The Holiest of Holies
Thi Nguyen
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I've noticed that there is, in my mental list-of-games-I-dig, a very special subsection, that I haven't quite named or collected yet. I couldn't say they were my favorite games - not exactly, because there are a few favorites that aren't in this category - nor could I say they were the most fun, or the most played.

This is, instead, a set of games which are, for lack of a better term, something like holy to me. Games that fill me with something like awe, respect, and no small amount of dread. These, I think, are games that provide the sort of overwhelmingly intense experience, the sort of shudderingly powerful, anxious, every-part-of-the-mind-committed experience that... well, it's rare to find something you can throw yourself completely into.

Well, all of them have the following things in commmon:
1. They are absorbing on several levels. Small-calculationally, large-scale strategically, psychologically-investigatively.
2. They all seem to involve a pretty serious interaction of short-term tactical moves and long term vision.
3. They all seem to fill me with a little bit of dread before playing - dread that I won't play well, that I'm not up to it, slight fear of the intensity of the experience, fear of addiction opening up again and playing the same game over and over again through the night and into sunrise...
4. When I finish with these games, I feel either wrung out and exhausted, or supremely, sublimely adrenalized, energized, and clear-thinking.

What might also be interesting is what games aren't on the list, that are very good games. Such as Puerto Rico (for a lack of dramatic sweep, I suppose), Aladdin's Dragons (a fantastic game, but lacking a sort of long-term drama... except for the build-up of artifacts, each turn pretty much proceeds as does the last), Liar's Dice (a supremity of *fun*, but not holy in this sense), Daytona 500 (which has the long-term dramatic sweep, but lacks the short-term calculative intensity, and merely has to settle for the status of being more fun than a barrel of nitroused-out monkeys), and Tigris & Euphrates (which is fantastic and absorbing, but lacks, for me, a certain psychological element and meaningful, dramatic sweep).

This list is not about games being so complex that it takes all your calculative energy to keep track of every number and factor and possibility. It's about games that engage the whole soul, the pure cerebral part AND the rest.

I admit that, of all my very subjective lists, this is probably the most subjective.

Please add your own.

****additional thoughts, 1/10/06***
Since this list, I've tried a bunch of the games others suggested. Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, Liberte all lack a certain, uh, openness. I haven't found anything to add to this list, anything with as much addictive *possibility*. Closest was Wallace's Princes of the Renaissance, which needs more play.

But when I look at my game closet, it's still El Grande, Acquire, Taj Mahal, Modern Art that glow and glower at me with all that intensity.
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1. Board Game: Taj Mahal [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:306]
Thi Nguyen
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Taj Mahal is the game that inspired this list. The first time I played it, I descended into this black tunnel of concentration... when we finished, we put it away and just sort of stared at it, while it emanated disturbing, angry vibrations.

Taj Mahal reaches this level of absorption for a number of reasons, I think:

Firstly, any sort of successful play requires a long term plan, basically from turn 2.
Secondly, all these plans become more and more painfully obvious, and more and more thwartable as the game goes on.
Thirdly, in order to avoid being thwarted, the game demands a kind of constant awareness of a tremendous number of factors turns in advance - when, in the next 5 or so turns, those teas and rices you've been collecting are coming up, how many cards you have now, how many cards you can have then, when in those next turns you'll be able to drop early and get good cards, how you can maintain that tempo.

Add to all this the fact that, at least for me, there's no hope of keeping track of what cards people have, so you just sort of have to keep a hold of what they've been wanting to do, what they'll likely have collected, etc. etc. etc.

The result - the constant apprehension of failure-of-plan, the constant simultaneous thwarting of others and execution-of-your-own, the constant balancing of maintaining and developing hand-size and the occasional obliterative triumph in a province... makes this game world-blackeningly intense for me. I can play it, occasionally well, but it takes everything I have, and I *love it*.

It certainly isn't a pleasant experience - the game occasionally seems like a long round of mutual forcible violation - but it is a exquisitely intense one.

