These past few weeks, my family has been bracing ourselves for our cross-country move to sunny Arizona. As everybody knows, July is the perfect time of year to move there… for anyone looking to be baked by Mother Nature.
If there’s anything that is just as reliable as as a hot summer in Arizona, perhaps it would be my enjoyment of a solid auctioning game. There are a surprising number of ways that bidding and auctions can be incorporated into a board game, and I’ve had a blast exploring this entire spectrum of possibilities over the years.
In celebration of our own auctioning games launching on Kickstarter next month that are designed by the master Auctioneer himself, Reiner Knizia, I thought it fitting to explore the many games which have fostered my love for this genre. The notable titles below are huge reasons why we loved auctioning game Hot Lead and quasi-auctioning game Pumafiosi enough to publish them ourselves.
Rather than rank these bidding games in order from my most to least favorite, I decided it would be more fun to award my favorites by category and type. Hopefully these categories help you to find a new great game that would fit in perfectly with your collection…
Meanest Auctioning Game
The Estates wins this category by a country mile… or maybe a city block? You can’t possibly prepare a newcomer for the lurking savagery of the colorful, blocky Estates. What starts out as innocent one-time around auctions to place out pleasant building blocks onto city plots rapidly crumbles into nasty maneuvers and cold-blooded tactics.
Players can have their hopes dashed when their tall, valuable tower is covered and reclaimed by another player. But even worse is the calculated sabotage of an entire row that contains your most valuable investments. When the game ends, any incomplete rows transform from positive points to negative points. And if I don’t have any personal investments on a particular row, then you better believe that’s my number one target.
The Estates can go so far as to see the entire board fall into ruin with the player who earns the least negative points claiming the blood-soaked victory.
Best Large Group Auctioning Game
Auctioning games typically take a “the more, the merrier” approach, and perhaps nowhere is this more true than Reiner Knizia’s Medici. Up to six players bid with their precious points on goods to fill their ships. More players leads to more competition on the board and for the precious cargo, and navigating this wild journey is all kinds of fun, especially at a full table. It’s these kinds of auctioning designs that often blur the line between strategy game and party game.
Best Small Group Auctioning Game
There are quite a few auctioning games that play well at 3 players, but there are very few that play best at 3 and well at only 2. I would argue that Reiner Knizia’s Hot Lead and Pumafiosi are strong upcoming contenders in this category, but for now Biblios is one of the few titles that excels within small game groups. The reasons why it made my Top 10 Filler Games are the very same reasons why it’s such a great auctioning game. And every time I’m with one or two other gamers looking for a fun, quick romp, Biblios is always an easy pick.
Best Game with just a Hint of Auctioning
Oath, Sidereal Confluence
These two mammoth games are like melting pots of all kinds of tasty mechanisms, and one of their shared flavors is that of auctioning.
In Oath, these auctions take the form of claimed banners with either favor or secrets that pile high on them. Both banners are frequently critical to the victor’s success, and the main way to reclaim them is through outbidding the current stack that the owner used to claim them. Of course, you can also just simply sidestep the auctioning all together and bring in your war bands to steal them by force, but that can often be an even trickier route to take.
Sidereal Confluence’s auctions are one of the few mechanisms that breaks up the loud, lively simultaneous negotiation that makes up core of this game. Yet, like Oath, this mechanism is not to be dismissed, as earning the right research or technology card with a strong bid of ship tokens can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Best Looking Auctioning Game
Huh. A game about buying and selling art is the best looking auctioning game. Go figure. Of course, I’m not counting Oath as an official auctioning game for most of these categories or it would just win everything, including this one. I’m just surprised that this category wasn’t more contested. Going through all of the possible options, it seems that most auctioning games are pretty average looking, or the art is nice but the generic theme brings it down, but at least there are a few notably exceptional box covers mixed in. At any rate, Modern Art is a pleasure to lay out and look at thanks to its large, diverse art cards and wooden gavel.
Best All-Around Auctioning Game
Back-to-back victories for Modern Art! If you know anything about it, you should have seen this game being a strong performer on my list from a mile away. That’s because Modern Art possesses FOUR different types of auctions that keep each session saturated with bombastic bidding from start to finish. It’s also designed by Reiner Knizia himself, who practically has a trademark on auctioning mechanisms. I’ve already spoken plenty about Modern Art, as this one earned a spot among my Top 10 Knizia Games and Top 50 Board Games of All Time lists.
