My Favorites, Honorable Mentions and Disappointments by Category
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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I really like reading about others' thoughts on games and what they're playing now, so I created this list to describe some of my favorite games and games that didn't work for me in a few categories.


Here's some background on the gaming groups where I play these games (context is important):

1. Five CS PhD students (including myself) occasionally joined by a more casual player
2. Two CS PhD students (mostly for wargames)
3. Magic events at my local game store

Let me know your thoughts; hope this list offers some inspiration for you, too!
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1. Board Game: Magic: The Gathering [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:155] [Average Rating:7.45 Unranked]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Trading and Living Card Games.
Favorite: Magic: The Gathering (10/10).
Miss: Android: Netrunner.

I started playing Magic about a year ago by attending "Friday Night Magic" booster drafts at my local game store. These cost $15 and offer about 4 hours of tournament play with prizes.

I like these events because (1) booster drafts provide everything you need to play Magic and (2) for the price of a movie I get to play a sweet drafting game and at least three matches of Magic. Magic itself is a complex, living, varied and awesome game, and the high-tension tournament setting only makes it better. A bonus is that I get to meet and game with lots of different people.

In fact, I think playing Magic like this has made me a better person. Maybe it bites if I'm eliminated from prize-contention early and am now facing an 11 year-old. Or maybe it doesn't? I think moments like this can challenge our perspective and generosity, and if we meet that challenge they may be very rewarding. It was fun teaching that person a little more about Magic and just enjoying the game.

Netrunner, unfortunately, combines a less interesting game than Magic with a business model I don't really want to participate in. I know that many people have this idea that the LCG model is better than the TCG one, but not for me. The great thing about Magic is that it has frequent drafts, and by playing in these awesome events I don't have to collect any cards. Further, I can take a break for a few months if I want to. With Android there are few draft events, and that means to play it I would need to build my own decks and buy, store and keep up with many expansions. That's not something I want to do. That's exactly why I don't play constructed Magic.

(Disclaimer: If you are thinking of getting into Magic, I encourage you start with a local event or some dual decks.)

(Second Disclaimer: Although dual decks don't let you draft, and drafting is super fun.)

(Third Disclaimer: Get someone to teach you the game or read the rules thoroughly and check out a Channel Fireball video before your first draft. You cannot learn on the spot.)

(Fourth Disclaimer: As mentioned it costs $15 each time I play Magic. Magic is mostly pay to/per play. Products like dual decks, battle boxes and cubes are a great exception.)
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2. Board Game: Napoleon's Triumph [Average Rating:7.99 Overall Rank:385]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Wargames.
Favorite: Napoleon's Triumph (9/10).
Hits: Twilight Struggle, Hammer of the Scots.
To Try: Washington's War, Guns of Gettysburg, Bonaparte at Marengo
Misses: Sekigahara.

Napoleon's Triumph is an exceptional game of bluffing, positioning, and risk-taking. It is deep and rich with a (relatively) simple rules system. It is so tight that every move feels meaningful.

Just consider the following moment in NT. One of your corps with your elite guard infantry faces two smaller corps across different approaches. Some harassing cavalry also threatens your flank. Your opponent starts by charging with his cavalry, and you're forced to peel off two infantry units to protect your corps' flank. Their cavalry feints away and now your infantry are out of position, unable to help defend the other two approaches.

Then the first corp declares its attack. If the attack is weak or a feint then you only want to commit your weakest soldiers here, since the other corps may be launching the real attack. If, however, this is the real attack then your weakest soldiers will be overrun and your entire corps routed! This would be a disaster, especially with the enemy cavalry so close. You decide to...

That is good tense gameplay, and I love NT's intimate interplay between positioning and combat. While Twilight Struggle and Hammer of the Scots are fun, they are a world apart from NT. In fact, I increasingly think both are too lucky (NT has no randomness), that TS is too "grindy" and that HotS can go too long.

