Tag: arkham horror the card game

Kyle Hanley’s Top 10 Solo Games

You know what used to be great? Seeing other human beings and fulfilling basic social needs. You know what else used to be great? Going to the grocery store and not being stuck in a Mad Max rally to the toilet paper section only to realize you’re already too late and it’s all sold out and oh god did that person next to you just cough without a mask on OH GOD OH GOD.

If you’re reading this and you’re confused, allow me to elaborate. I am currently writing this in the late Spring of 2020, where the world is smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and life SUCKS. If we’ve moved past the pandemic and life has somewhat returned to normal as you’re reading this, awesome! I can’t wait for that future! But as of now, life is constant anxiety and dread and calling your parents to make sure they’re not dead yet.

But at least we have board games….right? RIGHT??

RIGHT!?

Well, if you were lucky enough to enter the age of quarantine and social isolation with the people you game with, then yes! You have board games! But the vast majority of us probably don’t have that luxury.  In my case, I’m quarantined with my girlfriend and while she does enjoy playing games with me, she’s not absurdly obsessed with the hobby like I am and our selection is limited to games that support 2 players. So while I’m grateful that I get some gaming done and we’ve created a wonderful Saturday night game night tradition, there are certainly times where I want to scratch a gaming itch and she’s either busy or not in the mood. What to do then?

That’s where solo games come in, my friend. Solo gaming was once a huge punchline in the industry, as it is a niche corner of a hobby that is already niche. But things have changed, even before a pandemic forced us to ward people out of our personal space with six foot long pool noodles. Now instead of being a huge punchline in the industry, it’s merely a small punchline.

Yes, people still make fun of the idea of solo gaming but it’s slowly becoming more and more mainstream. Just take a look at any Euro released in the past two years. It’s weirder to see one that doesn’t support solitaire play than to see one that does. Solitaire only games are also becoming more and more popular, often finding life on Kickstarter where dedicated solo gamers scour around likely lonely, socially anxious sharks.

With this surge of solo gaming popularity AND the fact that none of us can leave our houses, what better time to talk about my favorite solo games than now? I’ll even ignore the fact that most content creators have already been doing this in response to the pandemic and pretend that I came up with his idea ALL BY MYSELF.

So, in this post I will be ranking and discussing my favorite solo games that I’ve played over the past few years. Since about 2018, I’ve gotten more and more into solo gaming, to the point that I actively seek out well regarded solitaire experiences. On this list you will find games that are both multiplayer games with splendid solo variants AND games designed solely with one player in mind. I’ll obviously point out which games are which as I talk about them. Also, homebrewed solo variants posted on BGG are not eligible. Since they’re often not official, I won’t consider them as such for the list.

All right, that’s enough talking. Can you tell I’m starved for social interaction lately??? ONTO THE LIST.

10. Orchard

Orchard cover

Orchard is from Side Room Games, a publisher that ALMOST made it onto this list twice. I say almost, because the other game, Maquis, barely missed making my top 10. Maquis did just get its own individual review from me though, so click on that link if you wanna read up on that game.

Let’s talk about Orchard, though. It is an adorable, little microgame about planting trees and harvesting fruit and it’s a mere 18 cards. Is 18 cards ‘microgame’ enough for ya? Well how about this: a single game only uses half the deck, so in reality this game only needs a miniscule 9 cards to create a lovely solo experience.

Orchard is a tile/card laying game, where you’re placing cards down and trying to overlap as many of the same trees/colors as possible. There are three types of trees in Orchard: apple (red), pear (yellow) and plum (purple). When you overlap like colors, you get to place a die of that color on the spot set to the 1 pip. If there’s already a die present, you get to increase its pip level instead. A 1 becomes a 3, a 3 becomes a 6 and it maxes out at 10 from there. You play until the deck runs out and then you tally up the number of pips you have showing to figure out your score.

In terms of simplicity and swiftness of play, nothing on this list compares to Orchard. You can play a game of this in 10 minutes, tops, and then you can immediately replay it with the other half of the deck that wasn’t used. And if you don’t think that’s what I do every time I play Orchard, you are SORELY mistaken. Orchard is such an addictive little package, providing interesting decisions on how to plant your trees and providing a deceptively tough, stubborn difficulty that will have you determined to improve upon your measly point totals.

To further flesh (haha, flesh, like fruit) out the already tricky puzzle is the rotten fruit mechanic. Twice per game you can choose to overlap two trees that are not of the same type at the cost of having to put a rotten fruit token on that spot. This seems like a great way to get out of a tight jam (haha, jam, also like fruit) BUT it not exactly a “Get out of jail for free” card. At the end of the game, any rotten fruit tokens are counted as negative 3 points, meaning if you’re going to use one, then you better damn well be getting a solid chunk of points out of it. It’s always an interesting choice to size up your potential point gains vs. what you’ll lose with the rotten fruit and trying to determine if it’s worth it. It’s certainly a very small mechanism but in a very small game, that’s all you really need.

Ultimately, the main complaint I have with Orchard is that there is no win/loss condition. The game has a point chart detailing your ranking based on the amount of points you scored. Though I am less annoyed by this than I was when I first started solo gaming, I am still not a fan when solo games present a scoring tier system rather than a binary win/loss state. Plus, the scoring tiers are all fruit puns and who would debase themselves low enough to make fruit puns???

Despite that little quibble, Orchard is a surprisingly satisfying game for its size and has provided me with lots of plays during this quarantine. Just writing about it has got me itching to play it again. Which I think I just might do. Hold on, I’ll be back in 10-20 minutes.

9. Crystallo

Crystallo cover

Like Orchard, Crystallo is another solo only tile/card laying game that I Kickstarted. Whereas Orchard is a tight, cute little game of planting a, well, orchard, Crystallo is a sprawling, starkly beautiful game of rescuing fantastical creatures from an evil black dragon.

Crystallo has you exploring the lair of a black dragon, hoping to free creatures under its imprisonment by surrounding orbs with sets of crystals. You lay cards down one at a time, drawing them from the deck and placing them onto the board in an attempt to surround the orbs that are peppered throughout the cave. When you surround an orb with a specific set of crystals, you get to place a gemstone of that creature onto its orb, showing it’s one step closer to leaving the cave. If you place three of a creature’s gemstone out on the board, you’ve liberated it from the dragon’s clutches. Free all the creatures and you win! Well, uh, the first part!

You see, Crystallo is actually a two-part game. After you free the creatures, the dragon awakes in a fury, probably yells something in Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, and now you need to trap it. Trapping the dragon requires you to place a gemstone of each color onto it, meaning you have to once again go about surrounding orbs with crystals. The nice thing about this part is that you don’t need to rely on random deck draws. When fighting the dragon, you get to put all the cards in your arsenal (made up of leftover cards from part one and a deck of 9 cards made during set up) face up and you can actually plot out how best to trap the foul creature. While this can certainly lead to some AP, as you size up your possibilities and options, it does prevent any sort of frustrating bad luck from torpedoing your hard fought efforts here in the endgame.

The first thing you’ll notice about Crystallo is its magnificent table presence. For a game that is simply a deck of cards and a handful of gemstones, this thing is strikingly gorgeous. As you make your labyrinthine network of orbs and crystals, dotted with the chunky gemstones throughout its criss cross pattern, you’ll stop more than once to sit back and admire what you’ve been crafting without even realizing it. Partnered with its lovely art, Crystallo is perhaps the most Instagram worthy game on this list. I think that’s a compliment? I mean it as one, anyway.

