This edition of The Eleven marks the end of my unofficial quadrilogy of Game Levels that began in August with Bait Games, proceeded in September with Gateway Games, and continued in October with Next Step Games. This month, we’ll be looking at what I call Advanced Strategy Games, which is known as Gamer Games. I’m not a big fan of the term Gamer Games since there are so many types of gamers, and ALL games are for gamers (or at least should be). For my purposes, this category is more about the meatier, more complex, thinkier games. These are games that I wouldn’t bring to anyone unless they were experienced gamers who were ready for the challenges that await. This is not to say that inexperienced gamers can’t play these games, but I think they are more suited to a more advanced audience. I will also add that these are not the heaviest of heavy games (no Phil Eklund or Splotter games here), but I can only write what is in my experience. On with the games!
Argent: The Consortium is the newest game on this list, so new that it hasn’t even been released yet. However, I recently got a review copy of the game, and liked it so much that I had to make space for it on this list. The game was designed by Trey Chambers, and is being published by Level 99 Games. The concept of the game is that the Chancellor of Argent University (the most powerful magic school in the World of Indines) is vacating his post, and players are candidates for the job. A secret consortium of twelve voters has a assembled to elect the next Chancellor, and you are trying to figure out what each is looking for so you can convince them to vote for you. This could be influence, supporters, gold, mana, spell knowledge, general knowledge, and so on.
The game is played over five rounds, and players take turns in each round to place a mage, cast a spell, use a supporter, use a vault item, or take a Bell Tower offering. Placing mages is the worker placement aspect of the game, with the twist that each mage has a special ability depending on their color, and no one player can control all mages of one type. As you go, you can wound other mages, banish them to their home offices, shadow them, or do other mean things. Spells, supporters, and vault items can be used during the game to gain special abilities, such as healing, looking at one of the voters, wounding others, gaining resources, and so on. The Bell Tower offerings act as an irregular timer to the round – when the last one is taken, the action phase ends and you resolve all the mage placements.
After the fifth round, all voters are revealed and award their votes to the player who has fulfilled their condition. The player who collects the most votes is the new Chancellor of Argent.
This game is very large, very varied, and has a lot of strategy. I know I’m spoiling my review that’s going up on Friday, but I love this game. It’s very fun, and highly thematic for what is more of a Euro-style game. However, the sheer amount of stuff that’s going on at once is enough to cross the eyes of a player who is inexperienced in hobby games. The worker placement alone might be overwhelming, but also throw in all the tokens, cards, and special powers, and it’s enough to make someone’s head explode if they are unprepared. So I do highly recommend this game as an advanced strategy game, but I would be hesitant to teach it to inexperienced players.
Caylus, designed by William Attia and published by Ystari Games, made great waves when it first came out in 2005. It was hardly the first worker placement game (that honor is traditionally awarded to Keydom in 1998), but it was one of the first games that made the genre seem viable. The game, for 2-5 players, lasts around two hours. The board features a path leading to a castle, and players will be taking turns placing their workers at various locations along the path and in the castle. Each round of the game has seven phases. First, you collect income – 2 deniers plus bonuses from certain buildings. Players then take turns placing workers. Placing workers will cost 1-5 deniers, depending on how many people have passed (it gets more expensive as people drop out). There are six special buildings across the passing bridge, and these will be activated in the third phase, allowing you to move your worker, gain cash, move the provost, gain a favor, change turn order, or gain a discount on placing workers.
The fourth phase is the provost’s move. The provost is on the road, and in turn order, players can pay to move him backward or forward on the path. If he winds up next to a building, that building and all buildings past it will not activate in phase five. Buildings will produce goods, allow you to build more buildings, transform buildings, sell cubes for money, buy cubes, or gain points. In phase six, players who have placed workers in the castle give some goods to build a portion of the castle. This gains points and a favor. The castle portion scores again when complete. Phase seven is the end of the turn.
When the third and final section of the castle (the towers) is complete, the game is over. Players add up their points, and the player with the most points is the winner.
There is a lot going on in this game. There are a lot of buildings, and many different ways to try to get points. The game is all about optimizing what you can do and keeping an eye on what everyone else is up to so you can try to exploit them for your purposes. It’s also a large game with a big board. There’s a lot of depth here, maybe even a little too much. But, nine years later, it’s still a top 20 game at BGG, so it definitely has some staying power. It’s definitely a good advanced strategy game.
