Tag: Board games

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 60-51

Welcome back to my 2019 Edition of my Top 100 Games of all Time. Yes, it’s 2020, and yes I’m regretting starting this so close to the end of last year. But if I had made a smart decision, it wouldn’t have been on brand. Here are my previous posts, if you haven’t caught up yet:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

Let’s get right back into it with my 60-51!

60. Space Base

space base cover

I’ll be honest, I had NO interest in Space Base when it first came out. A super generic sci fi theme with a super generic title and super generic art and super generic “roll dice, get stuff” gameplay? No thanks. But I had heard so many good things about it and I had a friend who I thought would really enjoy it the mechanisms and theme, so I bought it for him for his birthday. And hey, if I just happened to give it a try, then let’s see how it is.

Well. I was indeed able to try it and like many, many times in my life before, I was proven dead wrong. The hype is well deserved for Space Base because this game is loads of fun.

I already very briefly mentioned what this game is about but allow me to go into a bit more detail. Space Base finds you creating a fleet of spaceships, each with their own special powers and abilities that are activated by dice rolls. You’re trying to build a fleet that will create some sort of engine that you can activate with dice as often as possible, eventually rocketing (teehee) you to 40 points. If you’ve played Machi Koro, this is basically the deeper, more gamer-y version of that game, except not garbage.

Okay, I’m being a little hard on Machi Koro, there was a time when I actually liked that game. But when I played it enough times, I realized it was completely luck based and that your best strategy was to just choose a certain combo of two buildings that VERY obviously went together and just pray the dice rolls went your way. Space Base fixes these issues with some very clever design decisions.

The first is that you’re always rolling two dice, whereas rolling two dice was a benefit you had to unlock in Machi Koro. In addition to being able to dual wield dice like a Wild West outlaw twirling six shooters, you can split those dice across your fleet however you see fit. Meaning if you roll a four and five, you can either attach one die to the four spot and one to the five spot and activate your ships in those areas OR you can combine the two to make nine and activate the ship in your nine area. This small little change immediately transforms the autopilot gambling of Machi Koro into a satisfyingly strategic game of hedging your bets and dice mitigation.

Another amazing little tweak: dice rolled on other players’ turns can ALSO be used to activate ships in your fleet. Once again, you can use the dice however you see fit. The difference is rather than activating active ships in your fleet, you’re actually activating ships that have been sent out of your fleet. This occurs when buying a new ship for a certain dice slot; you remove the old ship, flip it upside down to show a new benefit when activated on your opponent’s turns and slide it underneath the top of your board. These ships stack as more and more are sent out, meaning you can really set yourself up for some powerful activations when it’s not even your turn.

All these small improvements to the “chuck dice, get stuff” formula that Machi Koro made popular make a game that is 45 minutes of non-stop, thrilling fun. Every single dice roll is worthy of your attention and everyone’s calling out numbers they want like a rowdy roulette table in Vegas. In addition to this primal joy one gets from gambling, picking ships and crafting your fleet is also good fun. The ships have a fun range of powers, getting you simple things like advancements on one of the three tracks in the game to more advanced things like dice manipulation or activating other ships in adjacent slots. There’s even a ship that literally wins you the game if you activate it enough times! Puzzling out how to combine certain ships in a way that’ll give you a rip-roaring engine and then eventually being able to pull the levers on that engine never fails to be amazingly fun.

Ultimately, Space Base is a game that will likely find its way higher on the list after I get the chance to play it more. Its generic space theme and lackluster art do it no favors (god damn, I wish this game was themed with pirate ships instead!) but ignoring it like I did for so long would be a huge mistake.

59. Drop It

drop it cover

I’ll be the first to admit that I used to think dexterity games were for kids. Why would I want to flick pebbles or stack building blocks when I could be doing grown up things like rolling dice and playing cards?? Exactly! Well, I was an idiot, as I’m sure you’ve realized at this point in the top 100. I got to play a handful of dexterity games over the past year and they are, admittedly, a ton of fun.

Out of that handful, the best competitive dexterity game I’ve played yet is Drop It. If you’ve ever seen Plinko played on the Price is Right, this is essentially the board game version of that. You have an array of shapes in your player color and one by one, everybody’s dropping them down a hollowed out plastic window, trying to get points based on where the shape is located. However, if you don’t adhere to certain restrictions (such as two of the same shapes touching each other or two of your own shapes touching each other), then you don’t get any points. It’s a game of dropping and stacking shapes in such a way that you can earn yourself maximum points while setting things up to make it very hard for your opponents to get anything.

Like most dexterity games, this is silly fun but there are some surprisingly tactical decisions here. You get to choose which shape you drop next and there are definitely places you can drop the shapes that make it hell for the next players’ turn. These tiny decisions help make Drop It just a bit less mindless than your average dexterity game, and one of the reasons why I consider it my favorite of the competitive type.

I honestly don’t know how high Drop It will be next time I do my top 100. I don’t own a copy and I feel like the shelf life of most dexterity games are somewhat short due to their shallow nature. But that’s for future Kyle to worry about! Right now, I love Drop It and anybody who turns there nose up at dexterity games should just drop the Grey Poupon and give it a try.

58. Mission: Red Planet

mission red planet cover

Another entry, another Bruno Cathala game. At this point, I should just ask him to sponsor the blog. My number 58 is one of his more popular games, Mission: Red Planet, a game he happened to co-design with the other well known Bruno in the industry: Bruno Faidutti.

Mission: Red Planet is set in a Victorian steampunk universe where people are being sent to Mars in order to stake claim and pillage it of all its resources, something humans are exceptional at. Players will be loading little astronauts into rockets that are then blasted off to specific regions of the titular red planet. The ultimate goal is to secure an area majority in these regions, which then gain you resource chips that give you the bulk of your points by game’s end.

All these things are powered by a wonderful role selection system. Each player has a hand of the same nine roles, each of which does something different. Some involve loading ships, changing a ship’s destination, moving astronauts around on Mars or even blowing a whole damn rocket up. Hey, I’m sure those astronauts totally didn’t have families, don’t sweat it.

At the start of the round, player simultaneously and secretly choose one of their roles to play. Then, counting down (like a lift off, tee hee, get it), when the number associated with your role is reached you announce that you played that card. All players who chose the same role also resolve it and the countdown resumes till everyone has played. Cards played are put into a temporary personal discard but can be picked back up with one of the roles.

What makes Mission: Red Planet such a blast to play is the lunacy and chaos that unfolds around every corner. Yes, it’s certainly possible to plan based on what other roles players have already played and what the board state looks like. But the slightest misread can result in your strategy for that round being totally torpedoed. You thought that Amanda was going to use her Femme Fatale card on Joey? Ha! Nope, she just used a Saboteur and blew up the rocket you were planning on sending to Phobos. You thought Dingus was going to use his explorer to move over to the region with the 3-point chips, allowing you to sneakily gain a majority on that region producing the 1-point ice chips? Why would you think that? Oh you sweet, sweet, child, of course he was going to use HIS Femme Fatale to replace one of your astronauts with one of his, allowing him to gain majority on the ice chips. It’s these crazy moments of unpredictability that create not just moments of fun and laughter, but chances to pivot and cleverly use the role cards in your hand to salvage the situation.

The game has a decently high player count for an area control game (up to six) and even with the full six, this game breezes by. Since players make a lot of their big choices simultaneously and the fact that roles are resolved fairly swiftly, Mission: Red Planet packs a lot of game in a snappy one-hour playtime. It’s so rare to have a legitimate strategy game that plays up to five or six players and does so with little downtime, which makes Mission: Red Planet an absolute gem.

The last positive I’ll mention is the theme. While I don’t care for space or sci fi themes (as touched on when discussing Space Base) I actually really like the way it’s implemented here, thanks to the steampunk coat of paint they’ve sprayed onto it. Seeing the illustrations of goofy Victorian era characters on the role cards brings the game loads of charm and personality, made even better by the cute little steampunk astronauts that make up your playing pieces.

I find few things wrong with Mission: Red Planet, though I will say that this is a game that may need more than one play before it really comes to life. The first time I played it I liked it but didn’t love it. The second time though, I had a better idea of how to use the role cards and the combinations you can pull off with them over a series of rounds. This brought a cadence to my playstyle that caused the game to sparkle, and it’s a game that gets better every time it comes to the table. Like many games on this list, I feel like it could be even higher if I was just able to consistently play some of these damn games more.

Anyway, check it out, it’s awesome.

57. The Quacks of Quedlinburg

quacks cover

It’s tough to think of a more unique and exciting designer to gain notoriety in the past few years than Wolfgang Warsch. He’s already appeared once on my list with his experimental but amazing silent co-op game The Mind, and he makes his return in my 57 spot with the game many consider to be his best: The Quacks of Quedlinburg.

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

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

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

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

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

I unfortunately don’t own this game, but it’s definitely one I intend on adding to my collection someday. If you enjoy fun, this game is for you. If you don’t, stick to Twilight Struggle.

56. Pandemic

pandemic cover

While Pandemic is only at spot 56, I don’t think there’s a more important game on this top 100. Without this game, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t be here. Not literally here, Pandemic didn’t save me from a fire or something. But what it did do is introduce me to the hobby and is the game that got me obsessed with trying as many other games as possible. So, if you’re looking for who to blame for me writing this, send all your hate mail to Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic. (Though don’t ACTUALLY send hate mail, he seems like a very nice fellow).

If you’re reading this list, you’ve probably played Pandemic. It’s the one cooperative game in the hobby that pretty much everyone has played and it’s the one that created the system of ‘take actions, bad stuff happens’ co-op games that have been one of the dominant forces in the industry this decade. In it, you and up to three other friends are various rapid responders trying to stop the spread of four deadly diseases (it’s apparently not a great time for Earth, making it perhaps a little too true to life). You take actions doing things like moving around the map, removing disease cubes, building research stations and ultimately trying to cure all four diseases by handing in five cards of each disease’s color.

The catch is that after your turn, the game takes a turn, done by flipping over cards from an annoying stack of cards called the ‘Infection Deck’. This deck is an unfeeling, merciless force that adds cubes to the various cities on the map, possibly creating outbreaks in the process. Outbreaks spread cubes out which can lead to more outbreaks which accelerates the clock to end the game. Another thing to worry about is that at certain points in the game, you have to shuffle the Infection Deck’s discard pile and place it back on top, meaning cities that may have just gotten cubes will be susceptible to even more.

It’s a brilliant system and it’s no wonder that so many other co-op games have copied it or at the very least, iterated on it. Pandemic combines a tight, brain burning puzzle of efficiently using actions with a palpable cinematic tension as you flip over cards at the end of every turn, wondering if it’s going to be the ONE city you can’t afford to see.

Another shining star sticker to place on Pandemic’s accolade chart are the Role cards. The different roles everyone play as all have a special ability and they’re all fun and useful to exploit. Pandemic is one of those rare co-op games of this style where every character feels crucial to victory. When I’m playing as the Dispatcher, I think, “Damn, if I was the Medic I’d be in good shape right now” and when I’m the Medic I’m cursing the fact that I’m not the Scientist because THEY’D be so useful at that moment and when I’m not the Scientist I lament that I’m not the Operations Expert and so on and so on. Listen, not a day goes by where I don’t wish I was somebody else, but in board game terms it’s awesome to see a roster of characters so deep and powerful. A lot of co-op games of this style have very clearly overpowered characters or character combinations where it feels like playing a game without them present is going to result in a loss 90% of the time (I’m looking at you, Water Carrier from Forbidden Desert).

So, with how incredibly sharp and important Pandemic is, why is not even in my top 50? Quite frankly, I just played it too damn much. As the big game that got me into gaming, this was one that I played over and over again before I started to get a big collection. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the game feeling just a bit stale. But like a delicious loaf of French bread left out on the counter overnight, this doesn’t make it bad! It just means that my desire to play it has gone down and that I’ve moved onto newer and fresher (and therefore more exciting) experiences.

Don’t let that deter you. Pandemic will ALWAYS have a place in my heart for introducing me to a hobby that I’ve been obsessed with for the past 4ish years and I implore anyone who hasn’t experienced it to amend that immediately.

NOTE: Hey, Kyle here, just gonna interrupt myself because I couldn’t find a natural way to bring it up when discussing Pandemic up above. Even though I discussed only the base game here, I’m including all the games of the Pandemic system for this entry. I’ve played Pandemic Iberia, which is awesome, and Pandemic Legacy Season 1 which is even more awesome. But I feel like it’s a waste of entries to include all those games of such a similar system on the list, so consider them all under the same umbrella at this 56 spot. On with the list!

55. Spirit Island

spirit island cover

It’s fitting that the game immediately following Pandemic on my list is Spirit Island, a game that many gamers have claimed to replace Pandemic with. In fact, Spirit Island is often referred to as ‘gamer’s Pandemic’ and while that has a sniff of elitism to it, I see that meaning that it’s just a deeper, more complicated version of Pandemic. And honestly? That’s pretty spot on.

Spirit Island tasks you and your fellow players to defend an island from colonial invaders, putting you in the role of powerful, vengeful spirits who can summon the forces of nature and beyond to do their bidding. The theme is fantastic and is a wonderful middle finger aimed at all the “Let’s colonize some indigenous people!” games out there.

How the game actually plays is quite similar to Pandemic, in that players take their turns trying to manipulate the board state which is then followed by an A.I. deck wreaking havoc on everything you just accomplished. The colonists in this game even act similarly to Pandemic cubes, slowly spreading out like an uncontrollable mold, generally doing more damage the more densely located they are.  Like the disease cubes, one of your main worries is to constantly keep this  spread at bay because the moment it becomes too much to handle, it’s probably too late.

However, don’t mistake Spirit Island for just another Pandemic clone, but with more rules. There are structural similarities, but the game plays vastly differently. Rather than a rigid action system, Spirit Island is all about hand and resource management and savvy card play. Your spirit comes with its own unique set of cards and tech trees to level up, as well as supply of energy that you must dutifully manage. Throughout the game you’ll be leveling up these tech trees and spreading your own presence out on the board, which allows you to further your reach in swatting down those pesky colonists. There is even a hand building aspect to the game, with players gaining the ability to add new cards to their arsenal at certain points. One of my favorite parts is drawing and picking new cards that gel with my spirit’s playstyle. It adds a touch of ownership and customizability to it that many other cooperative games of this type lack.

