Back in August, I wrote about Bait Games, aka games you can use to bring people to the table. In September, I wrote about Gateway Games, aka games you can use to introduce people to the hobby. This month, I’m going to look at Next Step Games, aka games for people who are starting to move into more complex games but aren’t quite ready for the heaviest games of the hobby. This is a fairly nebulous category, and there’s a lot that could be included. Here are my eleven suggestions.
7 Wonders is a 2010 game designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Repos Productions. The game is a 2-7 player civilization building that utilizes card drafting as its main mechanism. The game is played over three ages, and at the beginning of each age, you receive a hand of seven cards from that age. You’ll select one of these cards, play it, and pass the remainder to the player on your left (or right in Age II). Once everyone has played six cards, the age ends. After the third age, the player with the most points wins.
There are seven different types of cards in the game, and each has its own unique flair. The brown and gray cards are resources that you use to pay for other cards. You can also pay two coins to a player on your left or right to use one of their resources. The gold cards usually have to do with money – giving you more, or a discount on resources from your neighbors, or even giving you points. The blue cards are straight point cards. The red cards are military, and at the end of each age, military strength is added. If you defeat your neighbor in military conflict, you get points. If you lose, you lose a point. If you tie, nothing happens. The green cards are science cards, and give you points based on the sets you create. Finally, the purple cards (which only appear in Age III) are guilds that give you a special way to earn points, often using items belonging to your neighbors.
Gameplay in 7 Wonders is extremely easy. It’s the variety within the cards that, I think, pushes this game into next step range. There are a lot of symbols to take in, and a new player to the hobby won’t necessarily be able to process everything going on. Strategies may be beyond them, and there’s some confusing concepts – you’re ONLY competing with your neighbors, scoring is kind of wonky, and how to pay for cards may be baffling. But for a player with some experience, this game is a very good next step into the wider world of gaming.
Cosmic Encounter originally came out in 1977, published by Eon and designed by Bill Eberle, Peter Olotka, Bill Norton, and Jack Kittredge. The current version was initially published by Fantasy Flight in 2008. In the game, players are different races from across the galaxy that are competing to be the first to place five foreign colonies. On your turn, you draw a card from the fate deck that lets you know who you’re attacking. After you dedicate ships, each player can ask for allies. Players then choose a combat card from their hand and reveal, with the higher number winning. Every player on a winning attack side lands a foreign colony on the attacked planet. Every ally on a winning defense side gets a reward in the form of cards or ships. Every losing player loses their ships to the warp. If you win your first encounter, you get a second (but that’s it). Victory is awarded to the first player(s) to land five colonies.
The big thing that really pushes Cosmic Encounter into next step territory is the racial abilities. Each race has its own special powers, and is able to bend the rules accordingly. The secret to the game is figuring out how best to use your power, as well as how to manipulate your opponents. It’s a strong negotiation game. There’s a lot of luck and randomness in the card draw, but shrewd play can mitigate that. The game is a lot of fun, and not overly complicated. It can be tough to grasp for a new player, so I’d definitely wait until they’ve had some extra experience.
Galaxy Trucker was initially published in 2007 by Czech Games Editions, and was designed by Vlaada Chvátil. It’s a 2-4 player game that is all about building ships and trying not to die. The game plays over three rounds, and each round has two parts – build and journey. The build phase involves grabbing parts from the center and trying to fit it into place on your ship. There are cabins for astronauts, life support for aliens, cargo holds for goods, cannons for defense, engines for speed, batteries for power, and shields for protection. Once building is done, you enter the journey phase. This consists of flipping over cards one at a time and resolving them. You could find a planet full of goods you can pick up and sell at the end of your journey. You could find an abandoned ship that could get you money. You could find an abandoned station that could get you goods. You could hit open space, allowing you to fire your engines and try to pull ahead in the race. You could hit a meteor storm, which could damage your ship. You could meet pirates, or slavers, or smugglers, all of which are really bad for you if you don’t have enough cannons. You could enter a combat zone, which will be trouble if you are in last place in particular stats. You could also find other special events that are never any good.
If you make it to the end of your journey, you get money based on what place you finished, as well as money for goods and having the best looking ship. You have to pay for any parts you lost. After the third round, if you have any money left, you win. If you have more money than anyone else, you are more of a winner.
I wouldn’t say that Galaxy Trucker is complex. When building your ship, there’s a lot that you have to think about so that you don’t fall behind in certain categories. But once you get it, the game is quite easy (to play – not easy to do well). That initial barrier to entry is quite daunting, and that makes it an ideal next step for me – I think a completely inexperienced gamer will run screaming when confronted with this. Even after you’ve played some, this type of game still might not be for you, but at least you’re more ready to face the challenge.
