Family Game Night: Gardeners, Chieftains, Dragons, and Giants

It's that time of year again... time for some new family board game recommendations. See below for a few favorite board games we added to our collection over the last 12 months. For more recommendations (including games for younger kids), see my earlier posts for favorites like Incan Gold, Tokaido, and Istanbul, or Splendor, Tsuro, and Dominion, or Ghost Blitz, Mysterium, and Mice & Mystics, or Sleeping Queens, Love Letter, and Forbidden Island.

Herbaceous (Pencil First Games, 2017) - With art by Beth Sobel, Herbaceous is one of the prettiest games we own. You take on the role of a herb collector, growing and potting herbs like tarragon, rosemary, sage, and lavender. It's a light game, playing in about 15 minutes, with some set collection and press-your-luck mechanics that keep it exciting. It's one of the 9yo's favorite games these days. She even taught it to her cousins this summer all by herself!

Here's the basic gameplay: On your turn, you draw a card and decide whether to put it in your personal garden or the communal garden. Then you draw a second card and put it in whichever garden you didn't select for the first card. Once you've got some herbs to work with, you can also, on your turn, decide to pot herbs. You can take any combination of herbs from your personal garden or the communal garden and place them into one of your four containers, each of which scores points differently. One container scores based on unique herbs, another on pairs of identical herbs, a third on how many of the same herb you place in it. Once the herb cards are all drawn and everyone finishes potting, the game ends and you tally up the scores based on the container scoring roles.

Since everyone can take herbs from the communal garden, the game can get a little cutthroat. Maybe you've got your eye on the two sage cards in the communal garden, which will go well with the three sage cards in your personal garden for the container that scores based on identical herbs. Do you take the communal sages now, scoring five identical cards in your container? Or wait a turn to see if you can get a sixth sage for even more points? If you wait, someone else might scoop those communal sages up for one of their containers. How far do you press your luck? And has your daughter noticed what you're planning? Because she'll cut you off if she has the chance!

There's a little more to the game, including some rare herb cards that provide bonus points as well as the hard-to-win biscuit card, but it's the press-your-luck mechanic that really drives the game. The first few turns go by very fast, but as the herbs in the communal garden accumulate, players start thinking about potting, and then you're in for some tense play-or-pass decisions. And the scoring mechanism is such that you don't really know who's going to win until you tally the final points.

Herbaceous plays two to four players, and comes with instructions for a solo mode that's a nice way to pass the time. The box says the game is rated ages 8 and up, but it's simple enough that you could probably play with younger players. Little players might get their feelings hurt when someone beats them to cards in the communal garden, so beware of that. But the game plays fast enough that if you get scooped, you'll get a chance to scoop someone else pretty soon.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King (Mayfair Games, 2015) - This is my favorite game. I know, I know. I play a lot of games. It should be hard to choose a favorite. But Isle of Skye is my favorite. It's got layers of strategy and tons of replayability, it can handle two to five players with style, it's easy to teach, and it plays in just about an hour. It's my most-played game of 2017 by multiple measures: number of plays, number of different locations, and number of different players. (Thanks, Board Game Stats, for the analytics!) Which is to say, it's one of my go-to games to introduce to people at game nights!

In Isle of Skye, you play rival Scottish chieftains trying to claim the best lands for your clans. At the heart of the game is a bag full of square tiles, each with some combination of land types (field, mountain, water) and various features (highland cows, farmhouses, fortified towers, and so on). As you play the game, you collect tiles to add to your territory, making sure new ones fit with existing ones by matching the land types on the sides of the tiles (like in Carcassonne).

The game plays out over five or six rounds, depending on the number of players, with each round having the same structure. You generate income based on the territory you've built so far, including one coin for each barrel of... root beer you have. (Those definitely aren't whiskey barrels.) Then you pull three tiles from the bag and set prices for the tiles, selecting one tile to ax entirely. Then you take turns buying tiles from other players, paying whatever price they set. When each player has bought a tile (or passed on buying), then you all pay for the tiles you didn't sell,  using the price you set, and add your purchased tiles to your territory.

