Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2020 Edition): 80-71

We’ve gotten done with two posts in this top 100 and, unfortunately for you, what happens twice happens thrice. Let’s get going with the third entry, my 80-71!

80. The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Last year’s ranking: 57 (-23)

What I said last year

Originally published in Germany under a name I will not ever attempt to pronounce or spell correctly, Quacks is a scrumptious blend of bag building and push your luck. Push your luck is my favorite mechanism and pool building is my second favorite mechanism, so I guess you could say I’m inclined to maybe like this game. In the game, you and your opponents are ‘quack doctors’, which is another term for a charlatan or snake oil salesperson. You’re brewing potions to sell at a fair in Quedlinburg but because you’re all terrible at your job, there’s a constant chance of you blowing yourself up.

How this comes across in gameplay is via its bag pulling mechanism. Everyone simultaneously pulls chips out of their bag and places it into their cauldron, which has a number track that spirals out from the middle. You look at the value of your chip and place it that many spaces ahead on the track, creating a snaking path of different colored ingredients. You can stop at any point; if you do, are able to get the gold and victory points labeled on the spot you stopped at. If you don’t stop, however, and end up with seven points or more of an ingredient called cherry bombs, you blow up. This is this game’s version of ‘busting’ and your turn immediately ends.

The one nice thing about this game, especially when compared to others in the push your luck genre, is that busting is not the worst thing in the world. Yes, it’s definitely better to NOT bust but you still get to pick a reward for that turn (either the gold or the victory points at the last spot you stopped at, rather than both). You also disqualify yourself from rolling a bonus die that’s rewarded to the person who advanced the farthest in their cauldron but considering most push your luck games have a very ‘all or nothing’ approach to busting, this is surprisingly friendly.

After everyone is done pulling from their bags, whether from choice or violent explosion, the bag building part of the game takes over like a night shift security guard coming into relieve someone of their post. Everyone takes the gold they won that round and spends it on new ingredients to put into their bags. The ingredients all have unique abilities and properties and many of them combine well with others. For example, there is the mandrake root which helps erase a cherry bomb from your cauldron or the crow skulls which grant you points if you have more than your neighbors. The bag building portion is certainly not the deepest. If you’re expecting Orleans, go play that instead. But there’s still fun to be had figuring out the most efficient use of your money while making sure to pick ingredients that synergize well.

There’s not much else to say about Quacks except that it’s just pure fun and excitement. Every pull from your bag is one tinged with suspense, as you’re desperately hoping for the ingredient you need. It’s like grabbing into a bag of Halloween candy, with every pull either coming with a triumphant ‘aha!’ (“Yes, Twix!”) or a dejected moan (“Oh God, Three Musketeers…where’s my dog…”). There can certainly be moments of frustration when you manage to pull nothing but cherry bombs despite your bag being loaded with pumpkins and mushrooms, but the game is so light that it never feels overwhelming.

What I say now

Quacks is, unfortunately, one of the few games on this top 100 that I don’t own. In fact, it might be the only? Hold on, let me check.

(checking rest of list)

Nope, there’s a few others I also don’t own!

Anyway, back to Quacks: believe it or not, this whole ‘not being in my collection’ has negatively affected it.

I haven’t played Quacks in over a year and a half and not having a copy of it means I don’t see that being fixed any time soon. It’s routinely out of print as well, with new print runs being swooped up like toilet paper in a pandemic (too soon?). It’s a game I’d love to own, but this lack of availability (and a surprisingly hefty price tag) isn’t helping me achieve that.

It’s always weird ranking games like this because I’m going sheerly off of memory. Quacks is obviously a fantastic and fun game, but with each passing month I feel its position on this top 100 wearing away like the kingdom of Ozymandias.

The future of Quacks wholly depends on whether or not I snag a copy of it by next top 100. If I do, I’d be shocked if it didn’t rocket back up the list. If I don’t, this may be the last time you see it for a while.

79. Naga Raja

Last year’s ranking: 71 (-8)

What I said last year

Naga Raja is a two player only game (…) by my favorite designer, Bruno Cathala. In this game, you and your opponent are rival archaeologists trying to explore their temples and uncover prized relics before the other player does. This is done with multi use cards, tile laying and dice chucking, which all simmer and cook together to make a fine fondue for two.

