Tag: card games

Similo Review

Similo Review

QUICK.

Who is more similar to Abraham Lincoln: Julius Caesar or Mary Shelley?

Probably Caesar, right? Makes sense…they’re two historic leaders infamously assassinated.

Okay, what if it was Sitting Bull and Catherine the Great I was asking you to compare to Lincoln? Is it Sitting Bull, because he lived in the same general time period and was a part of American history? Or is it Catherine the Great, another leader known for being a central figure in a civil war?

STILL think you got it figured out?? All right, hot shot. What if I asked you this…who is more similar to Abraham Lincoln: Pinocchio or Captain Hook?

Such are the questions and conundrums that tickle the brain in Similo, a new-ish cooperative game from design team Hjalmar Hach, Pierluca Zizzi and Martino Chiacchiera and publisher Horrible Guild. I often describe it as a mix between Mysterium and Guess Who and, while I know that the mention of a mass market game like Guess Who would cause many ‘gamers’ to shriek like a vampire seeing a fresh order of garlic knots, trust me. This game is good.

In this game a clue giver will be given a secret character card that they must get their teammates to pick out from a grid of 11 others. They’ll try to achieve this over the course of five rounds by giving very simple clues. Each round, they’ll play one character card from a hand they’ve been dealt.

similo grid
I guess all these figures are from the point in history before smiles were invented.

When they play this character, they’ll put them either vertical or horizontal; if the character is vertical, it means that character is SIMILAR to their secret character and if it’s horizontal, it means they are DIFFERENT. So, going back to the Abraham Lincoln example I kicked off with, I might play King Tut vertically because I’m trying to link the fact that they were both leaders or they were both dudes or both. Conversely, I may play Pinocchio horizontally because Lincoln is not a wooden puppet.

lincoln and beethoven
In this case, I played Beethoven vertically because both he and Lincoln look like they just got done watching the final season of Game of Thrones.

After the clue is given, the other players must eliminate a set number of characters who they don’t think is the secret character from the grid. In the first round, it’s easy. You only need to remove one character. BUT in round two, it’s two and then three in round three, four in round four, until in round five the guessers need to choose between the two remaining. If at any point the guessers eliminate the clue giver’s secret character, it’s game over and everyone loses.

This system of escalating elimination creates a brilliant game arc. Each round is more suspenseful than the last, the tension rising and swelling like a bag of microwave popcorn. It also creates an interesting sense of balance, where your information increases as your choices and margin of error shrink. With each successive round, the debate between the guessers gets fiercer and more personal, as each player seems to latch onto a character that they are POSITIVE is the secret character. It’s both hilarious and mortifying as the clue giver to see your teammates second guessing each other like they’re the cast of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The characters being used depends on the themed deck of cards you are using. You can’t go out and buy a game simply called “Similo”; Similo is more of a game system, supported by different themed packs of cards. The examples I’ve mostly used are from the Similo History pack which is, funnily enough, historical figures (though it does have a notable absence of Black figures which is unfortunate and glaring). In addition to Similo History, there is also Similo Fables wherein in the characters are all from fairy tales (which is where I got the Pinocchio and Captain Hook examples from).

Those are the two I own, but a Similo Myths has just been released and of course I’ve already ordered it, don’t be silly, I’m a board gamer and buying things without question is what we do. According to some forum posts on BGG, there’s also a Similo Animals on the horizon which will be…animals? Is that right? Hold on, lemme check.

Yep, it’s animals! Just literal animals. Cool, I’ll take three copies please.

Awesomely, you can combine these different versions of Similo. When I heard this, I assumed you just shuffled all the cards together to form a gigantic deck but, as ANOTHER painful example of why I’m not a clever game designer, that isn’t how it works. How it DOES work is you make the grid and assign the secret character from one of the decks and then you use the other deck to form your hand of clue cards, which, again, is where I got the Lincoln and Pinocchio comparisons from. So, you’ll have hysterical situations where you need to get your team to guess Napoleon with a hand of cards that’s half made up of the cast of Alice in Wonderland. It makes the game immensely replayable since you can continually jump from using packs just by themselves to mixing and matching the different packs as you see fit.

Because of this, the future is bright for this Similo system. Imagine a world in which they can wrangle in some IPs. I would LOVE a Similo Marvel or Similo Harry Potter or Similo Lord of the Rings. Seeing all these beloved and popular characters in the charming art style that adorns Similio’s character cards would be a treat, in addition to making sure the game is constantly fresh. It would be like how there are a dozen different editions of Codenames, except in this case people would actually want to buy them.

In the board game industry, cooperative board games with limited communication are becoming a dime a dozen. Games like The Crew, The Mind and Just One have implanted themselves in the minds of gamers like stubborn radio jingles and are some of the hobby’s most popular games in the past few years. I myself LOVE these types of games and I find it hard to go back to the old-fashioned Pandemic style co-ops where it’s perfect information and discussion can be hijacked by ‘alpha gamers’.

BUT despite the creeping saturation of this subgenre, Similio still manages to stand out as fresh and fun. Sure, it uses things we’ve seen before, but it does so in such a distilled, pure and simple form that it can’t help but excite me every time it hits the table. It scales well (though I probably wouldn’t want to play this with a group bigger than, say, 5 or so) and it’s so quick that you can pass the deck between players so that everyone gets a chance to be clue giver.

It’s been my latest cooperative obsession and considering the competition it faces in the hobby, that is high praise indeed. I give it five frowning Saladins out of five.

Kyle Hanley’s Top 10 Solo Games

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

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

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

RIGHT!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Orchard

Orchard cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Crystallo

Crystallo cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden

cabbagehead's cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Raiders of the North Sea

Raiders of the North Sea cover

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

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

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

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

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

6. Paper Tales

Paper Tales cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viva Java Dice cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

arkham horror the card game cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Aerion

Aerion cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective 

SHCD cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will not win.

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

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

Speaking of immersion, that’s the next thing I’ll discuss. I talked about how good Arkham Horror: The Card Game was at drawing me into its world and SHCD is no different. When I’m playing SHCD, I’m transported to Victorian London. I can feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, the choking smog in the air and the taste of a jet-black stout at the local tavern. Okay, maybe that last one is just the beer I’m drinking in the real world, but you get my point. The act of taking down notes throughout the investigation further immerses me into my role as a Victorian era detective, as I jot down leads and attempt to draw connections between them. As someone who really likes the whole Victorian London era and aesthetic, this is endlessly entertaining to me.

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

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

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

Speaking of which….

1. Viticulture: Essential Edition

viticulture cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone, But Not Forgotten: Games That Left My Top 100 (2019 Edition)

Last month, I finished a long (some would say TOO long) project on my blog: my top 100 board games of all time. I started it around towards the end of 2019 and didn’t finish it until March of this year. Perhaps a little embarrassing, especially since I had the year 2019 emblazoned in the title of every post for it. Despite how long it took, I still had a blast doing it and I’m already looking forward to getting a new top 100 together for later this year. It is in the contract of all board game content creators, after all.

However, like anybody with deep seeded abandonment issues, I’m not ready to say bye. I figured I’d do one more bit of content related to my top 100 before I had to actually get creative and think of something else to do. Welcome to Gone but Not Forgotten!

(Which in hindsight, is maybe a pretty depressing title to choose considering the literal pandemic strangling the world at press time.)

In this post, I’m going to highlight games that were on my Top 100 Games of All Time from 2018 but fell out of it by the time I did my 2019 top 100 (which was the one I just featured on my blog). I’m going to describe why it was jettisoned and see if there’s any hope that it may return.

I’m not going to do every single game that left my top 100 because there’s actually a decent number of them and I don’t want this to go on for too long (something I struggled with during my top 100 posts). So, I’m cherry picking the ones that either surprised me the most with their absence and/or had the biggest falls from grace. Let’s get started!

Insider

Insider cover

Previous Ranking: 95

Insider is a social deduction game from beloved Japanese publisher Oink Games. I featured one game from Oink on my 2019 top 100 and that was the fantastic Fake Artist Goes to New York. While Fake Artist is a hidden traitor game meets Pictionary, Insider is a hidden traitor game meets Twenty Questions.

Insider fell from my top 100 for a couple reasons. The biggest one is that it’s in a very crowded social deduction genre. This works against it in a couple ways. One, it’s a genre that feels incredibly same-y from game to game, so once you latch onto a couple of favorites (for me it’s Spyfall, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong and aforementioned Fake Artist) it’s tough to convince yourself to deviate from those. Case in point: I played Insider a few months before making my top 100 and the entire time I was playing it I was thinking, “This is fun, but I’d rather be playing Spyfall/Deception/Fake Artist.”

This is further exacerbated by the fact that social deduction games don’t hit the table that often for me. It is by far the most polarizing genre of games within my game groups. I have multiple friends who flat out refuse to play social deduction games which means if they’re present at game night, none of those games are an option. So, when I finally DO get a chance to pull out a social deduction game, I’m going to make sure it’s one of my favorites and not one that is a tier or two below. Such is the cruel fate beset onto Insider.

Will Insider ever find its way back onto my top 100? I highly doubt it. The reasons I just mentioned for its exclusion are not going anywhere and it’s made even worse by my recent acquisition of Detective Club. Detective Club is a newer social deduction game that focuses on Dixit style cards and clues and it has rocketed up to the top of the list of my favorite social deduction games, along with the other heavyweights I mentioned earlier. An already restrictive field got just that much tighter for Insider, which means its days on my top 100, and possibly in my collection, are over.

Hanabi

hanabi cover

Previous Ranking: 94

Immediately following Insider on my 2018 list was Hanabi. Hanabi is a pretty popular cooperative game in the hobby and it was one of the first games to ever enter my collection. Loyal readers of my 2019 Top 100 may already have a good idea of why Hanabi was booted out: Beyond Baker Street.

Beyond Baker Street is a game that made it into the 60s of my 2019 top 100 and is basically Hanabi, but better. For one, it has a theme I appreciate much more (Sherlock Holmes vs. near sighted mole-people putting together a fireworks display). Two, it has an actual win state whereas Hanabi has what is essentially a high score variant. Listen, I’m not plugging quarters into a Frogger machine at the local arcade; keep your high score chart out of my board games. This fact alone makes Beyond Baker Street the better option for me.

I go into more detail about why I think Beyond Baker Street kills Hanabi in this part of my top 100, so I won’t bother repeating myself. Ultimately though, I can’t remember the last time I’ve played Hanabi since I added Beyond Baker Street to my collection. Because of that, I’d be shocked if Hanabi ever found its way back into my top 100. I respect the brilliance and elegance of its design, which is one of the reasons it’s still in my collection, but it just can’t compete with Beyond Baker Street for actual table time.

Muse

Muse cover

Previous Ranking: 91

Muse is a party game that flew under a lot of radars, despite being part of the immensely popular “Games that have surreal, Dixit style art” category. In this game, two teams are trying to give clues to their teammates in an attempt to get them to guess a specific picture.

The catch: the opposite team not only chooses the picture but also the type of clue the player can give. Clue prompts range from broad (“Name a movie”) to hilariously specific (“Name an appliance/furnishing”). Your opponents are not just trying to pick an awkward, cumbersome clue prompt for you to deal with but also try to pick a picture that collides with the other pictures that will be in the display, making it that much tougher for your teammates to pluck out the one you’re nudging them towards.

I actually really like Muse. I love the concept and I’ve had a good time with it in the few plays I’ve had. The problem: I appear to be the only one in my game group that feels this way.

A common complaint is downtime, which I will admit is enough of a problem that we instituted timers. Since so much of the game is one team quietly whispering to each other as they look at cards and deliberate while the other waits, it can feel like you’re rarely even playing the game. I felt the timer we established did a good job of mitigating this flaw, but even with that the other players seemed to find it to be a ‘meh’ experience.

Considering this is a party game that requires at least four people, that makes it very tough to get to the table. I’ve given up on it and I have this on my ‘sell’ pile. Therefore, unless there are some abrupt, radical changes in opinions on this game among my friends, Muse will likely never return to my top 100.

Concept

Concept cover

Previous Ranking: 89

It’s funny that Concept follows Muse on this list. Whereas Muse is a game I love but my friends didn’t, Concept is the opposite. My friends are crazy about it and it’s one of the most requested party games in my collection. Buuuut, I’m not so jazzed about it anymore.

Now obviously, I like Concept. It was on my top 100 at some point, after all. The problem with Concept is one of burn out.

Concept is a simple game that’s basically Charades, but with pictures. A large board of icons representing certain concepts is used, with clue givers placing out different colored cubes and tokens on the icons to try and get their team to guess what the prompt is. Now, when I first bought Concept, it got played constantly. It was brought out at almost every single game night for a couple months in a row, to the point that I was starting to memorize the prompts. As it traveled from game group to game group, I found myself biting my tongue when somebody started a prompt and I knew what it was by the second cube simply from overplaying the game.

This obviously resulted in me just having less and less desire to play the game. I would sometimes even ‘forget’ to bring the game because I simply wasn’t in the mood to play it. Even casting burnout aside, I also feel the game has some major balance issues. Prompts are either way too easy (‘bubblegum’) or way too hard (‘the way to hell is paved with good intentions’) and the points doled out for them often make no sense for their difficulty.

Funnily enough, I recently got Concept back to the table a couple times over the past few months, ending a long hiatus from the game. The arc was similar to my initial experiences. I went from loving it, not believing I had waited that long to play the game again, to frustration and fatigue. For this reason, I’d be surprised if Concept came back to the top 100. Though I suppose it’s a matter of at what point in my love/hate cycle for this game you find me in.

Oh My Goods!

oh my goods cover

Previous Ranking: 75

Oh My Goods! is an Alexander Pfister design that takes a mere deck of cards and turns it into a satisfying engine builder of crafting supply lines and chaining them together for big points. It’s interesting that Oh My Goods! fell off my list, because at the time I ranked this game in 2018 I hadn’t even played it multiplayer yet. The game managed to get onto my top 100 off the good graces of its solo campaign alone. Fast forward a year and I’ve had the chance to play OMG with actual other humans a handful of times. So is OMG that bad a multiplayer game, that it managed to sink it off the list despite strong impressions from my solo plays??

The answer is sort of yes and sort of no. On the one hand, a big reason OMG is off my list is because I had played soooo many more games between my 2018 and my 2019 top 100 that a lot of games got kicked off just because I had the chance to have so many new experiences. What was ‘great’ in 2018 might seem merely ‘good’ in 2019 after being compared to so many fantastic new games. This is one thing that kept OMG off my top 100. Even though I do like it, it just couldn’t compare with the deluge of excellent games I had the chance to try in between rankings.

BUT on the other hand there is one other niggling issue that kept OMG off my top 100 that it is indeed a flaw with the game that became apparent in multiplayer sessions. This game has a slooooow start. It says 30 minutes on the box, but that’s a lie. Every game I’ve played of this has been at least an hour. And I would say for the first 30 minutes, a.k.a. the time it takes the play the game according to its deceitful packaging, you’re simply building the engine that you’ll run in the second half of the game.

That second half is great. When you’re able to pull the lever on your machine a couple times and watch as cards conveyor down the line of your tableau, getting more and more valuable the farther they go? It’s incredibly gratifying and I’d even argue this is the most satisfying engine builder I’ve ever played from that standpoint. But getting there can be a slog. Constructing the buildings you need to make your engine feels like it can take forever in the early stages, especially if card draws are not kind to you. This isn’t as much an issue in the solo game but in the multiplayer game, it definitely drags.

For those reasons, Oh My Goods! fell off my top 100 and is certainly my least favorite Pfister design. It’s still a good game, but not one that I hold in nearly as high esteem as his other classics.

Captain Sonar

Captain Sonar cover

Previous Ranking: 70

In terms of uniquely visceral, cinematic experiences, I don’t think I’ve played a game quite like Captain Sonar. It’s a real time, team vs. team game of rival submarines trying to sink the other. It’s meant to be an 8-player game, with the two teams boasting four players each and each person having their own specialized, individual job on the sub.

There’s the Captain, who moves the sub around on a grid; the Engineer who is playing a mini puzzle of efficiently crossing out symbols in a spiderweb like network; the Radio Operator who is listening to the other team’s Captain in an attempt to suss out where the enemy sub is; and the First Mate who is…filling up meters? Hey, not all of them can be badass.

It’s a fast paced, frenetic duel of wits, with teammates yelling down the line to each other, torpedoes and bombs exploding, and a hilarious mini game of every player having to initial a part of the sub when it’s time for repairs, making it feel like you’re accepting a FedEx package on a plane that’s careening to the ground. No game will get your pulse pounding like this and by the end of the intense 30-45 minute skirmish, everyone slumps down and pants like they’re in need of a post coital cigarette.

So why on earth did this game fall off the top 100? Well, let’s see. I bought this game at the end of 2017 and the last time I’ve played it was…roughly the end of 2017. This game is borderline impossible to get to the table. As I mentioned, this game plays up to 8 and it honestly is best at 8. You can play with less but you’re not getting the full experience and even then, you’ll need at least 6 to render the game truly playable. This basically locks it down to only playable at parties and guess what: this is NOT a party game. The same people you primarily play Codenames and Just One with are absolutely not going to be ready for Captain Sonar. This is a game with four different jobs which means four different rule sets which is on top of the overall rules that form the framework of the game. The last time I tried to teach this game I had people gaping at me with slack-jawed, open mouths like I had just sacrificed a live goat in front of them. I mean, I had done that, but that was HOURS before the game.

You need experienced, serious gamers to play this game and I can’t remember the last time I had a game day with four ‘gamers’, let alone six to eight. For this reason, Captain Sonar is on my tentative list of games to sell which is likely also a one-way ticket off my top 100 for good.