Descent: Journeys in the Dark, designed by Kevin Wilson was originally published in 2005 by Fantasy Flight. The game had a second edition that streamlined the experience published in 2012, this one adding Daniel Clark, Adam Sadler, and Corey Konieczka. In the game, one player takes the role of the overlord while the others are adventuring heroes. The game is divided into a number of quests that combine into a larger campaign. Each hero has a character with different abilities. Heroes get two actions per turn, and can use these to move, attack, search, open or close a door, use a skill, or revive. The overlord, then, activates all monsters on the board. The game continues until the scenario objective for either side is completed. In a campaign, everyone gets experience points and the ability to level up.
This game has great depth of interaction. It’s very well balanced so that neither side has an overwhelming advantage. But still, experience matters, and as you play, you learn the little tricks that are going to help you succeed. There’s a lot to keep track of in terms of skills and stats, and each scenario provides new challenges. It can get overwhelming, and that’s why I think this is a good game for more experienced players.
Dungeon Lords came out in 2009 from designer Vlaada Chvátil and Czech Games Edition. This 2-4 player game took the concept of the Dungeon Keeper video game and turned it into a worker placement game. The idea is that you are a dungeon master building your dungeon, populating it with imps, gathering gold and food, and preparing for pesky adventurers to come try and conquer it. The game lasts two game years, with four building seasons in each before a combat portion.
In each round of the game, players are programming three actions they would like to take during the season. Then you reveal these actions one at a time and place imps on the board in the various slots. You could collect food, improve your evilness factor, build tunnels, collect money, hire imps, build traps, hire monsters (and ghosts), or build rooms. Each different action has three different slots, and timing is important since the first slot is generally not as good as the second, while the third is generally not as good as the other two. Once all minions have been sent out, you resolve the actions one at a time. At the end of the round, a special event could happen, and adventurers will split up to come stand at the entrance to your dungeon. If you get to be too evil, the paladin will come join them.
In the combat round (which follows the fourth season), you’ll be able to use one trap and one monster (or ghost) against the adventuring party. If they survive, they will destroy a tunnel in your dungeon. Combat continues for four rounds or until you have defeated all adventurers, whichever comes first. After combat is a second year, followed by a second combat round. After that, the game is done. You add up points, and receive achievements for how well you have done in the game. The player with the most total points is the winner.
Dungeon Lords is a tough game to figure out. As I said, timing in the game is everything, and you have to make guesses about what you think others will do in order to get what you want. Some people complain that there aren’t enough choices to be made in the game, which I think is hogwash. A game doesn’t have to overwhelm you with things you can do to have weight. Each choice in this game has a lot of weight as you try to solve the puzzle of what’s coming in the dungeon. There is a healthy amount of chaos involved which doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Still, this is a game that I think is much better for experienced players than for newbies.
Eclipse was first published in 2011, designed by Touko Tahkokallio and published by Lautapelit (Asmodee distributes in the the US). This is a 2-6 player 4X space game where players are expanding their empire, exploring new regions, exploiting resources, and exterminating their opposition. Each player starts the game on a hex tile that is separated from any other tiles. A Galactic Center tile is in the middle of the playing area. The game lasts nine rounds, and players begin each round with an action phase. In this phase, each player will remove an action disc from their action track. The more actions you take, the more money you’ll have to pay at the end. Actions you can take include exploration (draw a tile to go next to your current tile), add influence to an unoccupied hex, research new technologies, upgrade your ship’s components, build up to two ships, move up to three ships, or pass.
After everyone has passed, you move on to combat, where enemy ships in the same hex duke it out. After this, you collect income and pay the influence cost from the action track. A round ends as everything gets refreshed. After nine rounds, the player who has scored the most points is the winner.
This is another game where there is a lot going on. It’s certainly shorter than something like Twilight Imperium, which isn’t on this list because I haven’t played it. Eclipse still is a very dense game, and there’s a lot going on. Do you want to go for research, or do you want to spread out your influence, or are you going to be aggressive and go after your opponents? There’s a lot going on, and it can be intimidating, which is why I classify it as an advanced strategy game.
Le Havre came out in 2008, and was Uwe Rosenberg’s second big box game (after Agricola). The game was published by Lookout Games, with Z-Man distributing the most recent US version (now that Mayfair owns Lookout, I would imagine they’ll be handling any future reprints). Le Havre is a game about shipping goods and building an industry around the harbor. Each round lasts seven turns, and for each turn, a ship advances along harbor and goods are added to various spaces. You can then take one action – either take goods from an offer space, or enter a building. You may enter a building that is owned by the town or by any player, though you may have to pay a fee for a building that is not your own. Once in a building, you can take advantage of its special ability. This could be making new goods, building ships, constructing buildings, collecting money, and so on.
