Who’s Up For Tabletop Games?

by John Holbo on October 26, 2016

You know what kids like? They like playing the Munchkin Adventure Time card game. I have verified this with girls and boys, ages 10-50. When the younger daughter’s friends come over, they want to play Munchkin Adventure Time. So you might as well buy the expansion set – and order pizza. It adds to the humor if you are an Adventure Time fan, which you should be. But everyone else can get the jokes easily.

OK, backing up. Munchkin is a card game system. I’ve never played the generic version, but this guy at the comic book store said the Adventure Time version is actually better, game-play-wise – in addition to being about Adventure Time. We like Adventure Time. So we bought it.

It’s a great card game. Nice play dynamics. It doesn’t take long. Usually about 30 minutes in my experience. Beginning is fun. Ending is fun in a different way.

Everyone has a character and you start out weak, so the fun at the beginning is getting strong. You collect items and allies and level up. (The only annoying record keeping you need to do it record your level, from 1 to 10. The rest is drawing from decks of cards.) Every turn you ‘kick open the door’, hoping to find some monster you can fight, and defeat, to get loot and experience. The other players can help if you are facing a tough foe – probably only if you promise to give them treasure. So at the start play tends to be collaborative and constructive, with positive-sum team-ups and trades. But at a certain point it flips. Someone is a threat to win, by getting to 10th level. The game is nicely designed so that, as you get stronger and nearer to victory, the uncertainty of victory actually tends to increase. No one will help you any more, and the other characters tend to have collected weird cards and capacities that can interfere with you in surprising and hilarious fashion, just as you are about to win. Lots of curse cards and item cards and wandering monsters & etc. that can send an encounter careening sideways. The combat system itself is refreshingly simple. Count up points (add all your level points and ally points and item points, play any special cards) and the most points wins. But, by the end, the number of potential ways points can be boosted or reduced goes up. So basic simplicity is maintained, but there isn’t boring predictability. Sometimes someone zooms ahead and no one can stop them and the game is over in 20 minutes. More often one or two or even three players fail or flame out in succession, trying to cross the line. Failed attempts, and attempts to ensure others’ failures, exhaust players’ reserves of weird one-shots and curse cards and etc. So often the final battle is some trivial thing. Everyone is out of stuff but someone staggers in for the win, defeating the Evil Piglets because no one has any Crystal Apple or Prismo’s Pickles or Cosmic Owl to stop them. Or whatever. Most humorous and ironic.

And all the cards are silly, so the elaborate plays you make take on an absurd, Adventure-Time-y narrative quality. Every game is kind of like the “Dungeon Train” episode.

Good game. By contrast, the Adventure Time Card Wars game system is only so-so. The little chits for keeping track of hits are a hassle, and it seems to be impossible to win as Lumpy Space Princess. What’s up with that?

In other tabletop gaming news, the younger daughter gives a big thumbs up to a graphic novel, Lucky Penny, that hasn’t gotten much attention (that I’ve noticed.) We checked it out of the library. Read it twice. Returned it. Had to buy it because we wanted to read it again. On the one hand, it’s a total rip-off of Scott Pilgrim. On the other hand, they do an absolutely pitch-perfect, bang-up job of it. My daughter has already read all seven Scott Pilgrim books multiple times. So it’s good to have another one. Penny Bright, our hero, is kind of Ramona Flowers-mashed-up-with-Scott-Pilgrim. She’s incompetent, a slacker, living in a storage unit, mildly amnesiac, needs to gain the power of love and understanding. There are villains. Ninja henchmiddle-schoolers in tiger masks. Creepy kid David who runs the laundromat – is he behind it all? – who doesn’t pee. Armwrestling hot abs girl exchange student from Holland. There’s a cat and a boyfriend. The emotional intensities of aimless young adulthood get projected in various magical fashions. Instead of a bad rock band thing, like in Scott Pilgrim, Penny gets involved in tabletop gaming and likes really, really bad romance novels. It’s very awkward and charming. It looks like this.


Sometime later …


We now return you to the previously scheduled mix of more usual Crooked Timber stuff.



FS 10.26.16 at 9:51 am

Get yourself some ten-sided dice for the Munchkin levels, then there’s no more record keeping, plus the dice usually fit into the game’s box. You need a six-sided one anyway and can get twenty-sided ones if you’re into Epic Munchkin.


sanbikinoraion 10.26.16 at 10:30 am

Finally a CT thread that I have a working knowledge of!

Munchkin has a terrible reputation in the board game scene specifically for the ganging-up-at-the-end mechanic that means it can be difficult to ever finish the damn thing. If Munchkin is on the table, I nope right out of there. That said, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the makers had improved in things by now, considering that there about six gajillion versions of Munchkin.

Apparently the makers, Steve Jackson Games (he of GURPS fame but not he of Fighting Fantasy fame; there are two) makes as much money with Munchkin as with the rest of their board/roleplaying games in total.

