Gone for me are the days of regular long, Sunday afternoons around a table getting thoroughly absorbed in 3+ hours of some tabletop epic like Eclipse. Family life has rendered such delightful indulgences a rarity. Instead, most of my ‘serious’ pre-Covid gaming consisted of a couple of hours maximum on a weekday evening. With this change in habits, I have really started to appreciate the joy of tight, streamlined, lean games. Something which encapsulates the essence of any particular genre in elegant design, efficient rules and a shorter play time, without being bland or over-simplified. Here are my favourite lean games.
Fat Free Deck and Engine Building – Res Arcana
A super satisfying experience from a drafted deck of a mere 8 artefact cards. 'How is that possible?' I hear you ask. How indeed? Well, it’s down to the way you choose to combine them into the most efficient engine you can manage. As you become more experienced, planning informs your draft from the outset; it also informs your selection of a mage card from the two you are dealt - each with their own power. For novices and experts alike, there’s great satisfaction in managing your hand – working out what to get down, what to discard for immediate resources and what you are aiming for next.
You are trying to maximise your creation of essences (resources) and use them to purchase Places of Power or Monuments. These are the principal routes to VP, but they themselves also offer engine power. There’s also the choice of Magic Item to select– 8 different, little boosts that help you on your way. As the game progresses, there’s the potential for some ‘take that’ depending on the cards. This can be countered if you are watchful. The re-playability is phenomenal as the box comes with 40 Artefacts, as well as 10 each of Mages, Monuments and Places of Power.
Res Arcana scratches an itch I last felt in the midst of a terrifying MtG addiction in the 90’s - though I think this a far superior game. What's more, there is an excellent expansion – it's less lean, but it ups the player count to 5, adds more cards to the base mechanics and new demon Artefacts for further variety. It plays well at all counts and while I prefer fewer players even five has sufficient pace and punch. All in all, a magic choice and a wonderfully lean game!
Fat Free Economics – Chinatown
This is a game which strips out as much rules-clutter as possible. This leaves you focused on making the most money through savvy trading and negotiation with your fellow players. You are building a commercial empire over six rounds on a grid of 85 squares, depicting the six districts of Chinatown, New York in the 60s. Each round, you blind draw a number of Building cards (showing the 85 spaces) and Shop tiles. The number of each varies depending on which round you are in. The game is in trading them to maximise your payout at the end of each turn, by having the biggest blocks of the same property type. Different shop types have a different maximum number of tiles to be ‘complete’ and pay out more. Simple as that – most cash at the end wins!
Money, Buildings and Shops can change hands freely each turn in real-time, so it’s all about player interaction. Cut-throat negotiation generally rules the day! You need the right group, as players could walk away feeling hacked off with one another. Likewise, this really benefits from the full player count of 5. However, if you can get those two things right, this makes for one hell of an evening. I challenge anyone to find a leaner game and one with more player interaction than this.
Good news: a Chinatown reprint will be arriving soon! Add it to your wishlist and you should see it sooner rather than later. Looking ahead, I hope they re-theme it soon, as that’s really the only problem I have with the game.
Vegas or New York?
If all that feral capitalism seems a little bit too hard-nosed, then Lord of Vegas adds a bit more luck to the mix. It can be played more safely with a wider variety of player dispositions, a smaller player count and a bit less commercial cut and thrust. It’s everything Monopoly should be but isn’t. I think it’s just as good and more versatile, but it’s not quite as lean.
Fat Free War-gaming – 878 Vikings
The Vikings have a maximum of 7 rounds to conquer between 9 and 14 shires and secure their victory over the Saxons. Leaner war-gaming is achieved by using only 4 main troop types (factions): Berserkers and Norsemen for the Vikings; Carls and Thegns for the Saxons (who also temporarily draft pitiful Fyrd in defence of towns). Each faction will play one turn per round. The order is decided by drawing tokens from a bag. A tense and often significant ritual that keeps everyone on tenterhooks.
Unit-specific dice take away the need to repeatedly flick through a rulebook or refer to combat tables. These dice depict fight outcomes. Movement and special powers are card-driven. You play one movement card per turn from a hand of three cards. These cards depict a number of armies and a number of ‘spaces’ movement. Power cards are played in the circumstances specified and are explained on the cards themselves. The combination of mechanics keep the pace of the game cracking along. Any slowdown a function of tactical thinking, not rules mire.
