The Modern Alternatives to Classics, pt. 2
It’s been five months since my first iteration of this series, which I am happy to see get some suggestions from many readers. Like I mentioned in that article, this series is not entirely directed towards those that are familiar with hobby board games. It is a series to help those new to designer board games find games familiar to what they know. Gamers can also use this as an article to share with friends or family that are interested in games, but want to give comparisons to games they are familiar with.
There are always going to be some of my open opinions when recommending alternatives, and this one has a couple that could be considered a stretch. But alternatives aren’t generally based off of what they replace, and that is the case when it comes to the three games I’m suggesting. So enjoy the read and feel free to let us at Cardboard Reality know of some more modern alternatives to these classic games.
Of the games I’ve covered, this one has the most table presence. Rube Goldberg machines are a feat to watch. Mouse Trap is the assembly and activation of a Rube Goldberg in the form of a game. I mean, one part of it is a man diving into a pool, for crying out loud.
Rube Goldberg machines are fascinating. I remember doing our physics project in high school, having various energy conversions to score more points for our grade and having a contest for the longest device. The machine portion of Mouse Trap was what drew me in to the game. I even had a keychain with a micro, working version of the trap itself in a mini Mouse Trap box.
Like many of the games I’ve covered in this series, it’s also a game that has some importance on meanness. While not the primary focus or enjoyment that players get from Mouse Trap, watching the cage fall upon another mouse brings about joy. People also like managing the cheese, just for the possibility of moving another player into position of being trapped.
Really though, the game is all about the Rube Goldberg machine and less about the game. It uses the dated mechanic of “roll-and-move,” driving the game to be a pure luck-fest. Strategy is minimal and most would rather focus on the building aspect.
On the note of the machine, there is also the big difficulty that the machine regularly does not complete. It adds a slight level of suspense to the game, but really it’s just more luck to a game already luck driven.
For this entry, I’m going to be making the biggest stretch for a recommendation. The game I’m going to be providing as an alternative to Mouse Trap is a 15-minute dexterity game called Cube Quest.
On the surface, there seems to be very little about Cube Quest that can connect it to Mouse Trap. The theme is warring armies fighting to eliminate the opposing king. The dexterity aspect of the game is all about flicking your cubes to the other side of the battlefield, colliding with your opponent’s setup of cubes, in a way similar to a game like Carpetball (you summer camp kids know what Carpetball is. For the rest of you, look up that gem).
Why Cube Quest works as an alternative because of the setup aligns with the building in Mouse Trap. Both sides take all their cubes for that battle (either a custom mix or the basic set) and place them on their side however they wish. Put them all across your neoprene player mat. Stack them into a big wall that stands in between them and your king. Heck, put your king on top of all your cubes stacked in one big tower. The rules of the game allow it! When playing, we use the advanced rule where we place the box between the two players and once both are done building, we do a simultaneous reveal.
As for playing the game, it is simple enough for the rules to be one page, front and back. Build your castle and flick away! Units have different abilities. They can be captured if they are stuck behind enemy lines. And they’re gone if they fall off the neoprene maps. Maybe I’m generalizing, but if you can understand Mouse Trap, then Cube Quest isn’t a huge step ahead.
Players love Mouse Trap due to the building of the machine. Why not try to match the building aspect, while also matching the meanness of tearing down the other player’s army?
What Players Love: Building the machine, trapping your opponents
Game Flaws: Fully luck driven, machine commonly fails
My Alternative: Cube Quest
Monopoly is THE game people first mention when the phrase “board games” is spoken. There seem to be hundreds upon hundreds of version of it, from sports to music to video games. I even had a knock-off version of Monopoly based around my home county with the small, historic landmarks as properties.
There is a good number of things that players love about Monopoly. First, they love making money. I don’t mean to take this in a philosophical way, but the mindset of the world is that money makes everything operate. And Monopoly is the definition of that philosophy. Earning money, buying up what you can with that money, and others paying up for your “hard earned work” feels rewarding.