(Incidentally, I see a lot of people talking about their inability to play this game. They describe it as a long series of sequences of playing chicken, or getting screwed out of winning a province. I think the way to understand it is to imagine each province as five simultaneous games of poker *for different pots* - with every player having some control when the pots get evaluated. Don't think, 'I need to win the province and get everything.' Think, 'How can I get the most blockage of people from what they need, and the most gettage of what I need, for the most number of cards.' The best players, I think, withdraw early frequently and take profit for a single card, and develop their hand, and then *maybe* at one or two critical provinces block everybody else out and take everything.)
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2. Board Game: El Grande [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:54]
Thi Nguyen
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Salt Lake City
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El Grande, I think, gets its intensity from how much you have to spend thinking about what other people will do - seen through the filter, every round of the particular actions.

A constant awareness of what other people's long term plans are - where they want to dominate - combined with an awareness of the various regions, where people are likely to move the king, where access is likely to go to - requires this strange, trance-like, simultaneously focused and decfocused sense.

I find, interestingly, that Maharaja - which some people think is so similar to El Grande - is very much not a good candidate for this list. I think the lack of the drama of the majority/minority/diddly squat mechanic (and its replacement with a pretty even scale, where even the least member gets a little somethin'), its lack of really being able to screw somebody out of points, and its reliance on various efficiences of toll-houses and such - makes it a lot more like the more calculative and peacful Puerto Rico, and less like the soul-enrapturing El Grande.
 
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3. Board Game: Go [Average Rating:7.66 Overall Rank:121]
Thi Nguyen
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One of one of my relatively early 19x19 games, I concentrated so hard on a life-or-death sequence that took over a quarter of the board - one that required running four simultaneous kos and required, basically, a look-ahead of about 20 moves - that afterwards, when I did it and took down a group of 40 stones of my opponents' nnd he resigned, I stood up the table and took a long, deep, slow breath, tried to straighten up - realized I couldn't - and then raised my shaking hands to my face and kind of slumped over for a while.

So just the pure small-scale calculative part of go can take up your whole being.

Then - THEN - one learns about the large-scale strategic side. About making decisions sacrificing a corner to get power in another part of the board. About long-scale, 100-move THOUGHTS - vague plans, not precisely calculated sequences - of fights conducted so as to run across the board and suddenly set up a wall where you need one to take the center - add in that sublime, lovely requirement that you be aware of all the parts of the board and their potential for points and their potential for being directed towards other parts of the board -

this is why go makes me as happy as John Coltrane, Beethoven, early Elvis, and The Fall.
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4. Board Game: TAMSK [Average Rating:6.79 Overall Rank:1506] [Average Rating:6.79 Unranked]
Thi Nguyen
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Salt Lake City
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TAMSK requires the opposite state from go, sometimes. A strange, defocused state, keeping track of the different time-amounts stored in the various hourglasses, and their differential potential for exerting power over one another, blocking one another, hemming them in. (In order to understand this game, you have to understand that TIME is POWER - that a piece with a lot of time can hem in a piece with less time, wait it out until the piece with less time dies, and then move on.) TAMSK is fascinating to me for sometimes allowing a single thought, a single motion, to be executed - some kind of flanking, circling maneuver, to block the other side in - that requires occasional precise calculation of move-countermove, but for which the time taken to think alters the powers contained in the pieces.

Each game possesses a *singleness* which is uttelry absorbing.

I don't find speed-chess absorbing. This, with the interaction between time and power - I find completely absorbing.
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5. Board Game: Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation [Average Rating:7.21 Overall Rank:414]
Thi Nguyen
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Salt Lake City
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Never as intense as the games above on this list, LOTR: The Confrontation gets the status of holy for a similar reason to TAMSK, but more so - the singleness of thought. So many of the games seem to be about a particular plan, created in set-up ("I'll use this and that piece to scout out if his orc is there, and if so, I'll jog Frodo here, and if not, I'll feint with Sam there and then...").

The variety of the pieces seems just barely at the brink of what I can keep in my head - so that it takes my all, to, by midgame, know with any likelihood where each piece is.

I think what makes this *more* engaging and holy in this sense than your usual pure-calculational grinding abstract is the level to which you have to read your opponent's *intentions* to know where his pieces are. More so than any other hidden-unit game I know.