But as my mom repeatedly tries to tell/console me, looks aren’t everything. How does Crystallo play? Amazingly. I love tile layers and the more puzzle-y they are, the better. Crystallo is about as puzzle-y a tile layer as you can get. Trying to efficiently line up your cards to cordon off the orbs with as few crystals as possible is an addictive nut to crack. If you want to face off against the dragon, you should strive to trap multiple orbs with parts of the same sets of crystals, which is easier said than done. You’ll be doing lots of rotating and flipping of a card before deciding where to place it, truly giving the feel of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Except, you know, not boring.

Further complicating things are items you can find and collect. These are things like treasures, which add to your end score (if you decide to log that sort of thing), weapons, which aid in the boss battle against the dragon, and magical artifacts, which allow you to get a gemstone for free. In order to activate the abilities with these items, you need to collect a full set of 3, but doing so means placing the gemstones on their associated card. Any time one of these items comes into play, you have to make a decision: are you going to aim to collect that item, even if it means jamming it in somewhere that is a suboptimal play? Or do you place it in a more efficient spot, possibly sacrificing your chance to place gemstones on it and earn its ability?

In Crystallo’s crisp 20-30 minute run time, you will be faced with tough decision after tough decision, trying to keep an eye on which creatures need the most help while using the cards in their best way possible. Every time I play this game it seems to come down to the last card draw and if I do lose, I know that it’s because I made a poor choice rather than the game screwing me over.

The one concern with Crystallo is that it can feel a little same-y from play to play. The puzzle you’ll be presented with is going to be different, but the game doesn’t offer much in variance otherwise. I have a suspicion that is the reason it includes a robust scoring system; so that whether you win or lose, you have tangible proof of whether you’ve done better or worse from past plays.

Despite this slight criticism, Crystallo is still a fantastic design and is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to get into solo gaming.

8. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden

cabbagehead's cover

It is here that we have a crossover with my top 100; Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden is a game I’ve already discussed in the 80-71 post of my top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition) feature that dominated this blog since last November. You can check out the post I just linked for deeper dive into the game, but I’ll give a brief recap here if your prefer that (I just heard the loudest collective sigh of relief in my head from everyone reading this).

In Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden, you are Mr. Cabbagehead. You are trying to earn the blue ribbon in the neighborhood garden contest and you do that by how else? Laying cards down to form contiguous patches of vegetables, satisfying bonus point objectives in the process, while also trying to mitigate the drawing of neighbor tokens from a bag that give harsh penalties when activated! Duh.

As I mention in my top 100, Mr. Cabbaghead’s Garden is a lovely mix of card drafting and push your luck wrapped around a devious card laying puzzle that feels like it’s always on the brink of going sideways. The neighbors are absolute nightmares to deal with and it seems like they always activate at the worst time, on the worst possible card.

This potent combination of tactical puzzling and hilarious frustration is made all the more enjoyable by the game’s wonderfully charming art and aesthetic. The game features an old Victorian art style, with worryingly detailed anthropomorphic vegetable people populating the game’s cast of characters. To some, they are disturbing looking but to me? Yeah, still kind of disturbing, but in a very humorous, self-aware way that gives the game a delightfully distinct personality.

I will admit, though, that I have played this game a handful of times since ranking it in my top 100, and I have cooled on it juuuust a bit. The more I play the more I realize just how luck driven this game is and how many things need to go right in order to reach the highest score level (a.k.a., that coveted blue ribbon). Perhaps I’m terrible at the game, but I’ve played this countless times and have only barely gotten within 25 points of the blue ribbon score tier. And that is WITH shifting to different strategies, trying different patches of vegetables, making Faustian deals with the devil, etc. As someone who admitted in my Maquis review that I like to play solo games to relax and, yanno, win, I’m ashamed to say my desire to play this game has waned with the increasing possibility that this game is nigh unwinnable without insanely good luck.

Regardless of my recent concerns with the game, it’s still on this list for a reason. When I’m devoting an afternoon or evening to solo play, Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden is always a game I consider playing and it’s given me plenty of hours of great gaming memories.

7. Raiders of the North Sea

Raiders of the North Sea cover

Raiders of the North Sea is one of the more recent additions to this list. I only just discovered its solo mode about a month or two ago, mainly because it was unavailable until about a month or two ago. The solo mode, which is a deck of cards known as the Scheme Deck, was out of print for a while until it was just recently turned into an app that you can download on your phone. I got it on Android for less than $2 and it immediately became one of my favorite games to play solo.

Raiders of the North Sea is one of the most popular worker placement games of the past decade, featuring a unique “put down a worker, pick up a worker” system that breathed fresh life into a slightly stale genre. In the game you’ll be hiring a crew, gathering supplies and sailing out to raid nearby settlements who…probably deserve it? I dunno, the game doesn’t explicitly say, so let’s just assume we’re raiding and pillaging a bunch of Neo Nazis or anti-vaxxers or something.

In my opinion, any worker placement games these days should come with a solo mode. It shouldn’t be too hard to implement solo rules in a worker placement game since the main source of interaction is the blocking of spots. RotNS’s Scheme Deck replicates this very simply: every card has a location you can’t go to for that turn. Easy!

Beyond that, the Scheme Deck will also wipe clear certain raiding locations throughout the game, forcing you to raid aggressively and giving the feel of an opponent who you need to keep an eye on. Any solo game that can imitate the feeling of turn angst that comes from worrying over whether your opponent can mess with your plans is worth celebrating. RotNS has this in spades.

Honestly, RotNS’s stock can only go up from here. It sits here at number 6 but could very easily find itself in the top 5 a few months from now. I simply haven’t had the time with RotNS as I have the other games you’re about to see and I’m excited to give it some more plays. If you own the game and didn’t realize the solo deck was available digitally, go buy it!

6. Paper Tales

Paper Tales cover

Card drafting is one of the most popular mechanisms in the hobby and Paper Tales is a more recent addition to the genre. It’s of the ‘pick and pass’ variety, wherein you pick a card from a hand and then pass that hand to the person next to you. Sounds like the perfect type of game to play in a pandemic, eh?

Luckily, Paper Tales has a dedicated solo mode courtesy of its expansion Beyond the Gates, allowing me to enjoy the game without worrying about contagion. Even more luckily, this solo mode is excellent.

In Paper Tales, you are building a medieval fantasy kingdom, attempting to gain points through various avenues. It has more than a few similarities to card drafting heavyweight 7 Wonders: the drafting of cards that grant passive resources, building a military to win wars against adjacent opponents and constructing buildings that act similarly to 7 Wonders’ titular wonders.

You could certainly do worse than mimicking the most popular card drafting game in the hobby, but you also better bring some fresh new ingredients to the stew if you expect people to not just stick to 7 Wonders. Don’t worry, Paper Tales smartly does just that.

For one, Paper Tales provides spatial constraints to building your kingdom. Whereas in 7 Wonders, where you build your empire across a laughably sprawling tableau that stretches from one end of the table to the other, Paper Tales requires you to build your tableau in a tight  2×2 grid, with the chance to add a mere 5th card at some point in the game. Certain cards are more efficient in either the front or back row (military power is judged through the front row cards, for example) so there is an extra puzzle-y element to building your tableau, something I’ve not seen in other drafting games.

Another cool twist is the ageing system. At the end of every round, you must put an ageing token on every card in your kingdom. If there’s already a token on the card? It dies and leaves your kingdom. This means most cards you draft and put in your kingdom will only be around for two rounds, forcing you to constantly adapt and change strategies based on what new cards enter the system. Most games have you constructing a big, long term engine that supplies a steady stream of points over the course of an entire game, while Paper Tales forces you to build multiple mini engines that grant bursts of points here and there before crumbling into dust. Each engine you build in Paper Tales is like a shotgun made of spun sugar.

