The Big Three

Board games were a large part of my childhood.  We had a huge cabinet completely filled with all the classics.  Name one and it’s a guarantee that my siblings and I played it endlessly. But, after I moved out on my own I didn’t play board games as much.  They’re not cheap so I couldn’t afford to start my own collection.  They also don’t travel all that well and take up a lot of space so it was hard to transport and store them as I moved in and out of dorms and tiny apartments.  Games using a basic deck of cards ruled the day.

However, in the past year or so, through friends, I’ve been introduced to board games once again.  Not the classics that most people know, but games that are more on the fringe of mainstream.  I’ve come to discover that there’s a huge community out there who follow board games religiously.  Germany especially is a major producer of hit board games and hosts the biggest board game convention every year in Essen.  Several I play these days are English translations of games that were introduced at the Essen festival.

I say that these games are on the fringe but there’s really no reason they should be.  There’s nothing weird about them.  Many feature easy-to-learn mechanics, quality manufacturing, good strategy, and most importantly, they’re a lot of fun.

Now immersed in the culture myself I often spread the word to others.  The birthday and holiday gifts I give now mostly consist of board games.  When giving gifts or playing with people who are new to these “new” games there are three I bring out first—Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan.  These three are nearly perfect in their game play, are easy to learn, and are spectacularly fun.  Every single person to whom I’ve introduced these games has been immediately hooked by at least one of them.

Ticket to Ride
uses a board featuring a map of the United States and various major cities across the nation.  Players try to build train lines from city to city to score points.  You build routes by turning in sets of colored cards.  The longer the route, the more points it will score.  You also start the game with “ticket” cards where you can earn additional points for connecting specific cities—or potentially lose points if you fail to reach them.

Ticket to Ride is definitely the first game I pull off the shelf when playing with people new to board games.  It’s simple to teach and quick to learn.  It’s a good two-player game but up to five people can play—making for some fun conflict as vital routes are quickly snatched up.  The game’s lines of brightly colored plastic trains are cool looking as they start to branch out and cover the board. 

There’s surprisingly a lot more strategy to the game than it initially seems to have.  You have to balance efficient use of your train pieces and routes while also trying to score as many points as possible. 

Other versions of Ticket to Ride have been released with maps of Germany, Nordic countries, and the continent of Europe.  Each of these offer twists to the basic game mechanics and are arguably harder than the USA version.  They’re must-haves for Ticket to Ride lovers but I wouldn’t necessary start a new person with those editions.  There are also expansions to the basic sets presenting more routes and greater strategies.  

Whatever the country where train tracks are being laid, Liz is definitely the Ticket to Ride champion in our household as she normally trounces all competition—she must be stopped.

Settlers of Catan
places its players on an island divided into areas that supply different resources – five different resources over all.  The goal of the game is to score ten victory points and you do so by building settlements, upgrading them into cities, and by drawing cards.  Players start the game with two existing settlements and then may build more by trading in resource cards.  This leads to a race for territory among the players as they try and get areas with the best resources.  Every area is assigned a number during the game’s setup.  On each player’s turn he rolls dice and the players with settlements adjacent to areas with that number earn that particular resource.  With the two six-sided dice being rolled, certain numbers have a higher probably of showing; leading to heavy competition for those areas. 

Settlers of Catan
is a game that’s heavy on strategy.  Typically it takes people a few games to really get a hang of what’s going on.  The game is best played with at least four players and is at its finest when the group is vocal and aren’t afraid to loudly barter and trade resources with each other.  One of the expansions to the basic game allows for up to seven players to play which can be pretty crazy.  Generally a couple people are going to get completely screwed over. 

Usually, people who aren’t into strategy games don’t like Settlers of Catan.  But depending on the group playing, they will come around if the game is approached in more of a raucous fashion than cold strategy.  The game goes over especially well in my family as we verbally berate each other into making deals and make loud declarations of trade embargos if someone refuses.

Named for the medieval town in southern France, Carcassonne is a game where you randomly draw tiles and lay them down to develop the landscape of the area.  You deploy your “followers” —robbers, knights, monks, and farmers­—to try and score points based off of the landmarks you build and complete—roads, cities, abbeys, and farms.  There’s a bit of a Tetris element where you have to use the piece you draw appropriately.  If you draw a piece with a bit of road and castle, it has to connect to an existing road and castle correctly.

is easy to learn but it usually takes people a game or two to understand the strategy behind it; especially the strategy for building farms, the key to scoring large numbers of points.  There’s some luck with what tiles you draw but an experienced player can make do with whatever they come up with.  Carcassonne is one of the best two-player games I’ve ever played but can definitely be a lot of fun with up to five people.  The more people playing, the more cut-throat the game is as people vie for territory.  With two people you pretty much stay out of each other’s way and efficient use of your pieces is what wins the game.

Of these three games Carcassonne is my favorite.  Each session is very different and there’s just something fun about the table being covered in those bright tiles.  Often I’m tempted to put in a piece that wouldn’t necessarily score me points but simply to improve the ascetic of the board; completing a roundabout of roads, for example.  Carcassonne has many expansion sets that bring more tiles and ways to score points but the basic set works great.

Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan are considered staples by those who are into board games.  Play a few rounds of each and you’ll see why.  After introducing someone to one of them I love getting an email a few days later from that person who sheepishly admits that he bought a copy.  The board game collection in our house continues to grow but these three are consistently brought to the table.