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Top 5 Z-Man Games


We’re back with another classic developer to feature in this month’s top five. We’re picking up the boxes of a publisher who’s been going since 1999. You’ve probably got one of their games on your shelf right now. More than likely it’s going to be one of the games we’re talking about down below. Even more likely, one of those games is going to be a game that introduced you to the hobby. Or it was Ticket to Ride… Today’s top five is focusing on Z-Man Games. There are so many games in the Z-Man family, we didn’t even get into talking about Stone Age in this top five, one of this author’s personal favourites. I’m going to let the games speak for themselves. Time to dive in!

Carcassonne - Thom Newton

Well, I imagine there aren’t many of you reading this that have no idea what Carcassonne is. In fact, I imagine not only are you aware of it, you’ve probably played it. But have you played any of the expansions? You probably should!

For those in the room still wondering what I’m on about, Carcassonne is a classic tile-laying game where players will be looking to build and control cities, roads farms, and monasteries. The rub is that only the player who controls the feature scores it. You control things by placing meeples out onto the tiles as you place them, and you can never place a meeple into a feature that already contains a meeple.

So, how can you steal control of something from another player? By building another feature of the same type and combining it with the original feature. It’s absolutely fantastic play out as rivals try to defensively build a city to make sure it can’t be taken over, while other players desperately try to attach their small town to the larger city.

The game is great, but by adding in expansions you can really tune the game to your wants and likes. Like the whole building aspects, but want to make it more high stakes? Inns and Cathedrals has you covered with its new double or nothing building tiles. Want some set collection to incentivise finishing each other’s features? Traders and Builders will likely be something you’d like to try out. You can add more confrontational mechanics with dragons or towers, or you can even add some push your luck with some lovely sheep.

Those aren’t even all of the expansions, either, they’re just the ones that are coming to mind while I’m typing. What I’m getting at is this. Carcassonne is seen as a simple classic, but by adding in an expansion or two, you can twist it into one of the best tile-laying games out there. It’s 20 years old now, and it is still as fresh as a daisy to play.


CondottiereJohn Hunt

Condittiere is a brutal game of bluffing and brinkmanship set in the Italian city-states of the 16th Century as rival mercenary captains battle for supremacy.

At its heart, it's a card game, which plays as an auction for area control. You have a hand of 11 cards, some have numerical values while others are specials. Each turn you battle over a map region and as the play progresses around the table you are presented with a simple choice: play or pass. Playing a card usually means adding it to your array – increasing the numerical power of your army or somehow messing with your opponents. Passing means you are done – any cards down are still counted, but you can’t add more. Once everyone has passed you sum all the armies, the winner puts a cube on the map and usually chooses the next battle location. Victory goes to the first with 5 regions scattered or 3 adjacent.

Sounds pretty prosaic, but after each battle all played cards are discarded, but you don’t refill your hand. This only happens when there is one person left with only number cards (not specials). Instead, you simply progress to the next battle in the chosen region with what you have left in your hand.

Might not sound much, but this has a massive impact on gameplay, heightening the stakes of each fight. The decision of which regions to fight and die for becomes a tense and exciting experience. The specials themselves add well-designed spice: ending the fight immediately; discarding all the highest cards; reducing all number cards to 1, to name but three of x.

This makes for loads of exciting decision space from a simple ruleset. Players sometimes need reminding it’s a card game and not to play it like a Euro, as it’s best when played with pace. But I can say that despite being consistently rubbish at it, it is the game I most like playing that I regularly lose.

Akrotiri - FavouriteFoe

Akrotiri is a hidden gem of a 2-player game. It incorporates so many of my favourite things; tile placement, modular board development, action selection, spatial puzzles, hand management, resource management….but importantly, it is a pick-up and deliver game that works at 2 player count!

The game is set in classical Greece, and you play the role of a sea-bound explorer looking for lost Minoan temples around the islands of Thera. You can get secret maps which show you the way. They do this by referencing landmarks (mountains, volcanoes etc) which are printed on the tiles you lay each turn to create the main board of islands and shipping routes. But it has this very cool, unexpected “perspective” element. This means that the locations of the landmarks to which your particular map points depend entirely upon where you are sitting in comparison to the board!

You can’t just go off uncovering temples, however. You need to sell resources that you collect around the various islands in order to buy the maps. And the only place this can be done is at the central market of Thera. With a boat full of valuable cubes, sailing back to offload and coin-up becomes a matter of timing. The price of each resource type depends on how much is available at trading time.

But you’re definitely going to want mo’ money because the more temples you reveal, the more actions you get per turn! And some of these – like the Oracle power which lets you see what the next board tile is going to be – is priceless! Oh, but of course, each island only has room for one ruin. So the game then becomes a battle to stop your opponent from placing their temples in the places your maps are pointing to before you get a chance to get there! This game packs a lot into a little box, and is one that burns my brain in the best way!

NB: Lego man is not included, but should be!

