July was a good month in general for gaming. The summer heat’s fury upon the Southern California landscape means a lot of weekends spent indoors, with the AC, tackling a game or two. What’s made it even more enriching an experience is that I’ve finally found a board games Meetup group that meshes with my gaming tastes. While other groups focus on word games or party games, the Friday Night Board Gaming group that meets in Sherman Oaks plays the sort of Eurogames that I adore.
So with a load of games at my fingertips, some of which are thrilling, others of which are relaxing, but most of which are enjoyable, I find myself getting a chance to play early and often, which gives rise to this list of new-to-me games that caught my eye in July:
No game has gotten more plays as of late than Terraforming Mars. It feels like every time I go to the Meetup, its appearance on the table at some point in the evening is an inevitability.
The game itself carries a premise that takes in just enough of the Matt Damon-esque scenario where you’re a dude trying to make Mars livable. The scale, however, is far more grandiose with a corporation’s resources at your disposal. Doing it in the mold of a corporation brings in the unfortunate ideals of exploiting resources for wealth and small-scale sabotage to reach your goals, but I assure you that it’s more about prestige than making a quick buck. The player who wins maneuvers the corporation into a position where they terraform Mars and populate it in the most efficient manner.
To reach those ends, you’ll do things like hire indentured servants, hurl some asteroids to create some oceans and an atmosphere, bring on pets, and set up mining operations to get the materials you need to make your projects happen.
The first few turns feels like Agricola or Eclipse; you’re not going to be able to do a whole lot, but once you get that economic engine off the ground and crank out more opportunities, the turns open up as you’re capable of doing so much more. There’s the whole science thing behind terraforming too if that’s what you’re into. Stuff like algae and lichen and all that physio-chemical-biological jazz. But as a dismal scientist, it’s the economics engine that keeps me (and probably others at the Meetup) coming back.
[Buy from Amazon]
Roll for the Galaxy
I love love love Race for the Galaxy, for two reasons.
First, you have the mindgame in trying to figure out what your opponent is going to pick and choosing the appropriate action in response so that you can effortlessly piggyback on the opponent’s play while furthering your cause. Second, you have the satisfaction of building a board that can help you crank out points or let you settle higher-value planets or development bonuses.
Roll for the Galaxy plays in the same sort of vein, using dice as its action currency. You’ll use them for damn near everything; dice to settle planets, dice to produce goods, dice to acquire more dice from your dice pool, you get the idea. A turn consists of you rolling your dice, choosing an action, and playing off of everyone else’s actions with the goal of colonizing planets while making use of various techs, troops, or organizations at your disposal.
The difficulty with Roll for the Galaxy is figuring out the iconography, especially if you’ve never played Race. But if you have, it’s a cinch to learn. What confounded me during my first play session was getting a grasp of how quickly the game moved along. Right when I finally grasped how the various components worked together… the game was… over. Granted, that same feeling happens in Race for the Galaxy all the time, but I had gotten used to its pace/tempo. Roll for the Galaxy has its own pacing and that requires more gameplay sessions for me to grab on to.
[Buy from Amazon]
Beans, beans are good for the heart, so the old saying goes, but I’m not sure if Cacao beans were what the doctor ordered. I suppose chocolate never hurt anyone and that’s what this game is focused on. Cacao is a tile-laying game where your objective is to make the most money harvesting cacao beans and turning them in to the villages to collect a nice paycheck that you can blow on tea and brownies.
But when I placed a tile in Cacao, I already felt like wanting to play Carcassonne instead. When you’ve had the rules to Cacao explained to you, it’s pretty easy to figure out what you need to do to do well: maximize point values by hoarding and selling cacao beans at high prices while making sure that you do decently enough on all of the scoring tracks so that you’re not left out in the cold without your tea and brownies.
Because the game is so simple and because it’s fairly trivial to keep up with what your opponents are doing, there’s really not a whole lot to this game. Light games are all right and light, but Cacao is too light. You’d do well to stick more to something like 6 Nimmt! or Sushi Go if you want something interesting and engaging.
[Buy from Amazon]
The mind of Antoine Bauza has given birth to games like 7 Wonders, Attack on Titan, Flamme Rouge, and even Hanabi. All of these games are marked by a palpable tension that is gripping as each action has the potential to shake your strategic foundation to its core.
In comparison, Tokaido is an odd bird. Or to be more accurate, an oddball trip. In Tokaido, you’re a traveler along Japan’s famed eponymous road that connects Kyoto to Tokyo. You’ll amble to and fro, spending time in hot springs, visiting shrines and temples to pay your respects, encountering other travelers along the way, buying merch at tourist traps, and staying at inns to partake in ramen or rice balls, rejuvenating yourself before hitting the road once more.
You race to get points, but it’s hardly a racing game. You get nothing by arriving in Tokyo first. That encourages you to take time to rest and relax like a true traveler should. Instead of rushing from one locale to the next, take the time to enjoy what Japan has to offer.
It’ll be up to you to figure out how you want to travel. Real-life struggles like realizing popular locations can fill up fast is something you’ll have to take into account. After all, the hot springs will have only so many spaces for guests and once the spaces are gone, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You’ll have to assess how other fellow travelers want to relax, beat them to the popular locales, and stick your tongue out when you get to enjoy Tokyo Disneyland and they don’t. Or at least you would if Tokyo had a Disneyland back in those days. You get the idea.
The game stays true to its core by lacking the sort of high-tension drama that is typical of my other games. There is a function to its form and Tokaido’s form is best unveiled as the game night draws to a close, when people are tired of terraforming and are ready to hit the hay or hit the road and relax for a change.
[Buy from Amazon]
When people talk about how interminably boring games about trading in the Mediterranean are, Concordia comes in right on time to throw things in for a loop. Make no mistake: the game is literally about trading in the Mediterranean; however the mechanics depart from the spreadsheet-like nature that is characteristic of games in the genre by focusing in on more tangible goals like expanding your trading empire so that you can ensure an ample supply of goods to trade.
Concordia starts off with a ship and a colonist that you’ll move around the map to build trading posts. These trading posts will, from time to time, enrich you with all sorts of riches that you can then pour back into your little enterprise to grow even richer. Take-that elements stand aside in favor of coop-petition where you can get some resources and also you can get some resources and yes, even you can get some resources! Sharing is caring and Concordia has a lot of sharing, making the game experience feel like less of a tussle than a session where we go scratch each other’s backs while trying to eke out just a few more soothing scratches than anyone else.
But because there’s so much reciprocal back-scratching, it can be difficult to see exactly how well you’re doing. The scoring multipliers in the end-game are really well-obscured and it’ll take a few plays for you to develop a good heuristic for how well you’re doing. Thankfully, the fun factor in Concordia means it should be hitting your table often, giving you that opportunity to surf down the decision tree to figure out what path works best.
[Buy from Amazon]
Definitely interested in hearing what games managed to make your list of new-to-you games in July. Let me know in the comments! And if you want to follow along on my wacky board gaming adventures, I post quite regularly to Instagram.