Players are going to use their cards for one of two things: they are either going to commit them to use the dice that’s printed at their top OR they’re going to spend special dice called naga to activate a card for its special ability. I’m a big fan of multi-use cards, and I love how they’re used here. Having to choose one of two uses for them helps keep things tactically rich and engaging, but simple and streamlined.

But that’s only half the game. The other half is the actual exploration of your personal temple board, which starts out as a 3 by 3 grid surrounded by nine face down relic tiles. Throughout the game, you’ll be rolling dice (given by cards, as I said) and whoever rolls more pips gets to grab a tile that’s up for auction. The tiles involve pathways that, when put into your temple, you’re trying to link together in a way that it connects the relic tiles to the entrance. Doing so flips over the tile, getting you points. The game is a race to 25 points, so being as efficient as possible with getting the right tiles and placing them in the right place is key.

There are some other subtle things that make Naga Raja great. For one, there is a mini push your luck element involving cursed relics. There are three of these things among your nine treasure tiles and they are worth the most points. But if you expose all three, you automatically lose the game (which is not the first time someone would get in trouble for exposing something). This creates a great deal of suspense when somebody has two cursed relics flipped over. Every flip of a relic tile after that becomes a hold your breath, peek through one eye kind of affair.

The special abilities you can activate on the cards are also a ton of fun to manage. Some are straightforward, like being able to draw more cards or allowing you to add pips to your dice rolls for the sake of the tile auction. But others allow some deviously clever plays, like the ones that allow you to rotate or slide tiles around your temples, or to even screw around with your opponent’s temple like the world’s least wanted interior designer. When you pull off a game changing move with one of these abilities, it creates such satisfying moments of feeling like you outwit your opponent…until they do the same thing to you, of course.

Naga Raja is such a cool, unique blend of different mechanisms that create a great back and forth battle of tactics and luck for two players. Partnered with some really great art by the always fantastic Vincent Dutrait, and you have yourself an easy top 100 pick for me.

What I say now

Naga Raja has slipped 8 spots, but that’s barely anything in the grand scheme of things. Honestly, it’s worth noting that any game that slips an amount that’s in the mere single digits, it’s safe to say I like the game just as much as last year. There are so many new games entering the list at high positions that any sort of minor drop is likely nothing for that game to worry about.

Such is the case with Naga Raja. I like this 2-player game just as much as last year, if not a teensy bit more. One thing that I love about Naga Raja is that it reveals more subtleties with each subsequent play. Tiny little new strategies and tactics blossom into your mind with extended experience.

I particularly noticed on a recent play just how important the tile laying aspect of the game is. In early plays, it seems like setting up the layout of your temple is pretty common sense and results in some of the more autopilot decisions. BUT play it enough times and you notice how much you can hamstring yourself or fall behind your opponent with a poor tile placement. I once played against a friend whose temple looked like it had been designed by a drunken MC Escher and it very much ended up losing him the game. Realizing which tiles to take and when, thus knowing how to preserve your dice heavy cards, becomes an extra, satisfying aspect to consider.

There are TONS of two player only games out there, but Naga Raja still stands out as one of the better ones.

78. Hand of the King

Last year’s ranking: 79 (+1)

What I said last year

Hand of the King is an abstract strategy game set in the Game of Thrones universe, designed by my favorite game designer, Bruno Cathala (spoiler alert: he’s gonna show up on this list a LOT). In this game, you’ll be maneuvering a bald man around a grid, grabbing cards representing members of the various Houses from the books. As you gain majorities in these Houses, you’ll gain that House’s banner BUT other players can swipe the banner away from you if they either match or beat your current majority. The result is a constant tug of war over the various houses, with banners flying between players faster than crossbow bolts at a wedding hosted by Walder Frey.

There are also some nice decisions that come from the presence of ‘Companion’ cards representing other GoT characters that activate a special ability. Players can grab and use one of these cards if they take the last character of a House from the board. This creates a constant sense of tension throughout the game: do you take that last character from House Stark, even though it won’t give you a majority and the banner is already lost? Or do you shore up your majority in House Lannister, guaranteeing yourself the banner till game’s end? For just a quick 10-15 minute game, Hand of the King packs more punch than a House Clegane family reunion.

Another lovely bit about this game is that it scales incredibly well. One would think this would be best at 2 players, given its back and forth, extremely tactical nature. But it actually plays really well at 3 and also features an amazing 4 player team variant, where two teams of two are trying to share between them more banners than the other team. The best part about this variant is you can not discuss strategy with your teammate unless you spend a raven token, of which each player only has one of. Then you can find a corner of the room to discuss strategy like you’re Littlefinger scheming in the back of a brothel.

