A few geeky games that are worth setting aside some Geek Time to play

I've discovered that, unless I specifically set aside Geek Time for me, Wil Wheaton, I end up doing nothing but work. This isn't entirely bad, because most of the work I do is geek-related, but I eventually run out of HP, and I have to recharge. by doing some private geeky thing, like reading comics, playing a little Xbox, or getting together with my friends 

Think of it this way: reading a comic book gives me a little HP, like 1d4. Reading a graphic novel gives me 1d6+2. Settling in with a good book (Currently reading Spook Country) gives me 1d10, but I can't do anything else for several turns and have to save versus distractions at -2. Playing a video game gives me 1d8+1, unless it's Rock Band with my friends or family, which gives me 2d10+5.

In fact, doing any geeky thing with friends is an automatic additional d10, which is why I like to get together with my friends at least once a month to play hobby games. During these gatherings, I can usually count on going all the way back to my starting HP, and if I'm especially lucky, I'll gain 1d10 additional HP that is lost at a rate of about 1 point every two hours after we've all gone back to our regular lives.

(Incidentally, writing those three paragraphs gave me 1d6-2, in addition to the 3d6+10 I got earlier today when I got to be a voice actor for four hours.)

So recently, I had a bunch of friends over for a game day, and we played some games I loved so much, I wanted to share them with the rest of the class, in case some of you are dangerously low on HP and need some healing:

Dominion

This is a card game that plays like a CCG (think Magic: The Gathering) without requiring you to buy a bunch of booster packs and participate in the deck-building arms race that makes most CCGs a meta game of "who can spend the most on cards." BoardGameGeek says: 

In Dominion, each player starts with an identical, very small deck of cards. In the center of the table is a selection of other cards the players can "buy" as they can afford them. Through their selection of cards to buy, and how they play their hands as they draw them, the players construct their deck on the fly, striving for the most efficient path to the precious victory points by game end.

Dominion is not a CCG, but the play of the game is similar to the construction and play of a CCG deck. The game comes with 500 cards. You select 10 of the 25 Kingdom card types to include in any given play — leading to immense variety.

Dominion plays very fast, and is one of those games that you can play while drinking a beer (or three) and still play (mostly) competently. 

There are expansions, but I won't buy them on principle, because that path leads to the CCG stuff I'm trying to avoid or at least limit.

Revolution!

Steve Jackson Games is famous for putting out the classic RPG GURPS, irreverent card games like Munchkin and the Chez games, and war games like Ogre and Car Wars. This is the company's first offering that could be considered a Eurogame, and I absolutely love it. Quoth BGG:

In Revolution! players take advantage of the fluid political situation by secretly bidding for a number of characters, each yielding a combination of territory control, points (popular support) and more currency with which to bid next round. Players win by gaining the support of the people (the most points). Players can gain bonus points by controlling an area of the city at the end of the game. This game is for 3-4 players and takes 60 minutes to play.

What I love about Revolution! is the lack of one clear perfect strategy to win the game. In many respects, it's like poker: you win by playing against the other players as much (if not more) than you play the actual game. It's very simple to pick up (I'd say it takes about 5 minutes to teach) and really needs four players, though you can play with three.

Bonus soon-to-be-released SJ Games: Cthulhu Dice (I played this at RinCon and loved it) and Zombie Dice (which I haven't played, but looks like a whole lot of fun.)

Pandemic

I love cooperative games, where the players are working together against the game itself. Some games, like Shadows Over Camelot, toss the uncertainty of a traitor into the game, while others, like Arkham Horror, are so purely cooperative, they can even be played as solo games. Pandemic is a purely cooperative game that BGG describes thusly:

You are specialists at the CDC/Atlanta where you watch several virulent diseases break out simultaneously all over the world. The team mission is to prevent a world-wide pandemic outbreak, treating hotspots while researching cures for each of the four plagues before they get out of hand.

Players must plan their strategy to mesh their specialist's strengths before the diseases overwhelm the world. For example, the Operations Specialist can build research stations, which are needed to find cures for the diseases. The Scientist needs only 4 cards of a particular disease to cure it instead of the normal 5. But the diseases are breaking out fast and time is running out: the team must try to stem the tide of infection in diseased areas while developing cures. If disease spreads uncontrolled, the players all lose. If they can cure all four diseases, they win.

