On Loving a Game You Never Expected

I stumbled into this hobby 7 years ago, unaware of what I was getting myself into. A young father with no friends in the area and few hobbies, I was eager to find something – anything really – that I could call my own. After an unsuccessful attempt to return to Magic the Gathering over the winter, I spent a few minutes every day on Meetup.com, attempting to fill that social gap in my life with a new activity. 

Board games were the answer, and boy did they fill it. More than seven years, 350+ combined podcast episodes, and 400 games in my collection let’s just say I have a thing for board games. 

But I’m still continuously surprised by this hobby. When something new captures my attention, I almost ever see it coming. I think I know what I like and why I like it, and then bam – a new game or a full genre of games sneaks up on me. Let’s take a closer look at three games that did just that – ones I was SURE I was going to dislike but that are now in my top 100 and have opened my eyes to entire new genres. 

Caverna

boardgamegeek.com, @aldoojeda

On paper, Caverna is exactly my kind of game. It’s a sweeping, sandbox-style worker placement game by the Master himself – Uwe Rosenberg. But before I ever heard of this one, I had been dragged into a game of Agricola. It was a typical first time Uwe experience. I can’t recall if I scored any points in that game (it was mercifully before I started tracking these things), but I do recall round after round over the course of three-plus hours, getting absolutely annihilated and then having to feed people with non-existent food. 

My card draws were bad. My placement options were bad. It was a bad game. And so I don’t like Agricola. I’ve played it again since and while it wasn’t nearly as bad as that first play, I can’t get myself back to a blank slate to try it with fresh eyes. Caverna was that opportunity. 

A brand new game that built on the core mechanics of Agricola in clever, exciting new ways. More worker placement options, more flexibility in how you built out your board. Less random cards dictating the flow of the game. Yes, you still feed your people, but it’s not particularly hard to do so. 

While Caverna is not my favorite Uwe Rosenberg game, it remains the one that dragged me into that entire genre of farming-based worker placement and helped me discover other favorites like A Feast for Odin and Le Havre. 

Zombicide: Black Plague

boardgamegeek.com, @bennyace

If there was a game I wanted nothing to do with upon entering the hobby it is Zombicide. Even now, I could not possibly be less interested in this game. The theme, the mechanics, the aesthetic. It all screams “don’t play me!” at the top of its lungs and I’ve listened ever since. 

The original game was still very hot when I got into the hobby. Our friend Frank would bring in his massive collection and carefully pull each piece out of the thermoformed plastic trays at Myriad Games. He even played a super-sized, 12-hour version of the game during our first 24 hour gaming marathon back in 2013 for Extra Life. 

But Black Plague managed to overcome all of that with a handful of small changes and one big change. Mechanically, the game was more interesting, giving you better decisions to make. Solo play still required all six survivors to balance the game, but it was easier to track everything with the push-peg plastic trays. But the biggest change was the theme. Instead of yet another urban-nightmare zombie movie pastiche, CMON gave us medieval zombies. Characters from classic fantasy fiction abounded and the monsters were incredible, going beyond your classic Zombie archetypes and bringing in legitimate monsters. 

I don’t know why, but this game captures my imagination in a way the original cannot. I have still only backed one Zombicide Kickstarter – Green Horde – and am unlikely to back any others until they release Black Plague 2.0 or whatever comes next in the line. 

1846

boardgamegeek.com, @msaari

This is the biggie. The most recent game to break through nearly a decade of gaming preferences and prejudices and force me to rethink what I like to play and why I like to play games. 

1846 is not my first introduction to 18XX. Our friend Chris in Brooklyn showed us a bagged 18xx-style game back in 2015, straight from Essen – and it was fine. Short, but fine. But I had never played the real deal – the full 3-6 hour experience, complete with stock market, track laying, and hostile takeovers (or getting a bum company dumped on you). 

1846 is where I was introduced to all of this and I instantly loved it. These games are long and we entered a pandemic about three months later, so I’ve still only played maybe a dozen 18xx games, including online, but I love it, and now own half a dozen (with many more to come via Kickstarter). The interaction is on a level like few other games, and the way you manipulate and manage the companies in which you are invested is so much fun. 

The mere idea that nothing I’m doing really belongs to me. I’ve since played games like Roads and Boats that have a similar concept, but few games really drive home that impermanence like an 18xx game and it all started for me with 1846. 

  • Anthony

    Anthony lives and plays games in Pittsburgh, PA. A lover of complex strategy, two player war games, and area control, Anthony is always eager to try a new game, even if he's on rule-reading duty.

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