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Cody K. Carlson
In Mad City, from Mayfair Games, players are timed as they use their tiles to build a city and score points.

The race to build the best city is the theme behind Mad City, a game for one to six players. In the base game, each player draws nine tiles from a bag and places them face down. Using a sand timer, players flip their tiles over and attempt to create a city that is divided into zones — yellow, red and blue, representing residential, industrial and urban zones.

Each zone has its zone icon upon it, sometimes many on each tile. Players attempt to create the largest zones with the greatest number of icons upon them in order to score points. Players also attempt to build the longest road, the feature that often separates the zones. Additionally, the first player who is satisfied with his or her city may claim the wooden tree token that allows the player to score rarer green park zones.

When the sand timer runs out, players consult their player board for scoring instructions, then play more rounds until one player reaches 150 victory points. The standard game differs from the base game in that special scoring tokens are used to score each round, requiring players to be on their toes when constructing their cities.

Mad City is a decent tile placement game, though experienced gamers may find it overly simple. With its fun artwork and engaging real-time play mechanic that can lead to some wonderful competition, younger gamers should really take to it, however.

Mad City plays in about 30 minutes and is recommended for ages 8 and up.

Here I Stand

Here I Stand, from GMT Games, takes its title from the 1521 Diet of Worms, where according to tradition Martin Luther stated defiantly when asked to recant his beliefs, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Here I Stand is a grand strategic game that recreates the political, military and religious strife of early 16th century Europe, utilizing a card mechanic similar in many respects to GMT Games' Twilight Struggle and Washington's War. Two to six players take on the roles of France, the Hapsburgs, England, the Papacy, the Protestants and the Ottoman Empire.

The game is driven by the Event cards, and players may play most cards either for their point value or for their unique historical event. The game begins with the Protestant player playing the 95 Theses card, which must be played as an event. When players play event cards for their points, they may use the points to move, build or attack with armies, or they may explore or colonize the New World.

The English player may advance the marital status of Henry VIII. The Protestant player may attempt to translate the Bible into German, while the Papacy player may attempt to build St. Peter's Cathedral. The Protestant and Papacy player may both attempt to spread their influence in Germany by using debaters, special units based upon actual historical figures. Players may also engage in diplomacy where they may make alliances, declare war or make peace.

Here I Stand is undoubtedly a brilliant game that expertly mixes historical events and figures into thrilling play. However, its strengths are also its weaknesses. This is an incredibly complex game. The dense rule book is loaded with exceptions, variations and special rules. Though the game plays in only nine turns, each turn is broken down into several phases, and play can last somewhere in the five- to 10-hour range. Still, those who don't mind the complexity and length will be richly rewarded.

Here I Stand is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Pocket Battles: Confederacy vs. Union

Pocket Battles: Confederacy vs. Union is the latest Pocket Battles game from Z-Man Games. It is a system that has offered such epic battles as Celts vs. Romans, Macedonians vs. Persians and Elves vs. Orcs. This new title takes place during the American Civil War, as each player takes on the role of the armies of the North or the South.

The pieces for this game consist of small tiles denoting military troops like infantry, cavalry, artillery, officers and more. Typically, each tile also contains images of black and white dice at the top, a cost and unit limit at the bottom, and any special traits unique to that troop above an image in the center.

Players agree on a point allowance, usually a multiple of 10, and then squad build. Each player receives a number of order/wound tokens, equal to 1/10 the point allowance. Playing with 50 points worth of troops, players get five tokens.

Players then divide the play area into 15 sections, unused troop tiles are placed facedown to separate them. The sections represent a front and rear rank for each side consisting of a center, left and right flank. There is also an engagement area between the two sides laid out in the same configuration.

On your turn, you may move one unit to any adjacent section of the play area for free, but subsequent actions cost order tokens. You may move more of you units; you may shoot at your enemy; you may charge at your enemy; you may use a special trait, or more.

