Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition): 90-81

Welcome back! This is the second part of my Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition)! This means I’m tackling 90-81. If you need a recap on 100-91, click here. Otherwise, let’s get on with it!

90. Dead of Winter

dead of winter cover

Dead of Winter is a tough one for me. On the one hand, it’s given me some of the most memorable and truly cinematic moments of my board gaming career (is career the right word? Using it anyway). On the other hand, it’s got some serious flaws that have prevented me from getting it to the table lately.

Let’s deal with that icky stuff first so that we end on a high note. For one, this game is loooong. And I don’t mind long games, but this is also a game where a lot of what you’re doing is really similar. You visit locations, mill that location’s deck looking for what you want, maybe kill some zombies and rinse and repeat for 2-3 hours (make that even longer if you’re playing with the full five player count). The game’s drama comes forth in the uncertainty of whether there is a traitor or not and the infighting that should hopefully begin brewing but if you have an uneventful game where nothing triggers that sort of dissention, Dead of Winter can draaag.

Like most semi cooperatives, this is also a very fragile design. One player can torpedo the whole thing, and I’ve even experienced it happen. I played a 5 hour game of this (at the 5 players, which I would not recommend) once and it all ended with one of the players saying, “If I don’t win this, no one will” and then she proceeded to throw all the hard work we spent the entire night doing and cost us the game. You can argue that’s a player problem and not a game problem, which is valid, but I’d also argue that a player making those kinds of moves is perfectly allowed in a semi cooperative design space so we shouldn’t blame a player when they take that avenue. Her decision is even pretty thematic given the game’s post apocalypse theme. While I applaud Dead of Winter for creating a moment that we could see in a zombie movie, I’ll also point out that there’s a reason every character in those movies is miserable. Add to this that luck can WILDLY swing this game (and not in a fun way) and you can see why I have reservations about Dead of Winter.

Okay, so this is a top 100 list so maybe I should say good things about the game, eh? Despite these things I just mentioned, this game still has a place in my top 100 because it does other things very, very well. I mentioned before that the game can often create moments of infighting and mistrust and when those do occur, the game comes alive. One of the first times I played this game, there was an incredible moment where me and another player had a ten minute debate about whether or not to cast out our third member of the colony. That third member pleaded with us as we discussed his fate, and I was full of dread and guilt as we made the decision to exile him. The fact that a game was able to create such an intense, visceral moment with just bits of cardboard continues to impress me to this day.

Dead of Winter is also richly thematic and atmospheric, something that will always draw me to a game. Characters all have appropriate special abilities given their occupation before the end of the world, items make thematic sense and this is all supported by wonderfully immersive, blood drenched art. There is also the famed Crossroads system found in this game, in which players can trigger story moments based on something specific they do on their turn. While they don’t trigger as often as I’d like, when they DO it once again creates great, cinematic moments that make this game feel one of a kind.

So, yes, I have problems with Dead of Winter, but when it’s good, it’s freaking good.

89. Samurai Spirit

samurai spirit cover

The next game is a pure cooperative, this one designed by Antoine Bauza. His most famous cooperative is Ghost Stories (now reprinted as Last Bastion), but I actually think I prefer Samurai Spirit.

Samurai Spirit is a push your luck game that basically rips off the plot of Seven Samurai. You and your friends are a bunch of samurai protecting a village from bandits and you can also turn into animals. Okay, I don’t remember that scene, but I’m sure it’s in the Director’s Cut.

How you defend the village is by drawing cards from a deck of bandits and placing them on either the left or right side of your character’s player board. Placing it on the left means you’re matching up  symbols that may be present on the bandit card, which helps prevent various penalties at the end of the round. If you’re not able to match symbols or simply don’t want to, you can place it on the right which triggers a mini game of Blackjack. Every bandit has a number and when you place that card to the right of your board, you adjust a little meter by that amount. Every samurai has a number on that meter that is a ‘sweet spot’ that allows them to activate a special power but if you go beyond that you bust and you’re out of the round. So, yeah, totally Blackjack but with samurais.

Players also have the option to instead support another player and pass a token representing their passive special ability to someone else. This is at the cost of placing a facedown bandit card by the village board, which could result in the village being harmed if that bandit card is revealed to have a ‘fire’ symbol at the end of the round. This adds yet another element of push your luck, but this ability to support other players can create really cool combos between everyone at the table. It’s a cooperative game where you actually feel like you’re cooperating and that’s always a plus, yanno?

Samurai Spirit isn’t perfect, which keeps it here in the high 80s. The game can be somewhat hit or miss depending on the construction of the bandit deck. Since the bandit deck is built from a bigger supply of bandit cards that are randomly chosen, you can end up with some bandit decks that are way too hard or way too easy. This is particularly true at the lower player counts, where the deck is smaller and therefore the deck makeup could be a lot less balanced. Will you be facing Satan’s Personal Army or the bandit equivalent of The Three Stooges? It’s a toss up, and that can create either very frustrating games or very boring games.

Despite these balance concerns, when Samurai Spirit is firing on all cylinders, it’s a hidden gem of a cooperative game. Lots of fun, with just the right amount of cooperation, luck and tactics.

88. Magic Maze

magic maze cover

Let’s move onto number 88: Magic Maze, the cooperative game about fantasy characters stealing their equipment back from a mall.

Magic Maze has a couple of real unique selling points. One, it’s real time which isn’t SUPER unique but it does separate itself from a lot of other turn based co-ops. Two, you don’t control a pawn or character in this game. You control actions. I may be the guy who moves characters north and east, but you may be the character who moves them south and through portals and Jenny over there may be the one who can trigger escalators and move pawns west. The game is played out over an ever-evolving map of tiles that come out throughout the game and you need to pay attention to when it’s your turn to move a pawn and navigate this sprawling labyrinth as it spreads across your table like a fungus.

Did I mention you can’t talk? Because you can’t talk. Between this and The Mind on my last entry, I’m beginning to think I just don’t like talking to people? Anyway, you’re not allowed to communicate and direct people around unless a pawn goes to a little hourglass symbol. This helps reset the clock and allows players to talk until the next pawn is moved, in which case it goes back to pretending like everyone’s at a funeral.

There is one way to communicate and it’s hilarious. It comes in the form of a big red pawn called the “Do Something” pawn and it is a hellish invention. When you see somebody blankly staring at the board when they’re OBVIOUSLY supposed to move the dwarf pawn down to the next tile, you simply pick up the “Do Something” pawn and start smacking it down in front of them like a gavel to get their attention. If you’re a jackass, at least. You could just set it down in front of them politely, but where’s the fun in that? Watch with delight as your friend frantically darts their eyes around the board, wondering why you’re going to town on the “Do Something” pawn like the world’s most coked up judge.

All these rules combine to make one of the most manic, fun gaming experiences you can ask for. Magic Maze is easily one of my favorite games to bring out to new people, watching their eyes light up as they realize they’re about to experience something they’ve never had before. And then watch that amazement and wonder turn to pure hatred and fury as you’re slamming the “Do Something” pawn in front of them.

Magic Maze would be higher if it was a little bit deeper. The game offers a wide range of scenarios and extra rules as you get longer and longer into the game, but most of them are kind of ‘meh’. The best scenarios are definitely the first three or four, where the game is much more basic. I hear the expansion fixes some of this, but I unfortunately don’t have it. Despite this, it’s still a solid entry on my top 100 and I never have anything less than a blast when playing this game.

87. Kreus

kreus cover

Kreus is definitely one of the more obscure and underrated games on this list. It is yet another cooperative game with limited communication, which leads me to believe this top 100 may have just been an excuse to confess my issues with communicating with people.

ANYWAY, MOVING ON.

Kreus is a game where you and your fellow players are gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, trying to create a planet because you’re bored or something. I’m dreading having to explain it and the rules beyond that, because this is a surprisingly tricky game to explain despite how simple it is. The first four or five times I taught this game, I managed to miss a rule every time and somehow it was always a DIFFERENT rule. Very embarrassing. So strap in!

(takes deep gulp of air)

In Kreus, the planet you and your teammates are trying to make is represented by a flowchart. The flowchart is made up of features of the planet, like mountains, river, fish, flowers, etc., as well as the Elements that make up those features. The Elements are just different colored orbs. A deck of cards that contain these features and elements is completely dealt out to the players. Then, round by round you and everyone else are going to try and make the planet according to the flowchart, starting from the top and working your way on down until you’re able to cap it off with the “Planet” card, which is the cherry on top of this cosmic sundae. The actual gameplay is playing cards simultaneously and face down. Starting with the first player, you reveal and place your card into the flowchart you’re trying to make, as long as its legal. If it’s not legal (as in you played an element that isn’t needed for the played features or you played a feature that doesn’t have its prerequisites built yet), the card is discarded and your margin of error get that much thinner.

(long exhale)

Okay, so that’s a sort of okay description. The trick in this game is, as I mentioned, the lack of communication. Obviously if this game allowed you to just freely discuss the contents of your hands, you would be able to find the perfect order to play your cards. Having restrictions on that makes this a tense puzzle of reading your players moves and making your best guess of what they played so YOU know what to play. You can spend gems to activate special actions that help alleviate the restrictions, like showing a card to another player or exchanging cards, but even that comes with some sense of reading between the lines (“why the hell did they show me a fish”).

This game is very reminiscent of The Mind, in that you’re trying to play cards in a certain order without being able to actually discuss it. The Mind is more based from a social perspective however, while Kreus is more seeded in trying to game the system. Based on what’s in your hand, versus what has already been played, versus what special abilities other players have triggered that round, you can make your best assessment on what you need to play. When you and your teammates manage to play the correct sequence of cards without a single word spoken? That’s the kinda magical moment that keeps Kreus on my top 100.

86. Monikers

monikers cover

Monikers is a game that is based on a public domain game that has several different names: Fishbowl, The Hat Game and Celebrity are a few of the names given to the DIY versions you play with your friends, while people in the hobby will recognize Time’s Up as an officially published version of the game system. So, you could technically put any of those versions here at my 86 spot but Monikers is the version of this game that I own and have played endless hours of, so that’s the one I’m putting on my list.

Monikers/Fishbowl/The Hat Game/Celebrity/Time’s Up is a game where two (or more) teams are trying to guess more words and phrases than the other team(s). These words and phrases are on cards that make up a unique deck for that game. On your team’s turn, a clue giver is trying to give clues to lead your team to guessing whatever is on that card. Pretty standard party game stuff, so far. But there are two unique twists that make this game as memorable and funny as it is.

