Top 5 'Next Step' Games
This top 5 will focus on games which are a step on from gateway titles, but without being too overwhelming in number or complexity of rules. For me, these are games between the lighter gateway titles (which i still love to play), and the medium to heavy weight games. There are a range of mechanisms displayed in the games listed below; so there should be something for everyone.
Smallworld is an area control game from Days of Wonder for two to five players. In Smallworld you are competing to have control over the most regions of the board each turn. Each region you control is worth a point at the end of your turn. Games are either played over nine or ten rounds depending on the number of players. The game also comes with four different boards, one for each player count. This helps ensure the right level of player interaction.
At the start of the game players each pick a fantasy race of creatures with a special ability to control. The creatures and abilities are randomised each game and can range from the believable Forest Elves, to the funny Flying Trolls! The creatures each have their own unique bonus too. There are always lots of interesting decisions when picking a race.
Players then take the number of tokens for their race equal to the number shown on their creature and ability pieces. At the start of the game, players can only conquer regions on the edge of the board or next to the sea. To conquer a region, players must either place two of their race’s tokens, if the space was otherwise empty, or one more token than the number already in the space, if it was occupied. Once a player has placed all their tokens or does not wish to expand any further, they can rearrange their tokens on the territories they control. This is often so more tokens are on areas closer to an opponent to make them more difficult to take over. However, at least one token must be on a region for it to count in scoring at the end of the round.
After a few rounds of players conquering new regions and expanding they will find themselves stretched a little thin. That is where the game's unique idea of races going into decline comes in. Instead of taking a turn conquering regions, a player can choose to place their race into decline. This allows them to take a new race and continue conquering the following turn. However, going into decline takes a whole turn, so you cannot do any conquering first. You can only leave one token of your race on each space you had conquered before going into decline. Players cannot continue to conquer with their in decline race. There is a race and ability which provides exceptions to the rules above but I will leave you to discover them in the game.
Smallworld is a fun area control game which is a great introduction to the mechanic but with an interesting twist. At first it can be a bit difficult to know when to go into decline. However, you do soon pick it up. There is lots of replayability with the races and abilities being in different combinations each time. If you like the light fantasy theme and want to try area control this is the game for you.
Castles of Burgundy
Whilst this is definitely not the prettiest game on this list, Castles of Burgundy, by Stefan Feld, should not be overlooked. This is a tile laying game, where you are competing against the other players to build up the most successful Princedom.
Each player has a player board with a large hexagon on it. This is broken up into lots of small hexagons of different colours. There is also a central board which is set out in seven sections, six represented by a die face and one area for black tiles.
The game is played over five rounds, separated into five phases. In each phase players roll the two dice of their colour and the first player rolls a white die to denote where the goods from that phase are placed. Players then use their dice to take action. These actions can be taking a tile from the central board and putting it in your display, placing a tile from your display on the board, selling goods, or trading your dice in for worker tiles.
However, the actions which you can take are determined by the numbers rolled on your die. The worker tiles do allow for a dice roll to be increased or decreased by one but you will not have enough workers to use this ability each turn. In addition, when placing a tile you can only place it on a hex matching its colour and next to a previously played tile. The black tiles cannot be acquired by rolling dice and must be bought using the game currency of silverlings.
When you place a tile you also gain certain benefits. The dark green castles allow you to have an extra turn, as if you had rolled another dice but choosing whichever number you need. The yellow knowledge tiles give you a benefit either for the rest of the game or at game end scoring. The grey mine tiles give you silverlings at the start of each round. The light green animal tiles score you points depending on how many of the same type of animal you have in the area where you have just placed your tile. The blue boats allow you to get goods which you can sell later for points and silverlings. The brown building tiles give you immediate one off benefits, such as taking more worker tiles, or taking another hex from the central display. You can only have one building of each type on any one area of the board.
Players get points throughout the game when they fill all hexes in one section on the board. The points depend on the number of hexes in the completed section as well as the round in which this was completed. In addition players recieve points at the end of the game from yellow knowledge tiles, bonus tiles (if they have filled all hexes of one colour throughout the board), and for silverlings. The player with the most points at the end wins.
Castles of Burgundy is an intriguing puzzle style game. I enjoy the challenge of deciding how best to use my dice to score the most points. There is not a lot of player interaction in this game, save if someone else takes the tile you are after. So if you are looking for a moving on game, with limited player interaction, but lots of opportunities for points this may be the one for you.
Photosynthesis from Blue Orange Games, is a two to four player abstract strategy game, although it does have a surprising amount of theme. Players are competing to grow trees, gain light points (action points) and harvest trees for victory points.
