Christmas draws closer and closer so I am jumping on the listicle bandwagon and have put together a “definitive” list of recommended tabletop games that you can buy for loved ones, ask for as presents or you know just buy for yourself as a “you deserve this” purchase.
These recommendations are broken up into several posts each one covering a different category of games. Each list includes a varied selection of games for you to buy and enjoy.
The criteria for these lists is: If I own it, I can include it. So if I have missed out on your favourite game it probably means that I do not own it…..yet.
Intermediate Games are perfect if you want to push things a bit further in terms of complexity and depth. These games either have some complex mechanics or webs of systems you have to navigate to achieve victory. These are the sorts of games I tend to gravitate to aside from Advanced Games. (More on them next time!) Most of these games will take up a good chunk of an evening so there is an element of time investment into playing them. However the end result is always rewarding.
Settlers of Catan
Catan categorised as an Intermediate Game? I must be mad! Well I have my reasons for putting it in here…
Personally I feel that good Introductory Games should have an element of player conflict but that it should not be at the core of the experience. Settlers of Catan is all about dealing with other players. Negotiating with them. Being ruthless when it comes to board placement. Shouting across the table when necessary. etc. etc. So while Catan remains as one of the games that every self respecting tabletop enthusiast should own I would advise against jumping straight into it as your first game. A few years a go Catan was THE introductory game nowadays simpler and quicker games have come along. As a result Catan seems slow and somewhat complex compared to the likes of Ticket to Ride and Splendor.
As for the game itself, Catan is all about being the first to reach 10 Victory Points, getting there will involve building up your burgeoning civilisation. However in the process getting the resources you need to do this will require you to trade with your opposing players. You have to broker deals, trade those three sheep you might need later for that one brick you need right now. You need to be able to read the board and work out what the other players are trying to do. There is nothing worse than giving another player exactly what they need to win the game. It can get tense at times and also you get shifts in the game when it is clear that one player is nearing victory. Suddenly all trading with that person will be shut down and players will do whatever they can to take points away from them. It can get very cutthroat.
On your turn you simply roll the dice and players who have settlements or cities connected to the tiles that share the result collect those resources. You can then trade with either the other players or the various ports around the edge of the map. Then if you can and want to, you can can spend resources to build roads, settlements and cities or you can buy Development Cards. Settlements are worth 1VP and give you access to resources. Cities are worth 2VPs but replace Settlements, they do however give you two of each resource they are connected to when they come up. Roads allow you to expand and place Settlements elsewhere. Then Development Cards have a variety of effects, from giving you Victory Points to taking resources from other players. It is relatively easy to get the grasp of.
Catan works well as a step up from more traditional board games like Monopoly. There are some great nuances to the rules and the more random aspects of the game. While Monopoly is all about rolling the dice and dealing with whatever misfortune falls on you. In Catan even if you have a terrible dice roll at the start of your turn you always have options. The more you play it the more refined your tactics will become. You will learn how to gather the resources you need, when you need them. Work out the best initial placement on the game’s randomly generated map when you start a game. The rules may seem a bit stuffy and hard to wrap your head around to begin with (keep the rules almanac handy!) but eventually it will all get stuck in your head.
There is a major downside to Catan for me though. If you are playing with a mixed group of experienced and new players. The experienced players will more then likely steamroll the newer ones. Pushing one sided trades, claiming key resources before the newer players realise it. It is also a game that people tend to play in the way it was taught to them. It wasn’t until I got my own copy of Catan and read the rules that I realised that me and my friends had spent the past couple of years playing a couple of key mechanics wrong. These are more human nature problems rather than intrinsic design flaws but in my experience they are always there.
Catan is also a game that creates stories. Those list ditch efforts that just push you ahead. Everyone banding together to cripple the player who has been in the lead for the whole game. With my group of friends we have several running jokes that have come from the many, many games of Settlers of Catan we have played. Which is cool to see for a game all about sheep, bricks, stone, wheat and wood.
Similar to Carcassonne, due to the age of the game there is a wealth of expansions and spin-offs available. You can go from vying for control of the base game’s shared island to controlling the high seas and smaller islands. Want some more meaty conflict? Get the Knights & Cities expansion. Catan is a must own game for any collection and it will become a game you return to time and time again just be wary of the initial learning curve.
This game teeters on the edge of being an Introductory Game but despite its ridged structure there is a lot going on in 7 Wonders. There is a lot you have to account for when playing and it plays in a way unlike more traditional games which is why I have included it in here.
7 Wonders itself is a game of random chance and seizing opportunities. Like the name suggests it can be played with up to seven people for maximum enjoyment/chaos. The game is all about obtaining sets of cards and creating an engine out of those cards to help you get better, more powerful cards. There are multiple paths to victory but for the first few games you will just play reactively depending on what cards are in your hand at a given time.
