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21st Century Board Games

21st Century Games - Pandemic Legacy

In my last blog, I talked about some of the 21st century trends in board games. Let me give you some numbers to put things in perspective. Up until 1990, roughly 2,854 games had been published (according to the BGG database). If we look at each decade since then, you can see that the numbers of published games have been growing at a staggering rate

  • < 1990: 2,854
  • 1991 - 2000: 2,022
  • 2001 - 2010: 4,718
  • 2011 - 2020: 9,386
  • 2021 - 2030: 13,483 (est)

For that last row, I’ve just extrapolated the growth that we’ve seen so far to the rest of this decade. Doing the math, this works out to roughly 3.7 new games being published each and every day! Now admittedly the BGG database includes a lot of “glory projects” (where individuals have designed their own games and posted it on BGG just so that they can see their names listed as a game designer) and some of these games use an ordinary deck of cards (BGG even hosts an annual contest specifically for this category), so you have to be careful in drawing any conclusions about the rate of growth. Similarly, about 8% of the games on BGG are expansions of a base game, so they’re not really a new game. But at the same time, there have been many individuals who have bypassed the traditional route of approaching a game manufacturer in the hopes that they will mass produce their baby, and have chosen instead to run a campaign on Kickstarter (where over 80,000 games have been listed) or Gamefound (which is becoming the Kickstarter for board games and rpgs). Or at an even smaller scale, some game designers just market their games directly on eBay, Amazon, BGG’s geek market, or social media. And some of these games will only ever be available in PNP (print and play) formats, meaning that in order to play them you have to first print out the cards, cut them up, make up any player boards, get counters, etc. I am a PNPer and I speak for the rest of my fellow game builders when I tell you that the number of games on our “Games to Make in the Future” list completely dwarfs the number of games that we have actually made. Incidentally, nowhere is the growth in games bigger than in “roll and writes”. These games typically involve one or two sheets of paper, and a few dice, so they are easy to put up on Kickstarter if you have the artistic ability to make the sheets visually appealing. I definitely see the roll and writes as a fad mechanic, even though the numbers of new games may stay high for a while.

In my previous article, I looked at some of the big trends of the 21st century, and the best games within those categories. In the deck builders category, I highlighted Dune: Imperium. In the worker placement category (or equally, the Jamey Stegmaier category), I chose Viticulture Essential Edition. In the luxury games category (which included Kickstarters), I chose Castles of Burgundy. And for the shining star of the 21st century (so far), I nominated Wingspan. But there’s a few more trends to mention.

Co-operative Games – Pandemic Legacy

Although there were a few co-operative games floating around in the 20th century, they never really caught on. The very first one was probably Together (1971) which was designed by Jim Deacove. In fact, Deacove set up a company called Family Pastimes which only makes co-operative games. To date, they have release 115 co-operative games, but none of them can compare to Reiner Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings (2000), which was the first board game to popularize co-operative gaming. To give you some perspective, if you were to add up the total number of votes/ratings for all the Family Pastime games on BGG, you would get 1,847. The equivalent number for The Lord of the Rings alone is 15,486. This game is now out of print, with the last printing being the Fantasy Flight Games anniversary edition in 2020, but you should be able to get a copy on eBay. Nonetheless, there are two excellent co-operative card games (also published by Fantasy Flight Games) in the Lord of the Rings universe which readily available. One is The Lord Of The Rings: Journeys In Middle Earth. This is a great game with great artwork and a huge amount of player interaction. It plays best at 1-4 in under 2 hours (or 1 hour, if there are only two of you). It’s a campaign game that uses an app, but don’t let that put you off. The app makes it easy to set up (about 10 minutes), and it helps to drive the story.

The other LotR co-operative card game is called The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game – Revised Core Set. Actually, this was the very first co-operative living card game when it first came out in 2011. It plays best at 1 or 2 in about an hour. There’s no app in this game, and it’s a slightly more complex deck building game than LotR: JiME, but you can hold off on the deck construction mechanism until you are more used to the way that the cards interact with one another. It comes with three scenarios, a 36 page rule book and a similar size “learn to play” book. But don’t let that put you off. The guides are well written and the play book includes a suggested starting deck for 1 and/or 2 players, so it’s easy to start playing the game right out of the box. This new version also includes additional cards that allow you to play in campaign mode (previously, you could only play the standalone scenarios)… Once you are comfortable with the deck construction mechanism (or get bored of playing the three scenarios), you can then look forward to adding more cards to your set via expansions (this is what defines a living card game). If you decide to go that way, there are currently 11 expansions to choose from. Each expansion comes with at least 50 cards, and six more scenarios to work your way through. If you don’t like the LotR universe, Fantasy Flight Games also have living card games for Arkam Horror and Marvel Champions. All of these games have fantastic artwork and great card quality, as you would expect from Fantasy Flight Games. Personally, I would go with Arkham Horror: The Card Game – Revised Core Set, which as you might gather has just been revised.

