The NCAA Men’s March Madness tournament is a 68-team tournament played every March, culminating in the crowning of the Men’s College Basketball Championship. It is a single-elimination tournament that takes place across the country; early rounds will see up to 4 games being played simultaneously. For die-hard college basketball fans it is like Christmas. It has not always been 68 teams, however.
Beginning in 1985 the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams; as a Duke Basketball fan as far as I’m concerned College Basketball began in the early 80s anyway so the 64 team tournament is as close to “forever” as it gets. Participants are divided into teams that receive “automatic bids” and teams that received “at-large” bids. The winners of the 32 Conference Tournaments are given automatic bids, while the remaining bids are given to teams based on season performance. For the teams in many conferences the only hope to go to the big dance is winning their tournament.
In 2000, the number of conferences expanded and rather than cut an “at large” bid, the NCAA created what became known as a “play-in” game. The two lowest seeded teams (always automatic bid winners) would play in a game a few days ahead of the start of the main tournament. This game became a popular appetizer, and so the NCAA expanded the field to 68 teams in their quest to fill their coffers with as much money as possible, and support the student-athlete or whatever they claim their mission to be. Now, each region has two teams vying for a spot in the “main” bracket; a couple teams compete for a 16 seed and a couple teams who squeaked in with at-large bids compete for an 11-seed (give or take a seed).
Our exploration of the Spiel de Jahres winners begins with the North West Region’s “Play-In Games”. These award winners certainly deserved their awards at the time, however it’s unlikely that they’ll take out any of the powerhouses. You never know, however, if there is a UMBC lurking…
Who hasn’t wanted to be a detective at some point during their lives? Scotland Yard is an asymmetric game with hidden information that lets a team of players work together to track the diabolical criminal known only as “Mr. X” through the streets of London. The pitch is simple: each turn, the detectives move their pawns around the city to one of the nearly 200 spaces on the board. If they either land in the fugitive’s space or trap them so they have no legal moves, they win. The detectives move by spending one of three kinds of “tickets”: taxis (which can move to adjacent spaces), busses that move more than one space (but usually not far); and the Underground, which allows players to make large jumps across the map. Meanwhile, the criminal is also moving around, (usually) following the same rules with one major exception: rather than putting their pawn on the board, the criminal writes down which numbered space they traveled to, then covers it with the type of ticket they used. In other words, while the detectives may not know exactly where their quarry is, they can make some educated guesses based on the methods of travel used by the villain.
There are, of course, a few wrinkles here. First, a few times over the course of the game, the criminal player has to “surface” momentarily and reveal where they are for one turn. To counter this, the fugitive has two tricks up their sleeve: a pair of ‘2x’ tokens and 5 ‘black tickets.’ The 2x tokens do exactly what they say: they let the villain player move twice in a row, following all the normal rules. The black tickets can be used one of two ways: either to take a trip on a ferry down the Thames, moving in a way the detectives can’t replicate or, more deviously, making any of the normal moves without revealing what mode of transportation they used. Either of these can be incredibly frustrating for the detectives to deal with, and a particularly elusive fugitive can use both at once to utterly confound the constabulary. Then again, use them at the wrong time and you might just wind up cornering yourself in your desperate attempt to escape.
Scotland Yard is not a complicated game, at least not until you get about halfway through and everyone at the table is poring over the board intently, the detectives looking desperately for clues while the fugitive panics in an attempt to get away. There’s a lot here to wrap your head around, but the complexity won’t be found in the rulebook or on the board – it’s in the air between you and the other players as you work out what your plan will be for the turn.
If Scotland Yard has a weakness, it’s that it can fall apart if your Mr. X player doesn’t have a great poker face – the easier they are to read as the net closes in, the quicker things come to a head. On balance, though, that can be its own kind of fun, and rotating who’s on the run can create a completely different experience as different players tend to use the tools available to them in different ways. If you’re looking for an easy to pick up game for a battle of wits between you and 2-5 of your closest friends, Scotland Yard still holds up.
Dampfross (Railway Rivals)
Did you know that at one point Games Workshop—our Games Workshop—published a Spiel de Jahres-winning board game? It’s true! In 1985 GW picked up the rights to publish Dampfross, a game they initially passed on prior to it winning the Spiel. Dampfross is also known as Railway Rivals, and is one of the earliest examples of a “crayon rail” game eventually made popular by Mayfair Games. In its heyday there were hundreds of maps made and it was an extremely popular “play by mail” game, with players taking turns by mailing letters to each other.
In Dampfross, players are building train routes across a map by coloring the map with a crayon (hence “crayon rail”), and then racing along these routes in high-stakes games of speed. The building phase lasts as long as necessary to connect almost every city to the train network, then the operating phase takes over and you race over and over until someone has accumulated a large enough pile of cash. The catch here, is that the money you spend to build your network is the same pile of cash you’re trying to accumulate. Spend too much, and you’re making it harder to reach the magic victory number.
While at this point a number of variants and maps exist that layer on and tinker with rules, the core is the same. Players begin with a set amount of money and must begin by branching out from a core hub city. Die roles (communal or individual) give bonus cash and the cost of laying track depends on terrain, adjacency to other tracks, etc. Connecting cities is the goal and doing so earns you bonus cash. Once your large laminated map is sufficiently criss-crossed, the race begins.