A real miss for me, though, is Sekigahara. I have only played it 3 or 4 times, so I may be missing something, but I found the game lacking subtlety and didn't like how stack strength varied (sometimes wildly). I understand that cleverly cycling cards is a huge part of the strategy, but it feels random and unthematic for me. It just devolved into: "Oh, I drew my card that makes this stack strength X. I hope my opponent didn't cycle cards and somehow end up with strength Y > X. Too bad I have no way of knowing." Tell me where I'm wrong, but I don't get Sekigahara.
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3. Board Game: Coup [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:376]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Quick + Light.
Favorite: Coup (8/10).
Hits: Love Letter.
Up & Coming: Cheaty Mages!
Misses: Lost Legacy.

Both Coup and Love Letter offer the fun of frivolous accusations and surprise reveals.

Coup plays great with 5, and its lots of fun to bluff and call others out. It can be even more fun to act suspicious and encourage others to (wrongly) call you out. The game is so light and unserious that all these events cause laughter, too.

Love Letter is similar except even lighter. I especially like how in both games it's immediately revealed whether you're right or wrong when making an accusation. We never keep score when playing Love Letter, by the way, we just play a few quick games to be silly with.

An honorable mention in this category is Cheaty Mages!, which we played for the first time recently. It seems pretty good and fun.

An unfortunate miss, though, is Lost Legacy. Instead of the short and often goofball turns that Love Letter offers, in Lost Legacy turns can drag as people paw through cards without affecting the other players. This tiny bit of drag really sucks the fun out of a very light game.
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4. Board Game: Timeline: Inventions [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:855] [Average Rating:6.73 Unranked]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Party.
Favorite: Timeline Golf (8/10).

By "party game" I mean a game that is both extremely accessible and plays 5+ people. The Resistance/Avalon is not a party game, for example, because in my experience it is not accessible enough. Bang! and Shadow Hunters are also likely not accessible enough to be party games*.

My favorite party game is "Timeline Golf," which I independently invented or read about and then forgot reading about so now I think I independently invented it. Anyway... To play TG:

(1) Start a Timeline with one card. Reveal its date.

(2) Each round, pick a Timeline card. Do not reveal its date. All players (secretly) write where they think it fits in the Timeline.

(3) (Optional.) Ask one player to tell a story about why the Timeline card goes where it does. Bonus points for fictitious stories that cohere to the Timeline.

(4) Reveal the date and place the card into the Timeline. Players score one point for each position they were off.

(5) Repeat about 10 times. Lowest score wins.

This game is super fun and accessible. Players are constantly engaged and there's a natural escalation of points. People really enjoy talking about the dates, and it's fun revealing how right or wrong everyone is. Bonus when your fictitious story about Abraham Lincoln inventing films to discover vampires (yep) is kind of correct from the timeline's perspective.

By comparison, I find regular Timeline to not be a good game.

*I'm just going to toss in here that Bang! is a very bad game and Shadow Hunters is not a good game (although if you wanted to play Shadow Hunters I'd be down). Now, if you read this and thought, "What! That nut should try it with my group! That (those) game(s) are super fun!" then that's great! Loving something is rare and if you're digging playing Bang! or SH then that's awesome. Here's the thing though: I used to have a group just like that with Munchkin, and if you criticized Munchkin I also would have thought, "What! You just need to try playing Munchkin with us!" No you do/did not.
 
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5. Board Game: Pandemic [Average Rating:7.66 Overall Rank:73]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Cooperative Games.
Favorite: Pandemic (8/10).
Hit: Ghost Stories.
To Try: Pandemic: On the Brink.
Miss: Robinson Crusoe, Hanabi.

Pandemic is a smooth and accessible game. It is hard to find a flaw in it. In fact, I think its biggest offense is its nonsense theme ("So I'm a doctor trying to save the world on a budget, and I'm also an expert in building research facilities?").

