Great games (Topic Discussion) – Tabletop Games Blog

I know, the term “great”, or even the term “good”, is very subjective and vague. Games can be great for different reasons and to different people, some games that are seen as great by everyone else are not even mediocre. However, I want to look at a number of reasons why I think some games are great. It’s purely my view of the game and I’m sure many of you will disagree with at least some of my suggestions, or you will have games that are even better than the game I think is great. Anyway, here goes…

As I said, I want to look at games and explain why I think they are great for a specific reason. I basically want to look at a number of categories and then choose a game that I think fits that category best – and I invite you to find your own games that are the top spot in that category, and maybe even come up with your own categories. As always, please comment below with your thoughts and suggestions. Just bear in mind that my categories aren’t the usual “best artwork” or “best miniatures” or “best setting” or anything like that.

I want to start with the “love-hate” category of games. These are the games that you play and then absolutely hate with a passion afterwards. They frustrate you not because they’re confusing or badly designed, but quite the opposite. They’re really clever and as you start to play you think you’ve cracked it, only to find that you do really badly at the end. So you come away with a feeling of animosity towards the game. Yet, the next day, you can’t wait to play it again. It’s become addictive and it will keep hurting you, but you just can’t stop.

For me, that game is Scythe by Stonemaier Games. I have played this game a lot now and virtually every time, with only a handful of exceptions, I came away from it with a feeling of despising it. It did my head in. It was so straightforward to learn and the actions and rules all made sense, pretty much from the first play, but working out how to win remained a mystery. Every time I felt that I was making good progress, I got crushed again. Every time I thought I’d found the winning formula, my hopes were dashed. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but the next day I just wanted to play it again and couldn’t wait for the next games night to come around again.

Scythe is a game that I look forward to with a mix of feelings: excitement, anticipation, trepidation and nervousness. It’s probably the only game that evokes so many emotions in me all at the same time. I think that’s a huge credit to any game and is why I think it’s the greatest “love-hate” game I have played.

Another category, and probably my favourite one, is “perfectly blended games” and by that I mean games where the rules, the mechanisms and the setting really mesh together seamlessly. These are games where you almost don’t need a rulebook because the setting and the mechanisms clearly lead you in a certain direction of how to play. Of course, you can’t do without a rulebook, but games that blend perfectly usually only need you to read the rules once and that’s it, or where edge cases, that usually require further explanation in the FAQ of the rulebook, can be resolved “naturally”, because the setting makes it obvious which way to go.

The greatest game in this category for me is Clans of Caledonia by Karma Games. In this game, it’s obvious that you need cows, if you want milk and that you need a dairy and milk, if you want to produce cheese. It just flows and makes sense. You can go to the market to buy milk and prices go up, but you can’t immediately sell milk at the higher price, because this game is set in 19th century Scotland. You have to slaughter your sheep if you want mutton and you have to cut wood or mine for ore if you want to make some money. It just makes sense and the rulebook is really just there to bring everything together and tell the players their overall goal.

Clans of Caledonia is always such a pleasure to play, because it all makes sense in my head. It’s not the sort of game where you have to work out where the victory points might come from. It’s all there in front of you and you can easily work backwards from the overall goal to decide what you should do on your turn. It’s just wonderful and the greatest game that perfectly blends rules, mechanisms and setting.

Another category for me is the “sense of achievement” games, which will include pretty much any engine building game or any game where you build something up and get better and better, the longer you play. There are many of these types of games, of course, but what I think gives you a real sense of achievement is when the build-up isn’t too long and when a game ends just as you’ve really ramped up that engine and maybe get one turn to use it fully, but then it’s over and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Some games can really feel like a slog. You do a lot of things on your turn but hardly anything improves. In some games, nothing ever really seems to change, which is frustrating and doesn’t give you any sense of achievement whatsoever.

However, on the flip side, there are games where you really ramp up your engine to peak performance, but the game doesn’t end there, but you endless run that engine over and over again, without making any further improvements. Sure, you will have had some sense of achievement as you were building up the engine at the beginning, but then it becomes tedious and boring, which wipes out that great feeling.

Getting that balance right is tough, but the game that I think does it best is Mystic Vale by Alderac Entertainment Group. It’s a deck building game, or actually more of a card building game, but at the end of the day, you basically build an engine. If you can play your whole hand on every turn, you’ve done really well. Also, the deck building in Mystic Vale isn’t just a straight line of progress. You pivot from getting coins to allow you to buy better cards at the beginning of the game to aiming for more points and Vale cards later in the game. That makes it feel less formulaic and forces you to adapt to the hand you’ve drawn and the cards that are available to purchase.