Coup

Coup cover

Previous Ranking: 68

I love me a good microgame and Coup, a hidden role bluffing game set in a dystopic future, was one of my favorites for a while. I first tried Coup and Love Letter both around the same time, which is fitting since those are probably the two most popular microgames in the hobby. Dedicated readers of my 2019 top 100 will notice, however, that Love Letter is still on my top 100 and Coup is nowhere to be found. What gives?

Quite simply, the more I have played Coup, the more I grew weary of it. It feels very same-y from game to game and bluffing doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding as it does in, say, Skull or Cockroach Poker. In fact, it seems like bluffing is the surest way to get eliminated early, with honest players winning more often than not. I’ll make a bold claim and say that is a pretty big flaw for a BLUFFING game.

There are also many situations, especially in the late game, where players seem like they’re going through the motions, inching along to amass enough coins to eliminate another player. When it’s down to two players, it’s often mathematically clear who is going to win which robs all the suspense and tension out of the game.

Listen, I still like Coup. While I would never suggest playing it anymore, I won’t turn it down if someone else wants to play it. It’s also created some real great gaming memories of daring bluffs resulting in the table erupting in surprise and excitement. But I just don’t think it’s top 100 material anymore, especially with so many excellent new microgames that have outshined and supplanted Coup.

Viral

Viral cover

Previous Ranking: 65

This is perhaps the saddest one for me. I LOVE Viral. It’s an area control game set in the human body, with players controlling armies of viruses that are attempting to control the various organs. Definitely not the best theme for a game in the current times we live in BUT when the world isn’t battling a historic pandemic, it’s such a unique, great theme. It’s also got incredible art from The Miko, one of my favorite artists in the industry, giving it a highly stylized, cartoonish look that instills heaps of charm and personality.

I also love the gameplay itself. It’s got a cool card driven system where players simultaneously play action cards and region cards, meaning you’re trying to figure where best to use your actions while trying to predict what the other players will do so that they can’t interfere with the plans. It has got a vague whiff of programming, which feels fresh in an area control setting.

So, between its theme, art and great gameplay, how the hell did this miss my top 100? Well let’s be fair and say that Viral just baaarely missed it. If I did a top 125, Viral would definitely be somewhere on that list. Like many games that either fell in my rankings or off my top 100, Viral is simply a casualty of not getting played enough. I haven’t played it since, like, the Spring of 2018 and it’s tough to keep a game so highly ranked if you can’t get it to the table. This is something that’s compounded by the sheer number of new games I played between lists.

It’s not from a lack of desire to play, at least on my part. It’s just a tough game to get to the table because you need at least 3 players (there’s a 2 player variant but it sounds awful) and mean, area control games such as Viral are, like social deduction games, incredibly polarizing among my game groups. Anything that involves negative player interaction eliminates a handful of potential players, making it that much tougher to get Viral played.

I think out of all the games on this list, Viral has the best chance of making a triumphant return to my top 100. I really do love the game, I just need to play the damn thing.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Freedom cover

Previous Ranking: 58

This is one that really shocked me. As I was compiling my top 100, I kept wondering when Freedom would show up. And yet, every time I thought Freedom might appear, I just couldn’t talk myself into putting it anywhere on the list.

This is surprising because in terms of sheer design, Freedom is one of the tightest, most well-crafted cooperative games I’ve ever played. And I’ve played a LOT of cooperative games. It’s also a beautifully made package, featuring immersive art and use of real-life photos and portraits to further steep the game in its volatile time period.

The problem with Freedom, and it’s an issue I’ve become more and more aware of the more I play the game, is that it’s not…very…fun? As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the title, this is a game set in the period of slavery in the United States, covering a span of years up through the Civil War. It’s an incredibly dark and harrowing period of history, one that the game deftly handles with respect and care. But as such, it’s tough to get excited playing this game. It’s a melancholy experience that feels almost overwhelmingly stressful from beginning to end. I can’t think of a co-op that puts a knot in my stomach on turn one that doesn’t uncoil till the game is back in the box.

On the one hand, the fact that a game is able to provide this kind of physical and emotional response is a huge credit to its designer and publisher and provides a great piece of evidence supporting the ‘Yes!’ side of the “Are board games art?” debate. On the other, it doesn’t make for an experience I want to go back to again and again and, as such, I rarely have the desire to play this game anymore.

I doubt this game will ever leave my collection because there will be a moment in the future when I want to revisit it. As I said, from a pure game design standpoint it is top shelf quality. But I am skeptical if it will return to the top 100 due to its emotionally heavy, demanding nature.

The Resistance

The Resistance cover

Previous Ranking: 55

The Resistance is perhaps THE quintessential social deduction game in the hobby. Its clean, elegant design makes it an easy starting point for anyone new to the genre and I’ll be the first to admit that this game is genius. It’s an incredibly tense 30-45 minutes of angry accusations, traitorous backstabbing and, wow, just a whole lot of yelling.

But like Insider, The Resistance finds itself in a very crowded space and as much as I respect this game’s razor-sharp design, it also feels a lot more hollow than other games of its type. Unlike other social deduction games which give a solid framework for the arguments that drive their experiences, allowing players to point out concrete evidence to convince others of their pleas, The Resistance often comes down to who is loudest and/or most charismatic.

Sure, there is a logic puzzle underneath the surface of the game, with player decisions providing the jigsaws needed to put it together BUT so much of the information is obfuscated that it rarely feels like you can use actual, yanno, LOGIC to figure it out. It’s like if you were trying to complete a Sudoku with friends but it was torn into different pieces with everyone getting their own and you just have to rely on their word on how to complete it. This brings me back to what I was saying: rarely is a person who cracked the puzzle the winner in The Resistance. It’s whoever was loudest and most obnoxious.

Compare this to Deception: Murder in Honk Kong, which allows players to deduce information based on the cards in front of others. You can actually see evidence that can then be used to zero in on who is lying and who is likely trustworthy. Or my new favorite social deduction game Detective Club, where the players are able to once again use cards to flesh out their defenses as others question them. In The Resistance, it’s all nebulous and so often comes down to players screaming “NUH UH, I’M NOT THE BAD GUY” and “UH HUH, YES, YOU ARE THE BAD GUY” back and forth until either the end of the game or someone collapses, whichever happens first.

I’ve had some great memories playing The Resistance, but it’s ultimately a game that feels more stressful than fun and has been usurped by a handful of other games that I’d rather play. I don’t own The Resistance either, so it’s chances of ever coming back to the top 100 are pretty low.

Paperback

Paperback cover

Previous Ranking: 23

I went into detail in the 40-31 section of my most recent top 100 as to why Paperback is missing. That’s because Paperback has been replaced by its younger sibling, Hardback, a game that was not only on my top 100 but will likely remain there for the foreseeable future.

Both Paperback and Hardback are word based deckbuilders, where players are crafting a deck of cards to create words that will hopefully net them things like money, to buy better cards, and points, which win the game. I played Paperback first and absolutely loved it…but then I played Hardback and I loved it even more.

Again, I do a deep dive into why I prefer Hardback over Paperback in that section of my top 100 so I don’t want to repeat too much of it here. But if you forgot your snorkel, let’s wade through the shallow end and briefly go over a few my points.

For one, I prefer Hardback’s theme (Paperback has a modern-day, pulpy vibe while Hardback sends you to a more Dickensian era of literature). Granted, the theme is just window dressing for both BUT it drives the aesthetics of both games, so it does matter enough to warrant mentioning.

Two, Hardback institutes a system of wild cards that feels much more strategically satisfying and less restrictive. In Paperback, wild cards are specific cards that enter your deck. You just have to hope they come out to use them. In Hardback, ANY card can be a wild. All you have to do is play a letter card facedown and boom. Book that card a plane to Spring Break because that card’s gone wild. However, you lose any abilities or rewards on that card which creates an interesting decision of which cards are worth ditching for creative freedom and which ones should form the groundwork for your word. It not only means you’re not backed into a corner as often as you are in Paperback BUT it adds to the decision space! Win-win.

Three, Hardback has a superior system of drawing new cards into your hand. Paperback simply had cards that let you draw new cards when played, which is pretty standard deckbuilder fare. So, whereas Paperback’s system feels generic, Hardback’s feels unique and exciting. You use leftover crash to grab inkwells which can then be spent to draw new cards…HOWEVER, if you use an inkwell to draw a new card, that card MUST be used in your word or else you forfeit your turn. It adds a suspenseful touch of push your luck, which is my favorite board game mechanism (something I mention no less than, like, 80 times over the course of my top 100).

Finally, both Hardback and Paperback feature surprisingly enjoyable solo and cooperative modes, but Hardback kicks Paperback’s cardboard ass when it comes to this area. Paperback’s cooperative/solo modes feels a bit like an afterthought, something the designer threw in at the last minute that just happened to work pretty well while Hardback’s feel like there was actual design time put into its variant. I still prefer to play this game competitively, but when I’m all by myself (something that happens quite often), it’s great to know that Hardback’s solo mode is an option.

I know some people say Hardback and Paperback are different enough that you can own both. I slightly disagree with that and I honestly can’t see a time when I’d ever choose Paperback over Hardback. Because of that, I just decided to toss Paperback off the list for good and leave Hardback in its place, representing them both in some strange way. Paperback is a great game, no question about that, but there’s only room for one word based deckbuilder from Fowers Games around here, pardner.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories cover

Previous Ranking:  16

The last game on this list is also the one that floored me the most with its absence: Antoine Bauza’s classic co-op Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game of monks defending a village from ghouls and ghosts and unspeakable horrors, getting rid of them as you do with any supernatural threat: by rolling dice and yelling lots of curse words.

Part of what caused in Ghost Stories’ massive fall from grace is just a general change in gaming taste. When I first got into gaming, I rarely played competitive games. It was cooperative games as often as possible and they formed the keystones of my collection. As time has passed though, I have cooled on cooperative games, to the point where I vastly prefer competitive experiences. I still like co-op games, especially if they’re of a certain type (which I’ll get into) but they rarely excite me as much as they once did.

This is especially true for the type of co-op that Ghost Stories is. Ghost Stories is an open information cooperative game, where the game gives you a puzzle that you and your other players need to solve as bad things happen (usually from a deck of cards controlled by the game). I refer to these as ‘Pandemic style’ co-ops. In this case, the puzzle is trying to efficiently ward off ghosts by using special abilities and picking battles that will give you the best odds of success.

These types of co-ops just don’t do anything for me anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m burned out from playing SO many of them when I first got into the hobby, but I just find them a lot more boring than I used to. Since everyone is engaged with the same puzzle with the same information, I tend to disconnect and my mind wanders. Compare this to a limited communication co-op, a subgenre of cooperative game that I am still very much in love with. Think of games in the style of The Mind or The Grizzled, where you HAVE to be engaged because you have information other players don’t. These games kill the Pandemic style co-op for me, and this especially rings true when you consider how many fantastic limited communication co-ops have come out over the past few years.

So, Ghost Stories is already at a disadvantage based on the type of game it is. But I still had Pandemic style co-ops on my top 100 (Dead Men Tell No Tales, Spirit Island and Pandemic itself), so it has to run a bit deeper than that, right? Right you are, dear reader.

You see, I played Ghost Stories somewhat recently and I discovered a pretty fatal flaw: this game is repetitive AF (did I use ‘af’ right? Let me know in the comments). It’s basically just bouncing around the grid of tiles, firing off the same abilities over and over and rolling dice over and over. Rinse and repeat for about an hour. The first couple times you play this game, the repetition is masked by how tense and difficult the game is. As you start to learn the game a bit more and the freshness of the cinematic experience wears off, the game begins to feel mechanical and rote. During that most recent play of Ghost Stories, I found myself repeatedly checking my phone to see the time, and I was constantly eyeballing the deck of cards to see how much more we had to go before the game was over. That’s…not a great sign, huh.

I don’t mean to sound too negative about Ghost Stories. I obviously loved it at one point and I still do really like it. It’s just not nearly the exciting experience it once was, and it’s a game I will only play if someone else requests it. Therefore, despite its once esteemed ranking, I unfortunately wouldn’t expect Ghost Stories to come back to the top 100.

 

*

And there we have it, a collection of games that missed my top 100 despite being on it the previous year. This is not an exhaustive list, as I said. There’s quite a few more that fell off but a lot of them are due to the same reasons (haven’t played it in a while, don’t own it so I can’t replay it, etc.), so I felt repeating the same thing over and over would get annoying after a while. You know, moreso than my blog usually is.

Anyway, this will probably close this chapter on my 2019 Top 100. Unless I figure out a way to milk it even more, I’m likely going to pivot back to normal reviews or lists. Since I’m currently writing this under quarantine, I think I’m going to do a list of my favorite solo games since solo games are becoming pretty useful these days. Either way, stay tuned!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 10-1

They said I could never do it. “It’s a fool’s errand,” they said, “no way you can do a Top 100 Games on a blog. Who cares about lists on the internet, anyway?” Looks like I proved you wrong, Mom and Dad, because HERE I AM, at the top 10 of my very own Top 100 Games list. It took me quite a few months and we’re well into 2020, which makes the 2019 aspect of this a little pathetic, BUT I’M HERE!

Let’s get on with it, shall we?

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30-21

20-11

10. Codenames: Duet

codenames duet cover

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

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

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

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

I have so many great memories with this game. I’ve spent countless nights drunkenly staying up past two in the morning to play this and it’s a game that has been a staple of many a brewery date with my girlfriend. Combine this nostalgia with the fact that it’s just an amazingly designed game and you have an easy entry on my top 10.

9. The Grizzled

the grizzled cover

I mentioned that Codenames: Duet was one of my favorite co-ops but it wasn’t quite my favorite. That honor goes to my number 9 game: The Grizzled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yeah, in summary: The Grizzled is a masterpiece.

8. Mr. Jack

mr. jack cover

Let’s go onto more light-hearted fare after that entry. The next game’s about Jack the Ripper!

Okay, so yeah, this is a bit of a dark, depressing stretch of my top 100. And go figure, it’s the top 10 portion. Luckily, Mr. Jack, my number 8, doesn’t go into the grisly details of history’s most notorious serial killer. The Jack the Ripper and Victorian London theme is just to provide a setting for a cat and mouse style 2-player abstract game. Maybe they could have gone with something different, but I suppose Jeffery Dahmer was already taken.

True OG fans of this blog will recognize Mr. Jack as a very special game. It was the FIRST review I ever wrote for this site. It’s right here if you want to read it and see how this blog has grown over the past year (hahaha, it hasn’t at all).

Mr. Jack was a deliberate choice as my first review. It was the first game I ever bought in a hobby board game shop, the first one I ever taught myself without videos (a mistake I’d never make again), it was the first Bruno Cathala game I’ve ever played and it was the first game I fell in love with that wasn’t called Pandemic. Because of these things, I have a huge nostalgic fondness for it and I’ll be the first to admit that may be why it’s so high on my top 100. Even if I disregard that nostalgia and bias, however, Mr. Jack is still a masterclass in 2-player game design.

In Mr. Jack, one player is the titular Mr. Jack, a depraved criminal stalking the streets of Whitechapel disguised as someone else, while the other is the investigator, trying to figure out which character on the board is the true identity of Mr. Jack. In my review, I describe this game as a mixture between Clue and Chess and I stand by it. Players are manipulating pieces on a board and activating special powers trying to achieve their goal, which often has to do with adjusting how much information will be revealed about Mr. Jack’s identity at the end of the round. Mr. Jack wants to make sure that as little information is revealed while the investigator wants to eliminate as many possibilities as they can, hoping to whittle them down to one by the end of the game.

How this is all achieved is through a character draft. Every round, a snake draft occurs where the first player picks a character to move and activate and then the next player chooses two characters to move and activate. The first player chooses the remaining character and then an important question is asked by the investigator: is Mr. Jack visible or invisible? If Mr. Jack is visible, it means the character who is secretly Mr. Jack (which is assigned at the start of the game) is either next to another character token or next to a streetlamp. If the character is not next to a character or streetlamp, then that means Mr. Jack is invisible. Whatever the answer, this allows the investigator to flip over all characters in the opposite state to their grayed-out side, which means they are no longer a suspect. It’s kind of like flipping down characters in Guess Who when you eliminate a certain physical feature.

Obviously, the deduction is pretty basic. It’s just fifty-fifty and you’re simply eliminating possibilities rather than doing actual hardcore, Holmesian deduction. But where the magic in this game lies is in that character draft. I mention it in my full review, but it’s such a unique take on drafting. Most games that drafting based involve drafting things to a tableau or drafting actions to accomplish, but I’ve never seen a game where you’re drafting characters to then move around on a board and activate abilities with. This system is crafted to perfection in Mr. Jack, creating torturous decisions on who to take and who to leave for your opponent based on board position, their special powers and who has been eliminated as suspects. It’s like picking players for your team in Victorian gym class and it’s bursting with tactical play.

Mr. Jack is perhaps Cathala’s most underrated game. When people discuss their favorite games he designed or co-designed, it’s rarely, if ever, brought up. Even general discussions of favorite 2-player games often leave Mr. Jack out in the cold like Fred Flintstone at the end of The Flintstones’ title sequence (thank you, reader, for participating in the most stupid metaphor I’ve ever used). This is an absolute crime and if you enjoy tactical games or 2-player only games, then you need to rectify this.

7. Inis

inis

Last entry I discussed Kemet, an area control, troops on a map game set in Egyptian mythology, which is part of a trilogy that also involves Cyclades, an area control, troops on a map game set in Greek mythology, a game I talked about even earlier in my top 100, and now we’re here at number 7 with the 3rd game in the trilogy called Inis, which is (*pants and catches breath*), an area control, troops on a map game set in Celtic mythology.

Now that we got that run on sentence out of the way, what is Inis and why is it my favorite in the trilogy? Well grab your blended whiskey, your shillelagh and some other probably offensively stereotypical Irish item and listen up.

