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5 Heavy Christmas Board Games (Saturday Review)
Posted On 18 December 2021
Most of us will have a lot of spare time over the holidays and if we have board game enthusiasts among the family, this is the perfect time to set up and play some heavy games. We might also have more time to meet up with our games group and again, now is the time to get those heavy games to the table that we might not feel like playing of an evening after a busy day at work. So, here are 5 heavy board games I think you should play over the holidays.
Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
Release Date: 2021
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Length: 45-120 minutes
Artist: Kyle Ferrin
Publisher: Leder Games
Complexity: 4.0 / 5
Yes, Oath by Cole Wehrle from Leder Games is definitely a heavy game. Not only is the playing time on the longer end, but the rules overhead is a lot, even though once you get into it, none of the rules are actually that difficult. I think it’s the edge cases that make it a bit more complicated. The real depth in Oath comes from the player interaction though and the way it’s not so much about winning the game, but more about stopping other players from winning. It’s really clever in that respect and pretty much in every game after round 4, players will start forming short-term pacts to stop another player’s imminent victory, only to turn on each other once that’s been dealt with.
So there is a lot of direct player-interaction in the game, but it doesn’t really feel personal in any way, because it’s usually very clear who will win on their next turn. So when the other players work together to stop them, it is just logical. There is no point trying to do anything else, because if another player wins, the game ends. It’s not like you can overtake them and win before them. It’s really black and white and leads to wonderful rounds where players discuss their options and the best way forward, with half an eye on how they will come out of the situation afterwards.
Ultimately though, Oath is really more of a story-telling game than anything else. It’s as close to an RPG that doesn’t need a GM in board game form as you can get. It’s also really quite basic in its set up. A handful of site cards and a stack of denizen cards create detailed worlds that change as play progresses. They weave lovely stories and it almost doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, because you end up being so engrossed in the story the players create as they take their turns.
The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous as well and they underline the idea of the story-telling. Add to that the descriptions on every card that explain their effects and you can’t avoid imagining what it all means in the world of Oath. It’s really quite magical and very fitting for the festive season.
What made me want to have a copy of Tharos by Bernd Scholz from Spielworxx was the dice bag building element, and of course, the fact that this is a Spielworxx game. There is a huge amount of luck in this game, which you can’t control very much, but that doesn’t matter to me. When you draw your dice at the beginning of the round and roll them, it’s exciting. You then spend the rest of the round working out how best to use those dice in the most efficient way.
Sure, the game does last quite a while and for some, it will outstay its welcome. After all, there isn’t a huge amount of difference from round to round. Even though you improve your dice bag and build a small tableau, Tharos doesn’t feel like an engine-building game. There is also no player interaction really, so it’s not like you can interfere with another players’ plans. It’s very much multiplayer solitaire.
However, that’s exactly why I love this game so much and why my wife and I have been playing it a lot. The satisfaction, for us at least, comes from solving the puzzle that the dice rolls pose every round. You slowly build your dice bag, get out cards that give you some sort of benefit, try and populate the surface of Tharos and just go about your business really. I think there is a similar attraction as there is in Wingspan.
Tharos isn’t overtaxing, but will keep you focussed just enough so you don’t realize when another hour has gone by and you’ve finished one more round of the game. If you like this sort of thing, then this game will definitely be for you.
Dominant Species: Marine
Release Date: 2021
Designer: Chad Jensen
Length: 90-150 minutes
Artist: Chad Jensen, Chechu Nieto
Publisher: GMT Games
Complexity: 4.0 / 5
Dominant Species: Marine by the late and great Chad Jensen and from GMT Games has been on my wishlist for some time. Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s its bigger sibling, Dominant Species, that I’ve had my eye on for a long time, but I knew I would never get my games group or anyone in my family to play it with me. So when Dominant Species: Marine came out and was touted to be the shorter and easier-to-learn version of the game, I knew I had an opportunity.
So far, I’ve only played Dominant Species: Marine once, but even that is a victory to me. I was able to teach the game to my games group pretty quickly, given how much there is to teach, and they all got it pretty quickly. The player boards have all the necessary information on them and the game board is also really well designed, so once you know how the game works, you don’t really need to refer to the rulebook, except maybe for some of the event cards.
I think where we went wrong in our first play, which is probably my fault, is that we looked at it as an area control game – which it isn’t. For most of the game, it’s really more about procreating and evolving. You want to have the most animals of your species on the planet, at least in certain areas, because that’s what gives you points. Only at the very end, do you want to spread out and control most areas.
