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Best board games from Essen 2016 (arstechnica.com)
102 points by Tomte on June 4, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

Boardgaming has vastly increased my social circle and my life quality in a part of the world that is renown for the number of social shut-ins.

I run a gaming club out of my apartment; I have gone from knowing very few people to having a constant stream of new people coming into my family's life. I couldn't ask for more; especially when compared to the alternative (only knowing people at work, having a narrow circle of friends, etc..) I am also glad my kids get to see their parents with friends.

However, on the other hand... I don't find the new stream of games to be all that compelling. I don't get who will be picking up all of these new games.

Every bg is a whole new set of rules to explain, and often, to people who are relatively unfamiliar with many other games. In most cases, I tell them "Let's play a few rounds and restart the game when you get used to it" because explaining everything is a futile gesture. Then you only get to play again 2 weeks later (in a best case scenario) and someone brings one of his games and the process begins again... and again.

To get away from this, I have a very small subset of games I run in rotation at my place (7 Wonders, Power Grid, Pandemic the Cure, Race/Roll for the Galaxy, Catan). The group sometimes gets together separately for more complex games (Food Chain Magnate, Eclipse). There really is no place for another 12 games an year, even 12 good games, unless they are of the "dead simple" social / party game variety.

I respect the creators very much, but I think diminishing returns are going to be kicking in if they haven't done so already.

I love seeing new and inventive game mechanics. The ones you mentioned are great examples.

7 wonders - Your hand becomes your neighbors have next turn. Plus the simultaneous turns makes for a quick group game.

Pandemic - Challenging location-based co-op play

Race for the Galaxy - you and others decide which phases of a turn will happen (for everyone)

Catan - hex grid; resources produced the same for everyone (depending on your assets); trade

While I agree you can only handle so many games, I will definitely prioritize those with unique mechanics. And not everything has been invented.

Definitely agree with the unique mechanic games.

However, I'm finding gaming is becoming more and more like Monads; once you learn how to play, you forget how to explain it. It is challenging for me in the extreme to teach new people anything more complicated than Pandemic. I really don't know how I could teach someone Race for the Galaxy again (I sincerely don't know how I managed to convey it to my wife).

Recently, to avoid this problem, I've started to suggest that first time players stop by and observe a game before playing it for the first time - since it's a free / friendly event, it isn't as ruthless a suggestion as it may sound like.

Co-op play is a game changer, especially for most women in my experience.

Why does gender matter?

You're asking the OP to offer broad conjectures explaining his observations?

I don't understand why women would enjoy coop more than men. It just seemed like a strange thing to say so I was asking for clarification.

I'm curious if you are unaware of the widespread belief that there are statistical differences between men and women (caused by biology or socialization) with regards to competitiveness and enjoyment of social communication, or are you offended that such stereotypes are being assumed with the comment?

I was asking a question because I was trying to learn more. There's no ulterior motive.

For what's it's worth, I've noticed the opposite: Aggressive (usually male) players tend to dominate the decision making, effectively creating a one or two player game from a co-op.

This is why I can't play coop games. I often have the most experience, so I know what's coming, couple that with a good sense of strategy, and I become the asshole that chases away new players. I know this about myself, so I simply excuse myself from playing games like pandemic.

The best coop games resolve the problem by giving players secret information they are disallowed from sharing with others, thus reducing the ability of one player to dominate. If you're really worried about it, increase the restriction. For example, in Pandemic, forbid players from naming more than X number of specific cards they have each turn. It'll make the game harder, but that's about all.

I just play pandemic by myself :)

It's a fantastic solitaire game.

I strongly agree. All it takes is one passive aggressive know it all to completely destroy a co-op game like pandemic.

I think this is a different strokes for different folks thing.

If there is an opportunity to learn a new board game, I usually take it over a game I've already played.

On the other hand, I know a guy who just plays a few games of Catan a week.

I find that having to internalise the rules & quickly explain them to a group really helps improves my teaching skills. Plus, since we're not always going to get everything right, we get to practice polite correction & acknowledging mistakes!

I'm fortunate that our group is extremely cluey and can pick up new games after 15 minute rules summaries.

> I don't find the new stream of games to be all that compelling. I don't get who will be picking up all of these new games.