Mystic Vale also ends at just the right time. Of course, if you’re behind, you’d like to have just one more turn to take the lead, but in reality, the game would just be artificially extended, undoing the feeling of achievement you will have gained until then. Sure, the game does give you the option to play it for longer, allowing you to run your engine a few times, but it becomes boring. So go with the recommended setup and you will have a great experience.

Yes, of course, there are many more reasons why a game could be great and maybe I will write another article at some point to talk about a few more of them, but I think it’s enough for now. After all, you don’t want to run your engine too many times once you’ve reached peak performance.

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5 Great Christmas Games (Saturday Review)

Yes, it is that time of year again when I release a list of games that I think are ideal for you to play over the holidays. My list of Christmas games is not ordered in any particular way. Instead, I am trying to offer five different types of games that will hopefully provide you with one or two choices that suit your taste in games and are a great fit for the festive period.

Town 66 – the quick and easy game

Release Date: 2022Players: 1-4
Designer: Christoph Cantzler, Anja WredeLength: 15-30 minutes
Artist: Peter WockenAge: 8+
Publisher: Oink GamesComplexity: 1.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: 0%Air to Components: 10%

Oink Games are always a good start if you want games that are pretty easy to learn, quick to play and come in a lovely small box, that is easy to take with you virtually anywhere. Town 66 is no different. You will be able to explain the game in under 5 minutes, at least the core concepts, and explain the rest as you go. It’s one of those Christmas games that’s perfect to play while you wait for the roast dinner to be ready.

The game is a clever little 2D puzzle where you’re placing tiles horizontally or vertically adjacent to each other, but never tiles with the same colour or shape matching another tile in the same row or column. The aim of the game is to have the least number of tiles in your hand at the end, ideally no tiles at all. It really sounds very simple, but as so often with games from Oink, it’s harder to achieve than you think.

Town 66 box, wooden tile rack and some cardboard tiles
Town 66 has wonderful components

The first few rounds are always very quick, but as the game continues and more tiles fill the town, it gets harder and harder to find a slot for your tiles to fit. It’s now that the game clicks for everyone, if they haven’t played it before – and it won’t take long to finish and then everyone wants to play again. Town 66 is really addictive and will be fun for all the family, while more “serious” gamers will enjoy the puzzle element of this tile-laying game.

If you want to find out more, here is my review:

Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest – for some friendly backstabbing

Release Date: 2022Players: 1-6
Designer: Paolo MoriLength: 45-60 minutes
Artist: Lamaro SmithAge: 12+
Publisher: Stonemaier GamesComplexity: 2.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: unknownAir to Components: unknown

If you want a game with some light-hearted backstabbing, then Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest is for you. You’re all pirates with flying ships, so it’s unavoidable that there will be some deaths and competing players will try and steal each other’s loot. It’s all very family-friendly though. So I think it does fit into the Christmas games category.

It takes about an hour, but is really easy to learn. I would suggest you explain the basics to everyone and then just start playing. Things will become clear as you go along. In fact, the rulebook is really quite short, so there isn’t much to it.

Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest is a clever little hand-management type of game, where everyone tries to collect the most precious loot and otherwise do all they can to end up with the most money. Everyone gets the same hand of cards and each round plays one of them. Cards have a number and an action on them. Cards with a higher number get to choose from the loot first, but cards with lower numbers may get to do their action first. Some of these actions are about killing other players or otherwise affecting the game.

a hand of cards in Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest
a hand of cards in Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest

It’s not always about playing the highest card. In fact, because everyone has the same cards, everyone could choose the highest number. It sometimes pays off to hang on to the highest card for a later turn, just so that you get to do a really mean action first. However, everyone else may have the same idea. Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest is really the sort of mind game where you know that another player knows what you know that they know – and so on.

If you want to find out more about this game and see if it does really fit into the Christmas games category, then here is my review:

Aquamarine – a roll-and-write

Release Date: 2022Players: 1-100
Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Rory MuldoonLength: 15-30 minutes
Artist: Rory MuldoonAge: 8+
Publisher: Postmark GamesComplexity: 1.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: 0%Air to Components: 0%

Another really light and fun game is Aquamarine with a wonderfully engrossing setting. You’re all divers trying to explore a beautiful reef. You want to take photos of the wonderful underwater life and, if you dare, explore shipwrecks. It’s really easy to teach and relatively quick to play, great attribute to feature as one of my Christmas games recommendations.

Aquamarine is a print-and-play, which means, you pay to be able to download a PDF which you can print out at home or at a print shop. You need to print one copy per player. You have to provide your own dice, but you only need two, plus a pen or pencil for every player. If you prefer, you can even play the game on your tablet. It’s up to you. As you can see, you can easily play this game solo or with hundreds of people. There is no limit really.