Monopoly is also a mean game by nature. You want others to declare bankruptcy. You want people to go to jail. You want everyone else to pay you, not the other way around. The growth in your empire across the game is empowering. That is, it is empowering if you’re the one growing.
This is the tale of most Monopoly game nights. Everyone playing starts out acquiring a few properties, feeling good about what they’re getting. All the pieces make a trip around the board, making or losing some pocket change in route to get their first $200 from passing Go. Then, it all goes to poo-poo for at least one person. That person catches a bad break and next thing you know, they’re on a downward spiral. 90% of their cash is gone, that player hasn’t bought any new properties since their second and they’re stuck skipping their turn in jail. Unfortunately for that player, their experience with the game has soured, and it didn’t take long.
Players of Monopoly feel like they are economic geniuses when they are winning, or win after what feels like 3-5 hours. But when you break it down, is it anything more than luck? The winner rolled good pairs on the dice that prevented them from hitting competing properties. They avoided jail. The others paid out all of their earnings in rent, rarely upgrading their houses. And in reality, it’s all up to the roll of the dice and sometimes the draw of a card.
The game really doesn’t have a good end game condition either. In reality, Monopoly has player elimination,which isn’t the best mechanic in modern design. While player elimination can be a good thing if done near the end of a game, Monopoly does it in the worst way. Monopoly is “last person standing.” This makes for the possibility of a long games. And not just long, but excruciatingly long. The box says maximum of 3 hours, but Hasbro has reported that the longest Monopoly game lasted 1680 hours.
I think an off-shoot problem of Monopoly that really isn’t fixed by an alternative game is that most people do not play the game by the written rules that come in the box. If you land on Free Parking, you get all the income made from taxes, right? That’s not a real rule. When a player passes on buying a property, an auction happens. How many people actually knew that Monopoly has auctions? Hasbro added fan-made rules as variants, including more money for passing Go and completing a full trip around the board before they may purchase a property.
I’m nervous giving an alternative to Monopoly. I think because of the esteem it has as the “representation” of board games to the masses; I want to make sure I am satisfied with my decision. I could name heavy economic games like 1889 or Food Chain Magnate, but the difficulty in learning the game is a canyon-sized jump compared to the launch pad. I could give a light card game like For Sale a shout-out for being about properties and auctioning for them, but Monopoly is seen as a 1-3 hour “epic” headliner of a game, so a filler would not satisfy those looking for a longer experience.
So after much delay and consideration, I will be going with the newly reprinted Chinatown, a game entirely dependent on wheeling and dealing with your opposition. In each of the six turns (representing six years), the players are given new lots of property and some businesses across New York’s Chinatown. All things drawn are revealed at the same time and then game is on.
What makes Chinatown and Monopoly work together is that Monopoly wants to be a game where you can use other people to pay for what they want and Chinatown is exactly that. You survey the table and notice that you’re the only person that drew a seafood tile. You survey the city and it clicks that the purple player needs a single seafood tile to complete their three-sized seafood business.
Time to make some money.
It’s early in the game, so a completed three-square building will pay the purple player $50,000 every year until game end. So it is worth quite a bit, particularly because you’re the only person with leverage.
“Give me $80,000 and the seafood tile is yours.”
Everyone at the table falls backwards out of their chairs. This is exactly the moment that Monopoly dreams of having, but is stuck with having dated mechanics. Chinatown can have luck-of-the-draw and be very player dependent, but it is a game that makes you feel like a business genius.
A note, in my previous edition of this series, I caught some flack for recommending games that were out-of-print. It appears to be the case again as I recommend Chinatown. It has been long in and out of print since its release in 1999, until getting a new printing this spring. But it seems that the shipment we got in 2019 is already sold out. Z-Man has assured those interested that they are working on getting more copies out in the wild and should have them in Q3 of this year. So if I’ve sold you on this game as a cut-throat replacement to Monopoly, keep your eyes peeled.
