The Modern Board Game Starter Pack
Hi! My name’s Demetri. I like board games a whole lot. Let’s talk about ‘em.
If you’ve been on the internet over the last few years you’ve probably noticed that more and more people are talking about card and board games. The tabletop gaming scene has grown exponentially and shows little sign of stopping, in large part because there’s so much variety that anyone can find a game they like. With the slow death of local multiplayer in AAA video gaming, board games have come back in a big way to fill that void for a lot of people.
I’ll be touching on five drastically different games and elaborating on what makes them so great. It’s my hope that at least one of these will pique your interest and get you to the table having a great time with your friends. I’m intentionally excluding popular “gateway” games like Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride because otherwise this list would be the same as every other. Let’s get started!
HEAD TO HEAD DUELING
Star Realms is a 2 player deckbuilding game where players are the leaders of competing interstellar empires. This game comes from a pair of designers: Darwin Castle and Rob Dougherty. These guys happen to be Magic: The Gathering Hall of Famers and it shows, because much like Magic it manages to keep the rules light and the gameplay fierce.
Star Realms starts each player off with an identical, weak deck of cards. You’ll use your cards to purchase better ships and bases from the trade row, shoot your opponents, and chain all sorts of effects. Almost every card has combo potential with other cards from its own faction, but you’ll rarely be able to stick to only one faction as the trade row constantly changes. Your deck will evolve with every purchase, as will your overall strategy. This keeps everyone on their toes. It’s a game that rewards familiarity and adaptability. There are even high level tournaments and strategy articles written for this game. It really is that deep.
You would be hard pressed to find a better use of 10 minutes than playing an entire game of Star Realms on your phone (available on Android and iOS). Ironically for a board game starter pack, I actually recommend you do that instead of picking up the physical game because it plays lightning fast and you can take it online! Whether you play it on Steam, mobile, or wherever else, you’ll have a blast with this one.
If you’re in the mood for something a bit less confrontational and a bit more cerebral, try your hand at Brew Crafters! It’s a clever engine building game where everyone builds their own breweries. The player with the most reputation points after 3 in-game years wins. No, not the richest, only the fanciest. You’re craft brewery owners, not beer moguls.
Each year is made up of the 4 seasons, and each season you get to do a couple of things. First everyone scrambles for the local market to snatch up all the ingredients they can and hire workers. Then everyone gets to make improvements to their brewery OR make beer, but not both, until you hire enough employees to get multiple things done at once. There’s only a total of 12 rounds in the game, so every action is hugely impactful.
But the most exciting part of Brew Crafters is building your very own hipster brewery. There are a TON of options and they’re all equally enticing. You can build a farm and supply most of your own ingredients, laughing at the other players as they struggle to find what they need in the market. You can build a tasting room and make a wide variety of beers for heaps of reputation. You can build a double production line and just churn out so much beer that you can buy your way to victory. And that only scratches the surface! There’s a huge variety of ways to win at Brew Crafters and they’re all valid, but what makes this game truly special is how rewarding it is to build something that you’ve designed from the ground up. By the end of the game you’ll have made something that, for better or for worse, is uniquely yours. Hopefully you don’t end up mired in debt in the process.
If you’re more team-oriented then I’d highly recommend 5 Minute Dungeon. This game’s a bit of an odd duck — it’s a real-time cooperative card game that literally has a 5 minute timer. You and your party are either going to tear ass through the dungeon in 5 minutes or die trying.
The gameplay is incredibly simple. After everyone selects their unique class and takes their specialized deck, you start the timer (ideally with the free app that plays music and has narrators!) and flip over the first card of the dungeon. Whether it’s a monster, obstacle, or just some guy, you defeat the trial by playing matching symbols to the card. Once your team meets all the requirements you shove all the cards out of the way and flop a new problem to solve. You do this until you manage to finish off the boss at the end of the dungeon, at which point you start a new tougher dungeon with a new nastier boss and a fresh 5 minutes. If you succeed at defeating the Dungeon Master at the end of the 5th dungeon you win! You lose if you didn’t manage to clear a dungeon in time. Usually it’ll be the latter.