Another excellent aspect of Spirit Island is that it’s a cooperative game that actually requires cooperation. A novel idea, I know, but Spirit Island does this brilliantly through a few ways. One, the game has so much going on that it’s impossible for one player to quarterback (though I’m sure some will still try). The wealth of stuff to manage requires players to say, “Okay, what can you do? I can shore up over here pretty good but there’s no way I can handle that area” and stuff like that. One of the things that’s gotten very old with Pandemic is that it’s so easy for an alpha gamer to essentially play the game by themselves thanks to perfect information and its somewhat transparent puzzle. Not so in Spirit Island. Not only does everybody have their own hand of cards to parse and manage, but there’s just so much to compute that unless you’re playing with Alan Turing, an alpha gamer is unlikely to take over.

Perhaps more importantly, spirits are designed purposely to have blind spots in their abilities. This means that spirits will HAVE to cooperate because there are things they simply can’t accomplish without another spirit around to hoist them up. Lightning’s Swift Strike, for example, is a quick, offensive powerhouse that can constantly remove colonists off the board, like a mobile bug zapper. But when it comes to actually defending the island, they’re completely helpless, resulting in the invaders doing a ton of damage of their own. On the flip side, you have Vital Strength of the Earth who is a defensive juggernaught but makes molasses look like Usain Bolt. Combine these two spirits, however, and you got yourself a dream team of abilities and powers that are able to tag each other in when they desperately need it, like Undertaker and…uhh…The Rock? Were they both around at the same time? I don’t know wrestling.

Anyway, this reliance on cooperation makes Spirit Island a constantly engaging puzzle for everyone involved and makes the game decently long run time (2-3 hours, depending on player count and experience) go by like a tropical sea breeze. I haven’t even mentioned the insane amount of content this game offers, such as the wide array of spirits, colonists with special powers and even scenarios to try. It’s a game that will keep you busy for quite some time.

I’ve raved about this game, so it’s probably a bit puzzling as to why it’s not in the top 50. For one, I’ve simply cooled on this type of Pandemic style cooperative game, so I think that causes me to subconsciously rank these types of games lower. Another reason is that this game’s depth comes at the cost of some fiddliness. Unless you play this game consistently, getting it back to the table and reteaching yourself all its intricacies and edge cases is daunting. Therefore, I just don’t play it nearly as often as I probably should.

Still! Number 55! That’s pretty damn good and doesn’t change the fact that Spirit Island is an amazing cooperative experience.

54. 7 Wonders

7 wonders cover

Much like Space Base, I had hesitance with trying 7 Wonders. Despite praise being thrown around like, “instant classic” and “hugely important to the hobby”, I just never had an interest in it. Part of this reluctance was that I had already played drafting games before trying 7 Wonders and I felt that 7 Wonders probably didn’t offer anything new to hook me. Being the ostensible godparent of the genre, I figured the games I had already played were basically 7 Wonders, but better since they had 7 Wonders to iterate off of and to evolve from. Another big reason is I had already played 7 Wonders Duel, which I loved and heard was widely considered to be better. So why go back, I thought?

Why, Kyle? Why?? WHY!? BECAUSE IT’S 7 FRICKING WONDERS, THAT’S WHY.

Yes, yes, I know. Just like I said with Space Base, I was proven wrong (told you it happens a lot!). Despite my misgivings, I got to play 7 Wonders and found it to be an amazing design.

As mentioned, 7 Wonders is the game that kind of started the whole card drafting craze. I know there were some before it, but 7 Wonders is the one that really made the mechanism a household name. When I’m talking about card drafting, I am talking about the mechanism in which everyone has a hand of cards, they pick one to keep and then pass the rest over to the next. You keep picking cards in this manner till the hands have been played. Different games use this system in their own unique ways. In 7 Wonders’ case, whatever card you pick immediately goes into your tableau.

Your tableau represents an ancient civilization that you’re building, and the cards grant you things like resources, military strength (to bully your neighbors into taking negative points) or synergistic combos that will helpfully net you big time end game points. The decisions are often tough but rewarding. There are so many ways you can build your civilization and all the strategies seem viable in their own ways. Even if you don’t like the choices the cards give you, you can trash a card for gold or use a card to build underneath a wonder which grants its own rewards. Because of this, turns are constantly satisfying and every card you play feels worthwhile.

There’s also lots of positive player interaction in 7 Wonders that I love. If you have a resource symbol another player doesn’t have, they can pay you gold to ‘borrow’ it for a purchase. There are also cards that give YOU points for cards your neighbors might have. So, if you see your neighbor is building up a big science-based infrastructure, you can snag the card that gives you points for science cards your neighbors possess. I can’t think of many games that offer me anything other than pure, unbridled hatred for my opponents, so it was such a cool, refreshing thing to see in 7 Wonders.

I’ll be interested to see where 7 Wonders stands next top 100 because, like others I’ve mentioned, I don’t own a copy of it. And honestly, as much as I love 7 Wonders, I’m not sure if it’s a game I need to own myself strictly because my collection is already at critical mass and I have some drafting games that I like better (STAY TUNED). But if ever given the chance to play it again, I’d absolutely jump on it because there’s a lot to love about 7 Wonders.

53. Sheriff of Nottingham

sheriff of nottingham cover

One of the most popular bluffing games in the industry holds my 53 spot: Sheriff of Nottingham. In Sheriff of Nottingham, you and your opponents take turns being the titular Sheriff. When you’re the Sheriff, players hand you a bag stuffed with up to five cards, claiming a certain good, such as cheese or chicken. BUT, in pure bluffing game fashion, they may be lying. If you call them out on it and open their bag only to find they’ve been telling the truth, you pay a penalty per card. If you open it and discover they’re sneaking in contraband, such as crossbows or pepper (the law really hates pepper in this game), then THEY pay the penalty.

That’s pretty much the game! As you can see, this is far from a deep experience. But what makes Sheriff of Nottingham so much damn fun is the negotiation and the role play that blossoms from the simple mechanisms. You can bribe the Sheriff to open a bag or to not open a bag or even offer them goods if they let you go through. They can haggle right back, threatening to open unless you provide something in return. All the while, players are (hopefully) doing this in shoddy British accents, dramatically playing the parts of humble merchants or of a ruthless Sheriff.

This game was firmly in my top 25 for a while but has recently fallen because I’ve realized how much the game relies on everyone buying into the role playing aspect. If you have everybody being goofy and doing stupid voices, this is one of the most fun games you can play. But if even half the table is playing it straight, it will sink the experience. My last playthrough of this had me being the only one acting like a dumbass and it was not nearly as pleasurable as past playthroughs. Waaay back in my 100-91 section, I talked about a game called Goodcritters and said that if everybody isn’t getting into it, the game will fall flat. The same can be said for Sheriff, unfortunately.

Ultimately though, if you think you have a group that will really buy into it and act like a bunch of assholes at the Renaissance Faire for an hour, Sheriff of Nottingham is incredible amounts of fun.

52. Kingdomino

kingdomino cover

Who’s that French man setting up a cot in the corner? Oh, that’s just Bruno Cathala. I figured since he’s been on this list so many times, he should just make himself at home and stay till the end of the top 100.

Yep, Cathala is back again at my number 52 spot. This one is Kingdomino, a game he designed by himself and is also the only game for which he won a Spiel des Jahres. You can use that for trivia at your next party, by the way, it’s a great conversation starter.

Kingdomino isn’t just one of Cathala’s simplest games, it’s one of the simplest gateway games you can find in the hobby. It’s a tile laying game (hey, been a while since we had one of those! Welcome back, buddy!) where the tiles are chunky little dominos. Instead of numbers, the dominos have land types (such as fields, forests or swamps) and you’re placing these dominos in a 5 by 5 grid to form your kingdom. One thing you’re keeping an eye on is crowns. Crowns are important because they’re how you score points. At the end of the game, everyone takes a look at their contiguous groups of land types and then they multiply the number of squares present times the number of crowns also present in that area. So, if you have a patch of forest that is four squares big and has one crown, that’s four points. But if you had two crowns, that’s eight points! No crowns present? Absolutely nothing. It creates an interesting decision space where you have to choose going all in with one or two big land areas populated by a few crowns or whether to focus on putting a lot of crowns spread across smaller land areas. I’m happy to report that after many plays of this game, both strategies are viable.

I haven’t even gotten to the best part of this game! My favorite part of Kingdomino and one of the reasons why it’s remained such a favorite of mine is the drafting system. Players draft tiles using a little king meeple, which they place to stake claim on a domino in a column. The dominos are generally ordered by how good they are, with the better tiles being towards the bottom of the column. If you put your meeple on the bottom domino, that’s great! You likely got yourself a good tile. But where your meeple is in the column determines drafting order for the next set of dominos. So, the top dominos are not as good but taking one guarantees you get first dibs on the next batch whereas going for a domino on the bottom means you’re taking a risk at getting absolute garbage in the next round. It’s a wonderful bit of push your luck that never fails to feel clever and interesting whenever I play this game.

The game is also very quick. A two player game of this can be finished in ten minutes and a four player game can easily clock in at under twenty, closer to fifteen with experienced players. Combining this with its ease to teach and introduce to people, especially non gamers, makes Kingdomino a stalwart entry in the gateway portion of my collection.

Even if I’m not using it for gateway purposes, Kingdomino is still an incredibly fun and cute game that I still enjoy after countless plays. Like most of Cathala’s games on this list, it’ll have a place on my top 100 for years to come.

51. My Village

my village cover

A mechanism that I’m surprised hasn’t shown up on this top 100 yet is dice drafting, because dice drafting is a god damned delight. It’s become one of my favorite mechanisms over the past year or so and My Village is one of the games that brought me to this epiphany.

My Village is a spiritual successor, quasi sequel to the game Village. I have yet to play that game, but from my understanding it is an action selection game where you’re picking cubes and taking the action associated with them. There’s also a cool mechanism in which your family members can die and wow, that came out a lot harsher than I expected.

My Village takes the juice of a lot of similar concepts and actions from Village but squeezes it into a game of dice drafting and dice placement. Throughout the game you’ll be drafting dice to activate things in your own personal village board, something that will grow and develop over the course of the game. These things include a crafts stall where you can make items to sell, a church to build so that you can score its number of windows at the end of the game (no, seriously), and even a man with a stick who’s clearly on a pretentious journey to find himself.

There are a lot of avenues to take in My Village. The things I mentioned above are just a small sliver of what your board is capable of, making this one of those Euros where you clearly need to focus on just one or two things unless you want your brain to start leaking out your nose. It’s certainly not a sandbox style game but it is a very open point salad game.

This freedom is one of the things I adored about My Village when playing it. Even though it’s a game with some very tense decisions, I found it strangely relaxing to tend to my village, picking the most efficient spots for my dice, trying to build up clusters of points to try and win the game. There are plenty of options you have with the dice so it’s rare to feel railroaded by bad rolls.

Another mechanism I really liked was the plague mechanism. Remember when I maybe a little too cheerfully said people would die in this game? That comes at the hands of the plague, a push your luck mechanism that’s constantly looking over your shoulder, awkwardly breathing down your neck. Whatever you activate in your village will cost time, which is then represented by the Grim Reaper (no, seriously) making a circuit around your village. When he makes a complete circle, the bell tolls for someone in your village and they pass away. You then bury them on a cemetery board and roll a plague die because if there’s one thing rats love, it’s fresh family corpses. A rat token moves forward as many spots as rolled and when it reaches the end of its track, players could potentially lose a whole ton of points. In a neat twist, players can draft black dice which accelerates the Grim Reaper on his quest to erase your family name (jesus, did you kill his dog or something) which then in turn causes the plague die to get rolled more often. This can be beneficial for you if you’re either trying to race to the end game or if you really wanna try and screw over your opponents into losing any points they foolishly didn’t bank away in their house.

My Village is very much a point salad Euro but its great drafting mechanisms and the way it uses time as a currency to whittle down your work force and march impending doom upon you helps separate it from the pack.

*

Ahhh, that’s it for the first half of my top 100! Tune in next week for the start of my top 50!

 

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition): 70-61

You’re still here, huh? Awesome! I thought I’d be the only one! We’re officially on the fourth entry of my top 100 games of all time (2019 edition), which means we’re getting closer and closer to the top 50. Here’s links to the other entries if you’ve been somehow to busy to read them:

100-91

90-81

80-71

Let’s keep it going!

70. Beyond Baker Street

beyond baker street cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

69. CrossTalk

crosstalk cover

As we get deeper into this top 100, you can expect word-based party games to pop up more and more often. I love this type of game, since it’s usually an incredibly social experience that still forces you to use your ol’ noodle (I believe that’s the technical term). CrossTalk has the honorable distinction of being the first game of this type to appear on the list.

CrossTalk is a word association game with a twist. Players are split into two teams, with teams being made up of a clue giver and a clue guesser. The clue givers on each team choose a clue or phrase they need to get their teammates to guess and then they proceed to write down a private clue that only THEIR team will get to see. As in most games of this type, clues can only be one word. After this private clue has been shared, clue givers begin giving public clues and this is where CrossTalk gets interesting.

Whereas most games of this type have a clue giver giving a clue and their team guessing the word, CrossTalk flips it on its head. Instead of your team guessing, the OTHER team guesses. Now the importance of the private clue becomes clear. With your public clues, you’re likely going to want to be as cagey and obscure as possible so that your opponents can’t zero in on the word. Using the private clue to provide some direction for your team as you spout nonsense allows them to maybe have a leg up when it’s their turn to guess. It’s like the party game version of The Da Vinci Code, with both clue givers crafting elaborate riddles in the hope that their team can crack it before the other. When it works out, it’s incredibly satisfying and creates high five moments on your side of the table. When it doesn’t, you’re left screaming, “HOW WAS ‘JELLY AND ‘HELICOPTER’ NOT OBVIOUSLY ‘COWBOY’??” which is equally fun.

This game bears a lot of similarities to another word association game in the hobby called Decrypto. I can’t say whether or not I like this better than Decrypto because I don’t want to reveal whether or not it ends up on my list, but I can say that if you like Decrypto, you’ll like this. I feel like it’s basically the family version of that game, a sort of “Baby’s 1st Decrypto”. It scratches the same word association plus deduction itch in a shorter time frame and with a much less intimidating rules explanation. It’s great fun for any fan of these types of party games.

