I love gaming. I have been gaming all my life. I'm a nerdy gamer girl. I love video games and tabletop RPGS and LARPing. And I love board games. And you should, too.
Okay, so that statement is a little pushy, I admit. But there is something to be said for the simple social element of board and card games. Often called family games or party games, they are meant to be played together, with friends or people you met in the hallway. I have pulled random strangers into a game in a hallway. It was at a convention, but I've also gamed in restaurants and dorm rooms and pretty much any place there might be a flat enough surface to lay some cards or a board out on. I have met some awesome people this way.
The thing is, a lot of people really don't know the wealth of games there is on tap. They know about Monopoly, or Life, or Risk, or Poker. They know the usual suspects. They don't realize there is life beyond the Milton Brothers. And it is wonderful and wacky and scary and complex. So I thought I would share my current list of favorite games. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it changes pretty frequently as I get to play new games. But right now these 10 games are the ones I try to drag out wherever I go.
Star Trek: Catan / Settlers of Catan
Settlers of Catan is a near perfect game. Like many of the games on my list, it has a LOT of expansions and different variations, but they all work generally the same. You have a game board that changes each game, set with tiles to represent different resources such as wheat or sheep or ore, and you are trying to build a settlement by collecting those resources and using them to build cities, towns and roads. You can trade with other players, and set the robber to take their resources. It is a ton of fun, and has won a bazillion awards. You should go play it.
That being said, one of the things me and my husband received when we got married last year was a Target gift card that we immediately spent on a stand-alone variant of Settlers, Star Trek: Catan. THIS IS THE PERFECT GAME (for me.) It takes the awesome playability of the original Settlers of Catan, and PUTS STAR TREK INTO IT. Now... this could have been done very badly. I've played some terrible tie-in games. But this is not one of them. This is the perfect genesis of Star Trek and Settlers, molded out of the purest trilithium and given to us on a plate of gold-pressed latinum. (I'm being metaphorical and shit here. Just go with it.) There is more than just dash of Trek in a Settlers game, this variant uses a new mechanic that had been worked up as an expansion for the original game. It gives you “helper” cards, which in the Star Trek: Catan game are Star Trek characters, and they each give you a special ability to help you. You use them once, turn the card over, use them a second time, and then put them back in the pile and chose a new character. It adds a nice extra dimension to the game, and there's nothing more satisfying than fighting over Spock. Well, in my opinion, anyways.
Apples to Apples / Cards Against Humanity
I would not be surprised if you have heard of Apples to Apples. It hit toy and hobby store shelves and flew off them, gaining several awards along the way. It's simple and fun and ridiculously easy to play. There are green apple cards and red apple cards. The green cards represent categories like “scary” or “insane” and the red cards are nouns or phrases that could could represent the categories. One person draws a green apple card and read aloud the category, and the rest of the players choose the best answer they can think of from their hand of red apple cards. They lay them face down, and the green apple card reader turns them over and picks the one they think is best. The winner of the round gets the green apple card, and the winner of the game is the first person to collect 7 or 10 green cards. SO SIMPLE.
Except that a lot of the “best” answers are more determined by the personality of the green card reader, so there is a large amount of psychology and getting to know your opponents. This is definitely one of the very best party games around. It's great for larger groups (10 players is supposed to be the max, though I've defied that rule... a lot.)
It's also spawned a bunch of expansions and variants, and one very very... wrong cousin.
Cards Against Humanity started as a print-your-own variant online. After a very successful crowd-funding it now has official cards and several expansion packs. It's not affiliated with Apples to Apples AT ALL. But it's pretty much the same game... if said game was dipped in lube and rolled down a red-light district full of sarcastic comedians. I have played this game for hours on end. At Frolicon, one of the conventions I work at, there is usually at least one game of this going on at all times. I played this version before I ever played Apples to Apples, and while I like them both (same game, different skins) I have to say I prefer Cards Against Humanity, if only because I have a horrible sense of humor. I'm truly tasteless. (The more tasteless you are, the more likely you will win at CaH, so that probably explains a lot.)
Out of all the games on my list, Fluxx is the one I have played the longest. I got to play the original black and white deck back in 1998. 15 years later, and now we have version 4.0 and a whole bunch of spin-offs, and it's still the best card game I know.
It starts on with a simple premise. Draw one card, play one card. That is your turn. Except if you play a New Rule card. Then it could be draw one card, play three cards. Or draw two cards, play all. That's the thing about Fluxx, it changes. To win, you need to collect Keeper cards, and have them match the current goal. But since the rules and goals change all the time, you have to be on your toes. I've won this game on my very first turn; I've also played this game for 8 hours without anyone winning. We reshuffled the deck 6 times.