Glory to Rome is a game by Carl Chudyk and Cambridge Games Factory that came out in 2007. An updated black box version was released in 2012 to respond to complaints about the art in the original. The game is for 2-5 players, and is all about rebuilding Rome after the great fire of 64 AD. On your turn, you either think (draw cards) or lead. If you lead, you choose a card representing one of the six roles in the game (Patron, Laborer, Architect, Carpenter, Legionary, Merchant). Each other player can then choose to think (draw cards) or follow (play a card matching the led role). Each role allows you to do certain things. Laborer allows you to take cards from the pool and use them as materials for building later. Patron allows you to take cards from the pool and use them as clientele – each client gives you an extra action of that type when it is led by anyone. The Architect and Carpenter each allow you to start a building from your hand or add materials to one that is already begun – Architect takes material from your stockpile, Carpenter takes material from your hand. The Legionary allows you to demand materials from other players. The Merchant allows you to put materials in your vault for points at the end of the game.
The game is over once the draw deck has been depleted, or all in town guid sites have been taken, or a building meets its end condition (there are two in the game). The player who has made the most points from completed buildings and materials in their vault is the winner.
Glory to Rome is a fairly complex game. It’s going to take a while to really get your head around it. But once you’ve got it, it’s not that bad. It does have a barrier to entry, and if you don’t have any experience in role selection games, you might struggle even more than an experienced person was. I think it’s a great next step for someone looking to get into heavier games – if you can get the hang of this, you’re ready for anything.
Kingsburg first came out in 2007 (and I’m just now noticing how many games on this list came out in 2007 – must have been a good year for next step games). It’s a 2-5 player game designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco that is published in the US by Fantasy Flight. The game has a medieval fantasy theme where players are trying to build up their part of the kingdom in preparation for the hordes of baddies that will hit at the end of each year. Each round represents one year of time, and contains three productive seasons. Before each season, there’s a bonus phase where the player with the fewest buildings (or most in the summer) gets a bonus. In each productive season, players roll their three dice, then take turns allocating them out to different advisors. These advisors can give you points, resources, soldiers, or modifiers. After the productive season, players can turn in resources to construct buildings, each of which gives a bonus to the player. In the final season, some raider will attack, and players with enough defense will gain a small bonus. Players with not enough defense suffer a larger penalty.
There are five total years in the game, and each year play out exactly the same, with the raiders gaining in strength each time. After the fifth year, the player with the most points is the winner.
The thing that makes Kingsburg a good next step game for me is the dice allocation process. It can be a little daunting to try to decide where you’re going to place your dice – am I going to use the 3 and the 4 to influence the 7, or should I use the 3 this turn and the 4 next time? The game is not complex, there’s just a lot going on. I have seen this used as a gateway game with some success. However, I tend to see it more as a good next step game to open up doors for more complexity.
Notre Dame came out in 2007 (here’s another one!). It was designed by Stefan Feld and was published by ales. Players are turn-of-the-15th-century Parisians competing for influence and prosperity. The game lasts for nine rounds. At the start of each round, players will draw three cards from their personal deck, choose one, and pass the other two. They choose one of those passed to keep, then pass the other, keeping the final one they get passed. Players then take turns playing one card, which corresponds to an action on their borough. They will end up playing two cards, with the third not being used. The actions you can take include taking cubes from your supply, gaining coins, or gaining points. You can also try to reduce the rat track (plague is a serious problem in this game), move a caravan around the board for extra points, or make a contribution to Notre Dame for extra prosperity.
At the end of each round, each player has the opportunity to hire one personality. After this, rat tracks advance. If your rat track gets too high, you end up losing points and cubes. After nine total rounds, the player with the most points wins.
I love Notre Dame as a next step game. It is a little complex to introduce to newbies (in my innocence, I tried it once – never again), but not so complicated that intermediate players can’t get it. It also serves as a nice gateway to some of the heavier Stefan Feld games since it has numerous ways to get points, pain from the rats, and (let’s be honest) a pointless theme. But it’s one of my favorites, and I think it should be sought out. Unfortunately, I think it’s currently out of print, but I would imagine that it will be back, particularly the current interest in all things Feld.
Power Grid is a 2004 game designed by Friedemann Friese and published in the US by Rio Grande. In the game, you are trying to supply as many cities with power as possible. Each round of the game follows a certain sequence. First, there is an auction for power plants. Each power plant is powered by a different resource and can power a certain number of cities. Once each player has gotten a power plant (or passed), players take turns buying resources. This is done in reverse order – last place goes first. After this, each player may build, adding their buildings to cities around the board. The final thing that happens in a round is that you turn in resources to power your plants and your cities, collecting money based on the number of cities you powered. When one player has 17 cities in their network, the game is over, and the player who can power the most cities wins.
This is a game that uses route building, resource management, and auctions to accomplish its goal. It’s usually a pretty tight game – the catch-up mechanism that allows last place to go first keeps anyone from running away with it. It usually takes a few plays to really grasp the strategy, but it’s all fairly straightforward. I think it’s a little advanced for the new player, but certainly not the most complicated game out there.
Puerto Rico first came out in 2002 from ales and designer Andreas Seyfarth. It’s a 3-5 player game where you are trying to build up your settlement in Puerto Rico. In the game players take turns being the governor. The governor is the first to choose a role and carry out its effects. All other players then get to carry out the role’s effects, though they do not get the same bonus as the chooser. Once the role has been resolved, another player chooses a role. This continues until all players have chosen a role,, at which point the governor passes and everyone returns their roles for a new round.
