Many of us have had to make changes to our lives in the past year, including in gaming. Many gamers have successfully made the transition to online play, and either by choice or necessity now enjoy participating in a diverse community of games and players in the digital space. For those of us lucky enough to have people close to us we can physically game. However, it can be very different to our previously ‘normal’ game groups, as we now have to deal with varied tastes. It is no longer the case that everyone wants to spend their whole evening (and morning!) playing Twilight Imperium, and it wouldn’t be safe to gather enough people to play party games like Wavelength.
Over the past year, I have been fortunate to still have a game group in my family. However, new opportunities bring new challenges and finding games that suit everyone’s different tastes has become a game in itself, while player count has become even more of an issue. One light gamer, who would never turn down a game of Werewolf. One heavy Euro gamer who thinks a game runs short at two hours. One ‘people-on-a-map’ gamer, all about conflict in as many ways as possible. Is there a game to suit us all? Can such a game exist?
Exploring my collection with my family, I’ve found that with many games there is at least something to appeal to someone. While there may not be a game that appeals to everyone, games that have broad appeal are not only more inclusive but are easier to get to the table.
These games tend towards the lighter side. It is much easier for a heavy gamer to participate in these games than it is for someone used to lighter games to meet the demands of complex, often convoluted brain-burners. They have also all played well at two, three, and four players. While your mileage may vary, these games have earned a regular spot at our game nights despite our varied tastes.
Easily the heaviest game on this list, The Prodigals Club is a delightfully whimsical game. Yet it hides a deceptively heavy puzzle beneath a compelling façade. In The Prodigals Club players take the role of members of high society who seek more interesting experiences. For this they take the unusual route of offending their friends, losing their money, and ensuring they will never rise to public office. Charming!
Over 5 rounds players use worker placement to take cards. Or they perform actions relating to one of the areas of high society, Possessions, Society, and Elections. After each round players then play the cards they collected to further impact their scores in those areas. After five rounds you compare your score in each area, and your highest score is your score for the game.
This is where the theme brings this game to life. Each player starts the game with a supply of money and possessions, good standing among society, and a number of votes secured in an election. Over the game, you try to lower all of your scores as much as possible. You can’t ignore any particular area of the game, as that high score will be your overall score at the end! This gives The Prodigals Club a frantic feel, as you try to accomplish far too much in far too little time. And yet somehow everything falls into place at the end. The pacing of the game is brilliantly balanced. Everyone seems able to fit in that last combo to bring their scores in line so that every game has been close and competitive, meaning even the group with the most varied tastes can have a close game.
This may seem at odds with some of the other games on this list which prioritised being accessible while still offering interesting decisions. The Prodigals Club comes at this problem from the other side. Crammed full of tough choices and compromises, The Prodigals Club manages to paint itself as a ridiculous farce. Enough so that the struggle becomes part of the joke. The agonising decision of how to get the most points is no longer agonising when you’re trying to find the worst deal for selling your house.
If someone in your game group absolutely does not like heavy games, perhaps give this a miss. But if everyone is going to embrace the fun of this game’s presentation, you’ll find it is surprisingly buoyant for such a dense puzzle.
Landing firmly on the lighter side of games, The Quest for El Dorado has a simple premise. You play cards to advance your explorer and be the first to reach El Dorado. Each player has their own deck of cards and will draw four at a time for their turn. Cards match terrain types on the hex board in an intuitive way. Machetes help you cut through jungle, paddles let you cross water, etc. This simple framework already provides elements that will appeal to some players.
The race, by nature, creates tension and excitement. While the easy-to-read board and graphic style avoid the overwhelming feeling some games present when first attempting to grapple with the wealth of options displayed to players new and old. The option to block other players appeals to those of us who look for the opportunity to thwart other players. It was a delight to find that this still happens with two players. Each player has two explorers, allowing you more flexibility in blocking off the easier paths.
But will those who want a thoughtful, strategic experience have a place at this table? I believe so, as El Dorado has another mechanism up its sleeve. While each player starts the game with the same eight cards, more cards can be purchased from a market. The cards again are a basic concept, they allow stronger movement, offer wild cards, or abilities to draw more cards. These new options add in enough flavour to force you to make decisions. You can move further across the board and try to outpace your opponents. Or you can save cards to buy more powerful or flexible options for later. You can stock up on cards you will need and try to plan your route from the start. Or you could race ahead and buy cards as you need them. Both strategies can work, and the variable modular board encourages players to adapt and try new ways of playing for each combination., allowing for players with varied tastes.
At the end of it all, El Dorado is a light game. A dose of luck in card draws keeps the tension up. However, this may not sit well with everyone. While a deep strategy may help you win more often than not, being the better player doesn’t guarantee victory. There’s always next time though, and the accessible ruleset and natural exhilaration of the race mean that If you find the thrills of the perfect card draw letting you squeeze in a victory can make up for the despair of a dud hand failing you at the last hurdle, there will be a next time for sure.
