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. Dominion by itself is fantastically fun, perhaps one of the best stand-alone card games I’ve ever played.
    The expansions, though, increase the fun by vast amounts. The depth that Intrigue adds is incredible, and Seaside opens up lots of different strategies. (Enough that I’m no longer confident that I’m going to win most games against my friends… I’m behind on my learning curve.)
    Don’t stand on principle, Wil, get the expansions. You’ll still probably spend less on them than you would in a few weeks of Magic. ^_~
    With regards to Pandemic, I’m not sure I agree. While I’ve found that it’s an interesting idea, I don’t think the execution really warrants the high marks the game has gotten. While you’re right that it’s difficult to beat, the game doesn’t really scale strategy-wise. Once you’ve figured out the optimal ways to play, there isn’t a lot of variety, and the higher levels of the game just make it more prone to luck, not more prone to honing a stronger strategy.
    It’s possible the expansion adds a fair bit, but at this point, I think the game is basically solved for me.

  2. We agree on 3 out of 4, and perhaps only because I haven’t tried Revolution yet. I need to at some point.
    Dominion, as you say, is like the Magic metagame without the collectible nonsense. Small World, I think, is everything I enjoy about Risk without taking all night to play.

  3. I know how to do links, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked about a href tags.
    Wenn I tried to link Radio Free Burrito (typed as <a href=”http://radiofreeburrito.com”>Radio Free Burrito</a>), it wouldn’t work. At the bottom of the comment box it says that <b> <i> and <ul> tags are possible so I assumed typepad only allows those tags but you just posted a proper link with the <a> tag (Castle Panic underlined and clickable).
    And now, just to spite me, it works. Might have been a glitch then. :/

  4. I wanted to use the HTML because full links can be rather long and a linked name just looks nicer. All good, though, the bug seems to have been resolved. Links work now.

  5. For another on the insanely fun (and really quick, once you learn the rules) cooperative games list, try Space Alert.
    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/38453/space-alert
    Part of it plays out in real-time, and it comes with soundtrack CD’s.
    Played the introductory scenarios at a local game con a couple of months ago and had a blast, so bought the last copy they had at the con.
    Then introduced it to some friends kids (13 – 17) at our annual post-thanksgiving bash, and we had to pry them away from the table when it was time to go home.

  6. I wish I had a few more board game playing friends, at the moment my wife and I are friends with just one other couple that enjoy playing games.
    Favourite (still) is Fluxx (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/258/fluxx) which my wife and I will play together.
    At it’s core it’s a simple game. Pick up 1 card, play 1 card, object of the game is to put into play the keepers that match the goal currently laid down on the table.
    Dead simple. Until the rule cards come into play, whereby you can pretty much guarantee the rules will change from the time you played your last hand to the time you play your next. It can be subtle things like suddenly being “draw 1, play 2″, or the always frustrating “first play random” meaning the player to your left picks one of your cards at random for your first play.
    Whilst there is some strategy in the game, one minute you can be utterly convinced you’re in complete control and just one move away from victory, the next some utterly bizarre new rule gets played and the whole thing is snatched away from you.
    It’s even more fun when alcohol is consumed and people start making rule changes for a laugh or just to be utterly evil sods.

  7. If I may throw out a suggestion, not so much for a game itself, but for a gaming accessory:
    Printable card stock dungeon tiles.
    http://www.worldworksgames.com/
    If you like the “making” aspect of dungoens and little figures, you could do a lot worse then picking up a couple of WWG’s PDFs and spending some time making tiles for your next D&D game.

  8. While Savage Worlds is a great convention game, it’s also well suited for medium to long term campaigns as well. I’ve played and run it for the past six years, and have completed multiple 4-6 month campaign sessions. There’s lots for players to pick up for their characters, and it’s dead simple for the GM’s prep work.
    Joe Bob says, “Check it out!” :)

  9. Wil, this is an awesome post.
    I used to play DnD 3.5 in the RPGA Living Greyhawk stuff at my old university, but since LFR came out, and I’ve started my MA I’ve run out of time for DnD.
    I do however play a TON of battletech. While having a ton of models is cool, sometimes I play using megamek, or for tabletop just using slips of paper to mark what kind of mechs I have. It’s alot of good fun, with every roll of the D6 giving me D4+1 to my Geek HP.
    I’m glad people mentioned settlers – At Guelph we used to combine Settlers, Cities and Knights and Seafarers- and play for 18 points or so. Took 4 hours, but it was a ton of fun.
    One game I don’t think anybody’s mentioned is Apples to Apples – it’s a great party game – it’s a word association game- each player has a series of cards in the hands with nouns, and each turn you have to associate it with an adjective, and the judge changes every time. With my friends it usually devolves into who has the biggest + to terrible human being, but it’s alot of fun. It’s a great party game because it can go on for hours and hours without repeating – first time I played we had 15 people going for over two hours before we moved on.
    Great game.