There are over 10,000 co-operative games listed on BGG, and choosing the best of them is not easy. But when I think of co-operative games, the one game that instantly comes to mind is Matt Leacock’s Pandemic. There are over 15 Pandemic games listed on the Zatu website; you can get Star Wars Pandemic, World of Warcraft Pandemic, Reign of Cthulhu Pandemic, and even Fall of Rome Pandemic. But I think the best version of the Pandemic games is the Pandemic legacy series.

Risk Legacy was probably the first legacy game. It was basically Risk but with a few added bits. More specifically, there were stickers that you placed over cards (changing their function), there were points in the game where you were instructed to tear up a card and throw it in the bin (!!), and then were extra cards that you would never use because of the decisions you made playing the game (so you might as well throw those away). After playing the 15 campaigns, you were left with a perfectly playable version of Risk that was unique to you. There are only 139 legacy games listed on BGG and 10% of those are forthcoming. So, I would argue that legacy games are a fad rather than a genuine trend.

Nonetheless, the Pandemic legacy series has been incredibly popular. There are three seasons – Season 0, Season 1, and Season 2. Each of these seasons is also available in various colours – red, blue, yellow, black, etc – but the only difference between the colours is the artwork on the outside of the box; the contents are otherwise exactly the same. Of the three, Season 1 is ranked the highest on BGG (#2 compared with #50 and #51), but the games are otherwise very similar to play. Regardless of the version, you have 12 scenarios (presented as months) to play through. The legacy features mean that your characters will become stronger as you progress through the campaign, but because those characters may die, you could find yourself in a more difficult scenario with a new (and much weaker!) character, making winning more difficult in the later stages of the campaign. Similarly, as you win each scenario, the game automatically cuts back your funding, so winning becomes more difficult. That’s a very clever mechanism to make the game harder for teams that win too easily, or easier for teams that are struggling. Pandemic Legacy plays 2-4 in about a hour, and it’s a solid family-weight game. But if you want something more meaty, then I would recommend Gloomhaven, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, or Spirit Island. These all take about 2 hours to play.

21st Century Favourites – Terraforming Mars

It’s worth pausing at this point to recognize the most popular games of the 21st Century. Games like Monopoly, Connect Four, and Jenga, etc were the 20th century favourites, with Catan being the game that introduced the most gamers to the modern hobby. Like those games, the following games are (for the most part) very easy to pick up and will lead gamers towards wanting more of the same. But before I list them, let me tell you how I decided on this list. It was quite simple really; I just went to BGG and I asked to database to list the 21st century games with the most votes. That is, these games are the ones that have been rated most often by gamers. So, arguably, they are the most popular ones.

#1 Carcassonne is an area control game that centres around (square) tile placement. Your take a tile from the face down pile and place it on the table next to one of the other tiles. Then you decide whether to add a meeple to control the tile feature (roads, cities, farmland, monasteries, etc). You can score some tiles as you go along, but there is also a final scoring round for incomplete structures. It plays 2-5 in about a half hour. And if you wanted to add more tiles, there are a handful of expansions available. Or, you could buy the 20th anniversary edition, which comes with 20 extra tiles and some stickers to dress up your meeples. Or if you like the idea, but don’t want to head to head competition, there is now a co-operative version – Mists over Carcassonne. Or if you kids are really young, there is a baby version - My First Carcassonne - which is suitable for children over 4 years old.

#2 Pandemic I’ve already mentioned Pandemic Legacy, but Pandemic itself stands on its own as a great family game. On your turn, you have to decide whether to travel to a city, treat the infected, discover a cure and/or build a research station. Because each character in the game has its own particular ability, an important part of winning the game is making sure that you have the right character in the right location at the right time. Luckily, the dispatcher can move other players’ pawns as if they were his own. I have known some gamers to play this game solo (and they love it best that way), but the box says it plays 2-4 and a game takes about 45 minutes (or less) to play.

#3 7 Wonders or 7 Wonders Duel One of the problems with a lot of card games is the luck of the draw; you could find yourself with a fantastic hand right from the beginning, or find that hand is guaranteed to lose right from the beginning. 7 Wonders introduced a mechanism for mitigating that risk (closed drafting). Each player starts with a hand of cards, and then they pick one of them and pass the rest of their cards to the player on your left (or right). This makes the game really interesting because you might be torn between two great cards and whichever one you don’t choose you know is going to be offered to your opponent. On top of that, you might not want a particular card, but if your opponent gets that card, he might score a ton of points. Will you take that card just so your opponent doesn’t get it (hate drafting)? In 7 Wonders, you start with 7 cards, pick one and then pass the rest. You then repeat the process, passing to the right (or left). At the end of 6 drafts, you’ll have a hand of six cards. The box says it plays 2-7 in about 30 minutes, but the two player rules were actually a variant (although a few people liked it). A few years after its release, Bruno Cathala worked out a 2 player only version of the game, which many people prefer to the original.