Wound tokens are distributed among hit units, and some troops will be eliminated. Wound tokens are the reverse side of your order tokens, however, and the more wounded units you have the fewer orders you will be able to issue.

You win the game if you can destroy half of your enemy's army.

Pocket Battles: Confederacy vs. Union does indeed pack quite a punch for such a small game. It is playable in 20 to 30 minutes and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Star Realms

Star Realms from White Wizard Games is a two-player deck-building game. At the beginning of the game each player is dealt a series of two-sided cards featuring numbers upon them, representing Authority. These cards are laid out to add up to 50 Authority points. The goal of the game is to eliminate your opponents' Authority.

Players start the game with their own decks consisting of eight Scout cards, containing one trade point each, and two Viper cards, containing one combat point each. The first player only draws three cards from his deck on the first turn, but in subsequent turns both players draw a hand of five cards from their deck.

From the Trade Deck, five cards are laid out in the Trade Row. Using trade points from his hand, a player may buy cards from the Trade Row and put them into his discount pile — they will cycle into later his hands. Players also always have the option of buying Explorer cards, independent of the Trade Row, which offer two trade points in future hands.

In addition to purchasing cards, players may play combat points to attack the opponents' Authority points. Authority points are lost equal to the number of combat points played.

At its heart, Star Realms is a game of attrition: can you wear down your enemy's authority before he can wear down yours? Each player builds his deck with an eye toward maximizing combat while being careful to balance his ability to purchase even more powerful cards for future use.

Aside from the strategic options this game offers players, what makes Star Realms really unique is its pace. The game is relatively quick and players are always conscious of their diminishing Authority.

Another small package that contains a big game, Star Realms plays in about 20-30 minutes and is recommended for players 12 and up.

Hapsburg Eclipse

Just in time for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the WWI, Hapsburg Eclipse is a States of Siege game where the player attempts to manage the Austrian-Hungarian empire during the conflict. Like other games in this series, like Cruel Necessity, the map board depicts the empire with five tracks leading to it representing the military fronts the empire fought on.

The game starts with Polish and Russian armies upon the tracks, but later in the game Romanian, Italian and other armies begin to move toward the central location of Vienna. If ever an enemy army reaches Vienna, the game is lost. Each turn, players will draw a card that will direct the enemy armies, as well trigger other events.

One really cool mechanic is the National Will, representing the people's willingness to continue fighting. This is based on strategic spaces along the tracks that the empire's enemies hold as well as off-map battles that players must roll. Off-map battles represent other theaters of war and depict such engagements as Tannenburg and Mons — battles that Austria-Hungary did not participate in but nevertheless affected the empire's morale. If ever the National Will track gets too low, the game is lost.

Hapsburg Eclipse may be the best States of Siege game yet. It is highly thematic and really succeeds in putting on the pressure. The game also succeeds in creating a fun ahistorical narrative. The player can create his or her own unique adventure through myriad thematic choices with the outbreak of World War I as the jumping off point. Additionally, various modifiers such as German aid, war weariness, and more ensure that no two games will play out the same way.

It plays in about 30-45 minutes and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Mound Builders

Mound Builders is another States of Siege game where the player attempts to build a Native American cultural empire focusing on trade, though backed up through strength. Like Hapsburg Eclipse, Mound Builders is card driven and each turn players draw one card and follow its directions, which often depict historical events. Then, the player may take actions.

Though some States of Siege games are divided up into different periods, Mound Builders in different in that it plays differently in different historical eras.

During the Hopewell Era, the player attempts to expand his domain through diplomacy, pushing his borders out along five tracks from his central region of Cahokia. As the player pushes out, resource chits are drawn randomly from a cup and placed along the track. Eventually, the Hopewell Era gives way to the Mississippian Era and enemy units appear, which threaten Cahokia. Enemy units attack Cahokia if activated next to it, and if Cahokia's defenses are breached the game is lost.

