We cracked my Top 25 like the shell of a giant board game egg in my last post and now the yolk of it is running all over the place, oh god, it’s so messy. Let’s carry on with it before it gets all over our pants.
20. Blood Rage
When I first got into the hobby, Blood Rage was a game I was resistant against trying. The cover art didn’t appeal to me, the title sounded like the name of a high school death metal band that was trying too hard, and the fact that it was so miniature heavy led me to believe that it would have shallow, mindless gameplay. Of course, as anyone reading this top 100 can attest, I am quite often wrong, to the point that “Wow, Kyle sure was wrong a lot” will be the thesis scholars take away from this blog when they study it hundreds of years from now. Blood Rage is another such occasion of my eternal ineptitude.
It took me just one play of Blood Rage for me to realize how good it was. What I thought was going to be a brain-dead slugfest with shoehorned Norse gods and miniatures turned out to be a thoughtful Euro driven game of building card combos and action efficiency. The game centers on drafting cards and then using those cards with allotted action points in a way to maximize your points. Figuring out what cards you want to take and what possible combos you want to exploit is fun in itself, but then the actual game of moving figures around the map, getting into combat and trying to figure out when to time the cards you’ve drafted is a wonderfully tense but action packed puzzle.
The variety of strategies you can take is a huge draw for me. Do you focus on combat, recruiting high powered monsters and investing in the payout of victory points from winning battles? Do you strategize around ‘quests’ which are essentially objectives you can work to achieve from round to round? Or do you employ the now infamous Loki strategy, which involves purposefully killing off your own warriors and losing battles to reap victory points from your own failures? All of these and more are viable and they’re all entertaining in their own ways to employ. It can be a little frustrating when a card you desperately need to complete your engine is randomly not in the game (a certain amount of cards are burned every round), but the stuff happening on the board is so entertaining that it’s not a deal breaker.
Honestly, the first time I played Blood Rage I was convinced it would be in my top 10 for my entire gaming life. It sits here at 20 for two big reasons. One, I’ve simply played more games since Blood Rage that have bumped it up the line. Two, and more tragically, I simply haven’t played Blood Rage in quite some time. It’s going to be close to two years since my last Blood Rage play and I don’t own a copy or have anyone local who does. Like Concordia on my last post, it’s tough to keep ranking a game super high if I haven’t even played it recently and, unfortunately, Blood Rage is the latest victim of that reality.
I do hope to get my own copy some day because Blood Rage truly is a fantastic game. Underneath its Iron Maiden exterior is one of the sharpest and most tactically bountiful designs in the hobby.
I love myself a good small card game, especially when they’re designed for just two players. Hanamikoji has the honored distinction of being my favorite two player card game, sitting right here at spot 19. In this game, players are rival businesses in the Japanese district of Hanamikoji, trying to win over geisha to come perform at their venue. What ensues is one of the most bloodthirsty, agonizing 15-20 minutes of your life.
Hanamikoji is a microgame, so it’s basically just a deck of cards and some tokens. Every round you and your opponent will play four actions. Both players have access to the same actions, but they can be played in any order. One action involves the player stashing away a card for scoring at the end of the round while another has the player secretly burning two cards to be removed from the round. The other two actions are of the ‘I Split, You Choose’ variety. One has you displaying three cards to your opponent and they get to pick one, with the other two going to you. The last action forces you to make two pairs of cards and, once again, show them to your opponent to get first dibs on which one they want.
As you accumulate cards through these actions, they are placed on the geisha that they represent. Whoever has majority of the cards for that column wins that geisha. You’re either trying to win four of the seven geisha or earn 11 ‘charm points’ (each geisha is worth a certain amount) worth of geisha.
It’s so simple but so terrifying to play this game. Every action feels like it’s going to help your opponent and hurt you and somehow your opponent feels the EXACT same way. It brings shades of games like Lost Cities and Arboretum, which both showed up in my 80-71 section. Every action feels like it’s working against you, you never want to commit to one and it feels like no matter what order you choose to play them in will be suboptimal. Playing the ‘I Cut, You Choose’ actions early feels like a gamble because you have so much less information about what your opponent might have in their hand. You could be gift wrapping them the exact cards they need and be completely ignorant. But playing these actions late means you may be divvying cards that are a lost cause by then. On the flip side, completing the actions that involve storing and burning cards seems silly to do early because you don’t know what geisha you will be aiming to win, making it feel like you’re just firing from the hip with a blindfold. Wait too long, however, and you may end up storing a card you have no interest in or burning cards that have suddenly become important to you.