The first twist is that the game is played over three rounds and each round narrows the amount of stuff the clue giver can say and give to their team in order to guess the word. First round is easy: the clue giver can say whatever they want as long as it isn’t part of the word or phrase itself. Second round is tougher: in this round, the clue giver can only give ONE word to lead their team to winning the card. Third round is madness: only charades/silent gestures can be used to get your team to guess the card.

Which of course leads me to the second twist that makes this game system so brilliant. During these three rounds, the SAME deck of cards is being used. This means players have to remember from previous rounds what words have been guessed and use that to their advantage as the clues get vaguer and more stupid as the game goes on

The end result is a hilarious game where inside jokes and callbacks run rampant. As you get deeper and deeper into the game, your brain latches onto references from previous rounds, creating a cacophony of laughter whenever they pop back up. This leads to situations like in a recent game for me, where somebody pantomiming a fire breathing dragon led to someone (correctly) shouting, “BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.” Another saw a friend of mine running to block a door with his back, fear and panic on his face in order to get across the word “Hodor”. Perhaps my favorite of all is a very simple moment when my friend gave a serene, welcoming gesture with his hands and face which got me to correctly guess, “Richard Attenborough”.

It’s these little moments that pepper a night of Monikers that make it such a fun, hysterical experience. There’s not much else to add, so I’ll close with my favorite Monikers story. One night, I introduced it to three friends and we were playing 2 v. 2 for an hour or so. Another friend came in during the third round of a game and saw us guessing extremely specific prompts off of fairly basic charades gestures. She stood there dumbfounded, not realizing it wasn’t normal Charades, and just softly said, “how did you guys do that.”

If you like party games or often find yourself playing games in big groups, it’s tough to go wrong with Monikers. Just be prepared for the entire night to go by without realizing it.

85. Claim

Claim cover

2019 brought a lot of big life events for me. I moved in with a girlfriend for the first time, I was asked to be my best friend’s best man in his wedding, I got my first ever paid freelance writing job. But these are all dwarfed by one realization I made in 2019. And that realization is: I really like trick taking games.

Now, I don’t want to be too broad here. I still don’t care for your standard, ‘old fashioned’ trick taking games like Euchre or Bridge. Things that you would play in the kitchen of your grandparents’ house/apartment need not apply here. But when a trick taking game takes that basic premise of playing suited cards and trying to win tricks mixes that up with some other mechanism or clever twist? I discovered in 2019, that I adore those kinds of games. The first game of this type is Claim, a two-player trick taking game about trying to win factions in a goofy, medieval fantasy world.

There are a lot of cool little twists that make Claim so unique and clever. The first is the round structure. Claim is played over two rounds, where the first round is spent winning cards that will then form your hand in the second round. This itself is brilliant, but then when you add in the faction abilities, Claim somehow gets even better. You see, the suits in Claim are different factions/ fantasy races. You have things like Knights, Goblins, Dwarves, etc. These factions all have a specific ability that activates at certain times. For example, a Knight card will always beat a Goblin card, even if the Goblin card has a higher value. Then there’s the shape shifting Dopplegangers, which act as wild cards and can allow you to play them instead of the led suit. These abilities add an extra layer to an already delicious parfait of subtle strategy and quick, satisfying card play.

Add to this some incredible art by The Miko, who is easily one of my top 3 favorite artists in board games, and you’ve got an amazingly charming card game that you’ll want to play again and again.

84. Take 5

take 5 cover

Also known as 6 Nimmt!, Take 5 is an incredibly clever and chaotic card game that can be taught to just about anyone.  In the game, you and the other players are simultaneously playing cards face down and then revealing, watching as they get sucked into an ever growing display of cards, hoping they latch onto a spot that doesn’t result in you taking any cards from said display. This is one of those games where taking cards means taking points and points = bad.

The display of cards is made up of four rows, all of which have a maximum card capacity of five. When you play a card from your hand, starting with the lowest number played, you must then place that card at the last spot of one of the rows following these two rules: rows must be in ascending value AND you must place your card next to the card it’s closest in value to. So, if I play a 28 and the four rows end in a 57, 83, 17 and 26, I would place my card next to the 28.

But what happens when you can’t place a card down? What if your card is lower than the ends of all the rows? As a penalty, you take a row of your choice and replace it with the card you played. Sounds awful, BUT it’s not as bad as the other thing that might happen. Remember when I said each row only has a max capacity of five cards? Yeah, this game is called Take 5 for a reason. If you play a card that would end up being the 6th card in that row, you’re forced to take ALL five cards in that row, leaving behind the card you played to start a new row as a shameful reminder of your folly.

Thus creates a wild, raucous experience of pushing your luck and playing the odds, hoping that you can dodge sucking up any cards like an over eager vacuum cleaner. Every card you play feels like a coin you’re dropping into a slot machine, with the revelation of everyone’s cards acting like the pull of the lever as you desperately hope to see that nobody interfered with your plans. When things go well, you breathe a sigh of relief as you harmlessly place your card into its rightful spot, your muscles relaxing as you live to see another day. But when something you didn’t predict does happen, and you’re stuck putting your card at the end of a truly nasty row? It’s a hilarious exercise in futility, as you watch helplessly as your card slides into spot as if being drawn in by a tractor beam that you can’t control. Then, like a rogue Mento falling into a bottle of Diet Coke, the row explodes and ends up in your lap as the entire table laughs and high fives.

It’s tense, it’s exciting, it’s hilarious. Yes, it sucks when you get stuck with a bunch of cards with high point values (represented by bull horns for some reason), but this is a rare game where failing can be as fun as succeeding. This is mostly because EVERYBODY is suffering at the table, as volleys of groaning and cursing go back and forth in an exercise I can only call Misery Tennis. But while everybody else is groaning, you’re laughing and when YOU’RE groaning, they’re laughing. After all, this I just a small 30 minute card game, not some sort of 3 hour Euro. Best to not take it too seriously and enjoy it, even if you just had a stratospherically bad round.

Take 5 is one of the most recent additions to my collection (thanks to an amazing review by Shut Up and Sit Down) and the fact that it has already broken onto my top 100 shows all you need to know about it. I can definitely see this game being even higher come 2020.

83. Celestia

celestia cover

I may have mentioned it on my previous list (jesus, two entries in and they’re already starting to blend together, please help), but if I haven’t then allow me to say it now: I effing love push your luck. In fact, it is my favorite board game mechanism. As such, when a game is centered on that mechanism, I’m inclined to like it. It’s no surprise, then, that Celestia finds itself on my top 100.

Celestia is a push your luck game in the style of Incan Gold, where you and a group are pressing forward on an increasingly dangerous path, and the crux of the game is deciding whether to stay and take guaranteed points or to stay juuust a bit longer to squeeze out a bit more. While Incan Gold has you going through a fairly generic temple setting, Celestia has you travelling on a steampunk style airship, making pit stops in a vibrant Wonderland-esque cul-de-sac of floating cities.

Celestia is played over a series of ‘journeys’, which involve moving from city to city. At each city, a new captain takes over making this either the most fair, egalitarian group of air travelers ever assembled or the most indecisive. Whoever the captain is must roll a certain number of threat dice, the number of which gradually increases throughout the journey. These threat dice might be rolled to a blank side, which reveals no threat (awesome!), or show some sort of threat icon (booo!). The threats involve things like ‘Sky Pirates’, ‘Lightning’ or ‘A Whole Shit Ton of Birds’. The captain must beat these threats by playing cards from their hand which have a matching icon. If the captain does, congratulations! Onward to the next floating city that definitely isn’t just an LSD hallucination! However, if the captain CAN’T play cards to beat the threats? Well. Hope your family took out a nice life insurance policy, because that airship is going DOWN.

The key here is that before the Captain reveals whether or not they can defeat the threats and safely fly everyone to the next city, every other player gets to decide whether to stay with their fearless leader or parachute on down to the current city tile the ship is on, grabbing a victory point card from the city. Victory points increase down the path, which entices people to stay on board but the chance of getting NO points can scare even the most stronghearted explorer. After all, you know what they say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the flaming airship wreckage.

While players decide whether or not to drop out, the Captain can say whether or not they have the cards to beat the dice. The fun part is, they can tell the truth or bend it to their advantage. This extra bit of bluffing is what makes Celestia sing, and it creates lots of table talk and negotiation as people try to figure out what to do. Every game I see alliances form, with two or three people becoming each other’s Ride or Die, always jumping ship at the same time or sticking together during even the darkest of times. It’s hilarious when one of these alliances goes deep down the journey’s path, managing to snag a high point victory card from one of the final cities as everyone else bitterly mumbles under their breath. It’s even funnier when an alliance foolishly crashes together, making one wonder if Kool Aid is one of the in flight refreshments.

Like many push your luck games, Celestia is full of laugh out loud and stand up moments. Add in the extra social dynamic of bluffing and table talk, and you have an easy top 100 entry for me.

82. Mysterium

mysterium cover

Ohh, Mysterium. I have such conflicted feelings about you, you beautiful bastard. Mysterium is a cooperative party(ish) game where one player is a ghost who has been murdered and the rest of the players are trying to figure out the who, where and how of said murder. The ghost does this by giving cards with surreal, dream like illustrations on them to try and point the other players to pictures of suspects, locations and weapons.

It’s easily become one of the most popular gateway games in the hobby over the past handful of years and it was one of my favorites upon first becoming a board gamer. I do have conflicted feelings about it, however, and I simultaneously think the 82 spot is too low AND too high for this game.

Let’s start with the negative: this game is a bear to set up. This is ostensibly a party game, which means you’ll be playing it in, you guessed it, party type settings. The problem is, party games should take no longer than five minutes to set up and play and even that is pushing it a bit. I can’t count how many times I’ve been setting up Mysterium with a big group of people watching me expectantly, as I apologize profusely for taking so long to set up as I rummage through the box like it’s a crate of Legos, looking for the exact right piece. There’s lots of shuffling, randomly picking cards, finding duplicates of all those cards, shuffling and randomly picking again based on each player in the game, then getting everything set up in the exact right area, and more and more and more. What’s worse, a lot of what’s being set up is the secret information for the ghost which means nobody else can really help them out. This results in scenarios like mentioned above, with most of the group staring blankly at one person as they clumsily sort through cards like the world’s least prepared amateur magician. I have decided against bringing Mysterium to many parties because I dread that cumbersome and long set up time.