What Players Love: Making in-game money, mean
Game Flaws: Luck-driven overall, poor ending condition, length of time, house rules trumping rulebook
My Alternative: Chinatown
Maybe the most-known card game that doesn’t use a traditional deck of cards, Uno has been played by people since 1971 and brought to the masses by Mattel in 1992. It’s spawned many spinoffs. Uno Attack was one that used a battery-powered card launcher that shot out a random number of cards when the button was pressed. Uno Stacko is a combination of Jenga and the card game. Mattel even released a “sequel” called Dos in 2018. But for this article, I just want to look at the original.
Uno is beloved due to its simplicity. Play a card that matches the color, symbol or number of the top card, or a Wild. If you have none, draw a card. Call out “uno” when you are down to the last card. First one to have an empty hand wins. It’s not hard and uses universal concepts.
It’s a great teaching tool for kids, prodding them to think if they have a card that matches the playing circumstances. It teaches memory for when they’re down to their last card. And in a very basic form, it teaches them hand management for when to use Skips, Draw 2’s and Wilds.
In reality, there isn’t much to the Uno. Yes, there is the “strategy” of which cards to play when. But at its basics, it’s a traditional card game where the cards you’re dealt and the ones you draw determine everything. Due to those factors, you can honestly have games where you never get to take a turn. You may play a Wild to change the color to one that is the majority in your hand, but the next turn another player does the same and you’re back to square one. That’s a circumstance that you had zero influence in preventing.
It also commits one of the sins of modern game design: skipping turns. There are a few sins that could be included in a game, along with the aforementioned player elimination. When it comes to skipping turns, there really isn’t much to redeem about it, but it’s particularly in the spotlight in Uno. Why? Because there are four types of cards that skip turns (Skip, Draw Two, Wild Draw Four and Reverse, in a way). Not only is there a chance you don’t get the cards you need when you are forced to draw, you may not ever get to take a turn due to the way the people around you play their randomly drawn hands.
And just like Monopoly above, owners of Uno have shifted the rules to how they want without ever giving the rules a once-over. The board games subreddit recently had an article with rules that Uno players tend to play incorrect. The Uno Twitter account (yes, that is a thing) initiated the shut-down of fake rules, but many will still play with rules that seek to extend the play time.
A game that very much resembles Uno, but offers another level of thought is 2014’s Red7. Similar to Uno, you are playing cards to a center discard pile that matches the certain rules. The catch in Red7 is that if you are not the winning player after you discard, you are eliminated from the game.
“So wait,” you’re probably asking. “Doesn’t that make the situation of luck of the draw worse than Uno if I’m not winning at the end of my turn I am eliminated?” But that’s the catch of the game: not only are you playing cards to the center discard, you are playing to your own personal palette. When you play to your palette, you are looking to play cards that get you into first. When you play to the center, you are changing the rule that the game is using to determine first.
The game starts out in Red, in which the highest card wins. But on the next turn, the player may add a second “5” to their palette and change the rule to Orange, which is most of one number is winning. Now they are winning. Play passes to the next player, who adds a “2” to go with their “1,” and changes the rule to Violet, which is most cards below 4 is winning. The game keeps going until one person remains as the winner.
Red7 is a great intro for multiuse cards, a clever way of changing how cards are played in modern games. You get a hand of cards, look them over and think “I can play this one to change the rule and end my turn in winning position, this one to my palette to win the current rule, or play this one to my palette and this other card, which sets me up for a more flexible endgame.”
It’s a very quick playing game as well. Red7 is one that capitalizes off being able to play back-to-back hands in 30 minutes.
What Players Love: Simplicity, good teaching tool
Game Flaws: Luck-of-the-draw driven, skipping turns, lacking in strategy, inconsistent house-rules
My Alternative: Red7