I feel bad for this game and think it went really under the radar. I think I may have mentioned this in my review (what, you expect me to go back and read it? Pssh), but I can’t help but feel that the game’s license is what held this back. Which is ironic, because Game of Thrones is gigantic, even with the show’s less than stellar (Read: shitty) final season.

If you are one of the people that dodged this game due to its license, please give it a shot. Though the game’s Companion cards are surprisingly thematic, this game is an abstract and the theme is mostly window dressing. If you DO like the license, then what the hell are you waiting for!? Buy this game, it’s super cheap and you’ll have more fun with it than two Lannister twins with a free, secluded bedroom.

What I say now

A very slight bump for Hand of the King in my rankings which shows that I like this game perhaps even a bit more than last year. It is just such a gratifyingly tactical puzzle. This is definitely one of those games that whenever I play it after a while, I’m thinking, “Man, I forgot what a great game this is.” Considering how simple it is, that’s pretty praiseworthy.

Not much else to say about this one!

77. Beyond Baker Street

Last year’s ranking: 70 (-7)

What I said last year

I’m not a huge fan when somebody loudly proclaims, “’X’ game replaces ‘Y’ game!” and it’s not just because loud people make me nervous. It’s because I feel like any good game, even if similar to another, has its place and time with the right crowd and the right setting. Beyond Baker Street is an exception for me. This game completely and utterly destroys Hanabi for me, to the point where I don’t see myself ever playing that game again.

Before I go any further, allow me to explain Hanabi, just in case somebody doesn’t know what it is. Hanabi is a cooperative game where everybody is nearsighted fireworks technicians trying to put on a fireworks display on the world’s darkest night. I’ve made a couple of assumptions on the theme because the central mechanic is that you and your teammates hold out your cards so that everyone else can see them, but you can’t. The game is then spent giving players clue on the contents of their hand, hopefully hinting to them what is safe to play to the table and what should be discarded.

Hanabi isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination and it is objectively a pretty brilliant design. BUT I have some hang ups with Hanabi that have kept it from being a co-op that I loved rather than merely liked. The first kind of goes hand in hand: the boring theme and abstract nature. The theme of fireworks is completely pasted on and is only there to disguise the fact that this is basically an abstract exercise in card counting and probability crunching. It’s a very mechanical, dry experience and that was always a huge drawback for me. The second big minus is the win state, or lack thereof. In Hanabi, you don’t win or lose. You simply either suck or sucked a little bit less, and a score chart will tell you which of those pertain to you. There is a perfect game you can aspire to attain, and that is basically the win state my friends and I have adopted, but that is super hard to the point that it barely feels fun trying to get it.

By now, you’ve probably forgotten what game is even on this spot because I’ve talked about Hanabi for so long, but there is a point! I hope! I’m saying all this to explain why I find Beyond Baker Street such a better game than Hanabi. It takes the general conceit of Hanabi (trying to play cards that are facing away from you in the proper place), but gives it a much better theme, an actual win/loss condition and just an all around more appealing package.

Whereas Hanabi cast you as the world’s least qualified fireworks operators, Beyond Baker Street has you inhabiting the wonderful Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes. Your goal is to solve a mystery before Holmes can, using the exact mechanisms from Hanabi. You have a hand that’s facing away from you, you have to give very specific clues to the other players, you have to play them in the proper place, blah blah blah. I already went over this during my Hanabi rant (see, told you I had a point!), so I won’t retread too much ground.

There are a few extra elements here in Beyond Baker Street that make it a bit of a deeper experience. For one, rather than trying to get numbers 1-5 in ascending order in columns of specific colors, you’re trying to get a certain value of a card color in one of three spots on the board (for example, you might need a sum of 11 in blue cards). This allows for a little more creativity and freedom in how you play, rather than Hanabi’s much more rigid, ‘three mistakes and you literally blow up’ mentality. Also present is an added condition you must meet before you win the game. This is a track called the “Impossible”, which must reach EXACTLY 20 by the time you finish the three spots I mentioned earlier. How you move this track is by discarding a card to the ‘Impossible’ section, which basically acts as a discard pile, but a discard pile with a point. You do need to be careful, though, because discarding too many cards in this fashion accelerates Holmes on his personal track, which results in a loss if he gets to the end of it. I quite enjoy the image of Holmes on an anachronistic mo-ped, cackling with delight as your failures somehow power his engine to go faster.

