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1. Cosmic Encounter
My favourite game of all, Cosmic is far older than any other game here – it’s been published by half a dozen different companies since the late 1970s – but the way you can mix and match the various alien powers into a vast number of possible combinations means every session feels fresh.
You start with five planets, 20 little spaceships and an alien card telling you what your special power is – some element of the rules that you and only you get to ignore or change. The aim of the game is get your spaceships, by persuasion or violence, on to five foreign planets.
You’re dealt an initial hand of eight cards. Some of these will be Attack cards with a number. When you encounter another alien you each play one of these face-down, and whoever has the higher number (after adding on extras for number of spaceships, special abilities and so on) will win the fight. But you also have Negotiate cards: if you both play these, you’ll be able to come up with an deal that’s favourable to both of you. Then again, if one of you is lying and plays an Attack card instead, they will win automatically. Quite often both parties lie.
You may already be starting to imagine the immense bluffing possibilities that this game offers. When you lose a fight, you want to lose it by a mile, so you ditch a bad card and they waste a good one; when you win, you want to do so by a fingernail. (Although this can come back to bite you if they’ve got a Reinforcements card, which adds a few extra points after the main cards have been played.) Is this a fight you have a chance of winning, or is it time to chuck away a bad card? But if the other guy thinks you’re doing that, he might try to get away with a weaker card – in which case maybe you can win…
Cosmic Encounter is wonderful and often ridiculous. If your friends like table talk, bluffing and weird rules that combine in odd ways, this is the game for you.
Best expansions: There are currently six expansions for Cosmic Encounter: the latest, Cosmic Eons, arrived at the start of 2017. Shut Up and Sit Down has a brilliant article on Cosmic Encounters expansions, although at time of writing it hasn’t been updated to discuss Eons.
Cosmic Encounter with 6 players is something really special, and for that reason we do recommend that you get one of the first 3 expansions, each of which provide an extra player colour as well as new alien types: Incursion (which sadly appears to be out of print and therefore unavailable for a sensible price right now), Conflict or Alliance. Of those three, Incursion is the best (its reward deck encourages defensive alliances in a way that balances the game nicely) and Alliance is probably the weakest.
The newer expansions don’t include a new player colour and just offer new aliens, rule tweaks and other bits and bobs; we can vouch for the high quality of aliens in Cosmic Dominion, which also gives you reward cards – in fact its reward deck is probably better than Incursion’s (and can be combined with it).
The only full cooperative game in this list, Pandemic tasks you with the job of ridding the globe of four terrifying diseases. Each of you is given a role (medic, scientist, researcher, quarantine specialist) and corresponding special power, and you then travel around treating diseases, preventing outbreaks and finding cures.
There are multiple ways to die: you can run out of time; you can run out of disease counter cubes; you can trigger too many outbreaks. But there is only one way to win, and that’s to cure all four diseases. You’re a team, so everyone wins, or nobody does; but either way it always seems to come down to the wire.
One less enjoyable aspect of co-operative games is the way that sometimes an experienced player will take over the show and boss everyone around. Make sure that doesn’t happen! Your turn is just as important as everybody else’s – particularly because of those vital special powers – and while discussion and friendly advice are encouraged, only you can decide on what your character will do. Keep that in mind and you’ll have a blast with Pandemic.
(The iOS version of Pandemic is excellent too and – at time of writing – very reasonable indeed, at £1.99. iPad board games tend to cost around a fiver.)
Carcassonne begins with a single tile (depicting a green field, a little road and the edge of a city) in the middle of the table. The players take it in turns to draw another tile randomly out of the bag, and join it on to the growing map in such a way that the various features (roads, cities, occasionally rivers) match up properly. You then get the option to place one of your little men, or ‘meeple’, on one of the aforementioned features and claim it – if no one has claimed it already – and you will accumulate points as your claimed features grow bigger.
For such a simple game, Carcassonne has a surprising depth to it: it’s all about knowing what tiles are left, and the probability of drawing what you need. There’s also a fair element of sussing out what your opponents are trying to do and how to prevent it, although Carcassonne is on the whole a pretty chilled game. Highly recommended.
