Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2020 Edition): 70-61

Welcome back, everyone. We’re getting closer and closer to the halfway mark of this top 100, which I’m sure is a huge sense of relief to all of you. Let’s not waste any time!

70. Circle the Wagons

Last year’s ranking: 81 (+11)

What I said last year

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.

What I say now

Circle the Wagons is a game that, despite its small stature and breezy play time, continues to move up for me. Every time I play it, I’m astounded at how much satisfaction is packed in such a tiny package (which, incidentally, is how many of my ex-girlfriends describe me).

I love how you’re constantly pulled between tactically choosing good short term options while keeping an eye for what’s later in the circle, trying to set your landscape up for the long term. It’s like you’re forced to play with a jeweler’s eye in one hand and a looking glass in the other. I think that metaphor makes sense? It did in my head, at least.

Anyway, as I said last year, this game is mighty impressive for being an 18 card microgame. I can easily see it continuing to rise up the ranks, especially since I recently got my hands on the solo module expansion. It remains one of Button Shy’s must own classics.

69. Tournament at Camelot

Last year’s ranking: 63 (-6)

What I said last year

Tournament at Camelot casts you and your opponents as different characters of Arthurian legend, duking it out to see who can be the least dead by game’s end. I once described this as Super Smash Bros meets King Arthur, and I feel like that is an apt description. Play is pretty standard trick taking fare; someone plays a card and everybody has to play a card of the same suit if they have it. Whoever plays the lowest card must take all the cards played in the trick, which is going to count as damage points at the end of the round. This marks the first twist the game provides. You’re not trying to win tricks, you’re trying to not lose them. It flips the script on a tried and true formula and it helps keep TaC fresh compared to other trick takers.

The twists don’t stop there. What truly makes TaC special is the wide range of special powers that players can use throughout the game. Each player starts with a character from the tales of King Arthur, such as Morgan le Fay, The Lady of the Lake and King Arthur himself. Each character has a unique ability to start the game off with, as well as a companion with an ability that triggers after a certain damage threshold has been reached. “But that’s not all!” I say in my best infomercial voice possible. In addition to these powers there are also Godsend powers. Godsend cards are special abilities (tied to items and characters that are also references to Arthurian legends) that are given to players below the leader(s) as a sort of catchup mechanism. It’s a nice pick me up for the tournament attendees, but instead of a 5-hour Energy or cooler of Gatorade, it’s things like a flaming sword or a gigantic lion with a human face (for some reason). These powers all bend the rules and break the game in fun, often hilarious ways. By the third round, almost everybody is armed with some sort of zany arsenal of abilities, creating a raucous, chaotic slug fest to the finish line.

As if the game wasn’t fun enough, TaC also sports some of my favorite board game art. It’s actual, authentic medieval style art, which is something I absolutely adore. I know, I know, I’m a weirdo, but I’ve always loved that art style. TaC contains tons of it, allowing the already ever present theme to drip through even more.

Tournament at Camelot was one of my first modern day trick takers and I still rank it among the best of them. If you have any interest in trick takers at all, this is a must own.

What I say now

A slight 6 spot drop for TaC, which is actually pretty impressive when you consider how little I’ve played it since last year’s ranking. Wanna guess how many plays it got?

None. It got none plays.

So, maintaining itself in the same 70-61 range as it was last year ain’t too shabby for a game that hasn’t hit the table in literal years. The main reason it hasn’t seen much play lately is because of the introduction of other trick takers in my collection. TaC was the first trick taker I fell in love with, but it’s had a lot of competition since then. I can only imagine how jealous it is, sitting on my shelf like a jilted lover as other trick takers get chosen over it. Hmm…maybe that’s where that sloppily written “WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME ANYMORE” note at the foot of my Kallax came from. I had assumed Pandemic wrote that.

Don’t feel so bad, TaC! You’re still great! And while I can’t guarantee it won’t slip even more if this playing drought continues, there’s no way this game doesn’t stick around by next year’s list.

68. Notre Dame

Last year’s ranking: 98 (+30)

What I said last year

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.