Another big minus for it is that despite this game’s fairly simple rules overhead (person plays a card which other players then have to link with another card), there are some real fiddly bits that can grind the game down, ESPECIALLY with the end game. I HATE the final round of this game. I won’t go into the gritty details of it, but the last round, assuming your group makes it there, has this real contrived, convoluted set up and pay off that never fails to feel like the game has fallen flat on its face. If there was ever a second edition of this game which smoothed out the end game and streamlined set up (WITHOUT app assistance, that’s cheating), Mysterium would probably be in my top 50 games, not just my top 100.

Phew. Okay. Now that I’m done railing against this game, let’s talk about why it is in my top 100! That’d probably be helpful.

Despite its rough edges, Mysterium still sits on my top 100 because I love the rest of the game so damn much. I love its theme and concept. It’s unique and immersive and the rule where the ghost can’t talk and can only communicate via knocking on the table is one of my favorite rules ever. The art is astounding. And I’m not just talking about the dream like vision cards the ghost is doling out for clues. I mean the art representing the suspects, the parts of the mansion, and the weapons is fantastic as well. It has this somewhat dark, Victorian era tone to it that perfectly fits the theme and further helps to make this one of the most atmospheric games you can play. And speaking of playing the game: that’s amazing too! I am very much a right brained individual, so games that focus on creativity and imagination (usually a staple of party games) are right in my wheelhouse. I love being the ghost and trying to figure out how to link the cards in my hand with the cards I need to get the other players to guess. As the paranormal investigator, I love trying to get inside the ghost’s head and to spot connections among the visions I’ve been given. All of these things combine to make a truly special gaming experience, even with the loud complaints I logged against it.

So, yeah. As you can tell, I have mixed feelings on Mysterium. It might be the most flawed game on this list, but the fact that it’s on here tells you all you need to know.

81. Circle the Wagons

circle the wagons cover

Loyal readers of this blog know I love me some Button Shy. Button Shy is a game publisher that’s been making a ton of waves in the industry lately, thanks to their portable wallet games. They’re appropriately named since they literally come in a little wallet. Besides the unique packaging, these games also have another trademark: they’re all comprised of only 18 cards. These microgames often pack a big punch despite their diminutive size and I’ve reviewed Stew, Sprawlopolis, Tussie Mussie and Seasons of Rice over the past year in an effort to showcase how awesome this publisher is.

Yet here we are at number 81 with a Button Shy game I HAVEN’T reviewed yet, something I quite regret because it’s one of my favorites from the company. Circle the Wagons is a two player tile laying game (played with cards) where both players are competing to make the best frontier town. Cards involve symbols of various Wild West tropes, like six shooters, bottles of moonshine and forts. These icons are laid on top of various land types, such as mountains, plains and deserts. The goal is to take these cards and puzzle them together in such a way that you earn the most points, combining points given from your biggest contiguous areas of each land type AND points from three random public scoring objectives.

This is all pretty typical tile laying stuff, so what separates Circle the Wagons from the rest? That lies in its brilliant drafting mechanism. Taking its name quite literally, you take all the cards available in the game and put them in a giant circle. Players then take turns drafting the cards they want to use from the circle starting with the first available card. BUT you have a choice: take that first available card for free OR jump ahead in the circular queue to grab something that might seem a little more beneficial for your landscape. The catch being, all the cards you skipped? They go straight to your opponent.

With this simple but incredibly clever system, Circle the Wagons becomes a superbly tactical experience that has you sweating every decision, despite the fact that it’s a mere 18 cards. Do you jump ahead to take that card that fits perfectly in your landscape, knowing you’re giving your opponent a ton of stuff for free? Or do you play conservatively, tip toeing down the circle, daring your opponent to be the first to jump ahead and play the part of a Wild West Santa Claus? It’s tight, it’s addictive and at just around ten minutes per play, it’s incredibly quick. Like many of the microgames and fillers I’ll have on this list, it’s one you’ll easily find yourself playing repeatedly in the same sitting, the board game equivalent of a bag of potato chips. If you’re new to Button Shy and are looking for a starting point, Circle the Wagons is as good as any.

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That’s another one in the books, folks! Thanks for joining and check back in a week or so for 80-71!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 100-91

Hello there! And (*extreme John Hammond voice) ‘Welcome to my Top 100 Games of all Time!’ (*end extreme John Hammond voice*)

If you took a mosey on through my blog, you’ll notice my most recent post was announcing that I have been ranking my 100 favorite games so that I could post them over the course of the next couple months right here on the blog. I’m sure you thought it was a bluff and that there was no way I’d ever go through with it and so did I. But here we are! My parents will be so proud, FINALLY.

I’m gonna get to the games ASAP, but just a few bits of housekeeping. As most content creators do when they make a list of this type, I’ll be doling it out in sections of ten games, starting with 100-91. I’m sure this goes without saying, but these are MY favorite games and not necessarily what I’m saying are the BEST games. These are just the games I’ve grown to love over the past few years, particularly in 2019. It’s insane how many games there are that I truly, truly love and it’s sad how many had to miss the cut. It’s also worth noting just how fluid a lot of this list is. A game in the 90s today could easily see itself in the 50s next week based on a great play or two. That’s how close a lot of these games are for me. So, if you’re wondering how certain decisions are made, or why ‘x’ game is ahead of ‘y’ game, you are completely in agreement with me. I mentioned in that earlier blog post that I held tortoise races to decide close ties and that probably wasn’t smart because the authorities came to collect all my tortoises shortly after that post went live. Not only is it incredibly lonely now, but I had to actually THINK and DECIDE what games were better than others. Sigh.

With all that in mind, let’s start the list!

100. The Mind

the mind cover

 

One thing you’ll notice on this list is that I really enjoy cooperative games that have limited communication between players. I really enjoy trying to cooperate with teammates through intuition and subtext rather than having some Alpha gamer directing my pawn around the board like they’re an air traffic controller. So, it is no surprise that I love The Mind, a game where the most important rule is that you literally cannot talk to each other.

The Mind was a bit of a sensation when it came out last year, being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (the ostensible Game of the Year award) and putting wunderkind designer Wolfgang Warsch on the map. The rules are so simple, I thought I misread them the first time I saw them. The Mind is comprised of a deck of cards number 1-100, and a certain number of cards are dealt to each player each round. Then, the group must simply play their cards in ascending order with no mistakes. The catch? You cannot communicate in any way. No talking, no gesturing, no subtle wagging of an eyebrow. You somehow need to play your cards strictly by reading the room and getting into a rhythm.

If this sounds bonkers, it’s because it is. Trying to get into a cadence with your friends simply by existing in the same space feels as much like an Orwellian sociological experiment as it does a game, but it produces some truly memorable moments. When you and two other people lay down a ‘27’, a ’29’, and a ‘30’ in quick succession, it’s magical. When your friend plays an 84 after a 62 with barely any time in between, the whole table will groan and curse at them. Every time I play this game a new great gaming memory is created and isn’t that what board games are all about (this is the part where the studio audience goes, “awwwww”)?

On a personal level, one thing I’ve been impressed with is how my love for The Mind increases with each play. When I first played it, I enjoyed it but had a feeling that the novelty would fade after repeated plays. The exact opposite has happened. Every time I play it, I love The Mind a little bit more.

And as someone who has spent most of his life in awkward silences, it’s tough to find a game more fitting for me than The Mind.

99. GoodCritters

goodcritters cover

I haven’t played many pure negotiation games, but I may need to change that if GoodCritters is any indication. GoodCritters, which is a retheme and reimplementation of a game called Tiefe Taschen, casts players as anthropomorphic animals in the Mafia trying to divvy up the loot after a heist. I dunno if there is a Venn diagram out there representing people who are both furries and fans of Scorsese movies, but boy would they like this theme! Loot cards come in different denominations, and every round a player takes the role of the Boss and takes a certain number of those loot cards and splits them up however they see fit. This is the part where everybody starts arguing with each other.

After everyone is done swearing, players play action cards which allow them to either approve the deal or reject the deal, which could result in the Boss being ousted. BUT there are also action cards which let you skim off the top of the loot deck or even rob another player. Playing one of these action cards mean you’re essentially abstaining from the vote which could have implications over the exchange of power.

The ruleset is incredibly open, which means a lot of the heavy lifting has to be done by the players and the various metas they create. This means that if you have a group of shy, sheepish players who are going to try and be nice and fair, Goodcritters maaaay fall flat. BUT if you have a group who is willing to form petty alliances and be mean to each other for little to no reason, congratulations! You may be terrible people, but you’ll have a good time with this game!

The first time I played this game, we played three games of it back to back to back. Over those games, hilarious moments and storylines formed that I still chuckle about. This is far from the deepest experience, but any game that can create such laugh out loud stories is worthy of a top 100 spot in my book.

98. Notre Dame

notre dame cover

After starting with two somewhat light games, let’s wade a bit into the deeper part of the pool. My number 98 is a mid-weight Euro by Stefan Feld called Notre Dame. Explaining Notre Dame feels like I’m running down a Stefan Feld Design Checklist. Mid weight, dry Euro? Check. Setting is Medieval Europe? Check. Point salad? Check. A looming threat you need to keep at bay, lest you take a penalty? Check. Lots of browns and a somewhat dull look? Check. Those of you playing Stefan Feld Bingo at home likely have most your card filled by now, I wager.

Notre Dame is a heavily card driven game set in Medieval Paris where players control districts surrounding the titular cathedral. Every round, players draft a hand of three cards and then spend two of them to complete certain actions. Majority of the actions involve placing a cube into specific boroughs of your district and then completing the action associated with that borough. The cool thing is that the strength of the action is often determined by the amount of cubes already present. For example, if you place a cube at the bank, you get one coin. But when you place a SECOND cube there, you get two coins and it keeps going up from there. It reminds me of a sort of tighter version of Architects of the West Kingdom, a worker placement game that featured a similar ‘your actions get more powerful with each piece you have at that spot’ gameplay loop.

This creates an interesting decision space where you’re constantly wrestling with the fact that you need to do a little bit of everything vs. the fact that focusing on just two or three boroughs is a more efficient, powerful use of your cubes. Further complicating this is the ever-present plague, something that activates at the end of each round and will wreak havoc on your game if you let it get out of control. I had a friend in one game who flippantly said, “I’m not gonna worry about the plague” and then he proceeded to lose by a mile. Turns out being a grimy slumlord DOESN’T pay. You HAVE to take actions against the plague which means it takes away from actions you could spend bettering your engine and collecting more resources. It’s an agonizing balancing act and creates a richly tactical experience.