I feel the same, certainly for the flood of KS games. There's so many great games already published!

As per another comment I made here, people develop a tolerance or even appetite for complexity. I've actually played some games hundreds of times and still found nuances in the strategies. Simpler games tend to be "solved" much more quickly.

What's more, absorbing and internalizing new games is a skill and you tend to start recognizing game mechanics from other games.

Lastly, I wouldn't put any of the games on this list in the "heavy" category.

> However, on the other hand... I don't find the new stream of games to be all that compelling. I don't get who will be picking up all of these new games.

There's (presumably) always new gamers to market to that are just starting their collection. If you did boardgaming x years ago you might not have settled on the games you have. I assume most enthusiasts go through the same cycle (with exceptions for collectors or whatnot).

Maybe the games I play are a fingerprint which indicates when I started board gaming. :)

Sounds like you've got a great thing going there!

Maybe we're more picky, but my game group typically does a new game every month. We find that a lot just aren't fun to play (in spite of reviews, etc.)

We do go back and play old ones, and reading through the rules again goes faster the second, and so on, times.

But, yeah, there are definitely too many games out there... which is a nice problem, in a way :-)

Have you tried playing Citadels (https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/478/citadels)? It is an elegant card drafting game with simple rules and a lot of emergent depth. It sounds like it might fit in well with your gaming group.

I have not, added it to my to-see list. I really like card drafting games and it seems like the complexity isn't that bad.

"Moderate in-game text - needs crib sheet or paste ups" -- this is really hard to do with a half-Japanese group. I wound up asking my foreigner friends to get together to play Cosmic Encounter, just to avoid that.

I feel like most of the games in this roundup, as an alternative to ingenuity, have turned to complexity as a way to keep things fresh. And that makes me sad. In my opinion, any game that needs more than one type of "counter" token is probably overengineered. (Sorry, eurogames, I know this hurts your feelings.)

My favorite games are either very simple or designed to absorb complexity into familiar devices, like decks of cards and well-designed boards. And they thrive on a deceptively simple mechanic, a few difficult decisions, and a sense of urgency. Pandemic, Dominion, Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders and Quadropolis come to mind. Each of these is clever, not just because it adds another "thing to keep track of," but because it asks you to do something that seems easy and is not.

I am speaking out of ignorance a little, though, since I haven't played many eurogames (and probably don't have the patience for any game that takes longer than 90 minutes).

As someone who has been playing these kinds of games for 25+ years I have to disagree.

Complex games always existed. They're just becoming more mainstream. This is understandable. Boardgamers tend to fall into one of three camps:

1. The "let's see what happens" crowd. This group tends like to like games with a significant luck element. It includes coop type games that I tend to describe as "group vs deck" games.

2. The "social gamer". There is a strong social aspect in any boardgaming but for some it's clearly a priority. This group will favour lighter games and may not tend to play optimally or think too deeply about strategy.

3. The "board gamers". While this can still be social, this group tends to be more focused on the play and will try and optimize strategy.

So what's really happened in the last 20+ years is that group (3) has grown quite a lot. So-called "gateway games" 9eg Catan) were probably a huge factor in this. A natural consequence for this is that people develop an appetite for complexity. It starts to become much easier to absorb the complexity of these games.

For example, I've played probably half the games on this list and I would say that none of them are "heavy". There are a couple of "medium-to-heavy" but it can get much heavier than this.

As an aside, of the group Great Western Trail is my current favourite. Mombasa (by the same designer) never really grabbed me. It just seems a bit too abstract (eg by playing bananas you may get to move armies around. Or not).

To your last comment, I've played games that have a typical playing time of 4+ hours. 90 minutes is definitely in the medium (and maybe medium to heavy) camp.

Pandemic has an outbreak counter, an infection counter, a cured/eradicated disease counter, city infection counters and 2 different decks of cards, as well as meeples and buildings. And that's just standard Pandemic; Legacy is fully bananas with its engineering. Should its feelings feel hurt too? :)

Lol, thanks for calling that one out. When I talk about "counters" here, what I mean is all those tokens players use to track 17 kinds of "resources" in the stereotypical modern eurogame. I mean, are we really at the point where board games are distinguished by the way you navigate the board and the name/number of resources you have to manage?