What I say now

The biggest jump on the list so far goes to Notre Dame, the unassuming card drafting Euro from Stefan Feld. Why the jump? Well, unlike some games that dropped due to lack of play this got bumped up thanks to a rise in plays. I got to play it a couple times since last year’s list and it confirmed a lot of what I loved about this game.

The game is teeming with tough, tactical decisions and I love the various ‘mini games’ that are sprinkled throughout its design: the area control mini game of the Notre Dame cathedral spot, the racing mini game of sprinting around Paris on your carriage to collect tokens, the pocket sized engine building of the resource based spots. These provide a fun variety of different feeling strategies while feeling like they’re all part of a coherent experience.

I doubt Notre Dame has hit its ceiling and could foresee it being even higher next year. I do have some suspicions about the plague mechanism, in that I feel like it’s impossible to ignore and win (I’d love to see somebody flat out ignore the plague and still win, but I’m skeptical). That could potentially hurt its upside going forward, but a 30-spot bounce is impressive enough for now.

67. Maskmen

Last year’s ranking: N/A

One of two ‘new to the list’ games for this 70-61 post is Maskmen. It’s an adorable, quirky card game from the adorable, quirky publisher Oink Games. Oink Games is a Japanese game company that is among the most beloved in the hobby and they’re known for putting out weird, somewhat opaque games.

And boy, Maskmen is a weird and somewhat opaque game. Let me try and explain it.

Maskmen is a card shedding, ladder climbing game about luchadores (which is, in itself, enough to get me to try the game). The card suits are the masks of various wrestlers and here’s the first weird thing about the game: there are no numbers on the cards.

If you don’t know about ladder climbing games, here’s why that’s strange: they are games in which, generally, you play cards wherein the values need to ascend in order. So how the hell can you ascend with no numbers??

Because the cards don’t have values, the players are the ones who assign strength to the suits based on how they’re played throughout the round. Let’s say I start the round by playing 1 card of the green wrestler. The next player then plays 2 cards of the orange wrestler which now means orange > green. From that point forward, no one can ever top an orange card with a green card because green is considered ‘weaker’.

But wait! After that, the next player plays 3 cards of the blue wrestler on top of orange which means it’s now blue > orange > green. So, orange can top green but not blue, while blue can top both. As these suits’ relative strengths are determined, players form little power rankings for the wrestlers by stacking tokens off to the side, with these rankings often times branching off as new wrestlers enter the arena. Like what happens if someone tops green with gray cards in a future turn…we know gray is stronger than green, but is it stronger than orange or blue??

And you can see why this game is a bit of an odd duck. I mean, how many other card games force you to make flow charts as you play?

And yet despite this weirdness (or maybe because of it?) Maskmen is a joyous, addictive game. The way in which suits dynamically change importance and strength means you’ll constantly be reevaluating your hand. Which suits do you push to make strong? Should you dump powerful batches of cards early or save them for a last second momentous rush to the end? Maskmen is like playing a frantic game of musical chairs that randomly turns into a game of soccer then into a ballroom dance. The constant shifting and jostling between players creates an eccentric style of panicked hand management.

There are occasional moments of fiddliness when you’re trying to parse some of the more confusing power ranking situations. I think that’s what keeps Maskmen from competing for a spot in my top 50. But even with that in mind, Maskmen is a bizarre take on a literally ancient game mechanism that needs to be experienced to truly be appreciated. Easily one of my favorite Oink Games.

66. A Fake Artist Goes to New York

Last year’s ranking: 46 (-20)

What I said last year

In Fake Artist, a game master comes up with a hidden prompt for the table to draw. They write it down on tiny little white boards and hand them out to the players, also giving a category for some extra direction. So, if the game master writes the prompt “Mickey Mouse”, they’d say “character” as their category (I really hope Disney doesn’t copyright strike this blog now). The twist is that one player does not receive this prompt. They’re simply given a blank board or a board with an ‘X’ or, if you’re my game group, an expletive. Regardless of how the game master conveys it, this means that person is the Fake Artist and they’re job is not letting the other players know that.