  10. Whoa Whoa Whoa, how can you say things like this:
    “Pandemic is so frakking hard to beat…”
    And NOT list Battlestar Galactica the board game? Like Pandemic it’s cooperative, like Shadows over Camelot there are traitors. This game is just too frakking awesome and if you haven’t played it, what the FRAK is wrong with you? Seriously you should cruise the PBF forums in BGG to see what you’re missing out on.

  11. Seaside is unfocused and the general conclusion among my friends is the matts and the coins and stuff simply make the game too complicated and a pain.
    However, Intrigue has a lot of interesting and fun things that expand in different dimensions. I’d highly recommend adding it.

  12. I’m a major 40k geek since about ’88. Love the universe, the lore, the hobby, just about everything. Except for GW’s greed, that can suck a lead miniature.
    I’m quite surprised you didn’t mention Dark Heresy as something you’d like to check out in the PnP RPG arena. I’ve considered it, but the core book is pretty expensive. Perhaps one day.

  13. YWW, are responsible for my family’s love of Munchkin, thankverymuch. And also for reviving my own interest in D&D, and its subsequent introduction to my wife and son.
    My wife is very active on BGG, having designed a number of her own games as well. It seems like every other week she’s begging us to play-test some new Print-and-Play she’s downloaded, or some new game she’s designing. It is truly a Good Hobby, and one that consumes a non-trivial amount of space in my house!
    We absolutely LOVE Pandemic, and have the expansion as well. We don’t beat it every time, but you’re right- it fun to lose as well! (And for the purists, you can add another vote for open-handed play in that game. Duh.)
    Now that I have read up a bit on the BSG game, I am SO going to buy it. Frak, yeah!

  14. My regular gaming group is very D&D-focused. I’ve been running Paizo’s Shackled City Adventure Path for three years now. (OMFG, that’s a long time.) I don’t know that I’d run a high fantasy game with Savage Worlds, as there are so many systems already well-suited for that genre (4e, Dragon Age, Dragon Warriors). That’s probably just personal taste, and it doesn’t answer your question.
    Savage Worlds is a kick-ass system for a one-shot game, no question. It’s also a completely worthwhile system for any game where you want to play with more focus on the story and the fun than on the system. It’s more than capable for a campaign of any length. Some of the Savage [Campaign] Settings are wonderfully detailed and well-suited to campaigns far past a handful of sessions.
    At $10 for the Explorer’s Edition, it’s a great value.

  15. Hey Wil, I didn’t really know how much of a geek a am/was until I realized how much I know about the things you talk about. I thought I had an email of yours floating around but I couldnt find it.
    Car wars was fantastic but I never could get my friends into it as much as D&D so I had to settle for the ‘choose your own adventure’ Car wars books, which I was absolutely addicted to. I wish I still had them! I grew up with a Commodore 64 (god how wanted to get a Commodore 128) playing Autoduel with a towel at the base of my bedroom door so my parents couldn’t see the light from the monitor late at night when I was suppose to be in bed. Anyways, if you havent played it you should. It’s the direct computer version of Car Wars. If you haven’t, check it out here. Free download (great website with lots of retro games) http://www.abandonia.com/en/games/492/Autoduel.html
    Ever been to the brettspielwelt website? You can play Pandemic along with all those fantastic games that are made in Germany. I love all these games but being in my mid 30’s and having most of my friends spread out across the Earth online versions of these games are the only way I can get my geek on.
    Sorry for the long post! Keep up the fantastic work Wil. I’m a fan.
    http://www.brettspielwelt.de/Hilfe/Anleitungen/Pandemie/

  16. Wil – If anyone you know has the Seaside expansion for Dominion give it a whirl.
    Intrigue is an alright expansion, but Seaside really adds a lot of depth and strategy to the game with the delay cards. I know the play mats and gold coins are silly (in fact, you don’t even really have to use the mats and the coins are only for 1 card) but really, the delay cards feel like how dominion should have been from the start.