Another very good cooperative game is Ghost Stories. Ghost Stories has an excellent theme and fearsome ghosts to fight. Unfortunately, it can also suffer from some rote combos that are entirely unthematic. Raising someone from the dead so they can use their life force to make a dark pact with a wizard over and over is not the game I want to be playing. Well... at least not the way GS is presenting it.

An unfortunate miss for me was Robinson Crusoe. I was excited to be exploring a beautiful island while building a small, primitive society. Unfortunately, the game never connected with me. I didn't feel like I was doing much of anything, and - even worse - players were often robbed of narrative agency as their best option was frequently to simply help another person with their turn. The way technologies work is strange, too, and the rulebook is terrible and the rules one can divine from it unclear.

But while I can be coaxed into some RC, I would really prefer not to play Hanabi again. Look, if you want a high score in Hanabi then you should (as best I can tell) devise a strategy with your team beforehand (1) and then implement that strategy (2). And I don't like it because that means the actual game involves no decisions. Also, finding the optimal strategy does not seem super hard: it's not like this is an amazing puzzle.

Now some people might say, "Well, you don't have to play it that way..." And that's totally true and if you have found a way to enjoy Hanabi that's great and I hope you dig it forever. I, unfortunately, will never see the light on this one.
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6. Board Game: Ticket to Ride [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:126] [Average Rating:7.46 Unranked]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Light Strategy.
Favorite: Ticket to Ride (7.5/10).
Hits: Lords of Xidit.
On the Fence: El Grande, Star Wars: X-Wing.
To Try: Mission: Red Planet.
Misses: Splendor, (Settlers of) Catan, Dominion.

TtR and LoX have a lot in common. Both reward careful planning, have little downtime, and are usually tense as you hope to claim a route or battle a monster before the next player. I'm going to give the edge here to TtR because I think it's more exciting and it has a variety of maps.

Both games also suffer from a lack of direct interaction, and like most strategy games a player can lose the game early and be forced to drag themselves across the finish. These games can also sometimes feel like they're going slightly long.

While TtR and LoX likely have a place in my collection for a long time, El Grande and Star Wars: X-Wing are probably on their way out. ElG is a mean and chaotic area control game where players often act like a pack of wolves to tear down the current point leader. SW:X-W offers the fun of flying around and shooting things while sometimes humming the Star Wars theme. Unfortunately, ElG is simply too mean for me, and SW:X-W is essentially pay-to-play: a lot of the fun comes from owning a large variety of ships. We don't play it often enough to justify its price.

Splendor, (Settlers of) Catan and Dominion have been out of my collection for awhile. Splendor is a fine game that successfully captures a lot of TtR's vibe in a shorter playing time. It's out because it lacks the excitement of TtR's board and its shorter play time is actually awkward for my group; we prefer playing one very short game followed by one medium or long game.

(Settlers of) Catan is painfully dry and has extended spells of, "Does anyone need wool? What about wool and wood? One wood and one wool? OK, one wood and two wool? No? OK, let me ask again..." I do not understand why this game is popular.

Dominion is also dry with lots of downtime with 3+ players. Even with 2 players there's tons of shuffling and the game often devolves into a solitaire puzzle, hoping to race through a preplanned strategy before your opponent does. When Tom Vasel suggested that Dominion would be a good boardgame to show to Magic players, by the way, I honestly thought, "That sounds like TV does not understand Magic OR Dominion. Because that's not how either of those things works." Dominion: not for me (a Magic player).

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7. Board Game: Dominant Species [Average Rating:7.84 Overall Rank:53]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Heavy Strategy.
Favorite: Dominant Species (7.5/10).
To Try: Terra Mystica.
Miss: Thunder Alley.

It's been very difficult to find good heavy strategy games for my group because we usually only have 2-2.5 hours to play something. Luckily, Dominant Species plays in that time and is a solid game.