The fact that Fluxx always keeps things in flux makes it a highly re-playable game. It's always very easy to tote about, being just a deck of cards in a small box. So this is a game perfect for killing time waiting in line at a movie theater, or at a theme park, or in a car on a long trip. It's also perfect for coffee shops and conventions and hanging out in your house on a Thursday night when it's raining to hard to go anywhere. There's a ton of different versions: Family Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx and Space Fluxx and Pirate Fluxx and Zombie Fluxx and Cthulhu Fluxx... and you get what I'm saying here. Whatever your fancy, there's a Fluxx for you.
Speaking of Cthulhu, here is one of the most complicated games I know. This game has a severe learning curve, and a ridiculous amount of little bits and parts and cards and things that you have to set up every time, and it will sap your will to live. And yet, I love this game.
Arkham Horror is based on H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and is set in the town of Arkham. There is a hospital and a sanitarium and a college and a police station and all the little places that make up a town and its environs. And you and your fellow players find yourself in Arkham, and you have to stop a Great Old One from rising up and eating us all. There are cultists and zombies and awful flying things you will have to fight, and a whole bunch of portals to other (terrible) worlds to go into and close. You could die. You could go insane. Someone is definitely going to go insane.
This is a cooperative game. You have to work together to close the portals before the Great Old One can arise. If you don't manage to seal them in time, you will have to fight it instead. It's not easy. I have played many games where we all died. It's also time-consuming. This is not a game you can just sit down and play and then bounce back up and wander off. It is more like an RPG, where you have to commit some serious time to play. The average game I've played runs between 4 and 6 hours, and there have been many times we've had to call off the game because we just don't have time to finish it.
The thing about this game that keeps bringing me back despite all the crazy rules and little bits to remember and the fact that IT'S FREAKING HARD AS HELL TO WIN is the beauty and terror of it. This is the horror of a Lovecraft story laid out on a stunningly designed board. The color commentary on the action cards is superb. The artwork is beautiful. The feeling when you win, when you LIVE, is incredible. This game is hard and fussy and astonishingly complicated, but it's worth it if you give it a chance and play to the end.
Red Dragon Inn
I know I mentioned than I love tabletop rpgs. Red Dragon Inn is what happens after the campaign is over, and the Intrepid Heroes retire to a tavern to spend their treasure. It's pretty much a game about getting drunk and gambling. The winner is the last one standing, and if you run out of gold or become incapacitated, you're out.
You play as one of several heroes, and the expansions offer a larger variety to chose from. Characters on tap in the original version areFiona the Volatile, Gerki the Sneak, Dierdre the Priestess, and Zot the Wizard. Each character has their own deck of cards containing drinks and special abilities and the like. Each player has a number bar from 1 to 20 with counters representing stamina and inebriation. If the two counters meet, you are too drunk and you pass out (and you lose.) You earn and lose gold by gambling.
It's the characters that make this game. With specially-tailored decks filled with character-specific abilities, amusing artwork and hilarious commentary, playing a dwarf or an orc or a paladin never was more fun. Honestly? Skip the dragon-slaying and come drink with me at the Red Dragon Inn. I'll even spot you a gold coin.
The first of two Steve Jackson Games offerings on this list, Ninja Burger is a cute little game where you play as ninjas working as deliverymen for Ninja Burger, a fast food joint. You are striving to gain honor for yourself. If you earn enough honor, you become manager of your local franchise.
To gain honor, you have to complete deliveries to crazy places, like Mount Everest and the White House and the Rival Fast Food Chain (hey, pizza girls want burgers every once in a while!) You have a character card with a list of stats for each ninja, and each delivery card has a series of challenges that you have to roll against, using your character stats (strength, stamina, dexterity, and the like.)
I have the original game and the Sumo Size Me! Expansion pack, which offers extra missions and extra ninjas. This game is silly and fun, and is one of my favorite SJ Games.
This Steve Jackson game is much more well-known, and comes in a variety of flavors (Original, Munchkin Bites, Munchkin Fu, Star Munchkin, etc and so on.) There are expansion packs galore. It is massive. You can mix and match and play several boxes at once. It can be insane. There are a lot of versions because Munchkin is so popular, and it's popular for a reason. It's fun.
Munchkin is kind of a distilled Dungeons and Dragons. It takes the most basic elements of the old rpg and makes it the main focus: exploring the dungeon, fighting monsters, and finding treasure. You have a Door deck of cards and a Treasure deck of cards. You start as a level 1 character, you win if you are the first to make level 10. Along the way, as you fight monsters and acquire treasure, you can get armor and weapons and even races to buff you up and let you fight stronger monsters. And people will actively try to screw you over. That's one of the big things about Munchkin. It can get heated real fast. The other thing is cheating. A lot of Steve Jackson Game have a rule in the books that say you can cheat AS LONG AS YOU DON'T GET CAUGHT. Good munchkin players know this rule well. Hell, the first time I played, after we finished (and I won) I pulled out a small deck of cards I had stashed under my leg to thwart the hand-limit. (Please note: I wasn't the only one cheating in that game. I just cheated the best. And the next game I lost so hard I felt it the next day.) I have played many games where no one cheated, though. I've learned it simply depends on who you are with. But there is always that friendly-fire aspect to SJ games. Your mileage may vary, but I recommend giving Munchkin a try if you've never played.
Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride will make you a Train Baron, and you will find yourself addicted to the charming tiny train car pieces and finishing routes and praying you get a locomotive when you draw from the deck. The original Ticket to Ride is set in the early days of trains in America, when railroad companies were jockeying for routes and passengers. The board is a map of America, with major cities linked by possible routes mapped out on the board. You draw three route cards, and collect colored train cards in an attempt to fill the spaces between the cities with your tiny plastic train cars. The routes all have point values, and incomplete routes count against you, so beware! That 28 point route might be tempting, but make sure you can complete it! The longest route is also worth points.
There are several alternate maps, like Ticket to Ride: Europe, and Scandinavia and so forth. I could co very poor collecting them all. This is the only game on this list I do not actually own, I merely play it at every convention I go to. There is a thriving community and fan base around this game, and even an online version that operates as a giant time-sink. Kinda like a Facebook game that doesn't suck.
Carcassonne is another resource management game in the vein of Settlers of Catan, but it has a completely different mechanic at work. This is a tile-laying game: you start by laying out a river with tiles, and then you take turns pulling a tile out of a bag and laying it down. Like dominoes, you can only lay matching sides next to each other. The tiles have fields, roads, monasteries, and city pieces illustrated on them, and you are trying to build the biggest city, or the longest road, or the biggest field. But you only have a limited number of meeples (little men tokens) that can be reused only if you complete a road or city. Also, if someone can get more meeples than you in a completed field or city, they, not you, get the points. Games over when the last tile is placed.
Again, expansion packs and variations abound, and you can spend quite a pleasant afternoon with these tiles This game is pretty relaxing, in my opinion, though I've been in some crazy heated games as well. There was also the time we abandon the end-game mission and just tried to make the biggest city we could. It was monstrous. I can only imagine what we could have done with the expansion packs, but alas, I only own the original game as of now. : (
Are You A Werewolf
I saved my favorite for last. This one is not a board game, per se; nor is it a card game, though it is a pack of cards. What it is is a loud, crazy, active game reminiscent of the playground. I have lost my voice countless times playing Are You A Werewolf, which I realize isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.
The idea behind Are You A Werewolf is that you (and a group of your friends or whomever you managed to get into the game) are villagers in a small village. There are rumors that the next town over has been ransacked by werewolves, and it's only matter of time before they show up in your town. No one knows who the werewolves are, and everyone's grown nervous. And suddenly, people start to die.
Game play is simple. Everyone sits in a circle, with a Moderator standing in the center. The moderator hands everyone a card that they alone look at, and then lay face down on the floor. The cards will either be a Villager, a Seer, or a Werewolf. Then everyone “goes to sleep.” They close their eyes and clap or hit the ground rhythmically. The moderator asks the werewolves to wake up so that they know who they are, and allows them to pick a victim. They go back to sleep, and the Seer wakes up and points at a person; the moderator will give a thumbs up or down on whether they are a werewolf. Then everyone “wakes up.” Well, except for the person who was eaten by werewolves in the night.
Now the villagers have to try and kill a werewolf. This is MOB RULES. The villagers have to string someone up, and it better be a werewolf or someone else is dying in the night. But the werewolves are canny and don't want to be caught. They win if there is an equal amount of villagers and werewolves. The Seer is trying to help, but oftentimes is accused of being a werewolf. Everyone yells and argues and uses dubious logic (he's wearing a hat! Hats are suspicious!) Eventually the moderator calls a vote, and the village hopefully kills a werewolf. Or the Seer. Or most often, another villager. Then everyone goes back to sleep to do it again, until the wolves are dead, or the villagers are.
This is pretty much an adult version of Duck Duck Goose. A few people may have played a version of this called Mafia, and it works the same way. Mob rules, kill the squealer, etc. There are a few newer versions with added characters and rules, but my favorite is the original game. I've played many many hours of Are You A Werewolf. For a long time at Dragon*Con, when the gaming room was in the Hyatt instead of the Hilton's basement, you could stumble upon die-hard gamers in circles all across the lobby of the Renaissance ballroom. I remember one year I got in a circle around 11pm, played until 4am, went to bed, woke up at 1pm, came back downstairs and THE CIRCLES WERE STILL THERE.
That is the sign of an awesome game.
Edited because I can't count. *Picard facepalm*