I have only played a few of Feld’s designs, but Notre Dame definitely makes me want to play more. And I know I was being a bit of a dick earlier about the color scheme and art, but I actually find the somewhat bland art style in this game charming.

It’s a little tricky for me to get to the table since most of my friends find it too dry, but I think Notre Dame is a joy to play and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of old school Euro.

97. Condottiere

condottiere cover

Anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will immediately recognize Condottiere as something familiar…this game is basically Gwent. Now before you start overloading the comment section (lol, someone commenting on one of my posts, that’s funny), I am well aware Condottiere came out before Gwent and that Gwent was inspired by this rather than the other way around. I’m just saying it so people have a touchstone. As someone who put hundreds of hours into The Witcher 3 and having roughly half that play time consumed obsessively with Gwent, Condottiere feels like spending time with an old friend who has a slightly different haircut from the last time I saw them (‘Hey Gramps…uh…nice mohawk’).

In Condottiere, players are vying over control of 13th century Italy with the end goal being to either control 3 adjacent territories on the board or simply controlling 5 in all. These territories are won by playing battles, which is where the Gwent similarities start to pile up. Players are playing cards from their hands, most of which are soldiers with values attached to them. Ultimately, by the time the battle ends you want your little battle line of cards to have the highest value so that you can claim the territory with one of your cubes.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There are a handful of special cards that spice things up like Grandma’s marinara. There are drummers which double the value of your battle line, there’s a Bishop who destroys every copy of the highest valued soldier (what a cranky old man), there’s even a card that ends the battle abruptly, resulting in hilarious moments where someone wins a territory with one dude holding a crossbow in their line.

At its core, Condottiere is a tense game of hand management. You’re constantly debating whether you want to spend your best cards and really commit to winning that territory, or if you just want to retreat and save your hand for another day. In a clever rule, if you’re the only person with solider cards in your hand in between battles, the round actually ends and you have to discard your whole hand, thus meaning hoarding till everyone else is depleted won’t work. When you throw in some politicking with your friends, the game REALLY comes alive. The last game I played of this was an absolute blast, and a lot of that had to do with the constant fragile alliances being made and immediately being broken as people were selfishly trying to win each territory for themselves.

If there is a main gripe I have with this game that keeps it from being higher on the list, it’s that you can really be boned by a bad hand of cards in this game. I usually don’t mind luck of the draw, but in this game it stings a lot more for some reason. Probably because there isn’t much of a way to mitigate a bad hand and since you’re stuck with it for an entire round, it can be deflating to watch battle after battle being lost. I once drew a hand that was essentially a high school marching band, with nothing but drummers and very few soldiers and it was not fun.

Outside of this unfortunate luck of the draw, Condottiere is a fantastic card game that seems to get even better with each play.

96. Herbaceous

herbaceous cover

Perhaps the most charming and relaxing game on my list, Herbaceous is a lovely little push your luck game about collecting and potting herbs. If you were ever looking for a Hobbit Simulator, this might just be it.

Herbaceous’ gameplay is incredibly smooth and simple. There is a deck of cards made up of different types of herbs, like dill, bay, and Herbert Hoover (just kidding). On your turn you draw two cards from the deck and you need to put one in your private garden (a card stockpile only you have access to) and one into the public garden (a card stockpile that EVERYONE has access to). The catch? You draw these cards one at a time, meaning you must decide what to do with the first before ever seeing what the second one might be. Sure, that tarragon looks awfully tasty, but if you put that in your private garden, what if one of the rarer cards, like chives, shows up? Then it’ll be available for just ANYONE to grab, and nothing irks me more than my friends getting chives that belong to ME.

Further adding to this press your luck mechanic is the set collection mechanism that powers the scoring in the game. You have four different pots in front of you to collect sets of herbs and they all have different set categories. One pot only takes sets of identical herbs, while one only takes sets of pairs and another requires a set of unique herbs. Once you pot a set of herbs into one of those containers, it’s locked down for the rest of the game. Making things even worse, this decision needs to be made BEFORE you draw cards, meaning you must decide before knowing what kind of herbs you could potentially add to your sets-in-progress. Herbs haven’t been this tense since…well…ever.

What I love about Herbaceous is that despite the tension that comes from the push your luck mechanisms, it never feels too stressful. As I mentioned before, this is a very relaxing game. The fact that the art is beautifully done by Beth Sobel, one of the industry’s best artists, further adds to this game’s zen like charm.

Another quick point in Herbaceous’ favor is that it’s got a pretty good solo mode. I have been doing a lot of solo gaming over the past year, so I’m always on that lookout for a good solitaire variant. While I certainly wouldn’t buy this game SOLELY because of this mode, it’s good enough to burn 10-15 minutes and to keep this game always in the back of my mind.

Also: there is a bonus point card that is called The Biscuit and it’s literally just a picture of a biscuit on a plate and oh man does that never fail to make me smile.

95. Ex Libris

ex libris cover

There are going to be a lot of games on this list where I’m going to say, “This game would probably be a bit higher if it got to the table more often” and Ex Libris is one of those games. Ex Libris had a lot of hype when it was first released and it’s gone somewhat quiet since then, which is a shame because this game’s pretty damn good.

Ex Libris is a game that is set in a magical fantasy world, but instead of slaying goblins or diving into dungeons for treasure, you’re setting up a library. Yep, hope you’ve brushed up on the Dewey Decimal system lately!

It’s easy to raise a sarcastic eyebrow and go, “Libraries? Seriously? What, is this Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Overdue Book?” but the theme is one of the best things about this game. If you want a game about mindlessly killing orcs and dragons, go to Kickstarter and take your pick from the hundreds available. But how many games let you build a fantasy library??

How you build this library is through a fusion worker placement and tile laying. On your turn, you place a worker down on one of a constantly rotating batch of locations, and the actions you do help you with gaining cards or laying down cards. The cards feature the spines of books (all uniquely named!) as well as symbols pertaining to the genres of those books. The building of library involves putting these cards down in a tile laying style puzzle, trying to collect certain symbols while taking care to keep things in alphabetical order.

I will admit, I am much more fond of the tile laying aspect than the worker placement part of the game. Puzzling out where to put books in your library can be excruciating. Do you really want to jump from B to F? What if some ‘D’ or ‘E’ books come into your hand? You’re always pushing your luck against the clock. If you’re too conservative and barely build your library, other players can rush to the end and leave you with a library half their size. But play too cavalier and you may lock yourself out of good options that come down the line.

I love this puzzle so much that I wonder if maybe this game wouldn’t have benefited from being stripped down and turned into strictly a card game, where the only mechanic was tile laying. BUT, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love about the worker placement chunk of the game. For one, everybody has a special worker who is some sort of fantasy archetype, like a wizard or witch or trash golem (huh?). Not only are these special workers adorable custom meeples, but whenever you place them on a spot they activate a special, often thematic power. The aforementioned wizard can use his magic to slide his book shelves around, giving him versatility in the construction of his library. Meanwhile, the Gelatinous Cube swallows and takes cards from any players foolish enough to share a location with it. I definitely sense there may be some balance issues as some powers seem waaay more useful than others, but that doesn’t bother me too much. It can be used as a handicap for players who aren’t able to grok the game as easily as others.

The other unique aspect of the worker placement portion of Ex Libris is a bit more of a double-edged sword. In this game, the worker placement spots are not a static selection of actions. Instead, they are location tiles that are constantly getting swapped in and out, meaning every game is going to have a fresh and somewhat chaotic feel to it. On the one hand, this is great. I love how each location feels thematic and the art that goes along with it, oozing personality with each tile. But what I don’t love is having to learn and relearn these locations throughout the game. If you play this consistently, it’s probably not an issue. But as someone who doesn’t get this game to the table nearly as often as I’d like, it can be a bit daunting for new players and it’s honestly one of the reasons why I sometimes hesitate to pull it out. Again, this makes me wonder if a straight up card game version of Ex Libris wouldn’t have been a smarter move.

Despite those complaints, there’s a reason why this game is still on my top 100. It’s got a great central puzzle, its whimsical art and theme burst with charm and personality, and it too has a very enjoyable solo mode. Give it a shot, I feel like this game has unfairly been lost to the annals of time (read: 2018, which is definitely the annals of time in board game years).

94. Schotten Totten

schotten totten cover

I love a good two player card game, especially if they’re packed with tough, tense decisions. If you do as well, look no further than Schotten Totten. Designed by game design great Reiner Knizia, this game has also been published under the name Battle Line. While Battle Line carried a Carthaginian ancient warfare theme, Schotten Totten is about Scottish clans trying to increase their territory by passive aggressively kicking boundary stones back and forth. They are ostensibly the same game, but I will take Schotten Totten’s theme over Battle Line’s any day and the difference in production values between Iello’s Schotten Totten and GMT’s Battle Line is laughable. One has humor and personality and vibrant colors (Schotten Totten) and the other (Battle Line) has art and graphic design that looks like it was made in Print Shop ‘95.

Schotten Totten is classic Knizia in its simplicity to depth ratio. On your turn, you play a card and you draw a card. When you play a card, you’re playing it to one of the many stones that divide your side of the board from your opponents. You’re basically trying to make 3 card poker hands on your side that beat the hands on your opponent’s side. And that’s it!

And from this simple seed blossoms a beautifully tense flower of a game. You and your opponent are in a constant game of Chicken over the stones. Commit to only a few stones and you show your hand too quickly, allowing your opponent to zig while you zag. But play to too many stones too early and you’ll wear yourself thin, not allowing you any escape valves when you realize a hand may be lost. You’ve got to balance keeping your options open with forming strong foundations and this is both scream inducing and addicting.

There’s not much else to say about Schotten Totten. The fact that it’s been around as long as it has in two different versions is all you need to know.

93. The Quest for El Dorado

el dorado cover

Hey, look who’s back! It’s Reiner Knizia again! That’s cool, he’s fun.

Whereas Schotten Totten is one of Knizia’s stalwart classics that has stood the test of time, El Dorado is a much more recent offering from the Good Doctor. That doesn’t make it any less respectable and it is in fact widely considered one of his best games in years. El Dorado is Knizia’s foray into deckbuilding and it makes you hope that he returns to the genre soon. He seamlessly blends deckbuilding with a race element that creates a super fun experience.

