If your household is like mine, chances are you have closet space or cupboard space set aside for a collection of board games. At my house, our cupboard has the classics Scrabble, Monopoly, Trouble, Pictionary, Yahtzee, and Battleship. We also have no less than a half-dozen decks of playing cards, and a selection of German-style board games.
German-style board games are a class of tabletop games that, generally speaking, have simple rules, short to medium playing times, emphasize strategy, downplay luck and conflict, and usually keep all the players in the game until the very end. Germany produces more board games per capita than any other country, but the style of the German board game has been adopted by other countries, thus board games designed with the same principles in mind are often refered to as German-style board games or European-style board games.
The degree of strategy involved in playing these games can vary, but, in general, German-style board games are designed for everyone– meaning the beginner and the expert board gamer (and everything in between).
With this primer in German-style board games in mind, I give you a list of five such board games that would be a welcome addition to any board game closet or cupboard. The games are listed in no particular order.
1. Carcassonne: This is a simple yet clever game in which the “board” is built as the game progresses. Each turn, a player chooses and lays down a land tile. Each player has a limited number of followers (little wooden figures). A follower is added to a tile to control a road, city, field, or cloister. Points are scored when a road, city or cloister is completed, with one final round of scoring occurring at the very end of the game to count how many fields are controlled.
The rules of Carcassonne are easy to learn and easy to teach. The gameplay is fast (an hour or less). It’s one of my favorite games for 2 players, but is equally enjoyable with 3 or more (to a max of 5). There are a number of expansions that add new elements to the game, but the base game alone has been entertaining my wife and I for almost five years.
2. Ticket to Ride: In Ticket to Ride, players collect cards of colored train cars and then use those cards to claim railway routes connecting various city across North America (or Europe, if you’re playing Ticket to Ride: Europe). The longer the routes the more points scored, but as the game progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to complete routes as there is a limited number of train tracks leading to and from the various cities.
Of all the games on this list, Ticket to Ride is the one that is widely regarded as the perfect game for non-gamers and American-style gamers wanted to explore German-style board games. The rules can be learned in minutes, the concept is familiar and easy to understand, and yet there is a degree of strategy required, which makes Ticket to Ride an engaging game.
3. PitchCar: In PitchCar, players race around a track by flicking little round discs (like checkers) around a racetrack. The racetrack is built out of large wooden pieces that go together like puzzle pieces. 8 players can play at a time, which makes PitchCar a great game for larger groups.
PitchCar has two things going against it. The first is its price. It’s the most expensive game on this list. Second, its size. You’re going to need a large playing surface to accommodate the large track, especially if you buy one or more of the available expansions to make even bigger tracks. That said, PitchCar is a real attention grabber. Set up a track before your guests arrive and you can bet people will gravitate to it. It is then only a matter of minutes to show them how to play. Flick a disc (a “car”) and try to navigate the track. Players take turns. Colliding with other cars is not allowed, and the various turns in the track means players have to be careful so they don’t fly off the track. If a car does collide with another car or flies off the track it is simply returned to where it started the round. This means all racers stay in the game.
4. Power Grid: In this game, players play the role of a company that owns power plants and try to supply electricity to cities. During the game players buy power plants at auction and buy resource (coal, oil, garbage, nuclear, etc) to produce electricity to provide power to the growing number of cities in their expanding network. The game ends when a player has 17 cities in their network, but the winner of the game is the player who can supply power to the most cities in their network. For example, in a recent 4-player game I played the winner had 17 cities but was only supplying power to 15 of those cities.
Like Ticket to Ride, the concepts in Power Grid is familiar– using resources to fuel power plants so that electricity is produced, and auctioning power plants and the buying resources– even if they’ve never played Euro-style board games. Power Grid’s game play is more complicated than Ticket to Ride, so a seasoned player can help new players weigh the options available when it comes time to upgrade power plants and manage resources. What continues to impress me about Power Grid is that the game play mechanics are so well-balanced. There is a benefit to doing well in the game but there is also a benefit if you’re in last place, and the order of play changes each round based on how well players are doing so people’s ability to purchase the most impressive power plants and buy inexpensive resources is always shifting, thus each game is usually a white-knuckled affair right to the very end.
5. Pandemic: What I like about Pandemic is that it is a cooperative game. Instead of competing against one another, all players work together to defeat the game. In this game, you’re trying to stop four diseases from spreading around the globe. Each player (up to four players) assumes one of five roles. Each role as a unique ability that is important to the gameplay, thus each player is equally required to help win the game.
The rules and concept of the game are simple to explain, and because this is a cooperative game new players can learn the game as the game progresses. The elements of each turn are summarized on a little card each player receives, which is handy, but what is best about Pandemic is everyone has to work together, which means new players come to understand the game as strategies are discussed during turns.
If the concept of the game is too much of a downer, I’d recommend replacing Pandemic with Forbidden Island, which is another cooperative game designed by Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic. In Forbidden Island, players work cooperatively to save treasures from a sinking island.
Settlers of Catan: Once you are accustomed to German-style board games, invest in a copy of Settlers of Catan. Similarly, if you are introducing friends and family to these style of games, once they’ve become comfortable with games like Ticket to Ride and Power Grid break out Settlers of Catan.
Settlers got me hooked on this style of board gaming, but I don’t recommend Settlers to everyone as the game to start with because compared to some of the other games on this list (Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, for example) it is more difficult to learn. The rules are far more complex, and the players are faced with several decisions to make during each turn. It can be quite overwhelming for new players. As such, I feel the best way to introduce Settlers is to play in teams of two– a new player and a seasoned player on each team. This way the rules can be quickly summarized and most of the learning can occur during the gameplay, with the seasoned player guiding the new player during their turn. This also prevents new players from getting trounced by seasoned players, which is something that can snuff any spark of interest a new player may have.
The premise of Settlers is you play as an immigrant on the newly populated island of Catan. You build settlements and roads by taking commodities (grain, stone, sheep, etc) from the land around you. Points are scored as settlements are built and victory points achieved through various in-game mechanics. The first player to reach a pre-determined number of points is the victor.
I really enjoy the social aspect of German-style board games. The design of the game boards and pieces often generates some discussion, as do the themes of the games (such as civilization building, supplying power to cities, etc). Some of the games involve interaction with other players (trading in Settlers, for example), and in my gaming group we always discuss the game afterward– analyzing each other’s strategies, retelling moments where the game shifted in one person’s favor, or when a person in the lead suddenly lost their momentum. These board games also very active, meaning a person has to not only think ahead, but also must be able to change their strategy should another player’s strategy suddenly affect the course of the game. As such, I recommend German-style board games to anyone looking for a night of fun and friendly competition with family and friends.