Most Unique Auctioning Game
Hibachi, Q.E., Cyclades, Downforce
That’s right, this one is a four-way tie for me! Hibachi, Cyclades, and Downforce all earned their way onto this category because they mix auctioning with something else entirely to make a truly distinct experience.
Hibachi (or the original version, Safranito) is a dexterity set-collection game of tossing your poker chips facedown onto a board. Once the chips are out, they are flipped face up and function as bidding tokens for the actions spaces that they landed on. I’m eager to try out the new Hibachi when the kickstarter fulfills soon.
Cyclades is a member of the classic Matagot area control trilogy composed of Kemet, Cyclades, and Inis. This one mixes auctioning, in the form of offerings to the gods, with area control where the player who wins an auction for a particular god earns their blessing and executes their category of actions.
Downforce is a modernized version of a racing game originally designed by Wolfgang Kramer. Players will place bets on cars as they seek to help give their own racers the edge. But the way you earn a car is through bidding on them at the start of the game. Whatever amount you pay for your winning bids will be subtracted from your score at the end.
The final auctioning game that feels refreshingly unique, Q.E., doesn’t need any fancy mechanical hybridization tricks to be here. In fact, it even takes some inspiration from Reiner Knizia’s classic High Society in the way that its highest cumulative bidder is eliminated from victory at the end. Yet the reason it still feels extremely unique is because players are allowed to bid any amount from zero to infinity. If that piques your interest, then Kyle sums up the rest of the game nicely in his 6-minute review.
Best New(ish) Auctioning Game
I recently shared how Nidavellir won me over with its novel coin bidding and upgrading system despite the rest of the design playing things a little too safe. Yet as I looked back over the past few years, I was surprised to find that nothing else tops it among the newly released titles of this genre. Most of my top picks are over 3 years old, and many are even decades old. So if you’re looking for the freshest auctioning game around, you can’t go wrong with the dwarf-infused Nidavellir.
Best Auctioning Game I Haven’t Played (Yet)
Keyflower, The Great Zimbabwe
On my shelf of opportunity and among my preorders are the legendary designs Keyflower and The Great Zimbabwe, respectively. These are two games I anxiously await the chance to play, as Keyflower ranks highly across the board from the many trusted hobbyists I follow while The Great Zimbabwe appears to be a solid step up from our household favorite Splotter game, Bus. I’m very much looking forward to bidding with workers in Keyflower and cows in The Great Zimbabwe.
Most Regret-Filled Auctions
Age of Steam
No game makes you feel worse for over-spending in the auctions or under-spending with your bid than the legendary Age of Steam by Martin Wallace. That’s because bidding determines the turn order for the rest of the round, and even going one turn too late can mean the difference between making a lucrative route or delivery and being royally screwed by your opponents. To make matters worse, if you don’t plan and budget your money with the meticulous care of Ebenezer Scrooge, then you can quickly find yourself plummeting back down the income track to bankruptcy and elimination.
Best Auctioning Game of Chicken
Condottiere, Skull, Taj Mahal
We’ve got another multi-way tie here between Condottiere, Skull, and Taj Mahal. If you’re not familiar with the term “game of chicken,” I typically imagine two drivers speeding their cars toward each other, waiting for the other to be the first to “chicken” out by veering off course before a deadly collision. That’s basically what these three games feel like, and I love ‘em for it.
Condottiere is the perfect card game for feigning your intentions and bluffing your hand as you play in a series of battles over individual regions. Yet if that’s not sneaky enough for you, then Skull is bluffing distilled down to its purest form. It’s another one that earned a place among my top filler games as it perfectly blends bluffing and bidding into a hilarious romp. Yet for those looking for a fully fledged, strategic board game, no big box game does chicken better than the tense auctions of Reiner Knizia’s Taj Mahal. We can only hope that another publisher picks this one up and reprints soon.
Best Shared Incentive Auctioning Game
Irish Gauge, Chicago Express, Modern Art, The Estates
Auctioning mechanisms and shared incentive gameplay go together like peanut butter and jelly. Except I’m allergic to peanuts, and I prefer my jelly on warm toast, not cold bread…
Whatever, it’s fine. Here we have four games that band players together as easily as they tear them apart across evil auctions and engaging gameplay. Interestingly, all four of these games see players selecting the item to auction off on their turn from a range of options. Typically, you want to see some of your opponents invested in the same things as you to help protect those investments for external colluders. The key is to benefit more from all those shared investments than anyone else.