I haven't played Legacy, because on principle I won't buy a game that can only be played a set number of times.

In conclusion, get off my lawn, I guess.

Legacy pandemic can be played any number of times - just don't rip cards up or progress at the end of the game. Once you progress you can't play that exact version of the game, but bow you have a new game to play. I would highly recommend it. To completely dismiss my own point but make another, we're on our second "season 1" with a new group after finishing out our first one.

I understand the principle, and I had that feeling as well, but I would encourage you to reconsider. I played through risk legacy and there was tons of excitement around opening packages of cards, adding elements to the board, etc.

I'm not as familiar with pandemic legacy, but with risk legacy, by the time you play 15 games with 5 people, the cost per person per game play is very low. And it's very exciting.

> In my opinion, any game that needs more than one type of "counter" token is probably overengineered. (Sorry, eurogames, I know this hurts your feelings.)

You're missing out. I can think of two of my family's favourite games that break your rule, and my players are only seven years old. First would be Splendor (engine-building game with 5 different colors of tokens that you use to buy properties). Second would be Speicherstadt (two separate sets of tokens - 1 set that represent's the players Agents that you use to bid on contracts, shipments, and properties, and second is a set of color-coded tokens that arrive on shipments that you use to fulfill contracts).

These games are incredibly simple and can be explained in a few minutes. Simpler than Catan's tedious set-up process and annoying edge-case rules.

And, for an over-engineered game, I played Terraforming Mars recently. The textbook example of an overengineered game. You have tokens to track quantity and income of each resource, and there are a half-dozen resources. Add that to a board and shoebox of cards each with its own elaborate rules.

It was a lot to take in first turn, but I have to say: this was the most fun I've had playing in a long time. Every card was a new exploration of the interaction of the rules, a new twist. The game was brilliantly designed in that the well-structured board meant that managing income and quantities of each resource was never ever tedious (unlike the wargames of my youth).

I couldn't play that with my kids, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

To me, the game's only flaw was the map - I felt like the Map of Mars was almost an afterthought despite how it visually seemed to be the centre of the game. For the most part the map could have been replaced with a couple of extra score-tracks (which would be consistent since it already had a fistfull of score-tracks).

Thank you very much for the tips - I'm going to find a copy of both Splendor and Speicherstadt. My step daughter is 7 and we have been having a bunch of fun with a D&D campaign. Gaming is fun and it's a significantly better bonding experience that we get playing Minecraft together. Board games would be even more fun, since my 40 year old mind is having trouble changing D&D enough (on the fly) so that it's still fun for her.

Seriously, thanks!

Along with Splendor you may want to checkout Machi Koro. Both my girls like playing it.

I just wanted to second Machi Koro as a phenomenal game for kids - you essentially just roll dice and buy things. But like a lot of these games there can be a surprising amount of strategy, especially with the expansions.

Thanks for advocating the other side. I've played and enjoyed Splendor, but never saw it as a resource-management eurogame. As far as Speicherstadt, I'll have to try it. My opinion is definitely open to revision.

Agreed. We (the family) tend to pick up and try four or five of the "hot new games" around the holidays (as judged by boardgamegeek.com) and find they can be hit and miss.

The ones that endure are the simpler (e.g. "Ticket to Ride" and even "Settlers of Catan") games.

This is actually last years Essen. The new Essen is coming up in September and there will be even more great boardgames to play!

October actually, 26. - 29.

Are there any games that explore economic theory? I keep coming up with games that would embody Austrian economic principles. In my imagination they are very solid, realistic and yet fun and simple.

Not sure of how "theory" you want, but Power Grid is a game with fun economical dynamics.

On the micro level, I found the Rich Dad game surprisingly well done. Informative and engaging http://www.richdad.com/apps-games/cashflow-boardgame

An economic "Risk/Diplomacy" style game would be cool.

There are quite a lot of board games based on supply and demand mechanics, often with rules for trading and opportunities to inflate or crash the market for a particular good.

Other comments have already listed some pretty good ones, but I'd add Wealth of Nations https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/32666/wealth-nations

I'd also recommend the very similar, but more in-depth, computer game Offworld Trading Company http://offworldgame.com/

Offworld Trading Company is an extremely good game!

