Don’t play that, play this: alternatives to classic board games

A while ago I wrote an article about Monopoly, outlining the many reasons I dislike it. But what should you play instead, when the urge to accumulate cash or take it from your friends and family strikes you?

Machi Koro – much better than Monopoly, and doesn’t take three years to finish

I’d recommend the delightful Machi Koro, an excellent card game by Masao Suganuma. You play a newly elected town mayor, looking to build your community from modest roots into a thriving metropolis. But you must watch out for rival mayors who are looking to reach the big time before you.

You win by being the first player to build a train station, shopping mall, amusement park and radio tower. You start with a handful of coins, as well as a bakery and wheat field card.

On your turn you roll a die. If the number rolled matches the number on a card, then it generates income. Some cards only trigger when you roll the die, some generate cash no matter who rolls the die, and others allow you to steal coins from other players. Once you have rolled the die you can choose to buy a new card, showing either a building or source of raw materials, and each is an additional income generator. All the cards vary in price, and are colour-coded to show which type they are. Some trigger off each other, allowing players with an eye for strategy to, for example, build lots of cattle ranches to provide for their cheese factories, and in turn feed their dairy-loving populace. Card supplies are limited, so you’ll need to watch what other players select.

When building your economy you’ll can decide to hedge your bets with a mix of different structures, or go big with a particular build, like lots of cafes and restaurants to rob your opponents. Each of your special landmark structures gives you a bonus ability, like rolling two dice, or getting a re-roll. You’ll need to consider which to build first, and when to start rolling two dice, as some buildings, like the fruit and veg market, only generate on a number impossible to roll with a single die.

Machi Kori is accessible and so wonderfully simple it makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. Games usually take around half an hour to finish, so you can use this as a warm-up for a longer game, or get a couple of rounds in. There is no player elimination, and you’ll be engaged even when it’s not your turn, as player dice rolls and card purchases can affect you.

Machi Koro cards are colour-coded for your convenience

The artwork is beautifully cutesy and fun, and the game could be understood by a ten year old, while there are enough opportunities for tactics to keep you engaged and interested. The only slight downside is that the base game is limited to four players, but an expansion is available to take it up to five, with another adding extra cards and a little more complexity. The base game costs between £20 and £30. Go and buy a copy.

As anyone who has played Cluedo (AKA ‘Clue’ in the USA) will know, the game has some problems. There’s no real mystery, in that you don’t know why the murder has taken place or anything of that nature. There’s no sleuthing, just looking at other people’s cards by asking carefully worded questions and narrowing down the options through process of elimination. The only deduction is through some educated guesses about who has shown what to who, and strategy consists of trying to throw people off by suggesting combinations you have in your own hand, or trying to show opponents the same card over and over.

The board is practically superfluous, as are the tiny weapons, as cute as they are. This is a card game masquerading as a board game. Some aspects of the game don’t make a lot of sense, like how it’s possible for one of the players to be the murderer themselves. And why people continue to work out where the crime was committed and with which weapon when they know who the killer is, is beyond me.

 

If you prefer your mystery games to have an actual mystery, then give 221b Baker Street a try. At the beginning of the game the case is read out, and the objective or objectives are listed. These could be identifying an assassin, deducing the location of a missing diamond, or discovering what has happened to a prize racehorse. Each player must visit different locations in Victorian London as set out on the board, like Scotland Yard, the docks, the chemist, or the public horse, collecting clues and puzzling out what they mean before their rivals. Some locations you visit won’t contain clues, but the mystery will usually hint at the locations likely to yield the best results.

There is a bit of strategy to moving around, as you can catch hansom cabs, and lock out your opponents from a location you have visited first. You can bluff rival detectives by locking a location with no clue in it, making them use a skeleton key for nothing. You swine!

The 2014 edition has 75 mysteries to solve, with clues involving wordplay and other puzzles. It’s not a particularly complex game, and older children will soon get the hang of it, although they might find some of the cases difficult unless they are good at lateral thinking. 2-6 players can take part, and the winner is the first to race back to 221b Baker Street and correctly announce the solution. The game will set you back about £15 – £20.

If you’ve ever played games like Ludo, Sorry, Snakes and Ladders, and other pointless luck-a-thons, you’ll know that these are fine to play with very small children, but anyone aged five or over is likely to get bored senseless pretty quickly.

Deciding which is the superior detective game is elementary

 

An alternative which involves some degree of thought is Chinese checkers. I thought this was a well-known game, but apparently this was just in my family, as many people I talk too have never heard of it. The name is misleading, as it’s not like checkers (or draughts, if you’re British) and it’s not Chinese. It’s a German game apparently, and the name was part of some kind of marketing scheme.

2, 3, 4 or 6 players can take part, and the objective is to get your coloured pegs to the other side of the board. The board is shaped like a six pointed star, and you move your counters one space at a time, or you can jump over a peg in front of one of yours, if the space behind it is empty.

If there are multiple jumps available you can travel across the board in a single turn, and the crux of the game is working out how to maximise the number of jumps your pieces can move, while blocking or minimising the jumps your opponents can pull off. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but after a game or two you’ll be pulling off this board-hopping business like a pro.

It’s the kind of game you can play with all but the youngest children, provided you go easy on them at first. But watch out, as some are fast learners and will wipe the floor with you if you’re not careful.

And last but not least in the classic games selection, there’s Scrabble. Scrabble’s fine. Play Scrabble.

There’s nothing wrong with Scrabble, unless you’re playing with a smart Alec who has swallowed a dictionary

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