In many European counties, most notably Germany, board games are a popular way for families to spend quality time together instead of passively watching television. To satisfy this hungry market, game designers and publishers, in the face of competition from ordinary playing cards, for example, must offer intriguing themes, innovative game play, and sumptuous components. As a result, the best family and strategy games come from Europe.
This has been true for the past decade, and for most of that time it's been an open secret kept by a handful of American enthusiasts. Slowly that secret has been leaking out. In the past two years many of the best European games have been published simultaneously in Europe and the United States by Rio Grande Games, which gives many people the opportunity to join the European gaming "revolution" for the first time. If you're such a person, I envy you. There are dozens of fantastic games out there for you to discover. In fact, for newcomers there may be too many games. Like a kid in a candy store, you may find it difficult to know where to begin. Here are some suggestions to help you get started.
The Settlers of Catan
The most obvious place to begin is with the game that blew the lid off the European game "secret" in America. Selling millions of copies in Germany before landing on our shores, The Settlers of Catan proceeded to fly off store shelves in the States as well.
Settlers sets four players in a race to develop their civilizations faster than their opponents, building roads and settlements and trading with each other to acquire the resources needed for expansion. The game's popularity can be attributed to a number of factors. Each game takes place on a randomly generated island, presenting new challenges every time. The rules are easy to learn. Game play is non-combative—there's no way to destroy what someone else builds.
There's a significant random element that lets you blame a loss on unlucky die rolls, but there's also plenty of scope for strategy, allowing you to credit victory to superior play. Perhaps most important, The Settlers of Catan appeals to people who aren't hard-core game players. Despite our own collection of hundreds of games, we played nothing but Settlers for weeks when it first arrived.
Mü and More
If you like trick-taking card games like hearts and bridge, a treasure awaits you in Mü and More. Each of the deck's 60 cards is lovingly and stylishly illustrated, and the deck is as versatile as it is gorgeous. Rules for five different games are included, from the Casino-like Safarü to the Oh Hell variant Wimmüln. Remarkably, most of these games improve on the classic games that inspired them.
The best of the lot is Mü itself. Like Bridge, it's a trick-taking game with a bidding round before card play. Mü eschews arcane bidding conventions in favor of a simple process of placing cards from your hand face up onto the table. Whoever plays the most such cards is named "chief" and chooses a partner for that hand. This subtle process becomes a cat and mouse game as some players vie for chiefdom, others strive to be vice-chief (who gets to choose one of the hand's two trumps; the chief chooses the other), and still others show cards they think will make them an attractive choice of partner.
Each card in the deck is worth 0-2 points to the players who capture them in tricks. If the partnership meets its goal (dictated by the number of cards the chief played to win the bid), it also gets a bonus; if the partnership falls short, everyone else gets a bonus (and the chief a penalty).
The structure of the deck, which includes five suits with two duplicated cards in each, presents varied tactical choices during both bidding and card play. Space prohibits exploration of other aspects of the game, such as choosing numbers rather than suits as trump, but Mü is nothing short of brilliant. With five games to choose from, there's something here for everyone from serious gamer to casual neophyte.
If you like card games but don't know a trick from a trump, Bohnanza is just the ticket. This unusual and popular trading game puts players in the unlikely roles of bean farmers trying to earn as much for their harvests as possible. Accomplishing this means trading beans with opponents, sometimes even giving beans away rather than being forced to harvest a crop prematurely. The game's big twist is that you're not allowed to rearrange the cards in your hand—you've got to play them in the order dealt. Much of the game involves making deals with other players to trade or give away beans in an effort to manage your hand, getting rid of beans you're not growing in order to get the beans you are. Whimsical card illustrations giving rise to colorful bean nicknames help elevate Bohnanza above its prosaic theme.
You don't have to like trains to enjoy Union Pacific, a board game in which players create a nationwide web of railroad lines. The accumulation of stock in those railroads takes the front seat in this game. Each turn players can expand a railroad on the board and take one of four shares currently on offer, or else they can play shares from their hand to the table. When one of the scoring cards is drawn, the top two shareholders in each railroad score points—the bigger the railroad, the higher the score.
The genius of the game lies in the beguiling choices presented each and every turn. Often there are two or three shares you'd like to take, but you can only grab one. Do you take the green card that will give you a majority, or the red card to prevent it from falling into an opponent's hands? Cards in your hand don't help a bit when a scoring card comes up—only shares on the table count. You're in a constant game of chicken with the deck, deciding whether to push your luck and take more stock or play it safe and get shares onto the table. Those juicy, agonizing dilemmas make Union Pacific a satisfying challenge.
Many of these games are finding their way into specialty game shops across the United States and Canada, thanks to companies like Mayfair and Rio Grande who are publishing or importing them to North America. If you can't find them near you, try online and mail order shops like Funagain Games, Boulder Games, or Fine Games, all of which carry a widening selection of European titles.
- Peter Sarrett