Anyway, if you liked Munchkin AT, you might be interested in…

* Fluxx (or its billion variants) — a card game where every card played changes the rules of the game. It’s extremely random and the right expansions can be “zany” in the same way as some bits of Munchkinland. I bloody hate Fluxx but then I bloody hate Munchkin. Any of the expansions are better than the base game.
* Dominion — a much subtler sense of humour but a less directly-competitive game. Furiously addictive. Everyone starts off with their own little deck of cards and buys extra cards to put into it as the game progresses, which are either outright points, money to buy more cards, or action cards that allow you to, for instance, draw more cards up from your deck, or penalize other players, or let you play more cards. It’s got a nice progression and again, a bazillion expansions (of which Seaside and Dark Ages are probably the best)

Other decent gateway drugs^Wgames are:
* Seven Wonders — everyone chooses cards from their hand simultaneously then passes their hand on to the next player. Everyone competes to build the best city by building resources and using the resources to build armies, or science, or civic buildings.
* Carcassonne — build a map tile-by-tile of cities and farms, domino style so every piece has to match its neighbours, but you also add people to the tiles that give you score based on completing fully-enclosed cities, or terminated roads or whatever. Again, it has a billion expansions but you can get a lot of play out of the base game.
* Ticket To Ride — collect cards of different colours and use them to buy routes across the map. Connect your links together to fulfill route cards that are worth points — but other players can get in your way by claiming routes you needed.
* Pandemic — a completely cooperative game where everyone works together to contain the spread of deadly diseases. It’s fun, honest.


Kallan Greybe 10.26.16 at 10:49 am

Yeah, Munchkin is one of those franchises. It’s kind of like Fluxx in that nobody into hobby board gaming likes it, but it’s got acres of iterations and is inexplicably popular with everyone else. The upshot is that Peter Jackson was able to use the ridiculous amount of money he makes off of it to fund the new edition of Ogre, which is apparently loss making.

That’s part of the joy of board gaming really, it’s fundamentally social and people are perpetually making little gestures like that, making things for the sheer joy of it. Kind of makes me feel this whole hobby is demonstration of what life after capitalism could actually look like.


John Holbo 10.26.16 at 11:03 am

Ha! I didn’t realize hard-core types had a hate on for Munchkin but I would have predicted as much.

Funny, the other Steve Jackson games I have in the house are real old school: Nuclear War and Nuclear Proliferation. Plus an old copy of Awful Green Things From Outer Space. The classics. The kids also like Forbidden Island – not a Steve Jackson game.

As to ending mechanic. The guy I chatted with about it said that the balance was better with the Adventure Time version but I didn’t bother to ask what the alleged problem was with other versions. I have played the thing probably 25 times now, with between 3 and 6 players, and have never experienced a game that went on maddeningly long. I say the mechanics are good. There’s strategy from beginning to end but escalating risk as you near the final stage. That’s fine.


Marc 10.26.16 at 12:03 pm

Munchkin is a fun game for people who don’t take games terribly seriously. The people who like to min-max everything get driven crazy. For what it’s worth, it’s not the only game with the Hearts issue of gang-up-on-the-leader, and it just means you have to be subtle. Some versions are better balanced than others. of course.

There has actually been a tremendous boardgame and card game renaissance – all of the games in post 2 are great. I’d add Settlers of Catan, Dominion (a very fun fast paced card game), Puerto Rico, etc.

For what it’s worth, for many of them you can play online, which is fun for geographically dispersed friends and family. Add Skype and you can just shoot the breeze while playing a game with people thousands of miles away.


sanbikinoraion 10.26.16 at 12:10 pm

Let me militate against using dice for record-keeping. It’s so easy to knock them off the table or nudge them either accidentally or on purpose that any advantage from not scribbling on bits of paper is entirely negated. A better way to do it would be with poker chips, which people can stack and unstack and fuss with as much as they like without losing the imbued meaning, particularly if you insist that all poker chips must stay on your character card or something like that. (If it’s hidden information, I don’t remember, then put the chips in a bag).


lemmy caution 10.26.16 at 1:18 pm

I have played the munchkin adventure time game lots of times with my kids. I have never won. It is a fun game though. I need to pull the trigger on the expansion.


catfish 10.26.16 at 1:36 pm

I second the recommendations for Ticket to Ride and Pandemic. I also recommend “Escape” for a fast paced cooperative game. Really, most of the Spiel des Jahres winners going back to the mid-90s are fun with reasonably patient kids and adults.


Landru 10.26.16 at 2:09 pm

“Ha! I didn’t realize hard-core types had a hate on for Munchkin but I would have predicted as much.”

Errm, why? Is this just another chance to bash on blue-water nerds, from the credibility of the continental shelf? (How tiresome, yet I would have predicted as much.)

The knock that I heard against the original Munchkin from serious, thoughtful table gamers — not sure if this is equivalent to “hard-core types” as you name them — did not have to do at all with the game mechanics, but rather with insularity. The original, primordial Munchkin game was a D&D takeoff, and at first glance it seemed to be reducing the “traipse corridors/kill monsters/take treasure” idiom down to its cartoony essentials. But look a little closer and you’ll see that its cards are filled with parodies and references that only a D&D veteran could really understand and appreciate. So the whole original set was basically one long, running in-joke for D&D nerds to laugh at themselves with.

