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21st Century Games: The Big Trends

dune imperium

In my last blog,  I talked about best board games of the 20th century. Those games seems so old by today’s standards, but that’s because games have evolved so much since the end of the 20th century. And while board games continue to be an important part of the gaming world, the evolution of video gaming and the emergence of online games in the final years of the 20th century [with titles like Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (1996), Ultima Online (1997), and Lineage (1998)] means that more people had more ways to play games. So it’s a safe bet to say that there are more people playing (and designing) games today than at any other time in history.

In this article, I want to look at the big trends of the 21st century, and the best representative games within those categories. It’s not clear whether all of these trends will continue for the rest of the century, but they have certainly left their footprints in the history of board games.

Deck Builders – Dune: Imperium

Richard Garfield really started something when he designed Magic: The Gathering (1993), and although entry into MTG may seem overwhelming, you can buy a two player starter set to ease you gently into the world of collectable card games. But when Dominion came along in 2008, the deck builder was born. In Dominion, everyone starts with a deck of 10 cards and you build your deck (making it more powerful) by buying more cards from those placed in the centre of the table. The game plays 2 to 4 in about 30 minutes, and with 500 cards in the set, there is a lot of replayability in the base game. But if you wanted more (and who doesn’t), you could always get expansions for the game!

Today, there are thousands of deck building games and my favourite of the bunch is Dune Imperium. Now you might know that I had Dune as one of my games of the 20th century, and thus conclude that I am attracted by the IP. Wrong! In fact, I haven’t read any of the books and I disliked all the movies (although I do admit to being a fan of David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan). What I like about Dune Imperium is the way that deck building is implemented.

In Dune: Imperium, there are five phases. In the Agent phase, you play cards and place workers. In the Reveal phase, you reveal the cards in your hand that you didn’t play and buy new cards. It’s worth pointing out that the cards have one value if you play them in the Agent phase, and a different value if you play them in the Reveal phase. The idea of cards that have multiple uses is another innovation of the 21st century, with San Juan (2004) probably being the first game to do this.

In the Combat phase, you fight for one of three prizes. As you would expect, the house with the most troops in the conflict zone gets first prize, but there are no costs to fighting. You put 5 troops into the conflict zone to fight, you get 5 back whether you win or lose. It’s easily the most passive conflict zone that I have ever seen in a game. Even better, there is the potential for bluffing as you can load the conflict zone with troops (tempting your opponents to do the same), and then pull them out at the last minute.

In the Makers phase you add spice to any spice spaces on the board. This mechanism makes unoccupied locations more valuable in the next round. We first saw this mechanism in Vinci (1999) although in that game unwanted tiles became cheaper in the next round… In the Recall phase, you basically reset everything and get ready for another round. That might sound like a lot to teach, but you can play a few dummy rounds for everyone to get used to the icons, the board layout and the scoring system. Then you just reset the round and start the game for real. This is an easy teach!

Dune: Imperium plays 1 - 4 in 1 - 2 hours. But if all this talk of multiple phases makes Dune: Imperium sound too complex of a deck builder for your gaming group, then I highly recommend The Quest for El Dorado. It’s a great family weight game that plays 2 - 4 in under an hour.

Worker Placement – Viticulture Essential Edition

One of the very first worker placement games was Bus (1999). It’s now out of print (even though a 20th anniversary edition was released by Capstone Games in 2019), and at first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was just a metropolitan version of Ticket to Ride (2004) (8). Although both games use network building as a mechanism, Bus wasn’t the first game to implement network building. That honour goes to Touring Scotland (1930).

As board games have evolved through the 21st century, the trend has been to make them more complex. What that usually means is that the new games use multiple mechanisms. For example, A Feast for Odin (2016)  is a great heavy dice rolling game that involves worker placement and polyominoes (tile placement), and prides itself on having a board with 61 different options to choose from. But as much as I love this game, it wouldn’t be suitable for my gaming group, so I can’t give it the title.

On the other hand, I could make a case that Dune: Imperium as one of my favourite worker placement games, but I can’t give it two titles. That being said, there are some great deck building games that also use worker placement. Two games that instantly springs to mind are Lost Ruins of Arnak (2020) and Obsession (2018). Lost Ruins arrived on the scene with a lot of hype and everyone who played it loved the game. It was nominated for (and won) dozens of industry awards. Obsession, on the other hand, was a blip on the radar screen and only became popular a couple of years after its initial release. Although its BGG rank is currently around 90, this is a game that many Dice Tower followers voted as meriting a top 10 ranking. Lost Ruins comes in at number 28.

