Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2020 Edition): 20-11

Last entry, we grabbed our machetes and started hacking our way through the jungle of my top 25 games of all time. As with all things related to my mind, it’s only going to get darker and more twisted the deeper we go so let’s have some fun!

20. Rurik: Dawn of Kiev

Previous ranking: N/A

I’ve mentioned a couple times throughout this list that I really love troops on a map games with Euro style roots (Blood Rage and Cyclades being the prime examples so far) and my number 20 snugly fits under that umbrella. That game is Rurik: Dawn of Kiev.

Rurik takes place in everyone’s favorite time period: 11th century Eastern Europe. That alone should explain why it’s on this list, but I guess I’ll go ahead and actually talk about the game too. In the game, you’re looking to win the throne of the kingdom by controlling regions, building structures and collecting resources like bear skins and honey (which hints at a disturbing fate for this game universe’s Winnie the Pooh). These things will allow you to slowly clamber up point tracks which is important because, believe it or not, most points will win the game.

That probably sounds so generic that I likely just sounded like an AI bot that regurgitated that summary after reading through the BoardGameGeek database but I promise that Rurik is far more unique than that introduction would lead you to believe. This uniqueness comes in large part due to its central mechanism: a so called ‘auction programming’ mechanism.

This auction programming mechanism is the core to Rurik’s action selection phase, the phase in which most of the game’s heaviest decisions are plotted. When selecting actions, players have numbered workers in their arsenal to place out on various spaces. When placing a worker, you look at the number and compare it to other workers already placed in that action’s column. Any lower numbers get bumped down while any higher numbers keep their ground. Though still neat, this isn’t hugely innovative on its own, so here’s the next twist: the number on your worker also denotes when you’re able to take that action in the next phase.

This essentially means that heavyweight five you just plopped down like it’s Andre the Giant entering the ring can’t actually do that action until the end of the round. Meanwhile, that value 1 worker immediately springs to action like an overeager elf on December 26th (or whenever elves get back to work after Christmas, I’m not up to date on my North Pole labor laws). Balancing getting good, impactful actions that you need to accomplish your goals while making sure they’re done in the proper order is the crux of Rurik’s delightfully hellish puzzle and it’s one of the biggest reasons why Rurik stuck with me so long after playing it.

Though the phase in which you actually take these actions isn’t quite as unique or fresh as this auction programming, it still manages to be engaging enough that the game’s momentum doesn’t suddenly falter. Yes, your actions are technically preordained but puzzling out what to do with those actions is still a ton of fun. Deciding which regions to bolster your forces in, which resources to collect and which opponents to attack are vital choices that demand lots of furrowed brows and threatening glances across the table. Combat itself is also an elegant joy, wherein you simply remove opponent forces and then draw from a deck of cards to determine if you take casualties. Choosing which player gives you the best chance of escaping unscathed when attacking makes this push your luck system a nifty contribution to this genre.

For me, there’s not much negative to say about Rurik. Everything from its tense, creative gameplay systems to its beautiful components and art combine to make a package that really speaks to me. As high as number 20 is, I could see Rurik being even higher come next top 100.

19. Kemet

Previous ranking: 13 (-6)

What I said last year

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.

What I say now

Kemet finds itself treating the 20-11 range like a slip and slide, going from one end at 13 to the other at 19. This is mainly to do with simply not playing it. This is a game I need a very specific group for (I need both people who like games that go above 90 minutes as well as people who like mean, fight-y games and that’s a very small Venn Diagram of my gaming friends) so that combined with COVID simply means Kemet has collected dust for the past year.

Despite its inaction and slight drop, it still remains one of my favorite troops on a map games and it is one of the games I will demand to play when I get the chance.

18. Codenames: Duet

Previous ranking: 10 (-8)

What I said last year

Codenames is one of the most popular games in the hobby and is maybe the game to hit the mainstream audience the most effectively (my parents own their own copy, for Christ’s sake). My number 10 is not Codenames but rather its 2-player cooperative version, Codenames: Duet.

Codenames: Duet takes the same basic concept of trying to get players to guess words set out in a grid from its older sibling but turns the team vs. team competitive structure into a purely cooperative one. The key which shows players which words are good vs. bad is now double sided, meaning both players need to take on the role of clue giver and guesser. It’s an incredibly clever and creative twist on the formula and it works to perfection.

