Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Family Game Showcase: Ticket to Ride

At this time of year, one popular image is that of a toy train under the Christmas tree.  In that spirit, this month, we'll look at one of the most popular train-themed games, Ticket to Ride.

Designed by Alan R. Moon, Ticket to Ride was published in 2004 by American-based company Days of Wonder.  Since then, it has gone on to win 4 awards, including the German Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), and spawn several followup board games, a card game, and computer and iPhone versions.

Ticket to Ride is very easy to learn, with only three choices on your turn, and simple mechanics.  Players start the game with a number of trains in their color, a few colored train cards, and three Destination cards, of which you may optionally discard one.

The board is a map of the United States, with routes of one to six links in length connecting various cities.  These routes are claimed by players using the same number of colored train cards as there are links in the route.  Colored routes require the train cards be a matching color.  Gray routes can be claimed by any color, but not mixed the cards must all be the same color.

On your turn, you may do one of three things: score immediate points by laying down some of your trains and claiming a route as described above; draw three destination cards (you may choose to discard up to two); or draw two train cards one at a time from either five face-up choices, or the face-down draw pile.  There are wild cards, which count as two draws if taken from the face-up selection.

Destination cards show two cities to connect by whatever contiguous series of routes you can before the game is over.  At the end of the game, these will either score their value as bonus points if completed, or subtract that value as a penalty if not.  A common strategy is to fulfill your initial destinations, then draw more, discarding difficult ones, in order to score extra points at game's end.

The last round is triggered when one player is left with 2 or fewer trains at the end of their turn.  Each player (including the player who initiated the endgame) gets one final turn before scoring.  After everyone's final turn, Destination bonus points and penalties are scored, and finally, the player with the longest contiguous length of trains gets a 10-point bonus.

This is an excellent game to introduce people to modern designer games, due to its simplicity, as well as the tactile feel of the little plastic trains.  Later spin-offs and expansions add new elements to gameplay, such as a Globetrotter bonus for most completed Destination tickets.

As always, if you'd like to join me for a game, you can contact me at  I've also started a Family Games Showcase group on the Mira Lagos Nextdoor site.  Come join us!

Family Game Showcase: Carcassonne

This month, I'd like to introduce you to a tile-laying game, based around a theme featuring the medieval French town of Carcassonne, which was known for it's fortified city walls.  This game, for 2 to 5 players, was designed by Klaus-JΓΌrgen Wrede, and published in Germany in 2000.  At it's core, this game is an exercise demonstrating the principle of return on investment.

The game board is built as you play, starting with one tile of terrain.  Each player has seven pawns in their color, which are placed on the board during play, to remain until certain conditions are met, at which point they score and may be used again.  Turns are simple: draw a tile, place it on the table (sharing at least one edge with another tile, and making sure the terrain matches),  then optionally place a pawn on the tile just played.

A unique term now used commonly among board gamers originated with this game.  The wooden person figures are referred to as followers in the game rules, although now, most people in the board game community call them meeples.  As the story goes, Carcassonne was being played at a convention, and a girl playing called her followers meeples, short for my peoples.  The term stuck, and now some variant of meeple is frequently used to refer to the wooden pawns in different games.

Each terrain tile shows one or more of four different features.  When placing your meeple, you choose one of these features, which determines how and when you will score that pawn, returning it to your supply. 

      City: Meeples placed here are Knights.  A city scores when it is completely surrounded by walls.

      Road: A follower here is a Thief.  Roads score when it has two endpoints.

      Monastary: Pawns placed here are Monks.  A monastary scores when the tile it is on is surrounded by 8 other tiles.

      Plains: Placing a meeple in the grass designates it as a Farmer.  They score points only at the end of the game, based on how many completed cities the plain touches.

When placing your meeple, the feature you're claiming cannot connect to the same kind of feature claimed by another pawn.  If, however, you claim a type of territory and then later place another tile that connects the two territories, you may potentially claim points when that feature is completed.