Inis has players placing and moving clans on tiles representing various areas of Ireland, getting into clashes, building temples and fortresses, and getting super drunk at festivals (that’s not me being stereotypical again, there are legitimately festivals in the game). As they do so, they’re trying to strengthen their position in one or more of the game’s three win conditions, hoping to achieve them before the other players. How players manipulate these pieces on the board and complete actions is through card play.

You get these cards in a variety of way. The main nuts and bolts that stitch your hand together are green colored cards called Action cards. Action cards are drafted at the start of every round and the same deck is used throughout the game. This means that as you play the game, you get to know the cards better and better, allowing you to see which ones combine well together and which ones are less potent for a given situation. It creates a great meta game that evolves over the course of the game and even bleeds into future plays.

Other cards include the red Epic Tale cards, which are gained through various other cards in the game. They add a dash of chaos and unpredictability to the proceedings, allowing players to activate special powers that can drastically alter the board state. The strengths of these cards are often circumstantial, which is a gripe I’ve seen people level at this game, but I honestly don’t mind it. They’re a fun way to inject some variance and tomfoolery into the game state and turn any meta on its head.

The last kind of card you’ll see are the yellow Advantage cards, which are rewarded to players for being chieftans of location tiles. Being a chieftan simply means you have more pieces of your color at a location than any other player. Each location has an Advantage card tied to it, allowing a specific ability for that player to play and use. Some Advantage cards are definitely better than others, which lead to some locations being more hotly contested, like people are rushing to choose between vacation real estate in Hawaii instead of Montana. (Listen, no offense Montana, but the thing you’re best known for is dinosaur bones. If your most popular attraction is already dead, that’s a bit of a problem).

By the midway point of the game, players are fanning out hands that are a patchwork of green, red and yellow like proud peacocks in mating season. Since cards are the lifeblood of this game, your hand is the heart of it, meaning you need to maintain its health in order to succeed. The more cards you have, the more control you have. In order to deal with hand size disparity, Inis includes a wonderfully smart passing system. If you don’t want to take your turn, you simply say “Pass” and it’s the next players turn. As long as the rest of the players don’t consecutively pass before your next turn, the round still continues and you’re able to still participate. This allows you to stall and buy some time for the right moment to trigger a certain card or make a huge move, while hopefully thinning out the hands of your opponents to prevent them from getting the upper hand. I can’t think of a game where sitting back and doing nothing can be such an important decision. If only real life worked like that.

It’s tough to narrow down and focus on what makes Inis so great because Inis is a bit of a weird game. Its three different win conditions lead to strategy and direction and feeling a little opaque, especially for a first play. It has a mechanism where you must declare you have one or more of the win conditions like it’s god damned Uno, spending a whole turn to take a ‘Pretender’ token that you can’t win the game without. Its game length can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as 3 hours depending on how things play out.

And yet, here it is at number 7. So let me just talk about things I do love!

Thing the First: It has my favorite combat system in an area control game, ever. You literally just attack someone and they lose a soldier or a card. Then they do the same to you, causing both players’ armies to slowly erode away like you’re watching a time lapse video of ice melting. It does a great job of making war feel senseless and pointless, something you don’t expect from a troops on a map game. Even more brilliantly, before every action in the combat, players can unanimously agree to peace and end the conflict. This means that technically a game of Inis could end without a single battle and that it’s the players themselves who are choosing to not coexist.

Thing the Second: I’ve mentioned my love of tactical games so many times on this top 100 that you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘tactical games’ is the name of some publisher that’s sponsoring the blog. But what can I say, I like what I like and I love tactics over strategy. Inis is one of the most tactical games on my top 100, forcing you to change your plans every round based on the cards you draft and what your opponents have done. This game is a tactical player’s dream.

Thing the Third: I adore the theme and art in this game. I literally named this blog after the coat of arms from my family’s Celtic ancestry, so it’s safe to say that I’m all in when it comes to anything Celtic. The game does a great job of immersing you into its Celtic setting and mythology, with Epic Tale cards that are based on actual Celtic myths and evocative art on the location tiles that transports you to the setting. The psychedelic card art is maybe a little more 1970s than mid hundreds, but it’s still incredibly striking and attractive. Playing this with the Braveheart soundtrack in the background creates such a wonderfully engrossing experience that it almost makes you forget Mel Gibson was involved with that movie.

Thing the Fourth: This game has got a ton of replayability and variety. There is no static nature to this game. Everything comes out in a different order every time you play it: from the location tiles to the Epic Tale cards to the cards you draft at the beginning of every round. This breathtaking amount of variance allows for Inis to feel different and fresh every time you play it. That’s something I really put a lot of stock into, so the fact that Inis excels in this area is a huge notch in its pro column.

Honestly, I love Inis enough that I could see it being a top 5 or even top 3 game for me some day. The main thing keeping it from that hallowed company is that I have had one or two rough plays of this game, where it dragged on for almost three hours and it devolved into a ‘bash the leader’ slog. The good thing is that that has only happened at the four-player count. At three players, games last for little over an hour. Now, I’ve heard the expansion helps fix this problem at higher player counts which plops it immediately on my radar). If I play this a couple more times and find the game is at a more consistently trim run time, Inis is without a doubt in the running for my favorite game of all time. Until then, it’s here at the almost as impressive 7 spot.

6. Grand Austria Hotel

grand austria hotel cover

From a Euro style troops on a map game to a straight up Euro, my number 6 is Grand Austria Hotel. Grand Austria Hotel shares some designer lineage with Lorenzo Il Magnifico, my number 50 game of all time. While Lorenzo is great, Grand Austria Hotel is flat out amazing.

GAH casts players as hoteliers in pre-war Vienna, working hard to attract and feed guests so that they can be sent up to their rooms, all the while trying to make sure a very fickle (read: asshole) Emperor approves of their hotel. It’s a tight game of resource management, where you must keep track of things like time, money and coffee (which makes it sound like a Millennial Simulator, but it’s obviously a bit more than that).

GAH is a dice drafting game that has an immensely clever system for picking said dice. Every round, a bunch of dice are rolled and are separated into columns by number. The numbers denote what action those dice can be used for. For example, if you take a one, that allows you to take cake and pastry resource cubes, a four lets you take money or Emperor favor points, a five lets you hire a staff member, etc.

The cool twist is that the strength of that action is determined by the amount of dice in the column when you draft it. So, if the ‘four’ column has three dice, I get the four action at a strength of three. In this case, it allows me to take any combination of three dollars or Emperor points.

Obviously, this creates tense tactical decisions. If you take a die from a column that has a lot of dice in it, you’re getting a potent version of that action. But the more dice means the better you chance of that action sticking around till your next turn, so do you take something that’s less strong but scarcer? On the flip side, taking an action that only has one or two dice seems woefully inefficient. BUT its rarity means that maybe that action won’t be around by your next turn, which can put you in a huge bind if it’s an action you really need.

This mortifying tight walk defines Grand Austria Hotel and its all the more petrifying by the sheer amount of stuff you need to get done in this game. To get points, you need to fill rooms which means you have to get guests (which costs money) and then you need to feed them which means getting resources like cake and wine and coffee and then when they’re fed you need to make sure you have a room prepared that matches their color and also there is an Emperor who visits three times a game who will give an absolutely brutal penalty to anyone who hasn’t gotten far enough along on his Emperor track and by the way did I mention you only have fourteen turns to get this all done???

It’s like the board game version of the children’s book When You Give A Mouse A Cookie. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of these types of Euros in which you need to take countless baby steps just to achieve one thing BUT Grand Austria Hotel gets away with it because of one thing.

Do you know what that thing is? Come on, you can guess it. I’m sure you know what I’m about to say.

Yes, Grand Austria Hotel manages to be so good, for me, because it’s more tactical than strategic. Told you that you could have guessed it!

Don’t get me wrong, like many games, Grand Austria Hotel involves some degree of long-term planning. You’ll need to look ahead at the public objectives and Emperor track and figure out things you might want to work towards during the game. But every decision made to get to those points is purely tactical. The board state changes so much from round to round and even from turn to turn that you are constantly making reactionary decisions, picking things based on what the dice are offering as well as what kind of guests are available. So many Euros are about picking a long-term strategy at the start and then mechanically following that path like you’re a just activated Manchurian candidate. So, when a Euro like GAH provides fluidity and a need to constantly shift your plans, I’m drawn to it like a hipster to an IPA.

Within this whirlwind of tactical decisions, you’ll find satisfying moments where you trigger a guest’s special power that triggers another’s and maybe even another’s, which results in a cascade of rewards and future opportunities for your hotel. GAH can be tough, but it’s never not gratifying. Few Euros I’ve played provide the rush that Grand Austria Hotel does.

Kind of like Inis, Grand Austria Hotel could make a legitimate run as my favorite game of all time if it wasn’t for one unfortunate flaw. In this case, it’s a question of scalability. Grand Austria Hotel’s round structure is a snake draft, meaning the first player to draft a die is then the last person to draft their second die. At two players, this snake draft works beautifully. At three, the time spent waiting for your next die starts to grow and downtime begins to infect the game like a virus. At four players, the downtime makes this borderline unplayable. As someone who has constantly shifting numbers of players in my game groups, scalability is a huge factor for me. The fact that Grand Austria Hotel is ostensibly a two player only game is a bit of a bummer.

But outside of that, which really isn’t even a flaw with its mechanisms, Grand Austria Hotel is a masterpiece in Euro gaming. I can’t recommend it enough.

5. Port Royal

port royal cover

Alexander Pfister makes one last stop on my top 100 with what is, in my opinion, his best game. It’s another one of his lighter games: the push your luck card game Port Royal.

Port Royal checks a surprising amount of boxes for me. A lighter weight Pfister game? Check. Push your luck? Check. Pirate/nautical theme? Check. Klemens Franz artwork? Check. The fact that all these elements come together in a brilliant design doesn’t hurt its cause either.

I love Port Royal so much that I’ve already reviewed it on the blog. You can read that here, but here’s the recap. This is a game of pushing your luck against a deck of cards so that you can draft cards into your tableau. The cards going into your tableau not only give points (importantly, since it’s a race to 12) but also some special abilities, giving this game just the faintest whiff of that new engine builder smell.

When it’s your turn, you draw cards from a deck one a time and place them into a face up display (I’ll refer to it as the harbor from here on out). You can stop whenever you want, allowing you to enter a drafting phase in which you take some of those cards allowing you to either discard them for coins or purchase them to go into your tableau. The number of cards you can take is determined by the number of unique ship cards you’ve drawn into the harbor. If zero to three country’s flags are represented by ships in the harbor, you can only take one card. However, if there are four flags represented, you get to take two cards. If all five flags of the countries present in the game are represented by ships, you get to take a whopping three cards, which is pretty huge in this game.

The rub is that if two cards of the same flag ever show up in your harbor, you bust. Your turn ends immediately and as Willy Wonka once said, “You get nothing!” Not being able to do anything on your turn is devastating, so knowing when to stop drawing and be content with what you have versus going all in to get exactly what you want is a big part of this game.

There’s a lot of stuff I love about Port Royal outside of the general stuff I mentioned earlier. One cool mechanism is that after you draft your card(s), your opponents also get an opportunity to draft one card from the display you made with the caveat that they have to pay you one coin for doing business on your turn. This sort of positive interaction is always welcome in games and it helps inform how much you want to push your luck. Sometimes you’re not going to want to give your opponents a chance to get something juicy outside of their turn, even if you get a gold in return, causing you to stop drawing a little earlier than usual. Other times you may feel it’s in your best interest to be generous, pressing your luck a bit further so that your display is a smorgasbord of options for the other players. It’s a real cool touch and one that I wish other games would take a nod from.

If you want even more detail about why Port Royal is so fantastic, check out my review I linked earlier. But suffice to say, this is a game that I never get tired of playing and a game that I’m always sad when it ends. It leaves me wanting more and considering it’s one of the most played games in my collection, that is saying something. It’s extremely underrated when it’s discussed in the pantheon of Pfister’s games and I think more people need to try this one out.

4. Raptor

raptor cover

 

No designer has made more appearances on this top 100 than one Bruno Cathala and his reign of designer domination ends here at number 4. My favorite Cathala game and my number 4 favorite game of all time is Raptor.

Codesigned with the industry’s other Bruno, Bruno Faidutti (who also codesigned Mission: Red Planet with Cathala, a game that appeared in the 50s of this list), Raptor is a 2-player only masterpiece.  At its core, it’s a card driven abstract strategy game, where you and your opponent are activating actions to move your pieces around the board to achieve your objective. The amazing thing is that Raptor breaks from the chains of its abstract design to become one of the most intense and cinematic experiences in gaming.

In Raptor, one player is a band of scientists who are suspiciously armed to the teeth and the other is a mother raptor and her babies. The scientists can win in one of two ways. They can either capture all the babies (I’m sure their intentions are harmless) OR shoot the mama raptor with five bullets, putting her into a deep slumber (again, I’m sure it’s fine). The raptor can either win by getting all her babies to safety, off the game board OR by eating all the scientists.

How the actual game plays is through a card based action selection mechanism that is so brilliant that I have no clue why another game hasn’t copied it. Each player has a deck of cards valued 1 through 9 with a special action listed on them. The special actions differ between the players, allowing the raptor to do things like teleport her babies to her tile or to scare scientist figures into a state of such catatonic terror that they spend the game on their back until the scientist player wakes them up. The scientist is able to do things like launching sleeping grenades to put babies to sleep from far away or using frickin’ flamethrowers to block movement on the board.

Players draw a hand of three cards from their deck and then simultaneously choose one to play facedown before dramatically revealing at the same time. The cards are then compared; whoever played the smaller number gets to immediately take their special action while the person who played the larger number gets a number of basic action points equal to the difference between the two numbers.

It’s an absurdly clever system that creates more moments of unbearable tension than any other game I’ve played. Every turn you’re trying to get into the head of your opponent, attempting to zero in on what special action they need in order to deny them it while also making sure you get a solid chunk of action points. Of course, there will be points where you desperately need to trigger a special action and your opponent is thinking the same thing. Once that meta is established, the endless spiral of double think swallows your mind hole. You know your opponent wants to get reinforcement scientists so you’ll want to cancel that out BUT they know that too so they likely won’t play that card but what if they’re banking on you thinking that and WILL play that card so do you just counter it anyway and then you reveal and GOD DAMMIT, THEY DIDN’T PLAY THE REINFORCEMENT CARD, THEY’RE GETTING SO MANY ACTIONS NOW.

The mind games above the table are a nerve-wracking battle of wits and it’s matched by the intensity of the game on the table. Deciding how to move your pieces and spend your actions to better your board position is just as excruciating as figuring out what card to play. As the scientists, you want to be as close to as many babies as possible, but that might mean splitting your figures across the map. That could spell danger for you when the raptor takes down a couple scientists and you’re left with a couple of useless figures who are now too far away to do anything. On the other hand, clumping them together makes it more efficient to take down and capture baby raptors one at a time but means that if the mama raptor gets near you, you might as well just hand her an after-dinner mint. As the raptor, you have to decide which babies are worth focusing on and which are, horrifyingly, worth sacrificing for the good of the family. You also want to make sure you’re in positions where you can reach much of the board but that often means being out in the open and that opens you up to being shot at by the scientists.

If you’re playing a drinking game where you take a drink every time I say the word ‘tactical’ then crack open a new beer and start chugging because that’s exactly what this game is: tactical. This game is perhaps the most tactical game on my top 100 and one of the most tactical games I’ve ever played, period. It’s impossible to plan more than one move ahead because you have no clue what cards you’ll have at your disposal and you have no clue if you’ll even be able to use them for what you intended.

You wanted to play that value 7 to get a handful of action points because you thought your opponent was playing low? Oopsies, they played an 8 and now you activate that action. Guess you gotta reevaluate your next turn! This sort of stuff happens constantly throughout Raptor, meaning that if you aren’t ready to adapt at a moment’s notice then you will have what we in the hobby call ‘a bad time’. As someone who salivates at the prospect of playing games that requires this much tactical thinking and adaptation, Raptor is so firmly in my wheelhouse that I should start calling it Captain Raptor.

(that was really stupid, I’m sorry, I’m running out of stuff to say)

I’ll end this fanboyish rambling by mentioning this game’s tightwire balance. When I first played the game, I thought the scientists had a huge advantage over the raptor. I didn’t mind it too much though, because games were still close and the raptor was still a lot of fun to play as. But as I’ve played it more and more I’ve realized that the scientists, while easier to use as a new player, are not overpowered and that the raptor is incredibly powerful after you get the hang of managing her arsenal. I now consider it a toss up between the two sides and this balance creates absurdly tight games. Every game seems to come down to the wire, with each side desperately trying to get just the ONE action they need that will give them the advantage. This also means that there are rarely quick, blowout victories, with even a slow start able to be overcome by one or two clever card plays.

I recently played six straight games of this with a friend one night over the course of two hours. That seems like a lot, but we honestly could have played six more. Every single game was fun, intense, and filled with nail-biting tension. My friend commented that no game gets his pulse racing like Raptor and I think I have to agree with him (something I don’t often do with friends).

Raptor is easily my favorite two-player only game, which is a massive endorsement considering how many of those are on my top 100 alone. If you haven’t played it, you absolutely must give this one a try.

3. Codenames 

codenames cover

Sharp eyed readers with working short term memory will remember a mere seven entries ago I talked about Codenames: Duet, a two-player cooperative version of party game behemoth Codenames. I was cagey about whether the original game would show up but come on. We all knew it would.

If there’s one game I likely don’t have to explain it’s Codenames. It’s one of the most popular, famous games in the hobby and is the game to most effectively penetrate the mainstream market since Ticket to Ride. I mentioned it in my Codenames: Duet discussion that even my parents own a copy of Codenames and I just want to mention that again. My 60+ year old parents went out and bought a copy of this on their own accord after I introduced it to them. That’s amazing.