I won’t say whether I prefer Duet or normal Codenames since that would spoil the latter’s potential appearance on this entry, but I will say that this is easily one of my favorite cooperatives that I’ve ever played. Obviously, it’s in my top 10, but it just hits so many of the right spots for me. Co-op with limited communication? Check. Word based game? Check. Easy to pick up and play? Check. The fact that it’s based off a game that I already love is just the icing on the Codenames cake.

The game even comes with a mini campaign mode. Now I usually recoil in horror when I hear the words ‘campaign mode’ in a board game, but this mode is literally just a sheet of paper with a map that you’re trying to forge a path through. The different cities on the map have slightly altered set ups which cause the difficulty to vary from game to game. Some of them are brutal, allowing close to no margin of error, but that just means you have an excuse to play it more and more. Even if you have no interest in playing through a series of games, I’ve had plenty of fun simply playing the game over and over again with its standard set up.

I have so many great memories with this game. I’ve spent countless nights drunkenly staying up past two in the morning to play this and it’s a game that has been a staple of many a brewery date with my girlfriend. 

What I say now

First, let’s pour one out for the concept of brewery dates, or just going out on dates in general, that I mentioned at the end of that excerpt. Then, let’s pour another out for the first game to slip out of my top 10.

Look, dropping 8 spots is not THAT bad, it just seems worse since it left the premium, exclusive members only club that is my top 10. I still LOVE this game. The main decrease is, ironically, due to it being a COVID casualty.

Confused? I’m sure you have been the moment you accidentally clicked on this link when you meant to click on the Shut Up & Sit Down tweet above it. But perhaps you’re moreso confused that a 2-player game is a COVID casualty when COVID has extinguished my ability to play anything BUT 2 player games. Here’s why that pesky, meddling virus struck again. You mischievous little pandemic, you! *wags fist*

Codenames, a game that was in my top 10 last year and may or may not be there still, is one of the few party games I’ve been able to play remotely over the past year. As such, my desire to play the 2-player only version of it has dramatically tumbled downwards since I would rather spend that time playing games I can’t play remotely.

(Huh. I guess that explanation isn’t as long or drawn out as I expected. I tend to turn everything into a long and drawn out endeavor, though I’m sure my girlfriend would disagree. *snare roll*)

As such, the desire to play is positively correlated to the standing in my top 100: when one goes down, the other often does as well. It’s still a brilliant reinvention of the Codenames system for a 2-player cooperative setting and I have had a strong itch to pull it out lately. It just wasn’t enough to stay in that vaunted top 10 spot.

17. Skull

Previous ranking : 11 (-6)

What I said last year

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.

What I say now

I ended that entry last year by saying it’s possibly the most played game in my collection. Ironically, I think that explains Skull’s decline. I’ve played it SO much over the past couple years that my desire to volunteer it as a game to play has waned. Combine that with the fact that, like Codenames, this game is easy to play remotely and therefore continues to still get played over and over again, the burnout factor on Skull is real.

Enough negative talk: Skull is an absolute masterpiece and I’d be shocked it fell much further or off my top 25. It is a game that, even with my over exposure to it, I still have a blast with when it comes out. It is one of the few games that I think EVERYBODY should play and own.

16. The Grizzled

Previous ranking: 9 (-7)

What I said last year

The first time I ever went into a game store was in 2016 and that was the day I saw The Grizzled. It caught my eye because of its art style and theme, both of which reminded me of a video game called Valiant Hearts: The Great War that I had just recently played. I didn’t buy it that exact day but I did eventually get my own copy of The Grizzled and fell in love with it.

The Grizzled is set in World War I, where you and your fellow players are soldiers simply trying to survive the war. This is abstracted into gameplay that is basically a push your luck card game. Players are trying to play as many card from their hands as they can before the end of the round. The cards have different elements on them called ‘threats’. These threats involve symbols like gas masks, artillery shells and whistles as well as weather such as freezing snow, torrential rain and the darkness of night. If three of the same threat are ever played onto the table (in an area aptly called ‘No Man’s Land’), the round ends and the players fail the mission (which is what rounds are referred to as in this game). In true limited communication co-op fashion, you can’t discus what’s in your hand so trying to time what threats to play can make all the difference between getting out of a mission alive or failing miserably.

