Previously in this book, I have covered the biggest genres of modern games, and if you are reading this book through in order, then you probably have a decent overview of the hobby by now. However, there are a lot of smaller genres, and less common mechanics, which add so much variety to the hobby that I feel I must mention them.
The word asymmetric, in the context of board games, means that players do not all play the game in the same way. The idea has been around for many years. Some of the most well-known examples include 1977’s Cosmic Encounter (which allocates alien races to the players, all with different abilities) and 1996’s Netrunner (a two player game where one player is a a computer hacker and the other a corporate target).
In the past few years though, a couple of games have emerged which take the idea of asymmetry to the next level, with players effectively all playing different games simultaneously, on the same board.
The setting of Vast: The Crystal Caverns is a dragon’s cave, filled with treasure; players can choose to play as the dragon, or as the thieves trying to steal her treasure, or even as the cave itself! All these roles interract with each other, but they all have different rules, and different goals.
The other great asymmetric game I want to mention is Root, which has factions of adorable forest critters – such as cats, hawks, racoons, and the woodland alliance – all competing for dominance of the woodlands. They all play differently, and they all have different objectives.
Roll and Write
Roll and write games, where you roll dice (or sometimes draw cards), then make a decision, and write something on your score card, is also not a new genre – Yahtzee has been around since the 1940s, and there were similar games even before then. However, after many years in the wilderness, the genre seems to have suddenly come into fashion again with gamers. As I write this, in 2018, it seems that everybody has been talking about it recently (although I hear that a lot of these people thought, for a while, that it was actually a cool new game designer whose name was Roland Wright. True story.)
2017’s Castles of Burgundy – The Dice Game renewed interest in roll and write games, and that was followed in 2018 by dozens of high quality alternatives, including Welcome to Your Perfect Home, Ganz schön clever, Railroad Ink, and Let’s Make a Bus Route.
With the right group of people, auction games can be one of the most entertaining genres of all. In the most recent end of year poll for my lunch break gaming group (all gaming groups have end of year polls, right?), the winner in the Best Lunch Break Game category (the only category, as it happens) was Reiner Knizia’s classic auction game Ra. This game is from 1999, so I should not really be telling you about it in a book which is subtitled “21st Century Tabletop Games” but it was given a big fancy rerelease in 2016, so maybe that makes it okay? No? Well, I have done it now anyway, so if you don’t approve I am afraid there is nothing I can do about it.
Reiner Knizia is also the designer behind another great auction game, Modern Art. This one came out in 1992 though, so I am afraid I can’t mention that one either.
However, there was one other auction game in the top five of our poll – Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King. This one definitely is from the twenty first century (it was the Connoisseur-gamer Game of the Year winner at the Spiel des Jahres in 2016) but … well, okay, it is not technically an auction game. It is all about competing to buy things (Carcassonne-style land tiles) and setting prices, and it sure feels like an auction game, dammit.
If you are starting to think that this section is going to end without any valid auction game recommendations at all, don’t worry, because just outside our top five was a third (or possibly second, if you are being strict) auction game – Stockpile. This insider-trading-themed game is definitely from the twenty first century, and definitely an auction game. And it is also fun. Phew!
Area Control Games
If you have ever played the classic board game Risk then you already understand how area control games work – the object is to occupy as many territories on the board as possible. While Risk relies on dice roles, most modern games use more sophisticted mechanics. The 1990s saw the Spiel des Jahres won by area control games twice – by El Grande and Tikai. And many of the most popular games of the 21st century have area control at their heart – Small World, Blood Rage, Ethnos, Inis, Rising Sun, and the much loved epic Twilight Struggle.
The most well-known negotiation game is probably Chinatown, where players buy and sell property, and have to try to get the best price for themselves. However, I rather like Millions of Dollars, where players are criminals dividing up their ill-gotten gains, using negotiation (and bluffing) to persuade others to sell their shares, before it is clear exactly what that share will be.
Often, the actual value of whatever it is that players are negotiating over, is not obvious, and some mental arithmetic might be needed. It definitely helps to have a talent for this, so that you can work out the price at which you will break even on the deal. The alternative is to do what one of my regular opponents does to me, and assume that the other player has worked it out accurately, and just push him/her until you sense that he/she will not go any higher/lower. This technique can be surprisingly effective. Grrrr!
Hidden Movement Games
There used to be a wonderful BBC2 show in the 1980s called The Adventure Game which was like an early (and less frantic) version of The Crystal Maze. Instead of ending each episode collecting litter in a windy fish-bowl, however, The Adventure Game ended every week with a strategy game called The Vortex where contestants had to cross a grid, taking turns with their invisible opponent, the Vortex, who started from the other side, and moved towards them. If the contestant stepped into the Vortex (which they could not see) they would be evaporated. The Vortex’s controller would try to anticipate where the contestants were going to go, and the contestants had to try to second-guess or bluff the Vortex, to sneak past. This was the first hidden movement game I ever saw, and man, I badly wanted to play it.
