What: Werner Hodel’s 1997 riverboat navigation game Mississippi Queen, published in German by Goldsieber and in English by Rio Grande Games.
Why: This category is something of a contradiction. The classic definition of a strategy game is a game which contains no chance and no concealed information, such as go and checkers. The classic definition of a tile game is one where players place pieces on a surface, such as mah jongg or Scrabble. Hybridizing the two concepts led to a boom of brilliant games in the 1990s, where players built the “board” with tiles to play wildly different games each time. The gold standard is Kosmos’s The Settlers of Catan, but for my Deutschmarks, the most enjoyable is Mississippi Queen. Each player helms a paddlewheeler down the Mighty Mississip, picking up Southern belles for delivery to the delta. A boat contains two six-faceted paddlewheels, one controlling speed and the other coal. You start out moving speed 1, and can rotate the speed wheel up or down 1 each turn. If that’s not good enough for you, you can burn off coal to accelerate or decelerate some more. The problems you face are twofold: First, turning such a large boat is difficult, and second, you have no idea where you’re going. When a player crosses a line on a tile, that player places the subsequent river tile in whichever direction he or she wants. Run out of river and you’re gator bait. Glory be.
Impact: Mississippi Queen won the prestigious 1997 Spiel des Jahres, the German game of the year. Shortly thereafter, the game was expanded by The Black Rose, which added watery deathtraps and a black boat that the rearmost player could use to disrupt the plans of the leaders. Sadly, both games are out of print now, but copies often become available on sites like BoardGameGeek. If you’re the kind of person who likes fun, seek it out.
Personal Connection: At some point, my longtime friend Jay Tummelson became the smartest man in American gaming. At Mayfair Games in the early 1990s, he spotted the tremor running through Germany and snatched up games like Manhattan, Modern Art, and of course Settlers. Then he founded Rio Grande and pounded out Mississippi Queen, Bohnanza, Puerto Rico, and hundreds of others, becoming the king of the American Eurogames industry. (I should note that he also published our game Gloria Mundi, so I may be a touch biased.)
Other Contenders: Mexican Train, a dominoes game so good I kept an entire trial jury occupied with it for a week; Acquire, Sid Sackson’s property-building masterpiece; Cathedral, a tile game where the tiles are 3D medieval buildings; Carcassonne, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s festive jaunt through a medieval countryside; Agora, James Ernest’s game of haphazardly building a Greek marketplace; Blokus, which is the game you would make if Tetris pieces fell on your head; two light games that are literally poles apart, Hey! That’s My Fish! and Ice Flow.