You might have a really valuable tile, and you'd be tempted to price it high, so that you get that income from whatever player buys it. But if the tile doesn't sell (maybe because you priced it too high, maybe because there were other good tiles on the market), you have to pay that price. This making pricing decisions really interesting, as you're trying to read the market and make as much income as you can, without going broke along the way.

What makes a tile valuable? Well, at the start of the game, you select four scoring conditions from a set of 16, each of which awards points based on properties of your territory. The scoring conditions range from simple to complex: one point per sheep, two points per highland cow connected to your castle by roads, two points per 2x2 square of tiles you create within your territory, three points for each water area with an adjacent lighthouse and ship, three points for each completed area (say, a mountain that surrounded by other land types) of at least three tiles, and so on.

The different styles of scoring conditions, with some focusing on the shape of your territory and others focusing on land types or features, means that you're often having to make interesting decisions about which tiles to add to your territory and where to add them. That's what drives the market, since all the players are going after the same scoring conditions. And what makes the game so replayable, is that you can play with a different set scoring conditions each time. Let's see, 16 choose 4, that makes 1,820 different combinations of scoring conditions you can play with!

I first played Isle of Skye on a whim at Tennessee Game Days back in 2016. I had heard a few good things about it online, and the 9yo and I were looking for one last game for the evening. We both loved it, and I'm pretty sure I ordered it online before we got home that night. She's still crazy about it, and it's one of our regular games when we have one-on-one time at Panera when the teenager is out doing teenager things.

The game is a little more cutthroat with two players, because it's easier to keep track of what your opponent is building and manage your tiles to slow them down. But I've enjoyed it at all possible player counts, from two to five. The box says it's for ages 8 and up, and I would agree with that. It's a little too complex for younger players, although you could select some of the simpler scoring conditions for a kid friendlier game.

As I mentioned, it plays in about an hour, and it's one of the thinkiest games I know that plays in such a short time. The tension builds nicely over the rounds, since you usually score most of your points in the last couple of rounds, and there are some end-game bonus points that can swing a game. Most of my games have ended pretty close, which makes things fun.

Isle of Skye is such a well-designed game. The mechanics fit together so nicely, making for a really fun hour of play. Kudos to designers Alexander Pfister and Andreas Pelikan for such a great game.

Clank! (Renegade Games, 2016) - I had my eye on Clank! for a full year before buying it. I was hoping to get the chance to play it before I purchased it, but I got tired of waiting. The reviews were too good! I was not disappointed. It's a new family favorite.

Clank! is a lot of fun, with some fairly unique mechanics and a strong storytelling element. You take on the role of treasure hunters exploring a dungeon, attempting to swipe the best treasure from under the nose of a watchful dragon. But the more treasure you get (and the faster you get it), the more noise you make (Clank!) and the more the dragon comes after you. Can you escape with more treasure than the other players? Or will the dragon take you out before you reach the surface?

Clank! is a deck-building game, which means you start the game with small deck of simple cards. Each turn you draw five cards and play them, shuffling your discard pile back into your deck anytime you run out of cards to draw. As you play cards, you are able to purchase more cards to add to your deck from an ever-changing selection of cards. Back in the summer of 2014, the girls and I played the heck out of another deck-building game, Dominion. Dominion is great, but Clank! does it one better by giving you something to do with the cards you add to your deck other than buy more cards. As your deck grows, you're better able to move around the dungeon, fight monsters, and grab treasure, thanks to cards like the Singing Sword, the Elven Cloak, the Master Burglar, and the Rebel Soldier.

And then there's the dragon! When you play certain cards, you have to add little color-coded cubes to a space on the board. These cubes are your "clank," representing the noise you make exploring the dungeon. When cards with a dragon symbol come out on the menu of cards available for purchase, they trigger a dragon attack. All the clank cubes go into a bag, which starts the game with a lot of black cubes, then you draw a certain number of cubes from the bag at random, depending on how mad the dragon is at that point in the game. If one of your colored cubes comes out, you take it as damage. Once you get enough damage, you're knocked out by the dragon... which is not a good thing.