So, this is great and all, but what about the solo mode? You know, the whole reason we’re here? Paper Tales takes a fairly interactive mechanism (card drafting) and somehow replicates it in a solitaire format that makes me completely forget I’m all by myself (and that’s something that NEVER happens). When playing solo, you’re pitted against the Lich King, an AI opponent who will gain points based on cards you feed him throughout the game. When it’s time to draft, you’ll draw a full hand of five cards from the deck, pick one and then pass the rest to the Lich King. Then you draw a new hand of four cards, pick one, and again, pass the rest to ol’ Mr. Lich. Then it’s three cards, pick one, pass the rest to the Lichy Lich. For the final two cards, you’re actually going to pick up and shuffle the Lich King’s pile of cards (the ones you’ve been recklessly passing to him), draw two, pick one to keep, until finally getting your last card by simply drawing the top card off the Lich King’s deck.

This clever system manages to imitate so much of what makes card drafting great. Since you know what cards the Lich King will get big points off of, you can hate draft to keep those away from him, just like you’d hate draft an opponent when you see them focusing on a specific strategy. The fact that you get your last two cards from the pile you passed to the Lich King creates that feeling of angst when you pass up on a card in the hopes that you’ll see it later in the draft. And all of this is done swiftly and with almost zero maintenance. It’s such a magically smart way to implement drafting in solitaire circumstances and I hope that all future drafting games keep this in mind. A mechanism I once thought would be impossible to implement solo is now something that I think should ALWAYS come packaged with a solitaire mode.

There’s only one unfortunate reality that keeps Paper Tales from cracking the top 5 on this list: I haven’t actually played the multiplayer yet! I procured my copy of Paper Tales after the pandemic lockdown started and therefore have only experienced this game solitaire. When judging solo versions of multiplayer games, I like to compare how the solo experience translates the feel of a multiplayer game. While I’ve played enough card drafting games to know this game does a great job of translating the mechanism, I still can’t say for sure how well it translates the specific Paper Tales experience. For this reason, Paper Tales is slightly held back.

I have no clue when I’ll have the chance to play Paper Tales multiplayer with other human beings, but I’m sure that when I do and I can TRULY see how the solo mode compares, Paper Tales’ stock will only move up.

5. Viva Java: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game

Viva Java Dice cover

This next game is not just underrated for its surprisingly good solo mode, but for its base multiplayer mode as well. The dice version of Viva Java: The Coffee Game (was the title not explicit enough), this is a roll and write before it was considered holy law for every game publisher to put out at least two roll and writes a month.

In the game, you have dice with different colored coffee beans which you then roll and use in one of two ways. One option is to make a blend with the beans, crafting quasi poker hands that are placed on a central disc and will hopefully not be beaten and replaced by your next turn. This feels a bit like the ‘entering Tokyo’ mechanism in King of Tokyo. Just like in that game, if nobody kicks you out, you get points, creating a sense of push you luck whenever you decide to blend.

Or your second option is to pick one color that you rolled and funnel those into research points. The amount of research points you get is the number of dice rolled of that color (so if you have 3 green and decide to use green for research, you get 3 points on the green track). These research tracks all have various special powers associated with their color and if you get them high enough, you can strengthen that power even further. Another cool aspect of this mechanism is that when you max out a track, you get a point payout BUT you can no longer use that color’s power, like the game shutting off a special ability spigot just as you were filling up the pitcher. The trade off of losing your ability for the sake of gaining a handful of points is one of the game’s most arduous decisions.

The solo mode operates mainly the same as the base game, with the exception that you operate an enemy A.I. Operating this A.I. is easy; you roll dice on its turn and if it makes a blend, it does so like a normal player and scores points for it until it’s eventually removed.

The neat thing is that the game comes with two A.I.s, each with their own special power that aids them in making blends as often as possible. One of the A.I.s rerolls dice, trying to improve their potential blends, while another simply takes extra dice and rolls them all in an attempt to get a blend through sheer blunt force. Admittedly, these powers offer superficial differences. Both A.I.s’ powers are equally as effective at getting the job done, and it’s not like your strategy changes based on which one you’re facing. Still, it’s awesome that they offer the choice and it helps keep things fresh from game to game.

I have recently rediscovered Viva Java and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to play it again. It’s such a refreshing, fun solo game to play. It’s the perfect difficulty: challenging, but fair. Whether I win or lose it often feels like it came down to the last possible turn. While it’s tight enough to warrant having to think choices through, I never feel stressed or anxious when playing this game. It’s, dare I say, relaxing?

Another subtle facet of this solo mode that I adore is that running the A.I. means rolling dice, and who doesn’t love that? Rolling dice for your solo opponent feels so much more tactile and satisfying than merely turning over a card and I can’t help but feel that adds to this game’s addictive nature. It’s like pulling the lever down on a slot machine and I can’t help but keep feeding coins into it.

I don’t have too much to disparage VJ: TCG: TDG (ugh, except for maybe the name) as a solo mode with, except that maybe, like Crystallo earlier, it feels a little same-y from game to game. The different A.I.s, as well as a difficulty scaler, do help adjusting things to keep it somewhat fresh but even with that there’s not much that’s going to change from one experience to the other. That’s certainly not a deal breaker. I’ve gotten a ton of fun out of this and I still look forward to pulling it out again (I hope that quote isn’t taken out of context if I run for office). But it is worth mentioning.

It’s still a damn good solo game and one that I wish more people would be talking about.

4. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

arkham horror the card game cover

Here we have yet another game that previously appeared on my top 100. I had a LOT to say about Arkham Horror: The Card Game in my 40-31 post, so if you wanna see me ramble for like two pages worth of a Microsoft Word document, be my guest and click here!

It takes the formula found in the Arkham Horror board game and Eldritch Horror (explore locations and perform skill checks as awful things happen) but tightens it down with a vice like grip into an episodic campaign-based card game. This turns those longer, often bloated affairs into smaller, bite sized offerings. Playing the game through episodes allows the designers and developers to tell a much more coherent story than those found in, say Eldritch Horror, because it’s a contained environment that allows them to tailor everything specifically to that.

And as such, no game is as immersive as Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Set in a Lovecraftian world of grotesque beasts and unimaginable horrors, this game drips with atmosphere. Each episode contains its own twists, tricks, unique monsters and surprises, making every new chapter a joy to play and discover. It’s a truly artisanal Arkham experience, a craft beer version of Lovecraft versus the watered down macrobrew of Eldritch Horror.

In one episode, for example, I’m exploring a dingy night club run by the Mob, and I can practically hear the 1920s jazz and smell the stale whiskey in the air as goons glare at me from across the room. In another, I’m scouring an abandoned museum where a constant sense of dread is provided by a boss monster that stalks you throughout, appearing randomly and more powerful with each encounter. No game transports me to its locales like AH: TCG and there are times where I get legitimate goosebumps from this palpable sense of immersion.

So why is this only number 4? For one thing, and I mention this in my top 100, this game is tedious as hell to set up. The downside of having specially created and curated episodes with their own locations and enemies and mysteries is that you have set them up. This requires pulling decks of cards from past episodes and combining them with the episode specific cards, along with making adjustments based on decisions you’ve made throughout the campaign. The end result is worth it, considering the stuff I’ve already raved about, but it does make me less likely to pull it out than the other three games ahead on this list.

Another reason why this barely misses the top 3 is because of some balance issues when playing solo. While the game mostly works great solo and even moves at a smoother pace than when teaming up with another player, it also means that if your character doesn’t have the skills to handle a certain enemy or situation, you’re out of luck. In a game that demands so much from you, difficulty wise, it can feel almost suffocating when you realize your combat based character can’t pass this plot important Evade skill check because you have the agility of a pregnant walrus. When it creates dire consequences that ripple throughout the rest of the campaign it can, again, make me less likely to play. As I said, I often solo game to relax and I don’t think ‘relax’ and ‘Arkham Horror: The Card Game’ have been combined in any sentence, ever.