Thoughtful, dedicated tabletop gamers, though, are very often evangelical; they want to bring new people in and have the fun of the hobby be widely accessible (as you can see right here at the top of this thread). One reason they didn’t so much like the original Munchkin, then, was exactly because its fun content was too clubby and exclusive, deliberately less rewarding for the uninitiated.

The many later editions, fitting the simple mechanics onto themes from James Bond to Cthulhu to Adventure Time, are a spray of inclusiveness — one for every taste! — and so don’t reveal this history. And, yes, people who need to criticize something may then latch onto any particular they can, that some system is too simplistic, or too swingy, or too luck-based. But don’t forget that at least one of the original criticisms of the original Munchkin by the “hard-core types” was exactly in the service of wanting to be more inclusive and less snobby.


Adam 10.26.16 at 2:33 pm

Seconding Dominion and Carcassonne, along with the distaste for Munchkin. (Though if a game of Adventure Time Munchkin finishes in 30min or so, that’s a sign it’s an improvement over the original (which can take hours).) Carcassonne is nice in that it can be a pretty chill tile-laying game, but hidden underneath is a ruthless, cutthroat game for the players who want to play it that way. At 2P I rate it a 10/10.

We are indeed in a boardgame renaissance right now—super hard to limit the number of titles I want to recommend.

* Hey, That’s My Fish! — a cute-looking abstract with penguins on ice floes which is easy to teach and learn, but has lots of depth.

* Sushi Go — a drafting game like 7 Wonders and arguably better since it is way streamlined. Easier for young children and non-gamers to pick up, certainly. There is a new “party” edition which looks pretty effing good.

* Agricola — ok so this is a big step in the direction of “serious” strategy games, and not everyone loves it, but people who do (including me) really love it. The theme—subsistence farming in 17th C Europe—is maybe not as sexy as anything Adventure Time. But constructing your own little farm feels like a genuine achievement, every time. Mechanics feel tied to the theme very well. If/when you feel like getting into heavier games, I’d push for this one.


Kenny Easwaran 10.26.16 at 2:51 pm

The problem I’ve had with Munchkin is that you don’t know when you start whether it’s going to last 15 minutes or 2 hours. Most of these other games have a relatively predictable duration, which is really quite important when you’re going to sit down for some social gaming.

I second the recommendation to check out any Spiel des Jahres winners, and highly rated things on Board Game Geek.

One point I’ll add about Seven Wonders – it’s one of the few games of this sort that works well with more than 4 players. You can have up to 7, and because of the simultaneous turn mechanic, you don’t have to wait for 6 other people to play before it’s your turn again. (Apples to Apples of course works well this way, as do the spinoffs in the Cards Against Humanity franchise.)


Kallan Greybe 10.26.16 at 2:58 pm

I’d say, given your description of what you like about Munchkin Adventure Time, Settlers of Catan is probably right up your alley. It’s a step up in terms of strategy, but it focuses even more on diplomacy: you pretty much have to be trading with other players to complete any strategy which puts a natural brake on any runaway winner (unless they’ve been hoarding development cards).

As for kids games, I have a couple I play with (started when they were 8 and 6) who absolutely love Carcassonne. It’s a deceptively simple tile laying game (draw one tile then place it) with a surprisingly rich vein of strategy, though it only really starts to shine once players realise they need to mess with other players as much as possible.

I’d also add two card games that absolutely need a mention.

First, I’d recommend trying out San Juan (the iOS version is servicable). It’s a card game with role selection and an interesting economy: you pay to play cards using other cards from your hand, so you’re always having to weigh up the opportunity cost of any play. If you find yourself enjoying San Juan you can upgrade to beefier games with similar mechanics from Race for the Galaxy (basically the same game with richer mechanics), Puerto Rico (role selection and economy management board game), or the current undefeated 10-ton hulk of an event game (and definitely not for kids) Twilight Imperium (Intergalactic war game with oodles of politics and 6-12 hour play length, but worth every minute).

The other recommendation is Citadels. It’s another role selection game, but the emphasis is far more on figuring out which roles other players are going to choose. The elements of deduction and take that can lead to some great stories and great interplay, similar to what you seem to get out of Munchkin. It’s also got more game to it than similar games like Coup or Avalon because you need to be building a city at the same time, which is why I’d by far rather play it.


Adam Hammond 10.26.16 at 3:41 pm

Ah! great topic. My family enjoys the basic Munchkin game. We’ll have to try the Adventure Time version.

I have colleagues that play chess on campus — right out in the open where everyone can see them — and yet they are never criticized for the ‘waste’ of time. Chess is something professors are allowed to do. Somehow it adds tone to see gray heads puzzling over those beautiful, iconic pieces. Hard to imagine Munchkin being so acceptable … probably because the players would be smiling.


