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Ugly Board Games With Inner Beauty

ugly board games - terraforming mars

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it. We are obsessed with the way things look in our society. We are brought up to believe not to judge things on the way they look but we are constantly bombarded with images that contradict that. So retraining our brain to ignore societal standards of aesthetics is difficult. With all that said, there are really ugly board games out there! No, not ‘ugly’. I guess, ‘not aesthetically arresting’ feels more fitting. And in an industry that is built around designing things that we are going to be staring at for any time from five minutes up to five hours (more for some!), ‘not aesthetically arresting’ is unacceptable. How often have you been put off playing a board game because of the way it looks? But sometimes it is worth getting through that barrier, because there are some amazing ugly board games out there. No, not ‘ugly’… not aesthetically arresting! Here are just a few:

Terraforming Mars - Dan Street-Phillips

Rare is it that a game reaches the heights of the Board Game Geek ratings whilst also becoming a joke within the industry for lack of component quality and design incoherence. But 2016’s mega-hit Terraforming Mars manages to achieve all of this and more. This tableaux building mammoth of a game sees you collecting cards and combo-ing tags in order to place buildings and forrests on the surface of Mars. On the heavier side of gaming, TM (to it’s friends) can take upto 4/5 hours at the higher play count and so you will be staring at those components for a long time. The cards are filled with stock photos but there is no design cohesion with the choices used. Some are photos, others rather clunky illustrations, all printed on very low quality stock. The graphic design also feels messy and the colour coordination on the cards is garish.

Then there’s your player board. Printed on very thin card, they are seen as game breaking these days with people recommending not playing the game unless you invest in double layer boards. This comes from the fact that the cubes placed on your board move after every slightest nudge of the table. And when I say where your cubes are on your player board is VERY important, you can see why this would be a problem. I guess the general consensus is “was this game ever playtested in person?” And at the end of the game, after terraforming the titular planet, the final shared board doesn’t encourage any sort of excitement or satisfaction. But behind this bland, incohesive mess is the work of board gaming genius. A fascinating engine builder that is challenging and interesting and different every single play due to the vast number of cards. It also makes for a brilliant solo experience with the win condition altered to make for a really challenging puzzle. Since it’s release, it’s unattractive outside has become part of its charm so open up the box and get stuck into the core of the game and try terraforming, it’s out of this world!

Troyes Dice - Favouritefoe

Beige. Taupe. Ecru. Fawn. No matter how you spin it, beige is, well, beige. And that’s not really the most inspiring colour palette for a board game. After all, most of us feast on our hobby with our eyes as much as we do our brains and our hearts. But, wait. Because beige has had a bad rap compared to its more scintillating shade buddies. And so I’m here to state on the record that doesn’t mean bad. Beige doesn’t mean boring. In fact beige can means looks like admin, plays like all that! And that’s the case in Troyes Dice!

To be fair, there are flashes of more exciting hues – punches of red and yellow both feature. Not to mention some icy whites. Although that’s more in the dice and the rondel board. The sheets are admittedly muted back to something bordering uninspiring. But don’t judge Troyes Dice by its palette. It’s a crunchy, strategic roll and write based in the Middle Ages when beige was de rigueur rather than démodé! Society is focused on nobles, civilians and religion, and it’s down to you to best manage the resources to make the city thrive! And with each round divided into morning and afternoon, you only have 16 actions to make your place the place to be! Picking actions from the interchanging, randomly selected Plazas set around the relevant half of the rondel, there’s also a cheeky black D6 that will block off a spot and destroy that same zone of your city sheet as the game goes on. The focus on resource management and critical pre-planning elevates Troyes Dice to a higher plane in the genre, nestled inconspicuously amongst Fleet Dice, Three Sisters and others. Look beyond the beige and a city full of brain itching play awaits you in Troyes Dice!

Diplomacy - Pete Bartlam

Diplomacy was created by Allan B Calhamer in 1954, first published in 1959 it was a child of the ‘60s. The fact that it is, itself, in its 60’s now and is still on sale today tells you it’s got something about it. Indeed it has. Described on some sites as a co-operative game, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Whilst you do strive for cooperation from others it is not in pursuit of some common, altruistic, goal but merely to build the platform from which you can springboard to ultimate victory yourself after stabbing them in the back!

Set in 1901 in the world of seven pre World War I European superpowers, Diplomacy has no element of luck or random chance. No drafted cards or rolled dice to determine outcomes but merely the eponymous power of persuasion where you cajole your colleagues into making your nefarious schemes a reality. A turn in Diplomacy consists of a 10-minute period where you converse in secret with the others to agree joint strategic attacks. All, simple area movement, orders are written down and revealed simultaneously. The moves are then completed according to set guidelines and you find out who you can really trust. The trick is to be faithful to your allies right up to the point where you finally betray them. This should be as late as possible for maximum benefit and should, ideally, be one turn before they betray you! Diplomacy on first release had a distinctive if garish colour scheme with fairly basic playing pieces – fleets and armies – in an even more basic container. This has been replaced in the latest update by a more subtle but bland colour palette and the pieces are now cardboard counters. Hardly an improvement! Luckily the game is worth persevering with. That is if you have up to 6 hours spare to play it through.

