“Dudes on a map” always struck me as a rather odd description for a boardgame genre, but it actually encapsulates the essence of the genre while allowing for the many variations that exist.
What is a dudes-on-a-map game? Essentially, it’s a combat game where you take a faction of “dudes” and run around the map trying to conquer as much territory as you can. Risk might not quite have been the first, but it’s certainly the most famous example of this type of game.
These games differ from traditional war games insomuch as they have ideal player counts in the 4 – 6 range and tend to be significantly simpler. In many ways, games of this type defined the Ameritrash label pre-2000.
They have been one of my favourite genres, but they haven’t been without their issues (player elimination and long play times, for instance). Fortunately, game design has improved significantly in recent years and this genre just keeps getting stronger and stronger.
So which ones are currently vying for the top spots? Let me tell you about my top 5 dudes-on-a-map games…
Make no mistake, Scythe is an engine-building Euro game disguised as a dudes-on-a-map game. You have a mixture of workers who spread out on the map gaining you resources and giant mechs that run around having fights with other players.
However, winning the game relies on careful management of the action selection system (which is great) rather than strategic warfare. I think it’s a fantastic game: the artwork is gorgeous, the decisions are really interesting, it has great table presence and doesn’t take too long.
The only reason it isn’t higher on this list is that it barely qualifies as a dudes-on-a-map game. Combat isn’t as important as it first appears and if Euro mechanisms aren’t you’re thing, you will probably be frustrated by how difficult it is to actually move your troops around the map.
Kemet is an Egyptian-mythology-themed game which is a few years old now, but no worse for wear. One of the great things about Kemet is the map. It’s very hard to design a map that doesn’t favour one position over another, but Kemet’s map somehow manages to place every player equidistant from every other player.
There is also a nice teleporting mechanism, which allows you to move to key areas very quickly. The name of the game here is area control and attacking. You gain income for controlling areas, which can spend on troops and upgrades, but you get points for winning a fight that you started. Winning as the defender gets you precious little so it really discourages turtling (building up in a corner).
It has a fantastic tech tree of abilities, but you never have enough time to get everything so there are lots of interesting choices to make there. The icing on the cake is the ability to acquire giant creatures that roam around on the map with your army granting them special abilities and looking awesome!
I used to love playing Real Time Strategy (RTS) games on the PC back in the 90s. Games like Warcraft, Age of Empires and Command & Conquer. No boardgame does as good a job of simulating that genre than Heroes of Land, Air & Sea.
The idea is that you send your workers out to gain resources and use those resources to build increasingly better buildings and troops, which you then send out to fight your opponents and conquer more land. There are a few things that Heroes does really well though.
The wrap-around map is ingeniously designed to make all the players much closer to each other than it initially appears (like Kemet). Each of the factions has unique units and feels very different. And you can never upgrade everything in one game so you can take a very different strategy from game to game.
2. Rising Sun
One persistent problem with dudes-on-a-map games is the grudge match. You get locked in combat over a particular territory with someone who took your initial attack personally and has made it their mission to claim that territory back at all costs.
Rising Sun deals with this elegantly through its territory token system. You get points for collecting as many different territory tokens as you can. So when you’ve conquered one territory and claimed the token, you generally want to move all of your troops out to focus on other territories. This provides for a very flowing game with lots of movement all over the map.
It also has a really thoughtful combat system where you can spend money to influence the outcome of the battle. Sometimes this can allow you to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes it can just allow you to score points even when you lose. It provides for a lot of interesting and varied strategies.
It also looks amazing, with possibly the best miniatures in any dudes-on-a-map game. Most points wins, so it’s more Euro than Ameritrash, but if that floats your boat, it doesn’t get much better than Rising Sun.
I only got to play this one recently, but it has risen to the top of the pile for a number of reasons. It has fantastic table presence with giant statues that gradually get assembled during the game granting stat boosts to the player that builds a stage. It also has the “creature factor” like Kemet, with giant monsters from Greek mythology.
The unique aspect is the heroes. They run around ignoring armies for the most part, completing quests and killing monsters, which, incidentally, is one of the four victory conditions. Either you kill three monsters (they’re tough!), or you conquer two large regions, or you conquer five small regions spread out across the map, or you occupy one single small region where a giant statue is completed.
This variety makes the games really interesting. You have to keep watching everyone and towards the end there are often several players very close to victory, but often for different reasons! I love it! Throw in a nifty card system for gradually acquiring unique special abilities throughout the game and it doesn’t get any better than Lords of Hellas for me.
Have you played any of these? Which is your favourite? Or is it one I haven’t mentioned?