Since your seven figures are essentially trapped on the board until the city, road, or monastary is complete (or until the end of the game), there are some important decisions to make during play.  Use your figure now, or save it for later?  Finish a city to get that meeple back and score, or make it bigger for more points later?  At the end of the game, players score reduced points for incomplete features.

Sound like fun?  As always, to play this or many other games, contact me about starting a family game night club at

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Family Game Showcase: Werewolf

Well, it's that time of year, when all the little ghouls and goblins will soon be running from house to house looking for a tasty treat. Many families also host Halloween parties for friends of all ages. So this month, I'm going to introduce you to a public domain game, designed to be played by large groups: Werewolf. I was first introduced to this game when I ran my coffeeshop gaming club several years ago. They were just doing it to kill some time, and I recall that it initially didn't seem that interesting to me.

A year or so later, I was hosting a Halloween party, and we decided to play. Not really wanting to be a player after my first experience, I opted to run the game for everyone, and it turned out to be a tremendous amount of fun. The important thing is to have fun with it. Tell a story, make it outrageous and memorable. I named each village for the series of games we played, and really played up each elimination.

There's a lesson there -- this game requires a bit of silliness. The mistake my friends made when introducing it to me was that they just mechanically walked through the play sequence, without adding any storytelling. Play it up, and it should be a hit, especially with kids.

The rules are simple. One person will be the Narrator, essentially not playing the game, so you may want to have this position rotate among players. Everyone else is an inhabitant of a 16th-century village deep in the forest (or mountains, or whatever the spookiest terrain you can think of would be - it doesn't really matter, as long as you know it's old and scary). There are three possible roles for a character to play:

  • The werewolves (about 1 per 5 or so villagers) - Their goal is to "eat" the other villagers. If on any "Night" the number of werewolves and the number of villagers is the same, they split up and eat the rest. As long as the villagers outnumber the werewolves, the game will continue.
  • The Seer (only one) This villager has the special ability during the "night" phase of the game to choose another player and know whether or not they are a werewolf. Convincing everyone else is the heart of the game.
  • The Villagers (everyone else) All other players have no special powers during the game.

  • Each round of the game has two parts to it, the "Day" phase, and the "Night" phase.  As the game begins, it is always Night.  To choose roles, simply use as much of a deck of cards as is needed for each player to randomly choose one card.  If a player draws an Ace, they are a werewolf.  A Queen, they are the Seer.  If they get any other card, they are a Villager.  Nobody can know what anyone else has chosen.

    At Night, all the players (except the narrator, of course) close their eyes.  The narrator will instruct first the werewolves to open their eyes.  Thus, by seeing who else has their eyes open, the werewolves know which of the other players is also a werewolf.  The narrator then instructs them to silently indicate which villager (only 1, no matter how many werewolves there are!) they will attack overnight.  After a choice has been made, the werewolves close their eyes again.

    Next, the Narrator asks the Seer to open their eyes.  The Seer may then silently point at another player, and the Narrator will quietly and truthfully indicate (usually with a thumbs up or down) whether the chosen player is a werewolf.  Obviously you will want to discuss beforehand which signal means werewolf.  The Seer then closes their eyes once more.

    Now, the Narrator begins the Day phase by telling everyone to open their eyes, and announces which villager has perished overnight.  That player is now out of the game.  They may keep their eyes open during the night cycle, but are forbidden to reveal any information to the other players until the game is over (don't worry, each game goes fairly quickly).  They must remain quiet for the duration.

    Now the players discuss amongst themselves which player to "hang" for suspicion of being a werewolf.  This is the heart of the game -- the villagers are scared and want to survive, but nobody knows who the werewolves are.  The Seer may know, but nobody knows for certain who the Seer is either.  Players are encouraged to lie about their roles, and often, the choice of werewolf may be based on something completely arbitrary, like who "looks suspicious."  Once the mob has chosen someone, that player is "hanged," and out of the game, like the first player.  After this, darkness falls, and the cycle repeats with another Night phase.

