Area Control Games: Your favourites and why
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I enjoy area control games, not least because of how it demands interaction and creates tension through constant shifts of power across the board. Geeklists on the subject of area control games have appeared before, but I figured it was time for a more current one, which could have the benefit of including recent games as well.

The BGG page for the area control category describes it as follows:

The Area Control mechanic typically awards control of an area to the player that has the majority of units or influence in that area. As such, it can be viewed as a sub-category of Auction/Bidding in that players can up their "bids" for specific areas through the placement of units or meeples.

In El Grande, for instance, players earn their score in a region by having the most caballeros in that region.


What are some outstanding examples of area control games? How well does this mechanic work in those games? And what is it that you like about it? These are the kinds of questions I'm interested in, and here's where I need your help and input.

Please add to this list any particularly good games with a strong area control element. If you add a game to the list, please share something about how area control works in the game in question, and what you like about it. I'll get things started with a couple of my personal favourites. I know that there are many other great area control games out there, but I'll leave them to be added by people who are more familiar with them and can comment on the game-play. If one of your favourites has already been added, please just comment under that item rather than having multiple entries of the same game.

I look forward to reading the comments and contributions from my fellow gamers about some great area control games!
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1. Board Game: El Grande [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:57]
Let's start with one of the grand-daddies of them all, and a long time favourite for many gamers; a classic area control game from 1995 that has withstood the cult of the new and still is entrenched in the BGG Top 20.

How it works: Over the course of nine rounds, players take turns getting caballeros (knights) into their personal court and then placing them onto the board, trying to seize control of regions. After every third round, points are awarded to players with the most caballeros in each region.

Why I like it: There's a lot to like about El Grande, and there's good reason it's still so highly regarded today. I confess that I only had opportunity to play it for the first time recently, but I enjoyed it immensely (kudos: Warren Adams). Having players choose from one of five randomly available action cards ensures good replayability, because these cards give players flexibility in their choices. There's a great and well-balanced bidding mechanism requiring players to use power cards in an effort to get first choice of these action cards, while at the same time determining how many caballeros are added to their court - it works brilliantly and adds a real element of interest and interaction to the game. Finally, El Grande also has a unique castillo into which players can also place caballeros. Overall there's really not much luck at all, and the majority area control mechanic ensures good interaction throughout the game, as well as forcing players to use real skill and careful choices. Arguably the definitive area control classic!

If you're honestly not familiar with El Grande, here's a nice introductory overview:

El Grande - A review by a casual gamer


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2. Board Game: Rialto [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:851]
This is the game that prompted this list, because it's a new area control game by Stefan Feld, a medium-light game that is really quite slick.

How it works: Players are trying to place councilmen in the six districts of Venice, trying to get majorities which will earn them points at the end of the game. The values of each district will vary, and depends on the cumulative value of the numbers on the bridge and gondola tiles placed adjacent to a particular district.

Why I like it: Well, first of all, it's a Stefan Feld game; I'm a big Feld fan, but what I appreciate about Rialto is that it's somewhat lighter in feel than his heavier games, but also that it is more interactive than many of his games, which is largely due to the area control mechanic. But what makes the majority area control mechanic really interesting in Rialto is that as the game progresses players get to determine the value of points awarded to each district, by careful placement of bridge and gondola tiles; this means that players can't only concentrate on investing resources to win districts, but must also try to use resources to determine the value of districts, i.e. ideally by increasing the value of ones they are winning majorities in, while decreasing the value of those being won by their opponents. Another fascinating aspect of this game is the hand-management, because players also get bonuses and abilities if they win majorities for playing the most cards of a particular type, and much of the game is actually card-driven. Majorities is clearly a theme in most aspects of this game, and it really works well.

I've just reviewed it here:

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Stefan Feld does light-medium area control


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3. Board Game: Belfort [Average Rating:7.28 Overall Rank:407]
This game by Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim is unusual because it employs a fantasy theme in a non-traditional way!

How it works: Players take on the role of competing Master Architects commissioned to build the great new city of Belfort. You’ll need to organize your work force, gather resources, and most importantly stake out building sites within the city confines, trying to win majorities that will earn you points during the scoring phases of the game.