Innovation Rob Wright

Gotta give it to Carl Chudyk – he does love a card game, and I mean a card game where everything is done with cards: score, resources, actions, achievements…everything.

My first formal introduction to the card-based kingdom of Carl was Innovation, a civilisation game based entirely around cards which are stacked to give you both resources and ‘dogma’ actions and played in reverse to give you points and achievements (points are converted into achievements, and achievements allow you to win the game). On a player’s turn, they may take two actions from the following: draw one card from the era shown on their highest played card; meld (play) a card on top of the corresponding coloured card in their play area; claim an achievement, if they have enough points and the appropriate era level; or perform a dogma, the actions available on their top cards.

Dogmas are the real meat of the game, and allow you to score points, draw extra cards, mess up your opponent’s hand or board (and there are oh so many ways to do this) or ‘splay’ your cards – this means that the cards underneath your top cards are revealed to give you extra resources, and resources allow you to do all sorts of things, like achieve wonders or stop your opponents from getting the upper hand. Now a game with lots, in fact all of the heavy work being done by the cards, the cards have to contain all the relevant information. Innovation chooses to do this through the medium of… flow charts? Are you sure? Okay. Civilisation games usually revel in the splendour of humanity’s chequered past, but not so Innovation – it eschews the glamour to make a game that functions on pure synergy. It really is a remarkable but remarkably-plain looking game – you will be amazed at how such a big game can fit in such a little box.

Ganz Schön CleverTom Harrod

In 2018, Ganz Schön Clever (“That’s Pretty Clever”) burst onto the scene. Nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres, it played a monumental role in skyrocketing the roll and write genre. (In fact, 2018 was one heck of a year for designer Wolfgang Warsch. Not only did he help revolutionise the R&W scene, he also released The Mind, and Quacks of Quedlinburg in a matter of months!) Ganz Schön Clever must be a stellar product, then? A 10/10? Not quite. Much like all our favourite superheroes, who hold flaws or a crucial weakness, so too does Ganz. Even the most staunch fans of it cannot deny: it ain’t a looker. Alas, that isn’t very clever. It’s a glorified spreadsheet, with zero theme.

The game sees players using a 12x17cm sheet, which comprises five main boxes. They at least have neon borders around them, which stand out against the black background. But this isn’t easy on the eyes for board game beginners. Fast-forward five years to the present, 2023, and roll and writes aren’t presented quite so… (I’m searching for the right word… ‘soulless’. That’s an incredible, damning description, but Ganz is a pure maths puzzle, without any heart.) It’s a phenomenal game, there can be no doubt.

The dice you pick is important, but also the ones you leave behind for everyone else. The cascading effect of completing goals – which then let you gain freebies elsewhere – is so satisfying. That aspect is a huge influence on the likes of Demeter. But Demeter is a far more alluring prospect, versus Ganz. ‘You’re scientists on another planet, and guess what? You’ve discovered dinosaurs roaming around! Can you build research stations? Can you man those stations?’ In Ganz, you’re, er… filling in numbered boxes across five different colours. Why? To get the highest score. It’s blunt economic efficiency, nothing more. Hundreds of roll/flip-and-writes have since released since Ganz Schön Clever. Granted, not all stand up to the quality dovetailing mechanisms that this OG provides. But most now have theme, and marvellous, exotic and exciting settings that transport our minds to wondrous places. And that’s vital for many gamers in 2023's ever-growing, borderline bloated market.

Caesar! - Craig Smith

Caesar! Seize Rome in 20 Minutes! has everything I love in a two-player game. Each player is vying to control provinces around the Roman Republic. You do this by placing one of your influence tokens on a border between two provinces. These influence tokens state how desperate you are to take control of those provinces. Once a province has been completed, whoever has scored the highest places a control token. There’s also bonuses in each province, ranging from gaining an additional turn to having a bigger pool of influence tokens to choose from. Games of Caesar! are often very close, and there’s so many juicy decisions to make. The bonus is always won by the person who played the last influence token in a province, so do you sacrifice control to gain bonuses? It’s such a clever and tightly produced game.

The issue is I initially overlooked Caesar! because… well, it’s not a looker. In my review, I described the artistic choices as “interesting”, and stated that the bags “looked like something grandma would buy from a souvenir shop after one too many limoncellos.” I stand by those comments, but I feel like the aesthetic of Caesar! is so bad, it actually does a 180 and becomes somehow quite cool. I would argue that Caesar! isn’t even the worst looking game in the “20 Minutes” collection, especially not with the newly released Dogfight! I’d certainly rank Caesar! amongst my top 20 games of all time – proof that you really shouldn’t judge a game by its appearance.