All of this angst and horror is distilled into a suffocating 15-20 minutes, giving Hanamikoji a more potent punch than many games three or four times its length. I love when small card games put you through torture, as I made clear when discussing Lost Cities and Arboretum way back when, and there’s no other card game that demands a blood sacrifice quite like Hanamikoji. It’s such a superb design and will likely be in my top 25 for quite a while.
From one nerve-wracking small card game to another, my number 18 is Biblios. Biblios was one of the first full reviews I’ve done on this blog, which you can check out right here. It’s one of the first card games I fell in love with and it continues to be one that I want to get to the table again and again.
In Biblios, you are living through everyone’s biggest power fantasy by donning the cowl of a medieval monk and trying to create the best damn library around. If that doesn’t get your pulse racing, then you’re probably a pretty normal person. But don’t worry about the theme (even though I secretly like it because I’m a weirdo). The real magic in Biblios comes from its gameplay.
Biblios is simply a set collection game at its heart but where it blossoms into a beautiful monk shaped flower is in its unique structure. The game is divided into two phases. There is a card drafting round known as the Gifting Phase where you’ll be gaining and divvying up cards, and then an auction round where you’ll be buying even more cards in an auction format.
First, the Gifting Phase. During this phase, players draw cards from the deck and must do the following: keep a card, give a card to the other players and put a card into the auction deck to be auctioned off in the following phase. The cards are either gold cards to use for the auction, cards that control the dice that mark the point values for the different colors in the game and then the cards of said colors. The key here, however, is that players draw these cards one at a time and must decide immediately what to do with it. If you draw a high value blue card, do you keep it? What if you’re not working to collect blue? Do you willingly give it to another player, knowing it’ll greatly help them out? Or do you just stow It away in the auction deck, waiting for Future You to deal with it? Every card draw in this phase feels like a mini game of push your luck, trying to decide what to do with each card so that you don’t end up getting stuck with something crappy or giving your opponent something amazing.
The next phase is just a straightforward auction but it’s no less intense. The gold you accumulated in the Gifting Phase is used to buy the cards from the player crafted auction deck, with everyone raising their bid or bowing out to save up for the next card. Even if you made an effort to get a nice, fat stack of gold, it feels like you’re always on the precipice of being completely broke. It’s a tightrope walk of getting good value for cards you want while making sure your opponents don’t get things they need for cheap. This often results in you feeling like you’re overspending or letting your opponents get cards too easily and, like Hanamikoji, the brilliance is that your opponents are thinking the same thing.
Every turn and decision is loaded with anxiety and panic, which culminates in a climactic reveal. At the end, players reveal their hands to see how much of each color they have, which then shows which colors they’ve essentially ‘won’. Points are awarded based on what the die of that color says and whoever has the most points, wins. It’s always a surprising and thrilling revelation, a dramatic release of tension like a slingshot snapping a rock through a window after being held for twenty straight minutes.
I’ll end this by saying that even if you find the theme of monks and libraries to be empty and boring, you’d be doing a disservice to Biblios to not play it. It’s such a superbly designed game with two unique halves that somehow flow together seamlessly. Try it out, Biblios is amazing.
17. Arctic Scavengers
Like a handful of other games on this list, Arctic Scavengers is a game that I would have likely ignored had it not been for an amazing Shut Up & Sit Down review of it. Its cover is horrifically bland, its name is so generic it causes me physical pain and, at the time, I had no idea what a deckbuilder was. But their review was so intriguing and did such a good job of introducing the concept of a deckbuilder that I had to try it. At that point, Arctic Scavengers was my first ever deckbuilder and, to this day, it remains my favorite.
