Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


The five-foot shelf of board, card, and roleplaying games every gamer should play

by Allen Varney

When you play a collectible card game, you explore a world -- Dominaria in Magic: The Gathering, the Empire of Star Wars, or even the battle-torn New York streets of Marvel OverPower. Now many CCG fans have discovered another new world, right in their local game store. This world, the adventure gaming hobby, offers whole categories of terrific card, board, and roleplaying games. Having entertained thousands of players for years, even decades, they stand ready for adventurous CCG players seeking new thrills.

You know the industry leaders: TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade, and high-profile licensed games likes West End's Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game and Chameleon Eclectic's The Babylon Project. But have you found these other classics? The two dozen games given here lack big advertising campaigns and major licenses (this list's two licensed games hardly qualify as big-money merchandising), but they show off our hobby at its best and most original.


What a novel idea: self-contained card games where everyone draws from the same deck! Some of these games use a board, and maybe even dice or tokens, but all the action happens when you play cards. In alphabetical order:

Credo: The Game of Dueling Dogmas (Chaosium, $14.95)

Historically accurate game (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) of the Nicene Councils (AD 325-637). Players represent different Christian factions (Orthodox, Arian, Monophysite, etc.) struggling to shape the Apostolic Creed to their beliefs. They win by gaining 11 million Flock or 117 Council votes. Credo is fun and enlightening, but not widely available; e-mail for information.

Groo: The Game (Archangel Entertainment, $14.95)

This easy, addictive four-player game stars Sergio Aragones's bumbling comic-book barbarian. Roll dice to get resources to play building and army cards, but watch out if Groo wanders by! An expansion deck ($8.95) adds 55 new cards, permitting six players.

Illuminati (Steve Jackson Games, $29.95)

Back in print after a three-year transformation into the Illuminati: New World Order CCG -- and with a handsome graphic overhaul -- this brilliant card-and-token game, Steve Jackson's best design, lets you conquer the world without firing a shot. Your secret conspiracy struggles for control of the CIA, PTA, Triliberal Commission, Cocaine Smugglers, Orbital Mind Control Lasers, and other pillars of society. Ingenious and satirical, Illuminati fosters good-humored paranoia and dramatic struggles.

Lunch Money (Atlas Games, $16.95)

Two to four kids in a nasty street fight use attack cards (Elbow, Headlock, Hammer, Hail Mary) to knock out opponents. Lunch Money, with its ultra-cool, spooky graphics and presentation, creates a delightfully wrenching experience.

Nuclear War (Flying Buffalo, $19.95)

As a heavily-armed nation state, you lure enemy populations to your side with propaganda and, inevitably, nukes. Often nobody wins, but Douglas Malewicki's long-lasting 1965 game is a blast anyway. Two great expansions, Nuclear Escalation and Nuclear Proliferation ($19.95 each) add weapons, state secrets, Stealth bombers, and Supergerms.

Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game (Atlas Games, $15.95)

In this loud, high-spirited game, players create a story using cards showing fairy-tale story elements. Try to guide the plot to your own "Happy Ever After" card's ending. But be careful what you say, or other players will interrupt you and take over. Once Upon a Time is this list's best choice for parties.

Titan: The Arena (Avalon Hill, $20)

Though dressed up with fantasy creatures (minotaurs, cyclopes, unicorns) from Avalon Hill's old Titan board game, this simple but deep card game adapts a German horse-betting design, Grand National Derby. Four to five players wager on eight creatures battling in an arena. The Titan card game plays in 30-45 minutes, and when it's over, you'll want to play again.


The adventure gaming hobby began with board games (Charles Roberts's Tactics II, 1962). Today we have many examples better than anything Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers has ever released. Almost all of these games work best with four or more players.

Acquire (Avalon Hill, $30)

Supposedly about hotel acquisitions and mergers, this superb 1976 game is really pure, abstract strategy. On a board grid, players create and merge chains, then buy stock in them. At the end, the richest player wins. Terse, minimalist rules produce fascinating strategies. As easy as Monopoly and tons more fun, Acquire was an early masterpiece by Sid Sackson, game historian and one of America's greatest designers.

Civilization (Avalon Hill, $40)

The inspiration for the best-selling Microprose computer game, Francis Tresham's Civilization board game pits seven ancient civilizations in a contest to rise from the Stone Age to high empire. Trade commodities like salt, grain, iron, and ivory, then cash them in for breakthroughs like astronomy, coinage, and monotheism. Though an extremely long game (six to eight hours), Civilization is a matchless test of diplomacy, negotiation, and long-range planning. Also get the Advanced Civilization expansion ($35).

Cosmic Encounter (Mayfair Games, $35)

The principal inspiration for Magic: The Gathering and one of the best board games ever published, Cosmic Encounter makes you an alien with a unique power to break the rules. In a Risk-like abstract struggle of challenge and compromise, you conquer the cosmos by establishing bases on opposing planets. Freewheeling, crazy, and infinitely replayable, Cosmic is my favorite game.