68. Tiny Towns

tiny towns cover

Tiny Towns was an industry darling earlier this year and I feel like the buzz has died down on it considerably. Which sucks, because this game’s awesome! Obviously! It’s my number 68 and will probably climb by the time my next top 100 comes around (oh god, if I ever finish this one).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

67. Love Letter

love letter bgg

I’m going to be honest. I’m shocked that after all these years, Love Letter still manages to find a place on my top 100. It’s one of the smallest and simplest games on this list and yet I still find myself going back to it again and again.

Love Letter is the game that many credit with kicking off the microgame craze, games that are incredibly small but manage to offer compelling, replayable experiences. In Love Letter’s case, it’s a deck of a mere 16 cards that somehow manages to be not only a game, but one that’s damn fun too.

In Love Letter, players are competing to get a love letter to the princess, which I guess was the Medieval version of sending unsolicited nudes. Everyone has a hand of just one card and on their turn they draw one from the deck and choose one of their two cards to play. The cards represent different characters in the kingdom, like the guard or the priest or the princess herself. They each have an ability when played and you’re essentially just trying to survive until the end of the round with the highest numbered card in hand. First person to win a set number of rounds wins, ostensibly because you’re the best at pestering the poor princess.

Congratulations! I’ve officially taught you the entire game! This is one part of what makes Love Letter so amazing. Its simplicity makes it so accessible and easy to pick and play. And once you are playing, it immediately gets the endorphins going. Cards are thrown on the table as players laugh and groan and cheer and as soon as one round is done, you’re ready to start the next one. It’s such an addictive, lively experience.

It’s tough to really say much more because Love Letter is such a small but pure experience. When my friends and I have spent the whole night drinking and it’s two in the morning, but we want to get just one last game in, Love Letter is often the go-to choice. This game has created so many great memories from that type of scenario and for that reason alone, I don’t see Love Letter leaving my top 100 anytime soon.

66. Cursed Court

cursed court bgg

 

I always love when I get to shine a light on a lesser known, under the radar game and Cursed Court is certainly in that category. It’s got a bit of a cult following and this year I’ve heard more and more podcasts get the chance to play it and love it. Hopefully this results in more people getting the chance to play this unique game, because it’s a real gem.

Cursed Court is a delicious concoction of bidding, deduction and bluffing. The game board represents a nine by nine grid of Medieval era characters and players will be placing plastic poker chips on various parts of the board to bet on who they think will be present in that current round. This is determined by a deck of cards that contains four copies of each character. At the start of the round, a card is dealt facedown between the player to your right and the player to your left. This means you and LeftPlayer McLeft have some information about who will be present, as well as RightPlayer O’Rightley. But, they of course have cards dealt between their other sides as well, which means they have some information you don’t know.

After this hidden information is dealt out, a card is flipped over face up for the entire table to see and bidding begins. Players then place any amount of chips they have (starting with a supply of 20) on a part of the board either representing a single character OR a specific combination of characters. You placing a wager there essentially means you think that character or combination of characters will be present by the end of the round. Places with another player’s chips can be bumped off, but the cost is double what’s already there. So, if RightPlayer O’Rightley has four chips on the King character, you can bump them off by placing eight of your chips there.

After four cards are flipped face up from the deck and everyone has placed four wagers down, all the face down cards are revealed and people score based on where they bet. If you bet on a single character, you get points based on how many copies of that character are present. If you wagered on a specific combination of characters, you get points only if every character in that combo is present. After four full rounds of this, whoever amassed the most points from the smartest wagering wins! I just hope it isn’t RightPlayer O’Rightley, they’re so smug when they win.

Cursed Court deserves so much more love. I imagine it’s generic name and artwork may have had something to do with its lack of popularity, but that needs to be remedied as soon as possible. It is such an interesting cocktail of mechanisms. You’re using deduction, making decisions based on what you know versus how other players are playing their wagers. You need to be economical with your chips, making efficient bidding another element you need to keep in mind. Twenty chips sounds like a lot, but they go fast. The bluffing is one of the more subtle pieces of Cursed Court and may not even seem apparent to new players. You can use big bids on areas you don’t think are showing up to entice someone else to bump you off, then cackle in their face when it’s revealed you were completely full of crap. Combine all of this with the incredibly tactile chips you use for wagering, and Cursed Court never fails to be a good time.

I don’t know how available this game is currently and I fear this game’s lack of big success dooms it to not being reprinted. If you can track down and try this game, you absolutely need to. Perhaps word of mouth will give this game the second chance it so desperately deserves.

65. Deception: Murder in Hong Kong

deception cover

My next game is an unfortunate casualty of the simple fact that I don’t own it and nobody in my area does anymore (EDIT: I have since gotten this game for Christmas! Thanks, Santa!). Otherwise, I feel like this game would get played a lot more consistently and it would find its way quite a bit higher on this top 100, because it is an excellent social deduction experience.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a game very similar to Mysterium, (which was on my 90-81 section), in that a silent clue giver is trying to give hints and clues to a group to determine how a murder was committed. The twist here is that unlike Mysterium, this is not fully cooperative. One of the players is the murderer and the other players need to root them out.

Every player, except the clue giver, has two rows of cards in front of them. One row is potential murder weapons and the other row is some specific clue that was left at the scene of the crime. Everyone closes their eyes and the murderer points at one of the weapons and one of the clues in front of them and now the clue giver knows what they’ll be trying to get the others to guess. The clue giver has a bunch of clue boards in front of them with specific categories and items of that category, such as ‘Day of the Crime’ and ‘Murderer’s Personality”. These categories are mostly randomized throughout the game, meaning all cases are going to have a different set of clues. The clue giver needs to figure out how to take these fairly disparate clue elements and create a pattern for the other players to see, allowing them to link that to two items in front of the murderer. How do you let someone know the murderer used a garden trowel and left behind a stereo speaker by only telling them something random, like the victim’s expression? Who knows! That’s for you to figure out! But it does create hilarious images of the world’s most maddeningly cryptic investigator, trying to lead people to figure out a murder by saying, “Well, what I can tell you is that the victim appeared to be very, very scared!”

And speaking of hilarious, I know it’s weird to call a game literally about murder ‘hilarious’, but that’s kind of what this game is. When the murderer gives an extremely flimsy argument over something in an effort to deflect suspicion but immediately gets caught because of it, it’s hysterical. When the clue giver is having a bad round and gives a series of clues that make absolutely no sense whatsoever, it’s also a riot. Like any good social deduction game, the arguments and debates are the lifeblood of this game, and those arguments and debates more often result in laughter. This is a nice change of pace from other social deduction games like, say, The Resistance where most arguments end with everyone wanting to strangle each other.

Social deduction games are incredibly polarizing, but I do find Deception: Murder in Hong Kong one of the more accessible ones. The presence of a clue giver means someone who isn’t fond of being stuck in the center of heated exchanges can simply request to play that role more often and the presence of public clues allows the murderer to deflect a little more easily than, say, Spyfall. Every game I’ve had of this, even at lower player counts, has been amazing. It’s a game I really want to get into my own collection (EDIT: AGAIN, THANKS SANTA) and when I finally have it, I’d be shocked if Deception doesn’t find a way into the top 50.

64. Abyss

abyss cover

Who’s that? Oh, don’t mind him. It’s just Bruno Cathala again! Abyss is another game that I feel would be higher if I had a chance to play it more before finalizing this list. I do own Abyss but it just hasn’t hit the table as much as I’d like.

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

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

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

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

Like Deception, more consistent play of this would likely see this game in the top 50. As it stands, it’s still an excellent game worthy of my 64 spot.

63. Tournament at Camelot

tournament at camelot cover

In my 90-81 section, I made mention of my newly discovered love of modern trick taking games. Tournament at Camelot is the next trick taking game on my list and another prime example of why I’ve fallen in love with the genre.

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

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

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

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

62. Small World

small world cover

My number 62 is another one of the hobby’s most popular gateway games and one that I definitely played to death when I first started gaming. I am talking about Small World, the cartoonish fantasy area control game of drafting different races and powers in an effort to wipe other players’ races off the map. It’s genocidal fun for the whole family!

The main draw of Small World is the myriad of fantasy races and goofy special powers that are combined randomly every game and then allowing players to pick which of those combos they want to play. Do you want to play as the Alchemist Trolls, a heavily defensive race that will produce extra gold every turn? Or do you take the Flying Merfolk, who can zip around wherever they want on the map, cherry picking the areas that border water and give them extra points?

This system of picking and using randomized armies brings two cool things to Small World. The first is the draft itself. When you pick your race and power combo, you have a whole column to pick from. The first combo is free and you can take it without spending precious gold. But if it’s a relatively weak combo that you want no part of (“Seafaring dwarves?? Absolutely not”), then you can pick a combination farther down the column with the caveat that you must place a gold coin on every race you skip. Then later on, if you anybody picks a combo with gold on it, hey! Free points! This is one of the first games that used this clever drafting system and we are finally starting to see other games copy it for use in their own systems (Century: Spice Road, Majesty: For the Realm and Micropolis to name a few). It creates a wonderful decision space where you’re constantly trying to figure out the value of how powerful a combo will be versus how much it’ll cost you to get to that.

The other cool aspect that this brings comes in the form of the decline mechanism. Like The Beatles or Butterfinger BBs, nothing lasts forever, and such is true for your races in Small World. As time goes on, your race is going to start to thin out more and more and you’ll have to decide when you’ll want to put them in decline. This simply means you spend a whole round taking most of those units off the board, flipping the remaining ones over to a black and white side and then getting ready to pick a new race in the next round. Timing for going into decline is absolutely crucial. Go into decline too early and you’re not being as efficient with your race’s powers. Go into decline too late, however, and you’ll end up having some very low scoring rounds since your current race is mere scraps on the board. If you time it just right, you can maximize points from your race in decline AND the new active race and that is ultimately the key to success in Small World.

Like many of the great gateway games, it’s easy to see why Small World has been so popular. The art is colorful and inviting, the gameplay is simple to explain (though the amount of powers can make new players’ heads spin), and it offers a ton of replayability and variety. Small World only misses cracking my top 50 mainly because, as I mentioned earlier, I played the mess out of this game when I first got it and have suffered a tad bit of burnout. Another big reason is because I’ve played a lot more area control games since my Small World days and those games are, quite simply, better than Small World.

Still, I can’t foresee a day where Small World will leave my collection and I also don’t expect it to leave this top 100 any time soon.

61. Brew Crafters

brew crafters cover

As a millennial white male, I have two main loves in life: board games (obviously) and craft beer. My number 61 just happens to combine those two! Brew Crafters is a worker placement game about making craft beer and running your own brewery and, for my money, it’s one of the most underrated Euros in the industry.

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

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

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

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

 

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 80-71

We are at the third installment of my Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition), which means we’re about to wrap up the original trilogy. And immediately after this I’m going to run it into the ground with needless sequels like it’s a Disney franchise. If you haven’t caught up (SHAME ON YOU) here is my 100-91 and here is my 90-81.

And now, onto 80-71!

80. Lanterns

lanterns cover

Tile laying is in my top 3 game mechanisms of all time (why yes, I did rank my top 10 favorite game mechanisms while I was bored at work one day, why do you ask?), so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see some pop up on the list. My last entry had the wonderful tile laying microgame Circle the Wagons and we’re continuing the trend with my number 80: Lanterns.

Despite never catching fire quite like Ticket to Ride or Splendor, Lanterns is still one of the more popular gateway games in the hobby. This is for very good reason, and I actually like it more than those gateway behemoths I just mentioned. Lanterns is simple, quick, but incredibly puzzle-y and interactive, something every great gateway game should strive for.

In Lanterns, you’ll be dropping the titular paper lanterns into a big ass lake, watching them float around like multicolored lily pads. Normally this would be littering, but this is the big Harvest Festival, which means who cares if they’re not biodegradable! This is for the Emperor!

You’ll be placing tiles down into a communal landscape (like many tile laying games) and collecting different colored cards based on how you place them. The tiles are sectioned off into quarters, each with a different batch of colored lanterns inside. Upon placement of the tile, the players all receive a colored card matching the colored lanterns that are facing them. As the game goes on, you’re trying to cash in sets of these cards to gain points from constantly diluting pile of tokens.

Not since this past Thanksgiving with your Trump loving Uncle have you cared more about where people are sitting at a table. You have to constantly be peeking at the cards they’ve collected and making sure you don’t allow them to get a set while also being sure to get colors that YOU could use. Bonus cards applied from color adjacency and getting tokens from decorative floats that allow you to exchange cards add even more layers to this scrumptious puzzle. You’ll be fidgeting with your hand of three tiles, rotating them and squinting at the board, imagining the ramifications of each decision. The fact that this is all done in a brisk 30 minutes and that it can be taught to all your non gamer friends helps cement Lanterns right here at spot 80.

79. Hand of the King

hand of the king cover

Hey! I’ve already reviewed this one! You can read it right here! That means I can take this entry off, right? I’ll see you in ten minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

78. Thunder and Lightning

thunder and lightning cover

I love me some good 2 player only games and Thunder and Lightning is a VERY good 2 player only game. Set in Norse mythology, Thunder and Lightning casts 2 players as Loki and Thor squaring off, each one trying to find a specific card in the other player’s deck. Anyone who has played the classic game Stratego (one of the few mass market games I’d vouch for and still be willing to play today) will instantly feel familiar with this game.

Both players have their own decks of cards which are functionally the same but differ in some art and card names. The cards represent various figures and tropes of Norse mythology and players will be playing these cards to a battlefield. Cards are placed facedown in a 3 by 4 grid, where your opponent can then try to fight their way through it using cards on THEIR side of the battlefield. There are also other cards that you can play immediately for powers which allow you to do things such as draw randomly from your opponent’s hand, target specific cards on the battlefield, bring back some cards from your discard, etc. If at any point a player can find the card they’re looking for (Odin’s Crown for Loki, Odin’s Ring for Thor) then they win!