Trees start their lives as seeds, but can be grown, using light points, into small, medium and big trees before finally being harvested. You also need light points to plant a seed. Trees and seeds cannot be played straight away from the player board, they first have to be moved into the player’s supply. This also costs light points. The cost of an action varies dependent on what it is - for example planting a seed costs one light point but harvesting a big tree costs four light points.
Players gain light points through the sun hitting their trees. The sun moves around the board and shines a different way each turn. But if your tree is in the shadow of another tree, of the same height or taller, then you will not gain any light points. The larger the tree in front the longer the shadow. However, if a taller tree is behind a shorter tree this will still gain points.
The game is played over three rounds with each player having six turns in a round. A new round starts each time the sun reaches the start point on the board. Players can carry out as many actions as they wish in a turn, as long as they have enough light points. Light points can also be saved over from turn to turn. The area where you harvested your tree from will impact on the number of victory points it is worth. Trees on the outside are worth less points but they are less likely to be blocked from the sun. Whereas trees in the middle of the board will gain you more victory points but are less likely to gain you light points.
There is a lot of theme here for an abstract strategy game. I particularly like that this is a somewhat unique theme. There are many decisions to make during the game - where to place your trees, when to grow or harvest your trees; but these decisions never feel overwhelming.
Raptor is a two player only, asymmetric strategy game by Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti.
In the game, one player controls the raptors and one player controls the scientists. The scientists are trying to neutralise the mother raptor, by putting her to sleep or to capture three of the baby raptors. The raptor player is trying to ensure the safe escape of at least three baby raptors or to remove all the scientists from the board.
The movement of the pieces is determined by the play of cards. Each player has a deck of cards numbered one to nine. As well as the number, each card has a unique action. Each turn, one card is played by each player from their hand of three cards and revealed simultaneously. The player who played the lowest numbered card goes first and can perform the special action of the card they played.
These special actions vary depending on which side you are playing but include, setting fire to areas of the board to make them impassable (if you are playing as the scientists), or scaring the scientists so they cannot move until they are less scared (if you are playing as the raptors). The other player then has a number of action points equal to the difference in value between the cards played. These action points can be used to move pieces for both sides. If you are playing as the scientists you can also take actions such as putting a baby raptor to sleep, shooting the mother raptor or capturing a baby raptor. If you are playing as the raptors available actions include waking up a baby raptor or eating a scientist and removing it from the board.
If players ever turn over the same number card both players discard the card and select another card. One of the cards enables the player to reshuffle their discard pile into a draw pile so the cards do not run out. Play continues in this way over many turns until one player has satisfied one of their win conditions as set out above.
Raptor has a lot of interesting choices with players having moments throughout the game when they are on the offensive and other moments when they will be on the defensive. I enjoy the theme of this game. Whilst the rules may look complex at first glance, when playing the game they are actually very easy to pick up. Players are never short on things to do on their turn. Even when the game is over you can have a rematch playing the other side. All in all a great next level game.
Pillars of the Earth
Pillars of the Earth is a two to four player worker placement game from Kosmos. In Pillars of the Earth you are competing to contribute the most to the construction of a cathedral. The cathedral is built in the middle of the board, with a new piece added each round.
The game is played over six rounds in several phases. Firstly, players assign their workers to collect resources - wood, stone and sand. The number of workers placed in an area has a direct affect on the number of that type of resource a player gains. This is set out on the resource cards set out at the start of each round. Then, the player's master builders are drawn at random. There is often a cost to play your master builder (although there are ways to play for free).
The master builder actions allow players to take additional actions on the board which can include, taking income, obtaining an extra craftsman card (more about these below), gain two extra workers to gather resources for the following round, or trade goods. The players only have three master builders so need to be careful deciding where is best to place them. Once all the master builders have been placed, each of the action spaces on the board is resolved in numerical order.
When the relevant number is reached players take the master builder action shown or collect their resources from the relevant pile. There are 12 such action spaces. The thirteenth action space of each round is building the cathedral. This is done by use of the craftsmen. Each player starts with three basic craftsmen who convert resources into victory points. Over the course of the game players can acquire more craftsmen cards but they can never have more than 5. These craftsmen which are brought often need less resources for points, or offer a better points total. Once players have converted all of the resources they can, or that they wish to, into victory points, the next part of the cathedral is built. Finally, the other player becomes the start player.
Pillars of the Earth is a good next step into worker placement games, with its two different placement rounds. You have plenty of options of things to do, but never so many that you feel overwhelmed. I enjoy building the cathedral up each round, as it feels very satisfying.
Now pick your game and get playing!