I have always loved board games but didn’t always get the chance to play them. Before the pandemic, I would play in person with friends or family once every few months, but at the height of lockdown, I played over Zoom at least two nights a week. Switching from in-person to online play was a little awkward at first because Zoom makes cross talk difficult, so games that require a lot of teamwork or negotiation between players didn’t translate that well. That meant favorites like Settlers of Catan, which is way too social, were out. In their place, I started playing Ticket to Ride, in which you basically work alone, quietly trying to complete as many train journeys as you can by zigzagging across an illustrated map of the United States and Canada (other versions of the game include Europe, Asia, and Africa). It unfolds smoothly on Zoom without any need for players to bargain, stall, or scheme — at least not out loud — and there is little conflict unless someone blocks your route with their train car, which is annoying but somewhat rare. It’s a lot of fun, but after a while, I started to miss the drama — and I wanted more paths to victory than Ticket to Ride could afford.
Earlier this summer, when playing board games in person with friends was (momentarily) safe again, my brother, who’s a strategy-game connoisseur, told me about a new game he had started playing with his wife and our parents called Raccoon Tycoon. They had found it on a trip to a New Haven, Connecticut, board-game shop called Elm City Games.
It took only one weekend of playing Raccoon Tycoon with them to convince me to buy the game for myself. It cherry-picks the elements of my favorite games (the fast play of Ticket to Ride, the social interaction of Settlers of Catan) but is more engaging and fun to look at. As in Ticket to Ride, you win by collecting the most victory points, but there are multiple ways to earn them — amassing wealth and owning railroads, towns, or buildings — so it’s harder to get bored. There’s even fake money, as in Monopoly, which I like because it’s the only time in my life that I’ll get to slam down a wad of cash in exchange for a town, a railroad, or a factory building.
Part of what makes Raccoon Tycoon so fun is the design and the intricate, uncanny illustrations by painter Annie Stegg. The game is set in Astoria (no relation to the neighborhood in Queens), an imaginary land inhabited by animals. Each railroad you can buy through live auction is named after a different creature, with cards that feature rich-looking cats, dogs in top hats, foxes in bustles, skunks with pocket watches, lantern-wielding raccoons, and bears polishing their glasses and drinking tea. Every time I play, I discover some clever detail that makes me laugh (my current favorite is the mossy landscape painting on the card for a town called Mole Hill).
Another perk is that you can play with as few as two people or as many as five, and though you have to pay attention to multiple things at once, it’s not so complicated that a beginner or child couldn’t win on their first time playing. Each round lasts about 90 minutes. I haven’t tried to play Raccoon Tycoon online just yet, but with the Delta variant scaring some of us back into hiding, if it does come to that, at least I know I’ll be entertained. And maybe my fiancé and I will finally have what we need to wean ourselves from our current guilty pleasure: watching all 18 seasons of Top Chef.
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