Citadels - Seb Hawden

I came late to the game Citadels, I know, I know! It was, in a way, a good thing though as I got the latest edition that includes loads of characters from the original base game, the characters from the Dark City Expansion, and nine brand-new ones! The characters are the heart and soul of Citadels and much like Love Letter, can be used to hurt your opponents, further your strategies, and claw your victory ever closer.

What I like about Citadels, I enjoy from most games of this type. Just hovering above a party game in depth and complexity, Citadels supports a higher player count, and can be taught and played briskly. The game overall is a simple one, grab cash, build buildings and do it faster than the other players sitting around the table. The only wrinkle you really need to iron out for new players is the turn order structure and special powers, dictated by the plethora of characters.

Every round starts by players drafting a character from eight or nine options, depending on player count, and these characters determine, not only the order of play but also which player power you have. From the murderous assassin to the king who not only gets the gaudy, golden plastic crown but goes first picking next time and gets more gold depending on the buildings he has built.

It's hilarious, not only picking characters to further your endeavours, but also picking things that synergize with what you have built and try to pry things away from your opponents. This system gains more weight as you get further into the game and start to see what characters your opponents like to pick and what strategies they are fighting for. At this point, a whole new meta-game forms where you are trying to second guess and bluff your opponents to try and outwit them. Superb stuff.

Aside from all that tomfoolery, you are racing to build seven or eight buildings, depending on player count. These buildings are worth different end game points, are part of five different suits, and some even have special powers of their own. Citadels is a very small box for a game that has so many juicy decisions. It's quick, fun and with the right group, can get very tactical and nuanced, yet is extremely easy to teach. What more could you want? Just don't eat the gold, they look a bit like Werther’s Originals.

Pandemic - Luke Pickles & Callum Price

We couldn’t close out the feature on Z-Man games without mentioning their single biggest franchise of the hobby. It’s a word we’re all too familiar with after the last couple of years – Pandemic. But for me, you can’t just talk about the basic game. You need to look at the games which have spun off from it.

Pandemic The Cure is a die rolling variant of the classic, adding yet another layer of randomness. Firstly, your action selection is based on your character dice. Like in the base game, you have the variety of characters, but they each have their own dice. One example is the generalist has more dice but no special actions. You can re-roll any of your dice as many times as you want to get the action you want, but if they come up with the epidemic symbol, the game will increase in difficulty, much like the base game.

The location cards and the board are replaced by colourful custom dice and six numbered continent disks. These disks show which diseases will gather there and the frequency on which that number appears on the five dice. However, you’re drawing three dice randomly from a bag (for now), rolling them and placing them on the continent tile. Three of the same colour, and you get yourself an outbreak.

Curing the diseases is more difficult too because you never fully eradicate a disease. You’ll be able to treat it faster, but it will never fully leave the game. I prefer this rule variant, it feels slightly more realistic and induces just as much panic when a collection of yellows come out all at once, even if you’ve cured it. It keeps the pressure on and adds more chaos to an already chaotic game that’s just so much fun.

To close out, let’s take a look at the current number 2 game on Board Game Geek. Over to you, Thom.

Top Z-Man game for me? Easy. Pandemic Legacy Season 1.

A legacy game run over the Pandemic system with a strong “actions have consequences” vibe to it. Unlike Pandemic and its variants, this has limited plays (as the Legacy label hints) but I’d argue the experiences had through this saga will have you with your socks thoroughly blown off. It’s intense, dramatic, challenging and a whole heap of unpredictable narrative fun.

Like the adventures had in any action video game, Pandemic Legacy Season 1 is jam-packed full of dramas, twists and turns. The game’s core elements run on the classic Pandemic system: travel the world, collect card sets, cure diseases. Straight forward and consistent. As the game progresses, however, it adds more and more elements to this. Some of these are changes to just that game based on narrative development, others have much more longevity. Either way, it builds the narrative strongly to support the idea that the world needs your team to act and support them in tackling a rapidly changing outbreak of a disease.

Month by month, the game is played based on the narrative changes discovered through completing objectives. These change frequently with the constant of “cure all four diseases”. Completing these unlocks new intel and progresses the story further, with less funding (play any time cards) being available for increases success, and more for when things get tough. What’s more, is how attached you’ll get to each happening within the game.

No longer do you simply run “The Medic” as a character. He’s now named and earns traits and scars as you progress, a legacy of the ups and downs of what happens in game! And yes, they can die. My heart broke when Bubbles McGee the Operator was given scars for in game narrative changes. I almost refused to continue when we put them in the ground due to my own negligence… it was a hard month.

Wearing legacy like a badge of honour, this beauty’s board changes more frequently than any other legacy games’. It’s wild, but you add and remove stickers and components based on both narrative developments and for performance in game. Whether that’s because a city is now inhospitable, is now a safe haven free from all disease or because it’s been eradicated from the globe… your handmade history is strewn across this board for all to see. A true marvel of the gaming world and a high bar for any and all legacy games to aspire to.


Editors note: This post was originally published on 27/04/2022. Updated on23/02/2023 to improve the information available.