If a black cube comes out of the bag, no one takes damage. But as the game progresses, there are fewer and fewer black cubes, and it's more and more likely your cubes will be drawn. Oh, and the dragon gets madder as you go, so more cubes are drawn during dragon attacks later in the game. And once one player makes it to the surface, the end-game is triggered, giving the other players just a few turns to make it out alive. All this means that the second half of the game is full of tension, as players race to collect treasure and escape before the dragon gets them. And the decisions players make to push their luck or hightail it out of the dungeon make for some great storytelling.

This is such a fun game. It's got great components, including a fearsome dragon token, and a sense of humor. (One of the cards you can add to your deck is Mr. Whiskers, an adorable and surprisingly powerful little cat.) It's a slightly longer game than the others I'm recommending in this post, but it goes by fast and the mounting tension keeps the end-game exciting. The box says 30 to 60 minutes, but if you have some fun with the storytelling, the game runs closer to 90 minutes.

You can play with 2 to 4 people, and I would recommend 3 or 4 for the best experience, because that means you're running into each other in the dungeon more often. It's recommended for ages 13 and up, but 10 and up is probably more accurate. The cards have text to read and symbols to interpret and there are lots of decisions to make, but if your 8- or 9-year-old is up for that, I think they would enjoy the game, too. My 14-year-old loves finding clever card combos in games (we call her "combotastic!") and Clank! offers plenty of chances for that.

My 9-year-old wanted it on the record that she thinks the game is good, but not great. She gets a little bored during the early parts of the game, when most players are doing the same initial things. She wishes the first few rounds weren't so samey. We haven't played the expansion (Clank!: Sunken Treasures) or the sequel (Clank! In! Space!); maybe those help spice up the early game.

That said, I highly recommend Clank! for family game night.

The Blood of an Englishman (Renegade Games, 2016) - I've been on the hunt for good two-players games lately, for reasons. Some games, like Isle of Skye, play well with two even though they can handle more players. Other games are uniquely designed for two players. The Blood of an Englishman is such a game, and every time I play it, I'm amazing at how well designed the game is for two players.

One player is Jack, the other is the Giant. It's an asymmetric game, in that each player has different moves to make and winning conditions to reach. Jack gets three small moves each turn, because he's nimble and quick. The Giant only gets one move each turn, but it's a big one, because, well, he's the giant. The game consists of 50 cards that are initially laid out in five columns of ten cards each. Most of the cards are number cards, from 1 to 9. Six of the cards are treasure cards, two each of goose, gold, and harp. Jack is after the treasure cards, and he uses the numbers cards to climb the beanstalk and get the treasure. The Giant, on the other hand, uses the remaining eight cards in the game, which are labeled FEE, FI, FO, and FUM. If the Giant gets those cards arranged in one of a couple of ways, he wins.

What I love about this game is how well balanced it is. Almost every move you make, as Jack or the Giant, helps you, but also hurts you a little. For instance, it helps Jack to bury the FEE, FI, FO, and FUM cards at the back of the stacks of cards, since that makes it harder for the Giant to use them. But doing so also hurts Jack, since leaving those Giant cards at the back of the stacks gives Jack fewer places where he can pick up number and treasure cards. Similarly, neither player can focus entirely on offense during the game. You've got to play some defense as you go, or the other player will get the upper hand. All this balance makes for some tough decisions you play.

I also like how thematic the game is. One of the Giant's moves is to remove a number card from the game. Since each number card has a piece of vine on it, this move feels like the Giant is ripping a chunk out of the vine, cutting off Jack's escape route. As for Jack, he's got to be nimble and quick. The longer the game goes on, the more his options dwindle and the harder it is for him to win. The art is fun, too. For instance, each of the FEE, FI, FO, and FUM cards shows the Giant getting a little closer as you move through the sequence. A little fun, a little terrifying!

The game box says ages 10 and up, but the 9yo plays competitively and likes the game. She's all about the strategy, especially when she can plan a few moves out, like in this game. The publisher has said that both roles (Jack and the Giant) are equally likely to win, but as I look over my play stats, I see that Jack has one 8 times, the Giant only 4. Something to keep in mind if you're playing with a younger player... you might let them pick Jack.

The game plays in about 20 minutes, and, while it takes a little bit of table space with those columns of cards, it comes in a small box the size of a paperback, so it makes for a great coffee shop game. I tend to leave it in my car all the time, so that I'm always prepared for a night out with any of my two-player game partners!

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