the possibilities for the remaining players in the round. My favorite part of the game is the balance between selecting the action that will do me the most good versus the one that will do the other players the most harm. The lack of trading or otherwise negotiating with other players and the fact that everything is laid out on the table in front of you means the only information you can keep private are your thoughts about your own next move. Guessing what other people are thinking and out-maneuvering them is key to winning the game.
The mechanics of Puerto Rico can be a bit daunting. When my brother and I sat down to learn it my whole family made fun of us and our hour long discussion figuring out the rules. Aside from my parents, my brothers and I as well as our wives all quite enjoy the game when we’re in the mood for it, and once you’ve played it’s actually fairly simple. I recommend learning the game from someone who has played instead of figuring out the rules from the book. It’ll take 10 minutes to learn this way instead of an hour.
For people who like to start slowly or who want to invest less money, there is a card game called San Juan that is nearly identical to Puerto Rico in concept. The mechanics are a bit different and the turn possibilities are fewer, but playing one means you can pick up the other quite easily. Both are excellent games and probably deserve the high rankings they have on BGG.
Main Event: Caylus
One of the few games I’ve seen where you can quite handily beat yourself if you’re not careful. Also, this is a long game when played with four or more people, and isn’t short even with just the minimum of three. That said, for many geeks Caylus ranks right up there with Puerto Rico (its #3 on BGG) and since it was only released in late 2005, it’s earned its reputation very, very quickly.
The main premise of the game is that the King is building a new castle and you want to help. The actions you take each turn are geared towards either earning a small favor from the King now, or setting yourself up earn a really large favor on some future turn. The player that has pleased the King the most by the end of the game wins.
The mechanics can be complicated to learn, but once mastered they are relatively easy to follow and remember due to the excellent design and layout of the game board. I haven’t played it enough to have any really insightful or humorous anecdotes, but from what I’ve seen and read this game is probably destined to battle it out with Carcassonne for the spot as my #1 favorite strategy game.
Main Event: Settlers of Catan
Settlers of Catan was introduced to me by my brother a few years ago. After his backpacking trip to Europe he came back and promptly asked for this game for Christmas. My family and I had no idea what it was, but he unwrapped it with much excitement on Christmas day. That year our whole family (my mom included) played endless times and I credit him and Settlers with introducing me to the awesome world of imported European games.
Settlers is a fairly simple game involving a randomized board that forms a landmass to be colonized by the players in the game. Each location on the board earns the player’s empire a different set of resources based on the roll of the dice. To win, the players are simply trying to be the first to grow their empire to a minimum size. Trading, diplomacy and cunning are required when playing against players of similar skill levels. It is an easy game to learn and fun to play.
Like Carcassonne, there are quite a few of expansions to this game and included in each set is a map showing how they all fit together. Cities and Knights is one of the most popular expansions because it adds a small combat aspect to the game. Seafarers is one of my favorite expansions because the scenarios it adds give the game some “explore the world” flair as the board configuration is only revealed as the game unfolds.
While Carcassonne, Puerto Rico and Caylus may be better games in my opinion, if you are a geek looking to get into gaming, buy and play Settlers first. It won’t let you down.
The After Party
The main event is over — someone probably had to leave — but the night is still young and you want to keep playing. It’s time to relax the brain a bit and let your hair down. It’s time for the after party, and what after party would be complete without Steve Jackson in attendance? If you haven’t met Steve, let me introduce you.
After Party: Munchkin
Kill the monsters. Steal the treasure. Stab your buddy any way you can. Munchkin is an RPG for the RPG-weary. The simple card game mechanics allow people who’ve never even heard of an RPG to play, have fun, and have a non-zero chance of winning their first game. For the experienced RPG player each time a card is played it’s likely to be a trip down memory lane as Steve uses pun after pun to solicit laugh after laugh.
Having never been a big fan of fantasy novels or games, my personal preference is the Star Munchkin variation. It is full of Star Trek and Star Wars jokes, and I find the movie references make this game much more accessible to geeks-in-training.
One of the best aspects of Munchkin is that Steve has designed all of the themed editions (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Vampires, Kung Fu, Super Heroes and Spys) to be playable together as one mammoth deck. He’s even designed a special deck called Blender that adds a few rules that make playing everything together a little bit cleaner and more enjoyable.
There is also no practical upper limit to the number of players in this game. Sometimes house rules are needed to play with more then 6 or 7 players, but when two or three groups of gamers are all coming together after playing their respective main events, this game is usually perfect as a grand finale.
For the try-anything-once group of geeks, try a 10 player epic game with a blendered deck of Star Munchkin, Munchkin Impossible and Super Munchkin (with all of their expansions). Maybe it was just the particular group of people I was playing with, and it’s not something we’re likely to repeat, but it was a helluva lot of fun when we did it. It is also something you should set aside at least two or three hours to try.
After Party: Chez Geek or any other Steve Jackson game
There are a lot of other fun and silly games from Mr. Jackson. Few of them qualify for main event status and you won’t find yourself pulling these gems out every time you have a gaming party, but almost all of them are worth more than the price you’ll pay for them. I’m going to specifically mention Chez Geek here for two reasons. It’s a lot of fun and it resonates with the theme of my list since it’s the only game I’m aware of with the word “Geek” in the title.
Chez Geek is another card game. Each player starts with a job, which brings them income. Money is used as points to play various cards, including persons, items and activities. The goal is to collect enough slack points to fulfill your goal as defined by your job. You can send people to other players’ rooms (the playing area) for various effects (weakening opponent item cards – backstabbing, or strengthening your own). Overall, Chez geek is a silly game full of humor that will resonate with geeks and make non-geeks chuckle at the stereo types.