Yankee 10.26.16 at 4:11 pm

Why is it a bad thing that no-one can win? Sooner or later you have to stop and set the table for dinner anyway.


AcademicLurker 10.26.16 at 4:36 pm

Advanced Squad Leader. Your kids are probably old enough for it by now.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 10.26.16 at 5:38 pm

The problem with Munchkin is that it is very very difficult to END.

It becames one of those games where people finally get fed up and say yes, I could sabotage your move to win the game now but I WANT THIS TO FINISH.

But till you get to that point, and as a filler, works well. Better games out there, but this is also one that is quick to explain and grasp so good for an introduction.

Now forgive me, I’m going to keep watching my wall of 20 board games waiting to be opened and played as I have a credit card, no impulse control, and no gaming friends.


SusanC 10.26.16 at 6:05 pm

Munchkin is great, though it possibly works better with a group of people who are playing it for the jokes, rather than seriously trying to win.

“A roleplaying game with all the roleplaying taken out” doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. You might have to have played an actual RPG or three to get some of the jokes. [e.g. “slug thrower” will only make sense to players familiar with Traveller]

If you liked Munchkin, then Illuminati might also appeal.


GHG 10.26.16 at 6:57 pm

Agreed on the excellent Carcassonne, Seven Wonders, Settlers of Catan. We got Munchkin Zombies but the learning curve has been such that I’m embarrassed to say we haven’t been able to get people to sit still long enough to figure out the rules. We have various expansions for Carcassonne that are mostly unnecessary (skip the Catapult!). Ticket to Ride is great; we have the North America version and it’s a good geography-teacher, but we played the European version at a friend’s house and it is even better. There is an added “train station” level of play that makes thing more interesting.

My recommendation: “Kodama: The Tree Spirits”, a lovely card game that my younger kid and teenager both enjoy. Doesn’t take too long (30-40 mins), interesting layers of strategy, and cards and characters that are super-cute.


cs 10.26.16 at 7:05 pm

On the how to keep track of levels in Munchkin question: back in the day when I used to play Magic the Gathering I would keep track of life on an old cribbage board. It sounds to me like that would work well for this game (if you have one handy).


Moz of Yarramulla 10.26.16 at 8:55 pm

Yes, dice for tracking in Munchkin can be a disaster, better to use tokens. And it definitely has to be played as a fun game with no real strategy. If you get intense about it, it becomes an ugly grind.

We have both Catan and Carcassonne on our phones, as well as the board games, and various others. Ticket to Ride has never really grabbed us, we have played it a few times and it doesn’t really work for us – it feels kinda tedious.

Blokus is one not mentioned yet that is fun. I’m not entirely sure kids would like it, but teenagers should be fine. Despite that, it’s got lots of shiny plastic bits that kids like to play with :)

Also, kids who have Lego might enjoy the various Lego board games. We have Creationary, which we love but have discovered that many non-Lego people struggle with it. Being deprived of Lego as a child is a disadvantage that lasts for life! But we’ve also played the D&D game at a friends place, and while the mechanics are (vastly) simplified, it has the same benefits and vulnerabilities as any D&D style game – if the GM is not good, the game will not be good. OTOH, it can turn into a Munchkin-like hack’n’slash rolling ball of amusement if done well.


John Holbo 10.26.16 at 11:16 pm

“Advanced Squad Leader.”

Aaaaaahh. Memories of getting out pieces of thread to check line of sight!


Moz of Yarramulla 10.27.16 at 12:49 am

Like GHG, skip the Carcassone Catapult expansion (the Dragon and Tower can also lead to a lot of focus on revenge plays, which IMO detract from the fun aspect. But the catapult is just a joke). But it’s worth buy the bundle version that has some expansions with it. We have recently split out exactly one base set of Carcassonne and played that with beginners. Normally we play two base sets plus all the tiles from a bunch of expansions (but only one lot of meeples). Someone introduced us to the idea, it doubles the game length but makes it much more fun because you can build ridiculously large towns… if they don’t get stolen from you. I mean “if someone doesn’t help you finish them” {evil laughter}. Also, the expansion that gives you orange-border “go anywhere” tiles makes the bigger games much better, as they reduce the need to count tiles in your head and know whether a given square can ever be filled in.

With Catan, the Kights expansion is IMO not worth it for the board game – it introduces a bunch of token-twiddling that just distracts, and can mean already-slow players grind to a halt. But on the phone or tablet the computer does all the twiddling (and enforces the rules), so Cities and Knights is much more enjoyable – IMO preferable.


John Holbo 10.27.16 at 1:41 am

“Munchkin is great, though it possibly works better with a group of people who are playing it for the jokes, rather than seriously trying to win.”

I can see how the backstabb-y quality, combined with serious agg-y gaming temperaments, could be non-optimal, whereas giggling girls enjoying a sleepover can have more reliable fun.