Players then take turns adding to a drawing of the prompt, adding one single uninterrupted line to the communal picture. After everyone has had two turns, a vote is held: who is the Fake Artist? Players point to their choice. If the Fake Artist isn’t caught, the Fake Artist wins. If they ARE caught, however, they have one last chance. If they’re able to correctly guess what the prompt is, then they win!

I’m sure you see why this game is so clever, then. If the players who know the prompt draw something too obvious, then the Fake Artist will have a much better chance of guessing it if caught. Draw too vaguely, however, and you’ll find yourself with a giant Fake Artist shaped target on your back. Going back to the Mickey Mouse prompt (please Disney, don’t, I’m begging you), does a player draw two circles representing the ears? Or is that too obvious? Maybe instead they draw the turrets of the Disney castle, letting those in the know that they’re aware it’s a Disney character they’re drawing. But what if they don’t catch on??? Then it looks like you think it might be a Harry Potter or Game of Thrones character or something and while Disney owns everything, they don’t own those (yet).

It’s hilarious fun. Watching players squirm as they draw otherworldly shapes with no apparent connection to any prompt at all, let alone the prompt at hand, will have the table roaring in laughter. On the flip side, somebody drawing something so blatantly obvious will have the table groaning as the Fake Artist slyly grins to themselves, knowing they’re in the clear no matter what. A recent game of this had the prompt “Genie”, which I partnered with the category “Disney” (wow, I’m really tempting fate here). One of the players drew an obvious genie’s lamp which resulted in the rest of the table pursing their lips in frustration and, as the game master, it was hysterical to watch their silent fury. The best part though is looking at the final picture, admiring it in all its surrealist nightmare glory.

I will admit, the first time I played this was such a fun experience that I thought it was guaranteed to be a perennial entry in my top 25. It’s since fallen a bit and the main reason is because this can be very hit or miss depending on player count. Most social deduction games have a more the merrier approach to player count, but I actually find Fake Artist to be much better on the lower end of its player count range. It plays 5-10, but anything above seven is problematic. By that point, the drawing not only takes forever to go around the table, but there’s so many players to add to it that by the end, no one knows what to draw. This results in pictures that clearly show what the prompt is and when it doesn’t, there’s so many different colored markers that the Fake Artist almost always gets away, no problem. With five to seven, though, the game sings. The drawing moves around quickly and there’s just enough people to add some confusion as to who the Fake Artist might be without it being impossible to crack.

What I say now

Hey, an Oink Games double feature! First Maskmen, now Fake Artist!

Looking at Fake Artist, however, reveals a sizable fall of 20 places. This is a game I once considered one of my favorites of the social deduction genre, so what gives? Well, just take a look at what I wrote last year. The writing was actually kind of on the wall.

Like I wrote last year, this game is very hit or miss with its player count. I’ve decided the sweet spot for this game is 6-7 players and anything outside that miniscule range is not worth the attempt. Five players is too little and anything above seven is just too big and cumbersome. This narrow a range for a party game is not ideal and there are other social deduction games higher on this list that are just much more consistently fun and rewarding.

Despite that glaring flaw, Fake Artist is still on this top 100 for a reason. When you do have the right number, with the right group, this game is a hell of a lot of fun. I have plenty of great memories creating grotesque drawings as we laugh at our unholy creation while trying to suss out who didn’t know the prompt. For that reason, Fake Artist will likely be top 100 game for a while longer, even if its shine has dulled.

65. Take 5!

Last year’s ranking: 84 (+19)

What I said last year

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 in 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.

What I say now

Take 5 has ascended on the list, proving to be one of the most consistently fun card games I have in my collection for big groups. An outstanding implementation on Board Game Arena (though it’s under it’s other name 6 Nimmt! on the site) has helped Take 5’s standing even more, as I’ve been able to play it fairly regularly with friends remotely.

Take 5 may as well make itself comfortable, because I don’t see it leaving this top 100 any time soon.