7 Wonders does a few unique things that make it stand out. The first is that everyone takes their turns simultaneously, once a round starts cards are being placed and passed around the table at a fast pace. Only stopping when the round ends and each player’s civilisation has a brief war with the ones to their left and right. (Because that how it works in real life!) Another key mechanic is that playing certain cards will allow you to place related cards in subsequent rounds for free. You also have cards that have effects that trigger due to what you have, what the players next to you have or what everyone at the table has. Then there are the wonders that each player has. You can burn a card to build a stage of your wonder with each stage having a unique effect ranging from earning more points to building things for free. Basically, there are a lot of cards and they do a lot of different things.
The game is hard to grasp at first because of the level of variety on offer. The game also prefers to use iconography to explain things. Which is great when you are an experienced player but not very helpful when you are new to the game. Even now after countless games I have to reference the player guide to decipher the meaning behind a few of the more obtuse cards and wonder ability icons. It causes what is a relatively breezy game to grind to a halt because everyone takes their turn at the same time. You cannot look things up during some between turn downtime because there is no real downtime until you complete one of the game’s three ages of play.
If you take the plunge and buy 7 Wonders I would recommend reading the rules a few times before playing. I would also recommend stepping through the first couple of turns of play so everyone learns the rhythm to the game. Also get the companion app to cut down on end game scoring confusion.
Lords of Waterdeep
Despite being stamped with the Dungeons & Dragons logo and set around the port city of Waterdeep from the core D&D setting, Lords of Waterdeep has little in common with its Pen & Paper RPG namesake. Waterdeep is a game of worker placement and resource gathering and is a cutthroat one.
At the start of the game each player is secretly assigned a Lord or Lady that will earn them bonus points at the end of the game for completing certain criteria. What this simple inclusion does is give everyone an agenda. These agendas usually butt heads with those of the other players meaning the game becomes this push and pull affair that will constantly escalate over the course of a game. During a round players in turn assign one agent to one space on the map until there are no more agents to assign. There is a variety of different spaces from giving you resources (in Waterdeep’s case, Gold Coins, Wizards, Warriors, Clerics and Rogues) to more unique spaces like the builder’s hall which allows you to create more spaces on the board that will grant you rewards if other players use them.
The aim of the game is to acquire the most victory points and the best way to do this is to complete quests by spending the resources you gather. But other players can stop your progress by playing intrigue cards against you. These cards are a mix of good and bad things that can happen. You could receive some free resources. You could get an extra agent placement this round. Or you could be given a Mandatory Quest that has to be completed before you can go back to what you where doing and oh, look at that! It requires resources which you have not been collecting! A turn of the game is fairly simple of paper: Place an agent on a space, do the action on that space, complete a quest if you can/want to. But as you can see there is a web of complexity underneath that simple structure.
I always enjoy playing Lords of Waterdeep. The game looks great on the table and a lot of care has been put into making it feel authentic. The tokens for the gold pieces and victory point gems stand out the most but the overall design and look of the game is steeped in the look and feel of D&D. For someone like me who has spent a lot of time in that particular RPG setting it is like catnip. The game’s expansion set, Scoundrels of Skullport is also a great addition to the game because you get a two for one deal out of it. One modular set, The Undermountain adds more quests, more resources and generally bigger rewards to the game. The other, Skullport adds the brilliant Corruption mechanic that sees players pushing their luck in an attempt to earn greater rewards.
The main downside to Waterdeep however is that it is very easy for one or two players to gain an early lead and keep it for the whole game. This is because the game has a tendency to reward players who can complete a lot of quests quickly. There are a few harder to complete, big reward quests but often by the time a player has completed one of those everyone else has finished 3-4 quests that also tie into their Lord/Lady’s objective. Making the points infusion of the harder quest a bit redundant. It is also very much a game that improves the more you play it. The first couple of games you will play will be a stumbled mess of misunderstood rules and abilities. Stick with it and if you can, keep playing it with the same people and it will turn into a really competitive game full of backroom deals and backstabbing.
Do you like video games like Sim City, Civilisation and their ilk? BUY SUBURBIA! You can thank me later. One part Sim City the board game the other part devious puzzle. Suburbia will get your brain to work as you grow and build out your suburb.
The aim of the game is to build the most successful suburb, to do this you will need to manage your Income and Reputation in order to advance your place of the Population track. The person with the highest population at the end of the game is the winner. Getting there is not a simple task though. Each round the line up of available tiles changes. On your turn you can buy a tile from the line up, place it and resolve the effects before growing your Suburb. But every tile you place can effect the ones around it, your suburb as a whole and other players. As your income and reputation rises and falls your plans will change. Placing the blue Commercial tile you have just bought in one place could give you an immediate boost in population but if you place it somewhere else you will get a boost in Reputation which could be lucrative later on. It is a game where you have to be able to look at the micro and macro levels of play.