If you think you can’t add any cards to No Man’s Land without endangering the rest of the table, you can withdraw. Withdrawing means you no longer play cards which means whatever is left in your hand is carried over to the next round, which is often not a good thing. This is because a number of cards equal to the amount of cards leftover in players’ hands will be moved from a deck known as the morale deck onto a deck known as the trial deck. So, more cards left in hand means more of a morale drop.

This is bad because in order to win the game, everyone needs to have no cards their hands and the trials deck needs to be completely empty. If the morale deck ever empties before the trials deck, that represents you and your squad succumbing to the horrors of war and not coming back home. That’s a fancy way of saying, “Game over, man, game over!” Trying to stay one step ahead of the morale deck is the key to winning the game and ending missions with as few cards as possible is the best way to achieve this.

I do feel a little weird discussing this game from a ludological standpoint because so much of what makes this game special is how it handles its heavy theme. This is a game that takes place in a war, but there is no battling or conflict or killing enemy soldiers. It’s simply about surviving, trying to cope with the horrors of war as it scars and irreversibly damages you. This idea of PTSD is explored through Hard Knocks cards, cards that inflict ongoing penalties on the person who plays them. These Hard Knock cards look like pages ripped out of a journal, with their names and descriptions written in curvey handwriting, as if the soldier is reflecting on the person they’ve become. Gameplay is married with theme in the way in which these maladies are represented. A demoralized soldier causes extra cards to be dropped from the morale deck while a fearful one is forced to withdraw from a mission if 2 identical threats are present. But outside of what they do from a gameplay perspective, they also provide a somber, thoughtful look into the type of horrific mental trauma a soldier carries with them far beyond the front lines of battle.

Because of this, it’s awkward calling The Grizzled ‘fun’. This isn’t the type of push your luck game in which players clap and high five when they avoid busting. Instead, everyone breathes a sigh of relief, slumping their shoulders as the tension finally slackens. Because of this, The Grizzled is more about an immersive, evocative experience rather than pure, dumb fun. That certainly isn’t for everyone, and even I have my limits with that sort of thing. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a great example of a game that is amazing from a design standpoint and at educating players on the terrible nature of its subject matter but is so mentally and emotionally draining that I rarely attempt to play it anymore. The Grizzled avoids tipping too far in that direction, perhaps thanks to its lean 15-20 minute play time (as opposed to the 90+ minute playtime for Freedom).

I will end this entry on The Grizzled by touching on this game’s beautiful artwork. The art in this game is my favorite art in any board game. It has a hand drawn aesthetic, like it’s been plucked from a sketchbook. I compared it to the video game Valiant Hearts earlier so if you’re familiar with that, think along those lines. It’s simplistic but I’m always blown away by the art in this game whenever I’m playing it. Tragically, the artist of this game, Tignous, died in the Charlie Hedbo shootings. It makes an already solemn game that much more affecting.

What I say now

Uh oh. Cover your heads, folks, games are falling from my top 10 at a rapid pace! Get to the storm cellar!

I will admit, out of all the games that fell out of my top 10, The Grizzled is the one that surprises me the most. It was once my favorite cooperative game and felt like a game that, when combined with the palpable nostalgia it evokes for me, would stick around my top 10 for a looooooong time. The reasons for its fall sounds like a greatest hits compilation of the reasons I’ve mentioned for most falls on this list:

-I’ve played it so much in my gaming life that it feels just the teensiest bit run through.

-Other newer games have moved up/onto the list, including a game that has now replaced The Grizzled as my favorite cooperative.

-Even though the vast majority of my plays of this game are with the 2-player variant, I’ve come to terms recently that it’s not the ideal way to play and therefore prefer to wait till there are 3-4 players to play it. We all know how that’s gone, recently.

All of these factors, though of less magnitude than other games affected in similar ways in this top 100, caused The Grizzled to stumble a bit. It saddens me but I can’t see The Grizzled being worse off in the next top 100; my fondness for this game runs so deep through the murky channels of my heart that I would be shocked if it still wasn’t in my top 25.

15. Bruges

Previous ranking: 27 (+12)

What I said last year

Set in the titular city of Bruges (it’s in Belgium) during Medieval times, players are going to build houses to recruit influential people, help to construct the canal, and gain reputation in the town square all while trying to avoid various crises tearing through the city. All of this is done with multi-use cards, which have so many uses that it’s borderline comical.