That being said, I’ll still briefly explain it just so that there’s context to what I talk about later. Codenames is a game of word association and deduction where two teams are trying to guess their words from a grid. A spymaster for each team has a key that shows which words pertain to them and they must give clues linking those words. Neutral cards are also seeded throughout the grid, gumming up the works, but worse than that is the assassin. One word on the grid is the assassin, a card that means your team instantly loses if they pick it. So, if the assassin word is ‘river’ you better damn well not give any clues that accidentally point your teammates to ‘river’.

Codenames is ingenious in so many ways. Let’s take, for example, it’s exquisite simplicity. Codenames can be taught to anyone in under five minutes. People super new to board games may need half a game to understand all the concepts but the gist of it can be understood quite quickly. What makes this simplicity such a feat is when you realize the surprising depth and thinky-ness of this game. Trying to link words together without accidentally leading your team to your opponents’ words or the assassin is going to fire off the synapses in your brain like a Tommy gun, especially for new players.

With repeated plays, you’ll find yourself acquiring a certain deftness with giving good clues. The subtle ways you can lead your team to a word while eliminating other, more unsavory possibilities is a skill that grows with each play, proving once again the subtle brilliance of Codenames’ system.  Codenames is perhaps the most played game in my collection (it’s between this and Skull) and I still find myself astounded at the clever associations either I or other players can make. It’s a linguistic playground that I never get tired of visiting.

Lastly, let’s talk about the assassin. The assassin is perhaps my favorite rule in the game. From a mechanism standpoint, it’s there to prevent players from just guessing willy nilly. If the specter of an instant loss looms over the table, players tend to be a lot more timid when guessing potential words. BUT if one team starts to get a sizable lead, teams are forced to start making wild guesses and to stretch out possible associations to incredulity. As the board shrinks, the chance of hitting that assassin grows and, beautifully, it’s at these points in the game when those aforementioned shots in the dark need to occur. It creates such incredible, edge of your seat moments that you wouldn’t expect from a 15-minute party game.

When I first bought Codenames and experienced it, I made it my mission to bring it to EVERY party I could. These parties were often with different groups of people and every time I would meet back up with one of these groups, I would discover someone from that party had immediately gone out and bought their own copy of the game. It spread like a contagion all over my home state of Pennsylvania, and I can’t think something that better exemplifies how good Codenames is. It deserves every copy sold and every bit of recognition it gets.

2. Scythe

scythe cover

Like with Blood Rage from my last post, Scythe was a game that I was reluctant to try. This isn’t necessarily Scythe’s fault. It’s because if something gets insane amounts of hype, my cynical brain puts up a force field and tries to ignore it. Not one of my best qualities, but it unfortunately is part of my personality, nonetheless.

However, I spent enough time in the hobby to be beaten over the head with Scythe talk enough times to cause CTE, so I eventually caved in and picked it up on a Black Friday sale from a local game store. I figured I liked the art and the theme and with all the praise I had seen heaped on it, I’d at least give it a try.

And now here it is, at my number 2 favorite game of all time. Quite the Cinderella story! I’ve already been contacted by Disney for the movie rights.

Yes, the hype is real. Coming from Jamey Stegmaier, a titan of the industry, and his company Stonemaier Games, one of the most celebrated and beloved publishers around, Scythe is indeed one of the best games in the hobby. It justly deserves the silver medal for my top 100. In fact, it was actually my number one game last year (in 2018) when I unofficially did my top 100 for the first time ever. And it’s not even because I like less Scythe any less since then, it’s more that I’ve grown to love my number one that much more. In fact, I actually like Scythe more than I did at that time! So yeah, I love this game, I guess you could say.

Like a couple other games that are in my top 25 (Blood Rage, Kemet, and Inis), Scythe is an area control game with deep Euro roots. In fact, some would argue Scythe is purely a Euro. I heartily disagree with that sentiment, but the fact that it exists shows you how much it tips the scale to that side.

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

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

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

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

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

This mix of puzzle-y gameplay, cold war tension and out of this world production values makes Scythe an easy pick for my 2nd favorite game. Excitingly, I still have so much to explore with this game. Since heavy games don’t hit the table too often for my game groups, I still have factions to try out and new strategies to explore. I can’t wait to play Scythe again and I wonder if one day it will reclaim the throne at number one. That will be very tough, however, because my number one favorite game of all time is…

………..wait for it……….

 

 

……….it’s coming………

 

 

………..almost there!………

 

 

…………here it is……………

 

 

……….ARE YOU READY……………..

 

 

………….MY NUMBER ONE FAVORITE GAME OF ALL TIME IS:

1. Viticulture: Essential Edition

viticulture cover

Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games failed to make it on my list throughout my top 100 and yet here they are, at number 2 and number 1. My favorite game of all time is Viticulture, perhaps the game’s that put Stegmaier and his company on the map, and it is an absolute masterpiece.

Viticulture is a worker placement game in which you are running a vineyard in Tuscany, trying to wine things up better than your opponents. This means you’ll be planting vines, harvesting grapes, turning those grapes into wine and ultimately fulfilling wine orders. In the meantime, you’ll also be trying to build a workforce and infrastructure which makes these things easier and more profitable.

There are some things that make me wonder why Viticulture is my favorite game. For one, worker placement is a mechanism I’m not even THAT crazy about. Sure, I like it, and if I made a top 10 list I’m sure it’d sneak on there but I don’t think it’d even hit my top 5. On top of that, it is a pretty vanilla worker placement game in terms of how it uses the mechanism. There’s no crazy hook here or twist to the genre that makes you go, “Ohh, I haven’t seen this before!” It’s pretty standard ‘place a worker and do the action’.

And yet…here we are. Number one out of 100 and number one out of the 300+ games I’ve played over the past four years. Why?

Let’s start with the theme. I’ve been withholding my use of the ‘f’ word this entire top 100 but now that I’m on number one, I’m cashing it in: I fucking love this theme. I am much more of a craft beer guy than a wine guy, but I still love the whole idea of vineyards and the wine making process. I live in Pennsylvania where there are lots of vineyards on rural stretches between towns and I just love the calm, pastoral look of them. Viticulture manages to capture this theme perfectly despite being, like many board games, an abstract representation of it.

One big reason is the art. Here’s my second ‘f’ word: I fucking love this art. Beth Sobel, an artist I’ve praised throughout this top 100, has her best work to date in this game. Her serene arts style flawlessly encapsulates the relaxing feel of running a vineyard and wine culture. Every time I see this game’s art, whether from opening the board or sifting through its cards or by simply seeing it on my shelf, I instantly get a warm feeling that rushes through my whole body. It’s rare for art to give me a physical reaction but when you combine it with this setting and this gameplay, I can’t help but feel legitimately comforted by it.

The game’s gameplay and flow also help to add to the game’s tranquil atmosphere. I already mentioned that Viticulture has a somewhat basic approach to worker placement, but I actually think that’s to its benefit when you consider the theme.  The act of simply placing a worker and getting its action and then moving onto the next person is wisely elegant and keeps things immersive. There’s no fiddly rules to distract you, no edge cases to stumble upon. It’s simply you, your worker and the goal you have in mind. As you harvest grapes and place them on your crush pad and prepare your cellars to transform them into wine, it’s impossible to not feel like you’ve just pulled on a cozy sweater.

Don’t mistake this for an ‘easy’ game, though. Despite the game’s elegance, warmth and welcoming demeanor, Viticulture still requires precise planning and execution. You need to complete actions in a proper, efficient order and mistiming something or allowing yourself to be blocked out can set you back an entire round. Because of this, there’s still plenty of tension. Yes, the game does have the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) grande worker, a plus sized worker pawn which allows you to muscle in and activate an action even if all the spaces are blocked. Some people complain this takes the bite out of Viticulture’s tight systems and is too forgiving when compared to the classics of the genre like Agricola or Caylus. I disagree. The only thing it removes is frustration. Besides, there’s still the agonizing decision of when to use your grande. Do you use them earlier for an action you sort of need, risking not having it later when you’re stonewalled from getting an action you ABSOLUTELY need? Players are always nervously fidgeting with their grande worker, rubbing it like a rabbit’s foot as they flip flop over when to use it.

Another thing I love about Viticulture that it doesn’t get enough credit for is its hand management. I truly believe this game is as much about hand management as it is about worker placement. The game has a hand limit of seven which seems loose…until about halfway through the game. By that point, smart players will have stuffed their hands full of cards like ambitious taxidermists, meaning they’re constantly juggling which ones to discard at round’s end. The game’s visitor cards, which are special powers that can be used when they’re discarded, provide so many useful abilities that it’s impossible to narrow down which ones to keep and which ones to turn away like some sort of vineyard bouncer. Figuring this out is one of the many joys of Viticulture.

What makes this even better is that this hand management puzzle feels fresh and different every time. I have played this game a handful of times multiplayer and countless times solo (more on that later) and during every play I see a brand-new combination of cards used to pull off impressive moves and strings of actions.  Another common complaint leveled at this game is that it’s ‘too random’ and the cards are ‘too swingy’ which I again disagree with. While there are sometimes an opponent plays a card where you go, “Damn, that would have fit perfectly with what I have going on here”, chances are you can answer right back with something really good too. In my opinion, there are no bad cards in this game. You just have to plan and use them right.

The last thing I’ll talk about is this game’s solo mode. All Stonemaier games now institute solo modes known as Automa modes, solitaire variants designed by Morten Monrad Pederson and his Automa Factory development team. But this was the first game to include it when the base game’s first expansion came packaged with it. I have become an active solo gamer over the past two years and one of the big reasons is this Automa mode.

Viticulture’s solo mode manages to take feel of the multiplayer game and condense it down to one player without losing any of the feel of the normal version. Sure, you lose the competition against actual human beings, but no solo mode can replicate that (yet). The game retains its feel and flow and there’s barely any extra rules. You have a deck of cards that tells you where to put enemy workers to simulate another opponent and there’s one extra rule about how to activate bonus actions and that’s all. Set up, play and tear down can be done in under an hour and you are able to get the same Viticulture experience without having to call a single friend. This solo mode blows my mind every time I play it. And oh boy, I have played it. A ton. Too many times, some might say. But I keep coming back to it because it’s so addictive and such an easy, hassle free way to continue experiencing my favorite game of all time no matter the time or place.

That’ll wrap it up on Viticulture, I think. It’s my favorite game of all time for so many reasons. Its theme, its atmosphere, its easy going but still suspenseful gameplay, its pristine solo mode…I could go on and on but this top 100 has already lasted over three months (we’re now in 2020 for a 2019 list…oops) so I’ll shut my mouth.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the next time I do my top 100 that Viticulture retains its place at the top. It’s hard to imagine any game coming close any time soon.

 

*

We did it, folks! My top 100 games (2019 edition) is complete! Phew! Just in time for my 2020 edition! *studio audience laughs*

In all seriousness, I actually had a blast doing this. It’s surprisingly hard work writing about games and if you combined all these lists into a Word document it would probably be close to 130 pages worth, but I’m already looking forward to redoing my top 100 at the end of this year. This time I’ll be sure to start it a little earlier so I’m not so deep into the following year.

Anyway, hope you had fun too. If you like what you’ve read and you’re new around here, stay tuned to this blog for future posts. I mostly do reviews, but I sometimes do editorials or random articles about gaming experiences I have. Be sure to stop by!

 

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 20-11

We cracked my Top 25 like the shell of a giant board game egg in my last post and now the yolk of it is running all over the place, oh god, it’s so messy. Let’s carry on with it before it gets all over our pants.

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30-21

 

20. Blood Rage

Blood Rage cover

When I first got into the hobby, Blood Rage was a game I was resistant against trying. The cover art didn’t appeal to me, the title sounded like the name of a high school death metal band that was trying too hard, and the fact that it was so miniature heavy led me to believe that it would have shallow, mindless gameplay. Of course, as anyone reading this top 100 can attest, I am quite often wrong, to the point that “Wow, Kyle sure was wrong a lot” will be the thesis scholars take away from this blog when they study it hundreds of years from now. Blood Rage is another such occasion of my eternal ineptitude.

It took me just one play of Blood Rage for me to realize how good it was. What I thought was going to be a brain-dead slugfest with shoehorned Norse gods and miniatures turned out to be a thoughtful Euro driven game of building card combos and action efficiency. The game centers on drafting cards and then using those cards with allotted action points in a way to maximize your points. Figuring out what cards you want to take and what possible combos you want to exploit is fun in itself, but then the actual game of moving figures around the map, getting into combat and trying to figure out when to time the cards you’ve drafted is a wonderfully tense but action packed puzzle.

The variety of strategies you can take is a huge draw for me. Do you focus on combat, recruiting high powered monsters and investing in the payout of victory points from winning battles? Do you strategize around ‘quests’ which are essentially objectives you can work to achieve from round to round? Or do you employ the now infamous Loki strategy, which involves purposefully killing off your own warriors and losing battles to reap victory points from your own failures? All of these and more are viable and they’re all entertaining in their own ways to employ. It can be a little frustrating when a card you desperately need to complete your engine is randomly not in the game (a certain amount of cards are burned every round), but the stuff happening on the board is so entertaining that it’s not a deal breaker.

Honestly, the first time I played Blood Rage I was convinced it would be in my top 10 for my entire gaming life. It sits here at 20 for two big reasons. One, I’ve simply played more games since Blood Rage that have bumped it up the line. Two, and more tragically, I simply haven’t played Blood Rage in quite some time. It’s going to be close to two years since my last Blood Rage play and I don’t own a copy or have anyone local who does. Like Concordia on my last post, it’s tough to keep ranking a game super high if I haven’t even played it recently and, unfortunately, Blood Rage is the latest victim of that reality.

I do hope to get my own copy some day because Blood Rage truly is a fantastic game. Underneath its Iron Maiden exterior is one of the sharpest and most tactically bountiful designs in the hobby.

19. Hanamikoji

Hanamikoji cover

I love myself a good small card game, especially when they’re designed for just two players. Hanamikoji has the honored distinction of being my favorite two player card game, sitting right here at spot 19. In this game, players are rival businesses in the Japanese district of Hanamikoji, trying to win over geisha to come perform at their venue. What ensues is one of the most bloodthirsty, agonizing 15-20 minutes of your life.

Hanamikoji is a microgame, so it’s basically just a deck of cards and some tokens. Every round you and your opponent will play four actions. Both players have access to the same actions, but they can be played in any order. One action involves the player stashing away a card for scoring at the end of the round while another has the player secretly burning two cards to be removed from the round. The other two actions are of the ‘I Split, You Choose’ variety. One has you displaying three cards to your opponent and they get to pick one, with the other two going to you. The last action forces you to make two pairs of cards and, once again, show them to your opponent to get first dibs on which one they want.

As you accumulate cards through these actions, they are placed on the geisha that they represent. Whoever has majority of the cards for that column wins that geisha. You’re either trying to win four of the seven geisha or earn 11 ‘charm points’ (each geisha is worth a certain amount) worth of geisha.

It’s so simple but so terrifying to play this game. Every action feels like it’s going to help your opponent and hurt you and somehow your opponent feels the EXACT same way. It brings shades of games like Lost Cities and Arboretum, which both showed up in my 80-71 section. Every action feels like it’s working against you, you never want to commit to one and it feels like no matter what order you choose to play them in will be suboptimal. Playing the ‘I Cut, You Choose’ actions early feels like a gamble because you have so much less information about what your opponent might have in their hand. You could be gift wrapping them the exact cards they need and be completely ignorant. But playing these actions late means you may be divvying cards that are a lost cause by then. On the flip side, completing the actions that involve storing and burning cards seems silly to do early because you don’t know what geisha you will be aiming to win, making it feel like you’re just firing from the hip with a blindfold. Wait too long, however, and you may end up storing a card you have no interest in or burning cards that have suddenly become important to you.

All of this angst and horror is distilled into a suffocating 15-20 minutes, giving Hanamikoji a more potent punch than many games three or four times its length. I love when small card games put you through torture, as I made clear when discussing Lost Cities and Arboretum way back when, and there’s no other card game that demands a blood sacrifice quite like Hanamikoji. It’s such a superb design and will likely be in my top 25 for quite a while.

18. Biblios

biblios cover

From one nerve-wracking small card game to another, my number 18 is Biblios. Biblios was one of the first full reviews I’ve done on this blog, which you can check out right here. It’s one of the first card games I fell in love with and it continues to be one that I want to get to the table again and again.

In Biblios, you are living through everyone’s biggest power fantasy by donning the cowl of a medieval monk and trying to create the best damn library around. If that doesn’t get your pulse racing, then you’re probably a pretty normal person. But don’t worry about the theme (even though I secretly like it because I’m a weirdo). The real magic in Biblios comes from its gameplay.

Biblios is simply a set collection game at its heart but where it blossoms into a beautiful monk shaped flower is in its unique structure. The game is divided into two phases. There is a card drafting round known as the Gifting Phase where you’ll be gaining and divvying up cards, and then an auction round where you’ll be buying even more cards in an auction format.

First, the Gifting Phase. During this phase, players draw cards from the deck and must do the following: keep a card, give a card to the other players and put a card into the auction deck to be auctioned off in the following phase. The cards are either gold cards to use for the auction, cards that control the dice that mark the point values for the different colors in the game and then the cards of said colors.  The key here, however, is that players draw these cards one at a time and must decide immediately what to do with it. If you draw a high value blue card, do you keep it? What if you’re not working to collect blue? Do you willingly give it to another player, knowing it’ll greatly help them out? Or do you just stow It away in the auction deck, waiting for Future You to deal with it? Every card draw in this phase feels like a mini game of push your luck, trying to decide what to do with each card so that you don’t end up getting stuck with something crappy or giving your opponent something amazing.