Similar to Lords of Waterdeep you are also given a secret objective which will earn you bonus points at the end of the game if you achieve it. There are also public objectives that all players can work towards. These subtly shape the game and push players into what I would deem a casual conflict. If you notice someone racing ahead to complete one of the public objectives you might try to overtake them or plan around it. You might also notice that they are avoiding the public objectives which can only mean one thing, they have a more valuable secret objective. You can then actively work to block their progress while aiding your own.
The complexity in Suburbia comes from everything you do affecting everything else. One tile placement can set off a chain reaction of events that does something to all the players’ suburbs. There is also a lot if little niggly bits to the rules that you will misinterpret or overlook the first couple of times you play. It is also a very overwhelming game for those first few plays. If you are running a game you have to account for everything and make sure everyone is on the same page at all times because if one player gets something wrong or miscounts something it can impede progress for the others.
There is less player conflict in Suburbia than other games but there is something inherently appealing about it. You have the unique puzzle that is your suburb but what you decide to build and where you place it can effect the other players’ suburbs and plans. It will give your brain a workout in the best way possible because you will be having fun while doing some mental connecting the dots and arithmetic.
Cyclades is my wife’s favourite game we have played in the past year and we have played it a lot! It falls into what I call the Risk-But-Actually-Good genre of games with a few unique twists and mechanics as players fight over the small Greek Islands that make up the game’s board. It ticks a lot of boxes for me, it has:
- Greek gods & monsters, check!
- Direct player conflict across multiple mechanics, check!
- A healthy amount of randomness to help balance things, check!
- Clear and visible player progress over the length of a game, check!
- Cool little miniatures for troops, ships and monsters, check!
- It scales really well for varying group sizes, check! (Seriously Cyclades is just as good with two players as it is with five which is a rare thing)
- Tokens and cards you can horde because you need all of the things, check!
- Alliances, backstabbing and cursing of people’s sudden but inevitable betrayals, CHECK!
The aim of the game is simple, have two Metropolises at the end of a round of play and you win. You can get these in multiple ways. If you have one of each type of building in territory you control they automatically turn into a Metropolis. If you have four Philosophers their collective wisdom allows you to build a Metropolis. Or you could just descend on an opponent who has built a Metropolis and take it from them by force.
The phases of the game work together really well and success in one does not always mean dominance in the other. The bidding phase sees everyone spending gold to earn the favour of the gods. The twist being that if a player outbids you your only option is to bid on another god. You cannot automatically place a higher bid. This can lead to some interesting moments where everyone keeps outbidding each other and changing their places on the bidding track. Making deals about if one player outbids the other then they can get the god they want with their next bid. In return they will stay clear of them for a bit…promise. Place on the bidding track dictates turn order for the round and each god provides different abilities and powers to the player all befitting their classical myths.
- Ares allows you to produce troops, move troops and build Barracks.
- Poseidon allows you to produce ships, move ships and build Ports.
- Zeus allows you to buy Priests that makes bidding on gods cheaper, change the line-up of summonable monsters and build Temples.
- Athena as wise as she is allows you to buy Philosophers and build Universities.
- Apollon (props for using the more traditional naming!) gives the user some money and a cornucopia token to earn more money in future rounds.
Cyclades has a lot going for it and little wrong with it. If you enjoyed strategy games like Risk as a kid or love Graeco-Roman mythology like me this is a must buy. It takes the richness of those mythological tales and weaves them into a tightly packed game of board control with monsters. It is a game that will cause debates to break out across the table which is always good. You see a player has left themselves open on one side so you pounce on them. As soon as one player get ahead, everyone else will band together to stop them. It promotes bastardidness in the best way possible because no matter what happens it is always fun.
The reason that Cyclades is included in this list however is that its mesh of systems can be quite complex at times. There is a lot you need to consider at almost every stage of the game and it can become quite taxing if you are just wanting to casually play something. The game also tries to go for that, “we don’t need text approach” which can be a mixed bag. It is fine for things like the cards you can obtain or the costs for purchasing things but for explaining the abilities of the various gods or the summonable monsters it becomes a bit of a chore until you learn them like the back of your hand. Expect the small reference sheet that is included with the game to become well worn over time.
Still it is a game that you will always want to play again. The tactics to it are so tightly packed that you will constantly be making mental notes, “Next time I’ll do this instead” you’ll say to yourself as your metropolis is stolen from you by your grinning friend who had the full backing of everyone else at the table. Three turns later and everyone has turned on that player and crushed them on their own path to victory.
That’s the Intermediate Games done with! As you can see while most of these games are still accessible for most players to pick up and start playing there are varying levels of complexity. If you own one of these games being able to explain and teach them well to other players is a key part in how successful your time with them will be. The inherent multiple paths to victory nature of these games also means that you will want to keep playing them. Tweaking your existing tactics or trying new approaches altogether.