In The Quest for El Dorado, you are an explorer trying to make it to the fabled lost city of gold, El Dorado which seems fitting because El Dorado is the only damn place explorers seem to be going in board games. Like most deckbuilders, everyone starts with an identical deck of cards. These cards represent your movement abilities as well as some gold which aid in buying new cards for your deck. Green cards let you use machetes to slice your way through green spaces while blue cards feature paddles allowing you to move through blue spaces. Gold cards double as movement cards to move through yellow spaces (which are villages, so apparently you’re just bribing the indigenous people??) as well being the most efficient cards to use when buying new ones. On your turn, you have a hand of four cards which you can use to move your meeple along the (highly modular) map or buy new cards and then it’s the next player’s turn.

This brings me to the first thing I love about this game, and that’s just how silky smooth and quick this game is. Turns are brisk affairs and using a good hand of movement cards to march ahead of the pack never fails to feel satisfying. This satisfaction is multiplied tenfold when you pull out one of your big cards that you recently added to your deck which lets you machete your way through jungle thicket like a human shaped lawn mower.

Don’t mistake this simplicity and speed for shallow. There are still plenty of great choices to make and building your deck feels like a constant tactical exercise in preparing for what you need while ditching cards that you don’t. Since the maps are modular and full of variance, there will be times when you see stretches of certain types of spaces. See lots of blue? Load up on paddles like the world’s most paranoid sailor. See lots of green ahead? Grab so many machetes that your deck looks like the garage in the Voorhees household. And when you see the landscape changing again? The game offers campsites which allow you to ditch cards from your deck. Payers find themselves hauling ass over there to ditch their paddles or machetes into the campfire to make room for better stuff. It’s like you’re cooking a pot of soup and changing the spices on a constant basis to fit the tastes of the guests coming in and out of the kitchen.

Deckbuilding is one of my favorite genres and The Quest for El Dorado is one of my favorites to feature the mechanism. This is another game, like Ex Libris, that could easily find itself higher if I just had more time to play it. I definitely want to get it to the table again soon, and I would suggest you think of doing the same.

92. Dead Men Tell No Tales

dead men tell no tales cover

I feel like there are two breeds of cooperative games: puzzle-y co-ops and limited communication co-ops. I already mentioned my love for limited communication co-ops in my description of The Mind. But puzzle-y co-ops, in the vein of Pandemic or the Forbidden series of games? I have been starting to get burnt out on them. Those were the types of games that I pretty much exclusively played when getting into the hobby and I loved them then, but my desire to play that style of cooperative game has decreased with each passing month. BUT there are still games in that style that I greatly enjoy and will not mind playing no matter the mood. Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of those games.

DMTNT is a game where you and your band of fellow pirates are boarding a ship you just scuttled to loot your hard earned treasure. The trouble? The ship is burning (I mean, you should have seen that coming) and also populated with skeletons and ornery treasure guards. You need to work together to keep the fires at bay while constantly prepping for combat so that when you come across one of those aforementioned treasure guards, you can ask them nicely for their treasure (with your sword).

Let’s be honest, this game is a tad derivative. It’s a game where you spend action points to keep things on the board from getting out of control lest they spread to other parts of the board and cause a chain reaction that makes an untenable situation. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s basically Pandemic: But With Pirates. But that’s okay! I love pirates (it’s my favorite board game theme!) and the game adds a ton of thematic touches which help separate it from Pandemic: you have a combat meter which you’re constantly trying to keep at a healthy state in case you need to fight some fools; there are items you can use and swap with your teammates to adapt to new situations and problems; there’s a cool tile laying mechanism where you are basically building out the ship as you play; there’s rum.

These little thematic flourishes can sometimes bog down the game with edge cases and constantly checking the rules, but it’s worth it when you consider how much it adds to the atmosphere and cinematic nature. I already said pirates is my favorite theme in board games and this game absolutely revels in that theme. As such, no matter how much I cool on cooperatives of this nature, I have a feeling DMTNT will be a fixture in my top 100 for quite a bit longer.

91. Coloretto

coloretto cover

Small card games are going to pop up a lot on this list, so prepare thyselves. I already had Herbaceous and now I’m rounding out this portion of the list with Coloretto. Like Herbaceous, Coloretto is a set collection game driven by a push your luck mechanism. The deck of cards is comprised of different colored chameleons and you’re trying to collect certain colors by game’s end.

On your turn, you can either draw a card and add it to one of the stacks of cards being formed in front of the players OR take one of the stacks of cards and essentially bow out for the rest of the round. Each stack (the number of which differs based on player count) can only hold three cards so options get pretty tight fairly quickly. There’s a constant tension of trying to figure out when it’s time to get a stack and get out or to push things juuuust a bit longer to either make a stack that much sweeter for yourself or to maybe sabotage a stack that was looking good for your opponent.

The reason why there will be stacks of differing quality for the different players is the way Coloretto scores. You don’t simply score your sets of different colors, getting points for having as many chameleons as possible. Where would the game in that be? No, instead Coloretto has a devilishly clever system in which you only score positive points for THREE of the sets you collected and the rest net you negative points. And suddenly, that little rule transforms Coloretto into a peaceful game of trying to collect lots of cute little chameleons into a ruthless, cutthroat experience.

As you draw cards from the deck, you’re constantly aware of what colors your opponents want so that you can sully any potential piles that have those colors. Oh, you’re working on blue? And you’re eyeing up that stack of two blues? It’d be a shame if I put this purple chameleon there and OOPS, I JUST DID, GUESS YOU’RE WORKING ON PURPLE NOW TOO.

What I love about the bloodthirsty nature of this game is just how passive aggressive it feels. You’re just calmly adding a card to a stack and you hear groans erupt from another player. You play coy and be all, “Oh, sorry, were you gonna take that? Huh. Sorry” as you laugh uproariously on the inside. Of course, when it happens to you, it’ll fill you with an eruption of rage as you see your friend lackadaisically ruins the stack you wanted while very purposely avoiding eye contact despite the smirk on their face.

It’s a tense and thoughtful game despite its small package and short length. It’s without a doubt a game that you’ll play three or four times in one sitting and I have yet to get tired of its subtle but wicked tactics.

*

 

And that’s it! 100-91! Wow. That was a much longer trip than I expected. I really hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and ramblings on these games, and invite you to join in next week for 90-81!

WARNING: A TOP 100 GAMES LIST IS COMING.

“Hey Kyle, where have you been?” is something I’ve never heard before in my life. But if you HAD said that, then allow me to answer you!

As anyone can see, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here on Boar & Arrow. My last review was for the wonderful Tricky Tides on September 16th. Then I went off the grid. Why? Is it because I spent way too much time laying on my couch, watching YouTube and drinking craft beer? Absolutely! BUT I also had other things taking my attention. I spent a good portion of October teaching myself how to use Microsoft Publisher so I could use it to make a newsletter for a freelance writing gig I have. While I’m sure many can use Publisher in their sleep (it really isn’t that hard a program to use), it still took a good deal of energy for me to learn and use, so I was in no mood to do any other writing at the time.

But there’s another reason why I’ve been dormant. You see, as a hobby board gamer I am legally obligated to do certain things. I am forced to own a Kallax, I have a framed picture of Tom Vasel hanging above my bed AND every year I must do a ranking of my top 100 favorite board games. The last one is the important one because over the past few weeks, I have been compiling and ranking my favorite games!

The end goal? To complete a top 100 games feature that will posted over the next 10ish weeks right here on the blog. The posts will be the different entries, comprised of 10 games each. So the first post will be 100-91, then the second will be 90-81 and so on. And this will lead all the way up to my number 1 favorite board game of all time. This will be my 2019 edition of the list and I would really love to make this an annual thing, where I update it towards the end of the year. This will likely bleed over into the first few weeks of 2020, which is a little awkward but hey, it still counts.

I would really like to get my 100-91 post up by the end of this week, but it will DEFINITELY be up by next week if not. In my enduring genius, it just so happens I have chosen to pick the holiday season to post these things, when internet traffic is usually at its lowest point. But it wouldn’t be a Boar & Arrow blog post without terrible decisions.

I am really excited for this, though. I did a top 100 last year for my own personal enjoyment and doing it this year was an even better experience. I have played a lot of new games since that last top 100, so I feel like this year’s list is far deeper in how much I love these games. I had a devil of a time picking which games to go where, and I honestly still have a couple that I’m pondering where to put. When in doubt, I’ve simply printed out pictures of the games, taped them to the back of a tortoise’s shell and had tortoise races to determine winners. Inhumane? Probably. Effective? Not really. But it’s been fun to watch.

And with that cheerful note, I will end this post and humbly ask that you keep an eye on this blog over the next two months or so. I imagine this won’t be as easy as I’m expecting, as nothing ever is, but it should be a fun ride nonetheless. See ya there!

Tricky Tides Review

Tricky Tides Review

I’ve had an interesting relationship with trick taking games over my first four years in the hobby. Though unlike most of my relationships, which decay and wither away into shriveled husks of bitterness and resentment over enough time, this one actually improved!

You see, when I first discovered the idea of a trick taking game, my mind was filled with boring looking card games played with a standard 52 card deck. Games that you’d play as a kid with your grandparents to pass the time because they had no clue what a Sega Genesis was. As I played so many new hobby games, experiencing cool mechanics like worker placement and deck building for the first time, the last thing I wanted to do was play a game that was just playing cards, like I was some kind of peasant.

Turns out, I was a moron. Actually, I am a moron, but that’s besides the point. The key here is that I’ve grown to love trick taking games and it’s because I actually went ahead and played some of them. Who’d have thought that experiencing something instead of making uninformed judgments is actually fairly beneficial??

To be fair, I am still wary of playing straight, no frills trick taking games. What I like in my trick taking games are unique twists or cool themes, something that makes them pop when put up against their normal run of the mill card game grandparents, like Pinochle or Hearts. While Pinochle and Hearts are wasting away in their retirement homes, I’m playing hip, young games like The Fox in the Forest and Tournament at Camelot. The Fox in the Forest is a sublime 2 player only trick taking game that is driven by a unique scoring mechanism that makes every card played a nail biting affair. Meanwhile, Tournament at Camelot takes trick taking and turns it into an Arthurian slugfest, like Super Smash Bros meets Medieval Times. It’s a raucous game that revels in chaos thanks to game breaking special powers.

But while those games are amazing, let’s discuss another trick taking game. I’m talking about the star of this very review: Tricky Tides. Designed by Steve Aramini (he of Sprawlopolis and Circle the Wagons fame) and published by Gold Seal Games, Tricky Tides is a game of seafaring merchants in the Age of Sail, trying to make the most gold by delivering goods to certain islands to fulfill rewarding contracts. Players sail around a grid of island cards which all have a certain number of good cubes splayed out on it them. It takes the long standing mechanic of trick taking and combines it with…(checks notes)….pick up and deliver?? Yep, pick up and deliver. And guess what? Not only does it work, but the end result is my favorite trick taking game I’ve ever played.

