Vinci - 3-6 players, 2 hours. A game where each of you starts a number of civilizations of different sorts: seafaring, revolutionaries, diplomatic, etc., sweep away some of your foes or find a safe niche, then fend off incoming civilizations of others. Some people dislike games with direct conflict, but the constant rise and fall makes it hard to carry grudges, since the civilization that attacked you is soon itself in decline. Everyone's attacking someone else most of the time, so no one takes offense when they're attacked. Day of Wonder's Small World is supposed to improve upon the design, though I admit that I like the Mediterranean theme better.
Puerto Rico - 3-5 players, 1.5-2 hours. You each colonize your own island of Puerto Rico (don't try to make too much sense of this), making plantations, quarries, indigo factories, marketplaces, wharves, and many other types of buildings. The clever mechanism is that each turn each player picks a role: builder, captain, trader, and so on. The interplay among these roles and timing of each is the key to the game, and determining what helps you the most relative to others is a fascinating problem. There are different paths to victory, the main two being shipping goods to the king or buying expensive buildings. The only weakness of this game is that a new player can accidentally favor the person to his left by too-frequently calling Craftsman (which inevitably is followed by Captain). The expansion doubles the number of buildings that can be used (though we've yet to ever use the forests). All in all, a lovely system.
Dominion - 2-4 players, 15-45 minutes. Don't believe any of the stated theme for this game, you're not building or fighting or any such thing. It's really more of a race, or maybe making an engine for victory. You're building a deck of cards, eventually trying to collect victory point cards. To do so well you first have to get cards that have a higher purchasing power. You can buy better treasure cards, or kingdom cards that give you special actions. You play a large series of 5 card hands, using as much of your hand as possible. Victory point cards just clog up your deck, they have no other use than giving you points at the end of the game. So a key element is deciding when to go from building up your deck to getting victory points. What makes the game particularly clever is that the set of kingdoms cards is random, 10 out of 25 (or 50 with the upcoming expansion), so each game is something of a puzzle to solve as to your best card mix. The inventor lives in town, so I've been able to playtest some proposed cards - fun!
Carcassonne - 2-5 players, about 45 minutes to an hour to play (if people think about things). You lay down tiles to build towns, roads, fields, and abbeys. You can place a man on the tile you put down, claiming one of these (usually incomplete) resources. A road can give some quick points and you get the man back when it connects two crossroads or towns. A town is worth the most points when it's completed, and you then can reuse the man. Abbeys give points, but you only get the man back when the abbey is surrounded by other tiles. Fields can rack up a large number of points, but only if they border completed towns and only if you have the majority of fields next to a town. Men in fields are committed to them for the duration of the game, so some strategy and luck are needed to decide which are the key fields. All in all, a great game - it's quick, but with some deep decisions. The tile mix is important for the truly hardcore (here's another tile mix page). At this point, we've moved on to Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which has a more strategic feel to it. Others swear by the Carcassonne: Inns and Cathedrals expansion, though I haven't tried it yet. There are lots of other expansions to this excellent game.
Apples to Apples - 4-10 players, 15 minutes on up (as you wish). A fun, simple party game, where a judge turns over an adjective ("aromatic") and all the other players try to match it with a noun card from their hands ("Michelle Pfeiffer", "Saddam Hussein", "cows"), putting the cards in a pile. The judge then decides which noun card most closely matches the spirit of the adjective, and that person gets a point. Judgeship then moves on to the next person. There are also rules to encourage fast play (e.g., last to put in a card doesn't get to play), but we never play with these rules; usually we just encourage whoever's lagging to hurry up, dangit. The fun is in the judging, where the judge can have a good time explaining his or her logic, and the players can petition for why milkshakes are melancholy or Abraham Lincoln is sultry. There are lots of expansion sets and variants. After a certain point you burn out on this game, but it's fun while it lasts.
Other good games (i.e., TBD): Hollywood Blockbuster (a bit like Ra), Can't Stop (pleasant for figuring risk/reward and just for the joy of rolling lots of dice), Agricola (a tense game throughout), Pandemic (cooperative, and also very tense), Thurn and Taxis, Bohnanza, Take 6, El Grande, Hey! That's My Fish!, Transamerica, and of course Settlers of Catan (though a bit annoyingly random at times).
Eric Haines / firstname.lastname@example.org