After the ship in the harbor has reached the seventh space, you have to feed your people, paying the amount of food shown on the current round card. Ships reduce this amount. Then you continue to a new round. After a preset number of rounds, the game ends and the richest player is the winner.
Le Havre has a LOT going on. The mechanisms are fairly simple, but there is a wide range of buildings available and a lot of things you can do to make money. As opposed to Agricola, this is a game where I always feel like there’s something I can do, even if someone else took what I wanted to do. But that wide range of choices can be extremely daunting, which is why I’m including Le Havre on this list.
Keyflower was designed by Sebastian Bleasdale and Richard Breese, and was published by R&D Games in 2012 (Game Salute distributes it in the US). The game is actually the seventh in the Key series of games, which began in 1995 with Keywood. Keyflower is for 2-6 players, and is played over four rounds, each representing a different season. Each player begins the game with a home tile and eight meeples which are drawn randomly from a bag (initially red, yellow, or blue with the possibility to get green later on). In each round, a set of hexagonal tiles is placed in the center of the table, and players use their meeples to bid on these tiles. If there is no bid, you may place any meeple you want, and as many. Future bids on that tile must use meeples of the same color and in greater quantity. You can also play meeples on one of these tiles to use its ability, but it must be the same color as any meeples that have been bid on it. Bid meeples also must match any meeples placed on the tile if they came first.
Once all player have passed, tiles are collected and placed in your home area. You get to keep any meeples that were played on tiles you won, but you lose any meeples that won their bid. In the winter season, the tiles that are up for bid are ones drafted by the players. After the winter season, the game ends and the player with the most points is the winner.
It’s a common trait of these games that there’s a lot going on with a lot of options, and that is the case here. Keyflower also has a very novel way to run its auctions, which is one that I really like (and you know me, I usually dislike auctions). It makes it feel more like worker placement, which is a good approach. You have many paths to follow in order to accomplish your goals. It can be kind of a brain-burner, and that is enough to land it on this list.
Mage Knight: The Board Game was first published in 2011, designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by WizKids. This 1-4 player game is set in the Mage Knight universe, and you are exploring the world while trying to accomplish certain objectives. On your turn, you can first move, then interact with your location – it must be in this order, so if you don’t move first, you can’t move. Movement is done by playing cards from your hand that allow you a certain number of movement points, with each terrain requiring different amounts of movement points to move through. Interaction with your space is different based on where you are. In certain areas, you can recruit units to help you out in battle. In other places, you’ll need to fight various monsters. You also might be able to collect new cards, or mana that can boost card abilities. All the while, you’ll be increasing your fame and (hopefully) your reputation.
Movement, combat, and recruitment is done using the same system. If any cards have the effect you need, you play them, but you can also boost the cards by adding cards without the desired effect and rotating them 90 degrees. Each card also has a more powerful effect that can be used by adding mana, either from your personal stash or a common pool of dice shared by all players.
When your current scenario has been completed, you award achievements to players who earned them (as in Dungeon Lords), which score . The player with the most fame is the winner.
Mage Knight has a very rich fantasy theme, and it is quite fascinating to explore the world. The game has a small deckbuilding element as you are trying to get better cards in your deck to help you in future rounds. Mostly, the thing that will stymie most players is the puzzle aspect of figuring out how to deal with each challenge. It’s not uncommon for someone to play a bunch of cards, then say “No, that won’t work,” and start over. This style of play appeals to a lot of people, and does not appeal to others. It’s definitely some heavy mechanisms in play, however, so I’d say use it only with advanced players.
Steam was first published in 2009, from designer Martin Wallace and published by Mayfair Games. Steam is actually a streamlined version of 2002’s Age of Steam, also by Wallace. This is a pick-up-and-deliver train game where players are laying track and moving cubes to increase income and score points. There are 7-10 rounds in the game, depending on the number of players. Each round follows a set sequence. First, in player order, you will select action tiles. These tiles will both give you an advantage for this turn and determine turn order for the next turn. You could be the first to move goods, build an extra track, be the first to build track, grow a city by adding new cubes, improve your locomotive, or convert a town to a city. In the second phase, players take turns laying up to three tracks (possibly four if you took the right action tile), trying to connect towns and cities so they can deliver goods. Tracks have different costs depending on the type of terrain.