Thus begins an agonizingly intense game of bluffing, hand management and secretive tableau building. Every decision is fraught with tension as you try to sneak into the mind of your opponent, trying to discover why they’ve played cards in certain positions or why they’re triggering certain powers. Are they keeping their hand so large because they drew your MacGuffin and are trying to lower the odds of you plucking it out with an Odin’s Ravens card? Or is it to throw you off the scent that they’ve already played your MacGuffin into their battlefield, waiting innocently in a corner as you pay no mind to it? Or is it simply because they like having a lot of cards and options? And what do YOU even do? Do you play strong solider cards to your frontlines, creating a sturdy defense? Or do you space them across your battlefield to provide a nice surprise for your opponent as they get deeper into your lines? Questions like this will pinball around your brain and you’ll constantly doubt and rethink your actions as you try to come up with the best use for the cards in your hand.

My only complaint about Thunder and Lightning is that the game can go on pretty long, especially if neither player draws their opponent’s MacGuffin until late in the deck. It’s entirely possible for both player’s MacGuffins to be buried in the 2nd half of their decks, meaning it will be a long time before anyone even draws it. Considering there are also cards that can raise casualties back from the dead further elongates a game that can take over an hour. This complaint is amplified by the fact that a bad bit of randomness can literally lose you the game, thus making an hour plus runtime a little tougher to swallow.

Besides that one sticking point, Thunder and Lightning is a fantastic addition to anyone’s 2 player only game collection.

77. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden

cabbagehead's cover

A common complaint we board gamers have is that we have so many games and we constantly want to play those games, but there’s only so many opportunities to play them. Sure, you can emotionally blackmail your friends into feeling sorry for you so that they’ll come over and play but take it from me, they catch to my, I mean YOUR, tricks pretty fast. So, what’s a board gamer to do when they have that old craving for board games but no one around to help satiate it?

What’s that? Do something productive and meaningful, like volunteer or clean your house? Hahahaha, goodness no! Just play a solo board game instead!

I’ve already mentioned solo variants to games on this Top 100 and how I’m on the lookout for great solo modes, but I haven’t mentioned any solitaire only games. Allow me to rectify that with my number 77, Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden.

Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden throws you into the role of the titular Mr. Cabbagehead, who finds himself trying to win the blue ribbon for his community’s garden contest. How you make that garden is by playing cards representing specific vegetables in a grid, trying to situate them in a way that gets you a lot of points from getting like vegetables together in a big patch as well as trying to complete certain formations. Which means, yep, another tile laying game. Told you I liked them!

Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden has a couple of cool mechanisms in it that help make it unique in this very crowded genre. The first is how you draft the cards that go in your garden. Every turn, you draw three cards and put them in a row and then you have to manage these little bee tokens based on which of those cards you want. If you want the middle card, you can just take it for free and you don’t have to involve any of those pesky bees in your affairs. But if you want the card on the left you need to pay a bee token from your supply to the beehive next to the deck. Meanwhile, if you want the card on the right you have to take a bee token from the beehive. If you can’t do either of these, because either your supply or the beehive is empty, you cannot take that card. This cute little drafting system introduces a small element of push your luck to the game, causing you to carefully consider how much of a bind you’re willing to put yourself into for future turns. I guess you could say it’s all about managing your beeconomy.

Ah yes, there’s the reason I’m forced to play solitaire only games like this, glad I can skip the therapist bill for that one.

Moving on, let’s talk about neighbors. Like, not in general, but in the game. Mr. Cabbagehead has an awful cast of characters in his neighborhood, and they’re constantly stalking outside the garden gate, waiting for Mr. Cabbaghead to go on holiday so they can slink through and steal some vegetables. How this is represented in game terms is that at the end of every turn, your draw a certain number of neighbor tokens (decided by the vegetable cards you didn’t draft) and place them on the neighbor they represent. When it’s time for Mr. Cabbaghead to go get lit at some music festival for the weekend, the neighbor with the most tokens steals a specific type of vegetable. Unless there is a tie which means no neighbors visit. So, on top of managing your beeconomy (no, I’m not letting it die) you also have to be thoughtful of how many neighbor tokens you’ll have to pull based on which vegetable card your draft. Having vegetables stolen is back breaking in this game. I’ve had one measly stolen vegetable cost me well over 30 points once because of where it was placed and how central it was to my strategy. Managing your neighbors to avoid this from happening is as essential as the actual gardening itself.

The last thing I’ll rave about is this game’s theme and art. The game sports a very Victorian era aesthetic and feel that makes it incredibly charming. The illustrations are even inspired by old vegetable drawings you would find in Victorian literature and the anthropomorphized vegetable people that inhabit the game world are also ripped straight from the era. Sure, it can be a little creepy looking, to the point that the characters look like something the Umbrella Corporation would engineer in their company garden. But the somewhat grotesque nature perfectly falls in line with the tongue in cheek humor that oozes from the game’s flavor text and its rulebook (the rulebook for this game might be my favorite rulebook ever, it’s hilarious). The end result is a super unique and charming look and feel to this game that really elevates it from the more generic looking tile layers out there.

My one complaint about this game is that it can feel very swingy if you run into bad luck. I mentioned earlier that a single vegetable being stolen from your garden can result in you losing 30-40 points, and there’s many times you lack the control to prevent that sort of thing from ever happening. Yes, there are ways to mitigate the random draw of neighbor tokens and you can plan ahead and situate your garden in a way that losing a certain vegetable won’t be devastating, but there are a ton of times where you’ll play the odds in your favor and still come out with a negative outcome strictly because of bad luck. I’m convinced the only way to get the blue ribbon in this game (which is the ‘top’ score) is to not only play perfectly mistake free but to also not have ANY sort of bad luck plague your garden. Any Cabbaghead experts out there willing to prove me wrong, I’d be more than happy to hear it!

All that being said, this game is a quick 15-20 minutes, so it’s not like you should really care that much about swingy randomness. Because despite it, this is such an enjoyable, charming little game that any aspiring solo gamer should have in their collection.

76. Carcassonne

carcassonne cover

All this talk about tile laying games, and we haven’t even mentioned the grand poohbah of them all: Carcassonne. Arguably the game that really brought tile laying into the mainstream of the board game hobby, Carcassonne continues to be one of the most popular gateway games into the hobby; if there was a Mount Rushmore for gateway games, Carcassonne would 100% be on it. I credit Forbidden Island and Pandemic for getting me into the hobby, but Carcassonne is the first competitive game I truly fell in love with. Here we are, over four years later and Carcassonne is still on my top 100.

Carcassonne tasks players with building the titular city as well as its surrounding countryside, placing tiles out in a communal landscape (wait, didn’t I just say that a few games ago), and placing their meeples on various features to try and score them if they ever finish them before game’s end. As the landscape grows, players become invested in certain areas, creating a tense race to the finish line as each player hopes and prays the tile they draw is the exact tile they need to complete something (Narrator voice: “They won’t.”)

There’s just so much to love about Carcassonne, but one thing I’ve always adored is how it’s very versatile in the type of game it can be. If you want to play a peaceful game of city building, not getting in each other’s ways and just enjoying the piece of art everyone is creating, this game allows that. However, if you want a vicious game of cutthroat maneuvers and constantly butting heads, Carcassonne can be as mean as all hell. I have some friends who enjoy the more peaceful playstyle, and it’s always a serene, relaxing experience. But I have other friends who will ALWAYS place tiles in a way that either attempts to snipe your territory or that makes it incredibly difficult for you to complete the feature you’re working on. Whether it’s a lovely stroll through idyllic France or an absolute massacre, Carcassonne manages to be a great time either way.

I am a little surprised Carcassonne is relatively low on this list (not that spot 76 is anything to sneeze at!) and I simply think that’s because I played SO much of this when first getting into the hobby. When first getting into board gaming, I pretty much exclusively played cooperative games. When I did play a competitive game, though, Carcassonne was ALWAYS the one to hit the table. It certainly holds a nostalgic corner of my heart, but I do think the constant play of it in those first few years has resulted in a tad bit of burnout.

Regardless, Carcassonne is still amazing and anybody who hasn’t played it absolutely needs to. It is an evergreen classic in this hobby for a reason, and there are so many tile layers we have Carcassonne to thank for.

75. Hive Mind

hive mind cover

This is perhaps the most mass market-y game on my list. In fact, if it didn’t have the name of an established publisher and of literally one of the most influential designers to ever work in the industry on the box, it’d be easy to think this was mass market. But to cast it aside simply because of that would be a grave mistake, because Hive Mind is one of the most purely fun party games you can buy.

Designed by industry legend Richard Garfield (the guy who designed Magic: The Gathering, perhaps you’ve heard of it), Hive Mind is a ridiculously simple party game that can be explained by simply saying this: it’s reverse Scattergories. On your turn, you pick a card from a box and pick one of the six prompts it has (or even create your own if you’re feeling adventurous). These prompts are things like “Name 5 rides you’d find at an amusement park” or “Name 3 things that are red” or “Name 10 reasons why Boar & Arrow is your favorite board game blogger”. After the prompt is given, players write their answers and then, one by one, share what they’ve written. So, using the “Name 3 things that are red” prompt, I might write ‘firetruck’, ‘Elmo’, and ‘bricks’. As I say these answers, anyone who matches with me announces (read: shout excitedly and obnoxiously) that they have the same answer and people get points based on how many others they matched with. Whoever has the least matches gets knocked down a level in a big beehive (there’s a bee theme to this game, by the way, so I’ll try and fit my ‘beeconomy’ joke in here somewhere), and a new round is played until someone is kicked out of the hive.

The fun in this comes from the loud, raucous conversations that these prompts and answers ignite. Going back to the example prompt I gave, I say firetruck and the entire table cheers that they match except for one person, who puts their head in their hands and groans, moaning, “How did I not think of firetrucks.” But then I get to ‘bricks’ and nobody matches on that so I complain for two straight minutes about how on earth can you not say bricks, things are literally described as ‘brick red’, come on! All of this with slightly more cursing, of course, this blog is trying to stay in the PG to PG-13 range. Then it goes onto the next person, which starts a brand-new batch of groans and high fives. It’s an incredibly social game, one where you want to agree with people which is a delightful change of pace from many social board games.

Hive Mind has easily been one of the most successful games with non-gamers for me. It’s sooo easy to teach and the fact that most people already have played Scattergories means they have a touchstone to help them understand it even easier. It’s a favorite at holiday family functions for me, with my mom constantly asking me if I’ve “brought the bee game”. My 90+ year old grandfather, who was in the last months of his life and entering the nasty stages of dementia, was able to play this game with us and everyone had an absolute blast with it. Not to get sappy, but aren’t moments like that what board games are all about?

If you have a game group that enjoys these casual kinds of party games, it’s tough to find a better recommendation than Hive Mind.

74. Lost Cities

Lost Cities cover

My next game marks a triumphant return of Reiner Knizia, who hasn’t been seen since doing double duty in my 100-91 blog post. On that list, one of his two games that appeared was Schotten Totten, a two-player card game that involved playing cards on your side of the table in a tug of war match over different areas. My number 74 is often compared to Schotten Totten and it’s another one of Knizia’s classics. I am, of course, talking about Lost Cities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

73. Arboretum 

arboretum cover

Going from one card game that will give you a panic attack to another card game that will give you an even bigger panic attack, we’re here at number 73: Arboretum. Arboretum is a game that found life in two different editions: once published by Z-Man Games, and now published by Renegade. The Renegade version has vastly prettier art (in my opinion, of course) done by the always wonderful Beth Sobel. A game that has enough popularity to be published twice by two different publishers is usually a good sign for a game, and such is certainly the case for Arboretum.

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

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

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

Welcome to Tree Hell.

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

The 30-45 minutes you spend playing Arboretum is a white knuckled adrenaline rush, with every synapse in your brain is begging for mercy. By the time it’s all done, you’ll feel like you’ll need a cigarette. The only reason why Arboretum isn’t higher is because I just haven’t played it as much as I’d like. I wouldn’t be shocked if in 2020, this game creeps its way into my top 50.

72. World’s Fair 1893

world's fair cover

I’ve already mentioned a couple of gateway games this list with Lanterns and Carcassonne and my number 72 is perhaps the most underrated gateway game of them all. This game is World’s Fair 1893, an area control and set collection game set in, surprisingly, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

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

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

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

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

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

71. Naga Raja

nagaraja cover

We end this section of my top 100 with Naga Raja, another game I’ve already reviewed. Read that very post right here or continue reading for the Cliff Notes version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Three down, seven to go! Thanks for reading and come back in another week or so to see what makes the list in the 70-61 section!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition): 90-81

Welcome back! This is the second part of my Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition)! This means I’m tackling 90-81. If you need a recap on 100-91, click here. Otherwise, let’s get on with it!

90. Dead of Winter

dead of winter cover

Dead of Winter is a tough one for me. On the one hand, it’s given me some of the most memorable and truly cinematic moments of my board gaming career (is career the right word? Using it anyway). On the other hand, it’s got some serious flaws that have prevented me from getting it to the table lately.

Let’s deal with that icky stuff first so that we end on a high note. For one, this game is loooong. And I don’t mind long games, but this is also a game where a lot of what you’re doing is really similar. You visit locations, mill that location’s deck looking for what you want, maybe kill some zombies and rinse and repeat for 2-3 hours (make that even longer if you’re playing with the full five player count). The game’s drama comes forth in the uncertainty of whether there is a traitor or not and the infighting that should hopefully begin brewing but if you have an uneventful game where nothing triggers that sort of dissention, Dead of Winter can draaag.

Like most semi cooperatives, this is also a very fragile design. One player can torpedo the whole thing, and I’ve even experienced it happen. I played a 5 hour game of this (at the 5 players, which I would not recommend) once and it all ended with one of the players saying, “If I don’t win this, no one will” and then she proceeded to throw all the hard work we spent the entire night doing and cost us the game. You can argue that’s a player problem and not a game problem, which is valid, but I’d also argue that a player making those kinds of moves is perfectly allowed in a semi cooperative design space so we shouldn’t blame a player when they take that avenue. Her decision is even pretty thematic given the game’s post apocalypse theme. While I applaud Dead of Winter for creating a moment that we could see in a zombie movie, I’ll also point out that there’s a reason every character in those movies is miserable. Add to this that luck can WILDLY swing this game (and not in a fun way) and you can see why I have reservations about Dead of Winter.