The next phase is just a straightforward auction but it’s no less intense. The gold you accumulated in the Gifting Phase is used to buy the cards from the player crafted auction deck, with everyone raising their bid or bowing out to save up for the next card. Even if you made an effort to get a nice, fat stack of gold, it feels like you’re always on the precipice of being completely broke. It’s a tightrope walk of getting good value for cards you want while making sure your opponents don’t get things they need for cheap. This often results in you feeling like you’re overspending or letting your opponents get cards too easily and, like Hanamikoji, the brilliance is that your opponents are thinking the same thing.

Every turn and decision is loaded with anxiety and panic, which culminates in a climactic reveal. At the end, players reveal their hands to see how much of each color they have, which then shows which colors they’ve essentially ‘won’. Points are awarded based on what the die of that color says and whoever has the most points, wins. It’s always a surprising and thrilling revelation, a dramatic release of tension like a slingshot snapping a rock through a window after being held for twenty straight minutes.

I’ll end this by saying that even if you find the theme of monks and libraries to be empty and boring, you’d be doing a disservice to Biblios to not play it. It’s such a superbly designed game with two unique halves that somehow flow together seamlessly. Try it out, Biblios is amazing.

17. Arctic Scavengers

Arctic Scavengers cover

Like a handful of other games on this list, Arctic Scavengers is a game that I would have likely ignored had it not been for an amazing Shut Up & Sit Down review of it. Its cover is horrifically bland, its name is so generic it causes me physical pain and, at the time, I had no idea what a deckbuilder was. But their review was so intriguing and did such a good job of introducing the concept of a deckbuilder that I had to try it. At that point, Arctic Scavengers was my first ever deckbuilder and, to this day, it remains my favorite.

Arctic Scavengers plunges players into a future where climate change has resulted in a second ice age which I guess means it takes place ten years from now. Players will be crafting a deck that represents their tribe trying to survive in this harsh world, with cards representing various tribe members, tools and weapons. The end goal is to have the most tribe members in your deck by the end of the game, which is an interesting twist on deckbuilding. Most deckbuilders reward you for creating razor thin, streamlined decks that you can churn through in one turn, recreating powerful combos like the world’s nerdiest version of déjà vu. But in Arctic Scavengers, you’re looking to stuff your deck to the brim with tribe members, sometimes sacrificing the ability to fall back on reliably drawing synergies in order to just load up on victory points. It’s an interesting balance and creates a fresher, more tactical experience compared to the more mechanical Dominion clones out there where it feels like you’re simply trying to program a scoring algorithm.

The cool twists don’t end there. Another neat wrinkle is how Arctic Scavengers treats trashing cards from your deck. Most deckbuilders offer avenues for you to discard less useful cards to make it more likely for you to get your more powerful ones in a draw. The thing is, you usually need a card that allows you to trigger that ability to trash stuff, meaning you have to wait to get that card and a card you’re willing to trash in the same hand. Arctic Scavengers wants none of that ‘waiting’ nonsense and, hilariously, allows you to trash cards whenever you want. You simply take any cards from your hand that you don’t want and then send them to a communal deck of cards known as the junkyard, which players can sift through to find potentially useful stuff (including the cards you just sent there!).

I love this for a couple reasons. One, it obviously gives a lot more freedom. Is there a card gumming up your deck? Just get it right out of there whenever the hell you want. Two, this card isn’t permanently out of the game. As I said, it simply goes to the junkyard where other players may happen upon it. Every deck starts out with semi-useless refugee cards, who count as tribe members but can’t do anything without the help of a tool. This makes them very inefficient for the start of the game, meaning players channel their inner Republicans and banish them out of their deck for not earning their keep. Hysterically, as the game starts to wind down, players often go back to the junkyard looking for the very refugees they banished earlier, trying to nab them for their points.

(That has to be a very awkward walk home from the junkyard with the refugee shuffling along with trash stuck to them as you cheerfully say, “Hey, sorry about that whole exile thing.”)

Yet another neat mechanism that Arctic Scavengers employs is its multi-use cards. Deckbuilders tend to have cards with very specific functions, while the cards in Arctic Scavengers can be used for a variety of things. The trick is, however, some cards are better at certain actions than others. For example, the Scout is good for drawing extra cards but less useful in other areas while the Brawler is great for fighting (more on that in a bit), but not so helpful otherwise. It feels like you’ll never have a useless hand, something that can’t be said for a lot of other deckbuilders. Even if you aren’t able to use a card for its more effective action, you can pair it with others to help strengthen some other action. Granted, there are still cards that can’t do certain actions so there may be moments of ineffective draws BUT even then you can find uses for those cards.

This comes in the form of the final mechanism that I think REALLY separates Arctic Scavengers from other deckbuilders: the skirmish. Every round, someone peeks at a card from a deck known as the Contested Resources. Contested Resources are powerful cards that aren’t available to buy in the public display. Winning one is often a huge boon to your deck. After players play cards from their hand on their turn, they then take any leftover cards they want to save for the skirmish and put them facedown in front of them. Hell, you can put your entire hand face down if you want to. When the skirmish occurs, everyone flips their cards over and calculates their ‘fight’ rating, which is essentially an action just like everything else on the card. Whoever has the highest fight rating wins the Contested Resource and secretly adds it to their discard pile to become a part of their deck.

I love the skirmish because it adds interaction and an element of bluffing. As much as I love deckbuilders, they can often be multiplayer solitaire affairs, with an occasional ‘take that’ card to add some forced ‘interaction’. Arctic Scavengers is very interactive thanks to the skirmish, with everyone keeping an eye on how many cards their opponents have devoted to the end of the round brawl. This also adds some slight bluffing, as I intimated earlier. Have a bad hand? Devote it all to the skirmish and watch with glee as you win a Contested Resource with nothing but two shovels, two pickaxes and a bottle of pills. On the flip side, if it’s your turn to see the Contested Resource and you know it’s something good, putting down just one or two good cards for the skirmish might make others think it’s nothing worth fighting for, letting you pull off a cheap win. It’s such a cool, unique part of this game that I’ve never seen in any other deckbuilder and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I love this game so damn much.

If you don’t trust me, it’s worth noting Arctic Scavengers is one of the most requested games in my collection. If I’m having a gaming weekend with friends I don’t see that often, Arctic Scavengers is almost always brought up. This makes its lack of popularity in the hobby all the more baffling. If you skipped out on Arctic Scavengers, it’s never too late to try what I believe to be the best deckbuilder around.

16. 7 Wonders: Duel

7 Wonder duel cover

In my 60-51 section I discussed 7 Wonders, one of the most popular and influential card drafting games in the industry. As much as I love 7 Wonders, it doesn’t quite measure up to its 2-player only version, 7 Wonders: Duel. Antoine Bauza, the designer of 7 Wonders, is joined by none other than Bruno Cathala for this game, which makes a lot of sense since Cathala is perhaps the best designer of 2-player only games in the hobby.

In this version of 7 Wonders, the pick and pass card drafting system that has been mimicked by so many other games is now replaced with a public draft from a card display. Cards are put into a specific shape (which changes round to round) with some cards being dealt face up and some being dealt face down. The cards are displayed in such a way that cards overlap each other, which plays into which cards are available for you to take on your turn. On your turn, you simply take one card and either put it in your civilization, discard it for gold, or burn it to build a wonder. Very much like the original 7 Wonders, but what makes this one superior to the original is its tactical back and forth nature.

Like some sort of empire building based ping pong, you and your opponent are constantly trading volleys, taking quick turns to draft the card that best suits your current and potential future needs. The drafting system is brilliant because it adds an exceptional puzzle element. You can look ahead up the shape to see what will be available based on what cards your or your opponent take. When a card is no longer overlapped, it becomes available to draft and if it’s a face down card then it also gets revealed. The tension that comes from trying to figure out what you want to make available for your opponent haunts every decision like Casper the Min-Max Ghost. Flipping over a facedown card is always a gamble because if it’s something that could greatly help your opponent, they’ll just snatch it right up on their turn.

This is further amplified by the three different win conditions in the game. If the game ends after three rounds, it’s just simply about counting victory points in your civilization to see who scored more. BUT there are ways the game can end abruptly before that point with either a Military Victory or a Science Victory.

The Military Victory is a constant tug of war between the opponents. There is a military track with a shield pawn that moves towards the players and if the shield ever ends up in your city, then you’ve immediately lost. The shield is moved by simply taking cards with the shield icon, allowing you to move the shield as many spots as there are icons towards the opponent.

Meanwhile, the Science Victory is about collecting symbols. On certain cards in the game there are scientific symbols and if a player ever collects six unique symbols they automatically win the game through a Science Victory. To further tantalize players to grab these symbols, players get a reward token if they collect two of the same symbol, which often grant some sort of special power or action.

The addition of these two automatic win conditions is such an ingenious touch. It expands the decision space to include more things that just “grab resources and points” and forces your opponent to have to play defense. If you take a couple of military cards in a row and start bearing down towards your opponent’s side of the military track, they suddenly have to shift their own strategies to deny you shields. This opens up your opportunity to start grabbing cards they have to ignore in their quest to deny you the Military Victory. Same goes for the Science Victory which seems very tough to get at first, but surprisingly snowballs when opponents don’t properly defend it. It seems like every game I’ve played of this comes down to one of the players needing just one card to complete the victory, making the last round an absolute nail biter. Facedown cards could be just the card your opponent needs to trigger the win condition, putting even more emphasis on the order in which cards are drafted.

Every time I play 7 Wonders: Duel I am reminded of just how brilliant and great it is. It truly is one of the best two player only games in the hobby and one that should be in everybody’s collection, whether you have the original or not.

15. Five Tribes

five tribes cover

I just got done discussing one of Bruno Cathala’s co-designs, so let’s move onto one that he did all by himself: Five Tribes. Considered by many to be Cathala’s magnum opus, Five Tribes takes the ancient game mechanism of mancala and puts it into a midweight strategy game that will turn your brain into slush (in the best possible way, of course).

Set in an Arabian Nights style setting, players will be guiding meeples around a grid using the aforementioned mancala mechanism, activating the special actions granted by the Five Tribes (hey, that’s the name of the game) of Naquala (hey, that kinda sounds like mancala). Meeples will be randomly strewn about the grid of tiles, looking like someone set off a bomb underneath eight boxes of Carcassonne. On your turn, you take a group of meeples and walk it on a path, dropping meeples off along the way. The last meeple you drop off allows you to grab all meeples of that color from the tile and activate the tribe ability associated with that color.

I won’t go too deep into all the tribes, but they let you do things like grab cards from a marketplace, buy Djinns which grant victory points and special powers, and kill other meeples. In addition to the tribe actions, the tiles themselves have actions which are also activated, meaning you have to think not only about what tribe is the most profitable but what location tile would be great to pair it with. Considering the sheer amount of possibilities every turn gives you, with every potential group of meeples you can grab and airdrop around like Santa tossing presents from his sleigh having strong ramifications for the next turn, you can see why this game is described as puzzle-y. In fact, some could argue it’s a bit too puzzle-y. While I have yet to experience the pleasure of playing this with a person prone to analysis paralysis, I can certainly see this being a nightmarish slog if someone had to min/max every single permutation.

Since I don’t have to deal with that, I become hopelessly engrossed in Five Tribe’s Rubik’s Cube of a game state every time I play it. Mapping out which paths I should take and which ones would give me a good return on points is never not satisfying and being able to pull off a huge turn that gives you a boatload of points is an absolute rush. I can’t think of a game where I get more excited for my turn to come up because I know that it’s going to be a blast to try and figure out.

It’s no surprise I love this game. Five Tribes is like a Greatest Hits album of Bruno Cathala’s design traits: it’s incredibly puzzle-y, as I mentioned; It is one of the most tactical games I’ve ever played, with players being forced to adapt and react based on what the person on the turn before them did; It’s got lots of fun powers in the form of its Djinn cards; It’s just the right length, never outstaying its welcome yet giving you a good sense of getting lots of things done. I have mentioned countless times that Cathala is my favorite designer and while this isn’t my favorite Cathala game, I can’t think of a game that better reflects why he’s my favorite designer.

If you love a good puzzle in your board games, there’s no easier recommendation than Five Tribes. It’s a game I expect to be in the top 20 portion of this list the next few years.

14. Decrypto

Decrypto cover

Word association party games are, as the kids say, my jam. Plenty of them have already popped up in my top 100 and my number 14 is one of the best in the industry: Decrypto.

I have been filled with both excitement and dread to talk about this game. I’m excited because this game is such an amazing and clever design. I’m dreading it because, despite it being a simple game to play, it is a disaster to try and explain. I will do my best but please…have a little pity.

I already briefly mentioned Decrypto earlier in this top 100, when I discussed the game Cross Talk in my 70-61 section. Cross Talk is a word game where you’re trying to give hints to get your team to guess a word, but you don’t want your hints to be too on the nose because the other team gets first crack at it. Decrypto shares this ‘give vague but good hints’ DNA, but in a slightly more involved fashion.

This is a team vs. team game, as many of these games tend to be. Each team has a board propped up in front of them that only they can see. The board has four slots, each filled with a different word card. So, let’s say the words are ‘bear’, ‘ogre’, ‘beach’ and ‘kitchen’. The slots have a number so each of those words correspond to a number 1-4.

The active clue giver draws a card with a 3-number code that their team must guess. Let’s say they draw ‘3.2.1’. That means they need to give clues for beach, ogre, and bear, IN THAT ORDER, so that their team can guess the numbered code. Players guessing never say the words out loud, they say the numbers associated with the words that they believe their clue giver is trying to get across and in the order of the clues given. So, the clue giver can say ‘sand’, ‘Shrek’, and ‘grizzly’ to get their team to say “3, 2, 1.”

HOWEVER.

The clue givers do NOT want to give clues that obviously point towards something because, much like Cross Talk, the other team gets first dibs on intercepting the code. The first turn there is no intercepting codes, it’s just saying clues to provide a baseline. But after that, any clues that sound like they might be related to previous clues allows opponents to cross examine and nail down what the mystery word may be. For example, if the clue givers (which alternates every round) give the clues, ‘grizzly’, ‘polar’ and ‘cave’ for the word ‘bear’, there is a very good chance the opponents will zero in on that being something bear related. From that point on, anything else they think may be bear related, they will be sure to guess the number ‘1’ when they try to intercept the code. If the opposing team intercepts two of your codes, they win the game.

You’re probably thinking, then just be as vague as possible to confuse the other team….which is half right. You DO want to be vague so that the team can’t intercept BUT if your own team can’t figure out what you’re trying to say, then you get a failure token. And guess what? If you get two failure tokens, the other team wins the game. This creates a brutally tight balance between being obvious enough for your team to correctly guess the codes but being vague enough to prevent opposing team from catching the scent.

There are few games as nerve-wracking as Decrypto. The margins of error are ruthlessly thin and the slightest slip up can blow your whole game wide open. It feels like the other team is a flock of vultures circling overhead, just waiting for your team to collapse under the pressure so it can pick on your remains. In this tension, however, comes some of the most satisfying gaming moments I’ve ever experienced. When you do manage to sneak something by your opponents and your team immediately picks up on it, you feel like a genius. When you detect a subtle trend from the other team and intercept a code, you feel like Alan god damned Turing. There is no game that makes you feel as clever as Decrypto and the euphoric rush that gives you is hard to come by elsewhere in the hobby.

Also, Decrypto feels surprisingly thematic. As great as industry darling Codenames is, and while it may or may not show up on later this Top 100, it feels like an abstract exercise in word association. The spy theme is completely pasted on. Not so in Decrypto. Sporting an early Cold War aesthetic, this game makes you feel like you’re all codebreakers as you huddle with your team, desperately trying to get a leg up on the opponents in hushed whispers. It further adds to the endless suspense this game provides and, while it can be exhausting if the game is drawn out, it’s mighty impressive for a word-based party game to pull this off.

Decrypto is a game that I can easily see sneaking into my top 10 at some point. The main reason it’s not this year is simply because I don’t play the game quite as often as I’d like. I just mentioned that this game can be exhausting and that is perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t see the table as often as other games of this ilk. It’s for a very specific crowd and a very specific mood. But when those two things combine and Decrypto does get pulled out, it is a truly amazing experience.

13. Kemet

Kemet cover

In my 40-31 section I discussed a game called Cyclades, a troops on a map game set in Ancient Greek mythology. I also mentioned that it was part of a trilogy and that there was a chance the other two games may show up on my list. Now we’re here! Kemet is my number 13 and the second installment of the trilogy from publisher Matagot.

Kemet trades Cyclades’ Greek mythology and auction mechanism for Egyptian mythology and an action selection system. Players will be selecting actions on a player board and then using action points to referred to as prayer points (or PP *chortle*) to activate them. These actions including adding soldiers, moving soldiers, upgrading your different pyramids or buying tiles that grant special powers. The player board has a pyramid shape with three rows, with a rule stating that you must end your round with an action token on each row. This prevents you from spamming an entire row and forces you to consider the timing of certain choices, so you don’t back yourself into a corner and take a suboptimal action at the end just to satisfy this rule. It’s rare that anyone does find themselves being screwed up so the puzzle here is pretty minimal but it’s still an interesting layer to add to another wise standard action selection mechanism.

Managing your actions and your PP (tee hee) economy are certainly fun problems to wrestle with, but what makes Kemet truly special is its tech tree system. I mentioned earlier that one of the actions you can do is buy tiles that give you special powers, creatively called ‘power tiles.’ The tiles come in three flavors: strawberry, blueberry and vanilla. Or, red, blue and white. Red focuses on attacking and favors aggressive strategies while blue is all about defense, making you an unfavorable target for others to attack. White is all about your action point economy, giving you discounts and more bang for your prayer buck. The types of tiles available to you are determined by the level of your pyramid for that color. If you only have a level 1 red pyramid, you only have access to level 1 red powers.