Why I like it: The central mechanic of this game is area control, but there's also a strong worker placement element, which really gives the game a whole different dimension. To quote one of the designers, "At it's core, Belfort is an area majority game that relies on worker placement to create the things you use to fight for majority ... both Jay and I like El Grande a lot.” It's a solid game that offers real strategic options. Additionally, the fantasy theme is unusual and refreshing for a euro, especially with the whimsical theme that is strengthened through clever artwork and graphic design.

I've reviewed it here:

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: O Gnomeo, Gnomeo...Wherefore Art Thou O Gnomeo?

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4. Board Game: Chaos in the Old World [Average Rating:7.67 Overall Rank:101]
Chris SC

Madison
Wisconsin
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How it works: Players use their mana pool to summon various types of units (or play spells) onto regions of the board. Players then have the opportunity to have these units fight each other after which points are scored for domination of each region.

Why I like it: The above summary doesn't even scratch the surface of everything going on in this game. There are different types of units, spells can drastically affect each region (such as disallowing fighting this turn), and those units not only count for this turn but also slowly "ruin" the region potentially culminating in a large VP burst later in the game.

To summarize some of the finer points:
1. The game is dripping with theme compared to many other area control options.
2. There is a nice mix of mechanisms in this game without it being overly complicated. Whether you like pure euros or ameritrash, there is likely something here for you to enjoy.
3. Asymmetric player powers make each of the 4 chaos gods (5 with the expansion) play a bit differently. This helps with replayability.

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5. Board Game: Alien Frontiers [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:181]
Marc Gaudet
Canada
Moncton
New Brunswick
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How it works:

Alien Frontiers is an Area Control game with worker placement and dice mechanics. Each turn you roll your dice and place them at unoccupied buildings to either collect ressources, build colonies (which are used in the area control segment of the game) or to do other actions like buying cards with special abilities that let you manipulate dice rolls. The game ends when someone has built their last colony and whoever has the highest score wins (extra points for area majority).

Why I like it:

Although this game is not a pure area control game, it is a very well balanced game, almost every turn you feel like you have 3 or 4 good options and its simply a matter of choosing one. One mechanic relating to Area Control that I feel is brilliant in this game is that the area you choose to control gives you a specific discount at one of the buildings used in the worker placement half of the game, a big part of the game is using your imagination and choosing to control 2 or 3 areas who's bonus work well together. This makes the game strategic as well as tactical.

The game plays on a much smaller scale than most area control games but this means you have more situation where small changes to the board can send someone from last place to first place and the end game is tense as most players will probly be a good dice roll or two from being able to end the game with no certainty that they will be able to get there before the other players

Short playing time (~1-1.5h), imaginative play combinations and beautiful non-cluttered artwork makes this one a real winner.




PS. I'd love to get my hand on a copy of El Grande glad to see its first on this list.
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6. Board Game: Lords of Vegas [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:371]
Michael F
United States
Albany
OR
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This is probably my favorite pure area control game. There are a couple of games I consider to be better, though area control is not the mechanic the game is centered around.

How it Works: You'll draw a card at the beginning of your turn, and the card will have two bits of information on it: It will give you a coordinate somewhere on the Vegas strip where you are given a casino lot to build upon, and it will indicate a color of casino that pays its owner(s) money and points this turn. You spend your money building casinos of different colors, passive-aggressively taking over others' casinos, gambling at other casinos, and expanding your existing casinos into neutral lots. You have to be careful with the latter, however, as if someone gets a card that gives them a lot that already has a casino on it, they automatically claim the lot for themselves, casino and all.

Why I Like It: It's a fun combination of area control and pushing your luck. Do you want to build all your casinos of one color so you get paid out big whenever those colored cards come up? Or do you want to try and build all casino colors so you get paid a little bit every turn? I also like the ideas behind merging casinos and re-rolling the existing dice to see if someone will be the new casino boss. Lastly, I think this is a good gateway game for those who are fans of games like Monopoly, where there is some money management to mitigate the luck a bit.
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7. Board Game: San Marco [Average Rating:7.18 Overall Rank:581]
Charles Hasegawa
United States
Chandler
Arizona
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This is one of the best three-player games of all time. It tops off the area control piece with a neat "cut the cake" style division of each turn's available actions.
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8. Board Game: Mission: Red Planet [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:794]
Dan Edelen
United States
Mount Orab
Ohio
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While Mission: Red Planet has area control, it adds much of the best of Citadels on top of that, plus simultaneous action selection.