Before I go into why I love Tricky Tides so much, I should probably describe trick taking to all the normal people out there who don’t have BoardGameGeek set as their internet browser’s home page. Trick taking is a mechanic/type of game whereby cards are played in rounds called ‘tricks’. Generally, the cards are suited and a major hook of trick taking is that when the lead player plays a certain suit, you MUST play a card of the same suit, assuming you have it present in your hand.

The trick taking aspect of Tricky Tides is mostly as described: rounds are played through a series of tricks in which one person plays a card and the other players must follow suit if able. To fall in line with the game’s maritime theme, the suits are various sea monsters. There’s the octopus, whale, shark and…sea dragon? I missed that day in marine biology class, I guess. Anyway, the suits offer the first wrinkle in Tricky Tides devilishly clever design. You see, in Tricky Tides the player who plays the highest on suit card wins the trick, as in pretty much every trick taking game ever, but the person who plays the lowest on suit card gets to trigger a special ability. What’s cooler? These special abilities are the sea monsters themselves.

That’s right, if you ever had the fantasy of being a shark, hoisting yourself on land to eat some tobacco or spice (and let’s face it, who hasn’t), then Tricky Tides is about to fulfill your saltwater drenched dreams. The sea monsters which represent the suits aren’t just there for some old timey nautical window dressing, like some pathetic pirate statue standing outside a novelty restaurant on a New Jersey boardwalk. No, the monsters are actually on the board, represented by little cardboard figures as they roam around, manipulating goods to the whims of the players, like they’re mischievous little elves reorganizing your cupboards or whatever the hell elves do. The player who plays the lowest on suit card gets to activate the sea monster of the suit played, moving them to an adjacent island and firing off their power.

The powers all involve the goods on the islands, which are represented by different colored cubes and play a big part in the pick up and delivery aspect of the game (which I’ll get to in a bit). The shark gobbles up a cube of the island it’s on, transporting it to your own ship through some sort of nautical blood magic that I have no interest in delving into any further. The sea dragon uses its magic breath to transform one type of cube on an island into an entirely different type of cube. Really wishing I had been in marine biology class that day, that thing sounds badass. Meanwhile, the octopus uses its tentacles to either grab a cube from an adjacent island or throw a cube to an adjacent island. Finally, the whale sneezes and blows three cubes out of its blowhole, adding them in a straight line to the islands of the player’s choice. As a bonus, the whale looks incredibly stoned while doing this.

Tricky tides whale
“Like, hey man, you got any snacks? I am like suuuuuuper jonesin’ for some pork rinds, man.”

This extra little twist to the trick taking formula feels like a fresh ocean breeze sprinkling a mist into my face. A good trick taking game offers tough hand management choices, forcing you to decide when to use your best cards or when to throw away your low cards and surrender the trick. In Tricky Tides, that hand management is made all the tougher by the tantalizing prospect of controlling sea monsters like Poseidon running a puppet show. Suddenly, these low cards in your hand aren’t just useless flotsam to toss overboard. They have actual use and you’re going to want to make the most of them. Quite often I saw players throw down low cards, expecting to get control of the sea monster only to have it robbed of them by someone playing something even lower, causing the winner of the trick to win with little effort as everyone else basically used their lowest cards for no good reason. In this game, you’re tying to constantly balance winning tricks and activating the sea monsters so that you have the most control over the board state.

What’s so important about winning tricks, you ask? Well to answer that, I need to get to the other big mechanic in Tricky Tides: pick up and deliver.

To those unaware of pick up and deliver, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You pick up things and deliver them. If that sounds a lot like Errands: The Board Game, well, I can’t argue that it’s not the most thrilling sounding thing in the world. People see board gamers and think we’re taking on the roles of knights or warriors or space marines and turns out we’re often just glorified Fed Ex drivers. BUT when done right, pick up and deliver can be just as much fun and satisfying as any other mechanic in board games.

In Tricky Tides, the pick up and deliver comes from going around to islands, picking up cubes and then spending them at other islands to fulfill contracts. The brilliant thing about the game is that how you move is dictated by the card you played in the trick. The cards don’t just have suits on them; they also have a compass. The compass emblazoned in the center of the card has certain directions highlighted which shows you in what direction you can move that turn. Turn order, however, is dictated by who won the trick. Winner of the trick goes first, then the person who played the next highest card then next highest and so on. This means the person who wins the trick gets first dibs on the goods and contracts within their movement range and that can be a HUGE advantage. The amount of times I had a contract or batch of goods sniped out from under me had me cursing like a sailor, which is just another wonderful thematic touch that this game was able to provide me and my game group.

The importance of going first and trying to move in certain directions further enhances that hand management I was talking about. Now you’re not just worried about suit and value like in other trick taking games; now you need to think about how the card is going to make you move. There are times where you really need to get to a certain island for a contract, but you only have one card in your hand that’s pointing in that island’s direction and it’s a card on the lower end value wise. Knowing you will probably be lower in turn order means the chance of having that contract removed by the time you’re supposed to set sail makes you think twice about playing the card. But then again, maybe if it’s a low enough card you can get control of the sea monster and use that to your advantage. Or maybe you just forgo that contract and use a better, higher value card to get somewhere else earlier than the others and try and get some points that way. You are constantly checking your hand, the goods you have, and the contracts you can potentially grab while making sure to pay attention to where your opponents are and what they can potentially grab as well. It is in this way that the Frankenstein fusion of trick taking and pick up and deliver shines. It creates multiple layers of tactics, often subtle but incredibly rich and rewarding.

So the gameplay is an engrossing blend of crafty hand management and efficient movement, but I’ll finish off by saying one of the really BIG things I love about this game is the aesthetics and art. As mentioned more than a few times, the game is set in the Age of Sail and as such sports a very 1600s nautical look. The art, done by Naomi Ferrall, perfectly complements the salty sea dog feel of this game. Her style has an old-fashioned sketchbook look to it, thanks to an art technique known as ‘stippling’ (yep, I had to look that up too). The end result means it’s like you’re looking at illustrations ripped straight from a sailor’s journal. It’s not only beautiful but immersive and I really can’t say enough about it. As someone who has a huge soft spot for anything maritime or nautical, especially of that time period, I am obsessed with how this game looks. It’s so authentic looking, I burst into sea shanties the moment it hits the table.

Tricky TIdes board
“Okay, I’ll be green. Kyle, what color-” “OH THE YEAR WAS 1778, HOW I WISH I WAS IN SHERBROOKE NOW.”

I’ll end this review by repeating what I said in the beginning. Tricky Tides is my new favorite trick taking game. In a market where trick taking games are seeing a bit of a resurgence, that is quite the feat. Its innovative gameplay and gorgeous art combine to make a captivating package that you should definitely check out.

 

The Blood of an Englishman Review

The Blood of an Englishman Review

In case you didn’t know, there are a LOT of board games out there. Like, a whole ton. Too many, some could argue. Whether or not you agree with that is a debate for another time, BUT there’s no denying that in the deluge of board games coming out seemingly every hour that some games fall between the cracks.

Because of this, every board gamer has their underrated gem, a board game that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention or buzz. For me? That game is The Blood of an Englishman and like a door to door Mormon, I’m here to spread the word.

The Blood of an Englishman is a two-player asymmetric game designed by Dan Cassar, who is probably best known for Arboretum, a brilliant card game about the world’s most spiteful gardeners planting trees using the blood of their enemies and their enemies’ families (if you’re not familiar with Arboretum, please look it up to see what I’m talking about, it’s amazing). This game, however, is based on the classic fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk where one player takes on the role of Jack and the other as the Giant. As Jack, you’re trying to build beanstalks from numbered cards in ascending order until you top it off with a treasure, like it’s a cherry on the world’s tallest, greenest sundae. As the Giant, you’re trying to get your trademark “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” chant to appear in some form, because you’re all about your brand.

fe fi fo fum
He looks friendly.

This asymmetry between the two roles is one of the things that drew me to the game and one of the things that caused me to fall in love with it. But before I start gushing, lemme talk about how the game actually plays so you can see just how said roles work. First thing you should know is that the game is literally just a deck of cards. I raved in my Port Royal review about how I love when a game does a lot with very little components, and that’s certainly the case with TBoaE. This deck of cards is mostly comprised of cards numbered 1-9, with some treasure cards and cards that have different parts of the Giant’s ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’ slogan on them (told ya, he loves his brand) thrown in. These cards are shuffled and splayed out in five stacks of ten and the entire game revolves around manipulating those stacks to achieve your goal before the other player does.

blood of englishman game
As Sherlock Holmes often said, “The game is afoot! Dibs on Jack.”

Jack can spend three actions on their turn. Those actions can be spent doing the following things: moving cards from the back of a stack to the front, moving cards from the front of a stack to the front of another stack and/or moving a card from the front or back of a stack to their in progress beanstalk. On the other hand, the Giant gets only ONE action to use, but their options are powerful. The Giant can move four cards from the front of a stack to the front of another or even just straight up remove a numbered card from the game entirely. The final action in the Giant’s arsenal is that they can move two cards from the fronts of any stacks to the fronts of any other stacks. This seems head scratching considering that it doesn’t feel as powerful as the Giant’s ‘move four cards’ action and that it can essentially be undone by Jack on their turn BUT it can be a sneaky move to pull out a surprise win.

This difference in the number and type of actions that Jack and the Giant have access to brings me to my first huge positive about TBoaE. This is essentially an abstract strategy game BUT it feels immensely thematic based on how each side feels. With their three actions, Jack feels nimble and quick. Playing against Jack as the Giant, Jack is an over caffeinated gnat, always juuust out of reach as you try to swat it down.

But as swift as Jack may seem, their moves are small and only chip away at the game state, meaning the Giant is always looming large as a threat. Speaking of the Giant, their one move per turn makes them feel slow and lumbering, but the fact that their moves can so drastically alter the game state makes them feel powerful and dangerous.

Again, despite the abstract nature, this makes TBoaE a thematic treat. It also makes the game extremely replayable, as you’ll almost assuredly want to immediately replay the game as the other side so that you can see the differences. And you’ll be happy to find that even though both sides basically boil down to “move cards around stacks of other cards”, they truly do feel different from each other. The fact that this is accomplished through just a deck of cards is a wondrous feat.