I think because of the claustrophobia of the board-set-up, the way the Light pieces have to march relentlessly over the mountains and into this ever-narrowing funnel towards Mordor - because the strategy space is relatively *small* - there is actually a relatively finite number of possibilities, and it's possible to gather enough information to be *almost* sure what your opponent is going to do...

Sorry, I'm failing to convey.

I actually am afraid to play this game now, because it inevitably leads to going to sunrise.
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6. Board Game: Ra [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:134]
Thi Nguyen
United States
Salt Lake City
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Probably the least calculatively intense game on this list. I'm not sure why this is on here - it is the least dreadful and most joyous game on this list. Like Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, it gets a lot of its power from the number of factors that one can manipulate, and the paucity of moves one has to approach this.

In a way, this game seems different from the others on this list - it doesn't support the same long-term caluclational look-ahead, it doesn't support the same wide strategic horizon, it doesn't require as much peering into the soul of one's opponents, thinking about when they'll drop or go the distance.

But it is as absorbing as the others. Unlike Tigris & Euphrates, unlike so many other delightful games not on this list, *I cannot think of a single other thing* when I play Ra.

And it may just be that, because of the tiny decision-space (draw or bid? Bid or not?) and the number of factors that hang on each decision, it just charms my soul into paying attention with all its might.
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7. Board Game: Modern Art [Average Rating:7.34 Overall Rank:226]
Thi Nguyen
United States
Salt Lake City
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Oh, and Modern Art belongs here too. I can't quite say why - I haven't played it enough - but it has the same apprehension and not-quite-able-to-keep-all-factors-in-head but somehow quite able to predict most of what another person is going to do that the other Knizia games on this list have.
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8. Board Game: Acquire [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:208]
Thi Nguyen
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Salt Lake City
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This is the one that just barely makes it onto the list. It lacks, of course, the calculative potential of the others - randomly generated tile hands, of course, limit other people's movements in a completely unpredictable fashion - but balanced against this is the sheer, brutal, all-or-nothing tension of the mergers and majority/minority/diddly mechanic. More than any other game, including El Grande, you can take bigger and bigger risks for bigger profits and be screwed more grandly.

This, I think, is why this games absorbs me completely and gives me a bit of fear in the contemplation of its next playing - not for its aesthetic wonder, not for its calculative intensity, but for its sheer, colon-grinding tension.

I think I'm actually missing some factor. This was added late to this list - I'm pretty sure I've missed out on why Acquire has such emotional effects on me. Somebody help?
 
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9. Board Game: The Princes of Florence [Average Rating:7.57 Overall Rank:116]
Gerald Cameron
Canada
Unspecified
Nova Scotia
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In response to your plea for additions to this list, I had to include Princes of Florence, although it is a somewhat qualified addition.

The fact of the matter is that I can almost play a three player game of PoF on autopilot. Mostly I just have to stop and think about my plan once or twice. Four player is a bit more demanding, but hardly up to the absorbing levels you have described on this list.

Ah, but on those occasions when I can get a five player game together, well, now, that is something else all together.

I've described five player other times in other ways, but let me try this simile (sp?) on for size. It is like a hedge maze booby trapped with the occasional landmine. You get your first four profession cards together, and begin scratching out the first outlines of a plan. Then an auction goes in an unexpected way, and you have to veer off onto another path. Then you pick up a Prestige Card, and you feel a pull towards yet another course. Then you realize that you are falling behind the minimum work value, and you must grab a jester or a landscape. Then...well, let's just say that there is always something else, and sometimes you get lost in the maze of new events, and, if you're not careful, you step on one of those landmines, and you have to play a suboptimal work just to grab some cash, or, even worse, you land in the last round with two artists, only one of which you can get up to minimum work value. There are other fates that can befall you too, but those are the worst.

Of course, on the other hand, there are the times when you manage to play your opponents like violins, shoving them into unknown tangles, or even onto a landmine, while you smoothly put together your palazzo to provide maximum value for your artists, and there is the joy of putting it all together just right, finding the right answers to the riddle just a moment before it is even posed.