Arctic Scavengers plunges players into a future where climate change has resulted in a second ice age which I guess means it takes place ten years from now. Players will be crafting a deck that represents their tribe trying to survive in this harsh world, with cards representing various tribe members, tools and weapons. The end goal is to have the most tribe members in your deck by the end of the game, which is an interesting twist on deckbuilding. Most deckbuilders reward you for creating razor thin, streamlined decks that you can churn through in one turn, recreating powerful combos like the world’s nerdiest version of déjà vu. But in Arctic Scavengers, you’re looking to stuff your deck to the brim with tribe members, sometimes sacrificing the ability to fall back on reliably drawing synergies in order to just load up on victory points. It’s an interesting balance and creates a fresher, more tactical experience compared to the more mechanical Dominion clones out there where it feels like you’re simply trying to program a scoring algorithm.
The cool twists don’t end there. Another neat wrinkle is how Arctic Scavengers treats trashing cards from your deck. Most deckbuilders offer avenues for you to discard less useful cards to make it more likely for you to get your more powerful ones in a draw. The thing is, you usually need a card that allows you to trigger that ability to trash stuff, meaning you have to wait to get that card and a card you’re willing to trash in the same hand. Arctic Scavengers wants none of that ‘waiting’ nonsense and, hilariously, allows you to trash cards whenever you want. You simply take any cards from your hand that you don’t want and then send them to a communal deck of cards known as the junkyard, which players can sift through to find potentially useful stuff (including the cards you just sent there!).
I love this for a couple reasons. One, it obviously gives a lot more freedom. Is there a card gumming up your deck? Just get it right out of there whenever the hell you want. Two, this card isn’t permanently out of the game. As I said, it simply goes to the junkyard where other players may happen upon it. Every deck starts out with semi-useless refugee cards, who count as tribe members but can’t do anything without the help of a tool. This makes them very inefficient for the start of the game, meaning players channel their inner Republicans and banish them out of their deck for not earning their keep. Hysterically, as the game starts to wind down, players often go back to the junkyard looking for the very refugees they banished earlier, trying to nab them for their points.
(That has to be a very awkward walk home from the junkyard with the refugee shuffling along with trash stuck to them as you cheerfully say, “Hey, sorry about that whole exile thing.”)
Yet another neat mechanism that Arctic Scavengers employs is its multi-use cards. Deckbuilders tend to have cards with very specific functions, while the cards in Arctic Scavengers can be used for a variety of things. The trick is, however, some cards are better at certain actions than others. For example, the Scout is good for drawing extra cards but less useful in other areas while the Brawler is great for fighting (more on that in a bit), but not so helpful otherwise. It feels like you’ll never have a useless hand, something that can’t be said for a lot of other deckbuilders. Even if you aren’t able to use a card for its more effective action, you can pair it with others to help strengthen some other action. Granted, there are still cards that can’t do certain actions so there may be moments of ineffective draws BUT even then you can find uses for those cards.
This comes in the form of the final mechanism that I think REALLY separates Arctic Scavengers from other deckbuilders: the skirmish. Every round, someone peeks at a card from a deck known as the Contested Resources. Contested Resources are powerful cards that aren’t available to buy in the public display. Winning one is often a huge boon to your deck. After players play cards from their hand on their turn, they then take any leftover cards they want to save for the skirmish and put them facedown in front of them. Hell, you can put your entire hand face down if you want to. When the skirmish occurs, everyone flips their cards over and calculates their ‘fight’ rating, which is essentially an action just like everything else on the card. Whoever has the highest fight rating wins the Contested Resource and secretly adds it to their discard pile to become a part of their deck.
I love the skirmish because it adds interaction and an element of bluffing. As much as I love deckbuilders, they can often be multiplayer solitaire affairs, with an occasional ‘take that’ card to add some forced ‘interaction’. Arctic Scavengers is very interactive thanks to the skirmish, with everyone keeping an eye on how many cards their opponents have devoted to the end of the round brawl. This also adds some slight bluffing, as I intimated earlier. Have a bad hand? Devote it all to the skirmish and watch with glee as you win a Contested Resource with nothing but two shovels, two pickaxes and a bottle of pills. On the flip side, if it’s your turn to see the Contested Resource and you know it’s something good, putting down just one or two good cards for the skirmish might make others think it’s nothing worth fighting for, letting you pull off a cheap win. It’s such a cool, unique part of this game that I’ve never seen in any other deckbuilder and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I love this game so damn much.