Okay, so this is a top 100 list so maybe I should say good things about the game, eh? Despite these things I just mentioned, this game still has a place in my top 100 because it does other things very, very well. I mentioned before that the game can often create moments of infighting and mistrust and when those do occur, the game comes alive. One of the first times I played this game, there was an incredible moment where me and another player had a ten minute debate about whether or not to cast out our third member of the colony. That third member pleaded with us as we discussed his fate, and I was full of dread and guilt as we made the decision to exile him. The fact that a game was able to create such an intense, visceral moment with just bits of cardboard continues to impress me to this day.

Dead of Winter is also richly thematic and atmospheric, something that will always draw me to a game. Characters all have appropriate special abilities given their occupation before the end of the world, items make thematic sense and this is all supported by wonderfully immersive, blood drenched art. There is also the famed Crossroads system found in this game, in which players can trigger story moments based on something specific they do on their turn. While they don’t trigger as often as I’d like, when they DO it once again creates great, cinematic moments that make this game feel one of a kind.

So, yes, I have problems with Dead of Winter, but when it’s good, it’s freaking good.

89. Samurai Spirit

samurai spirit cover

The next game is a pure cooperative, this one designed by Antoine Bauza. His most famous cooperative is Ghost Stories (now reprinted as Last Bastion), but I actually think I prefer Samurai Spirit.

Samurai Spirit is a push your luck game that basically rips off the plot of Seven Samurai. You and your friends are a bunch of samurai protecting a village from bandits and you can also turn into animals. Okay, I don’t remember that scene, but I’m sure it’s in the Director’s Cut.

How you defend the village is by drawing cards from a deck of bandits and placing them on either the left or right side of your character’s player board. Placing it on the left means you’re matching up  symbols that may be present on the bandit card, which helps prevent various penalties at the end of the round. If you’re not able to match symbols or simply don’t want to, you can place it on the right which triggers a mini game of Blackjack. Every bandit has a number and when you place that card to the right of your board, you adjust a little meter by that amount. Every samurai has a number on that meter that is a ‘sweet spot’ that allows them to activate a special power but if you go beyond that you bust and you’re out of the round. So, yeah, totally Blackjack but with samurais.

Players also have the option to instead support another player and pass a token representing their passive special ability to someone else. This is at the cost of placing a facedown bandit card by the village board, which could result in the village being harmed if that bandit card is revealed to have a ‘fire’ symbol at the end of the round. This adds yet another element of push your luck, but this ability to support other players can create really cool combos between everyone at the table. It’s a cooperative game where you actually feel like you’re cooperating and that’s always a plus, yanno?

Samurai Spirit isn’t perfect, which keeps it here in the high 80s. The game can be somewhat hit or miss depending on the construction of the bandit deck. Since the bandit deck is built from a bigger supply of bandit cards that are randomly chosen, you can end up with some bandit decks that are way too hard or way too easy. This is particularly true at the lower player counts, where the deck is smaller and therefore the deck makeup could be a lot less balanced. Will you be facing Satan’s Personal Army or the bandit equivalent of The Three Stooges? It’s a toss up, and that can create either very frustrating games or very boring games.

Despite these balance concerns, when Samurai Spirit is firing on all cylinders, it’s a hidden gem of a cooperative game. Lots of fun, with just the right amount of cooperation, luck and tactics.

88. Magic Maze

magic maze cover

Let’s move onto number 88: Magic Maze, the cooperative game about fantasy characters stealing their equipment back from a mall.

Magic Maze has a couple of real unique selling points. One, it’s real time which isn’t SUPER unique but it does separate itself from a lot of other turn based co-ops. Two, you don’t control a pawn or character in this game. You control actions. I may be the guy who moves characters north and east, but you may be the character who moves them south and through portals and Jenny over there may be the one who can trigger escalators and move pawns west. The game is played out over an ever-evolving map of tiles that come out throughout the game and you need to pay attention to when it’s your turn to move a pawn and navigate this sprawling labyrinth as it spreads across your table like a fungus.

Did I mention you can’t talk? Because you can’t talk. Between this and The Mind on my last entry, I’m beginning to think I just don’t like talking to people? Anyway, you’re not allowed to communicate and direct people around unless a pawn goes to a little hourglass symbol. This helps reset the clock and allows players to talk until the next pawn is moved, in which case it goes back to pretending like everyone’s at a funeral.

There is one way to communicate and it’s hilarious. It comes in the form of a big red pawn called the “Do Something” pawn and it is a hellish invention. When you see somebody blankly staring at the board when they’re OBVIOUSLY supposed to move the dwarf pawn down to the next tile, you simply pick up the “Do Something” pawn and start smacking it down in front of them like a gavel to get their attention. If you’re a jackass, at least. You could just set it down in front of them politely, but where’s the fun in that? Watch with delight as your friend frantically darts their eyes around the board, wondering why you’re going to town on the “Do Something” pawn like the world’s most coked up judge.

All these rules combine to make one of the most manic, fun gaming experiences you can ask for. Magic Maze is easily one of my favorite games to bring out to new people, watching their eyes light up as they realize they’re about to experience something they’ve never had before. And then watch that amazement and wonder turn to pure hatred and fury as you’re slamming the “Do Something” pawn in front of them.

Magic Maze would be higher if it was a little bit deeper. The game offers a wide range of scenarios and extra rules as you get longer and longer into the game, but most of them are kind of ‘meh’. The best scenarios are definitely the first three or four, where the game is much more basic. I hear the expansion fixes some of this, but I unfortunately don’t have it. Despite this, it’s still a solid entry on my top 100 and I never have anything less than a blast when playing this game.

87. Kreus

kreus cover

Kreus is definitely one of the more obscure and underrated games on this list. It is yet another cooperative game with limited communication, which leads me to believe this top 100 may have just been an excuse to confess my issues with communicating with people.

ANYWAY, MOVING ON.

Kreus is a game where you and your fellow players are gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, trying to create a planet because you’re bored or something. I’m dreading having to explain it and the rules beyond that, because this is a surprisingly tricky game to explain despite how simple it is. The first four or five times I taught this game, I managed to miss a rule every time and somehow it was always a DIFFERENT rule. Very embarrassing. So strap in!

(takes deep gulp of air)

In Kreus, the planet you and your teammates are trying to make is represented by a flowchart. The flowchart is made up of features of the planet, like mountains, river, fish, flowers, etc., as well as the Elements that make up those features. The Elements are just different colored orbs. A deck of cards that contain these features and elements is completely dealt out to the players. Then, round by round you and everyone else are going to try and make the planet according to the flowchart, starting from the top and working your way on down until you’re able to cap it off with the “Planet” card, which is the cherry on top of this cosmic sundae. The actual gameplay is playing cards simultaneously and face down. Starting with the first player, you reveal and place your card into the flowchart you’re trying to make, as long as its legal. If it’s not legal (as in you played an element that isn’t needed for the played features or you played a feature that doesn’t have its prerequisites built yet), the card is discarded and your margin of error get that much thinner.

(long exhale)

Okay, so that’s a sort of okay description. The trick in this game is, as I mentioned, the lack of communication. Obviously if this game allowed you to just freely discuss the contents of your hands, you would be able to find the perfect order to play your cards. Having restrictions on that makes this a tense puzzle of reading your players moves and making your best guess of what they played so YOU know what to play. You can spend gems to activate special actions that help alleviate the restrictions, like showing a card to another player or exchanging cards, but even that comes with some sense of reading between the lines (“why the hell did they show me a fish”).

This game is very reminiscent of The Mind, in that you’re trying to play cards in a certain order without being able to actually discuss it. The Mind is more based from a social perspective however, while Kreus is more seeded in trying to game the system. Based on what’s in your hand, versus what has already been played, versus what special abilities other players have triggered that round, you can make your best assessment on what you need to play. When you and your teammates manage to play the correct sequence of cards without a single word spoken? That’s the kinda magical moment that keeps Kreus on my top 100.

86. Monikers

monikers cover

Monikers is a game that is based on a public domain game that has several different names: Fishbowl, The Hat Game and Celebrity are a few of the names given to the DIY versions you play with your friends, while people in the hobby will recognize Time’s Up as an officially published version of the game system. So, you could technically put any of those versions here at my 86 spot but Monikers is the version of this game that I own and have played endless hours of, so that’s the one I’m putting on my list.

Monikers/Fishbowl/The Hat Game/Celebrity/Time’s Up is a game where two (or more) teams are trying to guess more words and phrases than the other team(s). These words and phrases are on cards that make up a unique deck for that game. On your team’s turn, a clue giver is trying to give clues to lead your team to guessing whatever is on that card. Pretty standard party game stuff, so far. But there are two unique twists that make this game as memorable and funny as it is.

The first twist is that the game is played over three rounds and each round narrows the amount of stuff the clue giver can say and give to their team in order to guess the word. First round is easy: the clue giver can say whatever they want as long as it isn’t part of the word or phrase itself. Second round is tougher: in this round, the clue giver can only give ONE word to lead their team to winning the card. Third round is madness: only charades/silent gestures can be used to get your team to guess the card.

Which of course leads me to the second twist that makes this game system so brilliant. During these three rounds, the SAME deck of cards is being used. This means players have to remember from previous rounds what words have been guessed and use that to their advantage as the clues get vaguer and more stupid as the game goes on

The end result is a hilarious game where inside jokes and callbacks run rampant. As you get deeper and deeper into the game, your brain latches onto references from previous rounds, creating a cacophony of laughter whenever they pop back up. This leads to situations like in a recent game for me, where somebody pantomiming a fire breathing dragon led to someone (correctly) shouting, “BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.” Another saw a friend of mine running to block a door with his back, fear and panic on his face in order to get across the word “Hodor”. Perhaps my favorite of all is a very simple moment when my friend gave a serene, welcoming gesture with his hands and face which got me to correctly guess, “Richard Attenborough”.

It’s these little moments that pepper a night of Monikers that make it such a fun, hysterical experience. There’s not much else to add, so I’ll close with my favorite Monikers story. One night, I introduced it to three friends and we were playing 2 v. 2 for an hour or so. Another friend came in during the third round of a game and saw us guessing extremely specific prompts off of fairly basic charades gestures. She stood there dumbfounded, not realizing it wasn’t normal Charades, and just softly said, “how did you guys do that.”

If you like party games or often find yourself playing games in big groups, it’s tough to go wrong with Monikers. Just be prepared for the entire night to go by without realizing it.

85. Claim

Claim cover

2019 brought a lot of big life events for me. I moved in with a girlfriend for the first time, I was asked to be my best friend’s best man in his wedding, I got my first ever paid freelance writing job. But these are all dwarfed by one realization I made in 2019. And that realization is: I really like trick taking games.

Now, I don’t want to be too broad here. I still don’t care for your standard, ‘old fashioned’ trick taking games like Euchre or Bridge. Things that you would play in the kitchen of your grandparents’ house/apartment need not apply here. But when a trick taking game takes that basic premise of playing suited cards and trying to win tricks mixes that up with some other mechanism or clever twist? I discovered in 2019, that I adore those kinds of games. The first game of this type is Claim, a two-player trick taking game about trying to win factions in a goofy, medieval fantasy world.

There are a lot of cool little twists that make Claim so unique and clever. The first is the round structure. Claim is played over two rounds, where the first round is spent winning cards that will then form your hand in the second round. This itself is brilliant, but then when you add in the faction abilities, Claim somehow gets even better. You see, the suits in Claim are different factions/ fantasy races. You have things like Knights, Goblins, Dwarves, etc. These factions all have a specific ability that activates at certain times. For example, a Knight card will always beat a Goblin card, even if the Goblin card has a higher value. Then there’s the shape shifting Dopplegangers, which act as wild cards and can allow you to play them instead of the led suit. These abilities add an extra layer to an already delicious parfait of subtle strategy and quick, satisfying card play.

Add to this some incredible art by The Miko, who is easily one of my top 3 favorite artists in board games, and you’ve got an amazingly charming card game that you’ll want to play again and again.

84. Take 5

take 5 cover

Also known as 6 Nimmt!, Take 5 is an incredibly clever and chaotic card game that can be taught to just about anyone.  In the game, you and the other players are simultaneously playing cards face down and then revealing, watching as they get sucked into an ever growing display of cards, hoping they latch onto a spot that doesn’t result in you taking any cards from said display. This is one of those games where taking cards means taking points and points = bad.

The display of cards is made up of four rows, all of which have a maximum card capacity of five. When you play a card from your hand, starting with the lowest number played, you must then place that card at the last spot of one of the rows following these two rules: rows must be in ascending value AND you must place your card next to the card it’s closest in value to. So, if I play a 28 and the four rows end in a 57, 83, 17 and 26, I would place my card next to the 28.

But what happens when you can’t place a card down? What if your card is lower than the ends of all the rows? As a penalty, you take a row of your choice and replace it with the card you played. Sounds awful, BUT it’s not as bad as the other thing that might happen. Remember when I said each row only has a max capacity of five cards? Yeah, this game is called Take 5 for a reason. If you play a card that would end up being the 6th card in that row, you’re forced to take ALL five cards in that row, leaving behind the card you played to start a new row as a shameful reminder of your folly.

Thus creates a wild, raucous experience of pushing your luck and playing the odds, hoping that you can dodge sucking up any cards like an over eager vacuum cleaner. Every card you play feels like a coin you’re dropping into a slot machine, with the revelation of everyone’s cards acting like the pull of the lever as you desperately hope to see that nobody interfered with your plans. When things go well, you breathe a sigh of relief as you harmlessly place your card into its rightful spot, your muscles relaxing as you live to see another day. But when something you didn’t predict does happen, and you’re stuck putting your card at the end of a truly nasty row? It’s a hilarious exercise in futility, as you watch helplessly as your card slides into spot as if being drawn in by a tractor beam that you can’t control. Then, like a rogue Mento falling into a bottle of Diet Coke, the row explodes and ends up in your lap as the entire table laughs and high fives.

It’s tense, it’s exciting, it’s hilarious. Yes, it sucks when you get stuck with a bunch of cards with high point values (represented by bull horns for some reason), but this is a rare game where failing can be as fun as succeeding. This is mostly because EVERYBODY is suffering at the table, as volleys of groaning and cursing go back and forth in an exercise I can only call Misery Tennis. But while everybody else is groaning, you’re laughing and when YOU’RE groaning, they’re laughing. After all, this I just a small 30 minute card game, not some sort of 3 hour Euro. Best to not take it too seriously and enjoy it, even if you just had a stratospherically bad round.