It’s interesting to hear that Munchkin has this bad rep for interminable play. I hadn’t bothered even to google about it before now but, yes, people do complain about that. I’m here to tell you: when they made the Adventure Time version, they ironed that one out. The mix of cards does not tend towards interminable play. I was exaggerating above when I said you could play in 20 minutes. We had one game that was damn short. One player cakewalked straight through. But that was a severe anomaly. An hour is normal for play. But now I’m reading these general Munchkin reviews that say the the first player to try to get from 9 to 10 can NEVER do it. Not in this version. I would say that it’s more like 25% success for first attempter. And I’ve never seen it drag on beyond the third or fourth attempt. It’s too easy to get through.

Settlers of Catan is great. We like that one, too.


Ragweed 10.27.16 at 6:09 am

We’ve never had a problem with Munchkin dragging on too long, but then my kids and their friends don’t get as into the back-stabbing part, and just play for the humor. And while there may be some in-jokes in the original version, there is plenty that is just silly enough that you don’t need to know all the in-jokes.

You might appreciate this duo:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mD3uXPkjDi0&w=640&h=360%5D


John Holbo 10.27.16 at 6:53 am

“We’ve never had a problem with Munchkin dragging on too long, but then my kids and their friends don’t get as into the back-stabbing part, and just play for the humor.”

Norms of gameplay are interesting. The relentless, instrumental rationalism of the game fantatic is not the only way!

Ha, I’ve seen that video before. I think it may have tickled the back of my brain, in picking my post title.


sanbikinoraion 10.27.16 at 10:13 am

I will argue “for” the Cities and Knights expansion for Catan. Once you’ve played the base game, oh, twenty times or so, you’ll notice that starting placement accounts for about two-thirds of your victory power — if you get the good, complimentary spots, probably you’re going to win. Second, I find the endgame to be dull, because it’s usually obvious who’s going to get to 12 first a few turns in advance, and yet there’s nothing that anyone else can do to stop them. I find that deeply frustrating.

C&K, IMO, adds enough variety that both a) starting placement matters less (although it’s still important) and that b) some big moves can be made near the end of the game that allows you to take ~5VPs in one go, which can tip an unlikely-looking player over the top quickly.

I second Agricola too. It is the best game. Be careful, though, the new edition comes in “family” and “actual” editions, and it’s the “actual” one you want for the Improvement/Occupation cards that give the game its vast replayability. You should also note that it is really fucking hard, both in that there are quite a lot of rules, and that for beginners just not starving to death is often a trick in itself.

If you like Catan you might also enjoy…
* Splendour, which takes the points race game into the jewellery business.
* Race For The Galaxy, which has a lot of symbology to learn up front but has that accelerating resource-management feel.
* Candamir: The First Settlers, which is another game in the Catan universe but has a more local exploration focus.

If you like Arthurian legend and can sit still for a couple of hours then I really recommend Shadows Over Camelot for providing a really thematic mostly-cooperative game where everyone has to work together to defend Camelot and go on a bunch of quests. The mechanic of the round table filling with black or white swords produces a really good escalation of tension as the game goes on.

A (much) lighter version would be Resistance: Avalon, which is a hidden identities game. If you can get 5 people together then these silly games (see also: Coup, Love Letter) are good warmups.


Simon H 10.27.16 at 2:07 pm

Forbidden Island *is* essentially a re-badged Pandemic, it’s even by the same designer.

I second pretty much all of the suggestions above. One that I haven’t seen mentioned is “Once Upon A Time”, a storytelling card game which can be picked up pretty easily because everyone knows fairy tales. Indeed the game relies on it being very difficult to avoid cliches when telling fairy tales for its central mechanic.


mark 10.27.16 at 2:10 pm

I’m a reasonably serious board gamer and my normal group likes Munchkin fine. It is, as said, best played for laughs and we’re usually done within a half-hour too. I could probably see myself helping someone win if it went on much longer. (Losing a game that only takes a half-hour is no big deal.)

SOme even quicker card-based games include Resistance and Love Letters (I’ve only done the Batman variant of Love Letters, apparently it’s exactly the same gameplay.) The latter is great–a bit of strategy, some deduction, some bluffing and some luck as you try to knock other people out of the game.


MPAVictoria 10.27.16 at 2:35 pm

Saboteur is a very simple card game with a hidden traitor/trust mechanic that has proven very popular with my group of friends. It is simple to learn for people who don’t play board games very often and the hidden traitors aspect helps keep it interesting for more experienced players. Check it out.



sanbikinoraion 10.27.16 at 2:42 pm

My experience of Love Letter is that it’s almost entirely random. Friends love it. I get nothing out of it. At least with the other social deduction games you have a little bit of information to go on.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 10.27.16 at 3:31 pm

#25 Yes, it is not the only way but the game is still flawed if all it takes is a # of players wanting to play to win to find out the flaw. After all, jokes will wear thin in no time.

Thats why something like Citadels (+1) or Star Realms or any other that will end in 45m-1h no matter what are better. Not more funny in material, but more satisfying to know you will end a match, you will probably get a rematch right away, and people will want to play it again next time because it is satisfying to finish it instead of dreading it will end up in a slog.