Again die rolls determine where the race begins and where it ends. Now players decide if they even want to participate; the catch here is that you must plan your route out ahead of the race and are required to pay other players for the right to use their tracks. Joining the race becomes a calculation of whether you’ll earn more than you’ll pay out. The race itself is simple, roll-and-move along your preselected route until someone wins. Race over and over until someone wins.
Dampfross is a good example of a game that kickstarted a revolution then itself faded away. There are very few plays logged on BoardGameGeek anymore, and while the myriad maps are still available online, Dampfross itself is out of print and has been for quite some time. It’s legacy, however, lives on. “Train games”, including crayon rails, are a very popular segment of the hobby. In our bracket I would not pick this particular Cinderella to advance very far. It lost once to Rummikub and is unlikely to pull many upsets.
Our Winner: Scotland Yard
Both games cast long influential shadows; Dampfross inspired a genre and Scotland Yard’s influence can be seen in modern classics like Fury of Dracula, Specter Ops, and many other hidden movement games. However, only of these games has itself stood the test of time. Scotland Yard’s latest edition can be found readily online should decide to take it for a spin.
Heimlich & Co. (Top Secret Spies)
Fun fact: Heimlich & Co. is credited as the first game to include a separate scoring track on the board. Another fun fact: Wolfgang Kramer is a first-ballot Spiel des Jahres Hall of Famer if there ever was one, having designed or co-designed five different SdJ winners and being the only individual to win back-to-back awards two different times. Heimlich & Co. was his first winning title in 1986; in the game players are spies lurking around town and creeping into buildings, racing to be the first to score 42 points. (It’s unclear if this number was arrived at mathematically, or if Mr. Kramer was a fan of Douglas Adams.)
While the game may feel quaint to seasoned hobbyists now, there’s a reason it’s been perpetually in print for the past forty years. Heimlich & Co. introduced several innovations to the simple roll-and-move. For one: players roll to move any number of pieces they wish and not just their own pawn. Another tweak is fog of war: the ownership of players’ pawns is kept secret – which means you’ll strive to advance your spy early and often to score points, but not too far or too obviously lest you tip off other players as to your spy’s identity and get hamstrung for the rest of the game.
And in-game scoring is like a game of musical chairs – locations on the board score positive, negative, or zero points if occupied during scoring rounds, but scoring only occurs if a player moves onto the space with the Safe on it (ostensibly containing the secret plans). After scoring the Safe is immediately moved to a new location. So timing is everything as players control, chain, or mitigate when to activate Safe scoring to their best advantage. Whether your copy’s called Top Secret Spies, Under Cover, or the original Heimlich & Co., the game’s a fun, fast, socially deductive riff on the roll-and-move that still shines after all these years.
Jenga (released in the early-80’s) has twenty years on Villa Paletti as the most renowned stacking and dexterity game. But like many games in this SdJ bracket, Villa Paletti is a clever iteration; Jenga as an experimental jazz solo. You still build and stack and try not to topple, but in Villa Paletti you’re also constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul.
In Villa Paletti players collectively construct up to five floors of an abstract, open air “villa” or tower, held upright by sets of primary-colored wooden dowels of varying lengths and thicknesses. On a turn players must select and place a dowel on the highest current floor of the structure. This means that after all dowels have been placed on the first floor, it’s Jenga-time as one must remove a dowel from any existing lower floor and place it atop the highest existing floor.
If a player decides they can no longer remove or place dowels without toppling the structure then they must place a new floor. The five floors look like painter’s palettes and decrease in size as the villa rises, so placing dowels gets increasingly shakier and wobblier as your Villa tries to defy gravity, physics, and local building codes.
Players must work together well enough to build to the fifth floor of the villa, since that’s the only way to control your destiny as the victor; if the structure topples before Floor #5, the winner is essentially chosen at random. But if the top floor is reached, then the winner is the player who has the most dowels of their own color placed on the fifth floor.
Rules for dowel placement, leveling-up, and final scoring are a bit fiddly in the cold light of “twenty years hence.” But there’s a reason Jenga is an unstoppable crowd-pleaser, and Villa Paletti scratches that same itch. Stacking games are like sitting in the front row to hoot at fun popcorn horror flicks with friends: you’re fueled by the anticipation of an inevitable disaster that looms in the third act as you work your collective last nerves progressing through the (haunted) house. And you savor the delicious surprise of not knowing exactly who will be victims, or when and how the final jump scare will occur – all in the name of Jenga-esque fun.
Our Winner: Heimlich & Co
Well. That’s my bracket busted. Sometimes you fill out your picks with your head and other times with your hearts. Dexterity games whip ass and are criminally underappreciated in the current market. Their kinetic joy elicit far more whoops of joy, groans of defeat, and unforgettable moments. As someone who has spent a number of Opening Weekends in a Vegas sports book, I can assure you that this is the kind of energy that makes March Madness special. However…
Villa Paletti does feel more like a one-hit wonder as time passes. Rules for dowel placement, leveling-up, and final scoring are fiddly in the cold light of “twenty years hence.” And recent stack/build/topple games have vastly improved on Villa Paletti’s formula, including the Star Crossed and Dread TTRPG’s, and the board games Junk Art, Menara, Men at Work and Rhino Hero. Even a house of cards with a deck of Bicycles plays more smoothly. Besides, there’s only one game that can be played safely on glass tables and within the presence of pets or small children without added anxiety. Heimlich & Co. wins the play-in game outright in a contest that ends up not being that close.
Tomorrow: The Play-in Games of the SW Conference
Join us tomorrow when we look at another set of play-in matchups. In the meantime if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.