Figuring out which strategies you want to focus on and then crafting your war engine to fit that via power tiles is unbelievably fun and exciting. It’s easily my favorite part of this game, giving everyone their own asymmetrical feel. What makes this asymmetry special is that YOU chose those powers and YOU crafted your arsenal of weapons, giving a feeling of ownership that other games don’t offer. Most other games of this type that offer special powers dump it on your lap like unwanted paperwork and says, “Here, you’re good at attacking so only do that, have fun.” Not so in Kemet. If you’re looking to pick fights and be an ancient Egyptian bully, you pick the powers to do so. If you want to create an economy engine of action efficiency and creating a surplus of prayer points, then it’s up to you to figure out how to get there. Did I mention there were also monsters you could recruit? Yep, there’s monsters with their own miniatures that become yours and ONLY yours when you take their corresponding tile, once again instilling a satisfying sense of ownership that I have yet to see another game come close to.

Outside of this addictive retail therapy that you get from shopping for powers and abilities, the actual things happening on the board are also fun and exciting. The whole point of the game is to get to 8 victory points and one of the most effective ways to get there is by consistently winning battles in which you’re the attacker. This makes Kemet an incredibly aggressive, bloodthirsty game and I absolutely love it. There’s barely any build up before people are already in each other’s faces and this game probably beats the record for most curse words said in its opening ten minutes. The combat can be a little fiddly, which is probably my biggest complaint with Kemet, but that doesn’t stop the near constant fighting from being cinematic and thrilling.

Kemet obviously isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like games where you are always threatening to destroy other players things or you’re not a fan of having things taken from you, you should probably stick to more relaxing and peaceful fare. Conflict adverse players need not apply, but if you DO like that sort of gameplay, and enjoy a little bit of Euro fixings in your troops on a map games, Kemet is one of the best in the hobby.

12. Bohnanza

Bohnanza cover

Let’s go from battling it out in Ancient Egypt with giant scorpions and war elephants and mummies and go to…trading beans? The hell?

Yes, my number 12 is Bohnanza, a game all about trading beans with each other. Woe be to the person who decides to neglect this game because they don’t think that sounds exciting. Don’t feel too bad though, I was there once too.

When I first got into gaming and started to learn more about the different games available in the hobby, Bohnanza was a game I saw repeatedly mentioned. Looking into it, I saw some somewhat ugly cover art and that it was about trading beans and thought, “Nah, I’m good.” Fast forward a year or so to me surfing through YouTube looking for something gaming related to watch, because that’s what my life has become, when I saw that the YouTube series ‘Game Night!’ had an episode where they played Bohnanza. Curious as to why this game got so much attention and love, I gave it a watch.

Literally twenty minutes into the video, I paused it and bought a copy of the game on Amazon. It looked that fun.

Turns out, it is that fun! The first few times I played Bohnanza it was an absolute blast and I wondered how long the fun would last before it started to feel same-y. That time has yet to come and every time I play Bohnanza, I love it a little bit more. It’s just so, so good and so, so fun.

Bohnanza is actually the brainchild of Uwe Rosenberg who is more known for his midweight to heavy worker placement games, usually about farming in some way. This game is still about farming (what a surprise), but it is most certainly not a worker placement game. Bohnanza is a fast paced, frenetic card game of wheeling and dealing to get the best possible payouts for various beans you will be collecting.

The cards in the game represent various beans which go into your bean fields, planted there until you eventually decide to sell them. Only one type of bean can go in a field, so deciding when to sell them to make room for a new bean is a crucial sticking point in the game. The beans have increasing payouts for your beans when you sell them, obviously goading you to keep collecting and collecting till you maximize profit. This would all seem quite simple if it wasn’t for Bohnanza’s most important rule.

That rule I so expertly teased right there? In Bohnanza, unlike in pretty much every card game since the dawn of card games, you can NOT move the cards around in your hand. They go in one way and out the other, like they’re being placed on a conveyor belt. At the start of your turn, you must always plant the first bean in your hand. Does that bean help you? No? Too bad! It needs to go in a field and if that means ripping up the precious plot of stink beans you’ve been working so hard to cultivate than that’s tough luck.

Because of this, Bohnanza is all about manipulating your hand so that the beans you want to plant stick around and move down the line while the less favorable ones don’t get anywhere near your fields. This is done through trading. On your turn, you get a chance to trade with the other players and this is how you manage your hand without actually reordering it. Any beans that you give to others are immediately handed over, allowing the rest of the beans in your hand to inch forward like they’re at the bean DMV.

This, of course, causes the table to erupt into a storm of negotiations, with every player trying to get the better end of the deal. The amazing part is that Bohnanza manages to conceal the ‘better end’ of a deal because people are going to value certain beans more than others. Sure, it seems like 3 wax beans and a chili bean for one cocoa bean is lopsided, but if you take into account the rarity of cocoa beans and the bind that the cocoa player might be stuck in if they can’t get an extra one and suddenly it’s a little more opaque. There will definitely be moments when players get downright swindled or when a player is so desperate that they start donating beans to others just to unjam their hand, but the game moves by so quickly that it’s tough to cry foul too often.

There’s not much more to say about Bohnanza besides the fact that it’s just one of the most consistently fun games in my collection. Like Arctic Scavengers earlier in this post, this is also one of the most requested games I own. Friends of mine are always asking for ‘the bean game’ or ‘Beanboozled’ (because that’s apparently what they remember the name as). If I want to play a game as often as I want to play Bohnanza and if my friends want to play it as often as they do, then what else do you need to know? Bohnanza is freaking great.

11. Skull

Skull cover

Here we are, at the end of this section and just at the goal line of my top 10. Which game gets the distinct honor of being my number 11, just barely missing the top 10? That game is the bluffing masterpiece known as Skull.

In terms of rule set and components, Skull is perhaps one of the simplest and most bare bones (HAH) entries on this top 100. It’s just some coasters and playing mats, something that could easily be proxied with playing cards or actual coasters at a bar or brewery. But from this simplicity blossoms one of the most lively and addicting games I’ve ever played.

In Skull, everyone has four coasters: three with a flower on it, one with a skull. To start off the round, everyone simultaneously chooses one of their coasters to put face down on their mat. Then the active player gets things started proper by making a choice. They either place another coaster face down, ending their turn, OR they make a wager. When they make a wager, they say, “I can flip over X amount of coasters without hitting a skull” with X being any number of coasters out on the table. Then, bidding begins. The rulebook says you should go in turn order, raising bids one at a time or passing like many auction games BUT I personally prefer a more freeform, yelling based approach. It seems like that tends to be the popular opinion on the internet as well. Regardless of your favored method, people keep bidding till somebody makes a bid that no one wants to top. When that happens, they need to put their money where their overeager mouth is and start flipping.

One of the twists of Skull starts here. When you begin flipping coasters, you MUST start with your own. This means that if you have a skull and you were simply trying to raise the bid to goad others into making careless, panicked wagers, then you’re going to have a bad time. If you make it past your own coasters safely, you then begin flipping other coasters around the table. You can go in any order and flip over any coasters you want, as long as it’s the topmost on any player’s pile. If you make your wager without hitting a skull, you get a point! If you DO hit a skull, you immediately stop and lose your wager. You lose a random coaster as punishment and a new round begins. First to two points wins!

There’s Skull. That’s it. You could literally play this game right now with stuff lying around you. And yet, it’s tough to find a game that elicits more emotion and shouting and laughter and memorable moments than this game. The meta that develops and evolves over the course of the game (or multiple games) is hysterical. My group has people who are the reckless gunslingers, making wild bets and gambles as they fire from the hip, trying to earn a point with a daring wager. When they do land a shot, it’s always a cheer worthy moment, even though it’s not a point for you. On the other side, we have the stoic sentinels who sit silently, constantly putting down skulls so that players fail their wager when they foolishly flip one of their coasters (“They can’t have possibly put down a skull AGAIN”, we say as we flip over the coaster to promptly reveal a skull). What’s amazing though is that among all the laughter and hilarity is a superbly tense game of playing odds and trying to get into your opponents’ heads. This game has a wicked set of fangs to it, even if they’re revealed through a jovial grin.

This game can be hit or miss depending on the group you play it with, but I’ve had it hit FAR more often than miss. And when it does hit, it is an absolute riot. I have begun and ended many a game night with Skull and it is quite possibly the most played game in my collection.

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Holy crap, we’re almost there! We’re almost at the Top 10! Come back next week to see it!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 30-21

We’re driving down the highway of my top 100, the air blowing through the windows as the fresh smell of cardboard and plastic from amazing board games wafts in. What’s that ahead? Is that an exit for the top 30 of my top 100? Let’s take it, shall we?

Here is the beginning of the end, my 30-21.

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30. Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye cover

My 2nd favorite designer, Alexander Pfister, made his first appearance on my last post with his excellent card drafting game Tybor the Builder. Here he is making a swift return with his Scottish themed tile layer, Isle of Skye.

In Isle of Skye, players are Scottish chieftains aspiring to be king/queen, which is done by building out your kingdom in a way that satisfies as many scoring objectives as possible. One of the many cool things about this game is that what scores points changes from game to game. Some games the people REALLY want livestock to be surrounding their homes like they’re zombies in a Romero movie while other games they’re obsessed with ships and in others they want a very long, winding road because they’re presumably huge Beatles fans. As if the randomization of scoring objectives wasn’t enough, the order in which they’re scored varies from game to game too. Different rounds have different scoring objectives, which not only makes for a lot replayability but also creates many interesting choices on how to pace the construction of your kingdom. Do you focus on getting lots of little points for the short term in the early rounds or do you spend time building up towards later game objectives to get a large swath of points then?

But the REALLY cool thing in Isle of Skye is how you procure tiles. At the beginning of every round, players draw three tiles and then secretly price them behind a player a screen. One tile gets the literal ax, being discarded back to the tile bag while the other two get any amount of gold that you can spare. When players reveal their prices it’s time to go shopping, Scottish clan style! Every player has a chance to buy a tile from another player by paying the cost they’ve set. If someone takes one of your tiles, you not only get their money BUT the gold you put out to set the price in the process. You essentially gain double the value that YOU set for it! BUT if somebody doesn’t pay for your tile, you are forced to discard the gold you used to set its price, essentially paying for it for yourself. This creates a fascinating mix of auction and ‘I Cut, You Choose’ mechanisms that never fails to fill your stomach with bubbles of dread. Price a tile too low and somebody will snatch it away from you and it’ll feel like you didn’t even get a good return on it. Price it too high though and you may end up paying more for it then you would have liked. It’s even worse if it’s a tile YOU personally want. How high of a paywall do you put on the tile to prevent others from getting it without bankrupting yourself? It’s mortifying and delightful at the same time.

Between Isle of Skye’s dynamic scoring system and its intriguing and unique auction mechanisms, this was an easy pick to be in the top 30. I always look forward to playing it again and would be shocked if it wasn’t around this same spot next top 100.

29. Tricky Tides

Tricky Tides cover

On my last post I talked about Skull King, an amazing trick taking game that I made special care to call “one of my favorite” and not “my favorite” trick taking game. That’s because my favorite all time trick taking game is right here at number 29: Tricky Tides.

A common thread among the trick taking games on this top 100 are that they usually involve some sort of hook or twist that shakes the trick taking formula like a bottle of Snapple. Such is the case with Tricky Tides, which perhaps has the biggest twist of all. The curveball in Tricky Tides’ arsenal? It’s not only a trick taker, but it’s also a pick up and deliver game. Insert Chris Pratt surprised face gif here.

I’ve already raved about Tricky Tides in a full length review this past summer. I loved it so much, I just had to talk about it, so click here to soak it in like a pirate thrown overboard.

The ‘long story short’ version is that players are moving ship tokens around a chain of islands, picking up goods and delivering them to score contracts. The way in which players move is determined by the tricks played. Cards have a compass on them with certain directions highlighted and when you play that card, those are the directions in which you can move the ship. When you move the ship and arrive at an island, you can either take all the cubes of a certain good type or spend cubes that you’ve already gathered to satisfy a contract. It’s all about efficiently moving around the grid, taking resources at the right time to make the most of your limited ship’s hold. It’s like being a nautical logistics company, except there’s also sea monsters. Oh, I didn’t mention the sea monsters did I?

Players who play the highest value on suit card ‘win’ the trick and therefore get to move their ship first, giving them first dibs on whatever is available at the contract and resource cube buffet. BUT play the lowest value on suit card and you get to trigger a sea monster’s power. Stationed around the board at different spots like security guards at a concert venue are sea monsters, all of which are linked to one of the four suits in the game. Whatever suit has been used for that trick determines what monster the ‘loser’ of the trick is able to activate. The powers all have some sort of form of resource manipulation, such as the Octopus’ ability to grab or throw resources to and from adjacent islands or the Shark’s ability to gobble up a cube which then appears on your ship through some sort of gastrointestinal black magic. Being able to activate these monsters not only makes for a nice balancing mechanism if you end up with a crappy hand of low values but also provides nice tactical choices to make. Sometimes you may want to purposely play the lowest card so you’re able to possess a certain sea monster for your own advantages.

I’ll admit that I may be a bit biased towards Tricky Tides thanks to my love of all things nautical, especially when the theme comes through so beautifully in this game’s wonderfully striking art. The art looks like something out of an old sailor’s sketchbook, giving this game an authentic Age of Sail vibe that never fails to give me a warm feeling.

Even with these biases aside, though, I think Tricky Tides is an amazingly clever and unique mix of trick taking and pick up and deliver that feels fresh and fun. It’s one of 2019’s hidden gems and deserves more attention.

28. Menara

Menara cover

My top 100 has only seen one dexterity game so far, way back in my 60-51 section with the game Drop It. My number 28, Menara, is another dexterity game, but while Drop It is competitive, Menara is cooperative. Already that’s a huge point in this game’s favor. Cooperative dexterity games are surprisingly rare, so being able to play one is always a treat.

In Menara, you and your fellow players are trying to build a temple together, playing the role of archaeological contractors, apparently.  The temple is going to be constructed with wooden pillars which are placed on wonkily shaped platforms. You’re trying to get your temple to be a certain amount of levels high before time runs out while also trying to make sure the temple doesn’t fall over like your drunken uncle at a Christmas party.

I mentioned one of the reasons I love Drop It so much is that it isn’t a completely mindless affair. You aren’t just dropping shapes down a slot, you’re trying to pick shapes and aim based on what makes the most tactical sense. It’s far from deep but having things to consider and ponder is what separated Drop It from other dexterity games I’ve tried. Menara is similarly not just about dumbly placing columns, with shaky hands being the only determiner of whether you win.

For one, there is a slight element of resource management. Players have ‘hands’ of pillars and at the start of their turns can trade some pillars from their hands with pillars in a communal reserve known as the camp. Pillars can only be placed on spots that match their color, so there is a constant need to rotate the colors you have at your disposal. Again, this isn’t MENSA level stuff, but the need to think about what colors should be in your hand and at the camp is quite welcome in a dexterity game.

The real strategy and tactics, though, lies in how players pace themselves in the game. On your turn, you have to flip over an action card that tells you what action you need to complete on your turn. This includes things as simple as placing a pillar or two to more advanced things like finishing off an entire platform of pillars or even moving entire platforms from one level to another. These actions are separated into decks by difficulty and players choose what deck they want to draw from on their turn.

This creates an excellent sense of pushing your luck and hedging your bets on what you think you’re able to accomplish in the short term without screwing yourself over in the long term. Starting off with easy cards and working your way up seems simple, but you’ll be setting yourself up for a murderous second half of the game. Dip into the hard cards too early, however, and you may not have the proper foundations to even accomplish the actions. Not being able to complete an action results in another level being added to your endgame win condition, making your job that much tougher.

It’s such a unique way to handle the pacing of a game, because players literally control it themselves. Being able to pick what difficulty to try at the right time is key to winning and it felt like a really fresh take on the cooperative game. Add in the actual dexterity elements which is a bundle of nerve-wracking fun and it’s easy to see why this game ended up so high on my top 100.

This is, however, one of the unfortunate handful of games I don’t actually own. Its availability is also suspect, making this a game I may not own for quite some time. Funnily enough, unlike the other games I don’t own on this list, this might actually help Menara’s position for next year? A common critique I’ve heard for this game from critics and friends alike is that the game starts to feel more repetitive and mechanical the more you play it. I can’t speak to that so, as of now, Menara is quite comfortable at spot 28.

27. Bruges

Bruges cover

Despite being one of the most popular and influential designers in the industry, Stefan Feld has only one of his games appear on my list so far. That was Notre Dame, which appeared alllll the way back in my first Top 100 post, the 100-91 section. Wow, I was so young and hopeful then. Anyway, Feld makes a return with his second (and final) game on my list, Bruges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26. Concordia

Concordia cover

God bless Shut Up & Sit Down. If it wasn’t for their glowing review of Concordia, I likely would have never given it a second look. Even after their review, I honestly still wasn’t convinced. How could this game, with its bland cover and bland theme and bland sounding rule set, be anywhere near as good as everyone is saying?? But more and more people continued to keep raving about it and I had to get a copy just to satiate my curiosity.

For like the 87th time on this Top 100, it’s time to admit I was wrong. Concordia IS as good as everyone says.

I’ll try to get through describing the game without falling asleep. (I promise this game is good! It just sounds so dry and boring!) Players are playing cards in order to complete actions that include producing resources, selling and trading those resources, building little outposts to further your production power, and zzzzzzzzz OH, shit, I got so close! Listen, this is game is Euro 101, so let’s get into what makes this game different and great.

First off is the hand management and hand building aspect. In Concordia, everyone starts off with an identical hand of actions cards. How you use those cards is entirely up to you. Once you use a card, it’s in your discard until you play another card that allows you to pull your discard pile back in your hand. That card rewards you for pulling up more cards, so timing it till the last possible moment while not waiting TOO long is a constant dilemma that teases you throughout the game.