But of course, the biggest maxim, and one many people tend to forget, is … play is for fun, if you are having fun, you are doing it right :P


QAMS 10.27.16 at 4:22 pm

@25: You write “The relentless, instrumental rationalism of the game fantatic is not the only way!”

Of course this is true, and not something that anybody would dispute. The complaints about Munchkin seem to stem from a tone problem: the type of play encouraged by its rules don’t really mesh well with the most fun way to play the game. Its presentation suggests (at least, to many people) that it is a light, friendly competitive game. However, its “win” condition encourages fairly mean play that generally leads to pretty boring and long games with fairly random results. Having fun with the game generally means treating it as a story engine and largely ignoring the rest.

It may be useful to contrast this with other games that have had better receptions among fans. The excellent short game “King of Tokyo” really is a light, friendly competitive game. Its theme goes well with its rules, it is short, and it supports a group with many different play-styles… while also allowing funny/surprising things to happen. On the other hand, games like “Tales of the Arabian Nights” explicitly encourage you to largely ignore victory conditions in favour of exploration.

The point is that well-designed board games generally have rules that encourage players to play in a fun and interesting way. Many people (myself included) have found that Munchkin does the opposite, and that we need to give a guide to the tone of the game while explaining the rules. This isn’t a problem, but it is certainly a defect (similarly, I could probably enjoy “The Triplets of Belleville” if it looked like “The Mighty Hercules”).


sanbikinoraion 10.27.16 at 5:25 pm

So it looks like there are a fair number if serious gamers here – let’s have your best recommendation for an obscure game I’m unlikely to have heard of.

For me I give you GLORY TO ROME, sadly now out of print, but with an incredibly clever mechanic where each card can do one of five different things. Otherwise it’s a bit like Puerto Rico or San Juan in being a role choosing game. Use a card as a building material, as a patron, a client, treasure or as a building.


Trader Joe 10.27.16 at 6:57 pm

Curses on Lurker for reminding me about Advanced Squad Leader…I recall one summer me and a friend spent literally hours setting up an huge scenario with multiple boards and most of the tiles only to have his dog come chasing through and crash into the card table we had laid it out on spewing pieces everywhere….we did eventually play it though and it was very cool managing all the different attack groups simultaneously. I still have the box and boards in that old trunk full of things you never use but can’t seem to get rid of….might have to crack it out just to look at.

Settlers – excellent. One of the best ever and as noted above the Cities and Knights is a great add once you get into it.

Also a prop for Pandemic…seemingly simple, yet if everyone isn’t on the same page it becomes very complicated very quickly.


Z 10.27.16 at 8:02 pm

Norms of gameplay are interesting. The relentless, instrumental rationalism of the game fantatic is not the only way!

Indeed! In fact, because I was a mildly serious chess player when I was young, I sometimes got into disagreements with more “serious” players of the strategizing variety because I insisted on making goofy choices that I would justify by appealing to the in-universe theme of the game and defending myself along the lines of “if you want to play a game where the point is to outsmart your opponent, play chess!” It never convinced anyone, of course.

My kids (a couple of years younger than yours) enjoyed Shadow over Camelot, but for a completely different type of gameplay, your girls (and you) should check out Dixit or Mysterium (both games rely on imagination and finding clever ways to convey feelings and ideas).


John Holbo 10.27.16 at 10:41 pm

Excellent! Crooked Timber is now officially a gaming blog!


Adam 10.28.16 at 2:48 am


Oh goodness yes it’s one of my 10s. I think I have close to 100 plays of it and I am still learning things about possible combos and ways to shut down opponents. Just top notch. Have you tried Mottainai yet? I expected it to be GtR-lite, but it’s really its own thing.

If you know of and enjoy GtR I’m not likely to know anything you don’t already know. But how about Troyes? It’s a beautiful dice/worker placement hybrid with distinctive art.


Plarry 10.28.16 at 3:12 am

I pretty much agree with everything sanbikinoraion @2 has said, but want to emphasize what a great game Seven Wonders is. My nine year old has mastered the rules and really enjoys playing it.

I prefer Puerto Rico over Agricola, frankly. Agricola is an amped up version, but it seems to me that unless you run one of the variants, your results are too dependent on your initial hand.

Also, let me put a plug in for Cheapass games. They relaunched a few years ago, and their games are a little more expensive than they used to be, but you can get the great old classics again like “Unexploded Cow”, “Kill Dr. Lucky”, and “Give Me the Brain”.


Z 10.28.16 at 8:21 am

Excellent! Crooked Timber is now officially a gaming blog!

Highly educated people with an acquired disdain for the excessive pursuit of material profit and for the exercise of power and authority will read blogs whose name whimsically recall quotations from Kant and play table-top games. A good deal of them also probably have an opinion on the status of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with respect to the other 7 books, an opinion that they actually discussed with their SO in at least one occasion; and they probably enjoy green tea and swim more than the average person.

That’s the power of sociology for you.

