Games That Keep On Giving

We’re in an interesting part of the year when it comes to the board gaming world. The lull of Christmas time and all those end-year recaps is over, crowd funding is only slowly picking up pace again, and fulfillments are still a bit out. The two most interesting things that have happened lately for me were that Heat: Heavy Rain came out and Martin Wallace’s Steam Power campaign is happening. But otherwise, it has been rather slow going. I picked up a couple of games on the second hand market that had been on my radar for a while. However, by now I have re-sold most of them because they ultimately left me disappointed (e.g. Halls of Hegra, Red Cathedral, Senjutsu, High Season).

I like exploring new games, which should hardly come as a surprise to you. After all, I have a whole website where I write about boardgames. But what I noticed lately is that it’s not FOMO or cult of the new that drives me but the thrill of learning a new-to-me game and really figuring out what it does. How does it feel to play? Which design decisions were made? Are there loopholes that can be exploited? Is there a good story that’s being told? It’s like trying out new restaurants: there might be a lot of misses, but once in a while you discover a new favourite which makes it all worth it. And either way, you always end up richer in experience.

Carnegie Transportation Track

The downside to this is that I’m playing games very intensely in a rather short amount of time, especially so if they offer a solo mode. And let me tell you: there are surprisingly few games that hold up to this level of scrutiny! They might be novel for the first five plays but then nothing new happens anymore after that. The magic is gone and they remain on the shelf rather than getting back to the table … or more and more frequently end up on the re-sell pile.

Due to the current lull of new releases and a serious cold that pinned me down at home, I was in the rare situation of having a lot of time for gaming and little new games to explore. So I instead deliberately revisited some of my favourites of recent times and checked out how well they are still holding up. Games like Horseless Carriage, Barcelona, Carnegie, … There were three realisations of mine I thought were worth sharing:

Horseless Carriage

One, the number of games of each year I would seriously miss in my collection – like to the level I would re-buy them immediately if my flat burned down – is rather low, like 3-5 games per year. There are a couple more that I enjoy and therefore stay in my collection, but overall it’s not much considering how many games come out each year … and how many of those I try out or even write a review for. On the one hand, I find it reassuring that someone who doesn’t want to invest so much time and money in discovering games as I do can read reviews, pick up a hand full of favourites, and essentially not be missing out on much. On the other hand, I find it a bit depressing that there are so few games that really knocked my socks off and so many that end up in the obviously-flawed to not-for-me range. I worry for someone standing in a retail shop and spontaneously picking up a game on average ending up with a pretty mediocre product. But then of course what is a hit and what a flop depends very much on personal taste.

Dune Imperium board game

Two, there are some outstanding games that have come out in recent years. I look at my copy of Dune Imperium or Hegemony and just marvel at how brilliantly designed they are. Similar to electric guitar players on YouTube, new advances are apparently made every year and there is – somewhat unbelievably – after all those years still room for improvement. Or maybe improvement is the wrong word. We’re in a golden age where new, stunning games come out each year but also some 10+ year old games exist that can compete when it comes to table time.

Hegemony action card

Three, a lot of great designs are missing an element that creates a “story”. They offer replayability in the sense that some setup element is randomised (e.g. Carnegie, Concordia, Barcelona) but the overall arc of the game stays for the most part the same. Often this doesn’t matter as much when the shared experience with fellow players makes up for it. But when playing a game solo, it becomes very noticeable. This is one of the reasons I always like to return to John Company: Second Edition. Whatever I do, whatever the Crown (=the automa) does, India is always telling its own story with empires rising and falling, trade routes suddenly closing, and ships unexpectedly sinking in a storm. Sleeping Gods is also particularly good in creating these memorable moments, to name a game from a completely different genre. Dune Imperium definitely does it, Horseless Carriage does it in an abstract way, Suburbia does it with all its charming interaction of the individual buildings (which interestingly Rolling Heights didn’t quite manage to pull off).

Sometimes it’s not even an emerging narrative but rather a fresh set of goals that forces players to walk down new paths. Like the drafted goals in Evacuation or the optional goals that act as guides for new players in Lisboa. Either way, I lately find myself more and more seeking out games that either have elements that keep evolving or have some form of narrative or campaign that keeps me returning to them.