There are seven different roles in the game. The settler allows you to add a plantation tile (or a quarry if you chose the role). The mayor allows you to gain colonists to work on your plantations. The builder lets you purchase buildings that will give you points and bonus abilities. The craftsman produces goods at occupied plantations that also have an occupied production building. The trader allows you to trade goods for money. The captain allows you to ship goods for points. The prospector gives you free money, and no one else can take that action – it’s effectively a pass with a cash bonus.
When the colonists run out, or when someone has maxed out their buildings, or when the VP chips run out, the game is over. The player with the most points wins.
I’m mostly including this game because it was my next step game. Shortly after I discovered Settlers of Catan and the wider world of gaming, I started looking around for what other games I should add to my collection. Puerto Rico was number one at BGG at the time, so it was a natural choice. I got it, learned it, and loved it. I still do – I think it’s a model of clean game design and a classic Euro. I know there are complaints that people have “solved it”, but that’s not the crowd I want to play with. I think it’s a great next step game to open someone’s eyes to the broader world of gaming outside of what they already know.
Seasons was a 2012 release from Libellud and designer Régis Bonnessée. This 2-4 player game is about a magical competition where players are trying to conjure up crystals. The game begins with a card draft – each player has a hand of nine cards, selects one, and passes the rest. From the eight they receive, they select one and pass the rest. This continues until you have kept nine cards. You will then divide the cards into three three-card stacks – one for year one, one for year two, and one for year three. Play then begins in the winter season of year one. The first player rolls the winter dice, and chooses one to keep. All other players also choose one to keep. There will be one left over.
After everyone has chosen a die, the players individually resolve their turn. Dice will allow you to collect crystals, collect energy, draw a card, gain crystals, increase summoning power, and/or transmute energy into points. You can also summon cards on your turn, but only if your summoning gauge allows you to. After everyone has taken a turn, check the leftover die to see how far the season track advances. If the season remains the same, the next player rerolls the current season dice. If the season changes, the next season’s dice are rolled. If the year changes, players will take their next stack of cards into their hand. After the third year, the game is over and the player with the most crystals wins.
I notice that this is the third game on this list that uses drafting as a mechanism. I think drafting is a more advanced mechanism because, in order to do it well, you need to know how the cards work and how to make them work together. This takes a play or two in Seasons to really get the hang of, but it’s not terribly difficult once you’ve got it. The game also includes a dice drafting mechanism that makes it really fun. I think this is a great next step game that can even be graded in its next-stepness – there are three levels of play, and you can choose which one suits your group the best (including a no-draft variant with the cards).
Suburbia was published in 2012 by Bezier Games. It wa designed by Ted Alspach. This game is all about building a community into a major metropolis. The game is for 2-4 players (with a solo variant), and involves placing hexagonal tiles in your personal area. On your turn, you buy a tile from the market. This can be a park, school, factory, or one of the tiles that will be up for purchase. You can also always take a tile and flip it over to place it as a lake for free. Each tile you place will have an effect on your income and/or reputation. At the end of your turn, you collect or pay money based on where your income marker is, and then adjust your population based on reputation. As you increase population, you’ll be crossing red lines that reduce your income and population by one. This serves to keep someone from running away with the game. The market then adjusts – if the cheapest tile wasn’t taken, it gets discarded, then all other tiles are shifted down and new ones are drawn for the expensive end.
The game ends when the “1 More Round” tile is revealed. Finish the current round, then play one more round beginning with the start player. Players will then check their secret objectives, as well as the main objectives to score bonus population. The player with the highest population at the end of the game is the winner.
On the surface, Suburbia is a pretty simple game. Buy a tile, place it in your neighborhood, collect. The thing that ups the complexity when compared to a tile-laying game like Carassonne is that every tile does something unique, and many of the tiles do something different based on what is adjacent to them. So you have to think a lot harder about what you’ll take and where you’ll go, or you’ll end up with a negative income and a slowly decreasing population, and there will be nothing you can do about it. The strategy in the game is pretty complex despite the fairly simple gameplay, so that’s why I think it makes a good next step game.
The last game on this list is Village. Initially published in 2011, this Inka and Markus Brand design from eggertspiele won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2012. It’s a worker placement game where you are putting workers in various areas to put your family members. Once at an action space, you take a cube so you can take advantage of that space’s benefits – harvest grain, grow your family, sell goods at the market, craft items, advance in the council chamber, travel to distant lands, or go to church. When all cubes have been taken from the action spaces on the board (including plague cubes), the round ends. But this is not a game where your meeples exist in a time vacuum. Time passes, and some of your family members will die throughout the game. Hopefully, they will be able to be entered into the Village Chronicle and not just buried in an unmarked grave behind the church. When the Village Chronicle or graveyard is full, the game ends immediately, and the player with the most points is the winner.
Village has a number of novel mechanisms, including the taking away of cubes in order to do things and the cycling of your workers. It uses some standard worker placement rules, but uses them in a very fresh and different way. The game is not overly complex, but definitely more of a thinker than, say, Lords of Waterdeep. That, to me, makes is a really good next step game.
So there’s my list. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – what are some games you like to use as the next step? Let me know, and thanks for reading!