What is interesting is that those economic resources players bring into their empire in the first phase will drive their actions during the later phases. How successfully a player expanded his or her trading empire will mean more actions, and options, later in the game.

The game eventually enters the Spanish phase, in which an even more powerful European adversary arrives to threaten a player's empire. Like Hapsburg Eclipse, a player wins the game if he or she can successfully withstand the onslaught from his or her enemies.

Mound Builders brings some really fun and new ideas to the States of Siege engine. Yet, as engaging as Mound Builders is it never quite manages to rise to the level of fun as many of its States of Siege cousins. It is a good game, and those interested in the theme will really take to it.

It plays in about 30-45 minutes and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Astra Titanus

Also from Victory Point Games is a very different kind of solitaire game, Astra Titanus. A light war game, in Astra Titanus the player commands a fleet of starships as it prepares to battle a Titan, an enormous alien battleship determined to destroy human colonies and starbases.

The game is loosely based on Steve Jackson Games' Ogre that saw one large tank taking on a horde of much smaller tanks and infantry units. Here, the Titan has multiple weapons and drive systems that must be targeted in order to stop it from destroying its objective based on specific scenarios. By contrast, each human vessel can take only one or two hits before it's out of the game.

Each turn the player designates which of his or her ships will move (making a hyper-drive jump), and then draws a card that details how the Titan moves and fires. The human ships fire first, then the Titan. Once casualties are cleared, moving ships can drop out of hyperspace then ships with missiles may fire a missile salvo.

The Titan wins if it destroys its objective while the player wins if he or she can cripple all of the Titan's systems, tracked on a special Titan ship board, rendering it inert.

An older game from Victory Point Games' library, Astra Titanus comes in a bag rather than a box. It's components are not the best quality either. The game boasts only a paper map and the three dice that are included with the game are unbelievably tiny, though certainly functional.

Despite the above caveats, Astra Titanus is a great game that forces the player to make tough decisions. With its easy-to-learn rules, fans of solitaire wargames or great space opera themes will no doubt have a field day with Astra Titanus.

It plays in about 30-45 minutes and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Russian Railroads

In Russian Railroads from Z-Man Games, two to four players compete for victory points as they build the Czar's railroad lines and improve the empire's industry in the 1890s. A worker placement game, the board consists of spaces for workers that grant advantages to players in their endeavors, as well as spaces for engineers, turn orders and a victory point track.

Each player is given an individual player board depicting their three rail lines: one to St. Petersburg; one to Kiev; and most importantly the Trans-Siberian railroad. Players also receive five workers at the start of the game as well as five black track markers that are placed at the start of each line, and one locomotive on the Trans-Siberian line. The player board also boasts a industry line along the bottom.

Beginning with the first player and moving in a specific turn order, each player places one of his workers on the game board to gain its ability. Players may move their tracks forward. They may gain new locomotives with greater reach for the line its on. Players may also gain factories to help develop industry, or may gain roubles that can be used in place of workers for placement.

As players push their tracks along a line they open up new advantages for themselves such as access to more, different colored tracks that can be placed and moved, or even mystery tokens that offer even more advantages.

There is a lot going on in Russian Railroads and there is a pretty steep learning curve. Despite its intimidating rulebook and mountains of components, however, the game is actually not nearly as complex as it first seems. Unlike many other railroad-themed games, a player does not physically build or extend a railroad line; rather, he or she manipulates the lines by using workers to push the various tracks forward along the line.

What makes Russian Railroads really shine is the various avenues toward victory that each player can take. One player can work on building up his industry while another focuses on purchasing engineers while another works to push his colored tracks forward along his lines. Whatever strategy a player adopts, he or she can be assured of a close, tight race toward victory.

Russian Railroads plays in about two hours and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

In Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games, two to four players take on the role of abolitionists in antebellum America. Each player selects a character such as the conductor, the preacher or the stockholder and they work together to help escaped slaves find their way to the safety of Canada.

