Formed in the mid 90s with the collectable card game Legend of the Five Rings, AEG have been making high quality games for over 25 years. With notable names in their catalogue such as Space Base, Istanbul and more recently Calico, its very hard to pick a top 3.
I am personally a huge fan of Love Letter and Ecos, but here I have gone for a top 3 based on my more recent playing experience whilst trying to incorporate longevity and all-family appeal. What I am saying is that with so many great games, this top three was difficult!
Point Salad – 2-6 players. Official 8 plus but works 5 plus.
Point Salad is a must have card game for anyone’s collection in this reviewers’ humble opinion! If you have young kids, they will love this and it is a great way to teach them math. If you want a perfect fun and quick filler game, this will do the trick. And if you are looking for something simple and portable to play when away on holiday, this delivers that experience too. It’s the perfect card game and won multiple awards for a reason. Point Salad is a WBG essential!
The rules and set-up are simple. Players are looking to maximise their end game points from a simple card drafting and tableau-building game. Organise the numbers of cards based on the number of players, or ignore that and just player a longer/shorter game! Then shuffle the cards and create three roughly equal piles. They don’t need to be exactly grouped. Then flip over two cards from each pile in columns below the face-down decks. And now you are ready to play. The rules? On your turn, take either one face-down scoring card or two face-up vegetable cards. Keep playing until the cards run out and see who scores the most, that’s it!
Each card is double sided to either show a vegetable or a scoring variant. If you take a scoring card, you can always flip it over later in the game if you choose. But you cannot flip them the other way. Scoring options range from most of one type of vegetable, or a certain amount of positive or negative points for each type of group of vegetable. This is where the set-collection comes in. But be careful not to get into the Tomato game if another player has multiple positive soring cards for the same type of card! You may find any Tomatoes are gone when your turn comes around!
There are elements of Bohnanza here, and this can frustrate some younger players if they feel the card they want is not always available as other players are taking them. But this is a good lesson in set-collection. This game feels as fresh as the box art and offers a unique, fast fun, family-friendly experience.
Games are quick and entertaining, and always in my household repeated multiple times. It’s hard to play this game just once! My family all love it and I have seen a huge improvement in my young children’s mathematical skills both at home and in their school reports after playing this game. I directly attribute this to playing Point Salad. I honestly think this game should form part of year 1-2 curriculum! It makes maths fun. And for the adults, a reminder at the joy of multiplication. “Seven Onions? Get in! I thought I only had six!” Normal discourse for grown men right?
Smash Up – 2-4 players. Officially 12 plus but works 8 plus.
Smash up first came out in 2012 from designer Paul Peterson and was publicised as a “Shufflebuilding” game. An opportunity to quite literally smash-up characters from different worlds to see how they might fight together and of course, against each other. Finally, the chance to find out who would win in a fight between a Dinosaur and Alien or a Robot and a Pirate! This is a conversation that many young children have had for years! I know I did. (and of course the Dinosaurs would win! Well they wouldn’t, the Aliens with their superior technology would, but Dinosaurs are cooler, ok?!)
The game has since seen multiple expansions offering more decks of cards showing the huge popularity of this idea. But this is the O.G. The first of its incarnation and for me, where you should start your collection. Sure, if you are obsessed with Marvel, there is a pretty cool option there, much like if you love Monsters, Cthulhu or Sheep!? There is a set for everyone! But I like to know where my steak is from and where my wine was grown. It’s nice to see the origin story don’t you think?
Smash-Up is a very simple concept. Take two different decks, shuffle them together. Lay out a number of bases based on the number of players plus one, draw five cards and away you go. On your turn, you can play one minion (character) card and one action card. You could do less if you chose, or don’t have a particular type of card in your hand. Each card either affects the game situation or other cards played. Or adds a power rating to your team. Each base has a break point at which it is taken over. When this number is reached from the collective power score from all cards present, the player with the highest points scores the first score option there, and so on for the first three players there. The first score is not always the highest, so this is a delicate balancing act.
The first player to score 15 points wins, and the game really is as simple as that. But the joy that comes from linking abilities from different factions is a joy to behold! Who would have thought that Gnomes fighting with Ninjas would have been so effective? Who would have thought Gnomes would want to kill humans in this way? Well, me. I would. Its pretty obvious, and anyone with a Gnome in their garden right now perhaps may want to lock their doors and windows. It’s coming people.
The genius in this game comes from fusing these magical, mythical and majestic characters from folk-lore, history and science-fiction in a combo-building feast. Curating the perfect hand of cards to enact particular combinations of moves to win certain bases or the game feels fantastic. Some players state the game can outstay its welcome, and cards can be placed in locations only to wait for multiple turns before that base reaches breakpoint, frustrating them.