This game looks and feels beautiful, and though it's probably the most complicated to learn on this list, it's not nearly as complicated as an RPG, a historical wargame, or understanding one of us geeks. You can adjust the level of difficulty (from easy to legendary) and if you get the expansion, On The Brink, you can add mutations and virulent strains of the various diseases, as well as a bioterrorist who is working against the other players. You rarely breeze through a game of Pandemic, and even though you start out sort of losing, victory is almost always decided by a razor-thin margin. 

Pandemic is so frakking hard to beat, it shouldn't be fun, but I have had more fun losing games of Pandemic than I've had winning a huge list of other games.

Small World 

Days of Wonder is probably best-known for games like Ticket To Ride and its sequels, Battlelore and its sequels, and Memoir '44 and its sequels. Small World is a very recent release from Days of Wonder, and I think it's one of the best games they've ever published. One more time, let's borrow from Board Game Geek:

Small World is inhabited by a zany cast of characters such as dwarves, wizards, amazons, giants, orcs and even humans; who use their troops to occupy territory and conquer adjacent lands in order to push the other races off the face of the earth.

Picking the right combination from the 14 different fantasy races and 20 unique special powers, players rush to expand their empires – often at the expense of weaker neighbors. Yet they must also know when to push their own over-extended civilization into decline and ride a new one to victory!

Okay, so that description doesn't really capture what's awesome about this game. Let me try to explain why I love it so much: first, it's a map conquest game that comes with different maps for different numbers of players, so you get a balanced game whether you're playing head-to-head or with three or four other friends. Second, the zany characters get different unique special powers every time you play, so there's no point in developing a strategy (or counter strategy) exclusively for Flying Amazons or Dragonmaster Ghouls, because you may not get to use it that often. Third, it employs an elegant scoring system that tends to keep the games close (are you sensing some commonality among the games I really like?). Fourth, it just looks beautiful. The counters and the boards feature great artwork, so it's easy to buy into the theme. Finally, it's a relatively quick game, which is important to a guy like me who doesn't have nearly enough time to play all the games he wants to play.

All of these games are suitable for ages 12 and up, with the exception of Pandemic, which I think is >just< a little to complex for the under-14 set.

Now that I've spent enough time on this post to have actually played one of these games, I'd like to close with three RPGs that I haven't played, but desperately want to play:

Okay, now that I've regained some of my HP, I think I'm ready to go ahead and attempt the Drop Off Packages At The Post Office quest. If I don't come back, avenge my death and immortalize me in song.

96 thoughts on “A few geeky games that are worth setting aside some Geek Time to play”

  1. Gonna have to try some of these. The Warhammer Fantasy RPG is really cool. It’s got a ton of classes, a great combat/hits style that lets you know as the player what the chances are your ability can succeed, and some great built-in RP opportunities.

  2. Dominion and Revolution have been two of my favorite discoveries this year! Have yet to try Pandemic, but I hear GREAT things about it.
    Love the fact that I can’t figure out how the HELL the designer came up with the matrices to make Dominion work. Last game I felt that way about was Ticket To Ride.
    I need to send you Word On The Street, as well.
    Munchkin? Great game. Shame about the art. :-P

  3. I wish I had more geeky friends. I’m running dangerously low on HP. I’m a different breed of geek, of course: Mario Kart gives me 1d10+2, for example.
    Potentially starting some actual table-top RPG action next year though! Fingers crossed!

  4. Good luck at the post office, Wil! I think your HP is about to take a 1d4-4 blow.
    I love playing D&D, but all my geek friends abandoned me for WoW, so I cursed them and am rolling new friends.

  5. *ahem* Playing editor here: “…which I think is >just< a little to complex…” That would be “too”, not “to”. It’s OK, we forgive you. It is, after all, you, Wil Wheaton.
    -Alicia (@AliciaWag)

  6. Just a bit of a shameless plug for future reference on the cooperative gaming big, Co-optimus.com has a few health vials for anyone interested.
    Otherwise, man, I wish my friends played board games. They’ve turned into digital snobs once HDTV’s came out. I’m glad to get in a session of D&D once a month or so. I’d love to get them into Arkham Horror for sure.

