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5 Best Games To Shape Things Up

Shape-Based Games Feature Image

Shapes are everywhere. Some of our earliest development tools and games involve putting different shapes in the right hole. We use them in a number of facets of our lives, putting furniture into rooms, construction, packing the car for a holiday. For many, one of the first video games they played is Tetris, manipulating descending shapes to fit the spaces in the board. (Why am I explaining this to you, you know this!) So it should be of no surprise to you that many games will use shapes in fun and unique ways as part of their gameplay. From the tile-laying antics of Carcassonne to the unique tessellations which let you play many games of Kingdom Builder, the way shapes are integrated into games is as diverse as the players and the shapes that exist in the world. So here is the official Zatu top five of shape-based games.

Qwirkle - Favouritefoe 

Shape-based games. When asked for their go-to shape game, most players probably think of polyominoes. After all, that is what lots of those games are about; fitting funny shaped tiles together. Next-gen Tetris with a whole heap of added depth and added mechanics. But what about a tile game where the tiles themselves represent shapes?! A meta-gaming moment for sure!

And Qwirkle is just that; an abstract tile game from Mindware where you are seeking to match rows of shapes (or colours). It sounds simple because it is. Simple to learn and simple to play. Winning the lauded Spiel des Jahres award in 2011, however, this game has strategic play hidden behind those circles and stars. Focus on collecting and laying the same shape, and those tiles can’t be the same colour. Likewise, go hard on colours, and no two shapes in the row can be the same!

With other players also holding and laying down tiles from a hand of 6 each, the skill comes in a push-your-luck sort of way. If you start and/or finish a row, you get a point. This means that if you are working on a nice little group of 5 triangles, you are almost in the scoring zone. But if the player after you has that hallowed no. 6, they get the glory for completing the row! Doh! You can of course try to plot and place your revenge, one square at a time.

Personally, I think Qwirkle is a great gateway choice for those looking to get into more complex abstract strategy games. It is also a great game to play with inexperienced or younger players. Exercising pattern recognition skills definitely gets bonus home-game-schooling points.

Qwirkle is an “it is what it says on the tin” type game. The components are straightforward; a bag of 108 wooden tiles with no board, increasing its portability. Players who struggle with colour differentiation will find this one tricky to navigate, though. There are also no expansions or add-ons, but there are a number of variations (including Qwirkle Cubes, Qwirkle Rummy, Qwirkle Travel, and Qwirkle Collectors’ Edition to name a few!). With the score totting up in front of your eyes, Qwirkle is an instant gratification game that will hopefully entertain as well as open the door to more crunchy offerings!

New York Zoo - Joe Packham

Uwe Rosenberg is the unofficial king of Polyomino games! From the epic A Feast for Odin to the evergreen Patchwork, through his delightfully green-fingered puzzle trilogy. The great designer returns to the alluring shaped tiles like a moth to the flame. I’m certainly not complaining, as the combinatorial problems posed by these cardboard creations make for some of the most addictive and satisfying board game puzzles. So when a new Uwe Polyomino game was announced for 2020 with cute art and adorable animal meeples, I was all in.

New York Zoo employs a rondel action selection mechanism. Depending on the player count you can move a certain amount of spaces around this rondel, performing the action you choose to land on. Being a lightweight puzzle game NYZ offers only 2 types of action. Either land on an enclosure space and add that shaped tile to your zoo. Or land on an animal space and add those animals to an enclosure in your zoo. Each shaped tile counts as a single enclosure and can hold a single species of animal. As animals have the tendency, when a pair or more are in an enclosure they will start to breed. This is great news as when an enclosure is full of animeeples you get to take one of the attraction bonus tiles.

New York Zoo is a straight-up race, with the winner being the first to completely cover their zoo board. To do this though you’ll need those special bonus tiles. The balance between gaining enclosures and using actions to gain animals is at the centre of this game. It provides a pleasantly thinky puzzle with scope for cascading combos and clever strategies. All this with animeeples to die for and art that would melt the stoniest heart. I’d expect nothing less from this seasoned designer.