The game board boasts a map of the United States from the east coast to Missouri. At the bottom of the Southern States sit three plantations. To the left of the board's map lay three sections denoting different time periods in American history, 1800-1839; 1840-1859; and 1860-1865. Under these periods lay support tokens that must be purchased by players to advance to the next time period, and all must be purchased by the end of the game for victory; conductor tokens are used to lead slaves from the South toward Canada; and fundraising tokens which help the abolitionists raise money.

Players must work together to determine how best to use their characters' unique abilities. Freedom: The Underground Railroad forces you to make choices, often the best of many bad decisions. This is a hallmark of a great game, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad is definitely a great game.

More importantly, however, Freedom: The Underground Railroad is an important game. As an historian, I always appreciate games with historical themes, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad teaches about an uncomfortable history that the United States is still dealing with today. Nevertheless, the game addresses it with the intelligence and respect it deserves. The rulebook also boasts an informative overview of the history of the period.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad can be used as a great tool to begin important discussions, especially with young people, about the evils of slavery.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad plays in about two hours and is recommended for ages 13 and up.


In Steam, 3 to 6 players compete to build the best railroad lines on the map, which will allow them to deliver goods and score points. The game comes with rules for a simpler base game as well as a more complex standard game. The game boasts a two-sided map depicting New England on one side and Germany's Ruhr region on the other.

Convenient tracks on the side of the board mark players' income and victory points, as well as their level of locomotive power. During the standard game, the first thing players will do is decide how much they want to go into debt in order to raise capital so that they can build their lines. By lowering their income level, they can gain money from the bank. Next, players will bid on turn order. Turn order can be very important in the game as players must select from different action tiles, and another player may select the tile another player covets.

An action tile bestows a special advantage on the player who holds it. The yellow tile lets the bearer be first to move goods during the move goods phase; the red tile lets the bearer build track first during the build phase; the blue tile lets the bearer build four lines of track instead of just three; the purple tile lets the bearer promote a small town into a large city, which can be an important destination or embarkation for goods.

Players then take turns building tracks, ideally from one city to another. After a set number of turns, depending on the number of players, the game ends. Players then engage in final scoring, which is based on a variety of factors. The player with the highest victory point score wins.

Steam is a moderately complex eurogame that mixes a standard pick-up-and-deliver game and tile placement with elements of a worker placement game. Fans of lighter train games such as Ticket to Ride may find Steam a little too complex, but those who enjoy the challenge of a great eurogame will really take to Steam.

Steam is recommended for ages 12 and up and plays in about and hour and half.

Hot Tin Roof

In Hot Tin Roof, players take on the roles of cats in the city who must make their way across the roof tops to their partners. Three to four players are given two pairs of cats in different shapes. Players also start the game with catwalk and shelter tiles. Each player is also given a number of sardine cans, which act as both currency and victory points. A beautiful map depicts the city, though the roof tops are separated from each other. A number of fish tokens start next to the board depending on the number of players.

Each turn, players must pay an ante of five sardine cans, one to each of the possible action spots. If ever a player does not have enough sardine cans, he or she may take two and the turn ends. Three of the action spots give players route cards which tell them where to place two of their cats — usually on opposite sides of the city. Another action allows players to build a catwalk, essentially building a pathway across two rooftops, or building a shelter, which is where cats stop along the rooftops.

After players take their action, they may move their cats closer to each other in the hopes of fulfilling their route card. Once a route card is completed, the player may take a fish token which is equal to ten sardine cans or 10 victory points. Once all of the fish tokens are gone, the game is over and the player with the most victory points wins.

Hot Tin Roof is a very fun and lighthearted game that really takes a bit of strategy to win. Lovers of heavier eurogames or highly thematic games will probably find Hot Tin Roof a bit too light, but this is a game that a lot of players, particularly younger players, will really enjoy.

Hoot Tin Roof is recommended for ages 10 and up and plays in about 45 minutes.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com