Good God. Join me as we plough into uncharted waters – the third installment of a series of themed posts.

There are a bunch of games in this list that make me laugh. There are games with evocatative themes that fire the imagination. There are some games with gorgeous art and wonderful components that are just beautiful things in and of themselves.

Dominion cares not for these things.

Dominion’s pretty po-faced. Nominally you’re a noble trying to expand your fief faster than your neighbours can expand theirs but in practical terms it’s basically got no theme at all. It’s just a bunch of cards and tokens whose illustrations swing wildly between really rather nice and eye-shatteringly hideous. It’s probably one of my five favourite games that I own.

Part of the reason I think so highly of Dominion is that the game is sheer elegance in its diabolic simplicity. Each player starts the game with a deck of seven “Copper” cards, which are used for nothing other than buying new cards, and three “Estates” which give a single victory point apiece. Each turn you’re allowed to play any one action card that you’ve bought from a selection of ten that are available. You can then buy one card with a combination of whatever money the action card might have given you plus any money cards in your hand. That done, you take any cards you’ve bought, plus any cards you’ve played and any cards left in your hand and discard them, drawing five new cards from the deck. If you don’t have enough cards left in your deck to draw five, you draw what you can then reshuffle your discards to form a new deck. This continues until all the availalble 6-victory-point Province cards have been bought or else any three supply piles of cards are empty, at which point the game ends and whoever’s got the most victory points in their deck wins. That’s it. You now know everything you need to sit down and play Dominion. That’s the whole game.

Well OK, it’s kind of the game. The proverbial’s in the details and so forth.

The action cards that I breezed over are kind of where the game lives. Each game starts by laying out ten piles of ten identical cards from a possible selection of anywhere between thirty different piles (if you’ve only got the Dominion base set) and about 150 different piles (if you’ve bought all the expansions and are thus forced to store Dominion in something roughly the size of a coffin). So there are roughly SEVEN SQUILLION possible combinations of 10 supply card piles that could be available at the start of a game, meaning that to all intents and purposes you never need to play the same game of Dominion twice. Assessing the available cards and working out how best to synergise your deck is the bulk of Dominion’s challenge. Are you going to grab Villages (which let you play extra action cards) and Smithies (which draw more cards into you hand) to construct something that will eventually let you draw your entire deck every turn but will take a while to get running? Are you going to buy attack cards which screw with your opponent’s hand or insert unwanted cards into his deck? Are you going to get trashers to clear the dreck out of your deck and leave it purring like a rectangular cardstock Ferrari? Are you going to nick that great combo that one of your opponents has just played? Assessing the available cards, sussing out a strategy and then working out on the fly how it needs to change in reaction to what the rest of the table is up to is just such a satisfying intellectual challenge that I’m yet to tire of it despite umpty-thrumpty kajillion online games.

But there’s more! To win the game you need victory points. To get victory points, you (mostly) need to buy victory cards. But those victory cards don’t (usually) do anything for you. They’re just ballast, clogging your hand and weighing down your deck. So you have to perfectly judge the right moment to stop improving your deck with more money and/or actions and start getting the points you actually need to win. Go too soon and the victory cards will gum up the works of the sleek, beautiful economic engine you’ve built until the whole deck grinds to a shuddering halt and the tortoises around the rest of the table come trudging past your exhausted hare. Go too late and the game might be over before you can make your deck’s superior efficiency count. It’s such a brilliant bit of design and it turns Dominion from being a game where you’re purely concerned with optimising your own play into one where you have to be watching exactly what your opponents are up to so that you’re ready to react if and when the endgame starts unexpectedly.

Dominion is one of the few games that I love on an almost purely cerebral level. It’s more austere and detached than most games that really speak to me, but it’s so elegant and smart that that’s a feature not a bug. I don’t get it to the table as much as I’d like because though Dominion can play up to 6 every player past the third kind of detracts from the game, plus at least one of my regular group really doesn’t care for it. But Dominion is in the very small group of games that I would literally play at any time with anyone, and just writing this post has given me a hankering to fire up the iPad for a quick chukka or two.

