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20 Games I Think You Should Try

Nate Straight

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Smartassery notwithstanding, this upstart of a trend really isn't so bad.

I think the idea of considering games from rank #200 to around #500-600 or so as "underappreciated" is pretty ridiculous; most of these are just fantastic, well-known, much-loved games that have fallen prey to inflation, not obscurity.

But, that doesn't mean it's not worth pointing out un-hot games I enjoy.

Board Game: Alien City
Alien City is a game I'm sure you've all heard me talk about before, but I'll always try to find a way to talk about it more. The remainder of the games on this list will probably be ones I talk about less frequently.

Alien City remains my "favorite game", for being a clever, complex, "themed abstract" [a genre you'll see a lot more of later in the list] that admits of both cold calculation and bold risk-taking.

It is a sort of combo of two other obscure games, Medina and Fresh Fish. It plays, some have said, like a lightweight reimagining of Go. Essentially, it's a negative-space placement game.

Board Game: Bazaar
Bazaar is a bizarre game from the inimitable Sid Sackson. What is it about? Well, my favorite explanation is that it's a game about minimizing error terms while iteratively solving a system of multinomial regression models.

That's not entirely accurate, but it's the gist of it. Another way to conceive of the game is as competitive theorem-proving given a pseudo-random set of axioms and a nigh-impenetrable set of transformation functions.

Board Game: Decktet
Colour Bazaar is perhaps something else you might want to try if you've picked up a Decktet and set of suit chips as a result of my continued attempts to pimp Magnate. Like Bazaar above, it's also rather bizarre.

It is a rather sillily themed stock holding / market manipulation game, with mechanisms reminiscent of Quandary. The problem is there are four valuations for each of the six commodities, which combine to set the price.

Additionally, because of the Decktet's cross-suited construction, it's impossible to change the value of a stock you wish to affect without simultaneously changing the value of another. It's really rather tricky.

Board Game: Doge
Doge, AKA San Marco's socially awkward older brother, designed by Leo Colovini [to give you some idea of the style], apparently an actual resident of Venice. Like San Marco, it's a majorities game of sorts. Unlike San Marco, it's about stuffing ballot boxes.

As each round progresses, you'll see which ballots are to be cast in which order in the next round and gain information on what your opponents might have done this round. To win, you need to spread votes across all the regions, which is a nice touch.

Oh... and there's dudes wearing flying saucers / halos, and the largest "Settlers houses" bits I've ever seen. Goldsieber Spiele is underrated not only for the quality of their games, but for the quality and coolness of bits they provide in their games.

Board Game: Empire Builder
Empire Builder, a train game before there were "train games". Before 1830 was, Empire Builder am. Before Age Of Steam was, Empire Builder am. Before Winsome was, Empire Builder am. Almost certainly one of the inspirations for Merchant of Venus. Almost certainly one of the inspirations for Roads & Boats. Being behind those two makes it, in my book, a truly pivotal modern game design.

This game is too finely grained, takes forever to play, has innane amounts of randomness, has almost no long-term strategy... and is a blast from start to finish. If you think you like Pick-up and Deliver games, you'll positively salivate over this one. "Let's see... get the Bauxite from Memphis, take it to New Orleans, get the Rice, take that to Tampa and get the Fruit... wait, what the hell is Bauxite?"

Board Game: Guatemala Café
Guatemala Café has a shared rondel, nearly perfect information, scoring vs infrastructure tradeoffs, and competition that centers around leeching and pseudo-collusion. Why on earth does nobody but me like this game?

There are probably a few issues to work out with the blockade rules, and I think the monetary system could be improved, but it's perfectly serviceable as is and has a lot of interesting qualities. It's obtuse and opaque and lovely.

Board Game: Hacienda
Hacienda: Hot chicks in tube tops play this game. That's enough for me, but maybe you still need to be convinced. Hacienda is a weird hybrid of a rail-ish game, an area-enclosure game, and a card-driven resource game. It plays a bit like Through the Desert with Attika mixed in... covered in fudge and cow pies.

There are, like, a gajillion different maps you can play online, one of which is so cool it should have shipped with the game. There's really more to the game than you'd expect at first glance / after first play. I think Kramer got the resource prices / action economy just right on this one. If you want a light train game, try Hacienda.

Board Game: Indonesia
Indonesia, Splotter's design philosophy at its finest. It feels like 18xx, feels like Age Of Steam, feels like Brass / Age Of Industry, etc... without being a damned thing like any of them. It's Splotter's take on financial swindles and economic / industrial development, and it's a doozy.

It might win the award for the worst map design ever and route-tracing seems considerably more difficult than even a late 18xx game run with a couple of 5 or 6 stop trains. It's positively rude, with players who have no interest whatsoever in "your" companies suddenly closing up "your" shop!

Board Game: Key Harvest
Key Harvest is basically competitive Bingo ["NO, I WANT 52 DAMNIT!"], driven by a name-it-and-claim-it auction [name your price, opponent(s) can either pay or pass and let you have it]. I guess I'd like to try it with open currency holdings sometime, but there wouldn't be as much of the angst.

