Games with polyomino tiles, what are more commonly called “Tetris pieces” unless you’ve got the Shinning, have been all the rage in board game designs in the last two years, with very mixed results. Familiar mechanics or pieces do not a good game make, unfortunately. Still, there are some great, mostly lightweight games out there that use these pieces well within their designs, asking players to think creatively about how best to place pieces now to allow them to cover more of their boards over the long haul. Here are the best games I’ve played that use polyomino tiles.
The simplest game on this list is also from Uwe Rosenberg, a flip-and-write game that almost anyone can learn and play and that’s extremely portable. Everyone starts with a paper with a blank 9×9 grid on it and will fill in one, unique 8-square shape on a card they get randomly at the start of the game. In each round, players will reveal two cards with polyomino shapes that can have from 1 to 7 squares and must fill in either one on their papers. If they can’t, they get a “second chance” and can flip one more card that they must fill in (and that other players can’t use); if they don’t, they’re out, but can still win if they have the fewest empty squares at game-end.
One of the best-looking games I own, Realm of Sand has only two sizes of polyomino tiles, three-square ones you draw from the supply and place on your board, and then one-square ones—which I suppose would just be ‘omino’ tiles—you use to cover those spaces, removing the three-square tiles so that you can potentially score those individual squares separately. You try to match patterns on three rows of cards in the display (like in Splendor), with each row offering more points and different bonuses, including special spirit tokens that come in two additional colors and are necessary to finish Level 3 shapes. I wish the game were a little longer, as you’ll probably find you run out of time before you get to finish much in the way of long-term planning, but the game does look fantastic and there’s a good idea at its core.
Tiny Towns uses polyomino shapes without actual tiles, instead asking players to place resources on their 4×4 boards to match the shapes required to build certain buildings, which then score in unique ways. The constraints of the board size and the need to place some buildings in specific places to score more points mean that the simple rules of Tiny Towns still yield require a lot of long-term planning—it is very easy to end up stuck and unable to make a legal play while others are still going, so while it’s a light game, it’s definitely not one for younger kids. The second of two expansions released this year, Tiny Towns: Villagers, is due out in November.
Cathedral might be a forgotten classic, originally published in 1978 by Mattel, and since moving to various other manufacturers and going in and out of print. It’s in print again, now from Family Games America, with higher-quality wooden pieces, although I still have my original plastic set from when I was a kid. Players compete to place their 3D buildings on an enclosed board in a way that blocks the other player from placing all of their pieces, or ‘traps’ one of their pieces completely, forcing them to remove it from the board. The player with the fewest squares on their unplaced buildings once nobody can make another move is the winner. You can see how this might have influenced Era: Medieval Age’s design, although that game is much more sophisticated and aimed at an older audience.
This reimplementation of Roll Through the Ages, both from Pandemic designer Matt Leacock, has players placing 3D building pieces with different footprints on their own plastic city boards, with each building type scoring in a different way. You gain resources and buildings via dice rolls on each turn, but those can also bring disasters that can tear down parts of your cities if you don’t adequately prepare.
Uwe Rosenberg made three larger-box games with polyomino tiles, each tied to a season—Cottage Garden, Indian Summer, and Autumn Meadow—of which I think Indian Summer is the best (although the name is rather dated). You’ll place tiles, selected from a rolling track, on your board of leaf-covered ground—it’s late summer in New England, so the foliage is colorful—and will try to position them so the one hole in each tile shows some treasure from the forest floor, whether nuts, berries, mushrooms, or feathers, which help you get additional moves or buy larger tiles for more bonuses. The app version of Indian Summer is very good.
Blokus turned 20 this year and is still quite popular, having found an audience among gamers as well as the mass market, making it one of the best games from a toy manufacturer (Mattel) rather than from a board game publisher. Each player in Blokus gets a set of plastic polyomino pieces where no two of their own pieces are the same, and must place them one at a time, but only touching the corners of any previous pieces they’ve placed. When you don’t have a legal play, you’re out. The player with the lowest total number of squares on their remaining pieces is the winner.
Also by Phil Walker-Harding, Bärenpark has players take tiles to cover up squares in their personal zoos, and then gaining rewards—which can include larger tiles worth more points—based on what they cover up. You also grow your zoo by gaining up to three new boards to cover. The endgame is a little wonky but the mechanics make great use of the polyomino tiles.
Most polyomino games involve placing such pieces on individual player boards, or occasionally some kind of shared board, but Silver & Gold, from Phil Walker-Harding (Gizmos, Cacao, Imhotep), is a flip-and-write game where the polyominos direct you to color squares on your own scoring cards. You’ll fill out a half-dozen or so larger shapes of 8 to 14 squares, filling them in one to four squares at a time, as everyone cycles through the eight-card deck of polyomino shapes once in each of the game’s four rounds. There are some simple bonuses available, but the learning curve here is very short, and the heart of the game is still planning around how to most efficiently use each shape as it appears.
Uwe Rosenberg’s best two-player title is a masterful use of these Tetris pieces, with no two pieces the same in the game and players taking them one at a time to try to fill out as much of their 9×9 player boards as possible. You’re building a quilt, patch by patch, and you spend buttons to get polyominos, which can return more buttons as income as the game progresses. Buttons are points at game-end, but you lose a point for each square left uncovered. There’s a smaller version called Patchwork Express, and a flip-and-write version for more players called Patchwork Doodle, but none match the original.
The game I probably mock most often, A Feast for Odin, does have a significant polyomino-placement component to its scoring, in addition to about eight other core mechanics, and the polyomino pieces are hilariously small, so I mention it just for completeness’ sake.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.