64. Brew Crafters

Last year’s ranking: 61 (-3)

What I said last year

In Brew Crafters, you and your other players will be collecting ingredients, brewing beer and building infrastructure for your burgeoning brewery, all while trying to avoid horrifying amounts of debt (something many of us can relate to!). It’s pretty standard worker placement fare, but the way that the cozy looking art mixes with the theme and the gameplay makes it a surprisingly immersive jaunt through the world of craft beer and brewing.

The game’s rounds are broken into two distinct phases. The first phase has you doing a lot of resource gathering; you’re going to spots to pick things like hops, malt and yeast or hiring workers that provide passive special powers. The second phase involves brewing beer and building your brewery, which includes things like building additions and advancing up tech trees to grant you more efficient actions. Managing both phases is pivotal in making a well balanced brewery that can consistently pump out beer like an 80s hair metal band pumped out power ballads. There are various beer recipes for everyone to brew, allowing everyone to focus or specialize on different types. Do you focus on the lighter, easier beers that require fewer ingredients but net fewer points? Or do you try to brew the heavier, tougher beers that are chock full of hard to get ingredients but give more points? There’s also a tiny race element in the form of Gold Labels, which are little bonus point tokens given to the first person to brew a certain type of beer.  All the while, you’re desperately trying to get a steady flow of cash coming in, so you don’t have to take debt tokens throughout the game (there are no mobsters in the game, but it’s heavily implied that SOMEONE is not happy with you spending money so flippantly). It’s a surprisingly tough, tight game that will have you hand wringing in between turns, telepathically begging your opponents not to take the hops you oh so need.

I mentioned earlier that I find this to be a very underrated Euro, mainly because this game is rarely mentioned when great worker placement games are being discussed. This is a damn shame and I’d honestly rate Brew Crafters even higher on this list if it wasn’t so hard to get to the table (both figuratively and literally (this game’s footprint should have its own zip code)). As a disclaimer, I can kinda see why it didn’t catch fire. If you’re not into the theme of craft beers and breweries, this will likely seem like a very dry, vanilla worker placement game. In an era of board gaming where game designers sneeze and accidentally shit out two new worker placement games, you really have to add some sort of wrinkle or fresh take to the genre to really stand out. Brew Crafters, as good as it is and as much as I love it, doesn’t really have that.

BUT if you’re like me and love a good craft beer or a weekend trip to a brewery, then Brew Crafters will engross you with a deep, thoughtful experience that goes down as smoothly as a chocolate marshmallow stout.

What I say now

Much like Tournament at Camelot, Brew Crafters has suffered a very small drop that feels like it should be a bit bigger. Because, like TaC, Brew Crafters just hasn’t had a chance to get played over the past year. Like, at all. And that was already a problem with Brew Crafters when I initially ranked it!

Make no mistake: I want to get Brew Crafters to the table. Badly. It’s just such a commitment to set up, teach and then play that I can only bring it out in very specific circumstances with very specific people and the stars haven’t lined up lately. When I can start seeing people for games again, this is going to be one that I try hard to get played. I could see it soar back up the rankings once I do.

For now, Brew Crafters’ stubbornness in holding its place in the 60s is a testament to how much I like the game.

63. Incan Gold

Last year’s ranking: 45 (-18)

What I said last year

In Incan Gold, you and the other players are diving into a temple, trying to end up with the most treasure at the end of five rounds. Play is simple: a card is turned over from a deck displayed for all to see. If it’s a treasure card, it’ll have a value of gems that are then divided equally among all the players in the temple with the remainder being placed on the card. If it’s a threat card (representing things like snakes and fire and lots of rocks), it simply gets placed in the row UNLESS it’s the 2nd threat of its type. In that case, the round ends and anyone still in the temple ‘busts’.

After each card draw, however, each player is given the chance to either keep going through the temple OR to run back to their tent to fondle their treasure like Gollum after a two-week hiatus from the One Ring. If you do go back to your tent, all the treasure you’ve accumulated on that run through the temple is safely banked away for end game points. If you keep going, you can increase your treasure stockpile BUT at the risk of losing it if the round ever ends due to two identical threats.