Despite those hangs ups, it says a lot for what AH: TCG does right that it manages to still be held in such high regard in my mind. If I’m looking for an atmospheric, cinematic experience, there’s no better solo option than this one.

3. Aerion

Aerion cover

Aerion is the most recent entry in the Oniverse series, a collection of games designed with solo play in mind. My only contact with this series has been with the digital implementation of Onirim, the progenitor of the universe. While that game is amazing, it’s ineligible to make the list because I’ve only played it digitally and I’m weird so I don’t think it should count in that case. (Raiders of the North Sea still counts because it’s just a digital version of a deck of cards, I still need the physical game to play it, in case you were ready to pounce on that in the comment section)

But it was that experience with the digital app that has made me interested in the Oniverse series, especially as I’ve gone deeper and deeper down the solo game rabbit hole. When I needed to get my Miniature Market order past the shipping threshold (a problem I’m sure many gamers are all too familiar with), I picked up Aerion on a whim because it was on sale and because, again, I’ve always been keen on trying more of these Oniverse games.

I am so, so grateful for that lark of a decision.

Aerion is the Oniverse’s foray into the Yahtzee style dice rolling genre, where players will be attempting to build airships according to specific blueprints. The blueprints have resources that must be gathered to complete them and you gain these resources by rolling dice.

Each resource has a poker hand style requirement to gain it, such as ‘three of a kind’, ‘full house’, ‘two pair,’ ‘straight’, etc. If the dice you rolled match the requirement, you can gain that resource and put it into one of your two hangars. This two hangar limit already imposes restrictions on what you can do; since you can only build two ships at a time, some of the resources are presently useless to you, forcing you to make tough decisions on which airships keep your probabilities high and your possibilities open.

Even if you make a wise choice on which airships to work on, there’s going to be plenty of points you don’t roll the dice you need. So, what then? Like any Yahtzee style game, Aerion allows you to reroll dice…at a price.

Any time you want to reroll and get a better combination, you must discard a resource from the available display. Since there’s a limited supply of, well, everything in this game, you’re narrowing your options for Future You. Choosing what to keep and what to sacrifice is at the heart of almost every turn in Aerion, and it’s an excruciating tight wire act.

Aerion ranks so highly on this list for a lot of reasons. First and perhaps, most importantly, it’s just damn fun. Rolling dice is such a tactile delight and there’s something just deeply satisfying about making gambles that pay off over the course of a couple rolls. Aerion moves extremely quickly, so you’re always rolling, always calculating the odds, always cheering or groaning.

Another is because, like Viva Java earlier on this list, it has the exact difficulty I look for in a solo experience. While I win more often than not, it never feels like it’s spoon feeding me victories. I still have to work for it and I still have to make smart choices to pull out the win.

Lastly, I just love the aesthetics of this game. Art is subjective and I know that the art in the Oniverse is particularly polarizing, but I love it. There’s something about its scribbled, hand scrawled look that is so endearing to me. The fact that the dice are a cotton candy blue with purple pips further enhances this game’s cheerfully charming demeanor.

What makes me even more excited about Aerion is that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game’s content. I’ve played the game a handful of times, but only with its base ruleset. Included in the game are about 6 mini expansions, all of which add a little extra twist. Knowing that I still have all of those to explore is such a treat and makes me wonder if Aerion will someday find itself at the number 2 or number 1 spot of this list.

Until then, it takes home the well-deserved bronze medal.

2. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective 

SHCD cover

My number 2 solo game is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and is perhaps the most unique one on this list. It’s less a board game and more an interactive novel, but that doesn’t prevent it from being one of my all-time favorite solo gaming experiences.

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 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. I talked about how good Arkham Horror: The Card Game was at drawing me into its world and SHCD is no different. 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.

But if any of what I’ve described does sound interesting to you or if you think it’d be a cool experience, I implore you to track down one of the game’s installments (there are 3 available, I believe, each with their own ten cases) and give it a shot. Honestly, this game was close to being my number one, but barely missed it due the game’s one-off nature; once you solve the game’s cases, there’s literally zero replay value, a huge downside for me. Well, that and because of my how much I love my actual number one.

Speaking of which….

1. Viticulture: Essential Edition

viticulture cover

Readers of the top 10 of my top 100 are likely experiencing some déjà vu. Viticulture is my number one favorite game of all time AND it’s my favorite solo game??? Yep. And one of the reasons why Viticulture IS my favorite game of all time is, in fact, due to its solo mode.

I mentioned earlier with my Raiders of the North Sea entry that worker placement games should all come with solo modes and Viticulture is the prime example of how to successfully pull it off. The dummy player you’re playing against is so simple to maintain and there are barely any extra rules beyond that to muddy the already elegant design of Viticulture’s base game. All you do is flip over the top card of a dummy player’s (called the Automa) deck and place their workers on the specified spots.

And that’s it! I’ve literally taught you the bulk of the solo rules.

Ease of play is a huge plus for me when it comes to solo games. I’ve played some solo games where running the dummy player is more work than your turn, requiring things like flow charts to parse what their move is supposed to be. So, the fact that Viticulture has barely any overhead in terms of running its Automa is one big reason why it sits at number one.

It’s also an incredibly tight experience. The goal of the solo mode is to surpass 20 points in 7 rounds. I have played this solo mode so many times and it seems to always come down to that last round, requiring some sort of clever combination of cards and actions to put me over the hump. Even though I’ve won the vast majority of my solo plays, it never feels easy and I always need to bring my A-game.

If you want to see why I love Viticulture so much, I suggest you read the top 10 portion of my top 100 that I linked earlier. Everything I say there pretty much applies here because Viticulture solo is essentially Viticulture multiplayer. Yes, there are times where the randomness of the Automa deck results in them taking a spot that makes no sense for that point in the game (“Drawing vine cards in the last round? You do you, I guess.”) but it feels so remarkably close to the multiplayer base game that I barely miss having others around the table with me as I play. At least with the Automa I can curse them out and not feel like I have to apologize later.

Listen, it’s pretty simple. Viticulture is my favorite game of all time and the fact that its solo mode allows me to play my favorite game of all time with little difference from playing it multiplayer is a HUGE reason why it sits at number one. It’s probably my most played solo game and despite the frankly stupid number of plays I have under my belt, I still love to go back to it.

If you want to see how solo gaming is done right, especially when it’s not even designed solely for solitaire play, look no further than Viticulture.

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 40-31

Last entry we cautiously dipped our toes into my top 50. By the end of this entry, we’ll be ankle deep, wading peacefully through waves of amazing games as the soft summer breeze of opinion blows through your hair and yanno what, this metaphor isn’t working, let’s get on with it.

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40. The Blood of an Englishman

blood of an englishman cover

Another game that I’m sure loyal readers (lol) will remember me featuring for a full review. You can read it right here. Though I’m sure you’ve read it already, right?

The Blood of an Englishman is pound for pound maaaybe the most underrated game on this list. It’s sitting at a ho hum 6.7 on BGG and it is NEVER talked about by anyone. I take in a LOT of content from the board game media sphere and I have heard about a lot of hidden gems because of that but TBoaE is never mentioned.

I guess it’s up to me then, huh. After all, I’m technically a board game content creator, right? HEY, stop laughing!

TBoaE is an asymmetrical 2 player only game with a Jack and the Beanstalk theme, where one player is Jack and the other is the Giant. The deck of cards that makes up the entire game is dealt out into five stacks of ten cards each, and then the entire game is Jack and the Giant trying to manipulate those stacks of cards in order to achieve their objectives.