The game has some satisfying asymmetry – but this is neither too much nor too complicated. Different factions have a different distribution of the three common symbols on their dice: hits, flees and commands. Reinforcement mechanics also vary. Saxons reinforce turnly to particular towns – the board shows what appears where – unless they are captured by the Vikings. Vikings reinforce with a semi-randomised invasion card in their first turn of each round; a ship laden with intimidating numbers of troops lands on the depicted choice of coastal spaces. As the game progresses, the weight of the Viking forces lessens while the Saxons gradually accumulate if insufficient territory is conquered. Finally, every Viking invasion brings a leader to the board, giving the Viking armies greater movement flexibility. Saxons only get one leader – Alfred the Great – and he doesn’t appear until round 5.
While 878 Vikings plays perfectly well with 2, the magic happens in 2 v 2 team play with each player taking control of one of the four factions. Tactical discussion become a fundamental part of the experience, which happens openly around the table. Big fights with each player picking up their faction’s combat dice just add to to the competitive and collaborative experience. It's fair to say that the dice rolling and card drawing made for a wargame with more luck than many, but I am very happy to trade that off for a fabulously pacey experience and some superb team play. A truly lean game. Blood-axey good!
Fat Free Hidden Movement – Whitehall Mystery
I have written plenty about this title and for good reason. That it hits the table again and again is a mark of its quality. Simple win conditions: Jack has four murders to complete, their secret locations selected before the game starts. The first is shown publicly, and is his starting location. He has 15 turns to complete each murder – as he reaches the next location, it is revealed on the public map and the turn marker is reset. Complete all four to win; lose by being arrested, trapped or run out of time.
Much of the asymmetry and tension is created by the application of the simple movement rules to a map. Jack moves on one set of numbered nodes while the three policemen move on different nodes on the same network. Jack has to move 1 and the coppers each move 0, 1 or 2. But the distribution of the nodes means there are parts of town where Jack can move a long way quickly and other parts of town where the police have the upper hand.
Each side has special powers which are movement-related. These are straightforward but in limited supply. Search and arrest rules are equally simple. They often leave the police with an agonising decision when they suspect Jack is near. On one hand, they have the relatively safe option of searching for clues in all adjacent numbered spaces. On the other hand, they can select one space for an arrest attempt which could win them the game.
I have played with 2, 3 and 4 players – the 2 player is great but, again, I prefer team play. I also love playing Jack! It lends the opportunity for some lighthearted trash talk as you machinate behind your screen. Play time can vary. A game generally 45 minutes, but we managed an arrest in 5 minutes once. The longest game nudged 90 mins, but with the level of tension we had experienced throughout, it was worth every second. Even at longer playtimes, I would still call this a streamlined, lean game.
Fat free 4x – Quantum
Quantum has been one of my absolute favourites for a long while – it’s out of print right now but you can play on BGA or TTS. Players take control of four ships (initially) with the goal of placing their ‘quantum cubes’ on up to 7 planets. They take three actions a turn, choosing from move/combat, deployment, re-configure, research and quantum construction. Beautiful d6 dice represent the ships; the value shown denotes the type of ship, its movement and attack power (slower ships are more powerful) as well as its free-action special ability. Planets on the tile-built board are numbered from 7-10 and this indicates the value of the ships that need to occupy its orthogonal spaces to allow quantum construction (for two actions). The game is very aggressive. Combat is simple: dice face plus a dice roll with lowest winning. Destroyed ships are re-rolled and placed in a salvage yard ready for deployment. Similarly, if you have ships you don’t want you can reconfigure (re-roll) them as an action.
Quantum cubes, once placed cannot be removed. It’s a belligerent race from the outset. Success in fights rewards players with domination points. If you can get 6, you instantly place a quantum cube anywhere. This can turn the tide. Constructing a quantum cube, or spending a total of 6 actions on research across a series of turns, rewards players with a bonus power. This is either an instant reward, like an extra ship, or a permanent rule-breaking power (of Cosmic-esque scope) which fills one of three available slots.
The beauty of this lean game is its clever combination of actions and ships’ special powers, in conjunction with the power cards you acquire. It’s fast, furious and bloody; best with four but still good with 2 or 3. There is plenty of replayablility because the tile-based board allows for myriad variations. Unless you choose a map with a choke point or a lot of 10-value planets (avoid both) this can be 45 minutes to an hour of high-octane, aggressive space combat fun.