Land of the Brave and Free
It’s time for the modern day Phileas Fogg within us all to take flight from our last stop in Japan (read the last instalment here) and head off East. East to the next continent. You guessed it, probably because we gave you a big clue in the title. To the USA.
In this article, I’ve teamed up with a merry band of bloggers to bring you the top five most American board games we could come up with. We have gone for games set in the US and dripping in theme, rather than games made in the good old US of A. Strap in for some absolute belters this time!
So I will kick us off with a game based on the historic whistleblowing scandal during Nixon’s time in office. Watergate is a two player specific asymmetric game which plays in about 30 to 60 minutes.
This card-driven game is based on the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s . Nixon was accused of being involved in, and subsequently covering up, a break-in at the Democratic National Committee HQ (the Watergate building) in 1972. In 1974, with evidence mounting, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.
During the game, one player plays as the “baddie”, the Nixon Administration. They are trying to cover up Nixon’s involvement in the DNC break-in, finish their term in office. Whilst the other player plays as a journalist. They are trying to connect the dots between the evidence and Nixon to show wrongdoing. To do this they must reveal and connect evidence between two informants and Nixon. The Nixon player will try to block this by burying evidence, and making the journalist work harder to get the story.
The game is tense. All evidence and informants can be claimed by the journalist or buried and out of the game if Nixon claims them first. You want to try to not bring the informants onto your side until you have to. Those cards are powerful and you want to keep them in your deck as long as possible. Keeping the threat of playing them alive. Although the two roles are different, it doesn’t have that feeling of almost playing on your own that I sometimes experience. The game is great and earns it's place in my collection each time we play.
Looking at my collection, I clearly have a penchant for games that drop you into a historical scenario. Tinkering with the past and exploring conflicts from different sides is one of my favourite themes.
That’s not to say some of these games don’t have the capacity to cause moral discomfort. A game can run the risk of making the serious seem trite. Someone might have to play the baddies. In Lincoln, Martin Wallace balances the uncomfortable theme and engaging simulation superbly.
To be clear, in this two-player, card-driven game, one person will have to play as the Confederate army. This might not be for everyone. However, cards and victory goals are asymmetric. This means that the game avoids insensitively asking what if the slavery supporting South had won. Instead it is more focussed on building strength and support of the Union army. As Wallace says in the game notes, “what this game does is recreate the pressure under which Lincoln operated.”
And man is that pressure good. The deck-destroyer mechanism forces players on both sides to make tough choices between building forces or keeping a card in the cycle. The Union player in particular only has three cycles and must meet certain scoring criteria each time they reshuffle – albeit with a stronger hand.
Lincoln is a fast played, but slow momentum war of attrition as the Confederacy digs-in in its strongholds hoping to block Lincoln’s onward march long enough for him to lose faith and support. The game is crunchy and the rules and mechanisms took some getting my head around. But Lincoln has rewarded me with a tense tactical war simulation that is over in under two hours.
Now, I’ll bet some of the other entries on this list would have you believe that the USA is all about scandalous politics, civil wars and, uh… New Yorkers fighting off irradiated mutants but let me ask you: what could be more American than a good old-fashioned Wild West cattle drive as depicted here in Great Western Trail? (Editor: Oh Rob, it's as if you knew our choices before writing...!)
Steering your herd up through Texas to the promised land of Kansas City, avoiding pesky Indians, landslides and floods, selling your cows off for a sweet profit before doing it all again… man, that’d be the life, wouldn’t it? Especially now that it’s a board game that smells of cardboard and not bovine dung.
Great Western Trail is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made and with good reason. Beautifully themed through every card, counter and meeple, its intricate mixture of mechanics is my mind perfect. There is engine building, set collection, point to point movement and deck building with a point salad style scoring system that ties it all together? Every cog and bolt is meticulously placed and instrumental in the immersion you’ll feel in your role as a 19th century cattle rancher. Decisions are tough in this game, and long-term investments should be made early. This is a design where luck is a minimal factor and streamlined strategy is everything.
This was my personal gateway to heavyweight euro board games. I was spoilt mind, as everything of that same style since has been a disappointment.
Great Western Trail is one of the most successful examples of a game developing a unique and dramatic story without narrative aides. It also scales marvellously with any player count so there’s really no reason not to add it to your collection immediately. Unless you hate cows. You don’t hate cows, do you...?
What better game to talk about as a representative of America, than a game that is set is a post-apocalyptic world, where everything has gone wrong. In 51st State you are leading a group of outlanders, thieves and misfits, trying to start the new look America. Feels familiar right!? (Editor: too soon?)
51st State was made in 2010, had a load of expansions made for it, and then in 2016 there was a master set version released. Get that one. It comes with two awesome expansions and has everything you need to experience this brilliant game. Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower ranks this as his all-time top game and I can see why.
This is essentially a card game, where you are building a tableau of locations and buildings to expand your new empire. The game starts a little slow with minimal powers available to each character. But as your engine builds, your outreach increases and you will see the points scored from round three onwards ramp up.
I absolutely love this game. It is deeply thematic, the art is brilliant and the number of cards available, especially with the two expansions, is huge! It would take over 20 games to start to get tired of the cards that come up.
Choices are limited in what you can do when resources are low, but the game mechanics have many ways that allow you to change one thing for another. It often is a case of doing the maths and working out the right strategy and order of moves. But at any point, an opponent could change all this by taking what you want or destroying one of your cards you had planned to use.
This is a deeply satisfying game to play. The scoring mechanic is very clever too and you never know who will win until the very end. You could be 10 points behind when another player triggers the end game, but still claim victory yourself when the final scores are tallied.
51st State is a must have game for me. And whilst travelling around America, who wants to do that on a shiny clean train where normality reigns? No, give me a full-on post-war scenario any day of the week!
Howdy y’all! Now I’d appreciate it if you could keep your hands and your valuables where I can see them, or my good friends Mr Smith and Wesson might need to get ornery… what could be more USA than a good ol’ helping of Wild West banditry? Maybe if cows aren't your bag, you'll like trains?
Colt Express is more Sunset Riders than 3:10 to Yuma. Here 2 to 6 players are vying to walk away from this great train robbery with the most gold and the least lead… both in their shootin’ irons and themselves.
Play takes place on a double-decker 3D train with up to six carriages (depending on the number of players). The players can move about the carriage (horizontally and vertically), grab loot, brawl and shoot. The train also carries a Marshall, who the players can move from carriage to carriage. Shucks if you get stuck in a carriage with the Marshall, as he don’t take too kindly to bandits.
To carry out any of these actions, players take it in turns to play (‘schemin’) their cards face up or down to a pile in the middle. The actions will take place in order, so you might be wanting to shoot one bandit only to find they’ve moved and you end up getting slugged by the one who’s popped up behind you ! Each bandit has their own special ability and deck, so each round will give you a different set of actions to choose from. Each time you get shot you add another bullet card to jam up your deck.
It looks fun, it plays fun, and has a lot of variety and replayability, its a thumbs up from me. Now… reach for it, mister!
We hope you were inspired by some of our choices. Get yourself your favourite American snacks and play a few USA games on your next games night. Next up in the Around the World series, we are hopping over to North Africa...
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