Best Tabletop Abstract Games
Since writing a review for Circular Reasoning my love for abstract games has been rekindled. Abstract games are often easy to learn, but hard to master. They often focus on one mechanic and develop a depth of strategy and tactics to play well. There is no need to justify actions in abstract games or learn stories, nor include flavour texts. Abstract games require you the player to be intrinsically motivated to play them. I want to present a few abstract games I hope you will consider when looking at your next gaming night.
Best Abstract Games: Qwirkle:
While playing Scrabble one day Susan McKinley Ross became aware of how much she enjoyed the double and triple word scores. That became the basis of the tile laying game Qwirkle. The game is focused around working towards those big plays with big rewards. Qwirkle is a simple set of colours and shapes. You can match all the same shapes with different colours or all the different shapes using the same colour. This game challenges players to be patient and use their tiles well. Setting up big plays takes time and if you are not careful your big play could be snatched away by another player. A great game that takes very little time to learn, but provides great moments when you get to yell QWIRKLE!
Best Abstract Games: Iota:
Gene Mackles Iota initially looks like a smaller version of Qwirkle, but don't be fooled, this is a far more complex game. Each card has a shape, colour and number. You form lines of 2-4 cards with each line consisting of the individual properties with either the same properties on each card or different on each card. This game requires more thinking than Qwirkle and will take much longer. Oh and do not be tricked, this game comes in a tiny tin, but will take up a lot of space when played. It took up my whole kitchen table one night. No matter this game is fun and thought provoking rewarding the creative player.
Best Abstract Games: Kingdom Quest
This game has a thin conceit of being warring Kingdoms looking for dominance. Your characters are depicted on wooden cubes that you move by rolling them onto an adjacent square. As you roll from one side of the cube to the next a new character faces up. The goal is to capture the other player's cubes. To do this you must have your cube land next to an opponent's cube, but there is a trick. The complexity of the game is found in that each character on the cube is only capable of capturing certain characters. This means that you are always planning ahead to try and capture your opponent's cubes and trying to decide how to move your cube to land with the right side up in the process. I won't lie, there is nothing stunning or spectacular about the component quality. It is stickers on wooden blocks, but the gameplay is well worth it.
Best Abstract Games: Hive
This tile laying and manipulating game requires little introduction. John Yianni's game pits two insect hives against each other with both players trying to use their insects abilities and movement to fully surround their opponents queen bee. Hive is a successful game winning many awards, including the MENSA award. Yet the game's success is hardly a reason to exclude it. Each game I have played has always been an exciting tussle that is highly accessible for new players; even young initiates are capable of finding their feet rather quickly and putting in a good show. The lack of board and clever movement of the tiles makes for a dynamic game each and every time. One of my favourites to take traveling with me.
Best Abstract Games: Five Crowns:
This is a Rummy style card game by Marsha J. Falco where you collect sets of cards until you can place your entire hand down. The deck of cards has five suits with numbers from 3-10, Jack, Queen, and King. To place your hand down you must collect sets of cards consisting either of same number different suits or same suit and a run of unbroken numbers. The minim in any set is 3 cards. The number of cards you draw to begin the round is determined by what round it is. The first round everyone takes three cards and from there every round adds one additional card. This is important for several reasons. First the wild cards are jokers and the number of cards you have in your hand each round. Round one required three cards in hand, so the wild cards are the joker and any card with the number three. For the second round everyone has four cards in had so 3 is no longer the wild, but 4 is. Once a player goes out and places all their cards down it triggers the end turn and everyone is provided one chance to put cards down. At this stage each player can put down any cards they are capable of doing legally, but must score any remainder. It is in the early stages of the game that the higher scores occur. This is because until you hit 6 cards in hand you must stick to one strategy to drop your hand. When you get to 6 cards you can separate the sets into two sets of three and so forth through the subsequent rounds. The game is over when you finish round 11, when the Kings will be the wild card. The game is easy enough with a nice balance between luck and strategy. Tension mounts when you are holding out to finish a set, desperately hoping to get the key cards you need before someone goes out and leaves you with a high scoring hand. When I worked out on a remote community we played this game nearly every night, sometimes 3 or 4 times in a row. We loved it and it fueled my love of card games.
Best Abstract Games: Set
It should come as no surprise to hear that Set is a set collecting game. It may surprise you to hear that it was on Mike Selinker's top 100 games you Absolutely, Positively, Must Know How to Play. I am also duty bound to admit that it is one of the games that my wife constantly beats me at. The others are Dixit and the above mentioned Five Crowns. In a similar vein to the previous games each card contains four attributes, shape, number, colour and shading. The game starts by one player laying out 12 cards, play happens simultaneously and all players need do is simply claim a set. If they see three cards that have one attribute the same as the others but all other attributes different then they say, set take the cards and replace them. Rounds continue until the deck runs out. This simultaneous play means that players are all engaged the whole time. With four different elements there is a lot of variety of choices and best of all, it is a game you can get better at. Like any good game you can improve your skill level and as you do your pattern recognition and mental astuteness will improve also.
It is tough to recommend abstract games in today's market. The trend in gaming is to focus on story with many games utilising character sheets and Dungeons and Dragons style of character development. So go and brush off the dust from your old abstract game box and go play!