Ok, this one is a cheat. Ticket to Ride UK is an expansion map for Ticket to Ride, and not a standalone game. The problem is it is such a good fit for this list, (at least for me!) that I couldn’t leave it out. It's ideal for groups with varied tastes!
Ticket to Ride has earned a place in the Hall of Fame of gateway games. This classic showing time and again how versatile the formula is. Anyone fond of classic card games like Rummy will find the set collection familiar, and the route building combines a light puzzle with the tension of competition. Many people enter the hobby of board gaming through Ticket to Ride, but then move on to deeper waters. Contrary to this, I feel that Ticket to Ride has staying power, even among veteran gamers, with a plethora of expansions to twist up the formula. What is it that gives Ticket to Ride UK a spot on this list?
The answer is simple – Ticket to Ride UK offers the most depth, while still keeping to the system that is already so accessible. In UK, players start with limited options. You can only build small routes, and only in England. As the game progresses players buy technologies that allow them to build longer routes, build routes to other countries, or score extra points. This creates a natural progression in the game. Competition for tight space in England moves into a race for more valuable routes to more distant destinations.
Despite the compact nature of much of the map, you rarely feel limited in your choices, partly due to extra wild cards. This combination of versatility and player progression means that your decisions have significant weight. What was once a mild-mannered game of Ticket to Ride becomes a much more vicious beast of strategy and outmanoeuvring. Someone claiming a route you needed changes from a case of finding the one way around. Suddenly you can adopt one of any number of plans. I could buy the Ferry and claim the expensive route over the water; I could race to claim a path through England to stay ahead, or buy a Wales Concession and claim the Scenic route, longer but safer.
Built upon a base that will appeal to gamers looking for a lighter touch, Ticket to Ride UK still brings in enough of a crunch with the technologies and organic progression that it can hold its appeal to a tougher crowd. As a bonus, the expansion also includes the Pennsylvania map. This map uses a simple stock system to add an additional race aspect. Players compete to have the most stocks in valuable companies.
Carcassonne occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to The Prodigal’s Club. The lightest game here, even over Ticket to Ride UK. Carcassonne struggle to find a place here because it is so simple. Carcassonne is the grandparent of tile-placement games. In their turn, players will draw a tile. They then place the tile matching those already on the table, and perhaps putting one of their meeples on the tile. Features on the tiles score points, the most points when all the tiles are gone wins. It sounds too simple, but I believe Carcassonne has more to offer than it gets credit for. As a disclaimer, Carcassonne is my favourite game so take this suggestion with a grain of salt.
Despite having a very simple foundation, for me Carcassonne is a game that has surprising depth. The simplicity of the tile drawing and placing, and how the scores are straightforward without hidden information, means that the game state is easy to read at any time. And yet as I play again and again, the options haven’t become scripted. It doesn't feel like playing the exact same game repeatedly. In fact, the opposite is true, knowing the tiles and how they could interact has only expanded the game. The decision of where to place each tile is now informed by the tiles that came before it. Do I place it next to my city, when there are only two tiles left that will complete that feature? Or do I place it next to your city, leaving you with only one option? If I expand in this direction it will limit my options later, but if the right tile comes up it would give a massive pay-off.
This does come with a drawback. If a player is greatly more experienced than the others they will have a significant advantage, though that could be said of almost any strategic game. Carcassonne is hugely accessible and simple enough that it will appeal to fans of lighter puzzles. For those wanting that extra something to sink your teeth into, it might take some looking, but if you want to find it in Carcassonne I believe it’s waiting there. It was for me.
Awkward Guests – The Game Is Afoot
Many games are said to be Clue(do) for GamersTM, but Awkward Guests definitely fits the bill. Mr Walton has been murdered in his mansion, and it is up to you to solve the case! Each player has a hand of six cards. They will take turns asking for information on two of several options, suspects or rooms. The other players will then offer cards up for exchange. Each card has a value, and the recipient must give an equal or greater value in exchange. However, cards are traded face down which forces you to question what each trade is actually worth.
Cards are cycled each round, with players retaining three cards, and drawing three new cards. This makes sure there is always new information entering the pool. The game ends at the end of a round when a player can successfully guess the murderer, the method, and the motive.
At first, it seems strange that a game comparable to Cluedo in many respects would suit a broader group of gamers. Nevertheless, Awkward Guests brings enough to the table to keep you engaged. The deduction element is well crafted, giving you multiple ways to exclude or include different possibilities. Perhaps a suspect had an alibi, or they couldn’t access the murder weapon. Either way, they’re likely innocent. The social element is another strength. So much of the game is about reading your opponents, deciding if they are bluffing you with poor cards, or offering a lucrative deal.
At the same time, Awkward Guests does a fantastic job of making you feel like an investigator, tracking down every lead and eliminating options one by one. It is also a generous game that provides for the players who want to optimise their decisions. If you want to, you can keep track of the questions players ask and when cards trade hands. You can try to ask for the perfect combination of suspects or rooms to get you the most information. And while you may enjoy eking out every advantage, the cycling of cards and random draws give every player new information each round and make sure that everyone is always in the game, perfect for a group of varied tastes.