Jack is trying to create three beanstalks of ascending order, capping them off with a treasure card at the top. The Giant is trying to align cards that say ‘Fee’, ‘Fi’, ‘Fo’, and ‘Fum’ next to each other OR to make it impossible for Jack to finish off a beanstalk. I really harp on about this in my review, but the asymmetry in this game is fantastic. Not only do the players have different objectives, but the actions they can accomplish are also different. Jack has three actions, but they’re very minor. The Giant only gets one action, but the choices they have drastically alter the board state. This feels immensely thematic, with Jack feeling nimble, quick and annoying while the Giant is slow but incredibly powerful.

And wow, this game is balanced. Once again, I mention this in my review but in 10 plays of this game, I have seen five of those go to Jack and five of those go to the Giant. Thanos would be proud. Anytime anything this asymmetrical manages to strike a 50/50 win rate deserves celebration.

The gameplay itself is excellent as well. Players are basically taking cards from various parts of the stacks and moving them around, hoping to either set themselves up for a big turn or to trap their opponent into unwittingly helping them. It has an abstract feel, for sure, but the thematic way in which the characters behave and the sheer cleverness of the puzzle at hand help this game feel immersive and engaging with every turn.

There’s a solid chance you haven’t heard of or played this game, so let me dust off this diamond in the rough on your behalf. Give it a shot because it really deserves more love and attention.

39. Bang! The Dice Game

bang the dice game

Back when I was in college, when I wasn’t too busy being either awkward or drunk (wow, things haven’t changed much), my friends and I consistently played the card game Bang!. I guess you could technically say that was my first hobby game but I didn’t realize it was part of a bigger picture at the time. Fast forward to 2017 and I got to play Bang! The Dice Game, the dice version of Bang!. I wasn’t in love with it, which surprised me because I had heard that Bang! The Dice Game had replaced the original for pretty much everybody.

Luckily, I gave the game another chance later that same year and ever since I’ve considered it one of my top 100 games. I don’t know what clicked in between those plays but I will officially never go back to the original.

People familiar with the original card game will recognize the same basic skeleton. It’s a hidden role game set in the Wild West where one person is a Sheriff and the other players are a mixture of Deputies, Outlaws and Renegades. Deputies want the Sheriff to stay alive till the end, Outlaws want to kill the Sheriff and Renegades just want to be the last ones standing. Whereas the original was built around playing cards that helped you achieve these objectives, this one features a Yahtzee style dice rolling mechanism. The custom dice have icons which allow you to complete actions such as shooting other players and drinking beer to heal (remember kids, beer solves EVERYTHING).

What makes Bang! The Dice Game feel more immediately engaging and exciting than the card game is the push your luck aspect that this game brings. You’re trying to roll the dice to get the actions you need BUT there are negative icons that loom over every reroll. There are dynamite which lock your dice and make you blow up as well as Native American arrows which can cause you to take a lot of damage if you take too many of them. Knowing when to stop and be content with what you have is a key part of the game and one of the reasons it’s so fun and addictive.

And not to keep comparing this to the original, but this game is waaay quicker. The original had a long build up period of people setting up their arsenal and then the actual fighting could drag on as well. A game of this could take as little as ten minutes and certainly no longer than twenty. This makes the somewhat archaic mechanism of player elimination present in the game much more palatable, as people who get killed rarely have long to wait for the next game to begin. And believe me, you will want to play this game again. Many a party has started with three or four consecutive games of this and it never fails to be a rootin’ tootin’ good time.

If you tried the original and liked it, I absolutely recommend Bang! The Dice Game. Even if you didn’t like the original I’d still recommend it, because this version streamlines a lot of the fiddliness out of the card game and massages out its flaws into a much smoother, more fun package.

38. Histrio

histrio cover

Just a few entries ago I mentioned that The Blood of an Englishman was the most underrated game on my list but my number 38 game is a VERY close second. That game is Histrio, yet another codesign from Bruno Cathala. Sitting at a bafflingly low 6.6 on BGG, this game also doesn’t get enough attention and love. The main reason I consider The Blood of an Englishman more underrated, though, is because Histrio does have some evangelists in board game media who have helped bring this game a little bit more in the public eye.

Histrio is set in a Shakespearian world of anthropomorphic animals where you are trying to make a troupe of actors to put on a play that fits the king’s mood. This is done through a simultaneous selection system. There is a long board of eight different cities which are then populated with cards representing different things players can collect, such as actors, coins or characters with special abilities. Players have a hand of eight cards, one for each city, and every round you choose one to secretly play. Players reveal and travel to that city with an adorable blimp pawn. If you’re there alone, you collect all the cards, being as smug as you want in the process. If others also chose that city, however, then all the cards are discarded and you and the others get a consolation prize in the form of a secret objective card that can be scored at the end of the round.

You’ve probably noticed games with simultaneous selection have started popping up more as we get deeper into the list, including Cathala’s own Mission: Red Planet a few posts back. It’s a mechanism I really like. It includes lots of suspense and double think as you try to figure out what other players are doing and then making sure you exploit that. One thing Histrio does well with this is that if you do make a boo boo and go to the same spot as someone, it’s not a total loss. The secret objective cards you receive can actually be pretty powerful, and I’ve won games solely because of the points they supplied. There’s still plenty of tension in getting the cards you want, but Histrio allows you to adapt when things don’t go as planned.

Another thing I think Histrio does brilliantly is its king’s mood mechanism. At the end of the round, you score points if you managed to make a troupe of actors of the type of play the king demands to see. He either wants a comedy or a tragedy and like your average Millennial trying to choose something on Netflix, he has no clue what he wants. Players can manipulate his mood by adjusting a dial throughout the round, which is done by discarding an actor of that type whenever you collect one or more actor cards from a city. The value of the actor dictates how far the dial moves towards that genre’s direction. So, if I discard a level three comedian, the dial moves three ticks towards comedy.

Of course, in pure Cathala fashion this cleverly presents a dilemma that players are wrestling with the whole game. Discarding high value actors is the best way to make drastic changes to the King’s mood BUT that means you’re losing out on that high value actor in your troupe. You only score big points from actors if the King is in the mood for them, meaning that level 5 tragedian will be awfully useful when the King is in the mood for a tragedy. But then you’re risking him NOT even wanting a tragedy and you can see why this game offers such tasty decisions.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I talked about Histrio and didn’t mention its lavish production values. The game is beautiful, with playful, colorful art and wonderfully chunky pieces. And the stage…my god, that stage. It’s a cardboard, 3-D stage that has the King’s mood dial on top and a rotating backdrop that you can twist around whenever the King changes said mood. It’s got incredible table presence and adds to the gleeful nature of this game. I have heard many call this overproduced, especially considering the game’s weight (it’s barely a Gateway+ style game), but I find it really adds to the experience.

If you’re looking for a game that provides surprisingly tense decision making and gorgeous production values, Histrio is one that you can’t ignore any longer.

37. The Grimm Forest

grimm forest cover

My number 37 is a game that has some similarities to Histrio. They both have out of this world production values and they both are centered on a simultaneous selection mechanism where you’re trying to go to locations by yourself. This game is The Grimm Forest, a game of fairy tale characters, building houses, and just so many god damned wolves.

In The Grimm Forest, you are a relative of one of the original Three Little Pigs, who have gotten too old and demented to keep up with their rock star lifestyle of building houses. Your job is to go out and build three houses to continue their legacy because that’s what pigs do, dammit. I don’t know if this is canon, but that’s the premise for the game.

Like I briefly mentioned earlier, the game features a similar Histrio style system, where you’ll be choosing one of three to four locations (depending on player count) in secret and then revealing at once to see where everybody goes. The locations all produce a resource of some type, with the fields providing straw, the forest providing trees and the brick yard producing bricks. If you go there alone, you get everything, just like Histrio. But if you go there with others, the resources are split equally with the remainder being left on there for the next round.