The rules are pretty simple. Everyone has their own sheet, showing the same reef for all players. You will be going on up to three dives, depending on how quickly you exhaust your oxygen tanks. Someone rolls both dice and players pick one of the numbers. If they choose the higher number, they will have to use up some oxygen. Everyone then marks off that many squares on their sheet, going in a line that represents the path the diver took. You start at the surface, underneath one of the three boats and on subsequent turns continue the path from where you left off.

drawing your dive path in Aquamarine
drawing your dive path in Aquamarine

The whole game lasts 24 turns, representing 24 hours. That means half of each dive will be during the day, the other at night. Depending on what you cover on your dive, you get different sets of points. Some creatures only score during the day, others only at night. You really have to try and time your movement and decide when to take the higher number and when the lower.

As you can see, the rules are really simple and very quickly you’ll be imagining yourself in the depths of the sea, looking at the wonderful fishes, coral and everything else. If that whetted you appetite and you want to add it to your list of Christmas games, here is my review:

Suspects – a murder mystery

Release Date: 2021Players: 1-6
Designer: Sebastien Duverger Nedellec, Paul Halter, Guillaume MontiageLength: 60-90 minutes
Artist: Émile DenisAge: 10+
Publisher: Studio HComplexity: 2.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: unknownAir to Components: unknown

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries, then Suspects is for you. It’s a game you can easily play solo or with a group of people. Given how it works, I would recommend a limit of four players, but in theory, there could be more of you. Suspects is actually a series of mysteries you solve in order, each one taking about an hour to an hour and a half to play, depending on how quickly you can solve the clues and identify the murderer. I say murderer, but I only played the demo scenario. Every case is very different and it’s very likely there won’t be a murder to solve every time.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but in the scenario I played, you’re on a train with a number of guests. A body is found, the train is stopped and it’s your task to interview the guests and staff to find out what happened. The game is basically a deck of cards representing people, clues, witness statements and other information. You read out the first card and follow what it says. You will then reveal further cards as the story evolves, each card giving new information and different options as to how you can proceed.

Suspects (Photo shows demo components.)
(Photo shows demo components.)

It’s a sort of choose-your-own-adventure style game and there is very little rules overhead, making Suspects really easy to learn. It’s one of those Christmas games you probably want to play while the fire is crackling in the background. So if you want to try your hand at solving crimes, then check out my review here:

Brian Boru: High King of Ireland – trick-taking for heavier gamers

Release Date: 2021Players: 3-5
Designer: Peer SylvesterLength: 60-90 minutes
Artist: Deirdre de BarraAge: 12+
Publisher: Osprey GamesComplexity: 2.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: <1% (by weight)Air to Components: 45% (by volume)

If you want to play a heavier game with your games group or family, then Brian Boru: High King of Ireland might be worth a try. The rulebook isn’t short and there is a lot going on, but it’s worth the investment of time, if you ask me. In the game, you’re trying your hand at defending Ireland against the Vikings, gaining the support of the Church and forging political influence across the country. It’s no easy feat, but very rewarding when you can pull it off.

At the core, Brian Boru: High King of Ireland is a trick-taking game. Everyone is dealt a hand of cards from a deck with four different suits, one of which is the trump suit. Other than the suit, each card also has a number and two sets of actions. If you win the trick with your card, you get to do the powerful action on your card, while everyone else gets to carry out the less powerful action on the card they played. The problem is, cards are played from lowest value to highest, irrespective of suit. So other players can gazump you, even if you win the trick.

The rest of the game is about area control and having majorities in certain ways, which allow you to control the Vikings and/or the Church. Points can be made everywhere and it’s really important that you don’t focus on one source of points. You need to try and control enough area, while also proving your military prowess and political strength, at the same time keeping the Church on your side.

A look at some of the cards in Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
a hand of cards in Brian Boru: High King of Ireland

As I said, it’s not an easy feat, making Brian Boru: High King of Ireland a game for people who like heavier games. However, it’s the sort of game that is perfect for spending an hour or so pretending to be an Irish ruler and practising your poker face. I reckon it fits into the Christmas games category pretty well. Find out more in my review here:

Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • Aquamarine, Suspects and Brian Boru: High King of Ireland were given to me by the publisher as a free review copy. The other games featured in this review were either my own or a friend’s copy.
  • At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the game supported me financially or by payment in kind.

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Intro Music: Bomber

Family Game Time – games that are great for all the family (Topic Discussion)

I recently asked for some suggestions for board game topics I could write about. Phil Gross answered my plea and suggested I write about the best game to play with your in-laws. I loved the idea, but I wanted to open it up a bit wider and talk about games that are great for all the family, young and old, blood relatives and in-laws alike.

