Hi, I’m a board gamer from New Zealand and have been playing the new breed of strategy board games since the early 2000s. I am a predominantly a ‘Euro’ gamer, preferring games of competitive strategies instead of conflict, but will give anything a try at least once.
Here are my chosen top five games of 2017:
#5 - Merlin
King Arthur is looking for a worthy heir to the throne and, with the help of Merlin, seeks the best amongst his knights for the role. Merlin is a game from legendary mid to heavyweight ‘point salad’ style euro game designer, Stefan Feld, but this time in conjunction with another designer. Point salad meaning there are many different ways to gain points throughout the game.
Merlin is based on a rondel style board that emulates the round table. Players roll four dice at the beginning of each round and select their actions depending on the number on each die. From these rolls, players can move their knights in a clockwise direction, or Merlin in either direction, playing actions depending on the spaces where they land. Actions can move workers to one of the six countries to gain favour or take one of the resources offered, place manors in the surrounding lands, score points from various aspects of the board or many other things. In the game, mission cards are collected to help gain points, and traitors who seek to take your points must be dealt with.
In usual Stefan Feld style, there are always many things that can be done on a turn, and many things you are working to complete or remove during the game. If you are new to board gaming or prefer lighter games, then Merlin may be a little too deep and confusing. But if you don’t mind the occasional mind-boggling decision and are looking for a deeper strategic experience, I urge you to give Merlin a try.
#4 - Ethnos
In the land of Ethnos, the players are leaders seeking to reunite the six kingdoms. To do this, they must grow a force drawn from the six different tribes of fantasy creatures. Leaders must use each race’s unique ability to gain dominance over the other players and the land.
Ethnos is at its heart an area control game where players play sets of cards to allow them to place one of their tokens in one of the six kingdoms. Seeking dominance, of course, means having more tokens than the other players in a kingdom during each of the three scoring rounds. As the game continues, players need to play larger sets of cards to add additional tokens to their stack to ensure collection of the round’s victory points.
While each group of cards played might add a token to a region, players will be able to use one of the race's unique special abilities on that turn. There are twelve races, and with only six being used in each game, offering a fair amount of replay-ability working out which races work well with each other in each game.
I liked Ethnos because it was not over-ambitious in what is set out to do. For five players, it took only 45 minutes to play, turns are quick, there is little downtime, and scoring is uncomplicated. Unlike many area control games of the last few years, with hidden planning and moves that can undermine other players well laid out plans, Ethnos is about building and efficient use of playing card sets and powers to score points.
#3 - Azul
After visiting an Alhambra palace in Southern Spain, King Martin I of Portugal commissioned tile layers to embellish the royal palace of Evora in the same manner. In Azul, players are those tile layers seeking fame and fortune by creating the best tile formation for the king’s palace.
Azul is an abstract game about building a wall from five different coloured bricks, two of which are azul – blue in Spanish. Players draft bricks in groups from factories. These bricks are then placed on player boards in such a way to fill rows of between one and five tiles. While fewer bricks can be placed in a row than the total designated for that row, place too many and the excess become negative points during scoring.
Once all of the tiles in the factories have been collected by all players, any completed rows transfer one brick each into the wall on a location matching that colour. Each tile placed in the wall on that round is scored depending on adjacency both within columns and row. Once a player completes a row on the wall, the game ends, and final scoring is completed.
The beauty of Azul is its simplistic game system allowing both new players and seasoned gamers to be up and playing quickly. The strategies, however, are deep enough to make players think about the best placement of tiles and the management of the occasional oversupply tiles that cause negative points. It is quick to play, between 20 and 30 minutes, which makes it the perfect filler between deeper games.
#2 - Century Spice Road
Century: Spice Road puts players in the role of caravan leaders who travel across continents to gain fame and fortune by delivering spices to various merchants. During this journey, they must mingle with traders to get the right mix of spices to fulfil the merchant’s orders.
On a turn, players do one of four things: fulfil a merchant’s order (gain victory points), collect a trader (take a card from the trader’s row and add to hand), play a trader card from hand (to collect, upgrade spices or exchange spices), or rest (return all played cards to hand). This allows caravan leaders to convert their spices and fulfil the merchant orders. Once a player completes five orders (six in a two or three-player game), the caravan owner with the most points is celebrated as the winner and most famous on Spice Road.
At its heart, Century: Spice Road is a simple euro style game about transforming coloured cubes to those required to score the most points. But strategies are deeper than would first appear. It’s about collecting the right cards to manipulate the spices most efficiently. Because of its lightness, it is a perfect game to bring newcomers into the hobby as it is equally enjoyed by non-gamers and gamers alike.
The ease of each turn and lack of rules just adds to the simplicity and the fun. While its length, about 45 minutes to an hour, makes it too long for a filler game, it still works well as a lightweight strategy game.
#1 - Gaia Project
Gaia Project is empire building space civilisation game were players must carve out Federations among the stars. Gaia Project is the sequel to 2012’s hit fantasy heavy euro game, Terra Mystica and as that game was my number one game for several years.
The goal of Gaia Project is to terraform planets into an environment suitable for the player’s faction where structures can be built. A collection of these planets can be formed into a Federation expanding players empires. Each player plays one of fourteen different races with each having different powers and special abilities, providing plenty of replay-ability. The game pushes players to build their empires close to other empires to allow for the generation of power, which allows the use of their special abilities. For those who have played Terra Mystica, these mechanics should all sound familiar. But thankfully, Gaia Project is not just a straight re-theme, it adds new mechanics to make an already great game, even better.
The board is now modular, allowing every game to be set up differently. Some of the worlds can be used by all races without terraforming, but some are hostile players must create the Gaia Project to convert these planets to habitability. Planet groups are sprawling, and federations do not block the building of other player’s federations, a major annoyance for many in Terra Mystica. Players now have technology tracks which allow the building of different strategies and the gaining of points in various ways. Then there’s a new resource in the game, Quantum Intelligence Cubes, which can be used in several different ways, like extending the range of a civilisation to develop a planet, or to simply develop a Gaia planet.
Gaia Project is a heavy Euro game that will take between two and four hours to play. The deep strategy in this kind of game is not suitable for those who prefer lighter or more party style games. The myriad of rules and options can be boggling for some, but for many, they can allow for the creation of different strategies. Learning how to play many of the different races, can be a lot of fun as well, as each has slightly different powers to use.
This game has definitely cemented itself as a suitable replacement for Terra Mystica, and I can see many more plays ahead in the future.