Top 10 Games with Variable Player Powers

Hello there boardgame-interested-friends. When I’m looking for a game to potentially purchase, one of the things I try to assess is whether it will have good replayability. To make the expense “worth it”, I am going to want to see the game hit the table several times — because of that, one of the game mechanisms that I most enjoy is variable player powers –> the idea that each person playing will in some way have abilities (powers) that are unique, different compared to the other players.

For me personally, this mechanism is great for motivating me to get a game out of the closet more often, because I can get excited about playing with a new ability (or set of abilities). Or at times, maybe I find a character or ability that I really like and want to see if I can get better with it, keep winning, explore it further…

So, on that note, for today’s Thursday top 10, I will be discussing my favorite games with ‘Variable Player Powers.’

Generally, I focused this list on competitive games (since so many cooperative games automatically utilize unique player abilities) but there are a couple cooperative titles that snuck their way into my top 10. Now, let’s get started:

#10 – Raptor

Many two player games will utilize the VPP mechanism to some degree, but the asymmetric abilities provided by Raptor make for a very fun and well-themed game. The raptor player is focused on survival…specifically for its baby raptors and getting them to safety, whereas the scientist player will use various methods to trap, tranquilize, and secure the raptors for further research. This game is a great example of creating an environment in which after one play, you will immediately want to flip sides and give the game another try to feel how the other side plays.

#9 – Smash Up

Smash Up, with all of its expansions, has numerous factions at this point, and the creators have done a good job of giving each faction its own style and ‘feel.’ Furthermore, the game’s core concept of smashing two factions together creates an even greater amount of mathematical options for gameplay. Like many ‘pre-deck build’ games, in Smash Up the fun comes in discovering a style you enjoy — aggressive, sneaky, controlling, action-generation, and so on. I need more plays of this game, but I can’t help but enjoy playing with the obviously aggressive dinosaurs.

#8 – Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealm

This is a relatively new game to my collection and my first play was not impressive (I was eliminated first and only after getting one turn in). But as I watched the game unfold, I noticed the nuances of play and started to understand how strengths and weaknesses can be utilized and exploited. I played with Hulk my first time and initially vowed to never play with him again — but then I started to understand how his powers work and I can’t wait to give him a second try. Some Marvel heroes are fliers (which is an annoying trait if you don’t have it). Other heroes defend well against certain attacks, a guy like Hulk just wants to Smash. This game has a King of Tokyo vibe to it — but I think Battlerealm does a better job of incorporating VPP. To fare well in this game, it is important to understand your character and how he/she best works.

#7 – Ex Libris

The VPP mechanism in Ex Libris is light compared to other titles, but it is present and can definitely make a difference in how you play a specific game and what kinds of choices you make each round. There are other mechanisms that take the lead in this game and that I most enjoy — worker placement and the puzzle of building your library shelves in the appropriate alphabetical order. That said, Ex Libris proves that VPP does not have to = huge variety. The impact of each character’s unique power is small, but it creates just enough separation to force different play styles and forces each player to consider their opponent’s strengths when making choices. I am thankful Adam P. McIver included this element in the game to make a fun design that much more enjoyable.

#6 – Magic Maze

In Magic Maze, there are 4 characters in play, regardless of the player count. And yes, each character has its own unique ability, but that’s not why I put the game on this list. Since every player can control any character, those unique abilities don’t really matter from a VPP perspective. Instead, what I am referencing is that during the game, each player (working cooperatively with their teammates) will have a unique action(s) to perform.

For example, I may be in charge of moving characters down and on an escalator. Nobody else can do that. I rely on my friend to the left to move the figures left and up, and my friend to the right to move the playing pieces right and explore.

As you can tell, this leads to quite a bit of chaos — fun!! — but chaos, nonetheless. Many cooperative games separate abilities into actions like Melee Fight, Range Attack, Heal, Defend… I appreciate that magic maze turns that concept into basic actions that go against the nature of how we play games and in doing so, creates a tense but exciting experience.

#5 – Gloomhaven

Like MOBA’s or many dungeon-crawl games, Gloomhaven gives its characters unique abilities (or focuses) that when combined in a team environment can create a solid force for success. When my team heads into a new dungeon, we begin…knowing that I will generally take the lead and absorb initial waves of monster damage — I can handle it and know how to make the monsters pay for their assaults. My wife can be relied on for ranged damage and healing, while my son is more balanced and can create havok in several ways. We also know that there’s a good chance that if the fight lingers too long, we may have to drag his tired body back out to safety.

The game is card-based with full, open hands — but timing and rhythm is such a huge part of Gloomhaven. Figuring out your strengths, when and how to use them best, and how to react to unplanned monster abilities takes time, but Gloomhaven provides plenty of missions to allow you to grow your character and adapt to its play style.

#4 – 7 Wonders

It probably doesn’t hurt that I just really love this game. That said, I appreciate that the ancient cities provide some VPP to the game. To start, each city will provide a specific resource to get you going (not a huge deal). The three wonders you will potentially be constructing come with their own unique abilities. Like many games that effectively implement VPP, it is rewarding to discover a city that fits your personal play style.

I also have 7 Wonders this high on the list because I have played with the Leaders expansion — this expansion generates more VPP-goodness with the leader cards and opens up further the possibilities for putting together a sound, successful strategy.

#3 – Downforce

At its heart, Downforce is a simple, but fun racing game with cards. Beyond that core element, though, the game is designed to create a ton of variety. The player count is 2-6 and any player amount works great, but will feel different (something hard to accomplish.) The car auction at the beginning means that from game to game you may be working with a different amount of vehicles. The strategy of handling one car won’t be the same as when you manage to have a garage of three colorful racing machines. The base game also comes with a double-sided board — two tracks to play on. And if you get the expansion, you will suddenly have four tracks to race around.

And then you also get the VPP — the special ability that each player will acquire. During the auction, not only are you bidding on cars (and deciding which color your hand of cards can best propel forward, but you are bidding on an ability each round). The ability you choose does a good job of influencing your play and if applied properly, can move your car(s) ahead a couple extra spots here and there to assure that you nose out the competition in the end.

#2 – One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Even though One Night features some vanilla villagers with no powers, there is a variety of characters with unique abilities that are fun to explore as you play game after game with your party group. Mixing and matching those villagers in different combinations can create some very interesting possibilities and leave plenty of villagers scratching their heads to try and figure out who is telling the truth. I love the puzzle created by these various powers and the challenge of figuring out how to utilize each role best — because some night, I’ll be the werewolf and my Pretend Game has to be On the Nose.

#1 – Santorini

Santorini is one of my overall favorite games, but when focusing on the utilization of the Variable Player Power mechanism, I think this game takes the top spot. I enjoy chess and I love that Santorini takes that style of strategic, small-board gaming and adds a fun Greek gods & heroes theme along with unique powers for each character.

This is a relatively quick game and thus I love to get multiple plays in as every session is a challenge to figure out how to best use my character and defend against the ability of my opponent. With over 50 characters to choose from, there are plenty of abilities and some of them play VERY differently. In Santorini, it can be so easy to fall into a trap and suddenly have the game end (in a loss) in a split moment. Because of that, focus and strategy are paramount — this is a wonderful and quick 2-player game.

Well, that’s my top 10 games with variable player powers. Did I miss your favorite? Please share in the comments — or follow me on Twitter @boardgamecrock1 and give your thoughts there.

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