(There’s an iOS version that’s brilliant too, and although it’s expensive by App Store standards it’s still a cheaper way of seeing if this is the game for you.)
Best expansions: Traders & Builders is the one to go for, in our opinion. The builder piece allows you to take double turns if you place it astutely, and the trading goods – which are awarded to people who complete cities, even if they don’t have any meeple there – encourage an interesting degree of semi-cooperation. Inns & Cathedrals is mostly quite good although we find the cathedral piece itself rather brutal; it can completely screw over someone’s city if placed at an opportune moment.
4. Power Grid
There’s a lot of mental arithmetic in this one, but don’t let that, or the fact that it’s themed around the building, connecting and supply of power stations, put you off what is a rich and rewarding game.
You’re buying power stations, buying fuel (oil, coal, rubbish, nuclear or renewables) and building towns; the more towns you can power with the plants and fuel you’ve got, the more money you make. And next turn that cash goes back into buying more powerful plants, more fuel and more buildings.
Power Grid has some really smart mechanisms, including a supply-and-demand system that makes prices go up if a resource is popular and some gentle rubber-banding that gives whoever’s losing first pick of the new plants and best pricing on the fuel. A key part of the game is knowing when to make your move and go for the victory, because taking the lead too soon is generally punished.
Fun fact: I have played this game more than a dozen times and never won. Yet I still keep playing it. This is generally a good sign.
Also, the original name of the game is Funkenschlag.
Best expansions: We don’t feel this is a game that particularly calls for expansions, although your mileage may vary. Bear in mind that the standard game comes with two maps: Germany and the US. Expansions will add additional countries to your options, and some have distinctly different flavours that affect the way games play out. Italy makes expansion more difficult, Benelux is good for beginners, France is nuclear-friendly and so on. Boardgamegeek has a great forum posting on the expansions.
5. Love Letter
Quicker, cheaper and far more portable than any other offering in this list, Love Letter is simple, and pure, and pretty much perfect for short gaming sessions and for warming up before something more demanding.
Here’s what you get: 16 cards; a handful of counters; the rulebook; and a little red bag to store it all in. But from these ingredients an exceptionally compelling game has been cooked up – one which can be grasped by drunks in 10 minutes, but keeps revealing new depths and subtleties for months after.
The aim of the game is to end the session with the highest surviving card (the highest of all is the princess, whom everyone is trying to woo) but there are numerous sneaky ways to knock out your opponents before it gets to that point. Brilliant stuff.
Best expansions: There’s Love Letter Premium, which adds a bunch of new cards (such as the Assassin, who has a value of 0 but knocks people out if they target you with the Guard). We’ve not tried it, but it sounds fun. And there are millions of ‘reskins’ of the game, keeping the rules the same but changing the artwork to a theme such as Ghostbusters or HP Lovecraft. Just look at how many there are.
6.King of New York
This staple of the PC Advisor Board Game Club is perfect for a lunchtime quickie.
It’s Yahtzee with monsters, essentially: you each control an oversized creature from a monster movie (King Kong, Godzilla, Robbie the Robot, a non-branded alien thing) and take it in turns to roll a fat handful of dice, marked with various monstery symbols instead of numbers, and attempt to cause mayhem. Roll a lot of claws and you can smash the heck out of the other monsters; roll hearts and you heal yourself; roll a bunch of lightning bolts and you accumulate the game’s currency – sort of monster power – and get to upgrade yourself by buying cards.
It’s fast, it’s simple, and it’s surprisingly tense when the last couple of monsters get down to the last dregs of their health bars.
After some deliberation we are recommending King of New York, but for a casual crowd the older, simpler and also excellent King of Tokyo may be a better pick. That one is really just about the dice and cards; New York adds more focus on moving around the city, and lets you smash up buildings and fight the army too.
Best expansions: We’d keep it simple if we were you. If you just want more monster cards, however, consider buying the version of the game you didn’t get already – New York monsters can be used in Tokyo and vice versa. There are expansions for each game called Power Up, which add unique upgrades for each monster; but these incentivise people rolling for hearts and therefore make games longer and (in some players’ opinion) less exciting.