Uncle Geekly ran a search on a popular game type, area control, and found more results than he thought. These games range from simple who controls the most regions to more complex games where area control is an aspect of the game. We’re talking starting area control or the similar mechanism area influence games, so we’ll keep it simple and easy to learn, but most of all, an area control game at its core.
Most area control or influence games employ a great build to the game, where players begin with small gains that they hope to build upon through game play. These games, more than many others, have a natural progression to them, and gamers can see why someone won. Usually, this is a game type for players who like to see the wheels turn or have a little more agency in a game’s outcome.
As usual, good old Geekly has some starter games for someone interested in this gaming genre. Let’s get to some of these smaller games and work our way up to one’s that are more complex.
We’re starting with an odd choice: Hanamikoji. It’s classified as more area influence as players compete for the attention of geishas. Hanamikoji also happens to be a two-player game, which is a little unusual as well. A group of seven geishas is placed between both players and they range in point value from 2 to 5. The first player to gain the favor of 4 or more geishas or has 11 points or more of geishas wins. This is what makes Hanamikoji area influence instead of area control. One must gain the attention of the most geishas. The game play is fast—a typical game lasts ten to fifteen minutes which is lightning quick for an area control or influence game—and it’s intriguing.
Each player is dealt cards that correspond with each geisha (for example, green twos are used to gain the attention of the green two geisha). They’ll use these cards to gain favor. The players also have four action tokens, and this is where things get interesting. Both players alternate turns using all their actions tokens. One action locks down one card from a player’s hand. A second action removes three cards from play that turn from a player’s hand. The third and fourth actions have some combination of handing your opponent some of your cards and they choose one or two of the cards handed them, and the player using these actions keep the rest. This is an excellent way of mitigating a bad draw. It also makes for a surprising amount of choices for a short and simple game.
Sometimes the oldies are the goodies. 2000’s Carcassonne—along with El Grande—all but popularized area control games. The two wrinkles Carcassonne adds are tile placement and worker placement. Bear with me as a quickly discuss tile placement; it does factor into area control. Each turn a player draws a land tile and places it adjacent to a tile already in the play area. These tiles will have roads, farms, cities, and/or cloisters depicted on them. When placing a tile, it must match the pre-existing tiles in the play area. Sides of tiles that show a farm can only be placed next to another tile side with a farm. So, random tiles dictate what constitutes an area. This was revolutionary at the time.
Once a tile is placed, the player may place a follower—or worker. Players gain control of areas by placing their workers on these spaces, and these workers can perform several jobs, depending on where they’re placed. Farmers work farms, monks live in cloisters, and so forth. The player with the most followers in an area when it scores gains the most points for that area. The game ends when the last land tile is played, and the player with the most points wins.
This combination of game mechanisms works well. So many other designers have used some combination of worker placement, tile placement, and area control because of how accessible Carcassonne is and these mechanisms’ inherent strategic flexibility. Carcassonne works as a great introductory game for all three game types. I’ll try not to add it to another list. No promises.
Sometimes gamers just want to conquer things. Small World takes place in a small world, where zany fantasy characters vie for control. There a lot of bells and whistles added to Small World. Each fantasy race like elves, trolls, and skeletons have their own race power, but each of these fantasy races are given one of 20 unique special powers like flying or ghostly that will make each playthrough different.
The concept is simple enough. When placing creature tokens, players start on the edge of the map. To conquer a land, they must use as many tokens as tokens in an area. If a player has enough tokens, they may conquer an adjacent land using the same method, so it’s likely that players will gain more than one area in a turn. In future turns, a player may choose to put their active race in decline (flipping their tokens upside down) and choose a new race. Players score points each turn for every area their races occupy; that’s for their active race and the race they have in decline.
At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins. That’s a common thread these games and a lot of other area control games share.
Small World does a great job of simulating combat without getting too in the weeds with it. It’s an area control game at its core with some nice window dressing, especially the use of variable player powers. Those race and special powers can be fun. Small World can also be the meanest game on this list. Players must know when to bail on a race and when to keep one. There will be a lot of hostile takeovers. It’s a small world after all.
So many of the best games on the market today use area control or area influence: Twilight Struggle, Star Wars: Rebellion, Scythe, Terra Mystica, Blood Rage, Twilight Imperium, and countless others. The games I just mentioned didn’t make this list because they get a little too complicated or they add more elements to the game than just area control.
The games I did include in this list will get new board game hobbyists the background they need to take on more complex games. Which games do you like to use as beginner area control games? You could place a worker to claim influence or it might make more sense to leave a comment.