I like that Dominant species involves everyone in the action immediately. I love that it combines worker placement with an El Grande-like vicious strategy game. I like the way points naturally escalate and how many actions, like glaciation, can have large effects. This is not a game for turtling or eking out incremental advantages.

Unfortunately, Dominant species has terrible theming. What even are you in this game? Some kind of geomancer deity worshipped by the clade of animals you're controlling? Also, I think the cards are janky and wildly variable in power. And not wildly variable in some reasonable way, like a game where cards are very situationally powerful; I mean sometimes so powerful that grabbing certain cards first is almost always your best play.

Still, Dominant Species is a lot of fun and the best game in (for me) a very weak field.

I was excited when I began hearing about Thunder Alley. It sounded like a card driven wargame (interesting) that allowed 5 people to play (excellent) in a reasonable time (very good). And then it fell really flat. The gameplay seemed very simple, and the catch-up / reset mechanism was, well, lame. Plus, having to move all those cardboard cars properly was laborious. Ultimately, however, Thunder Alley simply lacked any excitement.
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8. Board Game: Last Will [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:328] [Average Rating:7.24 Unranked]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Worker Placement.
Favorite: Last Will (7/10).
On the Fence: Troyes.
To Try: Last Will: Getting Sacked.
Miss: Kingsburg.

I have a hard time with worker placement games because their player interaction is usually minimal (although see DS above). One frequent consequence of this is a runaway leader. In Kingsburg, for example, if you're winning then you're just winning. There's very little others can do to stop you. Maybe if everyone understood the game extremely well they could have a marginal effect?

The biggest reason Kingsburg was a miss for me, though, is that the game was just picking a building plan and sticking to it. Maybe some very good Kingsburg players can analyze the game state and think, "Ah, I will now build building X instead of Y..." but I can't. And I don't feel like the game is so deep or otherwise engaging that I should develop this expertise. It's not that Kingsburg lacks choices, because there are definitely trade-offs between developing your town and preparing for winter, but I felt like the biggest choice was my building plan. Also, once I found a winning building plan there was little incentive to deviate from it.

OK; we started on the wrong foot. Let's talk about Last Will.

Last Will is a thematic and smooth game with a good playing time. The theme is humorous and there's opportunity to have some fun with it. Reviews I've seen, however, have definitely talked up this aspect more than I saw while playing. I know SUSD said you could "take your horse to dinner..." but the rulebook states "you ride your horse to dinner" and there are pretty mundane explanations for everything happening. Yes, you can (and I encourage you to) ignore these things, but it's important to recognize that the game is not embracing crazy beyond its premise.

I really wish Last Will offered a better narrative and more ways of interacting with the other players. I want to like this game more, but I and my group worry it's too shallow. For instance, wouldn't it be cool if I had a winery and when you're throwing a party or going to dinner you have the option to drink my wine and we both lose some money? Interactions like that might enrich things.

A worker placement game that I think is objectively "very good" but not among my favorites is Troyes. Troyes is pretty deep and there's definitely player interaction. The game requires reading the market well, too, and that's cool. Unfortunately, like Last Will I just don't think Troyes is very exciting. In fact, I can't think of a worker placement game that is exciting. Yikes: that's kind of bleak.

 
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9. Board Game: Diplomacy [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:504]
Mike R
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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Category: Games That Got Too Real.
Too Real: The Resistance/Avalon and Diplomacy.

There are some good games that I would not like to play again.

Both Diplomacy and TR/A can be intensely involving. On the other hand, these games can just be intense.

One time in TR/A a girlfriend said to me, "If you're lying now I will never trust you again." I don't think she meant it, but she certainly acted like she did. And that's when TR/A got too real.

With Diplomacy I simply realized that no one was celebrating post-game."Remember when you betrayed me there!? HAHAHAHA!" Is not a thing you hear after a game of Diplomacy. It is dark stuff to betray people after writing long, intense and sincere-seeming letters so they support you into Vienna.

I'm glad there are light games, like Coup, where we can laugh at deceit.
 
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