  7. In a non-repeatable fluke, I won Revolution at PAX by simply amassing gold the entire game and ignoring the real estate. Groans accompanied the final tally, as I was too far ahead the be caught.
    We have really enjoyed Pandemic, since it is a great (read: non-competitive) couples game. I was lucky to escape our first hand of Munchkin with my marriage intact!

  8. I’ve played 3 out of the 4 and also love them a lot.
    If I may make a suggestion – for me, Dominion’s first expansion (Intrigue) is a very worthy addition. The cards are more conflict oriented, leading to more interaction between the players. Some are actually rather nasty, but we are talking Dominion after all – if you really hate one or two of them, leave them out and that’s it.
    I’ve only seen people play the second expansion and have not played that myself, but it looked like the game was heading towards “unnecessary game mechanics that really bloat up the game” land full speed there.

  9. I absolutely agree about Dominion. We take it (and the two expansions) with us wherever we go. I’ve only recently played Small World, even though we bought it a while back.
    Another quick & fun cooperative game you should try is Red November. It was actually our most popular game at SteamCon!
    I’m a big fan of the Savage Worlds system and I think you’ll enjoy it, too. And YES, I’m really excited about the Dragon Age RPG. I think Chris has designed a winner on this one, to be sure.

  10. My buddy who writes Dark Heresy content for Fantasy Flight got an early release of the new WFRP3 for us to try out, and it’s good fun. FF really made interesting use of the board game elements that they do so well. It needs better quality dice, though.
    I’ll be running a Savage Worlds Gamma World-style session at DunDraCon (SF Bay Area – http://www.dundracon.com) in February, and I’m thinking of running something Savage Worlds at the Jan 16th EndGame MiniCon (http://www.endgameoakland.com/minicon/ – always a great event with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of gameplay). SW is great for being able to handle much larger battles than you’d ever attempt with other games. The GM can keep track of wounds and incapacitations so easily, it really lets you stay focused on cinematic action over record keeping. I hope you get to try it out.

  11. What Tschilai says about Intrigue. Spot on.
    I’ve played with the Sea Side expansion a couple times in one sitting and I did extremely well with it. However, if you don’t figure out the right combos to use with the coins and islands, it’s kinda wonky. I thought I’d like it more, but maybe I need more playtime with it.

  12. The Dominion expansions are really good.
    One of the most wonderful things to me about playing Dominion is that the 25 card variety with only 10 types in play at any time gives huge replayability and variety of strategy and play.
    Adding one or two more groups of 25 cards (or mixing and matching them) just increases that wonderfulness.
    Think of them like the On the Brink expansion to Pandemic – it’s not required, and doesn’t cost much, but increases the hit dice you get back from a game you already own!
    @Fungible

  13. I agree 110% on every one of these. They’re all such amazing fun to play with friends. They’re engaging games that aren’t so strategy-intensive that you can’t still goof off and chat during them. And they’re short enough to get a few games in over an evening. Geek love! <3

  14. Dominion is indeed glorious.
    I’ve not played Small World (but have seen it played twice at boardgame weekends) and really want to because the combinations are just hilarious. Basically, it’s a redressed version of Vinci (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/60/vinci) but much less serious. The scariest game of Vinci I’ve ever played was with a 12-year-old who beat us all by playing a serious game of attrition as he grasped the ultimate concept of the game while we tried to hold on to our nations for a little too long.
    I’ve played Pandemic three times and we’ve never managed to win but strangely, that didn’t put us off.
    RPGs: Are you interested in pulp at all? If so I highly recommend Spirit of the Century by Evil Hat (http://www.evilhat.com/home/sotc/). It’s based on the FUDGE/FATE system which encourages quick and awesome cinematic play without endless rules and tables.

  15. Yeah, that's one of the biggest reasons I despise WoW. It replaces all the world-building, storytelling and wonder out of an RPG with an endless cycle of "Press the paddle, get a biscuit, repeat until you get so sick of this pointless game you give up and stop playing … and then get sucked back in."

  16. Savage Worlds looks like an insanely fun "Con RPG." By that, I mean that it's quick to pick up, streamlined to play, and allows for a lot of really fun and fast action.
    When I do D&D, I want the experience to last for 10 or more sessions, but it looks to me like Savage Worlds could be incredibly fun in just four or five sessions.
    Is that correct, or am I misinformed?

