Board gaming doesn’t really ‘do’ celebrities. But if it did, Vlaada Chvátil would probably be the one caught blurry-eyed and sweating, leaving the back door of an exclusive nightclub with Taylor Swift amidst the flashes of two dozen shameless paparazzi photographers. That’s not to say anything about his personality, just that every god damn game he makes goes onto being a critical and commercial success. This man is Robert De Niro, but for cardboard squares and tiny dice.
He’s done quite a lot over the past two decades, spanning both board games and video games. It’s too much to cover in one article, but here’s a look at the very best board games he’s designed and why you should be adding them to your collection.
For artists …
I would place Pictionary alongside the traditional stalwarts of board games. The kind of title you might see in a pub or a high street retail chain, to be brought out at family gatherings but never really offering any kind of meaningful strategy or … fun. Our man Vlaada offers the same formula but with a unique spin in his 2011 release Pictomania.
The idea is that you’ll all be tasked with drawing, say, an animal. The list will show a hippo, a dog, a cat, a giraffe and so on. Of course, you’ll all be drawing these on your own whiteboard at the same time. You’re also supposed to be simultaneously guessing what everyone else’s sketch is as quickly as you can, meaning the whole episode swiftly becomes a manic, chaotic, artistic mess. Throw in more advanced drawing concepts like ‘validation’ or ‘flow’ and you can see why Pictomania was recommended for the 2012 Spiel des Jahres. Check out our podcast episode featuring the game here.
For parties …
Oh my, it’s the most ‘Best Play’ game of all time, Codenames. A newish release, but nevertheless already a classic, Codenames is everything an accessible board game should be. The basic premise is for players to form two teams – this means any number of people can enjoy the game. One person on each team has eight words that they must get their team mates to choose from a grid of 25 options, albeit only using a single word as a clue.
The clue might relate to multiple words on the table. ‘Cinema’ would be a good clue for ‘cruise’ (as in Tom), ‘bond’ (as in James) and ‘corn’ (as in popcorn). But, of course, the table might also feature the word ‘ticket’, making the game far, far harder than it initially seems. You can read all about why we think Vlaada’s work is a masterpiece in our write-up here. We also tested to see if you could play the game with everyday household items, like booze or Nintendo toys … find out if it’s possible in our article here.
For a laugh …
It’s just hit after hit after hit with this man. Galaxy Trucker is a genuinely hilarious game that tasks players with building a spaceship fit for a lengthy journey through the cosmos. In a twist reminiscent of Pictomania, players are all trying to construct their ships at the same time, choosing pieces from a shared pile of random hunks of metal. Quickest person to build theirs first will receive a sizable bonus, but shoddy craftsmanship and cut corners could have dire consequences later on.
Once the hastily-assembled heaps of garbage are ready for their journey, they soar through space encountering one disaster after another. The key is to try and get rich along the way and if you can: survive the trip in one piece. You’ll laugh with glee as a rival’s ship is torn to shreds by a passing meteor – one unlucky strike to a weak habitation pod causing half the craft to fall apart in an unfortunate chain reaction. Your smile will quickly fade though, as aliens show up the following turn to splat your astronauts into mush. Funny, fast and frustrating, Galaxy Trucker is a firm favourite at Best Play HQ.
For serious gamers …
Through the Ages: A (New) Story of Civilization
For many, this is the game that put Vlaada on the board gaming A-list. Through the Ages is a little bit like the original Sid Meier Civilization computer game from the 1990s, or a sightly lighter version of Archipelago or Twilight Imperium. It’s held in extremely high regard by the community over at Board Game Geek, with the new 2015 edition ranking at number two on the all-time ratings list.
You’ll have to worry about all sorts of things as you attempt to build up your civilization, with leaders, culture, resources and technology each playing a role. Throw in a healthy dose of military and you’ve got yourself a seriously heavy-duty board game. The most interesting thing that sets Through the Ages apart from many of its contemporaries in the category is that it doesn’t feature a map – having the unusual consequence of meaning territory doesn’t play a role whatsoever, though that doesn’t mean your resources are safe from other players. Almost the polar opposite of Codenames, you’ll need to find three hours and some serious other gamers to play this bad boy but trust us, it’s worth it.
For close friends …
Have you played Space Team? We covered it in our favourite ‘board game apps‘ article recently. It’s bloody fun. Again a bit like Pictomania, players are constantly shown important things that simply must be done on a spaceship in order for the crew to survive. Problematically, they each also have a control panel in front of them, featuring all kinds of strangely-named levels, dials and buttons. Now, one player might have a command to ‘lower the Yargle Suspenion by 2’. The player with the Yargle Suspension controls must now follow the instruction. But this guy has a command to switch off the RJ Drive Relay, and so is focused on screaming out for whichever other player has the control panel for the RJ Drive Relay.
With multiple people shouting commands at once, who are also each expected to follow said commands, the game hilariously becomes a total shitshow of failed cooperation. After a few attempts your group might organise some kind of system to coordinate your efforts, but it always proves difficult and amusing in equal measure.
Space Alert captures this spirit exactly, offering the same functions across a ten minute period using a bunch of tokens and cards – requiring a well-oiled machine of players simply to survive. Vlaada at his finest.
And there you have it. Those were the Best Play highlights of a distinguished gaming career, although I must apologise for not including some of his other highly-rated games like Travel Blog, Tash-Kalar or Dungeon Lords.
If you’re new to gaming, Codenames is absolutely one of the best ways to get started. Move onto Pictomania, then Space Alert or Galaxy Trucker and before you know it you’ll be a Through the Ages connoisseur in no time.