Whereas Keythedral is flaccid and flat, Key Harvest is bumpy and bouncy. Things actually happen in Key Harvest. Turn 1 looks different from Turn 10. The theme makes a lot more sense, too, for whatever that's worth. There's a lot of nifty little mechanisms here, whereas there are very few in Keythedral.

Board Game: MarraCash
MarraCash [nope, not Marrakech or Marrakesh or even Marrakesh... get it straight!] is a perfect information auction game, which seems stupid when you think about it. The problem is that it's also a shared-pieces and shared-profits game, so everything you buy you're depending on the other players to make profitable for you.

The game is unlike anything else I'm familiar with, and quite surprisingly heavier than its simple game structure would suggest. This is probably my poster-child example for the "kind of games" I wish were still being put out regularly. It has shades of Acquire, Torres, Hansa, Samurai, and the like. The game is wholly interactive.

Oasis is a weird reverse blind-bidding game [you know how much everyone else has bid, but you can't know how much you're going to bid] coupled with a tile-laying blocking game akin to something like Through the Desert, New England, or Attika [come to think of it, Guatemala Cafe, Hacienda, and Key Harvest also fall into this category].

And, although it has camels, it's not set in the Middle / Near East. How many games can you say that about? I'd like to try the open-hand variant, which would remove the blind-bidding aspect while adding a lot more analysis. I suspect this would reinvigorate this game which I haven't played in quite awhile [actually, most of the games on this list I either haven't played a lot or haven't playing in a long time].

Board Game: Medieval Merchant
Pfeffersäcke is like what Power Grid would be if the game actually focused on the interesting decision of cash flow management rather than on turn-order maneuvering. It's a game of keeping one step ahead of everyone else in the race for leverage.

Like Vino which will show up later on the list and Acquire which I've recently made a 10, the game is about choosing between long-term and short-term benefits. But, it's not the boring "pivot point" style of cash-engines turning into VP-engines.

Unlike a lot of games in which you can ignore your VP engine until your cash engine is churning, your VP engine is your cash engine in this game. It's a question of where you're going to drive the car, but choosing one direction gets you further from the other.

Board Game: Decktet
Quincunx, in addition to being a method for planting orchards, a variant of Plinko, a complicated tiling pattern, an anti-aliasing algorithm, and an astrological category, is a Decktet game not unlike Scrabble or Qwirkle crossed with Cribbage or Fizzbin. It's a great Scrabble word, too.

With 2, it is a close-to-perfect information card game with an asymmetric setup [most of the cards will be in play, so by process of elimination you know most of what your opponent holds]. With my starting variant, the game has a fair bit of long-term strategy and TONS of AP.

Plus, I feel as if some strange talking animal from the Decktet world will suddenly appear if I chant the name of the game enough times [maybe whilst clicking my heels together?]: "Quincunx! Quincunx! Quincunx!" It's just a damned fun word to say.

Board Game: Return of the Heroes
Return of the Heroes is, I have argued, a mash-up of Richard Hamblen's monsters, Magic Realm and Merchant of Venus, and I remain unconvinced that I'm wrong. It is essentially a Merchant of Venus style race-to-the-finish efficiency-engine bolted onto Magic Realm's chassis.

This remains one of my wife's favorite games. We need to revisit it. I bought her this game and a bunch of minis [one pictured over there <-] while we were still dating. Somewhere I have the links to the figures I need to match the remaining characters; I should really finish up what I started.

Board Game: The Scepter of Zavandor
Scepter of Zavandor is yet another efficiency-engine game wrapped in fantasy clothing, this time not a race-to-the-finish game like MoV but a point-churning optimization exercise based on Outpost [in turn based on Civilization]. Instead of buying up space technology or building granaries and farms in some vaguely ancient city-state, you're enchanting magical gems and collecting fairy dust.

Really now, isn't that a better theme, objectively speaking? There are plenty of fantasy games and plenty of economic efficiency games, but there are precious few that so overtly overturn the thematic conventions of both genres. I still don't get why this game has never been in BGG's top ten given what else has lived there. It's not my favorite game, but it's among my favorites of the point-churners.

Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates
Tigris & Euphrates seems to be among the most unplayed / unpopular of BGG's highest rated games [see, not tagging this as a "20 under 200" list allows me to include less-loved games within the highest echelon of BGG]. It's certainly among the falling stars, previously being the #1 game on the Geek, and it's not due to cannibalism like C&C: Ancients or Age of Steam's slow fall have been.

Rather, it just seems no one likes the idea behind the game. "It's too dry!" "It's too abstract!" "It's pasted-on!" "It's not any fun!" "It's complicated!" Lucky for you discerning gamers out there who aren't swayed by public opinion, it is none of those things. It's a [literal] sandbox of a game with shades of Acquire blending into a mixed palette of extortion, set collection, and cultural uprisings.

Board Game: Ur: 1830 BC
Ur: 1830 BC, while set geographically / thematically in the same space as T&E, could well be the most unique and bizarre game I've ever played. This one is so well summarized by Coca Lite's rating comment, I'll break from my soliloquy for a second to re-post it:

Hilariously bad train wreck of a game about real estate speculation and development in the cradle of civilization. Strong candidate for 'so-bad-it's-good' status, but only for rail game fans. Players seeking anything like a coherent game should stay far far away.