If you don’t trust me, it’s worth noting Arctic Scavengers is one of the most requested games in my collection. If I’m having a gaming weekend with friends I don’t see that often, Arctic Scavengers is almost always brought up. This makes its lack of popularity in the hobby all the more baffling. If you skipped out on Arctic Scavengers, it’s never too late to try what I believe to be the best deckbuilder around.
16. 7 Wonders: Duel
In my 60-51 section I discussed 7 Wonders, one of the most popular and influential card drafting games in the industry. As much as I love 7 Wonders, it doesn’t quite measure up to its 2-player only version, 7 Wonders: Duel. Antoine Bauza, the designer of 7 Wonders, is joined by none other than Bruno Cathala for this game, which makes a lot of sense since Cathala is perhaps the best designer of 2-player only games in the hobby.
In this version of 7 Wonders, the pick and pass card drafting system that has been mimicked by so many other games is now replaced with a public draft from a card display. Cards are put into a specific shape (which changes round to round) with some cards being dealt face up and some being dealt face down. The cards are displayed in such a way that cards overlap each other, which plays into which cards are available for you to take on your turn. On your turn, you simply take one card and either put it in your civilization, discard it for gold, or burn it to build a wonder. Very much like the original 7 Wonders, but what makes this one superior to the original is its tactical back and forth nature.
Like some sort of empire building based ping pong, you and your opponent are constantly trading volleys, taking quick turns to draft the card that best suits your current and potential future needs. The drafting system is brilliant because it adds an exceptional puzzle element. You can look ahead up the shape to see what will be available based on what cards your or your opponent take. When a card is no longer overlapped, it becomes available to draft and if it’s a face down card then it also gets revealed. The tension that comes from trying to figure out what you want to make available for your opponent haunts every decision like Casper the Min-Max Ghost. Flipping over a facedown card is always a gamble because if it’s something that could greatly help your opponent, they’ll just snatch it right up on their turn.
This is further amplified by the three different win conditions in the game. If the game ends after three rounds, it’s just simply about counting victory points in your civilization to see who scored more. BUT there are ways the game can end abruptly before that point with either a Military Victory or a Science Victory.
The Military Victory is a constant tug of war between the opponents. There is a military track with a shield pawn that moves towards the players and if the shield ever ends up in your city, then you’ve immediately lost. The shield is moved by simply taking cards with the shield icon, allowing you to move the shield as many spots as there are icons towards the opponent.
Meanwhile, the Science Victory is about collecting symbols. On certain cards in the game there are scientific symbols and if a player ever collects six unique symbols they automatically win the game through a Science Victory. To further tantalize players to grab these symbols, players get a reward token if they collect two of the same symbol, which often grant some sort of special power or action.
The addition of these two automatic win conditions is such an ingenious touch. It expands the decision space to include more things that just “grab resources and points” and forces your opponent to have to play defense. If you take a couple of military cards in a row and start bearing down towards your opponent’s side of the military track, they suddenly have to shift their own strategies to deny you shields. This opens up your opportunity to start grabbing cards they have to ignore in their quest to deny you the Military Victory. Same goes for the Science Victory which seems very tough to get at first, but surprisingly snowballs when opponents don’t properly defend it. It seems like every game I’ve played of this comes down to one of the players needing just one card to complete the victory, making the last round an absolute nail biter. Facedown cards could be just the card your opponent needs to trigger the win condition, putting even more emphasis on the order in which cards are drafted.
Every time I play 7 Wonders: Duel I am reminded of just how brilliant and great it is. It truly is one of the best two player only games in the hobby and one that should be in everybody’s collection, whether you have the original or not.
15. Five Tribes
I just got done discussing one of Bruno Cathala’s co-designs, so let’s move onto one that he did all by himself: Five Tribes. Considered by many to be Cathala’s magnum opus, Five Tribes takes the ancient game mechanism of mancala and puts it into a midweight strategy game that will turn your brain into slush (in the best possible way, of course).