I got my chance, sort of, a few years later, when Scotland Yard, the first successful hidden movement board game, came out. Unusually, this Spiel des Jahres winner was a mass produced game, and so is quite well known outside the hobby. One player is the criminal, Mister X, on the run through the streets of London, while the other players are detectives who try to guess where he is, and capture him.
I really like Scotland Yard and it is still available (very cheaply) today, but there are some modern games that are even better – Fury of Dracula, Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, Specter Ops, and Nuns of the Run.
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed hidden movement game of recent times, is Letters From Whitechapel. This has a theme and appearance very similar to Scotland Yard, with the added bonus (or unfortunate addition, depending on your viewpoint) of gruesome murders and dismemberments.
There is popular game called Flick ‘Em Up, which is definitely not a wargame, but I did consider including it in the earlier Wargames chapter, just to see how the wargamers would react. But then I decided that starting a feud with wargamers is probably not a good idea, as they are all tactically superior to me.
Despite not being a wargame, Flick ‘Em Up does include miniature figures. The figures in question are cowboys in the wild west, who are having a shootout. However, the gameplay is all about dexterity rather than strategy, and has more in common with tiddlywinks than Warhammer. Instead of rolling dice, players simulate shooting enemies by flicking little discs at the enemy (at the miniature cowboys that is, not at each other). The figures have a certain meepley quality to them; this is a game that does not take itself too seriously.
Now that I think about it, though, this game is probably more in the spirit of H.G.Wells’ Little Wars than some of the wargames discussed in the previous chapter are. Hmmm … maybe Flick ‘Em Up is a wargame after all.
Whether it is or not, it is not the only game on the market that has players flicking components around the play area. Others include Catacombs, Terror in Meeple City, and the hilarious penguin game Ice Cool.
The term “dexterity game” however, is not limited to games that include flicking. but can include games with a variety of manual skills. For example, there are many great games that involve balancing, like Meeple Circus, Junk Art, and Catch the Moon.
Whenever I need to buy a small present for a child, I buy the Jenga-inspired card game Rhino Hero, and hope that they will invite me to play it with them.
Murder Mystery Games
Back in the 1990s there was a particular type of role-playing game that I remember playing on several occasions – the ‘Murder Mystery Dinner Party’. These were quite popular back in the day, but you don’t seem to hear about them as often nowadays, though they are still around if you know where to look (i.e. the internet, obviously).
The way they work is that you invite your friends to a dinner party and allocate them roles. Fancy dress is optional but recommended. I remember over the course of the four games I played being a fashion photographer, an investment banker, a Transylvanian count, and a sentient android in the employ of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.
Our games began with a cassette tape being played (kids, cassette tapes were what audio streaming was called in prehistoric times) announcing that a murder had been committed. Each guest then received a little booklet which told them what they knew about the murder; perhaps they had witnessed something, or perhaps they were the murderer themselves. Over a three course meal the guests have to question each other and try to piece the events together. After each course a little more information is revealed from the booklets and the tape, until by the time dessert is served it should be possible to work out exactly what happened.
I enjoyed playing these games. Of course they work best for the sort of people who enjoy Agatha Christie style whodunits, which I do. Of the four games I played, the denouements were satisfying twice, and twice they were not. In both the unsatisfying games I was told at the beginning that I was the murderer, only to find out at the end that in fact all the dinner guests had been told the same thing. For example, in one of these games, I was the one who had pushed an evil billionaire from the top of a skyscraper, but it turned out that in the moments before I pushed him he had also been stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, and poisoned (twice) by the other dinner guests, and we were all somehow unaware of each other’s actions. Even when the endings were unconvincing though, it was always a fun way to spend an evening, and if this sounds like the sort of thing you might enjoy then you can always easily find an old game on eBay (Murder à la Carte was my favourite brand), or you can download some from the internet, probably.
If you like whodunits but aren’t so keen on dinner parties, role-playing and/or fancy dress, then there are some more traditional murder/mystery board games that might be more your cup of poison.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is also a 1990s game, was the first of this type that I played. Instead of a board, the game is played over a map of Victorian London, and the players are all Sherlock Holmes’ assistants, trying to solve the mysteries before he does. Players take turns to decide which suspects or witnesses they want to interview, they then find the relevant location on the map, and turn to the corresponding entry in the booklet. There are ten booklets in the game box, each containing a different mystery to solve, and there are ten ‘newspapers’ which include a few clues and a lot of red herrings. They are great fun, even if they do make you feel inadequate when Sherlock Holmes beats you every time. The version I had was translated from French, and had a few mildly annoying translation errors. What was much more annoying, was that on one of the cases an editor had decided to change the ending, but not the clues, so that it made no sense. I hear that later versions of the game have fixed this, but be careful if you are playing with an old copy.