It is designed as a board game, too, with board-game-style rules. The game is a combination of real-time and turn-based (for auctions) and each tick of the real-time game is actually a simulated 'turn.' https://www.mohawkgames.com/2014/06/16/offworld-rules/

Crisis, one of the games listed in TFA, is this, and a pretty rich one. With of course its specific slice of economic simulation, since you can't have a single game trying to simulate all of economics.

There are many many games that embody small parts of economic theory, but few that bother with a "full" simulation. I'd suspect it's a little too fragile to guarantee a fun gameplay (as in, many logical economic outcomes might not be thrilling to simulate). Here's some notables off the top of my head though:

- Food Chain Magnate - interesting recent game that explores some aspects of pricing, marketing, and management structure. A lot is abstracted away, but it does a great job of creating strategic depth off of a few basic tenets.

- Container - cutthroat pricing and resource delivery game about shipping/manufacturing companies. Players must sell to each other and cooperate somewhat to keep the economy viable. One of the harder simulations I've seen; the market definitely can crash or stall in this game, which some people complain about but I find very interesting.

- Stockpile - very basic game about information in the stock market, but handles the ideas quite elegantly.

- Power Grid - one of the best-known and highest-rated of realistic auction games, also features a resource market. To me, Power Grid is most notable as an economic game on a meta level: it's spawned many different maps and expansions and each one plays differently, usually only based on small tweaks to the power plants available or the arrangement of the network or 1 or 2 rules twists.

- "18XX games" - this is an entire genre of "train games" that are generally about building rail lines in the early days or railroad expansion, but often include additional "hard" economic aspects, like the ownership and valuation of stock in the companies (some of them even grant most of the traditional player agency to the companies themselves, and then control is inherited by the majority shareholder, so depending on stock, 1 player could control multiple companies and another could control none). I'm just starting to play these games so I can't give much more detail yet but they are definitely worth looking into.

- Acquire - a downright classic game about mergers and acquisitions between hotel / real estate companies.

- Modern Art - another classic about emergent value in the art industry; very simple design begats complex play.

There's also a whole slate of more generic eurogames that breach into interesting economic areas, Brass, Panamax, Arkwright, and Kanban are some jumping off points there. Even less economic-themed games breach many cool concepts; certainly whenever I play my favorite game, Keyflower, I'm thinking about how to value actions over goods and how the global value of the different currencies (meeple colors) is fluctuating and how much game-end wealth delta an early denial to my opponent is worth to me...

In Germany board games are so popular that they have board game reviews in the newspaper.

So does The Guardian.

% of German newspapers publishing them > % of English/US newspapers publishing these

How did the industry in Germany get to this point?

Good question, seems like someone answered here


Any suggestions for good two player board games that one can play with one's significant other?

Ars Technica had a 'best two player' guide a while back:


My partner and I are always on the lookout for good two player games to fit into the gaps. Here are a few:

Morels - A game about gathering mushrooms and cooking them for points. The game simulates a walk through the forest with a rotating track of decaying mushroom cards. A really pleasant game for a Sunday morning.

Trambahn - Building tram tracks in Germany (Austria?) from horse-drawn buggies to more modern electric trams. Completely card based and has some clever mechanics re: scoring and building stations.

The Bloody Inn - You and a partner(s) are running an inn with the sole purpose of amassing money, usually by robbing/murdering people in their sleep. Fun game that can actually play up to 4 but works well with 2.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game & Arkham Horror Card Game - These are both far heavier than the rest, but are great if you're into D&Dish adventure games but don't have a group for D&D. You essentially work through campaigns and scenarios with a character by playing again the deck/board, so no DM necessary. We like both of these a lot.

Race for the Galaxy is fantastic for two players; my partner and I have probably played it a hundred times or more...

Elder Sign is generally great, but collapses down to two players nicely.

Seven wonders duel is a great game, but can be a bit too zero-sum; we tend to prefer games where we do well on our own terms, without needing to block or disrupt the other's game to get ahead...

Carcassonne is fantastically simple but still very deep/complex strategically. Play without Farmers for a few games before adding them and decide whether you want to keep them or not - they make move planning much more abstract which is both good and bad. My friends and I play with and without them regularly, usually depending on how many beers we've had :).