Still, I’m slightly worried by how many of the games mentioned in the thread I own or have played and by my ability to immediately understand a sentence like “I prefer Puerto Rico over Agricola.”


sanbikinoraion 10.28.16 at 12:17 pm

Adam, thanks, I’ve wishlisted Mottainai. I haven’t played Troyes but I have *been* to Troyes. They do a nice projector light show onto the buildings in the huge central square that appears to be the centre of the board in the game.

Plarry, you must either draft your Agricola cards amongst all players, or at least play “deal 10 return 3” so that all players have a better chance of getting hands that combine nicely. Even then I know some groups that restrict use of e.g. Lover, Wet Nurse, for just being too individually powerful.


Marc 10.28.16 at 1:24 pm

I’d also add that I tend to strongly prefer the base versions of games to their expansions. I understand why there are game expansions; the game makers can only sell the base version once. But, in general, expansions always make the game more complicated and frequently create severe balance problems. These two things go together; if you add a number of new moving parts it can be difficult to make sure that they all play nicely with every other combination. Seven Wonders is a study in point: it’s a fast elegant game in the base case. The expansions slow it down and make it more complicated, with a lot of time spent staring at rule pages trying to figure out what an icon means.

Now there are cases where a redesign makes a game better, but that’s usually different from just adding extra features. And it’s also true that you can simply play a game out, so that you want something different. My solution is just to try a different game, not a more complex variant of the same game.


Rob Barrett 10.28.16 at 2:30 pm

At my FLGS, the boardgamer consensus is that Agricola is so much better with the Moorlands expansion that eliminates the occupations and improvements while expanding the board (and thus removing the “stuck with getting reeds” problem).


mark 10.28.16 at 2:54 pm

@sanbikinoraion: You do have a bit of information in Love Letters, with certain moves & guesses by other players making more sense given their cards. And of course counting the discards. But I like

I actually played GtR for the first time last month. Liked it but was unsurprisingly playing from behind almost the whole game–then finished with a respectable banking cheap resources.

I found it similar to another (simpler) Chudyk game, Innovation.


mark 10.28.16 at 2:56 pm

I trailed off in the first paragraph there. I was going to say I liked the playing the odds aspect of Love Letters, like poker you can’t guarantee a hand but over a game good play will move things in your direction.


Adam 10.28.16 at 5:28 pm

#42 Rob Barrett – is this a new thing for the new version of Agricola? My (old) copy of Farmers of the Moor doesn’t eliminate Occupations and Improvements—in fact it adds two extra decks (E- and F-decks IIRC).


hix 10.28.16 at 9:00 pm

Im playing lots of Stone Age at the moment. https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/168-9051512-7640203?url=search-alias%3Dtoys-and-games&field-keywords=stone+age

Results are largerly skill, not luck based despite the dice aspect.


NoPublic 10.28.16 at 9:31 pm

I’d like to show some love for a couple “simple” games from CheapAss.

Get Lucky: The card game version of Kill Dr. Lucky. My family has a great deal of fun with this one. It does share the spoiler/ally/endgame issues of Munchkin though.
Stuff And Nonsense: A set collection and story-telling game, the part of it my family loves the most is the making up of silly stories to justify your acquisitions.


Plarry 10.29.16 at 1:07 am

Marc @ 41: I completely agree about the expansions for Seven Wonders – they usually don’t add much, and mostly detract from the elegance of the base game. An exception to expansion packs is that for Settlers of Catan. It’s great to be able to play the game with 5 or 6 people. There are few games that can handle 6+ players really well. Settlers with the expansion pack and Seven Wonders are notable for this.


Jake Gibson 10.29.16 at 1:09 am

I take it, the game is more challenging thsn Chutes and Ladders


Rob Barrett 10.29.16 at 6:35 pm

Adam @ 45: I hadn’t seen the rules for Farmers of the Moor until just now since we use another player’s copy of the expansion. Looking at the document I see that there are new Minor Improvement cards but no new Occupations (although a check of BGG reveals that fans have made their own for the expansion). It seems that the group just decided to skip the level of play using all the occupations and minor improvements.


sanbikinoraion 10.29.16 at 7:42 pm

Chutes and Ladders isn’t even a game. I mean, it has some game-like qualities in that you take turns, and roll dice, but there are literally zero decisions to make.


John Holbo 10.30.16 at 12:49 am

“Chutes and Ladders isn’t even a game. I mean, it has some game-like qualities in that you take turns, and roll dice, but there are literally zero decisions to make.”

Ah, the Wittgensteinianian debate begins!


Bill Murray 10.30.16 at 6:34 pm

I generally find out which games I like from Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop web series )http://geekandsundry.com/shows/tabletop/, new year staring probably late in November). From that I quite like Fortune and Glory, Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre, Once Upon A Time and Fiasco


Moz of Yarramulla 10.30.16 at 8:30 pm

Chutes and Ladders isn’t even a game. I mean, it has some game-like qualities

You’ve mistaken the obvious for the important. Chutes and elevators is a game in the mode of “who can be quiet the longest” or “hide and seek”, where the children win if the adult loses their mind, otherwise the adult wins.