So that part of the game is awesome, capturing what makes simultaneous selection so great. Having only three/four locations really narrows the scope of your options and means the chances of clumsily butting into somebody feels like a constant threat. But after that resource gathering phase, there’s another phase where you actually manage the resources. In this phase, called the Build Phase, you can use those resources to construct parts of your houses, gather small amounts of extra resources or draw cards with special powers known as Fable cards.

Speaking of Fable cards, those cards are what really spice the game up. Fable cards are cards featuring different fairy tale creatures or tropes that allow you to pull off a special ability in a later round. Many of them are placed face down at locations and then are revealed after everyone has already picked their destination, allowing either a boon to whoever is at that location or, more likely, a destructive power to really screw with an opponent who was foolish enough to go there.

I’m usually not a fan of ‘take that’, but when it’s so baked into the design of a game I find it much more agreeable. Also, since you generally target locations rather than players, it feels much less direct and confrontational. It’s more like, “Well, how was I supposed to know you’d be at the forest!?” as you slyly grin. There’s also plenty of times when you misjudge a player’s destination and end up targeting nobody with your Fable card which is often hilarious, especially when that happens to the other players.

Another batch of zany powers you’re able to get access to are from the Friends cards. Friends cards are like Fable cards, except they are rewarded whenever you build the walls section of a house, because they’re coming to shack up with you. Unlike Fable cards, which are basically one use, Friend cards stay in front of you and provide a passive bonus or special ability of some sort. They’re all modeled after fairy tale characters such as Pinocchio, Snow White and Tom Thumb, and the cool thing is that when you procure a Friend, you choose to either put it in front of you or in front of someone else. This means that if somebody is absolutely killing it with a super powerful Friend card, you can force them to discard it by giving them someone less useful. It also allows you to avoid giving yourself a crappy Friend card if you’re really attached to the one you have. The Friend cards are very obviously not balanced but this mechanism allows players to do the balancing themselves, which I found to be a very sharp design decision.

Last thing I’ll rave about are the production values. The game includes minis for everyone’s pig character as well as a couple of the monsters BUT I will say I actually find them superfluous. I would have, in fact, preferred standees featuring the game’s art because wow, talking about amazing. The art in this game is phenomenal, featuring a warm, vibrant color palette that never fails to give me a feeling of comfort and peace when looking at it. It perfectly fits the whimsical fairy tale theme of the game and it’s easily among my favorite art in all of board games. And while the minis feel unnecessary, the game does include another 3-D component that I feel IS crucial to the experience. The houses you build throughout the game are chunky plastic pieces, which you literally build piece by piece like LEGO blocks. Not only is this insanely tactile, but it’s also practical. Being able to look around the table and clearly see the progress on everyone’s houses helps you plan and strategize as to where you need to go and who might need to be knocked down a peg.

Simply put, The Grimm Forest is fantastic and it’s a game I’ve grown to love more and more with each play. This game had a lot of buzz when it was Kickstarted and it has unfortunately died down since then. Don’t let that dissuade you, this game is a treasure.

36. Cyclades

cyclades cover

This section of the top 100 has so far been populated by lighter, more Gateway level games so let’s beef it up a bit with something heavier. My number 36 is Cyclades, a mid weight area control game set in Ancient Greek mythology. It happens to be codesigned by…(checks notes)…ahh, yes, Bruno Cathala. Who could have guessed.

Cyclades is the first of a trilogy of games put out by publisher Matagot. The games in the trilogy-Cyclades, Kemet and Inis-are all loosely related in that they’re all Euro style dudes on a map games set in some sort of ancient mythology. The similarities end there, however, as all the games have different designers and fairly different mechanisms. Will Kemet and Inis appear later on my list? STAY TUNED TO FIND OUT.

Enough about that, let’s dive into Cyclades. As I said, it’s set in the world of Ancient Greek mythology and players are trying to win the favor of the different Greek gods and goddesses as they aim to build two metropolises on the board. Once somebody has two metropolises under their control at the end of the round, they win. Players accomplish this by building fleets of ships, sending soldiers over to conquer islands, and building different types of buildings, such as forts and temples.

These actions are given to you by the gods and goddesses available for that round who are essentially put up for auction. Players bid to try and take control of that god or goddess so that they can use the actions associated with them. Most of them are thematic as well, making it easy to remember who does what. Poseidon builds ships and lets you control your fleet, Ares lets you create soldiers and move them to battle, Zeus demands you buy priests and temples while Athena attracts philosophers and universities.

I won’t go much deeper than that because there’s a lot of minutiae to talk about with what those actions do and the implications they carry. The main thing you need to worry about is that auction. Shrewd bidding is the key to winning this game, not around the map, conquering islands. A clever rule states that if you get outbid for a god, you cannot immediately rebid on that god. You have to find someone else to bid on and the only way you can go back that original is if you get outbid AGAIN on that 2nd god. This means if you really want to activate a certain god this round, you want to try and price it high enough so nobody wants to bother outbidding you. But spend too much and you might have enough gold to do anything impactful on your turn, because everything requires gold in this game. This push and pull of trying to decide what gods and actions are worth spending your precious gold on is one of the delightful dilemmas that this game pressures you with.

Another aspect I love about this game are the creatures, who come out one at a time from a big deck. The creatures are all from Greek mythology, obviously, and, like the gods, feature thematic powers. Medusa freezes soldiers in place while the Sirens attract ships to their doom and the Cyclops builds you a building because apparently he’s a contractor in the Greek myths? Whatever, MOST of them have thematic powers, and it’s always fun to pay for a card and then use it on an unsuspecting opponent.

Cyclades also has a surprising number of effective ways to win. You need two metropolises but how you get there is up to you. Want to focus on military, constantly using Ares to invade other islands and take their hard earned buildings for your own? Go ahead, ya big jerk. Want to go early on Zeus so that you can load up on priests and temples, which provide big discounts on bidding and buy monsters? Sure, you do you. Want to sneak a victory with Athena, recruiting philosophers that give you an automatic metropolis when you obtain four of them? You think therefore you can.

Really, I love Cyclades enough to almost consider it for my top 25 but one thing holds me back: Pegasus. Seasoned veterans of the game probably already know where I’m going with this. Pegasus is one of the cards in the creature deck and his ability is that he’s able to teleport all the soldiers off one of your islands to an opponent’s island, basically paratrooping them into battle. It’s the only way someone can invade an island without winning Ares and in the right context, it is EXTREMELY powerful. A common strategy is to get Zeus at the end of the game when somebody already has two metropolises and is about to win, to then use Zeus’ ability to mill through the creature deck until you find Pegasus so that you can then teleport an army in order to steal one of those metropolises at the buzzer, effectively winning the game for yourself.

You probably think that’s an incredibly specific scenario, but this is how HALF of my games of Cyclades have ended. It’s gotten to the point where I warn players about Pegasus at the start and say, “Here’s what this card does and why it can ruin the ending of the game” and yet it still occurs. I could remove Pegasus from the deck, I guess, but I hate doing that sort of thing. And outside of the end, the threat of having Pegasus attack is integral to the rest of the game. It just sucks that it can be used to anti climactically take the game away from someone, even if it does seem to require specific context.

Outside of Pegasus, this game is awesome. I love dudes on a map games, especially when they’re driven by Euro style mechanisms. Cyclades is exactly that and will probably be in the top 50 of this list for a couple more years.

35. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

arkham horror the card game cover

I’m one of the many people that find the use of the Lovecraft mythos in the hobby as completely overdone BUT I think it’s law that I must include at least one Lovecraft game on my list so this is my choice. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is, in my opinion, easily the best of FFG’s Arkham series and the best Lovecraft game in the industry, period. It is an LCG, or Living Card Game, which means you buy scenario packs and booster packs with preset cards in them over the course of a campaign. This allows you to experience a cohesive story with decisions and consequences that matter from scenario to scenario.