This decision is made all the more delicious by a couple of other factors. One, everyone makes this decision simultaneously. There’s no chance for group think to dictate who stays or goes. Part of what makes this game so suspenseful is trying to get into the heads of your opponents to figure out what they’re gonna do, allowing you to make the most efficient choice for your plans. The other reason why staying or going isn’t as simple as it seems is because it’s possible to grab more treasure on the way out. I mentioned earlier that when treasure cards are divided, the remainder is left over on the treasure card. That’s because anyone who leaves grabs any leftover treasure for their own, just as you’d expect from a selfish COWARD. Of course, this is muddied if OTHER people leave too. If you leave at the same time as others, the leftover treasure on the cards is once again divided equally. If that’s not possible, nobody leaves with anything extra. This makes that simultaneous selection process even more agonizing. If you think a mass exodus is going to occur, it might do you good to wait a bit longer to try and grab more of the treasure scraps on your way out. Conversely, leaving earlier than expected is a great way to sneak out with all the leftover treasure and to keep yourself safe from an abrupt bust that may occur. Factor in ‘relics’, special cards that CANNOT be split on the way out and are only awarded to lone escapees and you can see why Incan Gold is Heart Palpitations: The Game.

There’s so much to love about Incan Gold. It is beautifully tense, with moments of great triumph and deflating failure. It has a great player count range, playing comfortably with as little as four all the way up to eight, making it a great option for parties where you aren’t necessarily in the mood for true ‘party’ games. It’s fairly quick, meaning you can probably get two to three games done in under an hour. I have only two minor complaints. One, if somebody gets real lucky in the first round or two, this can be a very hard game to catch up to them in. And two, there are also times where rounds can be major duds, with two of the same threat being drawn before there’s even a treasure card revealed. These flaws are what keep this game from my top 25 but let’s not pretend that the top 50 isn’t a great place to be.

If you enjoy push your luck, Incan Gold is an absolute must have. If you are on the fence about push your luck, as I was when first getting into the hobby, I can’t think of a game that’s better to convert you into a fan than this one.

What I say now

A mildly deep drop for Incan Gold, but it isn’t all THAT much in the grand scheme of things. I still love Incan Gold and it’s an easy recommendation for anyone looking to try push your luck for the first time.

I think what makes Incan Gold so great and immediately intense and accessible is also what might be contributing to its decline. Incan Gold’s beauty is in its simplicity, the fact that every turn is a mere “Stay” or “Go” decision. BUT that means that when you play it as much as I have, its wonder starts to dim as what was once masterful elegance transforms into thin repetition.

Incan Gold is still good enough for spot 63, however, and that’s no small feat. In fact, I recently got a chance to play this on Board Game Arena and had a really good time with it. Good enough, in fact, that had I played it before the list was finalized it maaay have gotten a bump up into the 50s. It’s a good sign that means Incan Gold could move back up come next top 100…we’ll have to wait and see!

62. Abyss

Last year’s ranking: 64 (+2)

What I said last year

At its core, Abyss is basically a set collection game. You’re trying to collect cards to then spend on other cards which you can then spend to gain big scoring tiles and you’re trying to collect the types that synergize well with each other. All of this done in a somewhat moody but beautiful underwater fantasy world that really helps immerse you into the gameplay.

On your turn, you choose one of three actions. The action you’ll be doing most is gathering ally cards which are then in turn spent on the bigger character cards (which provide points and special abilities). This is done through a really cool push your luck mechanism. You’ll be turning cards over from the deck of allies, placing them on a track. When you turn over a card, however, the other players get first crack at whether or not they want to purchase that ally from you. If they do, they pay a certain amount of pearls (another of the game’s currency) to you and then they’re blocked from buying again on your turn. This puts a cool twist on the usual push your luck formula, because in this case you’re trying to prevent high cards from getting into the hands of your opponents. As such, you may be prone to calling it quits a little early and taking a card you may not want as much.