*sigh*

Oh, and even when all goes well, it makes your brain hurt. To quote Nate Sandall from a recent BSW game 'The pain, the pain.'
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10. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.06 Overall Rank:15]
Eric Jome
United States
Franklin
Wisconsin
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You mentioned that you did not feel this way about Puerto Rico... I confess I don't often feel that way about Puerto Rico either. Because I am always playing with someone who is new to it or new to games.

When I have occasion to play this against a full table of five people who are all well practiced at the game, Puerto Rico provides a certain sublime feeling. It's very Zen; how do you move the mountain of game momentum with only your mind? Every action you take in Puerto Rico is taken by everyone else, so timing is everything... how do you assure yourself of the best timing in a game with strictly controlled events? Meditate on this game koan and see where it takes you.
 
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11. Board Game: Stratego [Average Rating:6.06 Overall Rank:2280]
Brett David Spain
United States
Lee's Summit
Missouri
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Have I gone mad? I'm afraid so. You're entirely Bonkers. But I will tell you a secret, All the best people are.
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A game which subscribes to the KISS standard... keep it simple, stupid. Part strategy, part bluffing. Laid the groundwork for all subsequent hidden piece games.
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12. Board Game: Power Grid [Average Rating:7.92 Overall Rank:28]
 
Eric Jome
United States
Franklin
Wisconsin
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If the Zen of Puerto Rico isn't your style, perhaps the "survival of the fittest", "law of the jungle" style of Power Grid will bring you spiritual fulfillment?

At our last session of Power Grid, I had something of an epiphany and realized that it was a brutal game of cutthroat efficiency... perfect for the electric generation industry. You are in a direct, savage battle to spend your meager cash as effectively as possible, ensuring that your strategic progeny thrive in the turns to come. If you think you are building in the right spot or bidding on the right power plant, think again... this is game where everyone can see everything and any player's move can put an end to another player's hopes.
 
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13. Board Game: 1835 [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:1949]
Eric Jome
United States
Franklin
Wisconsin
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Whatever your feelings on Puerto Rico or Power Grid, this is my personal hajj. You are facing a journey through a game that is 6+ hours long with elaborate strategy against opponents who are practiced, clever, and determined.

The usual intricacies of planning an 18xx game are complicated by the impending imperialization of half the railroads into a monster German National railroad... fight it? Join it? Ignore it at your peril. You'll be trekking through tactical sinkholes around Berlin and other major cities, sweating through the complicated stock rounds, and enduring uneven shifts of technological change.

When you win this, you know you've executed a fantastic plan and been smiled on by the gods. To me, it's the Everest of rail games.
 
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14. Board Game: WildLife [Average Rating:6.68 Overall Rank:1603]
Ray
United States
Carpentersville
Illinois
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This is the game that is currently melting my brain. With several different areas to pursue (large heards, abilities, adaptions, etc) and 3 different "currencies" (creatures on and off the board, food, and vps) that can each be pursued (not to mention the mechanisms to convert from one currency to another) the designers have created one of the most strategically rich game ever. and unlike POF which pays auctions to the bank these go to other players making it even more difficult to solve.

The dread for me right now comes in my last 2 games having a huge lead get blown away by players and still not having any clue as to how they did it.
 
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15. Board Game: Chess [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:416] [Average Rating:7.09 Unranked]
Gary Webster
United States
Littleton
CO
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I must have missed your list when it first came out. I've played Go, and list it as a favorite (10, in fact) because of the experiences I've had losing at it. Chess, however, dominated my life as no other. I've had a 103-move draw, a surprising victories over the best player in the college chess club, a boardless checkmate of a friend of mine while we were sitting at a bar (a buddy of ours wrote down the moves, and sure enough, I got him!) and a couple years of speedchess with the sneaky shysters at work. I've been close with Bridge and Queries 'n Theories, but Chess? Oh, my!
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16. Board Game: Genoa [Average Rating:7.12 Overall Rank:497]
Nate Sandall
United States
Portland
Oregon
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I'd been wanting to play Traders of Genoa in the Monday night group I go to for a couple months. I'd brought the game with me every week only to be meet with eyes rolled up into the head and a request to play Ticket to Ride or Fast Food Franchise. Then Thi's request for strategy articles went out (still waiting for that geeklist Thi!), and I obliged by writing up a strategy article for Traders of Genoa. Doing that just made me all the more crazy to want to play!