Jesus, I just realized how much I’ve been rambling about this game, so I’ll end it here. Basically, if you like Hanabi, you’ll love Beyond Baker Street.  It’s everything Hanabi is, but better.

What I say now

A single digit slide for Beyond Baker Street which, again, means no big shift in opinion has occurred. If you want to maaaaybe nitpick, you could say the slight decrease could be due to my increased pickiness with cooperative games these days. But even with that in mind, I still like Beyond Baker Street about the same as last year (which is: quite a bit).

One quick, tangential observation worth mentioning: in my entry last year, that I’ve quoted above, I really ragged on Hanabi; especially in the context of comparing it to Beyond Baker Street. I’ve recently been playing a lot of Hanabi on Board Game Arena and I kind of, maybe have to recant some of what I’ve said about it? Hanabi really is a brilliant design and I’ve been having a blast rediscovering it with friends in that remote, virtual setting.

Could this renewed love for Hanabi hurt Beyond Baker Street in next year’s ranking? Could Hanabi climb back up to my top 100?? STAY TUNED TILL 2021 TO FIND OUT.

76. Claim

Last year’s ranking: 85 (+9)

What I said last year

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.

What I say this year

My love for trick taking has only grown since 2019 and so has my love for Claim. Though it’s only a modest 9-point gain, that’s pretty good considering what else has been added to my top 100. Claim oozes personality in both its gameplay and art and even as I play more trick takers, it manages to stand strong against them.

I have yet to check out any of Claim’s myriad of expansions, which mostly add new factions/suits. The sheer amount of content for this game is pretty staggering, so if vanilla Claim is able to make it to the 70s of my top 100, I can only imagine where it’ll be once I do get to buy some expansions.

75. Arboretum

Last year’s ranking: 73 (-2)

What I said last year

Arboretum is a game that found life in two different editions: once published by Z-Man Games, and now published by Renegade. The Renegade version has vastly prettier art (in my opinion, of course) done by the always wonderful Beth Sobel. A game that has enough popularity to be published twice by two different publishers is usually a good sign for a game, and such is certainly the case for Arboretum.

Arboretum, besides being a word I’ve already misspelled like five different ways while writing this entry, is a card game about planting trees and making the best, well, arboretum. Planting trees requires placing them out in a grid like fashion in front of you, making Arboretum yet another tile laying style game on my list. But the heart of Arboretum is in its hand management. And it is not a warm, gentle heart at all. It is a dark, gnarled, brambly heart that lies in the tree hollow of this game.

Let me explain. Like Lost Cities, Arboretum has a very simple gameplay loop. On your turn, you draw two cards (either from the deck or from one of the personal discard piles in front of each player) and add them to your hand. You then play one to your arboretum and discard another card to the discard pile in front of you. Playing to your arboretum is where you’re gonna get points; you want to play cards of the same type (suits are tree species in this game, like oak and maple) together and in ascending order, because that’s how you score each species. But like Lost Cities (again), there are some scoring twists that make a relaxing game of walking through an arboretum into a game that will trigger PTSD the next time you look at a tree.

As mentioned, points are given based on how you laid out your species of trees in your arboretum. You score a species based on finding a continuous path of ascending trees that start and end with that species in your arboretum.  The twist here is that only one person will score any given species per game. That honor goes to whoever has the cards of that species left in their hand that adds up to the highest total value.

Welcome to Tree Hell.

Every decision you make in this game will be overflowing with self-loathing and doubt, as you’re constantly second guessing every choice you make. When playing into your arboretum, you never want to commit to a certain suit of card because that will cause others to prevent you from getting it. When playing into your discard, you never want to give your opponent something they can use. But if you’re wishy washy and conservative with every decision, you’ll clog your hand and never gain any ground on anything. It’s brutal, it’s mean, it’s infuriating and I love every single minute of it.

The 30-45 minutes you spend playing Arboretum is a white knuckled adrenaline rush, with every synapse in your brain is begging for mercy. By the time it’s all done, you’ll feel like you’ll need a cigarette.