    The game ends when either all the werewolves have been hung (and the villagers win), or the villagers no longer outnumber the werewolves (when they eat everyone remaining, and the werewolves win). For atmosphere, you can dim the lights for the Night phase, or have recorded wolf howls play while everyone has their eyes closed, growls after the werewolves have selected their victim, or other touches like that. For my game, I had some old-style rope, and looked up how to tie a proper hangman's noose, which I placed open over the selected player's head at the end of each Day phase. Of course, it was all adults at my party, and we knew better than to tighten the loop. I wouldn't recommend that particular touch when playing with children, unless supervised to avoid accidents.

    While this game can easily be played at no cost, there are commercial productions, which often add new roles, with new abilities. One example is Are You a Werewolf? (if you can find it)  This one is basically the public domain version of the game with some artwork to help players remember their roles.  A prettier version is The Werewolves of Miller's Hollow.

    Finally, you have Ultimate Werewolf.  This version adds many new roles, such as the Mayor, the Vampire, or the Hunter, so every player has a job to do.  If you poke around, you'll find other, similar games that simply have a different theme, such as the mafia.

    Happy Halloween, everyone, and as always, contact me at if you'd like to play a game!

    Wednesday, September 26, 2012

    Family Game Showcase : Category 5

    Welcome back! This month, instead of a back-to-school theme like everyone else, and since September is the usual peak of hurricane season, I'd like to show you another of my favorite introductory games. Category 5 is a card game for 2-10 players, designed by Wolfgang Kramer, originally published in 1994 under the German title 6 Nimmt! When it made its way to America, some publisher changed the theme from cattle to hurricanes, which worked extremely well. The deck consists of cards numbered 1 through 104, each worth between 1 and 7 points. Your goal is to collect the least number of points after ten rounds. Each player is dealt a hand of ten cards, and then four are laid face-up on the table, to be the beginning of four rows (think of them as Category 1 hurricanes). Players do not have turns in the conventional sense. Instead, all players select one card from their hand, until all players have chosen a card. Then, all the cards are revealed simultaneously, and are placed one at a time, in order from lowest to highest. Once all cards have been placed, the round is over. Players repeat the sequence, until all ten cards have been played. Sound simple? The challenge is in HOW the cards are placed, due to four strict placement rules that determine where your card will go, as follows: 1. Your card MUST be higher than the last card in the row where it is placed. 2. If there is more than one possible row, your card must be placed where its number is closest to the last card. For example, a 67 would go next to a 52 instead of a 48, if given the choice. 3. If your card is the 6th card placed in a row (Hurricanes only go up to Category 5), you are required to take the first 5 cards, and yours becomes the 1st card in a new row. 4. If you have no legal placement, you must choose one of the four rows to take, and your card starts a new row. After ten rounds, players count up their points. The least points wins the hand. If you play multiple hands, the game ends after someone reaches 74 points (the windspeed that designates a hurricane). This game is quite chaotic with a large number of players, since rows will change very quickly, but with 4 or fewer, it feels quite strategic as you decide whether you can play a card without taking a row. An interesting side note is the card design, with points shown as hurricane flags, and each card showing either potential hurricane names (and the years they would be used), or retired names, in which it shows the location, year, and strength when it made landfall. Well, I guess there was something educational in there, after all. To learn more about and play this and many other board and card games, contact me at