Moz of Yarramulla 10.30.16 at 8:35 pm

Also, simple card games with decks of cards shouldn’t be discounted. The “happy families”, ah, family, of games can be played at a child level right through to the more complex Canasta variants (we used to play with 5 decks of 500-the-card-game cards speicially to challenge the card counters). And the game Microsoft call “Hearts” we played a lot as a casual strategic game. And the various trumping games can be fun, especially if you play conflicting variants in alternate hands (alternate bridge with 500, for example). The great thing about a pack of cards (or two, or 5) is the sheer number of different games you can play with one set of equipment.


Val 10.31.16 at 12:27 am

I like hide and seek! Little children introduce some funny variations though – the best one recently was my just turned three year old grandson, who said when it was his turn to count, “let’s all hide together”

There’s a conceptual and logic problem for you! Is it still hide and seek and how does it ever get resolved?


Yan 10.31.16 at 1:17 am

“Ah, the Wittgensteinianian debate begins!”

Wittgenstein was wrong, as usual: https://broadviewpress.com/product/the-grasshopper-third-edition/


Landru 10.31.16 at 1:48 am

” “Chutes and Ladders isn’t even a game. I mean, it has some game-like qualities in that you take turns, and roll dice, but there are literally zero decisions to make.”

Ah, the Wittgensteinianian debate begins!”

Obligatory: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/58

Now, veering back to gaming — though not entirely away from philosophy — it is absolutely true that we are in the new golden age, and table top gaming has offerings over a vast range of topics and styles. Even literary types who might be left cold by computing spreadsheets of victory points can try out something like “Tale of the Arabian Nights” (already mentioned by QAMS at 32 above). It’s not entirely un-problematic; but what really is? Here’s a lively video review, made by actual British people so you know you can trust it:


Be sure to catch the last bit at 10:58; and, for that matter, I recommend the whole site, for people who want to dip into the subject a little more. Enjoy.


sanbikinoraion 10.31.16 at 11:13 am

You had to bring it back to philosophy again, eh? Moz is probably right that these “games” (see also Monopoly, Snap, etc) are designed partly to keep children quiet but partly, and more reasonably, so that they learn the basic structure of how games work, without actually having to concentrate at all on anything like strategy or tactics.

My six-year-old niece can play Dominion, at least mechanistically, but it’s clear she has little comprehension of what needs to be done in order to actually win.

Talking about card games, there’s none better than the one I learned at school and called Big Two. It’s sort of a trick-taking game, except the only reason to take tricks is to keep control of play, as you try and get rid of all the cards in your hand. Furiously addictive.

(As a coda to Landru, check out SUSD’s review/playthrough of the megagame “Watch The Skies” — I played a small variant of this in Cambridge, as UK PM. It was a marathon of memory, role-playing and double-dealing. Everyone interested in games should try one at least once.)


MPAVictoria 10.31.16 at 1:46 pm

Landru I am glad someone else here likes existential comics. I check out his new comic every monday. :-)


JW Mason 10.31.16 at 8:57 pm

Any recommendations for younger kids, like 5 or so? Ideally that their adults will also enjoy, tho that may be asking too much.


J-D 10.31.16 at 11:12 pm

JW Mason 10.31.16 at 8:57 pm

Any recommendations for younger kids, like 5 or so? Ideally that their adults will also enjoy, tho that may be asking too much.

My daughter’s twenty — but on the other hand, her niece is under five, so next chance I get I’ll ask my daughter if she has any ideas.

In the meantime, I carried out this Web search: ‘board games five year olds’. There are results from people who seem to know what they’re talking about (as well, inevitably, as manufacturers advertising). I haven’t studied them in depth and can’t personally endorse recommendations, but it may be worth noting that the first one I looked at began by explaining why they weren’t recommending Chutes And Ladders while the second began by recommending Chutes And Ladders — which means you can get different perspectives, which might be good.


sanbikinoraion 11.01.16 at 6:00 am

Sushi Go is supposed to be good for young ‘uns.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 11.01.16 at 12:57 pm

#58 Tales of the Arabian Nights is a game that worries me. I’d love to get it, I’d love to play it, but I’m not sure the lack of real conflict is going to work for the kind of crowd I play with.

Looks like a great engine for quick and dirty roleplaying. Which can be enormous fun IF the players are into roleplaying. If not… let me tell a tale.

We were playing Dead of Winter, which for who dont know the game is something like a Walking Dead simulator in which you handle a group of survivors inside a bigger group of survivors in the middle of both a zombie outbreak and a brutal winter. One of the big points of the game (in fact, the name of the “system” for the game) is the Crossroad encounter deck, which is basically a bunch of cards with scenarios that, as in Tales of the Arabian Night, some other player checks – they get the first card in the deck, they watch you play your turn, if you trigger the card condition they describe the situation and your choices to you.

Well, there is a great deal of difference to play with somebody that will take the card and read to you the text, about how you find a horse and what do you want to do with it, and somebody that just says “choose, free movement without injury check or 2 cans of food”

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