The major moving parts of this game connect at the strangest places imaginable and so the game moves along like one of those funny cartoon robots whose motion doesn't make any sense. Ready?

Landowners get paid (personally) when land they own gets irrigated. Irrigated land also generates money for the state that irrigated it (which is not necessarily the same state as the one in which the land is physically located). The state can either keep that money in which case it has to dismantle some of its irrigation system (OK ...), or it can pay it out as dividends to its landowners.

Calculating dividends is a simple multi-step procedure where you take the amount of money raised, divide it by the number of pieces of land sold in that area and ignore the remainder. Each shareholder then multiplies that number by the number of pices of land they own in the nation and collects that sum from the bank. Then, add up the total dividend paid out, and subtract that number from the original amount raised. Pay the resulting figure into the state's treasury (usually 3 or 4 dollars).

Now it's time to adjust land on the stock market! States don't have stock values but land does. Apparently the stock market is run by a somwehat easily-excitable cartel of real-estate representatives from all six states. To determine how much a land type goes up, simply count how many 'regions' have geen irrigated of that type. A 'region' is a landmass with a different definition than a land area or a state, and all types of land exist to some extent all over the bord. This means that if you have invested in mountains in some garbage state with a lousy irrigation system and an unfriendly king, but over in Persia, mountains are getting irrigated like crazy, your land value goes up up up! It pays to be a slumlord when you have a cartel doing all your price-fixing for you.

Similar nonsense ensues in the stock rounds where buying land that hasn't been bought before (basically, IPO shares) costs a fixed par value. Again, forests in the ghetto cost the same $90 as forests in paradise. The relationships between a state, its land, and its actions during operating rounds are so bizarre it makes my head spin.

It's not all bad, though. For what it's worth, we had a lot of fun playing this one. Drawing canals directly on the board is sort of a blast. The way irrigation works is a great little logistical exercise: calculating how to get water from rivers, through reservoirs and pumps, and finally to land hexes can be delightfully tricky. Awesome multi-function 'train' cards that can either function as diggers (which build track and go obsolete like trains) or waterworks on the board.

The train rush is pretty much instant. Once it starts, the game will be over within two ORs either because of bankrupcy or because the technology will get good enough for everyone to develop the board really quickly and finish the game that way. Stock rounds are quite volatile: because of the extremely permissive (but kind of weird) rules about buying and selling stock, you see mad rushes where hostile takeovers are attempted, both sides needing to fund their side of the war with income from selling off land elsewhere. This will happen about once in each country.

I'll continue to suggest this game to fans of 18xx games, but really more for its novelty and bizarre dream-logic than anything else.

Hilariously bad, incoherent, herky-jerky, dream-logic games are pretty much my favorite thing in the world. Mecanisburgo has been on my want-list for quite awhile because of similar rating comments, but I've actually played [kind of; just with 2] UR, so it's here rather than Mecanisburgo.

Board Game: Vino
Vino is Christwart Conrad's sister-game offering to Pfeffersäcke above. It's a kind of see-saw economic-engine game, where you gain ground only to cannibalize it to fund future growth. Like its twin, it's a low-randomness, cash-flow driven game about choosing between long-term and short-term needs.

To replace Pfeffersäcke's path-building game, Vino has a sort of EVIL EVIL EVIL area majority game. In a mechanic taken from Conrad's more obscure Zoff in Buffalo, it is the second place finisher in a region that gets the best benefit of the region [in this game, a government subsidy to push them into competition with the first-place finisher].

Board Game: Wind River
Wind River is a bizarre, beautiful, thematic, abstract game based on one of the classic "tragedy of the commons" examples: The shared bison herds of the Native Americans. Your goal is to follow the bison across the plains to better breeding / farming / hunting grounds, but of course not only do you need the bison to survive but all of the other tribes making the same migration do as well.

It, like another recent favorite The End of the Triumvirate, works with the central multi-player gaming problems of collusion / king-making rather than against them. Rather than "the player who avoids conflict the longest wins" [the standard multi-player mantra], Wind River's theme is "the players who cooperate the longest win". Like Triumvirate, the game is expertly designed to plumb those depths.

Board Game: Zendo
Zendo is the one game I think every gamer should know how to play. Is it about Buddhism? Is it about inductive logic? Is it about the scientific method? Is it about debugging computer programs? I, personally, would say "yes" and "no" to all of the above, because what Zendo is really about is the union of Yes and No.

Zendo differs from most other logic games in that it is about figuring out whys rather than whats. The knowledge you are seeking to uncover in a game of Zendo isn't of a specific thing or even a specific pattern, but of a specific rule for judging other things by... more of a pattern generator if you will.

Unlike games like Mastermind that have fail-proof processes that, once discovered, can be applied to any situation [a very poor model of any logic problem you're likely to face in real life], Zendo is about discovering processes that can be applied to your particular situation. This is a real life skill.

So, there you have it, 20 games I enjoy that you might want to try!
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