  17. Totally agree with you on all counts. I got Explorer's Edition, and *really* want to run (or at least play) a stylized steampunk zombie mad scientist one-shot.
    Heh. I just realized that I want to do my friend Cherie's book BONESHAKER as an RPG.

  18. Ok so TypePad at my reply. So I’m cutting down my reply. Looking forward to playing Muchkin this Christmas or next month on my trip to Seattle.
    Played Pandemic about 6 months ago, first month we lost, second month we won. Very exciting game.
    I also got to relive my D&D days about 3 months ago. The last time I played was 12 years prior to this last encounter (and I’m only 27). We played with 4 experienced players, 2 newbies and the somewhat experienced (me). Looking into 2010, there will less online gaming for me and hopefully more table top gaming of all sorts. So I’ve upped my geek levels this year, with hopefully more to come next year.
    Tonight at my Christmas party we will be playing the Mafia like game Werewolf. Then I’ll be trying to get people into playing Carcassonne, as that is an addictive tile game.
    Thanks for the totally awesome post. BTW I finished Dancing Barefoot and currently finishing Just a Geek. Both books make me extremely happy. You write wonderfully and the fact that you open up your life as much as you do is touching.
    Also looking forward to w00tstock v2.0, because v1.1 totally made my year. ^_^

  19. I cannot get anyone to play Dungeon or HeroQuest with me to save my life. It’s kind of frustrating. But yes, Brendoman, try Dungeon. It’s pretty easy to play and a lot of fun. I also just picked up “Cave Troll” from Fantasy Flight Games. I haven’t played it yet but it looks fun.
    Also, ZOMG they reissued HeroQuest?! I wonder if it’s exactly the same or if they changed it. I must go off and find this reissue even though our original version is still good.
    Cheers!

  20. I’ll second Shadows over Camelot. I’ve only played it once but it was a lot of fun. Also, it has a lot of pieces to set up, which I consider fun.

  21. Good suggestions all, YWW. I’d recommend the Intrigue expansion for Dominion; if nothing else, it allows play with up to 6 folks, which is nice. Each expansion also exponentially increases the number of possible card combinations, which ultimately means more fun.
    Another vote for BSG the board game, though I’m not quite sold on the Pegasus expansion yet. And if you think Pandemic is hard, try Ghost Stories some time; that sucker is brutal!
    Revolution looks promising; hadn’t heard of it before, so thanks for putting it on my radar.
    As for Munchkin…great art. Shame about the game. 8-) I seem to be in the minority here, but for me, Munchkin is a collection of cards which are mildly funny (the first time you read them) attached to a game which is completely random and interminably long. Thank you, no.

  22. Wil, you need to hit GenCon or the BoardGameGeek convention in Dallas.
    Dungeon Lords was a big hit down here in Texas this year. Players are dungeon masters out to build the best party-killing dungeon. Great board game. (yeah, I know they did a video game like it, but whatever)
    Also, check out Endeavor. It’s fantastic.

  23. Wil, you will definitely like Savage Worlds. The best part is that you can use the same rules for EVERY genre (fantasy, scifi, military, crime, superhero, horror, modern, etc. etc.) But the rules are especially good at pulpy games, where the action is movie-style over the top. I’m currently developing a Weird War II campaign for my crowd; should be fun!

  24. Wil, you will definitely like Savage Worlds. The best part is that you can use the same rules for EVERY genre (fantasy, scifi, military, crime, superhero, horror, modern, etc. etc.) But the rules are especially good at pulpy games, where the action is movie-style over the top. I’m currently developing a Weird War II campaign for my crowd; should be fun!

  25. Hey Wil,
    If you are looking to play SWEX (Savage Worlds Explorers edition ) it might be worthwhile to look into Google Wave for playing. I was looking for a group, but with work and child commitments finding time to play with a group face to face just wasn’t going to happen. However google wave has TONS of games going on, and plenty of plugins (such as card dealers, dice rollers, battle maps, that can really bring the game together. If you need an invite, let me know and I can hook you up, I have a few left.