Well finally last Monday night we managed to agree to play a five player game with me, Matt, DJ (both Matt and DJ are geekbuddies of mine), Dean, and Kent. This was DJ's forst time playing. Kent usually kills everyone at games of any depth and this was my first chance to play against him at Traders of Genoa.

Things started off well. After doing well before with my trading goods instead of cash strategy (see the article I wrote) I decided to set out on that path especially after discovering I had three orders in my hand that needed silver.

Everything started off well. Kent hit the cathedral early and filled the board with ownership markers. I started collecting privileges when it didn't look like anybody else was really trying to and had 6 when the pile ran out. But then things got brutal. Once the villas are out there's only going to be four actions at the most in a turn leaving one player with nothing. Orders were filled but no new order cards were coming out fast enough. Everybody was stressed and panicked and it was painful. I did a trade of three connected privileges with Matt for his three disconnected privileges and got burned. It was hot and we all started sweating. People started bidding $20 for actions and the wheeling and dealing got crazy. I got an ownership marker on the park and then kicked Kent off of the coach house and got one on there too, but I thought he was possibly too far ahead to catch. He would have been had we ever rolled the marketplace! Not rolling the marketplace makes for a marathon game. Matt was gathering and delivering messages like a madman. I finally did a monster trade with DJ for his three privileges giving me 9 and then an even bigger one with Matt for the three I had given him in the first place. Kent wanted to trade with Matt but I had his solitary privilege surrounded, and eventually bought it off of him. Kent and DJ in the last turn had one large order each to fill, and Kent was eager to make a last second deal but much to his chagrin both Kent and DJ needed to deliver to the same villa! This would cost Kent the game. The bank ran out of money twice and finally after three hours and pure exhaustion we were done. I've never fought so hard and so long for such a close victory. I forget the exact scores of everyone else but I had 920 to Kent's 895 with Matt and DJ within 20 of Kent.

The game was so brutal I had dreams about it for a few nights afterwords last week! First time I've ever dreamed about a game - must've been the adrenaline. This is why Traders of Genoa is and probably always will be a 10 for me.
 
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17. Board Game: Magic: The Gathering [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:156] [Average Rating:7.45 Unranked]
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I guess I need to admit that if I strictly follow Thi's criteria for a "holy" game, this would be it for me. It perhaps relates to it being the only game that I've ever played competitively, and I was very good at it.

From building the deck, which in itself is an enlightening experience through playtesting. Then walking into the tournament, seeing the Swiss brackets, matching up against other players you *know* are the best in the country, zoning out during the match and getting the mana and adrenalin flowing like a rushing river. Move, countermove, parlaying the last drops of life into time, getting my deck's engine going, and then finally locking the opponent down and rendering him and his deck helpless.

There was, and still is, nothing like it.
 
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18. Board Game: Liberté [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:699]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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You had to know it was coming. I feel sort of like a fraud championing this game nowadays, though, because I haven't played in ages...doesn't matter, this really is the "holy" one for me, so good I don't dare play it...maybe it's just because it's just so damn intense. The last game I felt like my guts were grinding...when it was all over my back was shot and I could barely sit up straight. My brains were in a strange state of confusion, and I honestly wasn't quite fit to drive home....
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19. Board Game: Lord of the Rings [Average Rating:6.77 Overall Rank:698]
Peter Wiles
South Africa
Pietermaritzburg
KwaZulu-Natal
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Here is a game where I need to get psyched to play it. Treat it seriously, it is life and death - then you will find its full measure. It is in the intense discussion over which way the fellowship must go, who must use up their vital special ability when, even whether to accept a tile or draw another. If everyone puts their whole being into the game it transports you like no other. Instead of deciding for yourself what you will do, you must decide in cooperation with your fellowship, and yet, when it comes to it, it is your decision the others have to live with.

And then playing with Sauron ratchets the tension up a notch. He is privy to your every discussion and knows your situation intimately. His eye is on everything everyone does and he knows each players' weaknesses. You must play with Sauron and the Black Events (and Friends and Foes) to appreciate the full extent of this design's genius - it is in overcoming the overwhelming odds that a feeling of real triumph is achieved.

