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.