Set in an Arabian Nights style setting, players will be guiding meeples around a grid using the aforementioned mancala mechanism, activating the special actions granted by the Five Tribes (hey, that’s the name of the game) of Naquala (hey, that kinda sounds like mancala). Meeples will be randomly strewn about the grid of tiles, looking like someone set off a bomb underneath eight boxes of Carcassonne. On your turn, you take a group of meeples and walk it on a path, dropping meeples off along the way. The last meeple you drop off allows you to grab all meeples of that color from the tile and activate the tribe ability associated with that color.
I won’t go too deep into all the tribes, but they let you do things like grab cards from a marketplace, buy Djinns which grant victory points and special powers, and kill other meeples. In addition to the tribe actions, the tiles themselves have actions which are also activated, meaning you have to think not only about what tribe is the most profitable but what location tile would be great to pair it with. Considering the sheer amount of possibilities every turn gives you, with every potential group of meeples you can grab and airdrop around like Santa tossing presents from his sleigh having strong ramifications for the next turn, you can see why this game is described as puzzle-y. In fact, some could argue it’s a bit too puzzle-y. While I have yet to experience the pleasure of playing this with a person prone to analysis paralysis, I can certainly see this being a nightmarish slog if someone had to min/max every single permutation.
Since I don’t have to deal with that, I become hopelessly engrossed in Five Tribe’s Rubik’s Cube of a game state every time I play it. Mapping out which paths I should take and which ones would give me a good return on points is never not satisfying and being able to pull off a huge turn that gives you a boatload of points is an absolute rush. I can’t think of a game where I get more excited for my turn to come up because I know that it’s going to be a blast to try and figure out.
It’s no surprise I love this game. Five Tribes is like a Greatest Hits album of Bruno Cathala’s design traits: it’s incredibly puzzle-y, as I mentioned; It is one of the most tactical games I’ve ever played, with players being forced to adapt and react based on what the person on the turn before them did; It’s got lots of fun powers in the form of its Djinn cards; It’s just the right length, never outstaying its welcome yet giving you a good sense of getting lots of things done. I have mentioned countless times that Cathala is my favorite designer and while this isn’t my favorite Cathala game, I can’t think of a game that better reflects why he’s my favorite designer.
If you love a good puzzle in your board games, there’s no easier recommendation than Five Tribes. It’s a game I expect to be in the top 20 portion of this list the next few years.
Word association party games are, as the kids say, my jam. Plenty of them have already popped up in my top 100 and my number 14 is one of the best in the industry: Decrypto.
I have been filled with both excitement and dread to talk about this game. I’m excited because this game is such an amazing and clever design. I’m dreading it because, despite it being a simple game to play, it is a disaster to try and explain. I will do my best but please…have a little pity.
I already briefly mentioned Decrypto earlier in this top 100, when I discussed the game Cross Talk in my 70-61 section. Cross Talk is a word game where you’re trying to give hints to get your team to guess a word, but you don’t want your hints to be too on the nose because the other team gets first crack at it. Decrypto shares this ‘give vague but good hints’ DNA, but in a slightly more involved fashion.
This is a team vs. team game, as many of these games tend to be. Each team has a board propped up in front of them that only they can see. The board has four slots, each filled with a different word card. So, let’s say the words are ‘bear’, ‘ogre’, ‘beach’ and ‘kitchen’. The slots have a number so each of those words correspond to a number 1-4.
The active clue giver draws a card with a 3-number code that their team must guess. Let’s say they draw ‘3.2.1’. That means they need to give clues for beach, ogre, and bear, IN THAT ORDER, so that their team can guess the numbered code. Players guessing never say the words out loud, they say the numbers associated with the words that they believe their clue giver is trying to get across and in the order of the clues given. So, the clue giver can say ‘sand’, ‘Shrek’, and ‘grizzly’ to get their team to say “3, 2, 1.”