How it works: Select from one of nine cards to choose the way in which workers are put on spaceships, take control of those ships, or manage worker cubes on distinct regions of Mars. Each region, once landed in, reveals a specific resources. The resources have different values. Majority in a region wins its resource points.

Why I like it: That combo of mechanics makes for a supremely wicked little "screw you" diversion that gets you at nearly every point in the game. It isn't enough to control portions of Mars and maneuver for the best access to the Red Planet's natural resources. You're also finagling who gets to the planet, in what numbers, and in which regions. Altogether, it makes for a great game, with area control just one of the many ways in which that person to the left or right of you can stick a rather large, Victorian-era knife into your sacroiliac.
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9. Board Game: Dominant Species [Average Rating:7.85 Overall Rank:49]
Curt Carpenter
United States
Kirkland
Washington
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Isn't this the highest ranked area control game? Not sure how the list has gone so far without someone adding this one. I'm not sure what else I need to add, other than the game rocks, and deserves its ranking. But like all games, no game is for everyone. This is for folks who either a) like heavy negotiation, or b) are capable and willing to play with no negotiation.
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10. Board Game: Aztlán [Average Rating:6.37 Overall Rank:4523]
Dave Shapiro
United States
Milwaukee
Wisconsin
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Typical of a Colovini design, the rules are minimal but the strategies are layered. There is an element of deception as well as deduction (something you don't often find in area control games). There are two factors that elevate this game above so many others of this genre: placement of units and coexistence.

As with Go units can be placed anywhere on the map. Every territory is active, every turn. This creates significant tension throughout the game.

Coexistence is the second unique factor. When it is time for conflict, the dominant player decides whether to eliminate an opponent's units or allow them to remain. If they are allowed to coexist, the opponent scores and the dominant player will receive a Prosperity card (small advantage). It is often a very tough choice.

The game is exceptionally refined; it is one of Colovini's best to date. A challenging and exciting experience.
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11. Board Game: Tammany Hall [Average Rating:7.26 Overall Rank:642]
David Debien
United States
Round Rock
Texas
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How it works: Over the course of 16 years (turns), players will place their political bosses into the Wards of lower Manahattan. They will also assist 4 ethnic groups (English, Irish, German and Italian) to settle into the city and will gain political favor from the respective groups for doing so. Every 4 years an election is held in each of the city's wards. The placed bosses are supplemented by the gained political favor via blind bids to win the individual ward elections. The person to win the most wards becomes mayor and has to hand out powerful offices to the other players.


Why I like it: Simple rule set augmented by many complex layers of strategy. This game can be played with a lot of player negotiation or with none, according to the gamer's tastes. Plays well with 3, 4 or 5. Super tense auctions via the blind bids in which all bids are lost to the bank. Very little luck. Just an awesome game all around.
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12. Board Game: China [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:696]
Jim Patterson
United States
Iowa City
Iowa
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While I like El Grande a great deal, I'd say China is my personal favorite. It gives most of the area-control feel of El Grande in about a third of the time. The two "levels" of area control--of regions and of emissaries--creates an interesting tension, as does the way the game limits the introduction of units (i.e., limits of 1 house per new region and on the number of emissaries).
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13. Board Game: The Bridges of Shangri-La [Average Rating:6.77 Overall Rank:1309]
Brian Boyle
Australia
Sydney
NSW
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How it plays Place up to 2 tokens "masters" and "students" of various different types in matching squares of 12 "villages" on a board. Decide when to move some tokens (the "students" stacked on top of the "masters") to the neighbouring village for them to become "masters" in attempt gain the majority of masters there and score the village in your favour. In making the move ("the march of the students") forever break the link (bridge) between the two villages. Score villages for area majority the become completely isolated. Sublimely silly theme, but great gameplay.