Managing your hand is a tense efficiency puzzle, but Concordia also offers you a chance to build your hand. Throughout the game, a display of cards will be oozing along a track at the top, offering players a chance to buy cards to add to your arsenal of potential actions. Many of them provide more efficient versions of the cards everyone starts with, allowing everyone to laser in and focus on an avenue to victory they find fun and/or advantageous to pursue.

This is all made even more intriguing when you internalize how the game scores. It’s a little tricky to explain, but basically all the cards have a certain Roman God or Goddess listed on its bottom and those cards score in specific ways. Whatever points you get from that God or Goddess based on your board state is then multiplied by the number of cards you have of that God or Goddess. So, if you get 8 points from your Mars cards and you have 3 of them in your hand by game’s end, that’s 24 points. I looove this scoring system, even if it’s a bit of a bastard to teach to newcomers. It makes you really think about what cards you want and also makes for the most exciting final scoring round in any game I’ve played. Since you technically don’t score throughout the game, it’s just an explosion of points after points as you and your opponents tally everything in your hand, your score markers sprinting around the board like it’s the Kentucky Derby.

It doesn’t hurt that this is all contained in one of the most superbly elegant rulesets in any game I’ve played. You literally play a card, do what it says, and there’s your turn. There aren’t any edge cases nagging at you like a stubborn hangnail and referencing the rulebook is almost never needed. Scoring can sometimes trip up players but even that requires just an example for them to understand it. The absolutely only thing keeping this from being higher on my list is simply lack of play. I haven’t played this game in over a year and a half and it felt weird putting a game that’s suffered that long a drought much higher than this spot. When I finally do get a chance to play this again, I see it being in my top 15, easily.

25. Dixit

Dixit cover

Kicking off my top 25 is a game that’s been in my collection longer than pretty much every other game on this list: Dixit. One of the go to gateway party games, Dixit is quietly one of the most influential games in the hobby. Its art style has been aped and copied in countless games since and people still refer to it as “Dixit-style art” despite how long it’s been since Dixit’s release. It is also one of the first games to popularize the idea of communicating concepts without being too forthcoming, something that party games today still revolve around.

To tighten the scope of Dixit’s influence, it’s also one of the most important games in my collection. It was one of the first games I ever went out and bought myself and was therefore a keystone in the early days of my collection. It was easily one of the most played games for me and my various groups at that time and was even the first hobby game I ever taught to my parents. You could argue that Dixit gets a big bump in the ranking on this list for nostalgia purposes, but I think that’s unfair to say. Both Pandemic and Carcassonne were games I played quite often around the same time and yet I’ve suffered some degree of burnout on both, resulting in neither game even cracking my top 50. Dixit has no such burnout. I still adore this game as much as the first day I played it and will never turn down a chance to get it to the table.

I suppose I should describe the game at this point? I’m sure most of you know what it is anyway. You have tarot sized cards of surreal, dream like art and one player, called the storyteller, gives a clue for one of their cards. It can be a phrase, a word, even a sound. Then everyone else picks a card from their hand that they think matches the clue, they’re all shuffled up and then put on display for a vote: which one was the original card chosen by the Storyteller?

The brilliance in Dixit lies in its scoring system. If you want people to guess your clue, why not be obvious? Why not just say, “Married couple playing chess underwater as an octopus checks its pocket watch in the background”? Because in Dixit, the Storyteller scores no points if either everyone guesses the card OR if nobody guesses the card. So be too obvious or too vague and you’re just giving your opponents free points. It’s such a clever, sharp system that has, as I mentioned, laid the groundwork for dozens and dozens of party games since.

I love games that require you to stretch your creative muscles over your logical ones and Dixit was one of the first games to scratch that itch for me. Being the Storyteller and having free reign on what clue to give allows for such boundless creative choices, while trying to play a card that matches the Storyteller’s clue allows for equal amounts of devious imagination.

I know many have cooled on the game as time has passed and they’ve moved onto shinier, newer party experiences but for me, Dixit will always have a place in my heart and in my collection. If this is still one you haven’t played, what the hell are you waiting for!?

24. Spyfall

spyfall cover

At number 24 is my favorite pure social deduction game, Spyfall. In this game, players are given a secret location as well as some sort of occupation or person you’d find there. That is except for one person, who is given a card that merely says ‘Spy’. Then, players simply begin asking each other questions. Things like, “Are we outside or inside?” or “What do you do here?” or “ARE YOU THE SPY, TELL ME YOU TRAITEROUS COWARD”. Players need to answer the question in a way that lets people know that they’re aware of the location they’re in.

However, like Sir Mix-a-Lot, I like big BUTs and I cannot lie and Spyfall has a very big BUT. Players want to let others know that they are clued in on the location BUT they don’t want to be too obvious or else the spy might catch on. If at any point the spy can declare what the mystery location is, they automatically win the game. Even if they don’t get to that point, giving the spy possible ammunition to fit in with good answers of their own is enough to torpedo a win for the non-spy players. If the non-spies can’t suss out the spy and accuse them before time runs out, then that’s another way for the spy to win.

I believe Spyfall was the first pure social deduction game I ever played and it has continued to be my favorite. One of the big reasons is just how damn funny this game is. Everybody is trying to be as cagey as possible, which leads to hysterically vague answers. Even funnier, though, is when the spy thinks the location is one thing and gives an outrageously out of left field answer, shining a huge spotlight on their cluelessness. One time I was the spy and I was confident we were at the zoo, so when asked what my favorite time of day was I said, “Feeding hour.” Turns out we were NOT at a zoo but at a casino, which led to everyone staring blankly for five seconds before simultaneously saying, “Kyle’s the spy.” It also created an image of people at slot machines hearing a dinner bell and rushing over to a feeding trough that had the table rolling in laughter.

Another reason I love Spyfall so much is its snappy length. Whereas games like The Resistance has players relentlessly bickering for close to an hour, Spyfall has a timer of eight minutes. This swiftness not only keeps things from getting too heated and barbaric but allows multiple rounds of it to be played in quick succession. This means more people get a chance to be the spy and an ever shifting meta can grow and evolve like an aggressive flu virus. It makes the game hopelessly addicting and one game of Spyfall easily melts into seven or eight over the course of an hour.

Sure, Spyfall has its warts. Like any social deduction game, it is very group dependent and is maybe the most polarizing game in my collection. I have friends who outright hate this game and refuse to play it because they find it too stressful. For me, I don’t find it stressful because the stress is what makes this game fun. Sweating it out as you try to bullshit your way through a question you have NO clue how to answer is a riotous good time to me but others find it a lot less funny. This is also a game that can grind to a halt if people keep giving the same vague responses, not allowing any new information to enter the game state. There’s a running joke in my group that if somebody asks “What do you do around here?”, you respond, “My job.” It gets a lot less funny, though, when it actually interferes with the game.

Regardless of these ‘flaws’, Spyfall has given me so many memories of fun and laughter that it was an easy choice for me to put it this high on the list.

23. Broom Service

Broom Service cover

After failing to appear in most of my list, Alexander Pfister has now been the designer of three of the last ten entries. That’s including this one right here; my number 23, Broom Service.

Broom Service puts players in the cloaks and pointy hats of witches, trying to deliver potions to various castles. They’re like a magical Amazon Prime, with less illegal working conditions. It’s a pick-up and deliver game at its core but its brilliance lies in an incredible role selection mechanism.

Like a couple of other games on my top 100, Broom Service gives players an identical hand of action/role cards to choose from. Every round, players secretly choose four to play and then a starting player leads off with one of them. Whoever also chose that card as one of their four must also play that card BUT, there’s a twist. Starting with the lead player, players who play that action must immediately declare whether they are going to take the ‘cowardly’ version of that action or the ‘brave’ version of that action. The cowardly version of the action is much weaker and less efficient, but players get to do it immediately upon declaring it. The brave version is stronger and much more rewarding BUT only one player can complete it. If you declare brave and somebody else declares brave after you, you lose out on the action and your turn, which is devastating.

Pfister takes this idea of role selection, something that’s been used in plenty of games before, and infuses it with a socially driven element of push your luck to create some of the most tense but raucous 45-60 minutes you can experience in gaming. Trying to figure out when to play it safe and declare an action cowardly versus pushing your luck and calling brave is a sense of constant dread and terror in this game. Calling brave early means you’re on the edge of your seat as the rest of the players say whether or not they’ve played that card, breathing a sigh of relief if nobody does or banging your head against the table in frustration when somebody steals the brave right out from under you.

I have heard some people in the hobby poo-poo this game for being too punishing when you get your turn skipped due to an ill-timed brave declaration. I can certainly see why some might get frustrated with that but, much like with Spyfall, I find it more comedic than demoralizing when people don’t get their brave actions. That’s including myself! Usually there’s lots of taunting as the one player groans. It’s equally funny when somebody calls cowardly early and it’s revealed they’re the ONLY person who even used that action that round. Again, some may grind their teeth when stuff like that occurs but I think this game is just light and short enough that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Besides, the moment when you do correctly call an action brave and reap the benefits is exhilarating enough for me to forgive the more downtrodden moments.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this whole cowardly/brave action mechanism is in my likely in my top 3 favorite game mechanisms. It’s so unique and clever and creates such moments of equal parts drama and comedy that it’s baffling to me that this game isn’t more popular. While I may or may not have a Pfister game appear later on this top 100, I don’t think he’s made a mechanism more creative or joyful to experience than this one.

Broom Service deserves way more love and attention than it gets and it’s even forgotten in the conversation of Pfister’s own catalogue. So many people focus on his bigger games like Great Western Trail and Mombasa and, much more recently, Maracaibo, that his light to midweight games get left behind like Kevin McCallister on Christmas. Don’t be Kevin McCallister’s parents. Play Broom Service.

22. Just One

Just One cover

Along with Tricky Tides, Just One is one of the few games from 2019 on this top 100. This is mostly because I simply don’t have the means to play as many recent releases (lack of money, space and friends being the biggest obstacles). But Just One is a game I just HAD to play when it first came out. As a fan of word association party games, Just One sounded like it would fit perfectly with majority of my game groups. Considering it’s here at number 22, I guess you can say I was right. For once!

Just One is stupidly simple to explain. It’s a cooperative party game where one player is a guesser and the rest of the group are clue givers. The guesser has a card with five words in front of them so that they can’t see it and name a number one through five. The clue givers write a word on a little whiteboard that they think will help the guesser guess that word.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a modern party game without a twist, so what is Just One’s? After everyone writes their clues, the guesser closes their eyes and the clue givers reveal to each other their clues. If anybody has written a duplicate, ALL copies of that clue are erased. Afterwards, the guesser opens their eyes and must guess the word based on what’s remaining.

Like many party games, including some on this very portion of the top 100, it’s all about straddling a line between obvious and obscure. Go too obvious and you’ll likely collide into someone with a duplicate. Go too obscure, and the guesser will be left scratching their head when all they’re left with is an obtuse, incoherent string of words. It’s incredible fun to get in the heads of your teammates and try to determine what direction they’re going to take so that you can avoid it yourself.

I’ve already taught you the game, so there’s no excuse to go and play it right at this moment. Go on, I’ll wait, I’m used to it.

Back? See? Wasn’t that just a load of fun? Just One is everything I want from a party game. Easy to teach and instantly accessible for just about anyone while still providing enough meat for your brain to chew on (or tofu, if you’re vegetarian/vegan). The game has the open armed feel of a mass market game while not boring me like those tend to do. It’s fast, fun, addictive and so simple that it’s a wonder it took till 2019 for it to exist.

My only complaint is with the scoring mechanism. You’re simply making a random deck of 13 cards and then scoring yourself based on how many cards you correctly guess. There’s even a whole rule with passing that literally everyone I’ve ever heard talk about this game completely ignores (some don’t even realize it’s a rule in the game). I wish there had been some sort of concrete “You win” or “You lose” condition, but I also recognize that adding extra rules for scoring would probably result in a game that hasn’t been streamlined to perfection.

Regardless of my own personal qualms with a less than stellar ‘win’ condition, Just One has managed to stand out against a lot of competition in both the industry and my very own collection as a word game that demands to played over and over again. In less than a year, I’ve already had to invest in new dry erase markers thanks to the ones in my copy being dried from overuse. If that isn’t worthy of a top 25 spot, I dunno what is.

21. When I Dream

When I Dream cover

Closing out this section of list is yet another word game, this one blended with hidden roles and some traces of social deduction. This is When I Dream, a game about fairies, boogiemen and sandmen battling it out for the attention of someone taking a nap (which isn’t creepy at all). This is yet another game that I’ve already reviewed on the blog, a review you can read right here.

In When I Dream, players take turns being the Dreamer, someone who will don a sleeping mask and be given clues, one at a time, by the rest of the players to guess words. Sounds like a straight up word association game, so where’s the twist? The twist is that the other players, who are giving the clues, are given hidden roles and those roles determine how helpful they want to be to the Dreamer.

There are Fairies, Boogiemen and Sandmen. Fairies want the Dreamer to guess the words as they come up, so they have a very straightforward task. They simply want to link their clues as strongly to the clue as possible. Boogiemen, however, are a little more insidious. They do NOT want the Dreamer to guess the word, so they’ll be giving clues to throw off the Dreamer. The Sandman, meanwhile, is the Thanos of this world and they want the number of correct guesses and incorrect guesses to be as even as possible.

What this means then is that the Dreamer has to be wary of which clues they trust because the person giving the clue may not have their best interests at heart. There is no phase in which the Dreamer accuses someone of being a Boogieman or Sandman; they simply have to internalize the information and make guesses based on clues given by the people they think they can rely on. If someone is consistently appearing out of left field with nonsense words compared to the rest of the group, then it’s safe to say the Dreamer will ignore them like everyone ignores the “let sit for one minute” instructions on the back of a freezer meal.

On the clue giving side of thing, it’s perhaps even more interesting. Fairies admittedly have a pretty unexciting task but having a chance to be a Boogieman or Sandman involves a fun game of misdirection and subtle deceit. In order to be effective as a Boogieman, you have to fool the Dreamer into thinking you’re a trusted voice. This means giving clues that kind of fit the word but are just distanced enough that the Dreamer may go the wrong way. I use this example in my review, but imagine the word is ‘lion’. If one player says, ‘big’ and another says ‘cat’, a cunning Boogieman will throw out a word like ‘stripes’ or ‘Asia’. This suddenly points the Dreamer towards ‘tiger’ and unless the Fairies can redirect towards ‘lion’ with enough clues, there’s a good chance the Dreamer will guess incorrectly. Since the Dreamer has no idea which ones they’ve gotten wrong, clues like that essentially give no information to the Boogieman’s true identity.

It’s like the Dreamer is being led through a dark tunnel where the clue givers are taking turns grabbing them by the shoulders and pushing them in a certain direction. It’s amazing fun to see how the clues develop and how to best use your role given the information. One or two awful clues from the Boogieman will be all it takes for the Dreamer to essentially mute them like a Twitter troll, making their job the most tense but also the most fun. I always love being the Boogieman, trying to figure out clever ways to introduce small amounts of chaos to the proceedings. The Sandman is also very interesting to play as, since you’re hopping from side to side like a dream world Littlefinger, and it requires constantly being aware of when to shift gears when one side starts overtaking the other.

When I Dream is just so great because it takes elements many gamers are familiar with (word association, hidden roles) mixing them together in a way we’ve never seen before while also maintaining an extremely accessible ruleset for non-gamers to join in. It also scales amazingly well, a very odd quality for a social deduction-esque to have. I played this at the lowest player count of four and found it still surprisingly works while the higher player counts flourish even more. It’s a party game that will forever be in my collection and has easily earned its spot here in the top 25.

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Ahhh, we’re almost there! Just two more posts to go! See you in a week for 20-11!

Let’s Talk About Asmodee’s Awful New Policy, Shall We?

If you are ensconced in the board game hobby like a beautifully nerdy butterfly in a meeple-shaped cocoon, you’ve probably heard of Asmodee. You know them, right? Huge company that bought lots of other publishers to essentially take over the industry? Well, as Asmodee unhinged its jaw and began swallowing up other companies with indiscretion, many people side-eyed the developments, grumbling about how a company becoming this gluttonous would result in negative impacts on the hobby.

As is often unfortunately the case, the skeptics and cynics may have turned out to be right. Asmodee has become an unchecked quasi-monopoly and they unveiled a monumentally selfish and short-sighted business decision this week. In doing so, they have gone from the 2nd worst monopoly in gaming  to the worst.

Oh, jeez. What did they do?

Here’s what Asmodee did: they released a new policy claiming they will no longer be servicing requests for replacement parts and components, whether those components are defective out of the box, broken through use, or simply lost to the ether between plays. They are essentially shuttering their customer service department and telling us that if we have a need for a replacement part, to take it back to the store we got it from and have them replace the entire game.

I probably shouldn’t even refer to this as ‘policy’. There is no policy…it’s actually a lack of policy. Asmodee is asking you to refer to others for their policies. Part of the press release even literally says to take the game to the stores and to follow THEIR policies. This is Asmodee playing the part of a preoccupied, hungover parent telling you, “I dunno, ask your mother/father.” Suddenly, the biggest umbrella of board game publishers in the industry feels like they don’t have to worry about petty things like “board game components.” Who needs those, anyway?

Hmm. Sounds like you’re being an entitled gamer.

Okay, let’s handle that entitled thing. I saw that used a lot when people got upset about this news breaking.