    Family Game Showcase: The Settlers of Catan

    Last month, I told you a bit about my history and how I got involved in the boardgaming community. This time, I'd like to tell you more about the game that got me hooked, Settlers of Catan. Settlers of Catan is a German board game for 3 or 4 players, designed by Klaus Teuber, and first published in 1995, as Die Siedler von Catan. Since that time, it has sold over 15 million copies, in 30 languages. In this game, players take on the role of settlers, taming the frontier of the island of Catan, building settlements, roads, and cities, while avoiding the attentions of the bandits that roam the land. The board is made up of hexagonal tiles representing different types of land, which each produce a single type of resource. There is also a desert tile, which produces nothing, where the bandit figure begins. Finally, port tiles are placed along the shore, relating to the trading part of the game. Numbered markers control the actual production of resources, when the dice are rolled. Your goal is to be the first player to reach 10 victory points. These are gained through placing settlements, upgrading to cities, building monuments with development cards, or through two special tiles each worth two points, which go to whomever currently has the longest road or the largest army. Your playing pieces include settlements, cities, and roads in your color. Initially, everyone places two settlements on the board, each with a road. There are some restrictions on placement, but that's more rules detail than needed here. On your turn, you will first roll two dice to see which resources are produced. All players with a settlement bordering a tile with a matching total gain a resource card according to the type of tile. If a 7 is rolled, the bandits attack, shutting down production, and stealing resources. This encourages players to use their resources, rather than hoarding them. Once everyone has gained (or lost) resources, players may trade them. In the trading phase, the current player can trade with the other players, or the board, at different exchange rates, depending on whether or not you control a port, which reduces the cost to get a different resource. After trading, next is building. In the building phase, you turn resources into the bank to build roads, settlements, or cities, or to buy development cards (monuments, soldiers, or other special cards). Each player has a tile showing costs. After you have built everything you plan to, give the dice to the next player, and it is now their turn. While Settlers initially seems complicated, most players catch on after a few turns. The theme works very well. At the beginning of the game, you will struggle to build, but later, cities and settlements will be producing plenty, and you will begin concentrating on getting more points. To learn more about and play this and many other games, contact me at

    Bringing Back the Board Game

    When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I spent most of my summer days outside, exploring whatever bit of nature I could find in my neighborhood. There were some days, though, when it was raining, or just too dangerously hot to spend much time outside. On those days, I would gather a few friends, and we'd play some cards or a board game, because back then, the home video game market was still in its infancy. Our selection included the usual: Monopoly, Risk, Battleship, and the like. We even had one of the newer games on the market, Trivial Pursuit. Sitting across the game board from my friends and family, I developed a strong love of games in general. Keeping score helped my math skills stay sharp, and learning the skill of conversation helped greatly as I advanced into my adult life. Eventually, though, my interest in board games fell by the wayside as I got into college, where the friends I made were more interested in role-playing or video games. Most games that involved rolling the dice and moving a pawn were considered “kid stuff” in my early adulthood. If people got together to play a game, it was usually a “party game,” like Pictionary, or Scattergories, something light that didn't require much attention. For a time, I moved on to other interests. Years later, I attended a Game Day hosted in Arlington by some people who would later become good friends of mine. At this event, there were dozens of people demonstrating games I had never seen or heard of before to hundreds of attendees. Most of them were parodies of the role-playing genre, but then I saw a strange game on a board constructed of colorful hexagons. Players were trading around simple-looking cards and placing small bits of wood, constructing a miniature island. I watched, and then played, my first example of German-style board games – The Settlers of Catan. It was like nothing I'd ever played before! You developed property, like Monopoly, but the cost was paid in raw materials produced by the land bordering your settlements. Nobody was eliminated from the game in order to produce a winner. You simply did the best you could with the resources you gained, until someone reached the winning number of points, usually with all the other players (even the new ones) only a point or two behind the winner. Best of all, at 60-90 minutes, the games were a reasonable length! I was so enthusiastic about it that I immediately bought a copy of Settlers of Catan for myself. I went on to learn about and play many different examples of this type of strategy game, each with its own feel, and my interest in board and card games was reinvigorated. I started my own board gaming club, and taught many people how to play these new kinds of games. In the process, I learned that family strategy games like these have been around since the mid-80s, when I thought that the board games you can buy in any grocery store were all that existed. German-style games tend to de-emphasize conflict, instead focusing on efficient use of the resources you gain through the course of play. Math, critical thinking, and careful use of what you do have, rather than what you don't, are all skills developed while playing these games. Whether you have kids, or just want to share an activity with your friends that doesn't require a television, I highly recommend poking around your local hobby shop, book and comic store, or websites like to find some good games to play. I'm also starting a board-gaming club in the neighborhood, where I will be happy to demonstrate any of the dozens of board and card games I've collected since taking up this hobby. Contact me at to learn more.