The clue givers do NOT want to give clues that obviously point towards something because, much like Cross Talk, the other team gets first dibs on intercepting the code. The first turn there is no intercepting codes, it’s just saying clues to provide a baseline. But after that, any clues that sound like they might be related to previous clues allows opponents to cross examine and nail down what the mystery word may be. For example, if the clue givers (which alternates every round) give the clues, ‘grizzly’, ‘polar’ and ‘cave’ for the word ‘bear’, there is a very good chance the opponents will zero in on that being something bear related. From that point on, anything else they think may be bear related, they will be sure to guess the number ‘1’ when they try to intercept the code. If the opposing team intercepts two of your codes, they win the game.
You’re probably thinking, then just be as vague as possible to confuse the other team….which is half right. You DO want to be vague so that the team can’t intercept BUT if your own team can’t figure out what you’re trying to say, then you get a failure token. And guess what? If you get two failure tokens, the other team wins the game. This creates a brutally tight balance between being obvious enough for your team to correctly guess the codes but being vague enough to prevent opposing team from catching the scent.
There are few games as nerve-wracking as Decrypto. The margins of error are ruthlessly thin and the slightest slip up can blow your whole game wide open. It feels like the other team is a flock of vultures circling overhead, just waiting for your team to collapse under the pressure so it can pick on your remains. In this tension, however, comes some of the most satisfying gaming moments I’ve ever experienced. When you do manage to sneak something by your opponents and your team immediately picks up on it, you feel like a genius. When you detect a subtle trend from the other team and intercept a code, you feel like Alan god damned Turing. There is no game that makes you feel as clever as Decrypto and the euphoric rush that gives you is hard to come by elsewhere in the hobby.
Also, Decrypto feels surprisingly thematic. As great as industry darling Codenames is, and while it may or may not show up on later this Top 100, it feels like an abstract exercise in word association. The spy theme is completely pasted on. Not so in Decrypto. Sporting an early Cold War aesthetic, this game makes you feel like you’re all codebreakers as you huddle with your team, desperately trying to get a leg up on the opponents in hushed whispers. It further adds to the endless suspense this game provides and, while it can be exhausting if the game is drawn out, it’s mighty impressive for a word-based party game to pull this off.
Decrypto is a game that I can easily see sneaking into my top 10 at some point. The main reason it’s not this year is simply because I don’t play the game quite as often as I’d like. I just mentioned that this game can be exhausting and that is perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t see the table as often as other games of this ilk. It’s for a very specific crowd and a very specific mood. But when those two things combine and Decrypto does get pulled out, it is a truly amazing experience.
In my 40-31 section I discussed a game called Cyclades, a troops on a map game set in Ancient Greek mythology. I also mentioned that it was part of a trilogy and that there was a chance the other two games may show up on my list. Now we’re here! Kemet is my number 13 and the second installment of the trilogy from publisher Matagot.
Kemet trades Cyclades’ Greek mythology and auction mechanism for Egyptian mythology and an action selection system. Players will be selecting actions on a player board and then using action points to referred to as prayer points (or PP *chortle*) to activate them. These actions including adding soldiers, moving soldiers, upgrading your different pyramids or buying tiles that grant special powers. The player board has a pyramid shape with three rows, with a rule stating that you must end your round with an action token on each row. This prevents you from spamming an entire row and forces you to consider the timing of certain choices, so you don’t back yourself into a corner and take a suboptimal action at the end just to satisfy this rule. It’s rare that anyone does find themselves being screwed up so the puzzle here is pretty minimal but it’s still an interesting layer to add to another wise standard action selection mechanism.
Managing your actions and your PP (tee hee) economy are certainly fun problems to wrestle with, but what makes Kemet truly special is its tech tree system. I mentioned earlier that one of the actions you can do is buy tiles that give you special powers, creatively called ‘power tiles.’ The tiles come in three flavors: strawberry, blueberry and vanilla. Or, red, blue and white. Red focuses on attacking and favors aggressive strategies while blue is all about defense, making you an unfavorable target for others to attack. White is all about your action point economy, giving you discounts and more bang for your prayer buck. The types of tiles available to you are determined by the level of your pyramid for that color. If you only have a level 1 red pyramid, you only have access to level 1 red powers.
