If you’ve been in this hobby long enough, you’ve probably seen some of the some mechanical or thematic trends appear over and over again. In any medium, it’s hard to keep coming up with original ideas. Thankfully, as a hobby, we’re exploring lots of new creative spaces and getting away from the ‘trading in the Mediterranean’ trope that has served us well, but its time has come. Here are five games that absolutely blew me away (mechanically or thematically) the first time I played them.
I talk about this game a lot. Some people really love it. Others can’t stand it. Obviously I fall into the first camp, but I’m sympathetic to those for whom this is just not their game. Any time you try something new and experimental, you’ll have fan and detractors. TIME Stories is one of the most innovative games I’ve ever played. It spawned a whole slew of narrative puzzle games. I first played it at a convention, where I was then to be tasked with teaching it. In fact, it was one of the actual Space Cowboys who walked me through the first game. I loved it! I was hooked. What a neat story that played out in the form of a game. During that week, I went on to teach it a number of times, and each time the response was positive. I haven’t loved every new scenario in the TIME Stories series, but as a first time player, I feel safe to say that my mind was sufficiently blown.
This is a game that really impressed me the first time I played it based on its simplicity. Essentially, Codenames is little more than a bunch of cards with words on them and a key pattern to let the the clue givers know which words are theirs, which belong to the other team, and which single word means death. The strength in Codenames lies in how clever you can be with the clues you give and the connections you can make if you’re the one interpreting those clues. I think often designers are looking to pack complexity and balance into a game in the never-ending search for the mythical ‘elegance’. In truth, a good game can be nothing more than some words and a goal of effective communication. I think I was so blown away by Codenames because it opened my eyes to the power and fun of simplicity.
King of Tokyo
I grew up playing a crap ton of Yahtzee. I mean, I still play a crap ton today. These days, it’s just usually the online variety with my family. King of Tokyo came to my attention when I worked at Snakes and Lattes. All of the staff were gathered around playing it and I quickly got in on the action. KoT takes a very familiar game to me and adds a super fun theme of giant monsters fighting over Tokyo. Although this game is really stupid and largely luck based, it can be super competitive and super fun. The more you play, the more you see the strategy of certain card combinations and you get to know the right time to chase points or just deal some pain to the other players. KoT also really solidified Richard Garfield for me as an incredible designer. Of course Magic will always be what he’s associated with, but some of his later titles like Treasure Hunter and KoT show that he has a talent for designing highly playable games with very different mechanisms.
Quacks of Quidlingberg
I knew this game was going to be special, because my friend and platonic life partner Trevor, who is a notoriously busy guy came to my house mid-week for a lunchtime play date. He really wanted to show me this game and he was on to something. Quacks is a game that I’ve had a lot of fun playing myself and a great deal of success teaching to new people. Quacks is all about pushing your luck, but unlike other bag builders, like Orleans, the stakes are a lot lower. There is a lot of strategy to consider, but a mistake is not necessarily game-ending. The real hook of the game are the ingredients you’re going to add to your bag. Most have four different potential powers depending on the ones you choose. This can require greatly different strategies and approaches every time you play. It’s really quite a fun design and one that extracts great moments of joy and pain with everyone who plays it.
Settlers of Catan
It may feel dated by today’s standards, but for many of us Catan was our introduction to the hobby. We learned about resource management, non-player-elimination, and a whole new way to play games. I was obsessed with it for years. I remember the day I was first taught Catan and how it worked its way into being a central activity amongst me and my friends. I moved to Peru with some of them and aside from cards and dominoes, the only game we brought was Catan. We lived together in a northern beach town and most nights we’d play a couple of games. Anyway, all this to say that perhaps no other game helped to make me a gamer than Catan. These days when I’m taught a new game I have countless other gaming experiences to reference. I see what parts of a game are innovative and which are influenced by past designs. When I was first playing Catan, I didn’t have any of that, and because of that, it occupies and very special place in my mind.
What games blew your mind, rocked your world, and/or made you look at life differently?