Take 5 is one of the most recent additions to my collection (thanks to an amazing review by Shut Up and Sit Down) and the fact that it has already broken onto my top 100 shows all you need to know about it. I can definitely see this game being even higher come 2020.

83. Celestia

celestia cover

I may have mentioned it on my previous list (jesus, two entries in and they’re already starting to blend together, please help), but if I haven’t then allow me to say it now: I effing love push your luck. In fact, it is my favorite board game mechanism. As such, when a game is centered on that mechanism, I’m inclined to like it. It’s no surprise, then, that Celestia finds itself on my top 100.

Celestia is a push your luck game in the style of Incan Gold, where you and a group are pressing forward on an increasingly dangerous path, and the crux of the game is deciding whether to stay and take guaranteed points or to stay juuust a bit longer to squeeze out a bit more. While Incan Gold has you going through a fairly generic temple setting, Celestia has you travelling on a steampunk style airship, making pit stops in a vibrant Wonderland-esque cul-de-sac of floating cities.

Celestia is played over a series of ‘journeys’, which involve moving from city to city. At each city, a new captain takes over making this either the most fair, egalitarian group of air travelers ever assembled or the most indecisive. Whoever the captain is must roll a certain number of threat dice, the number of which gradually increases throughout the journey. These threat dice might be rolled to a blank side, which reveals no threat (awesome!), or show some sort of threat icon (booo!). The threats involve things like ‘Sky Pirates’, ‘Lightning’ or ‘A Whole Shit Ton of Birds’. The captain must beat these threats by playing cards from their hand which have a matching icon. If the captain does, congratulations! Onward to the next floating city that definitely isn’t just an LSD hallucination! However, if the captain CAN’T play cards to beat the threats? Well. Hope your family took out a nice life insurance policy, because that airship is going DOWN.

The key here is that before the Captain reveals whether or not they can defeat the threats and safely fly everyone to the next city, every other player gets to decide whether to stay with their fearless leader or parachute on down to the current city tile the ship is on, grabbing a victory point card from the city. Victory points increase down the path, which entices people to stay on board but the chance of getting NO points can scare even the most stronghearted explorer. After all, you know what they say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the flaming airship wreckage.

While players decide whether or not to drop out, the Captain can say whether or not they have the cards to beat the dice. The fun part is, they can tell the truth or bend it to their advantage. This extra bit of bluffing is what makes Celestia sing, and it creates lots of table talk and negotiation as people try to figure out what to do. Every game I see alliances form, with two or three people becoming each other’s Ride or Die, always jumping ship at the same time or sticking together during even the darkest of times. It’s hilarious when one of these alliances goes deep down the journey’s path, managing to snag a high point victory card from one of the final cities as everyone else bitterly mumbles under their breath. It’s even funnier when an alliance foolishly crashes together, making one wonder if Kool Aid is one of the in flight refreshments.

Like many push your luck games, Celestia is full of laugh out loud and stand up moments. Add in the extra social dynamic of bluffing and table talk, and you have an easy top 100 entry for me.

82. Mysterium

mysterium cover

Ohh, Mysterium. I have such conflicted feelings about you, you beautiful bastard. Mysterium is a cooperative party(ish) game where one player is a ghost who has been murdered and the rest of the players are trying to figure out the who, where and how of said murder. The ghost does this by giving cards with surreal, dream like illustrations on them to try and point the other players to pictures of suspects, locations and weapons.

It’s easily become one of the most popular gateway games in the hobby over the past handful of years and it was one of my favorites upon first becoming a board gamer. I do have conflicted feelings about it, however, and I simultaneously think the 82 spot is too low AND too high for this game.

Let’s start with the negative: this game is a bear to set up. This is ostensibly a party game, which means you’ll be playing it in, you guessed it, party type settings. The problem is, party games should take no longer than five minutes to set up and play and even that is pushing it a bit. I can’t count how many times I’ve been setting up Mysterium with a big group of people watching me expectantly, as I apologize profusely for taking so long to set up as I rummage through the box like it’s a crate of Legos, looking for the exact right piece. There’s lots of shuffling, randomly picking cards, finding duplicates of all those cards, shuffling and randomly picking again based on each player in the game, then getting everything set up in the exact right area, and more and more and more. What’s worse, a lot of what’s being set up is the secret information for the ghost which means nobody else can really help them out. This results in scenarios like mentioned above, with most of the group staring blankly at one person as they clumsily sort through cards like the world’s least prepared amateur magician. I have decided against bringing Mysterium to many parties because I dread that cumbersome and long set up time.

Another big minus for it is that despite this game’s fairly simple rules overhead (person plays a card which other players then have to link with another card), there are some real fiddly bits that can grind the game down, ESPECIALLY with the end game. I HATE the final round of this game. I won’t go into the gritty details of it, but the last round, assuming your group makes it there, has this real contrived, convoluted set up and pay off that never fails to feel like the game has fallen flat on its face. If there was ever a second edition of this game which smoothed out the end game and streamlined set up (WITHOUT app assistance, that’s cheating), Mysterium would probably be in my top 50 games, not just my top 100.

Phew. Okay. Now that I’m done railing against this game, let’s talk about why it is in my top 100! That’d probably be helpful.

Despite its rough edges, Mysterium still sits on my top 100 because I love the rest of the game so damn much. I love its theme and concept. It’s unique and immersive and the rule where the ghost can’t talk and can only communicate via knocking on the table is one of my favorite rules ever. The art is astounding. And I’m not just talking about the dream like vision cards the ghost is doling out for clues. I mean the art representing the suspects, the parts of the mansion, and the weapons is fantastic as well. It has this somewhat dark, Victorian era tone to it that perfectly fits the theme and further helps to make this one of the most atmospheric games you can play. And speaking of playing the game: that’s amazing too! I am very much a right brained individual, so games that focus on creativity and imagination (usually a staple of party games) are right in my wheelhouse. I love being the ghost and trying to figure out how to link the cards in my hand with the cards I need to get the other players to guess. As the paranormal investigator, I love trying to get inside the ghost’s head and to spot connections among the visions I’ve been given. All of these things combine to make a truly special gaming experience, even with the loud complaints I logged against it.

So, yeah. As you can tell, I have mixed feelings on Mysterium. It might be the most flawed game on this list, but the fact that it’s on here tells you all you need to know.

81. Circle the Wagons

circle the wagons cover

Loyal readers of this blog know I love me some Button Shy. Button Shy is a game publisher that’s been making a ton of waves in the industry lately, thanks to their portable wallet games. They’re appropriately named since they literally come in a little wallet. Besides the unique packaging, these games also have another trademark: they’re all comprised of only 18 cards. These microgames often pack a big punch despite their diminutive size and I’ve reviewed Stew, Sprawlopolis, Tussie Mussie and Seasons of Rice over the past year in an effort to showcase how awesome this publisher is.

Yet here we are at number 81 with a Button Shy game I HAVEN’T reviewed yet, something I quite regret because it’s one of my favorites from the company. Circle the Wagons is a two player tile laying game (played with cards) where both players are competing to make the best frontier town. Cards involve symbols of various Wild West tropes, like six shooters, bottles of moonshine and forts. These icons are laid on top of various land types, such as mountains, plains and deserts. The goal is to take these cards and puzzle them together in such a way that you earn the most points, combining points given from your biggest contiguous areas of each land type AND points from three random public scoring objectives.

This is all pretty typical tile laying stuff, so what separates Circle the Wagons from the rest? That lies in its brilliant drafting mechanism. Taking its name quite literally, you take all the cards available in the game and put them in a giant circle. Players then take turns drafting the cards they want to use from the circle starting with the first available card. BUT you have a choice: take that first available card for free OR jump ahead in the circular queue to grab something that might seem a little more beneficial for your landscape. The catch being, all the cards you skipped? They go straight to your opponent.

With this simple but incredibly clever system, Circle the Wagons becomes a superbly tactical experience that has you sweating every decision, despite the fact that it’s a mere 18 cards. Do you jump ahead to take that card that fits perfectly in your landscape, knowing you’re giving your opponent a ton of stuff for free? Or do you play conservatively, tip toeing down the circle, daring your opponent to be the first to jump ahead and play the part of a Wild West Santa Claus? It’s tight, it’s addictive and at just around ten minutes per play, it’s incredibly quick. Like many of the microgames and fillers I’ll have on this list, it’s one you’ll easily find yourself playing repeatedly in the same sitting, the board game equivalent of a bag of potato chips. If you’re new to Button Shy and are looking for a starting point, Circle the Wagons is as good as any.

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That’s another one in the books, folks! Thanks for joining and check back in a week or so for 80-71!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 100-91

Hello there! And (*extreme John Hammond voice) ‘Welcome to my Top 100 Games of all Time!’ (*end extreme John Hammond voice*)

If you took a mosey on through my blog, you’ll notice my most recent post was announcing that I have been ranking my 100 favorite games so that I could post them over the course of the next couple months right here on the blog. I’m sure you thought it was a bluff and that there was no way I’d ever go through with it and so did I. But here we are! My parents will be so proud, FINALLY.

I’m gonna get to the games ASAP, but just a few bits of housekeeping. As most content creators do when they make a list of this type, I’ll be doling it out in sections of ten games, starting with 100-91. I’m sure this goes without saying, but these are MY favorite games and not necessarily what I’m saying are the BEST games. These are just the games I’ve grown to love over the past few years, particularly in 2019. It’s insane how many games there are that I truly, truly love and it’s sad how many had to miss the cut. It’s also worth noting just how fluid a lot of this list is. A game in the 90s today could easily see itself in the 50s next week based on a great play or two. That’s how close a lot of these games are for me. So, if you’re wondering how certain decisions are made, or why ‘x’ game is ahead of ‘y’ game, you are completely in agreement with me. I mentioned in that earlier blog post that I held tortoise races to decide close ties and that probably wasn’t smart because the authorities came to collect all my tortoises shortly after that post went live. Not only is it incredibly lonely now, but I had to actually THINK and DECIDE what games were better than others. Sigh.

With all that in mind, let’s start the list!

100. The Mind

the mind cover

 

One thing you’ll notice on this list is that I really enjoy cooperative games that have limited communication between players. I really enjoy trying to cooperate with teammates through intuition and subtext rather than having some Alpha gamer directing my pawn around the board like they’re an air traffic controller. So, it is no surprise that I love The Mind, a game where the most important rule is that you literally cannot talk to each other.

The Mind was a bit of a sensation when it came out last year, being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (the ostensible Game of the Year award) and putting wunderkind designer Wolfgang Warsch on the map. The rules are so simple, I thought I misread them the first time I saw them. The Mind is comprised of a deck of cards number 1-100, and a certain number of cards are dealt to each player each round. Then, the group must simply play their cards in ascending order with no mistakes. The catch? You cannot communicate in any way. No talking, no gesturing, no subtle wagging of an eyebrow. You somehow need to play your cards strictly by reading the room and getting into a rhythm.

If this sounds bonkers, it’s because it is. Trying to get into a cadence with your friends simply by existing in the same space feels as much like an Orwellian sociological experiment as it does a game, but it produces some truly memorable moments. When you and two other people lay down a ‘27’, a ’29’, and a ‘30’ in quick succession, it’s magical. When your friend plays an 84 after a 62 with barely any time in between, the whole table will groan and curse at them. Every time I play this game a new great gaming memory is created and isn’t that what board games are all about (this is the part where the studio audience goes, “awwwww”)?

On a personal level, one thing I’ve been impressed with is how my love for The Mind increases with each play. When I first played it, I enjoyed it but had a feeling that the novelty would fade after repeated plays. The exact opposite has happened. Every time I play it, I love The Mind a little bit more.

And as someone who has spent most of his life in awkward silences, it’s tough to find a game more fitting for me than The Mind.

99. GoodCritters

goodcritters cover

I haven’t played many pure negotiation games, but I may need to change that if GoodCritters is any indication. GoodCritters, which is a retheme and reimplementation of a game called Tiefe Taschen, casts players as anthropomorphic animals in the Mafia trying to divvy up the loot after a heist. I dunno if there is a Venn diagram out there representing people who are both furries and fans of Scorsese movies, but boy would they like this theme! Loot cards come in different denominations, and every round a player takes the role of the Boss and takes a certain number of those loot cards and splits them up however they see fit. This is the part where everybody starts arguing with each other.

After everyone is done swearing, players play action cards which allow them to either approve the deal or reject the deal, which could result in the Boss being ousted. BUT there are also action cards which let you skim off the top of the loot deck or even rob another player. Playing one of these action cards mean you’re essentially abstaining from the vote which could have implications over the exchange of power.

The ruleset is incredibly open, which means a lot of the heavy lifting has to be done by the players and the various metas they create. This means that if you have a group of shy, sheepish players who are going to try and be nice and fair, Goodcritters maaaay fall flat. BUT if you have a group who is willing to form petty alliances and be mean to each other for little to no reason, congratulations! You may be terrible people, but you’ll have a good time with this game!

The first time I played this game, we played three games of it back to back to back. Over those games, hilarious moments and storylines formed that I still chuckle about. This is far from the deepest experience, but any game that can create such laugh out loud stories is worthy of a top 100 spot in my book.

98. Notre Dame

notre dame cover

After starting with two somewhat light games, let’s wade a bit into the deeper part of the pool. My number 98 is a mid-weight Euro by Stefan Feld called Notre Dame. Explaining Notre Dame feels like I’m running down a Stefan Feld Design Checklist. Mid weight, dry Euro? Check. Setting is Medieval Europe? Check. Point salad? Check. A looming threat you need to keep at bay, lest you take a penalty? Check. Lots of browns and a somewhat dull look? Check. Those of you playing Stefan Feld Bingo at home likely have most your card filled by now, I wager.

Notre Dame is a heavily card driven game set in Medieval Paris where players control districts surrounding the titular cathedral. Every round, players draft a hand of three cards and then spend two of them to complete certain actions. Majority of the actions involve placing a cube into specific boroughs of your district and then completing the action associated with that borough. The cool thing is that the strength of the action is often determined by the amount of cubes already present. For example, if you place a cube at the bank, you get one coin. But when you place a SECOND cube there, you get two coins and it keeps going up from there. It reminds me of a sort of tighter version of Architects of the West Kingdom, a worker placement game that featured a similar ‘your actions get more powerful with each piece you have at that spot’ gameplay loop.