Figuring out which strategies you want to focus on and then crafting your war engine to fit that via power tiles is unbelievably fun and exciting. It’s easily my favorite part of this game, giving everyone their own asymmetrical feel. What makes this asymmetry special is that YOU chose those powers and YOU crafted your arsenal of weapons, giving a feeling of ownership that other games don’t offer. Most other games of this type that offer special powers dump it on your lap like unwanted paperwork and says, “Here, you’re good at attacking so only do that, have fun.” Not so in Kemet. If you’re looking to pick fights and be an ancient Egyptian bully, you pick the powers to do so. If you want to create an economy engine of action efficiency and creating a surplus of prayer points, then it’s up to you to figure out how to get there. Did I mention there were also monsters you could recruit? Yep, there’s monsters with their own miniatures that become yours and ONLY yours when you take their corresponding tile, once again instilling a satisfying sense of ownership that I have yet to see another game come close to.
Outside of this addictive retail therapy that you get from shopping for powers and abilities, the actual things happening on the board are also fun and exciting. The whole point of the game is to get to 8 victory points and one of the most effective ways to get there is by consistently winning battles in which you’re the attacker. This makes Kemet an incredibly aggressive, bloodthirsty game and I absolutely love it. There’s barely any build up before people are already in each other’s faces and this game probably beats the record for most curse words said in its opening ten minutes. The combat can be a little fiddly, which is probably my biggest complaint with Kemet, but that doesn’t stop the near constant fighting from being cinematic and thrilling.
Kemet obviously isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like games where you are always threatening to destroy other players things or you’re not a fan of having things taken from you, you should probably stick to more relaxing and peaceful fare. Conflict adverse players need not apply, but if you DO like that sort of gameplay, and enjoy a little bit of Euro fixings in your troops on a map games, Kemet is one of the best in the hobby.
Let’s go from battling it out in Ancient Egypt with giant scorpions and war elephants and mummies and go to…trading beans? The hell?
Yes, my number 12 is Bohnanza, a game all about trading beans with each other. Woe be to the person who decides to neglect this game because they don’t think that sounds exciting. Don’t feel too bad though, I was there once too.
When I first got into gaming and started to learn more about the different games available in the hobby, Bohnanza was a game I saw repeatedly mentioned. Looking into it, I saw some somewhat ugly cover art and that it was about trading beans and thought, “Nah, I’m good.” Fast forward a year or so to me surfing through YouTube looking for something gaming related to watch, because that’s what my life has become, when I saw that the YouTube series ‘Game Night!’ had an episode where they played Bohnanza. Curious as to why this game got so much attention and love, I gave it a watch.
Literally twenty minutes into the video, I paused it and bought a copy of the game on Amazon. It looked that fun.
Turns out, it is that fun! The first few times I played Bohnanza it was an absolute blast and I wondered how long the fun would last before it started to feel same-y. That time has yet to come and every time I play Bohnanza, I love it a little bit more. It’s just so, so good and so, so fun.
Bohnanza is actually the brainchild of Uwe Rosenberg who is more known for his midweight to heavy worker placement games, usually about farming in some way. This game is still about farming (what a surprise), but it is most certainly not a worker placement game. Bohnanza is a fast paced, frenetic card game of wheeling and dealing to get the best possible payouts for various beans you will be collecting.
The cards in the game represent various beans which go into your bean fields, planted there until you eventually decide to sell them. Only one type of bean can go in a field, so deciding when to sell them to make room for a new bean is a crucial sticking point in the game. The beans have increasing payouts for your beans when you sell them, obviously goading you to keep collecting and collecting till you maximize profit. This would all seem quite simple if it wasn’t for Bohnanza’s most important rule.
That rule I so expertly teased right there? In Bohnanza, unlike in pretty much every card game since the dawn of card games, you can NOT move the cards around in your hand. They go in one way and out the other, like they’re being placed on a conveyor belt. At the start of your turn, you must always plant the first bean in your hand. Does that bean help you? No? Too bad! It needs to go in a field and if that means ripping up the precious plot of stink beans you’ve been working so hard to cultivate than that’s tough luck.
Because of this, Bohnanza is all about manipulating your hand so that the beans you want to plant stick around and move down the line while the less favorable ones don’t get anywhere near your fields. This is done through trading. On your turn, you get a chance to trade with the other players and this is how you manage your hand without actually reordering it. Any beans that you give to others are immediately handed over, allowing the rest of the beans in your hand to inch forward like they’re at the bean DMV.