This game has been difficult for me to rank because there are some things I really don’t like about it. Let me get those out of the way. For one, the LCG model is predatory, plain and simple. To even get into the game you need a core set, which includes starter cards and a mini campaign that spans three scenarios. But something that many people don’t realize is that if you really want to get into the deck building aspect of the game, you’ll need to buy a SECOND core set so that you can get extra copies of starter cards. Not having those extra copies to construct your deck with means you’ll be playing with a sub-optimal deck and making an already brutally hard game into a nigh impossible one. If you don’t care about deckbuilding, then fine! You don’t need a second core set. But if you want to explore the rich possibilities that constructing a deck can offer and to truly experience the game for what it’s meant to be, then a second core set is a necessity. So that’s $80 MSRP right there.

After buying two core sets, you’ll soon realize that the three scenarios can be played rather quickly, especially since one of them is ostensibly a tutorial scenario that’s much shorter than the other two. To really experience Arkham Horror: TCG you need to dive into the other campaigns, which are broken up into things called ‘cycles’. To get into a cycle, you need to buy the core set for THAT cycle ($30) and then the booster packs which offer the rest of the campaign’s scenarios (usually 8 of them at $15 each). Did I mention there’s like 4-5 cycles to choose from?

What’s that sound? Oh, nothing. Just the sound of my bank account plummeting to zero like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to begin a rant on the rampant exploitation of consumerism that FFG exhibits with this game. Let’s go onto my next big negative and that is the set up this game requires. Since this game is scenario based, you have to set up the scenario and that requires sifting through cards and looking for matching symbols and compiling them into decks. Sometimes the scenario even requires very specific cards from past scenarios that’ll have you going, “where the hell did I put that”, and you’ll find yourself digging through your boxes of past sets and scenarios, helplessly trying to find the exact character or item. THEN there’s often more set up, trying to get the locations in the proper order and choosing some cards to set aside while others get shuffled and god, it’s just really tedious. I often have long hiatuses between scenarios because the thought of setting up the next scenario just fills me with dread, and not the kind Lovecraft intended.

By this point I’m sure you’re wondering, “Kyle, how on earth is this game on your top 100, let alone at number 35 if you’re whining this much about it.” I’ll tell you why. Because outside of the predatory business practices this game is a poster child for and outside of the fiddly set up scenarios often require, this is one of the most superbly immersive, atmospheric and cinematic games in the hobby.

The basic gameplay structure of AH: TCG is nothing special. It’s fairly Pandemic-like in its approach, featuring an action point system and a deck of mean cards that try to ruin your day. You could even argue it’s a little mechanical, but the stories and settings this system takes place in more than make up for that. The scenarios all take place in their own unique setting, such as a university campus or a museum or literally the whole town of Arkham. This, along with special objectives that differ from scenario to scenario, provide a feeling of freshness with each new episode you play and they do a great job of immersing you into the story.

That’s not to mention the cool cinematic moments that AH: TCG manages to create using just cards and generic tokens. One scenario has you rushing towards the front of a train as the cars in the back slowly get ripped into a portal, the location cards being discarded as this happens. A night time trek in a museum is made all the more frightening as you find yourself being stalked by an enemy that randomly respawns and happens to be stronger each time it appears. One scenario has you sneaking around a club owned by the mob, with mobsters that only react if they see you doing something odd in a location, turning the experience almost in to a stealth game. AH: TCG has provided me with some of the most truly memorable moments in gaming and I still have so many scenarios to explore.

The art, supplied by a deep roster of artists from within the industry, also does a great job of immersing you in the world. The locations, characters and items are drawn in an incredibly evocative way and help add atmosphere to a game that is already dripping with it. Thrown a soundtrack from any number of survival horror games, and you have an experience that is almost oppressively atmospheric.

So yes, this game is flawed, but most of my problems come from OUTSIDE the actual design of the game. When I’m actually playing the game, I’m fully drawn into the world and story, experiencing something that is truly one of a kind.

34. Ethnos

ethnos cover

Okay, so that last entry was a little packed with lots of wildly rambling thoughts, so I promise it’ll be smoother from here on out. My number 34 doesn’t have near the baggage as Arkham Horror: The Card Game came with, and that’s because it’s an exceptionally clean, fun design. My number 34 is Ethnos, a game that’s popular for not being as popular as it should be.

Designed by Paolo Mori (one of the most underrated designers in the business), Ethnos feels like Ticket to Ride with splashes of Small World in it. It’s a fantasy area control game of collecting sets and playing them on a map and it’s tough to think of a game on my top 100 that moves as smoothly and quickly as this one.

Turns are very simple. Either draw a card (from the deck or a face up display) OR play a set. Playing a set involves you playing a set of either the same color or the same fantasy race and includes a couple of clever wrinkles that help make this game feel so fresh and special.

First up is the leader mechanism. When you play a set, you choose one of the cards to be your ‘leader’, which does two things. One, the location on the card determines where you’re going to put your disc, which is used for area majority purposes. Two, your leader choice determines the special power you get to activate. The cards all represent different fantasy races, all with unique special abilities. Whichever race your leader is, allows you to activate that race’s power.

Another clever aspect of Ethnos’ card play is that the size of the set you must play is determined by the number of discs you have on the location the set is being played to. Your set must contain, at minimum, a number of cards equal to the number of discs on that location. So, if you’re playing a set to add a disc to the blue area and you already have two discs there, your set must contain at LEAST two cards. This is a  design choice because it means the stronger you are in a location, the harder it is to get even stronger allowing a natural way for players to catch up and contest it.

The final twist in Ethnos’ Rummy-esque set collection and card play is that when you play your set, ALL remaining cards in your hand are discarded to a face up display. That’s right, years of Ticket to Ride training you to hoard cards like a doomsday prepper with canned beans means absolutely NOTHING here. Keeping cards for the future is useless, so Ethnos is a superbly tactical game of adapting to card draws and figuring out when it’s time to strike and when it’s time to hold out for just oooone more card.

This is made even more tense by the push your luck mechanism that decides when it’s time to move onto the next round. Randomly strewn throughout the second half of the game deck are dragon cards and when the 3rd dragon card is drawn, the round IMMEDIATELY ends. Nobody gets an extra turn to play one last set. Once the first dragon card is drawn, tension immediately descends upon the table like a pop-up Florida thunderstorm, drenching everyone in angst with each draw of a card from the deck. It’s a small but brilliant touch and makes the somewhat simple decisions of Ethnos feel a bit weightier.

The main criticism levied at Ethnos is its theme and aesthetics. It’s got a generic pasted on fantasy theme and look to it, with somewhat dull art that evokes a bygone era of Tolkienesque dwarves, elves and orcs. I will admit the art is somewhat drab looking and could have used some more color and vibrancy, but I take issue with all the other complaints. The fantasy theme doesn’t bother me because I love fantasy so I may be biased, but I wouldn’t even say it’s pasted on. Sure, some of the races have abstract powers, but plenty of them have thematic powers. The Wingfolk fly to anywhere on the map while powerful Minotaurs count as an extra card when cashing in a set. Playing Giants rewards you with playing bigger sets than other players and Skeletons crumble into dust when it’s time to score sets at the end of each round. Could Ethnos have been themed something else? Sure, the theme doesn’t run THAT deep but to call it lazy and pasted on as so many people have is a disservice to this game.

Luckily, the ostensibly tepid sales and outspoken groaning towards the game’s looks and themes hasn’t been enough to kill off Ethnos outright. It’s still in print and plenty of people in the hobby have spread the Gospel about its stellar quality. If you passed by this one because you were turned off by the look, it’s not too late to try this amazing game.