  26. Wil,
    If you ever want to do the ‘Savage Worlds’ thing, let me know! My occasional (when we can all make our schedules work) game group is made up of (relatively) mature writers, artists, editors and other folks in the industry and we just play to have a good time.
    I do have an ongoing ‘Deadlands: Reloaded’ campaign (that you would be welcome in), but I’ve also brought ‘Solomon Kane’ to the table a couple times, as well. I also own SEVERAL other setting books, so if there’s a genre you’re champing at the bit for, I can throw something together.

  27. My wife is a big fan of co-op games so I had already gotten her ‘Pandemic’ for christmas but seeing it here on your list reassures me it was a good choice. I think if you had maybe a full day or were running a Con it would be fun to pair ‘Pandemic’ with a zombie game. After playing ‘Left 4 Dead 2′ it’s fun to imagine ‘Pandemic’ trying to stem a virus outbreak that leads to the zombie apocalypse. You could adjust the starting conditions for the zombie game based on how well the players did in ‘Pandemic’.

  28. I love Dominion. Turned my 67 year old mother on to it. Her favorite card is the “Witch”, hmmmmmm…. Dominion is on the “to be packed” pile for Christmas.
    Will thanks for the other game profiles, I have forwarded your post to my favorite husband as a hint.
    Merry Christmas!

  29. I'm not going to even try to contain the amount of squee that just exploded out of my soul upon clicking that link.
    Dude, thank you so much for that! It appears to be precisely what I wanted.

  30. If you’re looking for ‘steampunk scientist’ type, then I’d highly recommend Rippers. Great SW game. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the movie), but without the ‘blargh’. :-/
    As an aside, I’ve never tried Arkham Horror as a solo game. I always end up playing the author, so the concept of the little old novelist taking on baddies by herself kind of makes me smile.
    Have you ever tried History of the World or Twilight Imperium?
    Sarah

  31. My SW games usually last between 4-6 hours depending on how involved they are, but even in the shorter ones my players feel they got a lot accomplished (a full episode’s worth). The game just runs fast.
    One of these days I’ll run a con game up here in the Seattle area. You’ll be more than welcome at my table.

  32. Thank you so much for this post! I know I’ve read it a bit late, but it helped find a game for my best friend – who actually got my husband and I into playing board games. She has a box of Small World on the way to her house as we speak…I only hope we’ll be able to play it with them soon (it’s sounds like loads of fun!).
    Speaking of games I’m heading up to Canada for the holidays with my newly-learned-how-to-play set of Munchkin and Ticket to Ride- Europe (from said friend)…oh what fun! Again, thanks for all the gaming suggestions.

  33. Oh Rats! Gameguruchris already beat me to the punch. I haven’t read through the rest of the comments, so my new constructive addition for you is Race For The Galaxy. Awesome card game, depending on your fellow gamers speed, this can be played in 20 minutes a game, 40 minutes tops if you got guys who need to think about their moves real hard.

  34. Santa brought us two of the lovlies on your list – Pandemic and Castle Panic. Pandemic was so cool we played it 2x back to back (1st time to “learn”, 2nd time to see if we could beat it) – MAN did we get our collective bums handed to us (me, the spouse and the 14 year old) – didn’t diminish our interest one little bit, but OUCH. We’ve no clue how to beat this yet.
    On Beginner.
    Clearly LOTS of replay in this game ;>.
    Castle Panic will wait for tomorrow – I played solitaire tonight and it was a SLAUGHTER – I was swarmed (with both a “draw 3″ and a “draw 4″ + all 4 Bosses in the 1st 1/2 of the tiles drawn, poor little solo me was wiped out. OTOH, I know the basics of how to play and can teach the others tomorrow when we gather for game playing :>.
    Both games prove something I’ve been very aware of for some time – A game doesn’t need 16 pages of impenetrable small-type rules and 5 BAJLLION pieces to be fun, re-playable and eminently strategic – just well designed.
    Nice to find some designers that agree with me :>.
    Thanks again, man – two great games! Looking forward to adding Small World sometime in 2010 ;> (and maybe, just maybe, Arkham Horror!).

  35. Thanks to the review and this response the wife and I picked up Pandemic a week and a half ago. I think we’ve played it for at least an hour every day since, usually more. It’s a fight to win it at medium level – I can’t imagine what it takes to win if you amp it up to legendary.
    Only downside – it’s seriously eating into my Rock Band time….

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