This, of course, causes the table to erupt into a storm of negotiations, with every player trying to get the better end of the deal. The amazing part is that Bohnanza manages to conceal the ‘better end’ of a deal because people are going to value certain beans more than others. Sure, it seems like 3 wax beans and a chili bean for one cocoa bean is lopsided, but if you take into account the rarity of cocoa beans and the bind that the cocoa player might be stuck in if they can’t get an extra one and suddenly it’s a little more opaque. There will definitely be moments when players get downright swindled or when a player is so desperate that they start donating beans to others just to unjam their hand, but the game moves by so quickly that it’s tough to cry foul too often.
There’s not much more to say about Bohnanza besides the fact that it’s just one of the most consistently fun games in my collection. Like Arctic Scavengers earlier in this post, this is also one of the most requested games I own. Friends of mine are always asking for ‘the bean game’ or ‘Beanboozled’ (because that’s apparently what they remember the name as). If I want to play a game as often as I want to play Bohnanza and if my friends want to play it as often as they do, then what else do you need to know? Bohnanza is freaking great.
Here we are, at the end of this section and just at the goal line of my top 10. Which game gets the distinct honor of being my number 11, just barely missing the top 10? That game is the bluffing masterpiece known as Skull.
In terms of rule set and components, Skull is perhaps one of the simplest and most bare bones (HAH) entries on this top 100. It’s just some coasters and playing mats, something that could easily be proxied with playing cards or actual coasters at a bar or brewery. But from this simplicity blossoms one of the most lively and addicting games I’ve ever played.
In Skull, everyone has four coasters: three with a flower on it, one with a skull. To start off the round, everyone simultaneously chooses one of their coasters to put face down on their mat. Then the active player gets things started proper by making a choice. They either place another coaster face down, ending their turn, OR they make a wager. When they make a wager, they say, “I can flip over X amount of coasters without hitting a skull” with X being any number of coasters out on the table. Then, bidding begins. The rulebook says you should go in turn order, raising bids one at a time or passing like many auction games BUT I personally prefer a more freeform, yelling based approach. It seems like that tends to be the popular opinion on the internet as well. Regardless of your favored method, people keep bidding till somebody makes a bid that no one wants to top. When that happens, they need to put their money where their overeager mouth is and start flipping.
One of the twists of Skull starts here. When you begin flipping coasters, you MUST start with your own. This means that if you have a skull and you were simply trying to raise the bid to goad others into making careless, panicked wagers, then you’re going to have a bad time. If you make it past your own coasters safely, you then begin flipping other coasters around the table. You can go in any order and flip over any coasters you want, as long as it’s the topmost on any player’s pile. If you make your wager without hitting a skull, you get a point! If you DO hit a skull, you immediately stop and lose your wager. You lose a random coaster as punishment and a new round begins. First to two points wins!
There’s Skull. That’s it. You could literally play this game right now with stuff lying around you. And yet, it’s tough to find a game that elicits more emotion and shouting and laughter and memorable moments than this game. The meta that develops and evolves over the course of the game (or multiple games) is hysterical. My group has people who are the reckless gunslingers, making wild bets and gambles as they fire from the hip, trying to earn a point with a daring wager. When they do land a shot, it’s always a cheer worthy moment, even though it’s not a point for you. On the other side, we have the stoic sentinels who sit silently, constantly putting down skulls so that players fail their wager when they foolishly flip one of their coasters (“They can’t have possibly put down a skull AGAIN”, we say as we flip over the coaster to promptly reveal a skull). What’s amazing though is that among all the laughter and hilarity is a superbly tense game of playing odds and trying to get into your opponents’ heads. This game has a wicked set of fangs to it, even if they’re revealed through a jovial grin.
This game can be hit or miss depending on the group you play it with, but I’ve had it hit FAR more often than miss. And when it does hit, it is an absolute riot. I have begun and ended many a game night with Skull and it is quite possibly the most played game in my collection.
Holy crap, we’re almost there! We’re almost at the Top 10! Come back next week to see it!