This perhaps can happen with newer players, but when you understand how to make your deck work to your advantage, this can be a very quick back-and-forth. Building up your own teams dominance whilst attacking your enemies can quickly becomes a fast paced affair and I would encourage anyone who feels this game can be slow or too long to try it again.
With the multiple sets not only offering a variety of characters, but also mechanics, if one style of play attracts your more, chose those decks at the start, and this game can become a bespoke smorgasbord of delight. The pirates work well by moving from one base to another. The robots power comes by playing multiple low-power cards in the same turn. The Wizards are all about building up a powerful hand of cards so that player can chose more effectively from a wider selection. There really is a deck for each style of play and you may well feel this game has been made just for you when you find your perfect combination.
Mariposas 2-5 players. Officially 14 plus but works 8/10 plus depending on experience.
Wingspan won pretty much every award going from BGG’s Card Game of the Year to the Eurovision Song Contest! (I think?) Its universal appeal, great looks, and gateway level gaming was the perfect blend for experienced gamers to use as bait to bring in more players from their social groups to join their obsession… sorry, I mean hobby.
As such, designer Elizabeth Hargreaves’ next game was always going to be hugely anticipated and Mariposas certainly seems to have lived up to this expectation. It’s beautiful looks, intriguing theme and simple but involved gameplay has quickly drawn many loyal fans.
Elizabeth’s love of the natural world shone through in Wingspan so it does again here with Mariposas. Animals, nature, and wildlife in general as a theme always seems to do well in board gaming, especially in the more recent years, but this is more than just a pretty box.
Inspired from reading Flight Behaviour, Elizabeth set out to create a game that first and foremost is enjoyable to play, but clearly, is also a game that makes a point about the affect humans are having on our planet. This is not done in a preachy or judgmental way, and when playing the game, maybe not even in a noticeable way. But take a look at the excellently designed rule book and you will see what Elizabth wants our take-out to be from playing this beautiful game. Humans are destroying our planet and affecting all types of life. The North American butterfly for example has depleted in population over 80% in the last 20 years. I learnt this from the rule book.
As such, it is a shame the game doesn’t offer some advice or links to ways we can help or change our behaviour. Habitat loss is a huge part of the decline of butterflies, and anyone with a bit of green space, garden or window sill can help. Have a look here. I would also encourage looking here to see how you can modify your behaviours slightly in the short term to help your fellow humans and butterflies, and here too which is a simple and affordable way to counter your behaviours until we can all adapt as a society in the ways we need too in the long term.
Back to the game, and Mariposas is more than just a vehicle for discord as above. Mariposas is a beautifully constructed mix of set collection, racing, and calculated push-your-luck. Set through three seasons from Spring to Fall, you must advance, like the Monarch Butterflies themselves do, from Mexico, and spread out across North America. Looking to collect sets of different flowers on your way to assist your reproduction, point scoring and movement, you must search the randomly placed way stations located in various cities across the map. This is done in the hope of collecting sets of four different coloured cards to achieve different in game bonuses. All before heading back to Michoacán as a fourth-generation butterfly for more juicy end game points.
And did you know, that no one single Butterfly who leaves Mexico makes it back? It takes four generations to complete the round trip! Which begs the question, how do they know the way!? Isn’t that remarkable?
With the multiple ways of scoring, this could feel like a bit of a point salad, which for me would be a very good thing! But perhaps not quite in tune with the theme. Moreover, this feels like a well-constructed grid movement game deeply linked to the overarching theme and developed in a way to offer very high replayability, and easy accessibility. I first played with my 8-year-old who learnt the game in minutes. He loved the theme, colours, and wooden Butterfly components. Especially as he had recently hatched his own Monarchs in his room. This connection with nature is something that has perhaps been lost over the last generation. I sense Elizabth is trying to rekindle that simple youthful interest with this game.
The game looks gorgeous. Plays simply. Offers an important message and plays equally well from two players to five. There are some advantages to doing certain things in the game first, but not in an overpowering way. And these rules can always be modified if you don’t want this feeling. Each players butterflies can occupy the same location so ultimately no one player can affect any other player negatively. As such, it works well with younger players but can feel a little solo in its interaction. But you will be comparing yourself constantly with other players, especially when it comes to the end of round bonuses being often linked to your location. “How many people have made it North of Chicago? Just one player, ok great, let’s get flying!”
I loved my first few games of Mariposas. And as I continued to play, I fell in love with it even more. This is a game that grows over multiple plays but is incredibly accessible to new players. Other than the knowledge to plan your return south at the right time, more experienced players will have few advantages over newer players. This is much more about in game strategy than learning the game. But multiple plays will reward players with a rich and absorbing experience. I just hope as my own generations of gamers continues, they will be playing this is a safe and loving world full of the richness of life we enjoy today. Lets hope this is not an obituary for the Monarch, more a celebration of the era when we finally learnt how to live with our world, not just in it.