Why I like it For me this falls into the "sublime but opaque" category. Very simple rules but I have no idea how to play it well. I am intrigued each time I play it by the subtlety of the ruleset. The breaking of the connections between villages, increasingly limiting ones choices reminds me of the far more recent Rialto - another game whose subtle area majority I really enjoy. Indeed deliberately marching for no gain other than to break the connection appears to be a viable tactic. A great area majority game in 45 minutes that scales well from 2 to 4 [Don't believe what the box or the rules say, this plays really well with 2 - as per the BGG 'variant']

Also a fan of the area control genre and could equally have picked many of the ones listed above or the ones to come below. Someone pick König von Siam please...
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14. Board Game: Rattus [Average Rating:6.81 Overall Rank:855]
In this game for 2-4 players, the rats are constantly spreading the plague to reduce population numbers. It's an unusual majority control game, since what really matters is having control of the whole board at game end, rather than merely within an individual district for points. Maybe some would even argue it's not really an area control game?

How it works: Players take turns to place cubes on the board, as well as advance the plague marker, which will result in the plague ravaging a district and cause cubes (ideally those of your opponents) to be removed from the board. Player with the most cubes on the board at game end.

Why I like it: This is a fairly light area control game, but what makes it interesting is that you're constantly fighting for survival, and unlike other area majority games, your cubes will be leaving the board at regular intervals, and in most cases it's the players who have the majority in the plague district that will be the most heavily impacted. Also of particular interest are the class cards, which players will use on their turn for special benefits.

Here's my review: A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A plague on all your houses, and a blight upon gamers everywhere


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15. Board Game: Dominare [Average Rating:6.83 Overall Rank:2165]
Otherworldly Gamer
United States
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How it works: You are a shadowy puppet master using agents to influence various blocks and districts within the city of Tempest. Depending on the agents you use, your conspiracy can be exposed and you along with it.

Why I like it: Lots of different agent cards with various and powerful abilities make this game infinitely replayable. Agonizing decisions around what agents to play and when, what abilities to use, what districts to influence, and where to cut your losses. A game of feinting, bluffing and outright corruption. I love it.
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16. Board Game: Patrician [Average Rating:6.61 Overall Rank:1881]
Scott Kovatch
United States
Pleasanton
California
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When I read the 'textbook' description of area control I immediately thought of Patrician. It is from Michael Schacht, the same creator of China and Web of Power. I got hooked on this at the author's web site, and finally bought it this summer. It has quickly become one of our group's favorite short games, and scales really well with 5, playing in about 30 minutes.

I suppose some object to the use of cards in this one, and it's tough to get a coherent winning strategy every time, but it's very easy to explain -- play a card that lets you put one or two tower pieces on a city, and take the card next to the city where you just played your piece(s). Each city has two towers of 5, 7 or 9 tiles total, and points are awarded to the player with the majority of pieces in a tower. The twist here is that any ties are broken by the player with the highest piece on the stack.

I like it because it plays so quickly, and has simple goals. I also like the subtle strategy in waiting for the other players to go first. If you are paying close attention you can figure out exactly who has the next-to-last card in the city you have so you can ensure you can take the majority in both towers.

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17. Board Game: Tikal [Average Rating:7.34 Overall Rank:223]
Davido
United States
California
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El Grande, China, San Marco are all playable/good with four, but Tikal gets 'best in class' for 4p Area Majority. For all the moaning about AP of action choices, there are really only a few that are viable any given turn/round. Once you know those, the game zips a long. And it is thematic as all get out:

"Jooooooooooooones"
"Once again, Jones, what was briefly yours, is now mine"
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18. Board Game: Seven Sisters [Average Rating:6.82 Overall Rank:5765]
Kevin Garnica
United States
West Covina
California
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For my entry, I thought I would contribute a slightly lesser known game (still fairly recent, though) because I like things that are not so "popular"...

How it works:

Players are trying to influence the seven sisters - each of whom is named after one of the seven deadly sins. Through card play, players put their influence markers on a variety of sisters in order to secure their privilege ("special action") at the end of the round.

Why I like it:

Each of the sisters' special actions is thematically integrated to the benefits and consequences. Also, even though you only have one hand of cards to play per round, the multi-purpose usage of the cards provides plenty of options for play that it doesn't ever feel limiting. Games last not much longer than an hour, and it supports 3-6 players.
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19. Board Game: Mafia City [Average Rating:6.85 Overall Rank:5005]
Nico
Germany
Germany
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But I don’t want to go among mad people
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I thought to add some not so well known game from a small czech publisher.