This game is more experience than anything else. I'm exhausted when it's finished from arguing, waiting with bated breath for the next tile draw, hoping that Sauron has missed my one weakness, and at times just hoping for the right die roll. It's more intense than any other game I've played. A magnificent game, one I would certainly call "Holy".
 
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20. Board Game: Diplomacy [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:501]
Rod Spade
United States
Elizabethtown
Pennsylvania
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Diplomacy is a gut-wrenching experience. It is a pure match of wits - players trying to convince each other to help them win. The board and the pieces are really just ancillary, providing a context for the cutthroat negotiations that are the heart of the game. The *real* game happens between the players, not on the board.

There is a reason that the annual championship tournament of Diplomacy draws players from literally all around the world - there is just no other experience quite like a fierce game of Diplomacy.
 
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21. Board Game: Rummikub [Average Rating:6.31 Overall Rank:1552]
G. Gomez
United States
Chula Vista
California
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This goes to show how much of a newbie I am.

I played Rummikub some five years ago cold, that is to say I never saw the game before. We were playing with somewhat seasoned players, and my wife and myself were the beginners.

It was very hard to "get" the game in that session, I was intensely concentrated and sweating profusely, just from the game. Everyone was having a lot of fun at my expense and at my concentration.
Of course we lost, but after that session I went out and bought the game.
My wife and I played until the game "clicked". Next time we played with these other players, we beat them soundly, and of course it wasn't as intense as before. We had also beat the game.
 
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22. Board Game: Advanced Civilization [Average Rating:8.02 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.02 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.02 Unranked]
Donald Walsh
United States
Columbia
Maryland
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This is it for our group.

The completeness on many levels of tactics, economics, and politics.

The feeling after 12-16 hours of play: exhaustion, disappointment, jubilation, more exhaustion. I use the phrase "hitting the wall" because the endgame is sometimes so intense, you combine that with dehydration and/or caffeine withdrawal (lack of enough Diet Coke intake, I have gotten better in this department), that I have gotten brutal headaches about 10 hours or so in.

And since it sits on 2 pre-determined days of the year (Easter Saturday, Thanksgiving Friday), you get a buzz every year around this time. It is one of the signs of spring: the birds chirping, golf at the Masters, and whispers of the Civ game.

Last year, my friend Ivan won for the 1st time, and he has been playing since high school in the late 80's. I couldn't even feel that bad for losing.

I always chime in on the "grail" lists, but now I am starting to wonder if it is not the length of the game that contributes to its greatness, that to shorten it would take to much away...

I hope that this is the top-secret AH re-issue. Give us some better bits, maybe a second shorter rule set ala Conquest of the Empire (for those who grew up on Euros), but just don't touch the original ruleset. Make this game more available to the BGG community.
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23. Board Game: In the Year of the Dragon [Average Rating:7.40 Overall Rank:220]
Randall Peek
United States
Preston
Connecticut
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This one can be a mind-melting level of intensity due to the scarcity of its many resources. The game is designed in such a way that there will always be a scarcity of the experienced people who can keep you out of trouble. Even with as few as two players, the choice of actions can be excruciating, since there are only as many groups as players, and it seems that the action you want is always in a group already selected. By my reckoning, there are eight different resources in this game, each with its own little mini-economy to deal with.
 
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24. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:70]
Frank Hamrick
United States
Rocky Mount
North Carolina
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Probably the all-time "gut-wrencher" for me. Am always afraid I won't measure up. Feel drained when it is over. Feel ebullient when I win! Like no other game. Yes, a bit of an abstract with a pasted on theme, but it actually works and gives you the feel of building an early Mesopotamian Empire.

Have owned this one since 1997, played it many times, still feel the angst and excitement of living on the edge of victory and defeat with every turn, every time i play it.

This one, along with Advanced Civilization, Settlers of Catan, Power Grid, and Attika (greatest game no one pays attention to) - all reside near the core of "greatest games I've ever played."

Card games near that level are 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, and Dominion. But for me, no card game can capture the angst, glory, dred, and thrill of the above board games.
 
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