Cartographers - Luke Pickles

One day, I was driving somewhere, (I don’t remember where, it’s not relevant to the story) and my phone buzzed. One of my D&D players had asked a question – give me a name of a place and a title. I was intrigued and gave an answer to my partner in the passenger seat (she’s also in the chat, I wasn’t texting whilst driving!) I followed up with “why, what do you need it for? Are you starting a new campaign?” He said no, we’re just trying a new game. When I went to visit, he showed me this game of his and I fell in love as we started playing. The game is a lovely little roll and write called Cartographers.

You play as a Cartographer, splitting off from your village and finding various land types – forest, rivers, monsters, the usual things. However, as you uncover them, you place them on your own individual map. What makes the game interesting is that the land comes up in different shapes and how they score is depending on the four edicts which are issued at the start of the game. Two of these will factor into your score each round, and with multiple edicts to choose from, and a follow-up game being released later this year (Cartographers Heroes, which has the best sequel art I’ve ever seen when you put the two boxes together.)

The replayability is incredibly high, the play is simple enough to explain, and one of the best things is a solo mode that lets you challenge yourself and others. I highly recommend this stand out shape-based game, it really gets the puzzle brain going and it’s worth giving it a play. Within 100 sheets of double-sided maps to draw on, you’ve got a lot of maps to draw.

Cities Skylines - Nathan Coombs

“If I could squeeze this block of flats between the football stadium and sewage treatment works, ...

“No, that’s no good! It won’t fit without going onto the road, and in any case, it will add to the crime in the area...

“OK, let’s fit a health clinic into that little space. That’ll improve population happiness too...”

City Skylines started life as a single player, city-building simulation video game. Now it has been converted into a cooperative, expansive, experience for one to four players. If you love polyominoes and have a developer’s flair for squeezing every last bit of profit out of a square centimetre of ground, then this is an interesting puzzle.

As the game progresses, players need to place residential, commercial, and industrial buildings onto their newly acquired real estate. With each industrial zone placed it “mops up” people from the employment pool and generates income. If you are wise, you can juxtapose a bus station next to it. This improves the well-being and income generation and reduces pollution. With a little luck and creativity, you can add an energy plant into that corner. If it is a clean energy solution, then the power and pollution is solved.

Skylines is a clever adaptation. Each of the development zones is limited in space, bounded by roads. This contains your building opportunities and requires thought, planning and a high degree of spatial awareness. Soon complex-shaped buildings appear. These carry bonuses with special opportunities. The modular board gives oodles of variability and replayability, and like many cooperative games, this is all about scoring points rather than an outright win.

Each facet of city life is accounted for. People need well-functioning utilities with power, water, and rubbish collection. Do this well and your city will thrive, but place your zones badly and pollution, traffic and crime will flourish. Too many residential buildings and insufficient industrial zones will mean your citizens are unemployed and happiness will fall. All these measures are scored and changed in real-time. This city builder is a very clever simulation that is as close to a video game experience as it can be. There's a good reason it's my suggestion for the list of shape-based games.

Isle of Cats - Rachel Page

Isle of Cats may not have the conventional shapes you see in Primary school, there are no circles, triangles or hexagons, but it still definitely comes under the category of shape-based gaming. The gameplay always makes me think of Tetris. The whole concept is one giant puzzle, though it is nowhere near as stressful as Tetris…

As citizens of Squalls End, it is your duty to help the cats get off their island before the evil Lord Vesh arrives. In true pussycat fashion, each of the cats is stretched out in its own languorous pose. There is limited space on your boat, so you have to do your best to tessellate the frustrating felines. Fit them into as many rooms as you can and rush them to safety.

A lot of things come into play in this game. You need to manage your cash, in this case fish, choose your cards carefully and keep track of what your opponent is doing. However, the most difficult and entertaining part of the game is definitely the tile placement. Rotating and flipping the cats into the little fishing boat. The cats create such unusual shapes with their bodies that you have to pick your tiles carefully to fill your board. For every room that you leave unfilled, you lose 5 points. There is nowhere near enough time in the game to fill your board completely, so you must make all your decisions wisely. Which spaces do you sacrifice, and which do you try to fill? There are treasures to fill in the small gaps, but they are hard to acquire.

Cats are notoriously liquid, and these creatures are no different. Enjoy the ridiculous shapes and poses the little monsters get themselves into as you try to rescue them. It is quite the puzzle.