Many mechanisms in board gaming have a wide variety of forms. Deck building in City of Iron is not the same as in Dominion or Ascension. Set collection in Zooloretto is a different beast than in Tokaido. Similarly, area control has dozens of varieties and very often it is one of many mechanisms in a game.
Because of this, picking ten games that represent the best of what area control has to offer is a difficult task. Many games use area control as a means to drive some other aspect of a winning condition. The controlling of territories may be beside the point and resource gathering may be the main focus. With that in mind, this list seeks to offer a more focused approach.
The games listed below showcases area control as the main focus of the game. The majority of points or victory conditions drive precisely from exercising control over areas of the board. Based on their engagement and exemplary presentation of the form, these are the best area control games I’ve experienced.
I feel this list is incomplete without three honorable mentions. These games did not make it into the list directly because the majority of their scoring does not come from territory control. All three represent different, somewhat similar takes on area control for victory points, but looking at the scoring in these games reveals more complex interwoven mechanisms at work. As such, they deserve some praise, but they didn’t fit the criteria I was judging by.
Eclipse – 2-6 Players • Ages 14+ • 60-200 minutes
Terra Mystica – 2-5 Players • Ages 12+ • 60-150 minutes
Scythe – 1-5 Players • Ages 14+ • 90-115 minutes
Likely the 10th game on this list is a surprise, maybe you’re rushing to click on the link just to find out what this game is. In addition to Splendor, the capable Marc Andre has designed an area control game. What’s more, once you look at this, you’ll see how Marc is establishing an aesthetic that communicates a new abstract feeling to the Euro stylings common with many traditional Euro games. Although Barony has player aids that look like ancient hieroglyphs, play is quite simple. It’s a kingdom conquest game with big chunky wooden pieces that are a joy to play with. Gameplay is also short and competition for land is fierce from the beginning. It’s one of the most accessible on this list, so if you have a hesitation as to whether or not you’d like more games in this genre, Barony is a good game to start with.
9. RISK 2210 A.D. / Dust
This spot on the list is occupied by two games which are so similar as to be interchangeable. They’re what’s described as Dudes-On-A-Map games. RISK 2210 A.D. and Dust both exemplify a form started with kids playing with toy soldiers and formalized by the original RISK in 1959. Both games present a dystopian future or alt-history where mankind uses technology to create large war machines and giant bombs. Unlike the original RISK, both limit their play time to something more reasonable and allow for additional actions through the playing of special operation cards. Which one should you check out? I’m likely to keep both in my collection for a long time, but since Dust is harder to come by, try a copy of RISK 2210 A.D.
Risk: 2210 A.D. – 2-5 Players • Ages 10+ • 240 minutes • $38
Dust – 2-6 Players • Ages 12+ • 240 minutes • Out of Print (OoP)
8. Small World: Underground
Lots of people love Small World. It’s got huge variety in play, it’s easy to learn, and finding combos of powers and races wonderfully drives the tension. However, if you’re like me, Small World’s younger brother, Small World: Underground, is the more playful and strategic option. It carries all the same mechanisms, but they add many twists to the standard play that open up options for a variety of choices in play. What’s more, Small World: Underground is completely compatible with Small World and you can even play a version of the board that offers an above and below ground landscape.
7. Chaos in the Old World (review)
So your friend just beat you at Blood Rage… again. What do you do with your pent-up rage? You take it out on innocent peasants as a dread god of chaos, war, pestilence, or evil temptation. If you’re looking for the darkest game on this list, look no further. Chaos in the Old World has a main board made to look like stretched human skin with bloody scars delineating territories of the Old World (the setting for Warhammer Fantasy). Placement of a variety of units and corruption of the land steals the show as players try to take control through territory gains or corruption. With wonderful Euro-mechanisms that orbit around area control, Chaos in the Old World is a mainstay of even Cthulhu’s board game shelf.
6. Dominant Species
You might have already played Evolution. It’s a lighter romp through time as players adapt species to survive and outlast hungrier creatures. Dominant Species is Evolution’s big brother. With a hex map and relatively simple components, it’s the long-winded novel on competition of species to Evolution’s short essay. Players aim to have their species adopt traits that make them more competitive in a variety of landscapes, thus gaining majority for victory points. With an adapting landscape and adapting player units, Dominant Species does not lose its welcome quickly.
5. Tammany Hall
Everybody loves elections right? Well, ok, so not everybody loves elections, but one of the things which many gamers love is negotiation. Tammany Hall represents players as New York politicians in the mid 19th century as waves of immigrants cause the city’s population to surge. As the newcomers arrive, players can offer support to immigrants in exchange for political support in the coming election. The kicker here is that you can only depend on that support so much. The rest is up to your negotiation power. At it’s core is area control scoring, but the means to get the precious majorities in neighborhoods is through your ability to cut deals with other players. Tammany Hall combines the best of both in a game that might as well offer a knife in the box to go along with it’s cutthroat and back-stabby gameplay.
4. Twilight Struggle
In the world of board gaming, Twilight Struggle is a big deal. It has sat on top of the BoardGameGeek rankings for a few years, only being dethroned very recently. It’s a game that presents card play and area control for two cold-warring players representing the United States and the Soviet Union during the years 1948 to 1967. Twilight Struggle is not a simple game and the play is multilayered between cities, regions and the race to space. There’s a version on Steam and iOS if you are interested in a good tutorial before commitment to this heavy game.
3. El Grande (review)
For fans of area control, El Grande needs no introduction. Set in medieval Iberia, the game presents players as lords vying for power. They do this by selecting action cards and manipulating control over territories for points. In addition, the King acts as a blocking piece throughout while the Castillo, a dice tower looking structure, is a region itself that scores at the end. The trick is that the total population of the Castillo is unknown unless memory savvy players can keep track. Despite it’s age (first printed 1995, although a new edition has been released), the combination of card actions and scoring territories makes El Grande a keeper on any area control list.
2. The Walled City: Londonderry & Borderlands
There have been a few games in recent years with players creating the areas that they control as the game progresses. No other game captures this mechanism in a more thematic way than Walled City: Londonderry & Borderlands. The game takes source material from master planned medieval cities. The game features new residents and nobles moving into a city, with players balancing the various groups of power while creating districts and walls to protect them. Even though it’s a ruthless brain burner and analysis paralysis inducer, the area control choices in The Walled City are wonderful.
Exploring a jungle, uncovering ancient ruins, and discovering secret treasures is what Tikal is all about. This Indiana Jones veneer hides a cutthroat game using an action point system to give players as much precision as possible. Throughout the game, players are challenged to balance maintaining control and upgrading existing territory or striking out to new areas to hopefully get a jump on the competition. Tikal is accessible to new gamers, doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and the optional rules for heavier gaming experience make it a worthy occupant at the top of the list.