  17. Awesome! I just bought Small World for my bro for Christmas without having played it first. But since you, Wil Wheaton, like it as well as other games I like (Dominion is my fave), it should be good. Now with any luck, he doesn’t already have it! If he does have it, I guess my game stash grows by one game and I get him something else. It’s win-win if you ask me!

  18. So if you’re in L.A. (technically SFV, but close enough), and you’re not you, Wil Wheaton (heretofore abbreviated as YWW), where does one go if one wants to get into the card gaming stuff?
    None of my friends play, or are interested in learning to play (can I buy an expansion pack for friends?), and I’ve never heard of a place where people can go to play, like a card-gaming league or some such?
    Interesting… I wonder if 40 years from now people my age will be taking the place of the old guys in the park who sit and play chess and backgammon. I think that would be kind of awesome to see some 70-year-old talking smack about another 70-year-old’s lame-ass chaotic neutral Paladin.

  19. Thanks for the great list Wil! I have to admit, you inadvertently knocked me, my family, and friends into the board gaming world with your tweet on Castle Panic (another cool, if light, co-op game) a few months ago.
    In the few months since then, my wife, friends, and coworkers have become boardgame geeks, meeting up several times weekly to play. We’re currently enthralled with Pandemic. What a fantastic game. I was also pondering Small World as my next purchase, and your review has pretty much clinched that.
    Anyway, my friends and I salute you! Every time we sit down for a gaming session, we say “If not for Wil Wheaton, we wouldn’t be about to get our geeks on!”

  20. We all know how you much you love the pen and paper RPGs, and that you really dig Dragon Age Origins, but I’d like to know how you feel about the terrible lack of video RPGs that have no ability to play with friends as a party. I agree that world building and storytelling are key components to pen and paper RPGs, but for me the real fun is just playing with a group of friends. I wasted much of my teen years “marking one up” trying not to get all of my clones blown up, incinerated, drowned in acid (R.I.P. Aeofel), or sanitized into oblivion by runaway scrub-bots, but the most enjoyable part was knowing that I wasn’t the only one being tortured by a sadistic GM. I desperately miss playing games with friends, all my RPG friends from my youth have long since departed, and most of my current friends only play video games, and only shooters (which I don’t really care for unless they’re co-op). I desperately long for a RPG video game like Dragon Age and Oblivion, but able to play as a party. What do you think?

  21. I don’t agree about Pandemic — I play regularly with my 9 and 11 year old sons and we have a blast. We play open-handed, and I think we’ve only won twice, but they totally get it. All great selections, for sure.

  22. Question regarding my own negative HP. I have not played D&D since 1989, and then it was only a little bit. Ditto Magic The Gathering, which I played a bit in the mid-nineties. I can hang with most anyone in many other areas of geekdom, but gaming not so much. I want to correct this.
    Munchkin looks like an insanely fun game. Is it a good beginner game? It seems to be. A little help here?
    Also? The Cthulhu dice? *dies from the awesome* DO WANT.

  23. Game Empire in Pasadena is the best game shop in Los Angeles, as far as I'm concerned. It has as much open gaming space as retail space, and they have organized and open gaming events every night of the week. It's on Colorado near Sierra Madre, and just about 1/4 mile down from a great comic shop called Comic Factory, if you wanted to bundle your geektivities into one trip.

  24. Castle Panic would have made this post, but I don't have my own copy yet, and we didn't play it at our most recent game day. Glad to hear you liked it!

  25. I think >everyone< plays open-handed, don't they? If they're not … dude, why?
    It's so awesome your kids are into it. I don't think mine would have been able to wrap their heads around it at that age.

  26. Man, I want to play Dominion and Small World soooooo stinking bad. I can’t find anyone to play with, my friends are teh lame when it comes to cool board games. I’m just going to have to bring them to our next get together, slam them on the table, and say we’re fucking playing these and you will like it. Then hopefully they WILL like it. Any ideas for super entry games to get people excited about fantasy/rpg games? I have friends who play Settlers and Ticket to Ride, but they won’t play anything that smells of RPG. I am flummoxed as to how to get them to make the leap.