That’s seriously it! The rules of this game are dead simple and it’s better off for it. Every class has special powers and things they’re better or worse at than the others, but it still comes down to everyone pitching cards at problems until they go away. After every dungeon you’ll have a giant pile of discards and smiles all around. I haven’t played another board game that ends in as much cheering and high fiving as 5 Minute Dungeon. It’s definitely worth your time.
HIDDEN ROLES AND SOCIAL DEDUCTION
If you have a particularly large group snag a copy of Bang! The Dice Game and get ready to never trust your friends again. Everyone will play a character in a wild west shootout with a randomly assigned secret role. The sheriff is the only role that’s not secret, but they get a health boost to compensate. The outlaws win by killing the sheriff. The sheriff and his deputies win by killing the outlaws and the renegade without losing the sheriff. The renegade hates everyone and wants to be the last one standing. Then there’s one final wrinkle: nobody knows which players are really their teammates, because there’s no way to reveal someone’s role until they’re dead.
This immediately sows distrust among the entire table. What intensifies it are the titular dice, because dice have a habit of not doing what you want. Your actions for the turn are determined by yahtzee style rolls and rerolls of the dice. You can shoot, but only at set distances. You can heal by drinking beer, but you could also hand said beers to another player, assuming you trust them. You can make a break for the town’s gatling gun and just rain hell on the entire table, teammates be damned. Arrows that get rolled will get distributed among the players, and when the stack runs out the natives will attack in the middle of your shootout. Last, but certainly not least, dynamite can end your entire turn prematurely if you’re not careful with it (or if you’re just plain unlucky).
Bang! The Dice Game is a chaotic game, but it’s one the entire table is always engaged in. Even when it’s not your turn, you’ll be talking to the other players, trying to suss out who’s who, and colluding with each other against suspected enemies. Clutch die rolls will get your whole group standing up and cheering. You’ll try to persuade the sheriff that you’re one of his trusted deputies only to shoot him in the back and reveal yourself as the renegade, and the entire table will laugh about it. If you’re looking for a game that makes your friends the real star of the show, give this one a shot.
The header for the last game on this list may not sound fun, but hear me out on this one.
Chinatown sets its players in 1960s New York, trying to build the most successful businesses in the cramped conditions and make more money than anyone else after in-game years. At the start of each year you gain some lots to build on, some businesses to build, and six most likely no way to put those two together. You need to build your businesses adjacent to each other to make the most cash, but there’s almost no way you’ll be lucky enough to snag the deed to an entire block.
That’s where your friends come in, because Chinatown is a game of negotiation. Anything and everything in Chinatown can be traded. Money, land, businesses, in any combination and quantity. As long all players in the trade agree on the terms then you can do it. This freedom is largely absent from most games and it makes playing Chinatown an incredible experience. You aren’t just competing against your friends, you’re competing WITH them. There are no shared victories in Chinatown and you’ll need to make shrewd deals to stay ahead, but you can’t afford to be a total toolbag or you’ll get shut out. Everybody has to stay friendly with each other, even if they would rather burn the block down than let their neighbor’s laundromat get any bigger. It’s not uncommon that the winner is the player that appeared to be the most generous, making easy deals with everybody as they squabbled among themselves.
I can’t think of another game that elicits the kind of fun that Chinatown does. Winning feels earned (as it should be), but everyone will have had a great time wheeling and dealing to get exactly what they needed. You’ll feel like a genius when you land a deal that dramatically favored you. You’ll feel the pinch when the owner of the connecting lot you NEED asks for an extra 20K on top of your original offer. It’s an absolute joy to play and my favorite game of all time.
I hope at least one of these games caught your eye! If you’ve played them or have other favorites that you think are worth talking about, ping me on Twitter and we’ll chat.