In the third phase, players take turns either moving goods or improving their locomotive. Everyone will get two turns. You can move one cube to a new city, collecting income or points based on the distance the cube traveled. You can also improve your locomotive, which determines how far you can move goods. In the fourth phase, you collect income or pay expenses, depending on where your income marker is. You may have to go deeper into debt to pay expenses. You end the round by determining turn order based on the action tiles that were taken and get ready for a new turn.
At the end of the game, you’ll increase your VP total if you have a positive income (or decrease if negative) and score extra points for completed links. The player with the most points wins.
I have not played Age of Steam, but it is my understanding that Steam is a friendlier version, not quite as cutthroat and without a lot of the extra mechanisms in play. It has been called a gateway to Age of Steam, and that may be so. I still feel comfortable including it on this list because it really is a thinky game. It is very difficult to determine the best routes to build in order to get the most points, and also difficult to decide whether you need points or income more. It’s a very good game, and one I would gladly recommend to experienced gamers.
Trajan is a Stefan Feld release from 2011 that was published by Ammonit Spiele. This is a 2-4 player game set in ancient Rome that uses a Mancala-style mechanism to choose actions. Each player has a board with six “trays”, and each will initially contain two action markers of different colors (there are six in all). The first thing you do on your turn is pick up the action markers from one tray, and then place one marker in each tray moving clockwise. A time marker is moved based on the number of markers moved. The final tray is the target tray, and if you fulfill the color condition of that space’s Trajan tile, you score the tile. You then perform the action of the target tray – take a seaport action (playing/drawing commodities or scoring a ship); take an extra action tile from the forum; take a military action (move a leader or add a legionnaire and score); take a new Trajan tile; advance on the Senate track; or take a construction action (add a worker to the construction site or move your worker).
When the marker has gone around the time track four times, the round ends. On each revolution, a demand tile was revealed, and now players must give up what was shown on the tiles or lose points (4-15, depending on how many you did not meet). The highest player on the Senate track gets one of two bonus tiles, and the second place player gets the other one. After the fourth round (each round is a season of a year), the game ends, and the player who has scored the most points is the winner.
Stefan Feld is the king of what has come to be known as the “point salad” style of game. There are a ton of ways to get points in this game, and you have to be wise about how you’re going after them. The Mancala mechanism is pretty neat, and offers an interesting puzzle as you try to figure out how to set up scoring opportunities for Trajan tiles while still doing the actions you want to. Feld has many advanced strategy games in his catalog, but this is my choice for this list – very good, but very brain burny.
We’ll close out this list with the #1 game at BGG, Twilight Struggle. This two-player game was published by GMT in 2005, designed by Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta. The game is all about the Cold War, and follows the course of the conflict from its beginnings in 1945 to the end in 1989. One player is the US, and the other is the USSR. Cards are divides into early, mid, and late war. At the beginning of each round, players are dealt eight cards from the current deck (nine beginning in round four). Each player chooses one card to play as an event that will hopefully help you. You then take turns taking actions – play a card for operations or its event. If you play the event, resolve it, then discard it. If you take operations, you’ll be able to do other stuff, but if the card has an event that would help your opponent, it triggers and they get a benefit from the card. Operations can be spent to place influence markers in various regions around the world; roll to remove opponent’s influence from the board; attempt a coup against your opponent in key countries; or advance in the space race (you need to roll for this as well).
After six or seven cards have been played in the action phase, you check to make sure you have used enough operations points. If not, your opponent scores VPs. You then move on to the next round.
There are a few ways to win this game. If you ever get to 20 VPs, you win. Points are scored on a single track with the US on one side and the USSR on the other. It’s kind of a tug of war. If the points are on your side of zero after ten rounds, you win. You can also win by controlling all of Europe when the Europe scoring card is played. If your opponent starts a nuclear war, you also win. You’re dead, but you win.
Twilight Struggle is a very engaging game. It is highly thematic, and there’s a lot going on. It’s essentially a war game, but without a lot of the death and destruction that you usually find in war games. It’s very detailed, but the theme never distracts from the gameplay. Whether or not it SHOULD be #1 is a debate that I’m not getting into, but there’s no doubt that it’s a very good advanced strategy game.
And with that, Season Two of The Eleven draws to a close. I’m going to skip December since there’s enough going on that month without me having to put together another list. The Eleven will return with Season Three in January, and until then, I have some more reviews and previews to keep me busy. Thanks for reading!