That brings me to the actual puzzle that TBoaE brings to the table. Manipulating stacks of cards might not seem exciting, but it is delightfully crunchy. As Jack, you’re trying to weed out which numbers can be used to make your beanstalks most quickly without leaving too many big gaps. Because remember, you need to place numbers in ascending order, which means if you jump from 1 to 5, you’re leaving very little room for error. The Giant can prey on poor decisions in this regard by removing cards from the game. If you don’t plan ahead and leave yourself in a bind where you ABSOLUTELY need a 9 and the Giant is able to discard the last one, you’ve just lost.

Speaking of the Giant, the puzzle for them is a little more opaque but no less fun to try and solve. In fact, the more subtle nature of winning as the Giant leads me to preferring to play that side over Jack’s. It might seem simple enough. You just gotta get Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum next to each other, right? No problem. Well, except that Jack is constantly changing cards around and that it’s very easy for Jack to dig and get something they want while the Giant’s big, clumsy self has much less finesse. Sure, you might get three of the Giant cards next to each other, but getting that last one you need seems like picking up a contact lens with a boxing glove.  So you need to be a little more clever in how you get the cards you need. Maybe you get rid of a certain number that Jack needs, knowing that for them to get another copy of said number they’ll need to dig to get it, perhaps unearthing a Giant card in the process. And as Jack takes more and more cards for their beanstalks, the playing field shrinks and shrinks, meaning the Giant’s already powerful moves gain more and more impact with each turn. Patience and guile is required as the Giant and sometimes you have to let Jack’s own brashness and haste undo him in the end (which, again, feels quite thematic!).

The constant back and forth between the two sides creates such an interesting and dynamic puzzle that ebbs and flows throughout the game. It’s like both players are trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle first, but in between turns your opponent elbows the side of the table, causing pieces to sprawl out of position. I hate when people say, “It’s like a chess match!” because it’s a lazy cliché to fall back on…but…uhh, yeah, it’s like a chess match. You need to think at least a couple moves ahead because everything you do leads to a reaction from your opponent which in turn leads to a response from you. As the Giant, for example, you might say, “Hmmm, my opponent is probably going to take that 7 up front so if I remove it, that means they’ll have to dig out the 7 from the back of the other stack which means my Fo card will be brought to the front, which allows me to threaten with my other Giant cards if I move those two cards off the Fe and Fi cards” and so on and so on and so on. It’s deliciously crunchy and packs a great strategic and tactical punch for a game that will probably take you just 20-30 minutes.

The final thing I’ll applaud this game is for its balance. I love 2 player assymetric games, but if one side feels easier to win as, it can be a major bummer. I love Mr. Jack (as seen in my here) but it’s pretty clear that the Investigator should win around 60-70% of the games played. Then there’s Raptor, which is a game I’ll almost certainly review at some point because it’s amazing and one of my favorite games ever BUT it is also a game where one side (in this case, the Scientists) feels easier and more powerful than the other. I’m ecstatic to say that this is NOT the case with TBoaE. I’ve played this game ten times and the record stands at five wins for Jack and five wins for the Giant. So quite literally 50/50. That’s about all you can ask for from one of these games. Now, if I had to make a decision and say which one is a bit easier to play/win as, I would probably say Jack. Jack’s somewhat simpler path to victory feels more streamlined and easier to grasp and the fact that you have more actions than the Giant feels like you have a bit more flexibility if you make a mistake. For this reason, I usually let new players play as Jack when I’m introducing the game to them, but the advantage is so miniscule it’s barely worth mentioning. The win percentages (at least in my plays) speak for themselves.

I struggle to come up with any negatives for TBoaE. The gameplay is superb and thinky, it’s portable and easy to teach, and the art, which I haven’t even mentioned yet, is quite striking. This makes the 6.8 it has on BGG even more perplexing. If you enjoy two player games, particularly those with a healthy dose of asymmetry, or games that infuse deep puzzle-y gameplay in a brief amount of time, I heartily recommend The Blood of an Englishman.

Seasons of Rice Review

Seasons of Rice Review

Anybody who has read even a few reviews on this blog knows that I love Button Shy. I feel like at this point I should be walking the streets in a Button Shy jumpsuit, like a NASCAR driver with a major sponsor. But what can I say? They make great, unique games and I will gladly take the opportunity to evangelize them whenever I can.

If you don’t know what Button Shy is,it’s an independent publisher who specialize in micro games that are released in actual, literal wallets and they have been on fire the past year. They’ve seen some of their most popular and beloved games released in 2018 and 2019. Games like the excellent Circle the Wagons, a two player tile laying game in the Wild West, Sprawlopolis, a cooperative city builder, and Stew, an amazing mix of push your luck, deduction and bluffing, are all proof that Button Shy is in their publishing prime.

As if those titles weren’t enough, Button Shy is also hot off the heels of their most successful Kickstarter project ever: Tussie Mussie. Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, she of Wingspan fame, Tussie Mussie is an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ card game based around the Victorian era fad of communicating through flowers. Over 4,000 backers were part of the Tussie Mussie campaign, and I had the fortune to review it here on this blog. Check out my review here and, SPOILERS, the game was awesome.

Naturally, the next game in their Kickstarter line up has some massive shoes to fill. Button Shy’s latest offering is Seasons of Rice, a two player tile laying game set in the world of Cambodian rice farming. Just like with Tussie Mussie, I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Seasons of Rice sent to me, courtesy of Button Shy. Is Seasons of Rice another gleaming jewel in the ever-growing crown of Button Shy’s recent hits or is it a disappointing step back? Thankfully, it’s the former.

As I briefly touched upon, Seasons of Rice, designed by Corry Damy is a two player tile laying game and it’s all about trying to create the best rice paddy farms in Cambodia. Like all Button Shy games, it’s just a deck of 18 cards. The cards are double sided: on one side is an Ancestor which provide bonus points or special abilities while the other side is a landscape illustration that you’ll be building your rice paddies with, featuring things like paths, farmers, houses and roaming buffalo.

The game is played over two seasons: the Wet Season and the Dry Season. The Wet Season incorporates a play and pass card drafting mechanic in the style of Sushi Go or 7 Wonders while the Dry Season has players drafting cards from a display left over from the Wet Season.

First, let’s start with the Wet Season. The two players start with a hand of seven cards and on each turn, players simultaneously choose two cards to play. One of those cards go into the player’s personal landscape, which is what you’re trying to build and expand over the course of the game, while the other goes into a row of cards that will be drafted from during the Dry Season. After this is done, players exchange hands and do the same thing. Rinse and repeat till your hands are empty and you move onto the Dry Season, where players simply alternate taking one card from the display formed during the Wet Season.

This drafting system is one of the things I really like about this game. The fact that you must pick two cards, giving one to yourself and giving the other to a communal row for a later round is really unique. It reminds me of games like Biblios and Herbaceous, which feature similar wrinkles on card drafting. You’ll obviously want to take cards that help yourself, but what about the card you’re punting to the Dry Season? Do you choose a card that might come in handy for your landscape later or do you choose something that appears useful to your opponent to block them from using it during the Wet Season? This makes for some real interesting decision making and helps set the tone for the second half of the game.

Of course, the drafting is just small part of the game compared to the actual tile laying. Considering the building of your landscape is what actually nets you the points in the game, you need to be crafty and smart with how you build things out. The rules of placement are pretty typical of the genre. You have to place adjacently and features in one card have to match a feature in the other card. The cool thing about Season of Rice though, is that you can place cards partially adjacent to each other, as long as you’re connecting like features. This is not something I’ve seen before in the genre and it leads to some cool looking landscapes. Being able to stagger the cards also opens things up strategically, allowing you to really get creative with how you form the paddies. This is a very good thing, since I was concerned landscapes would look too similar game to game as a result of the small deck size. Button Shy once again proves that it’s not the size of your deck, but how you use it.

As you build your landscape, you’re working to close paddies up on your farm. Closing paddies means you have a continuous, closed path cordoning off a set of squares in your landscape. You score based on the amount of squares and houses in the paddy as well getting bonuses from the number of farmers and buffaloes toiling away inside of it.

seasons of rice paddy
A paddy farm landscape in progress. An attempt at one, at least.

This means that it’s not simply about building the biggest paddy. A paddy with just two squares but a buffalo and a farmer in it can net you more points than a paddy with three empty squares. Not only that, but players score one point for every closed paddy they have in their landscape at the end of the game. So that means the player who small balls their way through the game, closing lots of small paddies and getting short bursts of points, will also find themselves with a bigger bonus at the end of the game than the person who patiently waited to complete just a few, large paddies. Of course, a well-built large paddy can net you double digit points and can help overcome the fact that you may end the game with just a mere three or four closed paddies. As like any great game, it’s a tight balancing act and the player who more shrewdly builds their farm with the cards available will end up winning.

The last thing I’ll praise about this game is the Ancestors. I very briefly mentioned them earlier as the opposite side of the landscape cards. At the beginning of the game, players have a choice of two Ancestors. Whichever one they choose will give them some sort of scoring condition or bonus ability to be exploited throughout the game. These Ancestors all provide a nice distinct feel to each game and help formulate the type of rice paddies you’ll want to construct. For example, there is Sovannarith, who gives you 4 points at the end of the game if you have more farmers in your landscape than your opponent, promoting a farmer heavy strategy. Then there is Vivadh, who allows you to increase the amount of points gained from buffaloes when they’re combined with farmers in the same paddy. With 18 possible Ancestors to be randomly selected from every game, chances are good you’ll end up with a different one, making Seasons of Rice very replayable for its diminutive size.

seasons of rice ancestors
They say you can’t choose family, but I guess THEY’VE never played this game.

Unfortunately, every review needs to point out some negatives and this is no exception. I think my biggest issue with the game is that it can be tough to parse and visualize how certain cards can fit in your landscape. The game has lots of angles and zig zags and it isn’t quite as easy to see how things will line up and set up for future turns as, say, the roads in Carcassonne or the different types of colored areas in Kingdomino. In pretty much every playthrough I had of this, there was a lot of taking cards and physically lining them up, apologizing to the other player for taking so long as you tried to figure out how exactly the cards can best be used. It’s entirely possible I’m just dumb, but I do feel like the spatial aspect is a bit trickier and not as intuitive as other tile laying games I’ve played.

If you don’t mind a bit of a learning curve with the spatial puzzle of the game, Seasons of Rice is an enjoyable tile laying game with a wonderful and unique drafting system. At just 10-15 minutes per play, you’ll definitely find yourself playing games of this back to back to back. The Kickstarter for Seasons of Rice launches July 9th and if you want to experience first hand why Button Shy is one of the hottest independent publishers in the industry, I highly suggest you check it out.