What I say now

Arboretum is more or less in the same position as last year because I more or less like it the same. Last year, I was predicting that Arboretum to contend for a spot in my top 50 but I played it a lot less than I expected to. I have only played it a couple times since last top 100, and it’s tough to move the needle on any game after just a few more plays. In fact, that’s usually a recipe for noticeable decline so Arboretum’s mere difference of 2 spots is actually an indicator of how good the game is.

I’ll even go so far to say that I still stand by Arboretum being a potential top 50 game for me…IF I get to play it!

74. World’s Fair 1893

Last year’ ranking: 72 (-2)

What I said last year

World’s Fair has a modular board where five areas, each representing a different department of exhibits at the World’s Fair (like agricultural and electrical), are situated around a big Ferris wheel which acts as the round tracker. Cards are randomly dealt out to each area, with more cards being added at the end of every turn. On your turn, you’re going to place one of your cubes in the area of your choice, which does two things: one, it allows you to take all the cards and add them to your player area and two, it allows you to have a cube in that area for area majority purposes at the end of the round (more on that later).

The cards you’re collecting come in three flavors: cards representing exhibits that pertain to each department, cards representing tickets for midway attractions and historical figures from the real life World’s Fair. The historical figures have special abilities you activate on a subsequent turn and the midway tickets give you a point per card and move the round tracker around the Ferris Wheel but the cards you really need to pay attention to are the exhibit cards. These exhibit cards all match the color of an area on that board, the very areas you’re vying for area majority in throughout the round. This is important, because players get to cash in a certain amount of exhibit cards for scoring tokens at the end of the round. But how many? That’s determined by the rankings of the area majority in that area. If you have the majority in that area, you get to cash in more exhibits than anybody else.

Like all great games, this system creates an interesting balance. In order to get a green card you might need to place a cube in the red area, which seems counterproductive because then your cube is counting towards an area majority that doesn’t even allow you to cash in green cards. It’s incredibly tactical and you’ve got to weigh the benefits of certain areas on a turn by turn basis. It’s a surprisingly crunchy puzzle given how simple the gameplay and choices are on a given turn.

I’m also a huge fan of this theme. I’ve always been drawn to the look of the late 1800s/early 1900s (yanno, minus the horrifying amounts of racism and sexism back then) and this game captures that aesthetic brilliantly. There is flavor text on all the cards, giving you a little bit of trivia about that specific exhibit at the fair, doing a great job of immersing you even further. Even the damn round tracker evokes the theme perfectly, the Ferris Wheel carriage moving around the circle to indicate how quickly the round might end.

All in all, I think it’s a damn shame that this game doesn’t get more respect. I truly believe it should be in the same conversation as Carcassonne and Splendor when we talk about evergreen gateway games, but World’s Fair never quite got that amount of attention. Correct this injustice by giving this game a try.

What I say now

An extremely small 2 spot slip for World’s Fair 1893, which, like the other minor declines on this post, means basically nothing. I love World’s Fair and continue to believe that this is one of the most criminally underrated gateway games in the hobby. Every time I play it I’m surprised with how rich the experience is considering how simple the gameplay is.

Like I said last year, if you haven’t had a chance to give this game a try, PLEASE do. It seriously deserves it.

73. Friday the 13th

Last year’s ranking: N/A

The only ‘new to the list’ game in this 80-71 range is a little filler card game from Reiner Knizia. I personally find Knizia at his best when he’s designing simple but tight card games and it’s tough to find a card game as simple but tight as this one. That came out much sexier than I meant to. I have a habit of doing that, sorry, it’s a bit of a curse.

Anyway, Friday the 13th is incredibly easy to teach. Everyone has a hand of cards of three different suits of varying values. The suits are various bad luck omens in American culture: black cats, walking under ladders and broken mirrors. On your turn, you’re going to play a card to one of three rows (one for each suit). If the total value of the cards in that row is 13 or lower, you’re fine. But if you play a card that causes the cumulative value to go over 13, you bust that row and you need to take the cards into your score pile.

That’s not good, by the way. The player with the least amount of points is the winner, so you’re trying to avoid taking cards whenever possible. And as you might expect from Knizia, the card count and values have been sharpened to a razor’s edge, making it feel like you’re always on the precipice of busting a row and adding it to your worryingly expanding score pile. Everyone around the table squirms as their internal, swear laden monologue pleads with the others to “just leave that row be, that’s the only row I can play on, PLEASE DON’T PLAY THERE.”