But my vote for the worker placement category goes to Viticulture Essential Edition (2015). This was not an easy call. It almost came down to a coin flip between Everdell (2018) and Viticulture. But Viticulture wins as it really is more of a pure worker placement game (whereas Everdell features tableau building).

Big Spender – Castles of Burgundy

The 21st century has created a lot of trends and a bunch of these I’m going to lump into this one category which I’m calling the Big Spender. As games became more complex, they naturally became more expensive to produce. Manufacturers soon realized that buyers would be prepared to spend more money for detailed miniatures (rather than standees), so these miniatures became features of expensive games. Moreover, to emphasize the exclusivity of these purchases, these games became Kickstarter exclusives, although nowadays, a retail version is also marketed at the same time. In other words, I am lumping together expensive games, games with gorgeous minis and Kickstarter games.

As far as I am concerned, unpainted minis don’t do anything for me. I remember when HeroQuest (1989) first came out and it had these tiny minis. All you could see on the board when you played was a blob of grey. Some of my friends went through the laborious process of painting each of the miniatures, but then they just became multi-coloured blobs on the board. I have always preferred standees. These can be mass produced in colour very cheaply, and when I pimp my games, I often replace the minis with standees. You should look at what Gloomhaven (2017) did in their production. Their box is massive and includes 17 minis, but the box is full of 45 types of standees (not miniatures). If they had decided to use miniatures, the box would have had to be five times the size.

But sometimes, a game with minis offers staggering value. The one that comes to mind is Mechs vs Minions (2016). The game comes with 100 minions (in 4 designs), 4 amazing painted mechs, and 1 boss mech. I had a friend of mine who made a living for a few years by buying games with detailed minis, painting the minis and then sell them individually on eBay. He did this with a great dungeon crawling game - Arcadia Quest (2014) – and I bought the game off him (obviously without the minis) and I now play it with standees. So, if you’re wondering why you often see miniature games on eBay without any of the miniatures, now you know.

I remember being shocked at the idea of paying £100 for Gloomhaven. How can a game justify that price tag?! But when I looked at the contents, I could see why the price tag had to be so high, and I even thought for a minute of buying the game. In their initial Kickstarter campaign, Gloomhaven raised $386,104 on a $70,000 goal. In Frosthaven (2022)(the sequel to Gloomhaven), they raised $12,969,608 on a $500,000 goal. That game now retails for over £250!

But there are even more expensive games out there that make Gloomhaven look like an absolute bargain. The winner of this category will retail at around £450 but you can pretty much get the same game (2011) (without all the glamour) for under £35! That game is Castles of Burgundy (2023).

Needless to say, this excess cost over the base game is not about the game (or the expansions), but rather the overall look of the game. During the funding campaign, you could have bought a classic version without any of the miniatures for £85, but a connoisseur would obviously want to have the game with its most impressive table presence. For your £450 you get 16 miniature castles, a neoprene mat, acrylic hex tokens, all the expansions, all the game trays and bags that make the game easy to set up and take down, and most importantly, the satisfaction of having spent all that money on the game. Let’s not forget that Castles of Burgundy is a great game; it’s rated number 17 on BGG.

I have the 20th anniversary edition of this game, and the tiles in the new edition are supposedly going to be 30% larger than these (so it’s going to take up more table space), and the box (because it also includes the expansions and trays) is going to be about four times the size of this anniversary edition box. I didn’t back the Kickstarter, and I’m not sure if it would be worth upgrading to the new version. At the moment, only the super deluxe version is being advertised in stores. We’ll have to wait and see whether this special edition goes on general release. If the 20th anniversary edition is anything to go buy, if you missed the campaign, you missed the special edition (unless Zatu managed to order some).