This clever drafting system is the fuel in Abyss’ engine, but there are other things to do as well. A second action is taking all of one type of card from a place called ‘The Council’, which is just the place where discarded allies go after a player’s draft ends. The other action you can do is to actually spend these allies on characters, which come in the form of big tarot sized cards. These are the cards that will be getting you most of your points and, as mentioned, sport some cool special powers as well. Some characters also have keys which allow you to get another type of prize: location tiles. Location tiles are long tiles representing a certain location in the world of Abyss, and they often have some sort of scoring condition. These are things like “Get x amount of points for your red characters” or “Get x amount of points for unique characters” and so forth. It’s self-explanatory stuff and they also provide direction. You’re obviously going to want to take characters that gel with the locations you’ve drafted and vice versa. The one caveat with locations, though, is that when you take a location tile it is placed on the bottom of three of your character cards, thus erasing their special ability. This creates a tough decision: how badly do you want a location if it means losing a really useful power? Just another thing I love about this game.

The art and production values of this game are stellar as well. The art is incredibly detailed and immersive, helping to craft a world that feels lived in and authentic. It feels unique and original, like Game of Thrones meets The Little Mermaid. I also briefly mentioned the pearls above, a currency used in the game to pay players on their turns, as well as to supplement purchasing character cards. The pearls are little plastic balls that you keep in a shell shaped cup and wow do I love those little guys. It’s so satisfying and tactile to put a handful of pearls into your cup as they clink and roll around, ready to be spent on something that bolsters your tableau.  Easily one of my favorite board game components and just another small touch of why I love Abyss.

What I say now

I consume a lot of board game content and I’ve noticed that out of all of Cathala’s designs, Abyss seems to be getting a lot of resurgent love lately. For good reason! Its tightly woven mix of push your luck and set collection never fails to be engaging and its stellar production values immerses you even deeper into its murky, tactical depths.

For me, Abyss does see a bump but of only 2 spots. That’s pretty good considering how many games have moved down, but not as drastic as I might expect. I could see Abyss having gotten a bigger jump had I been able to play it with three or four players; my most recent play of Abyss was at two players and, while it’s perfectly fine at that count, it really shines with more. The play was good enough to reinvigorate my love for this game, but not enough for it to leap-frog what I consider the true classics of Cathala’s catalogue.

Abyss’ stock is moving up, but is this its ceiling? I’m interested to find out!

61. Dice Town

Last year’s ranking: N/A

Speaking of Cathala, here he is again! My number 61 is another ‘new to the list’ game: Dice Town. Dice Town is a game of rolling dice, screwing over your opponents and speaking in very bad Old West accents.

In Dice Town, everyone gets a set of poker dice and a Yahtzee style dice cup. At the start of every turn, everyone rolls their dice in the cup and obnoxiously slams it down on the table. Everybody takes a peek under the cup and chooses one die to set aside (spending money to keep more or less, if they desire). This is done until everyone has set aside all their dice; after that, it’s time to visit the titular town.

Each area on the Dice Town board pertains to a die face and who ever rolled the most of that face gets to activate that spot. For example, whoever rolled the most 9s gets to go to the gold mine and take as many nuggets as 9s they rolled, whoever rolled the most Jacks gets to go to the General Store and snatch a special ability card, whoever rolled the most Kings gets to take the Sheriff’s badge, etc.

This very simple gameplay loop results in is a loud and lively experience of smashing down dice cups, hurling curse words and generally just being really annoying to each other.  You have moments where everybody reveals their first die and half the table groans when they see they’re aiming for the same thing or where two players frantically negotiate with the Sheriff because the Sheriff is the person who breaks ties or where everybody is laughing at a player who routinely gets shut out of majorities because of bad dice rolls (hint: that player’s usually me). There are lots of games on this top 100 that I bow down to in terms of brilliance in their design, but Dice Town is a game that I admire for one simple reason: it’s just pure, damn fun.

Dice Town has quickly become my go to game if we have a group of 4-5 casual gamers. Its immediate atmosphere of exciting chaos and boisterous player interaction sparks everyone’s dopamine centers and it has yet to fail. I expect Dice Town to be a perennial entry on this top 100 from here on out.

*

Another entry in the books. Next entry will be the last one before we enter the top 50, so don’t miss it!

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