  27. Yeah, I guess I’m pretty lucky that way — won the gamer lottery with a couple of boys who have been playing pretty serious board games from a pretty young age. (They even got to play-test the Qwirkle games, as I’m friends with the designer.) I’m seriously considering getting Knizia’s Lord of the Rings to really blow their minds ;)
    But this year? Dominion, Munchkin, and Lost Cities under the tree.

  28. I would say excluding MtG, Killer Bunnies and Chez Geek get the most /played in our house. We also have a Warhammer/Dungeons and Dragons hybrid version of Hero Quest that we break out from time to time. Unfortunately, the games are fairly long and the DM has to prepare a bit, so that makes it more difficult to do on the fly…but it’s great fun every time :-)
    I’m going to check out Dominion…the MtG “arms race” that you mentioned has recently tightened its grip on my peers. We don’t want to do it, but much like collecting comics…
    http://www.livingwithanerd.com

  29. I have an odd question: How did you manage to insert a proper a href link? Whenever I’ve tried, typepad would cut it out…
    Castle Panic looks like fun.

  30. Hey Wil,
    I see you didn’t mention poker at all :(
    Since you can play online (real money and play money) and have local casinos plus Vegas not too far away, have you dropped it completely?
    BTW, when you write HP it makes me think Hewlett Packard – LOL

  31. That's a difficult call, man. If they're not into RPGs, they aren't going to like anything with RPG elements.
    I guess you could try Dungeon or Talisman, which have some fantasy RPG elements in them, maybe?

  32. Great post! I am trying to get more game educated. Question: Is there some sort of book you can buy that gives the how to on card games….complex card games anyway? I should know this, but…

  33. Card games like Poker or card games that are hobby games?
    If Poker, then yes. There are too many to list.
    If geeky card games, you may like a book called Hobby Games: The 100 Best, which is all about these games I love, including a ton of card games.

  34. Oh sweet! I’ll look into that. I know I could get some folks to play if I had it. Oh man, now I’m going to have to try and dig out my homemade quest sheets I came up with when I was a lad. I know I have somewhere. Don’t ask me why I saved those and got rid of the game. Look what you did, Wil!

  35. While Castle Panic isn’t as involved or as deep as the other games on your list, it’s definitely a fun party game, and a GREAT way to introduce people to gaming.
    Many of my friends who never would’ve have thought of dropping their video game controllers for some dice and cards have done just that because of the fast and furious play of Castle Panic. As I said, it’s been a great gateway game for everyone, myself included.
    Now, my wife and I spend several hours every week playing Pandemic when our little one is asleep. It’s a great way to recover much-needed HPs! I’m already getting giddy about adding Small World to our gaming library next…
    PS — I saw you post that everyone plays open-handed in Pandemic. Technically, the rules state that although you can talk about your hands freely with other players, you should keep the cards closed. I think this is meant to spur discussion and prevent an alpha-gamer from controlling everything.

  36. Geeky card games totally!! I will put this on my books-to-buy-list. You know, I always thought a Cards 101 class would be a good idea for those needing a brush up…..me. Have you ever thought about putting together a self written, (Wil Wheaton’s favorite card games how to) book?? Haha, that would be SO awesome. Anyways, thanks so much for your suggestion! Going to look this up:)

  37. I finally got a chance to play Dominion. I liked it a lot, but the total lack of theme put me off just a bit. I’m seriously looking at Thunderstone (Dominion in a dungeon fighting monsters) and will probably get it.
    I love Pandemic and am getting Castle Panic for my 8 year old nephew.
    Great post!

  38. A few of my friends work at Fantasy Flight games here in Roseville Minnesota. Those guys are some really cool people. VERY geeky like the rest of us. Back in the day, when Fantasy Flight was a newborn, I applied for that place and would have been hired as a Graphic Designer, but marriage and kids came along and took hold of those testes and squashed them.
    Anyways those card games they make are pretty excellent. It’s nice to see you pimping my friends workplace on your website, thank you very much, even though it surely wasn’t intended to help me out. I appreciate it none the less. Great work on the site by the way. I love coming here and reading a post or two every few days, it’s nice to see someone almost exactly my age making a living at being Geek. I don’t get paid to be a Geek, so I’m a little jealous. Good on ya mate.
    Michael

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