How it works: The players put their mafioso (poker chips) onto some parts of the city (prison, harbor, city hall). You can also play cards to remove or swtich mafioso. After placing all mafioso the locations are scored. Every location grants a special bonus for the player with the most mafioso on it like putting mafioso to the prison, getting extra victory points or drawing more cards.

Why I like it: The setting is unusual and the game is easy to play. It's possible to play it with 3-5 players in an hour. I like the possibility for scoring combos with more than one location. For example when controlling the city hall you can choose the order to score the other locations. You choose the prison to remove an opponent's mafioso from the fight club to get the majority there and win this location too.

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20. Board Game: Khronos [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:2201]
Marion
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This one just came up in another geeklist, but it also fits in here perfectly.
It´s about area control in 3 different time-periods ! What you do in the first era, has effects in the 2nd and 3rd......
You travel through time to take care of your territories, a lot of thinking and fun!
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21. Board Game: Eight-Minute Empire [Average Rating:6.61 Overall Rank:1057]
Greg Wilson
United Kingdom
Bristol
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As the name suggests, this is a quick light game. Each player doesn't get many turns and has to spread armies across the map as efficiently as possible.

Each turn you buy a card, with a very limited supply of coins. Each card has a resource and an action. Most are 'place X armies' or 'move X armies', with some other things like building cities, removing enemy armies, or multi-action cards.

At the end of the game you score points for each region you control, with bonuses for controlling the most regions in a continent. You also score points for resources in a Bohnanza-style set-collection mechanic, so you're having to juggle resources and actions and cost when you buy cards.

Compared to, say, El Grande the board has a lot of spaces, so armies end up spread thinly, especially across the harder-to-reach oversea areas. IME many regions will end up controlled by a single cube by the end of the game
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22. Board Game: Tower of Babel [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:1471]
Kenny VenOsdel
United States
Saint Paul
Minnesota
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This is an older Knizia area control game where you are attempting to build monuments by playing certain suits of cards. It encourages high amounts of interaction because when you try to build other players may offer their cards to help. If you refuse them they get points. Whoever adds to the building gets to place influence there and when the structure is complete players with influence score points. On top of that are building discs which are gained during build actions that have an alternate, set-collection, scoring. Players can make bargains to exchange gaining influence for gaining the discs with each other.

It really is a phenomenal game that deserves to keep being played. I think it is better with fewer players though and would really prefer to play it with 3. It also comes with a set of bonus cards that were added by the publisher and are suggested by most BGGers to not use.
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23. Board Game: Campaign Trail [Average Rating:6.61 Overall Rank:7337]
Eric Brosius
United States
Needham Heights
Massachusetts
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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This game might not immediately come to mind when area control games are discussed, but to me it's clearly a member of the category (and in fact many US election games fall into the group, given the way our electoral college system works. People talk about area control as though it were an artificial construct created by game designers, but the founders of our country came up with it more than 200 years ago!)

What makes this game work is that you have some control over which states you will gain support in, and interesting decisions about how to exercise that control, but you don't have full control, which would take the fun out of the game.

I usually use Bruce Linsey's variant that lets you double your Presidential candidate's support if you roll doubles rather than taking an event card.
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24. Board Game: FlowerFall [Average Rating:6.04 Overall Rank:4296]
Eric Brosius
United States
Needham Heights
Massachusetts
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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This game, which is probably my favorite 2012 design, is a combination of a dexterity game and an area control game. Using my rubric that an area control game should have just the right amount of player control, I conclude that only groups with the right amount of dexterity will enjoy it. If you have too little dexterity, the game is random, while if you have too much, it degenerates into a calculation exercise.

I suggest modifying the height from which you drop cards, if necessary, to achieve the right amount of control. If your group is dextrous, drop them from higher up, while if it is more clumsy, drop them from lower down. You can even handicap players by having different people drop from different heights (with the intention that each player's dropping accuracy is similar to that of everyone else.)
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25. Board Game: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage [Average Rating:7.81 Overall Rank:170]
Eric Brosius
United States
Needham Heights
Massachusetts
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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Of course this is a wargame, but it's an area control game through and through. Not only is victory usually determined by area control, but play during the game is affected by which areas each player controls. The game mixes luck and skill effectively. There are several sources of luck in the game, so if you are unlucky in one area, you can often make it up in another.
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