Players will be spending cards to (takes deep breath) gain workers, gain gold, build houses, build the canal, get rid of threat markers and to recruit characters with special powers to your tableau (deep exhale). On your turn, you play one card and choose ONE of these six actions to activate. Unless you’re hiring the character on the card, you’re mostly concerned about the card’s color. The color determines what color workers you take, the threat markers you can dispel, the amount of gold you get (based on how many pips are on the die of that color), whether or not you can add a canal section based on what color is up next in the line AND determines what color house you’d be building (which can matter based on certain character abilities).

This means some colors might mean more to you than other players and some colors may be hotly contested depending on the dice rolls. Brilliantly, players draft cards purely based on color. There are two decks that you refill your hand with and you can see what color the card is based on its back. So, if you really need blue and yellow, you can take any that are at the top, but you’ll have no clue what character will be on the other side of the card. It’s simple but a neat little twist to how you ‘draft’ cards in this game.

Like most of Feld’s games, this is very much a point salad. You can get points through a metric butt ton of ways, giving it a very free, open feel. While the absurd amount of uses for a card is hilarious, especially when you see the border with all the icons reminding you of the actions on every single card, it also means that you’ll never have a useless, dead turn. You always feel like you can accomplish something, even if it’s as simple as getting two workers. Sure, there are times where there’s stuff you’d rather do but can’t because of the colors in your hand, but I rarely leave a turn in Bruges thinking, “What a waste.”

Perhaps my favorite thing about Bruges, however, is just how tactical it is. I’ve mentioned in this top 100 that I am a fan of games that favor tactics over strategy and Bruges is as tactical as they come. You can certainly build towards long term goals or go into it with a certain focus in mind, but this game is all about looking at your hand of cards for that turn and trying to come up with the most efficient use for them. Then, when it’s time to draw back up, it’s all about picking the colors that best suit you as they come out and it’s back to puzzling out what you want to do with the new hand. It’s all about adapting and keeping your possibilities open for the next round, and I adore that style of play.

If I have one tiny nitpick that keeps Bruges from being one of the top 3 Euros on this list rather than in the top 5ish, it’s that it can maybe go on a couple rounds too long. The game ends when one of the decks is empty and that can take a decent amount of time. By the end, your tableau is going to be quite sprawling and unwieldly on the table and that could have been saved by shaving off maybe twenty minutes.

Outside of that minute criticism, Bruges is among the best Euros I’ve personally played. It’s very much out of print outside of Europe, which is a real shame because this one deserves to be an evergreen. If you can track down a copy to try, it’s absolutely a must play.

What I say now

FINALLY. After having to spend the last couple games having to gloomily defend why games I love are descending the top 100 like an over eager Sam Fisher repelling the side of a government embassy, I can talk about a game that’s moved UP. Bruges, a mid-weight Euro tantalizingly close to my top 25 last year, has bounded 12 spots up to cement itself as one of my all-time favorite Euros.

Bruges was obviously a game I already adored, but what made me fall even deeper in love with it has been my recent plays of it at 2-players. My least favorite thing about Bruges was that it tended to drag towards the end and that I always felt it could have been a round or two shorter. Playing 2-player neutralizes this criticism, as the game flies by a brisk pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome like at 3 or 4.

Being able to play this game without its biggest detractor present makes me appreciate it even more. I standby that this is one of the most wonderfully tactical Euros I’ve ever played. It seriously feels more like a hand management game than an engine/tableau builder, with every card draw bringing new decisions on how to adapt to what you got but didn’t need vs. what you needed but didn’t get.

Tragically, this game is getting a reprint but it’s being severely reworked. That’s usually a good thing, but the changes that are being made to it seem to gut the things I love about Bruges in the first place. It no longer takes place in medieval Bruges but in turn of the century Hamburg, which feels less charming to me. Maybe it’s just because In Bruges is my favorite movie of all time, but I find the setting of Bruges so quaint and pleasing, with its iconic town square and canals providing a setting that I love to visit again and again. Hamburg is…fine? I guess? It’s fine, I’m sure it’s fine, but it’s not Bruges (and yes, they’re renaming the game to Hamburg though I think it would have been hysterical and daring to just keep it called Bruges).