Best Overall Auctioning Game
This list would be automatically disqualified if it didn’t feature the legendary Ra among its rankings. It’s difficult to describe exactly how Ra achieves the pinnacle of auctioning games, but perhaps that’s related to the fact that it’s also a difficult game to acquire (at least until its inevitable reprint).
The thing that makes Ra stand above the rest is the dynamic tension it provides thanks to its irresistible push-your-luck + auctioning combo within Knizia’s signature set collection scoring. This entrancing, unsolvable beast is light on its feet through its perfect pacing and emergent gameplay. You almost have to play it to believe it.
Two New Auctioning Games Coming Fresh out of the Oven
Hot Lead, Pumafiosi
Believe it or not, master Auctioneer Reiner Knizia still isn’t finished riffing on one of his favorite mechanisms. When he presented to us a wide variety of fresh, unpublished card games for our consideration, we were delighted to discover these particular designs. Hot Lead and Pumafiosi both hit the spot as 20-minute capers perfect for a casual family gathering or a hobbyist filler activity. Even after all the great auctioning games I’ve explored, I’ve found plenty of reasons to love the distinct auctioning twist that Knizia has given to these two games.
In Hot Lead, players participate in sealed bidding by using the 11 card hand they start with. Similar to the second phase of For Sale, players select a card from their hand, place it face down on the table, reveal their cards simultaneously, and earn a specific reward from the middle depending on what everyone else bid. Yet in Hot Lead, the low cards in your hand are just as valuable as the middle and high ones! That’s because the highest bidder doesn’t lay claim the most valuable reward. Rather, they simply lay claim to the card that is positioned closest to deck in the column of displayed cards.
Hot Lead also features the tasty combination of push-your-luck and auctioning that fans of Ra have come to love. Of course players want to win the higher value cards on display for their inherent points, but the juicier prize lies within the formation of sets of exactly three cards of the same type. You see, a set of three cards of the same type represents enough evidence collected on one criminal organization, perfect for convicting them for 10 bonus points at the end of the game. The only problem is that once a fourth card of that type is collected, you’ve investigated too aggressively and scare the criminals underground, losing yourself all four cards of that type!
What results is a game of reading your opponents’ minds—predicting which evidence cards they are hungry for and what numbers they will bid with—in order to claim the right evidence for yourself and force the wrong evidence onto your opponents. It’s a roller coaster of a game that punches way above its simple rules and zippy playtime, and we can’t wait for you to enjoy it as well.
While Hot Lead is unquestionably the auctioning game of Reiner Knizia’s Criminal Capers Collection, Pumafiosi offers its own interesting combination of quasi-bidding and quasi-trick taking. I say quasi because each round sees participants playing one card from their hand face-up to the table in clockwise order with the second highest card winning the trick or auction or whatever you want to call it. Why the second highest, you ask? Because Pumafia members don’t want to stick their necks out too far or they’ll end up in prison or dead.
The winner of each round takes their winning card and uses it to claim a point-scoring step on the Pumafia Hierarchy. The catch is that those points won’t be scored until the end of the game, and opponents can claim your spot and knock your card down by playing higher value cards on that same step. The twist that really makes you second-guess where to stake your claim in the Hierarchy is the fact that every step you get knocked down earns you negative penalty points in addition to the shrinking Hierarchy points.
We are now less than a month away from launching the Kickstarter campaign for Reiner Knizia’s Criminal Capers Collection, and we need your help to bring these games to life. We here at Bitewing Games do not currently have the luxury of bringing these games direct to retail. Our only hope is that those who share in our passion for juicy auctioning games, for clever Knizia designs, for thoughtful productions and a striking table presence, will also share in our vision for the Criminal Capers Collection.
If you would like to support Bitewing Games for the meaningful content we share, for the refreshing games we are crafting, and for the exciting plans we have in store, then the best thing you can do is subscribe to our newsletter or social media channels of your preference, prepare for our August Kickstarter, and share this upcoming campaign with anyone and everyone who may be interested.
Thanks for your support. And please share with us your favorite auctioning games, especially the ones that were left off this list! I’m always hungry for more of that good stuff…
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.