Junta (West End Games, $20)

Viva El Presidente! Each year, he parcels out foreign-aid money to his loyal generals, officers, and minister of internal security in La Republica de las Bananas. If El Presidente keeps too much money for himself, the loyal followers assassinate him or stage a coup. Then they form a junta, shoot someone, and elect a new player President. President, General, who cares? They win by having the most money in their Swiss bank accounts. Muy bien!

Kill Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games, $6)

Like a pre-game backstory for Clue, Kill Doctor Lucky puts two to eight homicidal players in a huge mansion, where they try to kill host J. Robert Lucky with weapons like Garden Trowel or Civil War Cannon. Unfortunately, they must get Dr. Lucky alone prior to snuffing him. Worse, rival attackers can play Failure cards to rescue the elusive doctor -- so they can kill him. Though you must cut apart the cards and bring your own pawns, Kill Doctor Lucky is an amazing bargain.

Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games, $35)

This is the American edition of the most acclaimed German board game of 1995, and maybe ever. Lay out terrain tiles, then colonize and exploit their resources. Build houses, roads, armies, and technology. You'll hone your diplomacy and trading skills in this superb strategic game.

Talisman (Games Workshop, $60)

In Talisman, you move your character piece around a track of locations like the Cursed Glade and Werewolves' Den, questing for treasures that will let you survive the Valley of Fire and gain the Crown of Command. Despite standard-issue trappings, Talisman is a wonderful romp that calls for lots of luck, lots of time, a laid-back attitude, and tolerance for getting turned into a toad. The new version is heart-stoppingly expensive, so look for an earlier edition.

Wiz-War (Chessex, $18)

As a wizard in a dungeon, you try to steal two treasure chests from your opponents or kill them all. The dungeon (four plain geomorphic squares) looks ugly, as do your spell cards, but wow! Cards let you teleport, summon monsters or thorn walls, cast fireballs, turn invisible, reflect attacks, enhance everything, counter anything, and so on. Utterly fearless in inventing bizarre effects, Wiz-War strongly influenced Magic: The Gathering but achieves its own goofy, inimitable charm.


Nearly every roleplayer today starts with AD&D or Vampire, but many players move on to some of the hobby's hundreds of other RPGs. Here are a few top choices for experienced players.

Amber Diceless Roleplaying (Phage Press, $22.95)

Based on Roger Zelazny's popular "Amber" fantasy series, Erick Wujcik's Amber offers a novel non-random system suited for gamers who like storytelling and character interaction. Be sure to read Zelazny's books first, starting with Nine Princes in Amber.

Blue Planet (Biohazard Games, $25)

A sort of underwater Dune, Jeff Barber's Blue Planet debuted last year and immediately set the standard for "hard" (scientifically accurate) science fiction games. On the frontier water world of Poseidon, natives and corporate agents wage an exciting struggle for control of a life-extending mineral.

Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium, $29.95)

With more awards than any other game, this horror RPG line based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft remains unmatched for breadth and quality. In the 1920s, gaslight Britain, or modern times, fight the good fight against the monstrous, mind-shattering Elder Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Champions: The New Millennium (Hero Games, $25)

First published in 1981 and still the leading superhero RPG, Champions recently mutated into two versions: the complex Champions RPG itself, and a simpler "Fuzion" system presented with the campaign setting Champions: The New Millennium. Both simulate heroic comic-book slugfests well, but with its flexible point-generation system, the original Champions also lets you create literally any character in any genre.

Earthdawn and Shadowrun (FASA Corporation, $20 and $35 respectively)

On Earthdawn's long-forgotten prehistoric Earth, heroic magical Adepts bring order in the wake of the world-wrecking Scourge. With exotic demihuman races (orks, trolls, obsidimen, windlings) and complex, flavorful magic, Earthdawn feels like AD&D with the stupid stuff removed. Skip forward six millennia to 2053 Seattle, where long-lost magic has returned to a pumped-up cybertech world. In Shadowrun's neat and handsome cross-genre combination, wizards fire machine guns and elven deckers invade megacorporate thaumaturgy labs. The two games use different systems, but their backgrounds connect in intriguing ways.

Pendragon (Chaosium, $26.95)

Greg Stafford's superb game of medieval Britain, meticulously researched yet eminently playable, makes you an Arthurian knight out of Sir Thomas Malory. Jousting, chivalric romance, war against the Saxons, and mythic magic mark your noble family's quest for glory.

TOON, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game (Steve Jackson Games, $19.95)

Play Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, or anything you want in silly cartoon adventures. No one ever dies; they just Fall Down for three minutes, then bounce back for more mayhem. An ideal first RPG for players, TOON requires skill and fast thinking of its "Animator" (gamemaster).

In today's tough gaming market, some distributors have started telling retailers that games are "out of print" just so they don't have to order them. When you go looking for the classics on this list, don't believe them. All these games are currently in print and available from their publishers. Keep looking as long as it takes -- you have two dozen treats in store!

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Copyright (C) 01998 Allen Varney.