If there’s a game that every board game designer wants to turn into cardboard, it would have to be the best-selling video game of all time: Tetris.
Games featuring tetrominoes (shapes made out of 4 squares), pentominoes (shapes made out of 5 squares) and all of the various other permutations (called polyominoes) have been around for a little while.
Blokus came out in 2000, although technically dominoes (the simplest form of polyomino) have been around forever.
But game designers don’t get tired of polyominoes. Trying to fit Tetris pieces together immediately forms the backbone of all sorts of puzzle games. Maybe every game designer wants to pay their own homage to the video game everyone played.
Legendary designer Uwe Rosenberg is personally responsible for four such games. Several years ago he designed Patchwork. Patchwork is a cutthroat two-player game about competitive quilt-making. Everything is a zero-sum game as you balance time, buttons and area on your tableau.
Even though I’m not amazing at this game, I really really like this it. You’re going to read me saying that a lot because lets be honest, Tetris has trained me to fit tetrominoes together, and there’s something very satisfying about fitting pieces together just-so, like a jigsaw puzzle.
Not content with making the greatest abstract 2-player game ever designed, he went on to design the “Spielwiese Puzzle Trilogy”: Cottage Garden, Indian Summer and Spring Meadow. Grow flowers in your garden, go for a bushwalk in New England in autumn, or across an English meadow in spring. No zombies, no military units, no pirates, no fantasy or science fiction tropes here.
(There should, but won’t be a fourth element to the series, Desolate Winter where you have to place all-white pieces on an all-white fields, whilst avoiding all-white polar bears.)
All four are 1-4 player games, which involve you configuring polyominoes in some way, shape or form for gain and victory. Spring Meadow, pictured above, is probably the best of the trilogy, but it will vary based on your taste.
If you want a quick an easy entry, app game developer Digidiced has created mobile versions of all bar the most recent, Spring Meadow. (Also, the app version of Indian Summer has a ridiculously cute tutorial featuring dogs!)
Phil Walker-Harding is Australia’s most decorated board game designer. One of his gifts is being able to refine a game concept and distil it down to something both strategic but also accessible. And also brilliant. Good for gamers, good for families, ideal for gaming families.
Walker-Harding’s Bärenpark is often cited as the best of the tetromino games (although getting gamers to come to a consensus about these sort of things is never easy) and is certainly my favourite thus far. In Bärenpark, you build your little
zoo bear-park just for bears (and the odd koala and panda). Not only are you trying to fit your pieces together in the standard way, but you only get new tiles by covering certain squares. Covering others give you an extra section of bear-park to build onto.
Completing sections give you more points, and the game ends when one player finishes four sections. Each game has particular objectives, which add further constraints to your placement. I really like Bärenpark. It’s elegant, refined, and a satisfying puzzle that is one of my favourite games from the last few years.
You would think that several highly-regarded, award-winning games would already have saturated the board game world, dissuading anyone else from even attempting to bring out a game. You would have thought you couldn’t get more like Tetris. That’s what I thought, but I was wrong.
Straight out of Essen (a.k.a. Spiel, the biggest board games convention in the world) this year are two games that take this formula to another level.
Arraial seems to be about as close to multiplayer Tetris as you can get. A rondel sits in the centre of the table and gets populated with new Tetris pieces. Unlike the games above, Arraial has ‘gravity’. As the rondel spins around, it drops pieces down onto your board in a fixed orientation. You could spend more actions orienting your pieces correctly, or getting more pieces.
The theme is about organising a Portuguese street party. You want to group at least a few musicians or entertainers together, but also spread them out for maximum points (and noise?). Little white meeples crowd archways, looking to see who has the best party. Of course, if your party starts spilling out of your gates (getting too loud and obnoxious, presumably), they all leave and go somewhere else.
The theme actually kinda works, but you don’t really need it. The reality is that you’re playing multi-player Tetris, with an added dimension of scoring. Stick tetrominoes together, complete your rows and don’t leave any gaps. The scoring will take care of itself.
I really like it! It’s actually like playing Tetris, and that’s really not a bad thing.
We’ve already mentioned the other major phenomenon of the year: roll and write games. It is perhaps unsurprising to see the two major trends this year coalesce into one tiny board game that should be called zeitgeist, but is actually called Brikks.
Rolling dice gives you your random tetromino. Just like Arraial, and just like Tetris, you’re dropping this tetromino onto your board, from bottom to top. Here, you’re trying to sync up the colour of your pieces with the little coloured dots to give you bonuses.
But also, you’re just trying to filling in as much as possible to maximise your scoring. This is probably your go-to if you need an easily transportable, multiplayer Tetris-in-a-board-game.
Tetris doesn’t go away. There’s a reason it has sold 170 million copies around the world. I recently “won” this little handheld version of Tetris at a recent Christmas Party (read: was lumped with it after a game of Stealing Santa), and it has been surprisingly popular with my kids.
They could be playing on the Switch or watching Teen Titans on the TV, but instead I find them fighting over who’s allowed to play Tetris.
I’m OK with that. It’s training them up to play some of my favourite new board games with me.