More egregious, though, is how they’re changing the card draw system. Bruges simply splits all its cards into two decks and you draw from either one, hoping to dig for colors you may need. This is what makes Bruges such a tactical game, since you’re likely going to be left with things you don’t necessarily need. Of course, this makes all the purist Euro gamers out there pop out their monocles in distress, because it ‘mAkEs It ToO lUcK dRiVeN’. Now, in Hamburg, the colors are neatly separated into their own piles, allowing players to pick the ones they need as they need them. Gone is the tension and pushing your luck of not knowing if you’ll be able to snag what you need, gone is the tactical improvisation this game requires when a bad card draw appears to stall you, gone is the player interaction when someone draws three blues off the deck you were planning on drawing from, why did you take those blues, YOU DON’T EVEN NEED BLUES. Now, players can robotically draw cards from the exact decks they want, with no competition or need to be spry and versatile. Yay.

Also, as a third thing that bugs me, the game no longer has text on the cards telling you what it does. It’s all icon driven. I understand this makes it language independent which helps create a wider reach for the game, but I think there is a hidden collateral damage to this. People who are casual gamers can easily play Bruges since everything is spelled out on each card, making the rest of the game much easier to learn. With a jumble of icons and symbols all over the place, spread across almost 200 cards?? I can already see some of my friends frozen in fear when they draw their initial hand of cards. I feel like this could lock out just as many potential people and as someone who has a lot of casual gamers between his game groups, Hamburg has officially shrunk the option pool with this well-intentioned but perhaps damaging change.

All of this has me doing my best Don Corleone “Look what they did to my boy” impression. Maybe I should have made this discussion its own blog post rather than hijacking my sacred Top 100, BUT I wanted to explain these differences because it helps illustrate what makes Bruges so special to me. It makes me sad that the Bruges I know and love will be lost to the secondhand market forever and it makes its placement here at number 15 that much more meaningful.

14. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Previous ranking: N/A

Like the game Aerion in my 60-51 post, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is new to the top 100 BUT I have actually talked about it before. SHCD made it onto my Top 10 Solo Games post I wrote this past summer. It was my number two solo game and it honestly made a strong run at being my number one. Rather than just repeat everything I wrote in that post, I’ll let Kyle from June 2020 take over.

Thanks, Future Kyle! How are things? Is COVID FINALLY over?

Hahahahahaha nope.

Darn. Well. Did you finally iron out that drinking problem, at least?

Aren’t you here to talk about Sherlock Holmes.

Right! I forgot, we’re incapable of change. On with the show:

In SHCD, you are an underling to Sherlock Holmes, one of the so co called Baker Street Irregulars. You need to solve a mystery before Sherlock does and to do this you’re given a map of 1800s London, a directory of addresses in the city, and ten separate case books, each one providing a new mystery to solve.

When you want to tackle a case, you simply take its book and read its introduction. It’s usually a scene that provides you the basic details to the crime or mystery you’ll be tasked with unraveling and when you’re done reading it, the game just kind of lets you figure the rest out on your own.

And I absolutely LOVE this. The game doesn’t provide any sort of “Maybe you should check here, first!” or “Go to this location to begin the case” style prompts. It’s literally a couple of paragraphs and the rest is on you. The murder took place in Hyde Park? Then maybe you should check there. Is there a suspect that’s already been detained? Go to the jail to see if you can interview them. A firearm was used? Maybe start visiting all the gunsmiths in town to see if any shady customers came in recently. This lack of hand holding makes it so satisfying when you decide to track down a lead that actually ends up being fruitful.

Whatever you decide, you find the address you want to go to in the London directory or on the map and then you look up that address in the case book. So, if you want to go to Hyde Park and its address is “95 NW” you flip to the “95 NW” entry in the case book. If a location isn’t part of that case, it simply won’t have an entry. If it does have an entry, you read another section of text (some short, some long) depicting a scene that occurs while you’re there and hopefully you can find new hints or leads that will lead you to other locations.

There’s also a newspaper that is paired with every case book, showing the headlines and news for that particular day. If you thought the hints in the case book were vague, they’re somehow even vaguer here. To figure out which bits from the newspaper are helpful requires a little more outside the box thinking. For example, you might find out the murder victim was an actor. You then might browse the newspaper and see a very brief blurb about a new show at a certain theatre, a show you know the victim was a part of. This now opens up a new place to investigate if you want to perhaps give the theatre a visit.