This creates an interesting decision space where you’re constantly wrestling with the fact that you need to do a little bit of everything vs. the fact that focusing on just two or three boroughs is a more efficient, powerful use of your cubes. Further complicating this is the ever-present plague, something that activates at the end of each round and will wreak havoc on your game if you let it get out of control. I had a friend in one game who flippantly said, “I’m not gonna worry about the plague” and then he proceeded to lose by a mile. Turns out being a grimy slumlord DOESN’T pay. You HAVE to take actions against the plague which means it takes away from actions you could spend bettering your engine and collecting more resources. It’s an agonizing balancing act and creates a richly tactical experience.

I have only played a few of Feld’s designs, but Notre Dame definitely makes me want to play more. And I know I was being a bit of a dick earlier about the color scheme and art, but I actually find the somewhat bland art style in this game charming.

It’s a little tricky for me to get to the table since most of my friends find it too dry, but I think Notre Dame is a joy to play and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of old school Euro.

97. Condottiere

condottiere cover

Anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will immediately recognize Condottiere as something familiar…this game is basically Gwent. Now before you start overloading the comment section (lol, someone commenting on one of my posts, that’s funny), I am well aware Condottiere came out before Gwent and that Gwent was inspired by this rather than the other way around. I’m just saying it so people have a touchstone. As someone who put hundreds of hours into The Witcher 3 and having roughly half that play time consumed obsessively with Gwent, Condottiere feels like spending time with an old friend who has a slightly different haircut from the last time I saw them (‘Hey Gramps…uh…nice mohawk’).

In Condottiere, players are vying over control of 13th century Italy with the end goal being to either control 3 adjacent territories on the board or simply controlling 5 in all. These territories are won by playing battles, which is where the Gwent similarities start to pile up. Players are playing cards from their hands, most of which are soldiers with values attached to them. Ultimately, by the time the battle ends you want your little battle line of cards to have the highest value so that you can claim the territory with one of your cubes.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There are a handful of special cards that spice things up like Grandma’s marinara. There are drummers which double the value of your battle line, there’s a Bishop who destroys every copy of the highest valued soldier (what a cranky old man), there’s even a card that ends the battle abruptly, resulting in hilarious moments where someone wins a territory with one dude holding a crossbow in their line.

At its core, Condottiere is a tense game of hand management. You’re constantly debating whether you want to spend your best cards and really commit to winning that territory, or if you just want to retreat and save your hand for another day. In a clever rule, if you’re the only person with solider cards in your hand in between battles, the round actually ends and you have to discard your whole hand, thus meaning hoarding till everyone else is depleted won’t work. When you throw in some politicking with your friends, the game REALLY comes alive. The last game I played of this was an absolute blast, and a lot of that had to do with the constant fragile alliances being made and immediately being broken as people were selfishly trying to win each territory for themselves.

If there is a main gripe I have with this game that keeps it from being higher on the list, it’s that you can really be boned by a bad hand of cards in this game. I usually don’t mind luck of the draw, but in this game it stings a lot more for some reason. Probably because there isn’t much of a way to mitigate a bad hand and since you’re stuck with it for an entire round, it can be deflating to watch battle after battle being lost. I once drew a hand that was essentially a high school marching band, with nothing but drummers and very few soldiers and it was not fun.

Outside of this unfortunate luck of the draw, Condottiere is a fantastic card game that seems to get even better with each play.

96. Herbaceous

herbaceous cover

Perhaps the most charming and relaxing game on my list, Herbaceous is a lovely little push your luck game about collecting and potting herbs. If you were ever looking for a Hobbit Simulator, this might just be it.

Herbaceous’ gameplay is incredibly smooth and simple. There is a deck of cards made up of different types of herbs, like dill, bay, and Herbert Hoover (just kidding). On your turn you draw two cards from the deck and you need to put one in your private garden (a card stockpile only you have access to) and one into the public garden (a card stockpile that EVERYONE has access to). The catch? You draw these cards one at a time, meaning you must decide what to do with the first before ever seeing what the second one might be. Sure, that tarragon looks awfully tasty, but if you put that in your private garden, what if one of the rarer cards, like chives, shows up? Then it’ll be available for just ANYONE to grab, and nothing irks me more than my friends getting chives that belong to ME.

Further adding to this press your luck mechanic is the set collection mechanism that powers the scoring in the game. You have four different pots in front of you to collect sets of herbs and they all have different set categories. One pot only takes sets of identical herbs, while one only takes sets of pairs and another requires a set of unique herbs. Once you pot a set of herbs into one of those containers, it’s locked down for the rest of the game. Making things even worse, this decision needs to be made BEFORE you draw cards, meaning you must decide before knowing what kind of herbs you could potentially add to your sets-in-progress. Herbs haven’t been this tense since…well…ever.

What I love about Herbaceous is that despite the tension that comes from the push your luck mechanisms, it never feels too stressful. As I mentioned before, this is a very relaxing game. The fact that the art is beautifully done by Beth Sobel, one of the industry’s best artists, further adds to this game’s zen like charm.

Another quick point in Herbaceous’ favor is that it’s got a pretty good solo mode. I have been doing a lot of solo gaming over the past year, so I’m always on that lookout for a good solitaire variant. While I certainly wouldn’t buy this game SOLELY because of this mode, it’s good enough to burn 10-15 minutes and to keep this game always in the back of my mind.

Also: there is a bonus point card that is called The Biscuit and it’s literally just a picture of a biscuit on a plate and oh man does that never fail to make me smile.

95. Ex Libris

ex libris cover

There are going to be a lot of games on this list where I’m going to say, “This game would probably be a bit higher if it got to the table more often” and Ex Libris is one of those games. Ex Libris had a lot of hype when it was first released and it’s gone somewhat quiet since then, which is a shame because this game’s pretty damn good.

Ex Libris is a game that is set in a magical fantasy world, but instead of slaying goblins or diving into dungeons for treasure, you’re setting up a library. Yep, hope you’ve brushed up on the Dewey Decimal system lately!

It’s easy to raise a sarcastic eyebrow and go, “Libraries? Seriously? What, is this Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Overdue Book?” but the theme is one of the best things about this game. If you want a game about mindlessly killing orcs and dragons, go to Kickstarter and take your pick from the hundreds available. But how many games let you build a fantasy library??

How you build this library is through a fusion worker placement and tile laying. On your turn, you place a worker down on one of a constantly rotating batch of locations, and the actions you do help you with gaining cards or laying down cards. The cards feature the spines of books (all uniquely named!) as well as symbols pertaining to the genres of those books. The building of library involves putting these cards down in a tile laying style puzzle, trying to collect certain symbols while taking care to keep things in alphabetical order.

I will admit, I am much more fond of the tile laying aspect than the worker placement part of the game. Puzzling out where to put books in your library can be excruciating. Do you really want to jump from B to F? What if some ‘D’ or ‘E’ books come into your hand? You’re always pushing your luck against the clock. If you’re too conservative and barely build your library, other players can rush to the end and leave you with a library half their size. But play too cavalier and you may lock yourself out of good options that come down the line.

I love this puzzle so much that I wonder if maybe this game wouldn’t have benefited from being stripped down and turned into strictly a card game, where the only mechanic was tile laying. BUT, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love about the worker placement chunk of the game. For one, everybody has a special worker who is some sort of fantasy archetype, like a wizard or witch or trash golem (huh?). Not only are these special workers adorable custom meeples, but whenever you place them on a spot they activate a special, often thematic power. The aforementioned wizard can use his magic to slide his book shelves around, giving him versatility in the construction of his library. Meanwhile, the Gelatinous Cube swallows and takes cards from any players foolish enough to share a location with it. I definitely sense there may be some balance issues as some powers seem waaay more useful than others, but that doesn’t bother me too much. It can be used as a handicap for players who aren’t able to grok the game as easily as others.

The other unique aspect of the worker placement portion of Ex Libris is a bit more of a double-edged sword. In this game, the worker placement spots are not a static selection of actions. Instead, they are location tiles that are constantly getting swapped in and out, meaning every game is going to have a fresh and somewhat chaotic feel to it. On the one hand, this is great. I love how each location feels thematic and the art that goes along with it, oozing personality with each tile. But what I don’t love is having to learn and relearn these locations throughout the game. If you play this consistently, it’s probably not an issue. But as someone who doesn’t get this game to the table nearly as often as I’d like, it can be a bit daunting for new players and it’s honestly one of the reasons why I sometimes hesitate to pull it out. Again, this makes me wonder if a straight up card game version of Ex Libris wouldn’t have been a smarter move.

Despite those complaints, there’s a reason why this game is still on my top 100. It’s got a great central puzzle, its whimsical art and theme burst with charm and personality, and it too has a very enjoyable solo mode. Give it a shot, I feel like this game has unfairly been lost to the annals of time (read: 2018, which is definitely the annals of time in board game years).

94. Schotten Totten

schotten totten cover

I love a good two player card game, especially if they’re packed with tough, tense decisions. If you do as well, look no further than Schotten Totten. Designed by game design great Reiner Knizia, this game has also been published under the name Battle Line. While Battle Line carried a Carthaginian ancient warfare theme, Schotten Totten is about Scottish clans trying to increase their territory by passive aggressively kicking boundary stones back and forth. They are ostensibly the same game, but I will take Schotten Totten’s theme over Battle Line’s any day and the difference in production values between Iello’s Schotten Totten and GMT’s Battle Line is laughable. One has humor and personality and vibrant colors (Schotten Totten) and the other (Battle Line) has art and graphic design that looks like it was made in Print Shop ‘95.

Schotten Totten is classic Knizia in its simplicity to depth ratio. On your turn, you play a card and you draw a card. When you play a card, you’re playing it to one of the many stones that divide your side of the board from your opponents. You’re basically trying to make 3 card poker hands on your side that beat the hands on your opponent’s side. And that’s it!

And from this simple seed blossoms a beautifully tense flower of a game. You and your opponent are in a constant game of Chicken over the stones. Commit to only a few stones and you show your hand too quickly, allowing your opponent to zig while you zag. But play to too many stones too early and you’ll wear yourself thin, not allowing you any escape valves when you realize a hand may be lost. You’ve got to balance keeping your options open with forming strong foundations and this is both scream inducing and addicting.

There’s not much else to say about Schotten Totten. The fact that it’s been around as long as it has in two different versions is all you need to know.

93. The Quest for El Dorado

el dorado cover

Hey, look who’s back! It’s Reiner Knizia again! That’s cool, he’s fun.

Whereas Schotten Totten is one of Knizia’s stalwart classics that has stood the test of time, El Dorado is a much more recent offering from the Good Doctor. That doesn’t make it any less respectable and it is in fact widely considered one of his best games in years. El Dorado is Knizia’s foray into deckbuilding and it makes you hope that he returns to the genre soon. He seamlessly blends deckbuilding with a race element that creates a super fun experience.

In The Quest for El Dorado, you are an explorer trying to make it to the fabled lost city of gold, El Dorado which seems fitting because El Dorado is the only damn place explorers seem to be going in board games. Like most deckbuilders, everyone starts with an identical deck of cards. These cards represent your movement abilities as well as some gold which aid in buying new cards for your deck. Green cards let you use machetes to slice your way through green spaces while blue cards feature paddles allowing you to move through blue spaces. Gold cards double as movement cards to move through yellow spaces (which are villages, so apparently you’re just bribing the indigenous people??) as well being the most efficient cards to use when buying new ones. On your turn, you have a hand of four cards which you can use to move your meeple along the (highly modular) map or buy new cards and then it’s the next player’s turn.

This brings me to the first thing I love about this game, and that’s just how silky smooth and quick this game is. Turns are brisk affairs and using a good hand of movement cards to march ahead of the pack never fails to feel satisfying. This satisfaction is multiplied tenfold when you pull out one of your big cards that you recently added to your deck which lets you machete your way through jungle thicket like a human shaped lawn mower.

Don’t mistake this simplicity and speed for shallow. There are still plenty of great choices to make and building your deck feels like a constant tactical exercise in preparing for what you need while ditching cards that you don’t. Since the maps are modular and full of variance, there will be times when you see stretches of certain types of spaces. See lots of blue? Load up on paddles like the world’s most paranoid sailor. See lots of green ahead? Grab so many machetes that your deck looks like the garage in the Voorhees household. And when you see the landscape changing again? The game offers campsites which allow you to ditch cards from your deck. Payers find themselves hauling ass over there to ditch their paddles or machetes into the campfire to make room for better stuff. It’s like you’re cooking a pot of soup and changing the spices on a constant basis to fit the tastes of the guests coming in and out of the kitchen.

Deckbuilding is one of my favorite genres and The Quest for El Dorado is one of my favorites to feature the mechanism. This is another game, like Ex Libris, that could easily find itself higher if I just had more time to play it. I definitely want to get it to the table again soon, and I would suggest you think of doing the same.

92. Dead Men Tell No Tales

dead men tell no tales cover

I feel like there are two breeds of cooperative games: puzzle-y co-ops and limited communication co-ops. I already mentioned my love for limited communication co-ops in my description of The Mind. But puzzle-y co-ops, in the vein of Pandemic or the Forbidden series of games? I have been starting to get burnt out on them. Those were the types of games that I pretty much exclusively played when getting into the hobby and I loved them then, but my desire to play that style of cooperative game has decreased with each passing month. BUT there are still games in that style that I greatly enjoy and will not mind playing no matter the mood. Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of those games.

DMTNT is a game where you and your band of fellow pirates are boarding a ship you just scuttled to loot your hard earned treasure. The trouble? The ship is burning (I mean, you should have seen that coming) and also populated with skeletons and ornery treasure guards. You need to work together to keep the fires at bay while constantly prepping for combat so that when you come across one of those aforementioned treasure guards, you can ask them nicely for their treasure (with your sword).

Let’s be honest, this game is a tad derivative. It’s a game where you spend action points to keep things on the board from getting out of control lest they spread to other parts of the board and cause a chain reaction that makes an untenable situation. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s basically Pandemic: But With Pirates. But that’s okay! I love pirates (it’s my favorite board game theme!) and the game adds a ton of thematic touches which help separate it from Pandemic: you have a combat meter which you’re constantly trying to keep at a healthy state in case you need to fight some fools; there are items you can use and swap with your teammates to adapt to new situations and problems; there’s a cool tile laying mechanism where you are basically building out the ship as you play; there’s rum.