#4 Terraforming Mars is the first advanced game on this list. There are a lot of rules, and it takes a couple of hours to play. But don’t worry. If that’s a concern, there is Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition which simplifies the game by turning it into a card game, and thus reducing the playing time to under an hour. Or if you prefer to roll some dice, Terraforming Mars: The Dice Game is due out later this year. In all these games, you can play 1-4, and as you can deduce from the title, you are trying to make Mars habitable. In the original game, you are going to do that by spending money, collecting resources, playing cards, and placing hexagonal tiles. There is a great deal of satisfaction as you co-operate to create engines to raise the temperature of the planet, increase the oxygen levels, and add oceans. However, you are also competing with one another to score victory points. Great game, and my personal favourite on this list.

#5 Dominion is the father of deck building. It’s still a great game (deck building is a fantastic mechanism!) and there are loads of expansions to keep the game from going stale. But the design of deck building games has evolved over the last 15 years, and there are arguably better games out there today. But this is still a favourite with gamers. However, let me warn you that playing deck builders is a lot like playing chess. Once you get good at it, you crush anyone who is just learning, and when you watch experienced players, this is a very fast game. It plays 2-4 in about 30 minutes.

#6 Codenames I personally don’t like this game; I far prefer Decrypto. But, at the moment, Decrypto is out of print, with a new edition coming out (with 400 more cards) later in the year. Anyway, in Codenames you work in teams of two (or more). On the table is a 5x5 grid of cards (on which is written one word). The sender says one word (“Professions”) and a number (“3”), and that tells the receiver that there are 3 words in the grid that have something to do with professions. The catch is that some of the words belong to the other team, so if the receiver picks any of them, then your opponents get a point. And one of the words is a boobytrap, so if you pick that one, your team automatically loses. In short, the sender is trying to get you to pick some words, but not others. There are many versions of codenames – Codenames: Pictures replaces the words with pictures, and Codenames: Disney, Codenames: Harry Potter, Codenames: The Simpsons use words and pictures specific to an IP. Codenames: Harry Potter deserves special mention because it’s a 2 player only game (whereas standard Codenames is a 4-8 player game) that plays in about 15 minutes (normal Codename length). In the original Codenames, there was a single clue card with a grid on it that indicated the cards to be picked with red spots and blue spots (and black spots for the boobytraps). Obviously, one team had to find the red words and the other team had to find the blue words. In Codenames: Duet, which was the original two player version, there is a communal double sided card with eight green spots and three black spots on both sides which is held by a card stand and placed so that one player sees one side and the other player sees the other side. Three of the green spots are in the same location on both sides, and five of the green spots are in different locations. But, one of those green spots is shown as a booby trap on the other side. Although the rules are similar, this game plays very differently (because it’s co-operative). That is, in standard Codenames, your team just has to be better than the other. In Codenames: Duet, you have to work together to not lose, and that’s a completely different game vibe.

#7 Ticket to Ride in my mind, I think of Ticket to Ride as the Monopoly of the early 21st century. Designed by Alan Moon, it is a simple game, with great table presence, and the joy of placing a train on a route is universal. Although the original game featured a map of the United States, you can get Ticket to Ride: Europe, Ticket to Ride: Asia, or, if you insist on using a UK map, there is the double sided map in Ticket to Ride: UK & Pennsylvania. The game plays 2-5 in less than an hour, but if you want a faster game, there are also city versions of Ticket to Ride which only take 15 minutes to play. In that series, you have London, New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam. In any case, each player begins with a fixed number of trains, four train cards and two ticket cards. The train deck has trains of different colours (including some that act as wild cards), and the ticket deck has routes (eg, Denver to Pittsburgh). On your turn, you can place your trains on a route between two cities if you have enough cards in your hand to match the number and the colour of the route. For example, between Kansas City and St Louis, you would need two blue trains or two pink trains. Instead, you can draw two cards from the train deck, or up to three cards from the ticket deck. When one player gets down to two trains, everyone has one more go, and then the final scoring round begins. Did you manage to get connect enough of your trains to fulfil the routes on your ticket cards? If so, you earn the victory points shown on the card. If not, then you lose those number of points. What makes this game so good is that the routes don’t have to be direct. So, if one player blocks you direct route, you have to take another route to get there. So, the game is surprisingly thinky.

If I wanted to conclude a top 10, then the next three games on the list would be Wingspan, Azul and Scythe, but this blog is already too long. Nonetheless, do follow the links to visit the Zatu website for more information about these games, including more detailed reviews by fellow bloggers.

Roll those dice, baby!