33. Tybor the Builder

tybor the builder cover

While I haven’t reviewed Tybor the Builder, I have briefly discussed it in a previous blog article. That article is here, and it’s a recap of some gaming I did over the course of St. Paddy’s Day weekend in 2019. In that article, I rave about Tybor and it was easily my favorite game from that weekend. Almost a whole year later from that first play and I still absolutely adore this card drafting game.

Tybor the Builder marks the first appearance by Alexander Pfister, who is my second favorite designer in the hobby. This game is an installment in his Oh My Goods Universe, which is kind of like the MCU but instead of superheroes it’s generic European medieval people. I quite like Oh My Goods, the progenitor of this ‘universe’, but some pacing issues keep it from my top 100. Tybor the Builder, however, finds itself firmly implanted here at number 33, mixing simple but tactical decisions with fast flowing, smooth card drafting.

In Tybor, you’re drafting cards and using them to build out a little tableau. The cards in the game are multi use, meaning when you choose one to draft you can do one of multiple things with them. You can either put them at the top of your player board to station them as villagers, which helps with scoring end game points based on symbols they provide as well as providing discounts for buildings. You can hire them as part of your workforce, which allows you to spend them later on building buildings. Which brings me to the last thing you can do: actually building things. After all, it’s called Tybor the Builder, not Tybor the Union Rep. When this is done, you simply discard the card you drafted as well as the necessary amount of strength from your work force and choose a building from a face up display to put in your village. These buildings provide the bulk of your points, as well as the occasional power to activate.

This multi-use card mechanism gives a lot of versatility not seen in other drafting games. It never feels like a card you draft is wasted since you’re always able to use it for something. This also makes hate drafting feel a lot more impactful. In so many drafting games, hate drafting (which is when you take something that’s less useful for you simply to keep it out of the hands of an opponent) feels like you’re punting away your turn and that you’re better off just trying to bolster your own points rather than subtracting potential points from an opponent. In Tybor, hate drafting is a viable option as there’s usually something you can do with the card as well.

I love games that do a lot with very little and that’s very much the case with Tybor. You essentially have three options on your turn but trying to puzzle out the best course is surprisingly satisfying. The game also moves at a very brisk pace, allowing you to build up a village quickly but ending at just the right time.

I don’t have much more to say about Tybor. If card drafting is something you enjoy, it’s tough to find a game that does it better than this one.

32. Hardback

hardback cover

I briefly mentioned how much I like pool building in a previous post and deckbuilding is probably the most common/popular form of pool building. It just so happens my number 32, Hardback, is one of my favorite deckbuilders.

Hardback is a word-based deckbuilder that is the spiritual successor to Paperback, which is also a word-based deckbuilder. Both are published by Fowers Games and both are great, but I prefer Hardback to Paperback. I’ll touch on why throughout this entry, but first let’s talk about Hardback on its own terms.

Casting players as Dickensian authors in Victorian times, Hardback is all about trying to build words with cards. The cards in Hardback have letters on them and players must make words with said letters as they also attempt to build a deck that allows them to consistently make even more powerful, higher scoring words. Cards also grant rewards such as points and money, with points getting you closer to winning the game and money allowing you to buy cards to add to your ever-fattening library of letters.

At the beginning of your turn, you draw your hand of five cards (because that is apparently a mandatory rule in every deckbuilder) and that is your selection of letters that you’re trying to make a word with. Can’t make a word with those letters? Don’t worry! Hardback has a very clever mechanism where you can play any card facedown as a wild card with the caveat that you won’t be given the rewards that card grants. This is already one thing that I much prefer over Paperback, where wild cards were actual cards that you had to hope to draw if you wanted to use them. This extra versatility means you’re rarely backed into a corner and trying to decide what cards to sacrifice for wilds is a constant, interesting decision in this game.

Another cool,   mechanism in this game is ink. In many deckbuilders, drawing more cards to supplement your hand of five is generally done by playing cards that allow that ability. Not so in Hardback. There is no “Draw ‘x’ amount of cards” action in this game. Instead, you need to buy ink which you can then spend to draw an extra card at a 1:1 rate. The catch is, whatever cards you draw with ink you MUST use in your word. If you’re unable to use the letter(s) you drew in a word, you essentially forfeit your turn. This simple bit of push your luck feels incredibly fresh in this genre and makes yet another thing that I vastly prefer in Hardback over Paperback.

The last great mechanism I’ll discuss is slightly less original, and that’s the idea of building combos in Hardback. In Hardback, each card you buy is part of a genre, such as horror or romance (but really, what’s the difference between those?? *snare roll*). If you combine cards of the same genre within the same word, you often get to activate a bonus ability on those cards, thus encouraging the synergizing of like genres within your deck. Like I said, this is far from original (it’s pretty much lifted straight from another deckbuilder called Star Realms) but the way this combo building is partnered with letters helps make it a little more thoughtful. Sure, you have a couple of cards in the mystery genre in your deck but do you really need another ‘Y’? Building a deck in Hardback isn’t as simple as just blindly buying cards of the same type, because you still need to actually make words with those cards.  You’ll be cursing yourself when you have a hand of cards that looks more like the name of a Lovecraftian Old One than an actual word.

Hardback would likely be higher on my list if I played it more in its competitive multiplayer form. Truth be told, I’ve gotten the vast majority of my plays in its solo mode and when I have played it with others, it’s mostly been with the cooperative variant. And while these modes are surprisingly excellent, I can’t help but feel like I’m not playing the game the way it is truly meant to be experienced.

Therefore, I’m quite interested to see where Hardback is next year. I have a feeling it could sneak into my top 25 if I get to play it against others a few more times.

31. Skull King

skull king

I’ve had a lot of great trick takers across this top 100 and Skull King is one of the best. The funny thing is that this is one of my highest-rated trick takers on the list and it also happens to be the most traditional trick taker. It’s modeled after a traditional trick taker called Oh Hell, though there are some slight twists to make it its own beast.

Skull King is played over ten rounds, with players being dealt a number of cards equal to the round number (so 1 card for round 1, 2 cards for round 2, and so on). Once everyone gets a good look at their hands, wagering begins and this is where the heart of the game lies. You’re trying to bet the number of tricks you think you can win that round, with big points rewarded for nailing it and increasingly steep penalties for those who are farther away from it.

It’s fair to wonder how one can be expected to precisely predict how many tricks they think they can win with just a passing glance at your hand and guess what? You’re right! But that’s what makes Skull King so fun. Wagering in this game is like jostling a backpack and going, “I think there’s a parachute in here?” before jumping out of plane. You never know if you pull the ripcord and will happily float down to safety or if you will end up popping like a water balloon on the ground.

Skull King is controlled chaos in the best possible way. You can make guesses on what’s in your opponents’ hands by taking note of how aggressive their bid is along with what kind of cards they played so far, using those inferences to better time what cards you play. BUT winning tricks in this game can still feel like trying to grab a brass ring on a merry-go-round as it’s going at 80 miles per hour. When you manage to pinpoint it and nab the exact number of tricks you predicted, it’s an absolute rush. When you don’t, all you can do is laugh at the senselessness of it all and take solace that mostly everybody else is in the same boat as you.

I’m probably making this game sound like it’s just a cacophony of randomness and luck but Skull King is far from it. Like all great trick takers, there is a method to the madness which demands subtle strategy and constantly shifting tactics. There’s almost a push your luck feel to the proceedings as you try to determine when to play your best cards, especially if the titular Skull King, who automatically wins a trick, hasn’t been seen yet.

All in all, Skull King is amazing fun. The fact that it has a pirate theme is great, yes, and suuure, there is a rule that involves everyone yelling, “Yo ho ho!” at the same time but even with these things aside, Skull King is a masterclass in trick taking design.

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We’re getting there, people. Just three more posts to go! Next stop: the top 30!