Exactly how you define ‘heavy’ games is debatable. Some people think of them as complicated games, with lots of rules, and a long playing time.
Twilight Imperium, a game all about galactic conquest, politics, and negotiation, has an official running time of four to eight hours. It is a classic of the Ameritrash genre, and if you like that sort of thing, and have lots of time on your hands, it is definitely something you should consider playing.
Similarly, many of the wargames discussed in chapter 7 take all day to play, and have more rules than a military prison. These are, clearly, heavy games.
However, there are many who argue that the complexity of the rules and the length of time it takes to play are not defining characteristics, but rather it is all about depth, and the amount of analysis and planning needed before making any decisions. So chess, for example, would be a heavy game, even though there are only a handful of rules, and it usually plays in less than an hour.
For the rest of this chapter, I am going to restrict myself to discussing Eurogames that have a lot of depth, and I will try to give you an idea what that means.
Like most Eurogamers, I started off playing gateway games. Over time my tastes started to change, as I played games that were incrementally heavier, until eventually I was enjoying what most people would call heavy games.
Some of the most well-known and popular heavy games include Brass, Food Chain Magnate, Through the Ages, Lisboa, Gaia Project, and Trajan. Rather than describing all of these, I am going to focus on just one game in particular – one of my favourite games, Mombasa. This is a heavy game, but by no means one of the heaviest.
At first glance Mombasa is not too intimidating – the box is the same size as the box for Takenoko and only a little heavier.
The rulebook is where we see the first signs that this is not a gateway game. Takenoko has seven pages of rules, but Mombasa has twelve. That’s not so bad, though, is it? Well, no, but the Mombasa rules have a much smaller font size, and a much bigger text to diagram ratio.
The main board is a map of Africa, divided into territories, each with symbols on them. There are lots of little wooden buildings in four different colours, dozens of other wooden tokens and counters, a number of smaller boards, and a deck of cards.
Upon reading the rules, it becomes clear what the difference is between a standard Euro and a heavy Euro. A standard Euro tends to fit into a particular genre – it might be an area control game, or worker placement game, or a deck-building game, or a card drafting game. Mombasa, however, is an area control game, and a worker placement game, and a deck-building game, and a card drafting game.
It also has a few mechanics that do not appear often in other games: you have to make three discard piles and manage them carefully because you will be using one of them next turn; you collect book tokens (that’s tokens shaped like books, not WH Smith vouchers) and move a pawn along them to score points; there are companies you can invest in, with share values you can influence during the game. There are more mechanics in it than at an RAC Christmas party – or at least it feels that way.
Actually playing the game brings new challenges too. There are several ways of scoring points: company shares, book-keeping points, and a diamond track that I forgot to mention until now. How do you decide what to prioritise? Well, if you have played lots of games before, you will intuitively know that you need to do a little maths to work out where the big points are. You will also know that you need to be on the lookout for efficiencies, and cards and actions that have synergies with each other. You will want to build up an engine. And you should look at what your opponents are doing, and react accordingly.
The first time I played Mombasa it took me about twenty-five minutes to explain the rules, then it took us about two and a half hours to play – it filled our board game evening very nicely. The second time went a lot quicker though, and we had time for a bit of Codenames to wind down at the end of the night.
If, after reading this book, you decide you want to become a board game hobbyist, and Mombasa is the first game you decide to buy, I don’t think you will have a good time. All those unfamiliar rules will be overwhelming. However, anyone who starts in the hobby playing gateway games, then plays a few medium-heavy Euros, will find that most of the gameplay in Mombasa is familiar and intuitive. For people like that, heavy games offer a new challenge, and a glorious puzzle that needs solving.
Mombasa was created by one of my favourite game designers, Alexander Pfister. He has also created two other hugely successful heavy(ish) games, Great Western Trail and Blackout: Hong Kong (as well as the award-winning gateway games Broom Service and Isle of Skye).