Seriously though, Carcassonne has taken over my gaming group. We still play other games now and then but we've played it more than anything else by a long shot, and we regularly play with 2 all the way through the max of 5 people and it's fun in all incarnations. Truly incredible for a game of its simplicity.

Carcassonne can be surprisingly tense in 1v1 and expands nicely to accommodate as many players as you like. There are very, very, very few games that achieve this.

If you two like Chess but want something a bit more zany and light, I recommend The Duke. You each start out with nothing but a "king" (duke) and he has the power to let you draw random pieces out of the bag, and each piece has unique movements. Actually, two sets of unique movements, you flip the piece over after it moves.

The cool part? The pieces are self-documenting: they're flat tiles with their moves printed right on them.

That Ars article is a good start. Some games me and my girlfriend particularly enjoy

* 7 Wonder Duel - A specific 2 player only version of 7 wonders * Jaipur * Stronghold

My wife and I love pass-and-play with the Talisman phone app, the actual board game would be too much effort.

You mustn't treat it like a serious strategic chess-like game, but the emergent stories, triumphs and disasters are good enough to keep us coming back. I've bought all the expansions.

Bit late isn't it Essen 2017 insn't that far away

The joke, for passers-by: Terraforming Mars was huge hit boardgame last year, and is now in the running for the Spiele des Jahres, the German game-of-the-year which is often considered one of the foremost awards in tabletop gaming. In particular, Terraforming Mars seems to be the preferred choice among most gamers, but the SdJ committee is somewhat infamous for its surprising final selections, often not matching what speculators think of as the intended weight/complexity of the category. So that post's title, "the argument (for|against) Terraforming Mars", is an extremely relevant and current discussion topic in the board game community.

(The real link is, of course, simply about the planet.)

The problem with all these games is the theme they use. They use some real-world theme, make up real world map and refer to real-world things, but they aren't realistic enough, so it all gets a little stupid at some point, if you think about it.

The best example I can remember is from one of the Civilization games (not a boardgame, I know, but it is the same), which had a "technology" you could "develop" named "Communism". It made your workers produce 10% more.

The map is not the territory.

Any model or abstraction will not be able to completely replicate the thing or phenomena it represents, as the real life thing is too vast and complicated and interwoven with all sorts of variables in time and space that there's no way to represent it all. Laws of physics, finance, chemistry, economics, medicine, etc. are all the same. Just models, not perfect. Convenient and useful models, but models all the same.

Human brains just aren't capable of capturing anything in its totality, so at some point everything "gets a little stupid".

That being said, I can understand what you mean about these euro-style games where often many of the things in them can boil down to 'go here to do this 'real world thing' which in this game really just means it gets you a +2 to this widget that will earn you an extra 6 points at the end of the game. So thematic :)

I still really like these games, but I like learning and manipulating game systems and mechanisms.

I agree with you, and I also like playing these games, even though they are "a little stupid".

But I think some abstractions can be better than others.

The abstractions of Catan, for example, make sense, since they somehow capture the essence of the things: a terrain simply produces a good, goods can be traded, houses can be built from goods. Of course it is not perfect, but doesn't bug my mind.

Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has so many types of buildings and actions, all referring to real-world things, that it is impossible to make decent abstrations.

I guess I'm just advocating less detailed real-world themes, if you can't make simple abstractions that make sense.

There's already way too many unfun abstracts, please don't encourage designers to not spackling on a loose theme.

There are boardgames that seek to perfectly model the scenarios they describe. Almost exclusively they are wargames - multi-day affairs that involve sprawling maps, endless calculations, and incessant tedium as they attempt to model the greater water consumption of Italian infantry caused by their love of pasta rations.

These "grognard" games are generally reviled by more conventional players as miserable and pointless.

You can read the epic tale of playing such a game here:


The Campaign for North Africa was never meant to be played straight; consider it a reference for other game designers to study.

The consim/wargame split is more nuanced than you described. A game like Combat Commander: Europe attempts to replicate the chaotic unpredictability of small unit engagements: it's extremely unrealistic, yet is enjoyable + is commended for capturing the chaos.

The crux of the distinction is, a simulation isn't a game (they're not fun). Most wargames aren't consims, and some of the best consims don't even attempt to replicate the level of low-level detail you describe.

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