You keep doing this, going from location to location, hoping to find leads or clues that will help you crack the case, until you think you have enough information to solve the mystery. At that point, you go to the end of the case book and answer a handful of questions. If you know the answers, awesome! You get points. If you have no clue what the question is even referring to, you don’t receive anything except a creeping sense of embarrassment. After you tally up your points, you read an epilogue where Sherlock smugly tells you how you how he solved the case and how many leads he used to figure it out. You subtract a certain amount of points based on the difference in leads between you both and if you end up with over 100 points, you have won!

You will not win.

Sherlock’s maddening, supernatural senses of deduction means he will use, like, 3 leads and insane leaps of logic to ascertain the solution to the puzzle. It’s one of the biggest complaints about this game and is often a source of frustration to many players. For me? I don’t mind it too much. I just have sort of come to terms that I’ll likely never break the 100 point barrier and instead try to make sure I can answer all the possible questions correctly. If I manage that, I consider the game a success.

I adore the elegance of this system. It manages to create a sense of discovery and immersion while simply being a couple of books and a map. I am one of those Luddites who can’t stand app integration in board games and I think SHCD is a prime example of how to create a richly engrossing, cinematic experience with a minimalist, technology-free approach. Plus, it doesn’t create any sort of disconnect that would occur from being like, “Let me just grab my 1800s era iPhone to trigger the next lead.”

Speaking of immersion, that’s the next thing I’ll discuss. When I’m playing SHCD, I’m transported to Victorian London. I can feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, the choking smog in the air and the taste of a jet-black stout at the local tavern. Okay, maybe that last one is just the beer I’m drinking in the real world, but you get my point. The act of taking down notes throughout the investigation further immerses me into my role as a Victorian era detective, as I jot down leads and attempt to draw connections between them. As someone who really likes the whole Victorian London era and aesthetic, this is endlessly entertaining to me.

This is a game that can technically be played with others. It’s often touted as a great couples game, where you and your partner can spitball ideas and possible leads, passing the case book between each other like it’s the beer list at a brewery. But for me, this is exclusively solo. I like the idea of trying to come up with connections myself rather than debating them with someone else and the thought of bringing others into the game makes me fearful of breaking that beloved immersion I was just gushing about. I’m sure I’d like it just fine with one or two others, but I can’t see a situation where I’d even want to try it. I adore this is as a solo experience, so why bother?

Out of all the games on this list, this is likely the most divisive and it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For one, it is, as I said at the beginning, not exactly a typical board game, straying closer to the realm of a Choose Your Own Adventure or interactive novel. There is lots of reading in this game and if you aren’t prepared to take pages of notes, you will not get anywhere close to solving the mystery. Lastly, the open-ended nature of this game has also been loudly complained about by its detractors. As someone who grew up on old school point and click adventure games, I have no problem with this game’s nebulous nature and lack of guidance. I love that the case ends when you feel like you have enough information and that the game offers no hints as to when that might be. Again, personal preference, so if that sounds like something that would cause you to pull your hair out, SHCD may not be for you.

Thanks, June 2020 Kyle! Everything he just said still rings true for me today. SHCD is such a wholly unique experience, especially when compared to the rest of my top 100. Some of my favorite gaming memories have been sitting down with a beer and a notebook, completing a case over the course of a few hours.

Ranking SHCD is going to be tough in the future thanks to its one-off nature. Games that are ostensibly only playable once, like escape room games or legacy games, tend to not sniff my top 100 because one of my big determining factors with judgement and ranking is based on how much I want to play the game at that point in time. If I literally can’t play the game again, how do I reconcile that with my process, especially if the game gave a great experience? It’s one of the reasons why Pandemic Legacy Season 1 will never make my top 100. It was an incredible gaming experience, but I won’t ever play that game again, nor do I have the desire to.

Luckily for SHCD, it won’t have to worry about that for a little while; it has the luxury of having plenty of content left for me. I’m almost done with the first collection of cases, but I still have three more after that. At ten cases a pop, I’m looking at over 30 new experiences. That’ll take me a while to comb through and I absolutely can’t wait.

13. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

Previous ranking: N/A

Earlier in this post I hinted how The Grizzled was no longer my favorite cooperative game. That’s due to my number 13, a game that is not only new to me but also the newest game on my top 100. That game is one of the hottest of the past year, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine.

The first time I heard of The Crew, I was immediately intrigued. A cooperative trick taking game?? “What wizardry is this!?” I asked, like a time travelling Medieval nobleman standing in front of a Coco-Cola Freestyle machine. I paid close attention to reviews coming from its European release and the unanimous love pouring out of them made me even more amped to try it once it came to the States.

How sweet it was that even with these stratospheric high hopes and expectations, I was still blown away upon my first plays of the game.

The Crew casts players as adventurous astronauts blasting off into space to find the mysterious and titular Planet Nine, while hoping to avoid running into and having an awkward conversation with Pluto when it asks, “Wait, I thought I’m Planet Nine???” This provides the framework for the game’s semi campaign style mission system, which provides a loose story and thematic excuses for what you need to accomplish.

Now, the meat and potatoes of these missions are task tokens and goal cards. These components are combined in a way that create missions wherein players have to win specific cards in a trick, often at specific times; someone has to win the yellow 1, for instance, or that player not only needs to win the yellow 1 but it also needs to occur before someone else wins the blue 8. The complexities of these tasks begin to layer on each other like a brisk snowfall, before finally accumulating into a blizzard of difficulty and trickiness.

This ingenious system of task tokens and goal cards creates a new, perplexing puzzle within each mission. Even playing the same mission over again will present a new riddle to crack, as everything will be reshuffled to reset the scenario. Trying to figure out what cards to play and when, so that neither you nor your teammates gets painted into a corner is a confounding delight.

Playing The Crew feels like you’re putting on magic act, only none of you were given a script. Your hand of cards will feel like a pair of shackles that your teammates need to unlock, only they have to hold the lockpick in their teeth and your mouth is covered with duct tape. When everybody manages to supernaturally align in a way that your shackles are unlocked and you can play the exact card at the moment everyone else’s shackles become unlocked, it creates a NSFW amount of pleasure and ecstasy.

I’ve mentioned multiple times throughout this top 100 that limited communication cooperation is one of my favorite game types. Quite simply, The Crew is this mechanism at its absolute zenith. Every move feels like a piece of information, a clue about what your fellow players have in their hands and what you should play to accommodate that. Each trick is a bread crumb trail and following it to a successful mission is eternally satisfying.

Amazingly, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with this game. I still have a ton of missions to play since I’ve be introducing it to different groups (albeit mostly through Board Game Arena, but it’s a great implementation) and I have really only played the first ten missions over and over again. And even with that, The Crew manages to sit comfortably in my top 15 games.

With so much more to discover and experience, don’t be surprised if The Crew is in my top 10 by the end of 2021.

12. Bohnanza

Previous ranking: 12 (no change)

What I said last year

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.

What I say now

I ended last year’s entry by saying “Bohnanza is freaking great” and I will start this entry by saying Bohnanza is freaking great. It is the exact same spot as it was last year and it honestly fought hard for a spot in my top 10. It just barely missed it this year, but I wouldn’t count it out as a potential top 10 game next year. It’s not only that good but it’s starting to gain the ‘nostalgia factor’, which can often cause me to subconsciously bump up a game. Bohnanza is officially one of those games where all I have to do is look at the box on my Kallax and I get a rush of warmth and fond memories.

Bohnanza is a classic of the hobby for a reason. Everybody needs to play it at least once.

11. Scythe

Previous ranking: 2 (-9)

What I said last year

Scythe is set in the beautifully realized world of Eastern Europa, drawing from a universe called 1920+ created by the game’s artist Jakub Rozalski. This universe takes place in a dieselpunk style, alternate 1920s where a World War I style event has left the continent decimated but up for grabs. You and your opponents take control of factions vying to pick over the remains of Eastern Europa, doing things like building a workforce, hoarding resources and building mechs to protect what’s rightfully (or not so rightfully) yours.

Despite the game’s daunting size and ruleset, it’s pretty simple when you boil it down. Each turn, you simply pick one of four actions on your action board and perform the top action, the bottom action or both. A rule preventing you from using the same action twice (save for the red faction, whose ability breaks that restriction) means you essentially only have three choices per turn. BUT a small number of choices certainly doesn’t mean the decision space isn’t large.