In addition to that tightwire balance act that so often comes from Knizia, there’s even one of his world famous Knizia Twists™ (callback to last year’s top 100!). At the end of the round when everyone splays out their score pile, you determine who has majority of each suit. Whoever has the most of a suit gets to discard all of that suit’s cards, erasing all those points! This adds even more tension to the turn to turn play, as you wonder when it’s time to aggressively chase after a suit and when it’s smart to lay low and maybe prey on other people’s appetites for majority.

Wild cards further complicate things. These wild cards feature a picture of a day by day calendar with the 13th on it and they can be placed in any row. BUT if you collect them when busting a row, they always count against you as 2 points in your score pile (as opposed to the 1 point per card for normal suits). Nobody can claim majority on wilds, which means taking too many can scuttle whatever progress you made in discarding cards in which you had majority. So, while it’s tempting to throw out wilds whenever you can to avoid busting a row, you might actually just be seeding the board with land mines that you yourself may trigger.

All these little wrinkles folded into such a simple rule set makes for a card game that’s as tense as it is accessible, as bitey as it is quick. Combined with some very cute art that reminds me of the video game Costume Quest (and yes, of COURSE I play the Costume Quest soundtrack in the background whenever this game is played, don’t even bother asking) and you’ve got one of Knizia’s most underrated gems.

72. Tiny Towns

Last year’s ranking: 68 (-4)

What I said last year

Tiny Towns involves a lot of stuff that we’ve seen in other games but puts a fresh new spin on them. In Tiny Towns, everyone is the mayor of a, well, tiny town. You’re all woodland critters trying to escape the predators of the forest by forming your own idyllic little medieval style village. It’s like you’re creating a witness protection program, but for mice.

How you build this town is by placing different colored cubes on your personal player board grid. The cubes represent different building materials, like brick, glass and wood. Resources are doled out by someone called a Master Builder, who yells out the resource that they and everyone else must place in their town on that turn, like the bingo operator at a retirement home. As you do this, you’ll (hopefully) manage to arrange a combination of specific colors in a specific shape, which allows you to remove those cubes and build the building associated with that pattern. You’re ultimately trying to build buildings that synergize well with each other and create nice little batches of points across your town, while also making sure to fill as much space as possible because empty squares are negative points at game’s end.

It’s a very simple game, but don’t mistake that for it being an easy game. This game is anything but. It is a vicious wolf in a gateway game’s clothing. As you place resources in your town, the panic sets in by, roughly, the 3rd cube. Your early misplaced confidence turns to dread when you realize you’ve already blocked off a corner of the board by placing glass in the wrong spot or when you notice that where you were planning on building your farm isn’t as efficient if you had planned to build it over there or when the Master Builder calls out stone as the resource, what the hell are you going to do with this stone, YOU DON’T NEED STONE, DAMMIT.

By the halfway point of the game, everybody is drenched in sweat, panting and gasping with each cube, cursing at themselves for not realizing 8 turns ago that obviously they should have been aiming to build a tavern and not another cottage. When each new, useless cube has to come into my village, I hide it in a corner of my grid like a hoarder stuffing things away in their attic, hoping that I’ll just never need to worry about that again.

It’s stressful, but also very fun. It also helps that when things are going well, the game is incredibly satisfying and tactile. Your town pops up in front of your very eyes, each cute little building springing up out of your carefully planned moves and forming an eye pleasing village for you to admire (until everything goes wrong, of course).

Tiny Towns also offers great amounts of replayability. The different buildings you play with are randomly selected at the beginning, meaning there are lots of different combinations that can be played with and explored. There’s also a variant called Town Hall that takes away the Master Builder and instead uses a resource deck that spits out the resources for you, with everybody picking their own resource to use every third turn. This is mainly for higher player counts, where more players means less control, but it can still be used to freshen things up at lower player counts if you feel like the Master Builder thing is getting stale. I’ve even seen reviews that say they prefer the Town Hall variant and use it as the base rules. Lastly, for lonely people like me, the game offers an excellent solo mode. It’s a score based solo mode which is not how I prefer my solitaire play, but it’s otherwise such an elegant and addictive mode that I’m able to forgive it.

With a robust player count of 2-6 players and a package that oozes variety and replayability, it’s tough to find a game on my list that offers more bang for your buck than Tiny Towns.