So that would be my question for you: what are games you enjoy that keep telling a different story every time? Games you can return to over and over again and they always seem to bring something new to the table? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Hi Alex,

    Thank you for sharing so honestly about your board game hobby – it’s refreshing to not just hear that every game is great. I tried to get into boardgaming last summer and visited your site frequently, as I value your insights and we seem to be of similar minds. For me the fun is also for a large part in thinking about what makes a game great and trying out new mechanics.

    Having said that I did bounce off this hobby because I honestly felt there was not much that kept me interested, even being extremely picky already before I buy a game. The game I valued most was Carnegie, but after a few plays I also did not see myself returning to it again and again. I had high hopes for Spirit Island, as I loved the theme and the escalatory mechanics seemed fun, but playing it solo I found it completely impossible, and playing it with my partner was less fun as she has serious analysis-paralysis which sucks the fun out of it for me. Apart from that, while I did love the theme and the fact the flavor text and actions made sense mechanically as well, I found the game really too fiddly, with lots of tiny things to keep track of with just some generic markers to help you. Then I tried Tiletum, which I liked for the couple of times I played but felt was a bit too loose and random.

    So what game stood up? Perhaps best was 7 Wonders Duel: clean and fast with a nice theme. And funnily enough the social games Codenames and Just One I played with my family in law before I tried the crème de la crème of modern boardgaming.

    But yes, here I am again, thinking about giving it another shot. Considering what you wrote here about the games that you are looking up for, “games that either have elements that keep evolving or have some form of narrative or campaign that keeps me returning to them,” I was wondering if you are going to try Earthborne Rangers? (If you managed to get a copy that is).

    I had marked that game in summer, but chose not to support it because I thought it sounded a bit too good too be true: the emergent storytelling. And now it seems this is one of the few games that is perhaps truly innovative, offering a co-op game that is less about combat, and more about the expereince without becoming completely gratuitous.

    Another game I might try out is Dune: Imperium. Heat: Pedal to the Metal seems like a good and smooth solo experience as well, but I’m not sure if the theme will leave me interested. I really need some deep immersion!

    • Thanks so much for the feedback, I really appreciate it! Funny that you mention it, I was actually thinking of whether or not I want to dive into Earthborn Rangers. I bounced off hard when I tried the Arkham Horror card game which is what kept me from jumping on Earthborn Rangers. But I’m hearing so much good stuff that I really want to give ER a shot.

      I guess there are two main ways of story telling: either the game does it (e.g. Sleeping Gods, the events in John Company 2nd Edition) or the players do it. Have you tried Suburbia or Castles of Mad King Ludwig? I enjoy these types of games where afterwards players can imagine a ridiculous background story of what they build (why did you put the nuclear waste facility next to the public housing project?!?). They are unfortunately not that great solo but I always enjoyed them multiplayer. I got the collector’s editions for both and so there is enough content in there to always mix up each play a bit.

      Dune Imperium is amazing, both solo and multiplayer. I would have written about it but by now there are so many reviews out there that I’m not sure yet if I can contribute something substantially different. For some reason, every play of it I had felt slightly different and all of them were super tight. For some reason I don’t get it to the table solo that much but whenever we play multiplayer, everybody has a great time. Heat is super smooth solo, but I noticed something similar to Concordia Solitaria: amazing mechanism, but there is nothing that keeps me going back to the game solo after the initial discovery of a new map. So good for 10-20 solo plays (which already is a good number) and then it drops of until the next map comes out. Side note: using Concordia Solitaria as a third player when playing with 2 humans is also surprisingly enjoyable!

      Right now I’m diving into Splotter’s Roads & Boats as a solo game. It’s interesting because the emergent game play is so complex that even playing the same map twice, I wouldn’t remember 100% what I did last time. Plus it’s cute to see how the landscape evolves and fans have created tons and tons of maps and challenge scenarios. So more of an abstract kind of story element. We’ll see how long I’ll stick with it.

      Anyway, hope you get a change to try Dune Imperium and see if your partner might be interested in repeated plays of Castles of Mad King Ludwig or Suburbia! What is also super good with a fixed partner is Lost Cities and Caper: Europe. Hope you have lots of fun plays!

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