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Catacombs is the natural result of crossing Heroquest with Shove Ha’penny. You are adventurers who are BOLDLY GOING where every fantasy game in history has GONE BEFORE: ie, down a DUNGEON. Which may or may not contain DRAGONS. But which definitely contains QUITE UNNECESSARILY UGLY ART. There you will meet MONSTERS. Who you will attempt to SLAY. By means of MIGHTY DEEDS. By which I mean: flicking a little wooden disk across a board.

Let me get this out of the way right now so that there can be no doubt: Catacombs. Is. Amazing. I can mock because I love. It is amazing because it is so simple. Your adventurer is a little coloured wooden disk. Each turn you flick him (or just barely her) at these other coloured wooden disks. Which are monsters. If you hit a monster, you hurt it. If you hurt a weak monster, you kill it. If you hurt a stronger monster, you flip its disk over and the next time someone hurts that monster they kill it. Once all the players controlling adventurers have had their go, the player controlling the monsters gets to flick them at your party. Each time you get hit, you take a wound. Take enough wounds, you die. THAT’S ALL. That’s all you really need to know to get started playing Catacombs. The rest is just fluff. Each player and some monsters get special abilities like being able to fire arrows (read, flick small wooden disks) or cast a fireball spell (read, flick a big wooden disk). Killing monsters gives you gold which you can spend on cool equipment and/or spells once you reach the shop which is situated in the middle of a dungeon because of course it is. Some other stuff. NOT IMPORTANT!

Catacombs is amazing because as soon as you’ve spent the 90 seconds it takes to grasp the rules you turn into the love-child of Erwin Rommel and Stephen Hendry. The act of flicking your piece feels so natural and instinctive that tactics immediately start suggesting themselves to almost literally anyone, ever. Can you hit that goblin and ricochet off to hide your adventurer behind a column, safe from retaliation? Can you kill both of those skellingtons with one flick? Can you nudge that troll out from behind cover and set him up so that your mate the barbarian can finish him off on his go? I don’t know! But you’ll definitely try. And when it works you will feel like the BOSS of the hugging WORLD.

So. It’s accessible. It’s sneakily deep. It’s tense. But those are not the real reasons Catacombs is amazing. Catacombs is amazing because it is funny. Oh my god is Catacombs funny.

In about the third room of our first game, my two oldest sons get into THE MOST impassioned and detailed tactical discussion in the history of human conflict vis a vis: which of them is going to take the next shot and exactly what they are going to attack. Without a word of exaggeration this goes on for literally fifteen minutes, each passing moment seeing the argument getting more and more nuanced and more and more heated. Finally, an uneasy detente is reached. The wizard leans over the table and lines up his attack with painstaking care. After a long, long moment he draws back his finger and… flicks. His piece prompltly flies down the board at roughly twice the speed of sound, sails clean over the assembled slavering undead horde without so much as brushing a single enemy token, shoots across the room and vanishes under the sofa. The game is then held up for five minutes while everyone present collapses in fits of hysterical laughter. And is then held up a further five minutes as we try to coax the wizard’s disk to emerge from its sub-upholstery lair.

(Half an hour later another ludicrously extended frank and thorough exchange of views ended with my other son lining up for a shot at a distant enemy, then somehow managing to almost completely miss his barbarian piece with his finger, the disk shifting like half an inch. Well played, Catacombs. Well played.)

I am a dude who loves a dungeon-crawl. When I was a young teenager I conducted whole campaigns of Advanced Heroquest on my own on my bedroom floor. I’m currently playing a grumpy barbarian-thief with an upper-class English accent in a Pathfinder game on the BGG forums. I own seventy squillion pounds of Descent stuff. Measured both in value and in weight. Is Catacombs my favourite flavour of dungeon crawl? If I’m in the right frame of mind, it might be. It’s all very well moving your little dude four squares and rolling the right number on a die to kill the giant. But being able to reach across that table with everyone’s eyes on you and make the shot the party’s depending on you to make – that’s proper heroism. It’s a particularly stupid sort of heroism, but it’s heroism all the same.

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New year! New focus! New series of posts that I might even get to the end of this time!