Let’s try and frame that question a bit more. We’re basically looking for games that are quite easy to explain and have very little rules complexity. We probably also want games that don’t require too much maintenance and play relatively quickly. I always think that time is often the biggest barrier for people, because they don’t want to have to worry about spending a lot of time on a game they might not enjoy. Shorter games also allow you to try lots of different ones, so you can find one that fits the group of people you’re playing with.

We will also have to consider the age range. After all, family does mean kids and grown-ups alike. So we probably want to find games that kids enjoy and that have age-appropriate content, but that still offer the adults something that they will enjoy. I suppose we’re looking for the equivalent of a DreamWorks film which has adult humour, without being an adult film, while at the same time offering a lot of action and kids’ entertainment, without being too childish for the grown-ups.

I think that covers it pretty well and is already quite a high ask. So let’s look at what games I can think of that fit those criteria.

Classic Family Games

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest Monopoly or Mouse Trap. Yes, those games do tick a lot of the boxes we want to be ticked for a good family game. However, they also haven’t aged very well and I don’t think they offer quite the right amount of interest for older players. Instead, I’m going going to suggest Carcassonne.

I can’t believe I still haven’t reviewed this evergreen tile-laying game that is still going strong. It’s such a brilliant game that really suits the whole family. You don’t really have to explain much to get going. You can explain most of the rules as you go along. It’s also such a visual game that it will click pretty quickly with everyone.

Placing tiles in Carcassonne is very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle. There is the tactility of the thick cardboard tiles and the lovely wooden meeples. There is the actual puzzle-solving part of finding the best place for your tile, as well as the best orientation for it. You also end up with a lovely map at the end of the game, just like you end up with a beautiful picture after completing a jigsaw. So even if you’re not very competitive by nature, you’ll still enjoy making the map and imagining the reasons for the three churches being built right next to each other.

There are many different versions of Carcassonne now and many expansions that you can mix into the base game. That way you can make the game as long or as short as you want. You can even play a co-operative version now, if you really don’t like the competitive and sometimes cut-throat nature of the game.

Modern Classics

A game that I would consider a modern classic is Ticket to Ride. It’s another game that I haven’t reviewed and that is great for the whole family. It might not be suitable for very young kids, but it still covers a wide age range. You can choose between the various versions of the game for different kinds of experiences, but whatever one you end up playing, they’re all pretty easy to teach and don’t take too long to play. It might require a little more patience from younger players though.

Ticket to Ride is a very visual game. You have the map right in front of you and you can see where everyone’s tracks are. Finding places on the map can sometimes be a little tricky, but then again, it’s a great way of improving your geography knowledge. It’s almost an educational game in that sense.

For me, it also ticks the nostalgia box. If you’re my age, you will probably have played a game where you travel around a map, usually roll-and-move style, and need to get to certain destinations along the way. Globetrotting is a pretty simple, yet somehow magical and enticing, theme. Ticket to Ride uses that to create an interesting and exciting gameplay experience that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people.

the board and components of Ticket to Ride: Europe (image courtesy of Days of Wonder)
the board and components of Ticket to Ride: Europe (image courtesy of Days of Wonder)

Modern Family Games

Now let’s venture into the present of hobby games. What I want to suggest next is a roll-and-write game. No, it’s not Yahtzee. Instead, I want to talk about Aquamarine, a game that I did review. I’m not generally a huge fan of roll-and-write games. They often seem more like filling in a spreadsheet than playing a game. For games from the genre to get my attention they need to capture my imagination. I don’t want a game that says that it will take me on a scuba dive into a beautiful reef. I want a game where I actually really feel like that’s what I’m actually doing and Aquamarine does that perfectly.

The rules are really simple and you need only the tiniest smidgen of algebra knowledge just to work out the difference between two dice results. That’s it. The rest is about working your way through the reef to see the fish, explore shipwrecks and generally have a wonderful time swimming through the water. You may even feel a bit claustrophobic as you reach new depths. Instead, you may find playing Aquamarine meditative as you get into the rhythm of rolling dice, drawing your route, marking off oxygen and looking at where you want to go next.

Sticking with the watery theme, I would also suggest Deep Sea Adventure as a great family game. Simple rules, quick playing time, plenty of dice rolling luck to level the playing field and generally a lot of fun. You can also adjust the way you play according to the audience, making it more or less cut-throat as you see fit. The game looks great on the table, has wonderful components and is just perfect as a family game.

How About You?

So that’s my list of family games I would suggest people add to their collection. However, there are many more that I haven’t mentioned. Are there any you love to play with the family? What are your favourites? Are there any games that you think look like the perfect family game, but really disappointed you when you played them? If so, what were they and why did they not work out? As always, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Let’s try and collate a long list of family games together.

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Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (

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