In the past few years, inspired by the successful rerelease of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a slew of other murder/mystery board games have appeared on the market. These have taken the basic formula of SHCD and tweaked it, or changed the theme – such as Watson & Holmes and Mythos Tales.
2018 has seen two different games bring the format up to date, in every sense. Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game, has players following up clues in an online database, and researching real locations and historical events on the internet, as part of the board game. Chronicles of Crime also uses modern technology to its advantage, with the scanning of QR codes, mobile phones, and virtual reality, all featuring in the gameplay.
Escape Room Games
One of the most popular genres that has appeared in the past few years is Escape Room Games.
Live action escape room games, where you have an hour to solve the puzzles, to unlock padlocks and doors, and escape the room, have been springing up in cities all over the world in the past few years; but I am talking about the tabletop versions. These games usually take about an hour to play, and can only be played once.
A few different brands have emerged, such as Escape Room in a Box, and Unlock. The brand which has got the most attention though (actually winning the 2017 Spiel des Jahres Connoisseur-gamer award) is Exit. This brand is said to have the best puzzles, though it does have the downside that playing the game actually includes cutting up some of the components, so that you cannot even give the game away when you are finished with it.
Ameritrash games (though they weren’t called that at the time) started to appear in the States at about the same time as Eurogames did, and have been around ever since. The main difference between the two genres is that while Eurogames focused on gameplay and mechanics, Ameritrash games are all about the theme. Ameritrash games often have plastic miniatures, cartoony artwork, a long playing time, and gameplay which includes a lot of conflict (usually resolved using dice). Some of the most popular games of the genre include Arkham Horror (with its Lovecraft theme), Twilight Imperium (an epic space opera), Descent (a dungeon-based monster-hacking extravaganza), and Zombicide (a post-apocalyptic zombie-hacking extravaganza).
The word Ameritrash is, of course, a portmanteau word from ‘American Trash’. If this seems like an uncomplimentary name for a genre, that’s because the term was originally coined by meanie Eurogame fans in the noughties who wanted to belittle the genre, arguing that the games usually relied more on luck than on strategy. Ameritrash fans however, have since reclaimed the word for themselves and embraced it in much the same way that other minorities (e.g. socially awkward sci-fi enthusiasts with high IQs) have done with other words (though without having to go through nearly so much social injustice first). There are a few of them though, who are not on board with this, and might try to persuade you that the genre is actually called “Amerithrash” (do not listen to those people) or “American Style” (which is okay, I guess).
In recent years, the line between Ameritrash and Eurogames has actually become very blurred. Game designers in both genres have learned from each other: Ameritrashers have tightened up their gameplay, and Eurogamers are increasingly using more dramatic themes. Games such as Blood Rage, Scythe, Gloomhaven and King of New York successfully include the best features of both genres, and it seems to me that the term “Ameritrash” is used less often than it was a few years ago.
A recent board game trend is the popularity of games that have their own narratives, spread out over a number of gaming sessions. These games are often referred to as “legacy” games.
The game that first coined the word legacy (though there were undoubtedly some lesser-known campaign games around before it) was Risk Legacy, which was popular when it came out in 2011. This game starts out in the first session like regular Risk, but the results of each game influence the outcome, the rules, and the board, of the next.
However, it was the release of Pandemic Legacy in 2016 that caused the board gaming community to lose its mind. It was, for over a year, all that anyone seemed to be talking about, and it was the most highly rated game on BoardGameGeek. Pandemic Legacy is designed to be played over ten gaming sessions. Like Risk Legacy, the first of these sessions is basically the core game (in this case Pandemic) that gamer know and love; but between sessions, rules change, and the events of one session carry forward to the next. Players’ characters can carry scars of previous missions with them, and stickers placed on the board determine what will happen next, and where. There are sealed boxes that contain new rules, and new pieces, for each new session – including some fantastic surprises that I won’t spoil for you here.
The success of Pandemic Legacy ushered in a new age of campaign games (some more successful that others) like Charterstone, Seafall, and the game that eventually displaced Pandemic Legacy at the top of the BoardGameGeek chart, Gloomhaven.
If any readers think there are other categories that really should appear on this page, please let me know, and perhaps I will add them.
Thanks for reading.