These little thematic flourishes can sometimes bog down the game with edge cases and constantly checking the rules, but it’s worth it when you consider how much it adds to the atmosphere and cinematic nature. I already said pirates is my favorite theme in board games and this game absolutely revels in that theme. As such, no matter how much I cool on cooperatives of this nature, I have a feeling DMTNT will be a fixture in my top 100 for quite a bit longer.

91. Coloretto

coloretto cover

Small card games are going to pop up a lot on this list, so prepare thyselves. I already had Herbaceous and now I’m rounding out this portion of the list with Coloretto. Like Herbaceous, Coloretto is a set collection game driven by a push your luck mechanism. The deck of cards is comprised of different colored chameleons and you’re trying to collect certain colors by game’s end.

On your turn, you can either draw a card and add it to one of the stacks of cards being formed in front of the players OR take one of the stacks of cards and essentially bow out for the rest of the round. Each stack (the number of which differs based on player count) can only hold three cards so options get pretty tight fairly quickly. There’s a constant tension of trying to figure out when it’s time to get a stack and get out or to push things juuuust a bit longer to either make a stack that much sweeter for yourself or to maybe sabotage a stack that was looking good for your opponent.

The reason why there will be stacks of differing quality for the different players is the way Coloretto scores. You don’t simply score your sets of different colors, getting points for having as many chameleons as possible. Where would the game in that be? No, instead Coloretto has a devilishly clever system in which you only score positive points for THREE of the sets you collected and the rest net you negative points. And suddenly, that little rule transforms Coloretto into a peaceful game of trying to collect lots of cute little chameleons into a ruthless, cutthroat experience.

As you draw cards from the deck, you’re constantly aware of what colors your opponents want so that you can sully any potential piles that have those colors. Oh, you’re working on blue? And you’re eyeing up that stack of two blues? It’d be a shame if I put this purple chameleon there and OOPS, I JUST DID, GUESS YOU’RE WORKING ON PURPLE NOW TOO.

What I love about the bloodthirsty nature of this game is just how passive aggressive it feels. You’re just calmly adding a card to a stack and you hear groans erupt from another player. You play coy and be all, “Oh, sorry, were you gonna take that? Huh. Sorry” as you laugh uproariously on the inside. Of course, when it happens to you, it’ll fill you with an eruption of rage as you see your friend lackadaisically ruins the stack you wanted while very purposely avoiding eye contact despite the smirk on their face.

It’s a tense and thoughtful game despite its small package and short length. It’s without a doubt a game that you’ll play three or four times in one sitting and I have yet to get tired of its subtle but wicked tactics.

*

 

And that’s it! 100-91! Wow. That was a much longer trip than I expected. I really hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and ramblings on these games, and invite you to join in next week for 90-81!

WARNING: A TOP 100 GAMES LIST IS COMING.

“Hey Kyle, where have you been?” is something I’ve never heard before in my life. But if you HAD said that, then allow me to answer you!

As anyone can see, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here on Boar & Arrow. My last review was for the wonderful Tricky Tides on September 16th. Then I went off the grid. Why? Is it because I spent way too much time laying on my couch, watching YouTube and drinking craft beer? Absolutely! BUT I also had other things taking my attention. I spent a good portion of October teaching myself how to use Microsoft Publisher so I could use it to make a newsletter for a freelance writing gig I have. While I’m sure many can use Publisher in their sleep (it really isn’t that hard a program to use), it still took a good deal of energy for me to learn and use, so I was in no mood to do any other writing at the time.

But there’s another reason why I’ve been dormant. You see, as a hobby board gamer I am legally obligated to do certain things. I am forced to own a Kallax, I have a framed picture of Tom Vasel hanging above my bed AND every year I must do a ranking of my top 100 favorite board games. The last one is the important one because over the past few weeks, I have been compiling and ranking my favorite games!

The end goal? To complete a top 100 games feature that will posted over the next 10ish weeks right here on the blog. The posts will be the different entries, comprised of 10 games each. So the first post will be 100-91, then the second will be 90-81 and so on. And this will lead all the way up to my number 1 favorite board game of all time. This will be my 2019 edition of the list and I would really love to make this an annual thing, where I update it towards the end of the year. This will likely bleed over into the first few weeks of 2020, which is a little awkward but hey, it still counts.

I would really like to get my 100-91 post up by the end of this week, but it will DEFINITELY be up by next week if not. In my enduring genius, it just so happens I have chosen to pick the holiday season to post these things, when internet traffic is usually at its lowest point. But it wouldn’t be a Boar & Arrow blog post without terrible decisions.

I am really excited for this, though. I did a top 100 last year for my own personal enjoyment and doing it this year was an even better experience. I have played a lot of new games since that last top 100, so I feel like this year’s list is far deeper in how much I love these games. I had a devil of a time picking which games to go where, and I honestly still have a couple that I’m pondering where to put. When in doubt, I’ve simply printed out pictures of the games, taped them to the back of a tortoise’s shell and had tortoise races to determine winners. Inhumane? Probably. Effective? Not really. But it’s been fun to watch.

And with that cheerful note, I will end this post and humbly ask that you keep an eye on this blog over the next two months or so. I imagine this won’t be as easy as I’m expecting, as nothing ever is, but it should be a fun ride nonetheless. See ya there!

Tricky Tides Review

Tricky Tides Review

I’ve had an interesting relationship with trick taking games over my first four years in the hobby. Though unlike most of my relationships, which decay and wither away into shriveled husks of bitterness and resentment over enough time, this one actually improved!

You see, when I first discovered the idea of a trick taking game, my mind was filled with boring looking card games played with a standard 52 card deck. Games that you’d play as a kid with your grandparents to pass the time because they had no clue what a Sega Genesis was. As I played so many new hobby games, experiencing cool mechanics like worker placement and deck building for the first time, the last thing I wanted to do was play a game that was just playing cards, like I was some kind of peasant.

Turns out, I was a moron. Actually, I am a moron, but that’s besides the point. The key here is that I’ve grown to love trick taking games and it’s because I actually went ahead and played some of them. Who’d have thought that experiencing something instead of making uninformed judgments is actually fairly beneficial??

To be fair, I am still wary of playing straight, no frills trick taking games. What I like in my trick taking games are unique twists or cool themes, something that makes them pop when put up against their normal run of the mill card game grandparents, like Pinochle or Hearts. While Pinochle and Hearts are wasting away in their retirement homes, I’m playing hip, young games like The Fox in the Forest and Tournament at Camelot. The Fox in the Forest is a sublime 2 player only trick taking game that is driven by a unique scoring mechanism that makes every card played a nail biting affair. Meanwhile, Tournament at Camelot takes trick taking and turns it into an Arthurian slugfest, like Super Smash Bros meets Medieval Times. It’s a raucous game that revels in chaos thanks to game breaking special powers.

But while those games are amazing, let’s discuss another trick taking game. I’m talking about the star of this very review: Tricky Tides. Designed by Steve Aramini (he of Sprawlopolis and Circle the Wagons fame) and published by Gold Seal Games, Tricky Tides is a game of seafaring merchants in the Age of Sail, trying to make the most gold by delivering goods to certain islands to fulfill rewarding contracts. Players sail around a grid of island cards which all have a certain number of good cubes splayed out on it them. It takes the long standing mechanic of trick taking and combines it with…(checks notes)….pick up and deliver?? Yep, pick up and deliver. And guess what? Not only does it work, but the end result is my favorite trick taking game I’ve ever played.

Before I go into why I love Tricky Tides so much, I should probably describe trick taking to all the normal people out there who don’t have BoardGameGeek set as their internet browser’s home page. Trick taking is a mechanic/type of game whereby cards are played in rounds called ‘tricks’. Generally, the cards are suited and a major hook of trick taking is that when the lead player plays a certain suit, you MUST play a card of the same suit, assuming you have it present in your hand.

The trick taking aspect of Tricky Tides is mostly as described: rounds are played through a series of tricks in which one person plays a card and the other players must follow suit if able. To fall in line with the game’s maritime theme, the suits are various sea monsters. There’s the octopus, whale, shark and…sea dragon? I missed that day in marine biology class, I guess. Anyway, the suits offer the first wrinkle in Tricky Tides devilishly clever design. You see, in Tricky Tides the player who plays the highest on suit card wins the trick, as in pretty much every trick taking game ever, but the person who plays the lowest on suit card gets to trigger a special ability. What’s cooler? These special abilities are the sea monsters themselves.

That’s right, if you ever had the fantasy of being a shark, hoisting yourself on land to eat some tobacco or spice (and let’s face it, who hasn’t), then Tricky Tides is about to fulfill your saltwater drenched dreams. The sea monsters which represent the suits aren’t just there for some old timey nautical window dressing, like some pathetic pirate statue standing outside a novelty restaurant on a New Jersey boardwalk. No, the monsters are actually on the board, represented by little cardboard figures as they roam around, manipulating goods to the whims of the players, like they’re mischievous little elves reorganizing your cupboards or whatever the hell elves do. The player who plays the lowest on suit card gets to activate the sea monster of the suit played, moving them to an adjacent island and firing off their power.

The powers all involve the goods on the islands, which are represented by different colored cubes and play a big part in the pick up and delivery aspect of the game (which I’ll get to in a bit). The shark gobbles up a cube of the island it’s on, transporting it to your own ship through some sort of nautical blood magic that I have no interest in delving into any further. The sea dragon uses its magic breath to transform one type of cube on an island into an entirely different type of cube. Really wishing I had been in marine biology class that day, that thing sounds badass. Meanwhile, the octopus uses its tentacles to either grab a cube from an adjacent island or throw a cube to an adjacent island. Finally, the whale sneezes and blows three cubes out of its blowhole, adding them in a straight line to the islands of the player’s choice. As a bonus, the whale looks incredibly stoned while doing this.

Tricky tides whale
“Like, hey man, you got any snacks? I am like suuuuuuper jonesin’ for some pork rinds, man.”

This extra little twist to the trick taking formula feels like a fresh ocean breeze sprinkling a mist into my face. A good trick taking game offers tough hand management choices, forcing you to decide when to use your best cards or when to throw away your low cards and surrender the trick. In Tricky Tides, that hand management is made all the tougher by the tantalizing prospect of controlling sea monsters like Poseidon running a puppet show. Suddenly, these low cards in your hand aren’t just useless flotsam to toss overboard. They have actual use and you’re going to want to make the most of them. Quite often I saw players throw down low cards, expecting to get control of the sea monster only to have it robbed of them by someone playing something even lower, causing the winner of the trick to win with little effort as everyone else basically used their lowest cards for no good reason. In this game, you’re tying to constantly balance winning tricks and activating the sea monsters so that you have the most control over the board state.

What’s so important about winning tricks, you ask? Well to answer that, I need to get to the other big mechanic in Tricky Tides: pick up and deliver.

To those unaware of pick up and deliver, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You pick up things and deliver them. If that sounds a lot like Errands: The Board Game, well, I can’t argue that it’s not the most thrilling sounding thing in the world. People see board gamers and think we’re taking on the roles of knights or warriors or space marines and turns out we’re often just glorified Fed Ex drivers. BUT when done right, pick up and deliver can be just as much fun and satisfying as any other mechanic in board games.

In Tricky Tides, the pick up and deliver comes from going around to islands, picking up cubes and then spending them at other islands to fulfill contracts. The brilliant thing about the game is that how you move is dictated by the card you played in the trick. The cards don’t just have suits on them; they also have a compass. The compass emblazoned in the center of the card has certain directions highlighted which shows you in what direction you can move that turn. Turn order, however, is dictated by who won the trick. Winner of the trick goes first, then the person who played the next highest card then next highest and so on. This means the person who wins the trick gets first dibs on the goods and contracts within their movement range and that can be a HUGE advantage. The amount of times I had a contract or batch of goods sniped out from under me had me cursing like a sailor, which is just another wonderful thematic touch that this game was able to provide me and my game group.

The importance of going first and trying to move in certain directions further enhances that hand management I was talking about. Now you’re not just worried about suit and value like in other trick taking games; now you need to think about how the card is going to make you move. There are times where you really need to get to a certain island for a contract, but you only have one card in your hand that’s pointing in that island’s direction and it’s a card on the lower end value wise. Knowing you will probably be lower in turn order means the chance of having that contract removed by the time you’re supposed to set sail makes you think twice about playing the card. But then again, maybe if it’s a low enough card you can get control of the sea monster and use that to your advantage. Or maybe you just forgo that contract and use a better, higher value card to get somewhere else earlier than the others and try and get some points that way. You are constantly checking your hand, the goods you have, and the contracts you can potentially grab while making sure to pay attention to where your opponents are and what they can potentially grab as well. It is in this way that the Frankenstein fusion of trick taking and pick up and deliver shines. It creates multiple layers of tactics, often subtle but incredibly rich and rewarding.

So the gameplay is an engrossing blend of crafty hand management and efficient movement, but I’ll finish off by saying one of the really BIG things I love about this game is the aesthetics and art. As mentioned more than a few times, the game is set in the Age of Sail and as such sports a very 1600s nautical look. The art, done by Naomi Ferrall, perfectly complements the salty sea dog feel of this game. Her style has an old-fashioned sketchbook look to it, thanks to an art technique known as ‘stippling’ (yep, I had to look that up too). The end result means it’s like you’re looking at illustrations ripped straight from a sailor’s journal. It’s not only beautiful but immersive and I really can’t say enough about it. As someone who has a huge soft spot for anything maritime or nautical, especially of that time period, I am obsessed with how this game looks. It’s so authentic looking, I burst into sea shanties the moment it hits the table.

Tricky TIdes board
“Okay, I’ll be green. Kyle, what color-” “OH THE YEAR WAS 1778, HOW I WISH I WAS IN SHERBROOKE NOW.”

I’ll end this review by repeating what I said in the beginning. Tricky Tides is my new favorite trick taking game. In a market where trick taking games are seeing a bit of a resurgence, that is quite the feat. Its innovative gameplay and gorgeous art combine to make a captivating package that you should definitely check out.