Naga Raja Review

Naga Raja Review

As far as overused board game themes go, archaeology is not quite “doing something in Medieval Europe” or “colonizing other countries”, but it’s certainly getting up there. So when I first heard about Naga Raja, a game about rival archaeologists trying to best plunder a temple before the other player, it wasn’t the theme that attracted me. Nope, it was the fact that it was co-designed by my main man, Bruno Cathala.

I’ve brought up Bruno Cathala’s name on this blog more times than Cathala himself would probably be comfortable with. I have reviewed his excellent 2 player game Mr. Jack , one of the first games I truly fell in love with when getting into the hobby, as well as his criminally underrated Hand of the King , a Game of Thrones themed abstract strategy game. He is, as mentioned in those other reviews that you should definitely read if you haven’t, my favorite board game designer, and it’s not even close.

So as I was saying, when I first heard that Naga Raja was being co-designed by Cathala, my interest level went from “meh” to “oh hell yes”. That interest evolved into a need to buy the game upon release, a rarity for me with board games, when I heard the rave reviews it was getting from various media outlets and personalities. And so, when it was finally released about a month ago, I did indeed buy it and I have since got to play it a good number of times. Does this game live up to the hype, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or is it more Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Well, grab your fedora and your bullwhip and some other Indiana Jones reference and let’s find out!

Naga Raja, designed by the aforementioned Bruno Cathala as well as Theo Riviere, is a two player only game about two explorers entering their own separate temples (at exactly the same time, for some reason) in a race to uncover relics faster than the other. You explore the temple by adding and laying tiles on the 3 by 3 grid in front of you, creating a network of paths that lead to the outer edges, where relics patiently wait to be overturned like clumsy, capsized beetles. The relics all have point values assigned to them and the first player to reveal 25 points worth of relics wins the game. BUT there are three cursed relics, lying in wait. These jerks give you 6 points each, more than any other relic in the game, but if you reveal all 3 at once, you automatically lose.  Insert “The Price is Right” horn sound here.

This adventure plays out through tile laying, hand management, and dice chucking, three things I love. The game is played over a series of rounds, with each round beginning with a new tile being revealed. These tiles are all made up of pathways that, when placed into your temple, you’re trying to connect to your various relics. The round is spent trying to win that tile. You win the tile by rolling rectangular dice called fate sticks, with the tile going to whoever rolled the most pips. Don’t worry, there’s more to it than that.

Players will be jostling for this tile by using a hand of cards. And these aren’t just any cards….these are multi-use cards! Fancy, I know! Each card in the game has a top half and a bottom half and which half you’re activating depends on which phase of the round you are playing the card.

The top half features pictures of dice or, as they’re known in this game, ‘fate sticks’. These fate sticks are basically rectangular dice and they come in three flavors: brown, white and green. Brown fate sticks have lots of pips on them, which are good for winning tiles. White fate sticks have a moderate amount of pips, and a chance of getting naga (what the hell is naga, you ask? I’ll get to that!). The green dice are adorably stubby and are mostly naga (again, I’ll get to that, don’t worry!) with very few pips.

The top half of the card is what you’re looking at during the first phase of the round, which is referred to as “The Call of Fate” in the rulebook. Perhaps a little overdramatic, but I won’t fault them for trying to add a bit of panache to what is basically ‘play some cards and grab some dice’. In “The Call of Fate” (I hope you read that in a booming, god-like voice as I just did), a tile is revealed and players will decide what kind of fate sticks they want to roll to try and grab the tile. Players commit cards face down and then reveal. This is where the top half comes in: whatever fate sticks are showing on the top half of the cards are the fate sticks that player will be rolling in an attempt to gain the tile for their temple. So if I play two cards that collectively show three brown sticks and two white sticks, I take those sticks and roll them. After the sticks have been rolled, we enter the “Confrontation” phase. A little less dramatic than “The Call of Fate”, but I suppose “Duel of the Fates” is already taken. I’m hoping I don’t have to pay royalties to Disney for just merely mentioning it.

In the Confrontation phase, players can now use cards leftover in their hands, this time for their bottom half. You see, at the bottom of each card is a special ability that can be activated. In order to do that, you need to pay a naga. See? Told you I’d get back to what the hell a naga is! A naga is a little swiggly line on the sides of some of the fate sticks and if you rolled naga, you can spend them during this phase to cash in those powerful, helpful abilities. If you didn’t roll naga? Tough luck, maybe next round.

There are a wide range of abilities from these cards, such as simply being able to draw new cards, add pips to your current roll, or look at facedown relics to get a better understanding of the layout of your temple. There are some that even let you rearrange tiles on your temple, so that if you made a windy series of roundabouts and dead ends like a drunken civic engineer, you can erase some of those ‘whoopsies’.

Naga Raja Temple
Mistakes were made.

There are also some meaner, more aggressive actions, such as the ability to force your opponent to discard some of their rolled fate sticks, a power that lets you rotate tiles in THEIR temple, and the dreaded trap tile. The trap tile is a dead tile that you can stick in your opponent’s temple. It is a dead end that blocks any sort of progress and can really set your player’s temple back a few turns, which also helps you in beginning to play out the hypothetical, “What if my opponent wasn’t my friend anymore?”

Aside from potentially killing friendships, these special actions and abilities are absolute game changers and mean you can never rest easy. If your opponent rolls a lot of naga and has a decently sized hand of cards, they can swiftly sway the game in their favor with a few crafty decisions. This leads to a very tense, tactical feel that helps keep the game interesting down to the last tile.

After the ‘Confrontation’ phase is over, the tile is rewarded to whoever has the most pips on their fate sticks (including any that were added through use of cards) and they place it in their temple. If it connects any relics to one of their temple entrances, those relics are revealed. By that point, if none of the win or loss states have been achieved, then preparation for the next round begins.

As mentioned earlier, Naga Raja contains three things I adore: hand management, tile laying and dice chucking. What’s even better is that it seamlessly integrates all three in a cohesive package that packs lots of tough decisions and cool ‘gotcha!’ moments in just a mere 30 minutes. The multi-use nature of the cards forces you to really make some hard choices.  Do you save this card to use its special action when you can really blindside your opponent OR do you spend it for the fate sticks at the top to greatly improve your odds of winning a tile? There are so many times when I want to use a card for the fate sticks but catch myself, knowing that if I’m patient, I can really use the card’s power to great effect. But then there are times where I’m so desperate to get a tile in my temple, I know that I just need to load up on fate sticks, special abilities be damned. Like lots of great Bruno Cathala games, it’s a balancing act, one that requires constant shifting of tactics and trying to read your opponent.

The cards are a treat to look at as well. The art is by none other than Vincent DuTrait, who is one of the most prolific and celebrated artists in the industry right now. I reviewed a game called Rising 5 which featured some of his brilliant art, and Naga Raja is another wonderful showcase for his talents. It’s got a rustic, weathered feel that perfectly matches the theme of archaeology and ancient secrets. Some of the more aggressive cards also have some pretty unsavory masked characters who I would almost certainly not enjoy running into while spelunking a temple.

Naga Raja masked man
OH JEEZ. Uh…hi there…that sacrificial dagger is purely ornamental, right…?

But enough about the cards! That’s only half the game! There is of course the tile laying itself, which plays a huge part considering it controls whether you win or lose. It might seem pretty straightforward. Just speedily connect all the paths along the sides, uncovering your relics and rushing to 25 points first, right? Well, sure, but keep in mind that is a very quick way to accidentally uncover the three cursed relics and to lose automatically. Take it from me, that’s how I lost my very first game. As you play the game more and more, you start to uncover the subtle strategy behind the tile laying portion of the game. You want to win and place tiles that give you versatility in exploring your temple. As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible to create a winding nightmare of a temple, one that is hard to link together without getting some very specific tiles later in the game. Careful planning and cautious exploration of your temple is essential, which feels quite thematic.

You can even set yourself up for turns where one well placed tile can uncover a whole ton of relics. In one game, I found myself down fairly early. My opponent won a ton of tiles so I had to be creative with the few tiles I had won. I managed to use an ability that let me slide an already present tile in my temple to a new space, setting me up for a powerful move if I managed to win just one other tile. I did just that and uncovered three relics at once to push me up to 25 and steal the game at the last second.

No, that little story isn’t me working out my first post for r/iamverysmart. I’m not using that example to illustrate my cleverness, but rather the game’s. The fact that I was able to sneak out a win with limited tiles and a few well played special actions speaks volumes for this game. By that point I had already played the game five times, so to discover a new way to play and win was very rewarding.

The last thing I’ll rave about are the fate sticks. The decision to make the dice rectangular sticks deserves a Nobel Prize in Board Games. They are so incredibly tactile and fun to use and taking a whole handful of them and tossing them onto the table has yet to get old. Sure, the name ‘fate sticks’ is a bit goofy and sounds like something you’d find at a holistic health fair, but these rectangular dice really bring the game together.

I personally don’t have much to complain about with Naga Raja, but there are a few warnings I’d like to put out there. For one, there is certainly a healthy amount of luck in this game. I think the game offers plenty of tools to mitigate said luck, but there will be times when you desperately need naga and get none or you REALLY want to win a tile and get nothing but a bunch of squigglies staring back at you, like the world’s snarkiest plate of spaghetti. If the thought of this happening and having it determine the game frustrates you, Naga Raja may not be for you.

Another factor I want to make known is that this can be a mean game. I touched on it earlier, but there are a lot of aggressive, “take that” style cards in the game, and many of them are pretty nasty. I already mentioned the trap tile that can potentially ruin friendships, but there’s cards that remove dice, force the rerolls of dice, cards that force your opponent to discard cards, cards that allow you to switch relics around (possibly triggering them to get their three cursed relics uncovered in the process!), etc. I am very picky about my “take that” in games and I don’t mind it in this one because it’s so baked into the design. I go in knowing that my temple and plans are going to get tampered with and that I can retaliate with my own ruthlessness, so it’s okay for me. But I know there are many players out there who detest any sort of conflict or negative player interaction and I highly doubt Naga Raja is for them.

If you don’t mind potential moments of luck deciding the game or large doses of “take that”, I think you’ll find Naga Raja a rich, satisfying game of tactics and exploration that will entertain after many plays. It expertly combines different mechanics into a brisk 20-30 minute package. I am quite happy to have Naga Raja in my collection and suspect it will be one of my most frequently played two player games.