What I say now

Dropping only four spots, Tiny Towns remains a really great game that is in the ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ category. Since the last ranking, I’ve had a chance to play it a couple times at 3 players and I LOVED it at that player count. The subtle interaction of choosing resources to screw over your opponent’s boards while not calling stuff that you know they’ll end up calling absolutely sings at this player count, and results in lots of heavy sighs and muffled, smug chuckles.

The one thing I could maybe knock against Tiny Towns, and perhaps the reason why it slid rather than rose, is because there’s a particular strategy that seems really easy to go for. Every game, one of the buildings that’s always available to build is the Cottage and they’re one of the easiest buildings to make in terms of resources and shape. They also combo well with another type of building that’s easy to construct, thus making this a very tempting strategy to go for on any given game…and that’s what people usually do. Every game, it seems like the entire table is working towards some sort of Cottage strategy and that’s a shame considering how much building variety there is game to game. To be clear, I don’t think this is an overpowered strategy. It’s just an easy strategy and in a game that is surprisingly brutal and unforgiving, it’s no wonder every group I’ve played this with seems to drift to it.

Besides that slight concern, I still think Tiny Towns is an excellent package. Whenever I play it, it’s a game I think about for days after, pondering the possible building combos I can try next time (before I inevitably build nothing but Cottages, at least). It’s definitely one you should seek out, especially since the publisher (AEG) is heavily supporting it with expansions and consistent community live streams.

71. Lost Cities

Last year’s ranking: 74 (+3)

What I said last year

In Lost Cities, players are partaking in expeditions to various regions, such as the Amazon, the Arctic and to what is either the center of a volcano or literally Hell. Like Schotten Totten, players play a card and draw a card. When playing a card, you either play it to a specific expedition on your side of the board (making sure the card values are in ascending order) OR to a communal discard pile for that specific expedition. When you draw a card, you either take blindly from the top of the deck or take the top card of any one of those communal discard piles.

What could be a fairly standard game of drawing and playing cards efficiently is transformed into a panic inducing game of chicken and press your luck thanks to one little rule in the scoring. Knizia is known for little twists and wrinkles that take simple designs and rulesets and turns them into beautifully tense experiences that make your brain scream for mercy. Lost Cities involves one of his best ‘Knizia twists’

(No, ’Knizia twists’ is not an actual term in the industry and yes, it sounds like a brand of German pretzels, but I’m coining it anyway).

In Lost Cities, players score the cards they played to their expeditions by simply adding the values together. So, if I play a 1, 2, 4, and 6 in the Amazon, that is 13 points for me! There are also handshake cards which can multiply that by 2, 3 or even 4. That means if I play two handshakes there, I get 39 points! Awwww, yeeeeah, I just kicked the Amazon’s ass. BUT…remember that Knizia Twist ™ I mentioned earlier? The moment you play a card into an expedition you immediately start at negative twenty points for that area. Thematically, that is the capital you’re investing to jumpstart such a grand adventure. In gameplay terms, it means you need to get a value of at least 21 in that expedition if you want to score any sort of positive points. That example I used earlier means that I would have scored 13 minus 20 which equals… (checks calculator)…negative 7 points. And those handshake cards? Those are applied AFTER the twenty point deduction, so let me check my calculator again….ah, yes, that is now negative TWENTY-ONE points. It appears the Amazon kicked MY ass.

This creates such an agonizing dilemma. You don’t want to play into an expedition before you’re pretty sure you can amass the cards needed to get over that 20 point threshold. BUT doing so means you have to tread water with your hand, discarding cards to the communal discards before committing to an expedition. BUT doing this means that you may give the exact cards that your opponent needs to get started on any expeditions they’re working on so you just never wanna play a card to an expedition or to a discard but you have to so what do you do and ahhhh, i want my mommy!

Lost Cities is everything I want in a card game: simple and quick but packed with suspense and tough decisions.

What I say now

Hey! You can see the exact moment I coined the (definitely not trademarked) term Knizia Twist™! How fitting!

Anyway, Lost Cities is a classic of the industry for a reason. It’s an amazing, ingenious design that somehow manages to stay fresh and exciting despite my countless plays of it. I played it last month and was once again blown away by the delightful agony Knizia has baked into the design despite it essentially being a RACK-O variant.

If someone is getting into the hobby and looking for simple but engaging games to get their collection started with, Lost Cities is an easy recommendation. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if this keeps climbing even higher.

*

That’ll do it for part 3. See you next week for 70-61!

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