Monday, February 27, 2006

Mark's #4: El Grande

I can still remember when & where I bought my copy of El Grande. It was June of 1997; my wife & I were in San Francisco on an extended road trip (7 weeks) around the western U.S. In the heart of San Francisco, on the line between the Castro & Haight/Ashbury, sat a little game store chock full of European (and other) stuff - Gamescape. (It's still there, btw - just visited it back in the late fall.)

This was the first time I'd been in a store where EVERYTHING I had read about on r.g.b. ( - the newsgroup that most newbies found their into when hunting information about German games) was on the shelves. I was like a kid in a candy store.

In the end, I couldn't go too crazy - but there was no question: I was taking El Grande home with me. (I heard the siren call of the Castillo...) I've never regretted that purchase.

Over the years, I've played many games of El Grande - and I continue to love how the game varies based on the timing of the various action cards. I enjoy the bluff & double-bluff that goes into trying to plan your based on what your opponents should (or shouldn't do). I like the way resources are limited by turn position... and I think the map is gorgeous.

As with some of my other favorite games, it really works best with only one number of players: 5. (It will work with 4, but you must avoid 2 or 3.) The expansions are interesting, though not necessary.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mark's #5: Puerto Rico

Make no mistake - this is an incredible game. It did not surprise me at all when it was placed #1 on The One Hundred. I am in awe of the design & development wizardry required to create this masterpiece of a game. I'm happy to put Puerto Rico in my personal top ten.

So why, with that glowing introduction, did this wonderful game end up at #5?

  1. First & foremost, it's MY list. So there. :-)
  2. I must admit there's a bit of the "art critic/snob" thing going on here. I know that lots of other people rank it as their #1, so I need to go the contrarian route and chose something else. (There's a lot more of this kind of behavior in gaming circles than most of us would like to admit.)
  3. Finally, something substantive... Puerto Rico is a bit "fragile". In other words, in a group of experienced players, a new player (or a player without much sense) will almost certainly throw the game in the direction of the player to their left. This isn't a problem when players are roughly equal in ability, but does make teaching the game a bit more of a challenge.


Mark's #6: Showmanager/Atlantic Star

You have to cast four shows with the best possible actors - but so does everyone else. Each turn you can hire a new actor or put on a show. (You can also pay to see a new slate of actors - the infamous cry of "Clear!") And that's pretty much all there is to the game.

Still, Showmanager is a joyous play experience - fast-moving (notice that's a common element of most of my top games?!), fraught with tension, and rewarding wise play. (Much like Expedition, this game is not nearly as random as some seem to think.)

The easier to find Atlantic Star (pictured here) is pretty much the same game, but I don't like the theme (creating cruises), the way the board works (you have to slide cards in a semi-circle?!), the dumbing-down of the ending rules, or the added cards in the ship deck. In other words, find yourself a copy of Showmanager. :-)


Mark's #7: Um Reifenbreite

Um Reifenbreite is the "Oh, Mickey" or "99 Luftballoons" of German gaming - the designer (Rob Bontenbal) has never published another design (to my knowlege). That's kind of OK, as he did a bang-up job of the one design he did publish.

A bicycle racing game, it manages to capture the "feel" of team racing (as in the Tour de France) while still be an incredibly enjoyable game to play. We don't use the cheating rules (I feel they imbalance the game) and use a dice chart for falls rather than the action cards (which makes the game a little less random), but you can throw this stuff without damaging the game. It's wonderfully resilient.

I'm still longing for a 3-4 race series of this - the rules are there for yellow jersey, supporting the team leader & all that. Sigh.

(I realize as I finish writing this that I've made the game sound dry & dusty - and it is ANYTHING but. Turns are quick, there's enough luck of the dice to keep things fluid, and yet you still have meaningful control of your team. What a great game...)


Mark's #8: Expedition

At first glance, it looks like a boring geography game. You've a got a map of the world, with all of these important cultural places marked on it. The cards are stuffed full of "color text", telling you about the history & background of the cultural places. (Of course, if your copy is in German - like mine - they might as well have written: "Aboriginal Drawings/Australia - yadda yadda yadda.)

But what hides under all the educational "cover" is a splendid game. Though best with 3 players, Expedition plays just fine with 2-6 and has ample room for clever plays & twists of fate. The players "move" three expeditions across the globe, helping & hurting each other in their quest to finish their assignments first. I'm very good at this one - which may explain why it ended up in my Top Ten. :-)

Thankfully, Ravensburger FINALLY published an English edition of this last year (entitled National Geographic Expedition). Unfortunately, it's only available in Europe. (There's also a slightly different version of the game called Wildlife Adventure - I've never had the opportunity to play, but it is LONG out of print.)


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Mark's #9: Fast Food Franchise

If you like Monopoly at all, you owe it to yourself to hunt down a copy of this OOP gem by Tom Lehmann. Heck, even if you don't like Monopoly, you need to try this brilliant re-imagining of a classic real estate roll'n'move. Fast Food Franchise works like a charm with 2-5 players, it has a nice story arc, and has ample opportunity for smart play while still preserving the luck of the dice. I'm a huge fan - if you can't tell! :-)

BTW, this is the last game on my personal Top One Hundred that isn't also on the "official" One Hundred list.


Mark's #10: Lowenherz

Klaus Teuber, the designer of Settlers, created one of the edgiest "German" games I know when he designed my #10 game, Lowenherz. The players are princes in a mythical kingdom, waiting for the king to die. The one who is able to amass the most prestige (victory points) when the King keels over wins the game.

Interestingly, it's almost easier in this game to lose points than it is to gain them. It is very easy to bite off more territory than you can protect.

The only bad thing about Lowenherz? It really only works with 4 players.