Yet, what Dominant Species: Marine does amazingly well, is emulate the story of evolution. Your species are very limited in what they can do, but during the game, you can give them a wider range of areas where they can survive or you can go the other way and become even more specialised. In fact, the game is long enough for a species to become specialised to start with and then more flexible later in the game – or vice versa. Once the game end is near, everyone wants to spread out, but by then, they may not have enough animals left on the surface, by which time it’s too late to procreate.
The game also beautifully emulates how the surface of the planet changes, how new landmasses or bodies of water are created and how vents suddenly erupt. The game encourages you to place new planet tiles near like tiles, i.e. water next to water or land next to land, but sometimes it makes more strategic sense to put them somewhere else. That makes for a half-predictable, half-unexpectedly random planet, which is beautiful to watch.
So don’t be put off by the perception that Dominant Species: Marine is too heavy. If I am able to teach it and my games group able to learn it from me, then you should be fine and you’ll have a good few hours’ solid gameplay to boot.
Release Date: 2018
Designer: Gavan Brown, Matt Tolman, Martin Wallace
Length: 60-120 minutes
Artist: Lina Cossette, David Forest, Damien Mammoliti
Complexity: 4.0 / 5
Another game that is quite heavy to get to grips with is Brass: Brimingham by Martin Wallace, Gavan Brown and Matt Tolman from Roxley. Yet, once you’ve played it a couple of times it will actually feel really quite simple and your turns will become a lot quicker. It all really starts to flow and even though it takes a while to remember that coal needs a network connection while metal doesn’t and that your beer can be consumed by you from anywhere, other players’ beer needs to be connected, eventually, it does sink in and all makes sense.
I think the draw of a game about the industrial revolution that’s set in the so-called Black Country is really quite large. You want to be part of this rather huge, but also very grim, part of history. In the game, you will build canals, later railways, as well as cotton mills and other manufacture, potteries, coal mines and iron works. You will slowly spread out over the whole map and every time you do something, chances are that another player will benefit from it.
Brass: Birmingham is another game with a lot of direct player-interaction, but it’s not necessarily negative. Sometimes you actually want someone else to use your coal or your iron or your beer, but sometimes you don’t, because it would have been free for you to use your own coal or iron, while the market prices are prohibitively high. There is a really interesting push and pull in the game, where you want to be close to the locations where other players are, but at the same time, you don’t. Timing is very important in the game as well, so sometimes it’s worth to do a less important action on your turn, so that you can do the two important actions together on your next turn.
I think Brass: Birmingham is a game that will keep you occupied for an hour or two and where you will be engrossed in the building of the industries and transport networks that would have been growing up during the industrial revolution. So, put on the fire, have some Christmas music playing and snuggle together around the board game table for some fun.
Magnate: The First City
Release Date: 2021
Players: 1-5 Players
Designer: James Naylor
Length: 60-120 minutes
Artist: Donal Hegarty, Cze Lee, James Naylor
Publisher: Naylor Games
Complexity: 3.0 / 5
I remember playing a near-production prototype of Magnate: The First City by James Naylor from Naylor Games, which had 3D printed buildings and many hand-cut cardboard tokens. There was the wonderful toy digger first-player marker as well. It all seemed quite daunting and I had a hard time explaining the game to my games group, but then, I’m not a great rules teacher and there is a lot happening in this game.
The attraction of Magnate for me was always the economic simulation. After having had a demo of it at a games convention, I was absolutely hooked. Taking turns felt so intuitive. Buying land, building properties, attracting tenants and reaping the rewards was very enticing. Yet, the house market crash was inevitable and only a matter of time. It was great to see how that real-world concept was implemented in the game and how you could partly control when it would happen, allowing you to try and get out of the market in time and then push for the crash.
Luckily, my games group did get past my terrible rules teach and they quickly went quiet, trying to work out how to get the most money and cash out before the game ended. That was a good sign, because they were really engrossed in the game and when it was all over, they clearly loved it. Yes, this game is all about capitalism. Yes, it’s about money. It’s really a very cold game in that sense, but at the same time, it is also so tempting and enticing. You think you can beat the market until the market beats you.
So, if you want a game where you buy land, build property and roll dice, you have a couple of choices – but for me, Magnate: The First City is the clear winner, especially over Christmas.
Well, there we are. This is my last list of 5 Christmas games, at least for this year. I hope you’ve found something that you want to play with your family or friends over the holidays. It’d be great to hear if my lists gave you some ideas, so please comment below and let me know what you’re planning on playing.
I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.
I bought and paid for all the games in this review myself, except Oath, which was a friend’s copy and Magnate: The First City, which I was given a free review copy of.
At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the games supported me financially or by payment in kind, except for James Naylor, the designer of Magnate: The First City, who is a Patreon supporter of mine.