Losing at Board Games: It takes an artist, some coffee, and a crate of fish

by Jon Beall



This column will be discussing some tableau-building games.


What is a tableau?

Merriam-Webster defines tableau as “a graphic description or representation” or “a striking or artistic grouping”. I’ll go along with their definition, as it seems futile to start an argument with Merriam-Webster.

What is a tableau-building game?

A tableau building game is one where a fundamental mechanic of the game involves playing cards in front of you. These cards represent your progress through the game, and typically winning one of these games involves having the most number of points as represented in your tableau.

There are a lot of games that use this mechanic; the purpose of this column is to discuss a few of these games, and how they play with two players.


This is the first tableau-building game that the Political Mastermind and I owned. Citadels involves each player picking a character (in secret) and then using that character’s abilities to either negatively impact their opponent, or build their tableau, or both.

Citadels is a good game with two players, but it is probably meant for a larger group. It does not hit the table often in our two-player matches, but it will always have a warm spot in my heart for one reason:

One of the characters that can be selected is called “the artist”.


The artist is hanging out on my neighborhood stop sign.
The artist is hanging out on my neighborhood stop sign.

The artist looks a bit like a madman, and his main role is dancing around your city, adding gold to your buildings. I picture him spinning around in circles, throwing gold everywhere as onlookers stare at him and wonder why the city planner is letting this crazy loon run wild.

San Juan

 San Juan and Race for the Galaxy are both inspired by the board game Puerto Rico. I’ll discuss San Juan first. San Juan is an easy to learn game, and is the first game that we owned that involves a deck of cards serving almost every function in the game. The deck of cards in San Juan is used as production (you draw a card face down to represent your plant producing), as payment (you discard cards equal to the cost you are paying for a new card), and as buildings built in your tableau.


These are my favorite two things about San Juan:

1) it is easy to learn

2) there is a coffee roaster.


best. card. ever.
best. card. ever.


I enjoy the coffee roaster so much that I wish I could randomly insert it into other games that I own. Every game should have a coffee roaster… imagine how awesome it would be to be playing a fierce game of Agricola and then WHAM! you play the coffee roaster. Now your workers can get twice as much done! It doesn’t matter that the card came from another game! No one will be suspicious that I’m holding a San Juan card while playing Agricola

Race for the Galaxy

 The board games community on Google+ convinced me to finally pick up Race for the Galaxy. My hesitation was two-fold: I was afraid it was the same game as San Juan, and the theme looked unrelentingly geeky with strange symbols all over the cards.

The Political Mastermind, upon seeing the cards in RFTG, was immediately skeptical.



We decided to give it a try, figuring that since we knew how to play San Juan we would be able to easily learn RFTG. Oh, how wrong we were. RFTG still stands as our hardest game to learn, even over some intense classics like Twilight Struggle. It took us about three games before we were convinced that we were playing correctly, and the manual was not a particularly good help.

But! After we learned it, we started playing faster. and faster. and faster. RFTG is more complex than San Juan, and once we were about ten games in on RFTG there was no going back. The possibilities for strategy were intoxicating, and RFTG hit our gaming table almost uninterrupted for a few weeks.

This may sound like a glowing endorsement of RFTG, and it is. I really enjoy this game, especially with 2 players. But I don’t want to teach anyone how to play this game, and I have the gut feeling that a new player would be immediately overwhelmed if they were playing with a table full of experienced players.


All I have to say about Fleet is: wow.


Fleet has one deck of cards which serves multiple purposes. Your cards pay for other cards, they pay for licenses, and they function as ships on your tableau. If that isn’t hard working enough for you, your card can even flip over and captain a ship.


There is another set of cards in Fleet which serve as licenses. During the first phase of every turn, players bid on the licenses which then allow them to fish. These licenses cover one of six possible fish, and give you the authority to sail boats which capture that kind of fish.

In addition, the each license carries a bonus, enabling you to pick up cards or save money on certain stages of the game.

Once you have sailed a boat (which goes in your tableau) you turn over a card to represent a captain on that boat. Each captained boat in your tableau receives a crate of fish every round until the boat is full of fish and can’t take any more.

The game ends when you have run out of licenses to auction or run out of fish crates to load on boats.

You score victory points for your boats, your fish, and your licenses. The Political Mastermind and I played yesterday, and she beat me 91-51, which I only mention because the name of this column is “Losing at Board Games”. I don’t want you to think I’ve lost any street cred – I’m still losing spectacularly at board games.

Fleet plays smoothly with 2-4 players, and the game moves along at a brisk pace. This is one of my favorite games of all time, and is my favorite tableau-building game.

It is extremely easy to teach, but if all players have to learn from the rulebook (if no one already knows how to play) then the initial run-through will take some time. Perhaps the rulebook will be clarified in future editions, but we found ourselves consulting rules forums on BoardGameGeek on multiple occasions in our first play through. This was nowhere near as difficult as our first run through of Race for the Galaxy, but was more complicated than it needed to be.

This is just a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic game. This game is simple to learn, but multiple strategies must be employed over the course of a game in order to achieve victory. This balances what I like about Citadels and San Juan (easy to learn) with what I like about Race for the Galaxy (complexity).

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