These super deluxe editions may become a trend of the 21st century. I remember seeing a super deluxe version of Tsuro (2005) (which you can buy on Zatu for £31) on Kickstarter at £300. The game came in a beautiful wooden game box. The rules were written on a bamboo scroll. Stone textured tiles carved with paths were stored in an embroidered satin bag. Each player had a metal pawn which was either a dragon or a phoenix. The first player marker was replaced with a gold statuette. I’m sure it would be gorgeous to look at, but I found Tsuro to be a game that I played once and was done. I’ll grudgingly play it if asked, but I found Tsuro of the Seas (2012) to be a better game. However, BGG disagrees with me, ranking Tsuro at 1094, and Tsuro of the Seas at 1804.

Special Mention – Wingspan 

Jamey Stegmaier is one of the cornerstones of 21st century game design. He is responsible for games like Scythe (2016), Viticulture (2013), Tapestry (2019), Expeditions (2023) (the sequel to Scythe), and Charterstone (2017). His success in these games has given him a core set of followers in social media, and he has used them to create interest in his forthcoming releases. So when his company released Wingspan (2019) [which was designed by Elizabeth Hargrave], he was ready with product and was able to capitalize on the market appetite for the game. And because Wingspan is such a good game, its success just continued to spiral. With a Kickstarter campaign, you raise people’s interest in a game, but you’re not going to give them the game for a while. As a result, you lose those people who would have bought the game if it was

available, but aren’t prepared to wait. What Jamey has done is developed a procedure for raising interest, delivering product and maximizing sales without the need for a Kickstarter. As long as he continues to deliver good games, his success is guaranteed.

But Jamey is also excellent at expansions (and he usually makes three of them). Viticulture with the Tuscany expansion made Viticulture a much better game (and turned it into the essential edition). Scythe had three expansions with Scythe: The Rise of Ferris being the best (and last) of three expansions. Tapestry has three expansions. So, with Wingspan, I am expecting three expansions. But all the hype so far has been about Jamey. What about Wingspan?

Wingspan has won a huge number of awards (best card game, best family game, etc), and I have no doubt that when Ms Hargrave pitched Wingspan to Jamey, he loved it and saw its full potential. Now you might think that Wingspan is a deck building game, but it should be more correctly called a tableau builder. The difference is that in a deck builder, you work your way through a stack of cards and you can add cards (or remove cards) to that stack as you go along. In a tableau builder, cards are played onto a board (the tableau!) and you can add cards (or remove cards) as you go along. In a deck builder, you are trying to get the strongest deck that you can have (given that you will usually only be able to play one card at a time), while in a tableau builder, you are trying to build the strongest tableau (given that all your tableau cards are in play at the same time). Dune: Imperium, Frosthaven, Obsession, and Lost Ruins of Arnak are all deck builders. Scythe, Castles of Burgundy, A Feast for Odin and Everdell are all tableau builders. The very first game to use tableau building was probably Steve Jackson’s Illuminati (1982), but it was Bruno Faidutti’s Citadels (2000) that popularized the mechanism.

Because each player has his own tableau and his own set of cards, there is virtually no player interaction in Wingspan. I prefer games with a high degree of player interaction, so it’s not my preferred type of game. Nonetheless, this game looks great on the table, and I wouldn’t turn down an offer to play Wingspan. It’s also educational (I assume all the details on the cards about the birds are accurate). Don’t underestimate the impact of those two factors. Moreover, if you really want to increase the bling factor, there are people out there selling customised meeples, speckled eggs, 3d printed food tokens, improved dice towers and multi-layer boards. I have no doubt that there will be a super deluxe version of Wingspan in a few years. But because it plays 1 – 4 in about an hour, it’s a bit too long to be considered a filler. and that’s about the worse thing that I can say about the game. It’s a solid game.

So why does it deserve a special mention? Because this is a game that draws people in. The theme has novelty value, and even though it’s probably more of a brain burner than what people are used to playing, the rules are simple and the turns are quick. Sure there is a bit of luck involved with the cards you get at the outset, but the drafting at the beginning helps to mitigate that. You will also probably have to play a few games before you are comfortable with all the possible paths to victory, but I don’t think that’s any different to any other tableau builder. But the indisputable fact, that merits its special mention, is that Wingspan is the number 1 family game on BGG and Jamey has managed to create enough love for this game that I think that this is a position that Wingspan

will hold for a long time. Maybe another Hargrave game will come along and knock it off the top spot, but I predict it will stay in the top 10 for at least another decade.

Roll those dice, baby!