I’ve probably spent less time playing computer games this year than I have any year since getting a 32K BBC B Microcomputer at age 10 (still the best Christmas present ever. Thanks mum and dad!). What’s filled the gap? Well, to a certain degree it’s been, y’know, this but it’s also been boardgames. Due in no small part to the impending arrival of aforementioned dangerously adorable time-consuming inconvenience, preparing for a proper RPG session has been incredibly difficult this year and so most of our more-or-less regular Monday night get-togethers have been spent messing about with lovely, lovely, no-prior-legwork-required boardgames. I’ve also taken considerable joy in inflicting the odd game or three on any family members who’ve been foolish enough to sit still for long enough for me to lunge at the bookshelf. And so! Why not splurge some words about my 13 favourite boardgames that I played in 2013?

No reason why not, that’s why not. And so: hurrah! Let us celebrate this new endeavour by immediately disregarding the rules and jamming two games into one slot!

Mascarade and Coup are both small, quick, light card games where each card depicts a role with grants its owner the chance to take a different action each round. The role you hold is determined by a card or cards that are dealt face-down in front of you, however you can take any action from any card so long as nobody challenges your claim. Unsuccessful challenges bestow a penalty on the challenger so you can’t call people’s bluffs with complete impunity. I’m grouping them together here because it’s fascinating to me that despite the fundamental similarity of their premises these games feel nothing like each other in play.

Coup is a game of calculation and bare-faced lying. It’s quite intense and very cutthroat, with negotiation and politicking playing a fairly major role – deals in the style of “target your assassin somewhere else and I won’t coup you next turn” are reasonably common. There are only five roles, three copies of each role in the deck and you know what the two cards in front of you are, so you actually have a decent amount of information about what’s in play, particularly as the game goes on and more and more cards are turned face-up. This happens if someone pays to have one of your cards killed, or else if you’re caught in a bluff or unsuccessfully challenge someone else’s role claim. Once one of your cards is face up, you can no longer claim its ability (unless you can convince people that your other card is a second copy of the same role, of course!) and if you have to turn over both your cards you’re out of the game so every decision to bluff or call is tense and weighty. It’s not enough to believe that someone’s lying, you have to weigh up how much you want to block the specific action they’re currently taking because if you call and are wrong it’ll see you halfway out the door.

Mascarade is a different animal. You’ve only got a single role card in front of you and there’s only one copy of each role in the game. Since anyone can use their turn to swap (or pretend to swap) cards with you and because you’re only allowed to look at your role if take your entire turn to do so you’re very rarely totally sure which role you’re currently holding. To balance that, if someone claims a role it’s not enough to know they’re lying (which they like-as-not are, they just might not know it). To challenge in Mascerade you have to counter-claim the same role. This leads to hilarious situations like three people claiming to be the King only to discover when they flip their cards over that none of them are. However since the penalty for unsuccessfully bluffing or challenging is much lower than in Coup, Mascerade is a somewhat loosey-goosey game with bluffs called frequently.

Coup is an icy game. There’s humour in it, but it’s black and vicious – the amusement of watching someone punished for their hubris. You win the game only by knocking everyone else out so you can’t get ahead except over the broken bodies of your rivals. The rulebook explicitly states that there’s no second place in Coup, there’s only one winner and a bunch of losers. By contrast, Mascarade is warm and jovial. There’s almost a feeling of everyone being in it together, because almost everyone has equally little idea what the hug is going on at any given time. There’s no player elimination and the win condition is accumulating 13 coins, so while you sometimes drag someone else down to lift yourself up it’s not actually necessary and it’s perfectly possible to win by just quietly taking coins from the bank until you hit the magic number. Coup’s defining moment is when you claim a third different role for your one face-down card and someone finally calls you, only for you to smirk thinly as you reveal that this was the time you were actually telling the truth. Mascarade’s defining moment the expression that crosses a player’s face after they’ve taken someone’s card to swap under the table and realised that they’ve forgotten which hand had which card in it and so are now at least as confused as their “victim”, to the general amusement of the table. Coup is a game for B’stards. Mascerade is a game for people who don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re both fantastic, although it’s entirely possible that your group/friends/family/random passers-by might take to one but not the other.

I love bluffing games. I am terrible at bluffing games. These will not be the last bluffing games on this list.

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