Every choice in Scythe is magnified by the fact that the actions you do on this turn GREATLY affect the actions you do on later turns. At its heart, Scythe is an action efficiency puzzle and it’s a puzzle that I delight in trying to crack. I will admit, it’s a little more strategic than I tend to like. In order to succeed in Scythe, you really need to visualize at least three turns ahead. Normally that makes me dry heave, but in Scythe it feels more palatable. Perhaps because the game’s theme immerses you so deeply into its world or maybe it’s the tactical nature of moving and managing your pieces on the board that help wash down the astringent taste of long-term planning. Whatever it is, during the one to two hours that I’m playing Scythe, I’m fully engrossed and completely oblivious to anything outside the game. As I try to efficiently map out what actions to take and in what order to take them, while simultaneously dealing with the increasingly crowding board state, I’m utterly hypnotized.

Lots of people poo-poo this game, claiming that it looks like a war game but barely has any conflict. To that I say: so? Who cares? This game isn’t a war game so we shouldn’t compare it to one. I’ve heard ti called a cold war game and THAT I agree with. Conflict isn’t the driving force of this game, despite the mechs that permeate the game’s illustrations. It’s the threat of conflict that makes this game so tense and interactive.

The moment a mech gets plopped onto the board like an egg from a hen, everybody stiffens. This player now has power that the others don’t, which immediately initiates an arm race to defend yourself. By the halfway point in the game, everybody’s got a line of mechs defending their territory, like grade schoolers forming a game of Red Rover. The message is clear: I don’t want to use these mechs, but I will if I need to. The fact that combat is such a drain of resources from both parties further intensifies this feeling of mutually assured destruction, reinforcing this feeling of a cold war that no one wants to ignite.

What I say now

Uhhh ohhhh, what’s that I hear!? Is that the Controversy Express pulling into the station!? Choo choo, mother effer!

Despite only falling 9 spots, Scythe feels to me like the most seismic shift in my top 100. Entrenched in the number 2 spot last year, I didn’t expect it to fall out of the top 3 let alone the top 10. And yet, here we are at number 11. Why the decline?

The answer is very simple: I dunno.

In all seriousness, it is tough to pinpoint why Scythe is now on the outside looking in when it comes to the top 10. And of course, it goes without saying that being my number 11 favorite game of all time means that I still like Scythe a whole, whole lot. But it does feel like it’s lost just a tad bit of luster.

First, I haven’t played Scythe since pre pandemic. Lack of consistent play is always gonna hurt a game in some shape or form.

Second, this style of game (a Euro style game masquerading as a troops on a map affair) is becoming more and more crowded for me and Scythe is struggling to stand out against them more than ever. I’ve already talked about Blood Rage (which itself fell), Cyclades, Rurik and Kemet and there’s another one coming up on my top 10. There is constant jostling between these games and Scythe felt a slight shove down because of it.

Thirdly (and I think lastly?), I have been keeping an eye on criticisms levelled against the game and have started to feel those critiques gain a bit of merit over my last few plays. The biggest one is that the game can feel ‘scripted’ and I’m really starting to buy into that narrative. There are legitimate strategy guides where it begins by scripting out your first third of the game or so and any game that enables that sort of rigid decision space is a turn off for me. Another critique is that the game feels very heads down for its first half, with everybody so focused on their own boards and action efficiency that the actual play on the map feels like an afterthought. I used to contend this but after having played it more and seen how successful Scythe play is enacted I am slowly starting to concur. It really does feel like you’re lost in your own board for a bit too long for my tastes.

None of these factors feel huge on their own, or at least not huge enough to dethrone Scythe from its number 2 spot. But swirled together into a cocktail of doubt and uncertainty? It’s taken its toll on what was once a juggernaut in my collection.

Let me end on a positive note by saying I STILL LOVE SCYTHE. IT IS A FANATASTIC GAME. Honestly, I could see it reclaiming a spot in the top 10 come next list if I get a chance to play it. But as of now, it solemnly hands me back the top 100 silver medal and watches as I launch into my top 10…

*

Speaking of top 10, that’s what’s coming next! Come back soon(ish, hopefully) to see my 10 favorite games of all time!

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