As we have worked through our Best 3 Games with…. series, we have had to become a little more creative recently as we have run the gambit of various mechanics (Best 3 Games…with Worker Placement!), themes (Best 3 Games with…World War II!), as well as the occasional odd ball choice such as our Best 3 Games with…The Kraken! or Best 3 Games with…Disappointment! In this edition of the series, I wanted to look at games that have a historically based theme as their main focus. This list will NOT include Wargames (sorry GMT) but will focus more on games that don’t have direct conflict but represent a time in our nation’s growth and development that is well used and implemented to make an interesting and engaging game that is most importantly…FUN to play! With that, let’s take a look at the Best 3 Games with…Historic Themes! (NOT Wargames).
3. Lewis & Clark: The Expedition by Asmodee Games
On November 30, 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana territory from France, which stretched from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson decided to send two explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to discover this huge swath of new land to the west.
Lewis & Clark: The Expedition is a board game in which the players manage competing expeditions intended to cross the North American continent. Their goal is to be the first to reach the Pacific. Each one has his own Corps of Discovery that will be completed by the Native Americans and the characters, including trappers, hunters, and Native Americans, met during the journey. Players have to cleverly manage their characters and also the resources they find along the way to be able to effectively move through the sometimes inhospitable and difficult to maneuver terrain including rivers, mountains and plains. The game relies on dual use cards and building a hand of effective cards to advance along the journey. To be activated, one card must be combined with another one, which becomes unavailable until all cards have been used. Thus, players are faced with a constant dilemma: play a card for the immediate benefit or sacrifice it. During the game, each player acquires character cards that enlarge their hand, building a crew that gives you more options that help you along the way. Some characters assist in moving along rivers, or over mountains. Some provide you with more resources and others allow you to treat with the Native American Indians to get their assistance. But these cards need to be optimized as this will allow the cards to cycle more quickly, with your best cards coming up more often. This hand building mechanism fits strongly with the historical background as the characters identified on the cards are true to history and give you a sense for how the expedition was helped along their journey.
This game is very thematic and based upon the actual characters met by the expedition as they crossed the continent to the ocean. More importantly, it is fun to play and also has great components and great looking art.
2. Five Points: Gangs of New York by Mayfair Games
The name Five Points, Manhattan evokes images of poverty, rampant crime, decadence and despair. The Five Points area of New York in the mid-1800’s was a lurid geographical cancer filled with dilapidated and unlivable tenement houses, gang extortion, corrupt politicians, dance halls and drunkenness and gambling. This was a place where all manner of crime flourished, the residents were terrorized and squalor prevailed. This is the setting for the board game Five Points: Gangs of New York by Mayfair Games and this setting is further reinforced with mechanics taken from the tactics of the politial bosses of the time.
Five Points: Gangs of New York is a game of struggle for political control of Manhattan in the mid-19th century. As the leader of a powerful political faction, you manipulate gangs and influence politicians behind the scenes to attempt to seize control of the burroughs. Effective use of your resources will gain influence, win you elections, and let you control the destiny of New York; fail and you will be less than a footnote to history.
Each player has loyal rabble, represented by plain colored wooden cubes, that will execute their will and carry out the business of winning elections, through various methods such as force, extortion or funneling the immigrant vote to a candidate who offers their financial support. This consists of placing your available rabble on the various randomly placed burrough tiles in order to have the most cubes to gain control. At the end of each round, an election is held in the district with the most cubes and the winner gets to place one of their boss meeples their to signify control. This control will gain you additional rabble to use in the next round, provide you with 5VP if you are still in control at game’s end and most importantly, can offer you good tiles that are used to create sets worth VP’s. One other aspect of controlling districts with your rabble could give you access to a limited number of important buildings such as Tammany Hall, the Board of Elections, 5th Ward Offices and many others. Your control of these buildings will provide influence and special powers that can be used to win the game. You can also bid for control of election-influencing manipulation tiles that could swing the vote your way. All in all, this game covers very well the historical setting of the mid-1800’s in the Five Points area and is also a blast to play.
1. Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace by GMT Games
The players in Churchill Big Three Struggle for Peace take on the roles of Churchill, Roosevelt, or Stalin during World War II as they maneuver against each other over the course of 10 Conferences that determine who will lead the Allied forces, where those forces will be deployed, and how the Axis will be defeated. The player whose forces collectively have greater control over the surrendered Axis powers will win the peace and the game.
Churchill is NOT a wargame, but more of a political conflict of cooperation and competition. Over the course of the 10 historical conferences from 1943 till the end of the war this mechanic and much of the design should not be taken literally. Before and after each conference small groups of advisors and senior officials moved between the Allied capitals making the deals that drove the post war peace. These advisors and senior officials are represented by cards with an assigned numeric value that represents an amount of influence. Each conference sees one of a group of issues nominated for inclusion in the conference for debating and discussion. The issues categories include: Theater leadership changes, directed offensives, production priorities, clandestine operations, political activity, and strategic warfare (A-bomb). Each of the historical conference cards independently puts some number of issues, such as directed offensives or production priorities, metaphorically on the table, while the players nominate an additional 7 issues.
The beauty of this game is that the debates are the main focus, deciding what each player can do on their turn at conducting the offensive operations of the war. If the Soviets win the United States directed offensive issue at the debate, they force the US to put their production resources into assisting them in fighting the war on the Eastern Front. This means that the US cannot use its own resources to aid its cause. Another really slick and tense issue with the debates are the Leaders themselves. Each of the Big Three have special abilities that allow them to do certain things well. For instance, Stalin can advance the A-Bomb issue using his 7 influence, without the other Leaders being able to debate him. This guarantees that if the Soviets have the initiative and go first, they will automatically win the A-Bomb, gaining victory points. A very well imagined and designed way to use the debating of issues to create an engaging and fun game based on the struggles at the conference table during World War II.
What other historic themed games would you add to this list? There are several others that I enjoy quite a bit but I really like these three.