Yes, board gamers are entitled, I’m not arguing that. I accidentally spent two minutes in the comment section of a Kickstarter I backed and immediately had to shotgun a beer. In this case, though? I don’t see how THIS is evidence of entitlement. Components are kind of important to board games. When an important piece is missing, it can literally make a game unplayable or greatly alter the balance. If someone goes complaining to CGE that they no longer have the word ‘tiger’ in their deck of words for Codenames and demand a replacement, that’s entitlement. If someone loses one of the spider cards in Incan Gold, that greatly affects the game. It affects the balance of the deck and you can’t just proxy the card because it’ll be readily apparent when you’re ready to draw your homebrewed spider (which incidentally, sounds terrifying). Unless you proxy the whole deck, but who has the money and time to worry about that? Oh yeah, Asmodee, one of the biggest companies in gaming.

Sure, but anything else you buy you return to the store if there’s an issue!

Cool, let’s do this one next. Yes, you’re right. If I plug my toaster in and it sparks and starts floating and begins chanting in Aramaic, you sure as shit can bet I’ll be taking that back to Target to say, “This toaster is possessed, can I get a replacement?” And you know what they’ll do? They’ll immediately replace it! And hopefully exorcise the toaster, but that’s not my problem anymore. But the reason why I’m confident they’ll replace it is because they’ll more than likely have non-possessed toasters in stock. And if they don’t, they can probably point you to any other local stores in their chain.

Ever been to a board game store? You’re lucky to find ONE copy of a board game you want, let alone multiple. If I come home to find my copy of Cyclades came with an entire player color’s set of pieces missing, there’s no guarantee that game store can replace it. They’ll likely have no more in stock which means they now have the logistical nightmare of getting in touch with Asmodee to send a replacement Cyclades, and who trusts Asmodee to send them a new one? Board games regularly go out of stock and out of print. Ask anyone who waited anxiously for Wingspan to restock like late 90s parents ready to use a battering ram against a department store so they could buy a Furby.

And by the way, this scenario is assuming your problems are out of the box. Lose a game piece after a few plays? Hope it’s within the time frame of that store’s return policy!

Add to the fact that I need to keep my receipts and proofs of purchases like Asmodee is the god damned IRS and you have an immensely frustrating experience.

It’ll be even more of a migraine for the game stores, who will have to personally deal with Asmodee in trying to get it replaced. I’m sure THAT will go over well. These sort of ulcer-inducing hypotheticals will probably result in board game stores either instituting more strict return policies of their own, to close the door on such madness, or (more likely) in them simply carrying less stock.

Fine. But did you ever think Asmodee did this because it’s simply too much for them to handle?

Hahahahaha okay. Who was it that told Asmodee to buy a quarter of the industry? They’re out there grabbing companies like Thanos collecting Infinity Stones, except Thanos didn’t complain the gauntlet was too heavy to lift afterwards .

The frustrating thing about this is that Asmodee was well-known for its customer service! Board Games Reddit was peppered with “Shout out to Asmodee customer service” threads on a monthly basis. I personally had a missing Inis piece replaced a mere month ago and was incredibly satisfied with how it was handled. Now all of a sudden it’s too much?

Listen, I’m not saying even saying publishers should replace the parts for free. I would gladly pay shipping to replace a part that I either misplaced or broke. Hell, wanna throw in a small-but-fair replacement fee? Go ahead! Unless it came out of the box as such, it’s probably my fault, and I’m willing to shell out five to ten dollars to return my game to its maximum playable state. But to not even offer that? That’s, pardon my French, straight up dookie.

Well, complain all you want. What are YOU gonna do about it??

Have you seen the board game industry? We’re in such a glut of choices that the Dice Tower’s review backlog probably looks like the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Even with how monstrously big Asmodee is, board gamers have plenty of choices. And from now on, if given the choice between a game under the Asmodee umbrella and a game NOT under Asmodee, I am 100% choosing the latter. Knowing that I won’t have to deal with the anxiety of possibly losing a piece and never having it replaced is worth it. Even with how big Asmodee is, there are still dozens upon dozens of other options out there for me. I hope I’m not the only one who does this and that maybe juuuust enough of a dent can hit Asmodee’s sales to make them rethink this. I’m doubtful, but ya never know.

 

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

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

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40. The Blood of an Englishman

blood of an englishman cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39. Bang! The Dice Game

bang the dice game

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

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

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

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

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

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

38. Histrio

histrio cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

37. The Grimm Forest

grimm forest cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36. Cyclades

cyclades cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

35. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

arkham horror the card game cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. Ethnos

ethnos cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33. Tybor the Builder

tybor the builder cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

32. Hardback

hardback cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31. Skull King

skull king

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 50-41

We’ve arrived! It took us till 2020, but we’re at the top 50 of my Top 100 Games (2019 Edition)! Let’s get on with 50-41, before 2021 gets here.

Previously on my top 100:

100-91

90-81

80-71

60-51

50. Lorenzo il Magnifico

lorenzo cover

Starting off the top 50 is another mid-heavy Euro, this one being set in the Italian Renaissance. It’s Lorenzo il Magnifico, a worker placement game using a clever dice mechanism that will give you nightmares. More on that later.

In Lorenzo, you’re taking on the role of Italian noble families trying to gain favor and influence across many different tracks. I basically just played Euro Mad Libs with that description, but hey, that’s what the game is. You’ll be placing your family members, represented by cylindrical pieces, on certain columns. The columns contain cards which can then be added to a certain part of your player board and you’re hoping to build an engine that will spew you out resources and/or advance you up certain tracks.

What makes Lorenzo special is how it uses dice. Each round, three dice are rolled to determine the strength of your workers. The dice are colored the same as your workers (orange, black and white) and whatever the dice value is will be how strong your worker of that color is. If the orange die rolled a three, everybody’s orange worker has a strength of three. This is important because the worker placement spots you’re sending your family members out to are all locked by a certain strength value. Some spots may only require a strength of one, while others require seven. If your worker doesn’t have the available strength, you can use servants to supplement the value at a one to one ratio.

Remember when I said this mechanism will give you nightmares? That’s because working around the rolls of the dice is the lifeblood of Lorenzo, and it will seem quite often that the dice have declared a blood feud against you. When the dice are rolled and it’s revealed that none of them rolled higher than a four, the entire table slams their heads down in frustration. While the board doesn’t literally shrink, low dice rolls means the available spaces tighten to an almost suffocating amount. Getting to higher spots means spending more servants, something players are often hesitant to do since resources like that are hard to consistently come by. This results in the lower spots on the columns being quickly taken up, forcing players to either pay big or to settle for something less enticing.

This is made even more difficult by the penalty imposed when a player enters a column. The first player in a column gets in for free, but all other players must pay a three-gold fee to go to a spot in that same column. I mentioned earlier resources are hard to come by, so yeah, that’s not great. I think the phrase “knife fight in a phone booth” is a bit overused, so I’ll instead say that Lorenzo feels like a Scottish dirk fight in a phone booth. I can’t think of a worker placement game where being first player was so important. Last time I played this game, whenever somebody placed their worker on the spot that allowed them first dibs in the next round, the table would erupt into curse words and threats.

I will admit, Lorenzo very nearly straddles the line to the side of ‘too tight’. I enjoy my Euros to feel tough, but if I’m constantly just one resource short of what I need to do, that can get a little exhausting. Lorenzo strays into that territory a little more than I like, which is why it’s not deeper in my top 50 despite having lots of things that I absolutely love.

I don’t want to end on a negative note since I really do love this game, so let me conclude by saying that despite this somewhat punishing difficulty, Lorenzo still packs an immensely satisfying puzzle in a tight 90 minutes. It’s one that I could see rising a bit when I get to play it more and learn to be more efficient with its systems.

49. Trapwords

trapwords

It’s been a while since I featured a game I’ve already reviewed, but that changes with Trapwords. As always, you can click here to see the full review.

Trapwords is one of the newer entries in the word association party game craze , something that began back in 2015 with Codenames and really hasn’t subsided since. In Trapwords’ case, it takes inspiration from the old mass market game Taboo. In Taboo, players had to get their team to guess a word but had a list of ‘taboo’ words that they could not use in their description. By mass market standards, it was somewhat fun, but the static nature of the list of words held it back. Trapwords fixes that by making a much more dynamic system, wherein it’s YOU who makes the list of words for your opponent and, oh, by the way, you keep it a secret from them. So, they have no clue what they can and can’t say as they try to get their team to guess the word.

I’m sure you can immediately see why this will be hilarious. Watching the opponent clue giver start and sputter and stop and start again as they helplessly try to obtusely describe the word like a robot short circuiting during a Turing test never fails to be a riotous occasion. That is until it’s your turn to attempt the same and you suddenly forget what a sentence is, let alone how to use one.

When you’re making up your secret list of trapwords, you’re going deep into your Sherlockian mind palace, trying to figure out what obscure term the opponent clue giver will think is safe in an effort to trip them up. If the word is tiger, do you go with the obvious ones like “cat” and “stripes”? Or do you go deeper, thinking of less common ideas like “Tony” or “Asia”? Or do you go even DEEPER and say “lions” and “bears”, hoping the clue giver fancies themselves clever by doing a Wizard of Oz themed fill in the blank ? Creating trapwords is just as fun and suspenseful as the actual clue giving, which is a real feat.

The unfortunate thing that holds Trapwords back is simply how many other word games it’s competing against, especially in my collection. I won’t list them because it would spoil what’s likely to come later, but Trapwords finds itself in a very crowded space. When I have a group of friends over for party games, it tends to get lost in the shuffle, not quite standing up against the heavyweights of the genre.

When it does get to the table, though, Trapwords has yet to fail. It’s always been a good time and writing this entry has me really wanting to get it played for the first time in a while.

48. Sagrada

sagrada cover

Dice drafting made a long overdue debut in my last entry with My Village, a mid-heavy euro about managing a village and being stalked by the Grim Reaper. Dice drafting returns at my number 48 spot with Sagrada. Sagrada is much lighter than My Village, but it’s a wonderfully addictive puzzler of a game.

In Sagrada, you are tasked with making stained glass windows, which is done via putting multicolored dice down in a grid. As you draft dice to put them in the grid, you need to keep in mind some simple placement rules. You can’t put the same number next to each other and you can’t put the same color next to each other. There’s also set restrictions on your grid that you may need to follow, such as having to place a yellow die on the yellow spot.

What comes from this is basically Board Game Sudoku, a surprisingly crunchy puzzle of trying to align your dice in a way that doesn’t break any rules but also doesn’t screw you over on a future turn. Meanwhile, there’s how you actually win the game in the form of scoring objectives, which give prompts such as ‘score your pairs of 1s and 2s’ or ‘score rows with all unique numbers’ and so forth. There’s also private objectives that give everyone a color, wherein they score points equal to the value of all the pips of that color in their window. Trying to balance all these things while dealing with the random luck and chance of the dice pulls and dice rolls is headache inducing, but in the best possible way.

An easy thing to praise Sagrada for is its table presence. It’s chock full of tiny, translucent multicolored dice and when everybody’s windows start to take shape, it’s one of the prettiest sights in board gaming(not counting the selfies I take of me and my Kallax, stay tuned for info on a calendar coming soon). I’m a sucker for great board game components and Sagrada’s dice are some of the best looking in the business. There is one huge caveat, unfortunately: they are not colorblind friendly. I have some colorblind friends who are able to play just fine, but another who can’t play this game because the blue and green are impossible for him to tell apart. Something like that to occur in today’s day and age of gaming is fairly unforgivable, so that’s definitely a knock against it.

Outside of that accessibility issue, there’s not much to complain about with Sagrada. Its puzzley gameplay, beautiful table presence and easy to learn rules make it a must have in any collection.

47. The Fox in the Forest

the fox in the forest cover

In my 90-81 entry, I raved about a two-player trick taking game called Claim, which took trick taking and injected it with a unique round structure and zany special powers. My number 47 is another two-player trick taking game and one that is a lot more popular and well known. This is, of course, The Fox in the Forest.

The Fox in The Forest whisks players off to a beautiful fairy tale style world of witches and foxes and swans. You know, the usual. Players are playing rounds of 13 tricks with some fairly standard trick taking rules. The player leads with a suit which must then be followed if able, with a trump suit looming over the proceedings. Much like Claim, though, there are some clever wrinkles that provide a breath of fresh air to the stale attic smell that can sometimes accompany trick taking games.

Like Claim (I’ll stop comparing them at some point, I swear), TFitF includes special powers to create some unpredictability in how things are going to unfold. Things like being able to change the trump suit or exchanging a card from the deck with a card from your hand adds just the right bit of wonkiness, as well as an extra layer of tension as you try to time these powers for maximum effectiveness.

What really makes The Fox in the Forest stand out among other trick takers, however, is its brilliant scoring system. At the end of the round, you’re going to score based on the amount of tricks you’ve taken. This is something lots of trick takers do, but The Fox in the Forest has a scoring rubric for how many points you get for the amount of tricks you take. While being handed a scoring rubric might make you feel like you’re back at school and about to write an essay, you’ll immediately forgive it when you realize how sharp this system is.

It scores like this: If you get zero to three tricks, you are considered Humble and your humility awards you six points, which is the highest amount. But after that, the points diminish drastically, dipping down to only one point if you won four tricks. This steadily climbs back up with each extra trick won until you hit yet another sweet spot: the seven to nine trick range. If you manage that (called the Victorious ranking), you get six points, just like when you were busy being humble (not that you’d ever bring that up again, you humble humbler, you). But guess what? After the Victorious range is the Greedy range, which is what you get if you win 10-13 tricks. Your reward for that? Zero points. Yep, win TOO many tricks and you leave the round empty handed.

Many trick takers involve betting at the start of the round on how many tricks you’ll win, with the game then centering on trying to hit as close to that wager as possible. TFitF’s system feels like a modern reinvention of that system. It feels much more fluid and tactical and exciting as you try to figure out where on the scoring spectrum you want to hit as you actually play the round. Those other trick takers can feel slightly frustrating as you try to hit your static number and you realize you misjudged at the start of the round but in TFitF, you get to adapt and change your plans turn by turn. There’s also a wonderful push your luck element that bleeds through because of this. Trying to not win any tricks at all or trying to hit the seven to nine sweet spot is fun and rewarding but winning just one trick too many is devastating. Figuring out when to commit or when to zig when your opponent is zagging is what makes TFitF such a smart, satisfying game.

TFitF falls a bit into the trap that some trick takers unfortunately do, and that is that it can feel a little bit samey round to round (and therefore game to game). Because of this, I have a feeling this 47 spot is probably it’s ceiling on my top 100. But this isn’t Kyle Hanley’s Predictions for Future Top 100s, this is Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 as of 2019. And right now, The Fox in the Forest is very comfortable right here, thank you very much.

46. A Fake Artist Goes to New York

fake artist cover

Social deduction has only showed up once on my list so far, courtesy of Deception: Murder in Hong Kong back in my 70-61 entry. It pops up again here at spot 46 with A Fake Artist Goes to New York. Published by the quirky and lovable Oink Games, a Japanese company with a fervent cult like following in the industry, Fake Artist is what happens when you take Pictionary and add a hidden traitor to the mix.

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

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

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

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

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

The fact that this game is so high on my list despite it failing miserably at half of its player count should show you just how good this game is when it does fire on all cylinders. As of the creation of this list back in November of 2019, it was my favorite Oink game and it’s definitely one you should check out if you consistently find yourself with five to seven players.

(SHAMELESS PLUG FOR THE BLOG YOU’RE LITERALLY READING RIGHT NOW: While I haven’t reviewed Fake Artist, I did write a blog post about it. It was a post wherein I took pictures from past games of Fake Artist I’ve had and wrote descriptions of them as if you were walking through a museum. Check it out here if you want to see the absolute garbage fires that people end up drawing in this game.)

45. Incan Gold

incan gold cover

Also known as Diamant, Incan Gold is one of the most popular push your luck games in the industry. For good reason, I say. I actually credit Incan Gold as being the game that made me fall in love with push your luck, the mechanism that I consider my favorite in all of board games.

In my 90-81, I talked about a game called Celestia, a game where you and other players are flying on an airship and trying to decide whether you want to keep flying farther down the line or whether you want to jump off to safety. Incan Gold has this same “stay or go” decision, except it’s streamlined and distilled down to its simplest, purest form.

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

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

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

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

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

44. Jamaica

jamaica cover

At some point in this top 100 (it’s all starting to blur together, my god, what is even real anymore) I mentioned that the pirates theme is my favorite theme in board game. Anything remotely pirate themed or even nautical themed automatically gets a bump up due to my biases. My number 44 is a pirate themed game and in addition to having my favorite theme, it also happens to be an excellent game.

Jamaica is a game where you and your opponents are racing around the titular island, using a mixture of card play and dice placement to efficiently collect resources and move your ship. It’s yet another game on the resume of one Bruno Cathala, who will somehow show up on this list even more frequently than he already has. Every turn an active player referred to as the Captain rolls two dice and then chooses to place them on spots representing a day action and a night action. Whatever the pips on the dice show denotes how powerful the action will be.

What are day actions and night actions? Those are the actions you’ll be activating throughout the game and those are selected by playing cards. Everybody has their own personal deck of cards which they draw from for a hand of three. The decks are all identical, but through shuffling everybody will obviously get different cards at different times. When the Captain decides where to place the dice, everyone simultaneously chooses a card and then reveals. On one side of the card is the day action and on the other is the night action. Everyone takes turns resolving their cards based on the dice and the round ends. That’s basically the game until someone crosses the finish line.

Like many of Cathala’s games, Jamaica is rich with tactical play. Taking a look at the board, at your hand of cards and what the dice can give you requires constantly adapting your plans to what is most effective for that turn. Maybe you really wanted to move forward, but you only have that available as a day action and the day action die has a weak value. Perhaps you move backward instead, to minimize the damage from such an action? There’s also some surprisingly puzzley resource management involved as well. Traveling around the board requires one of two types of currency: food and gold. If you’re short on the cost to end your turn on that space, you get pushed back to a space you can afford and that can be devastating. Everyone has a ship hold of six squares but those fill up fast, and a devious mechanism wherein you can’t add to squares (you either have to fill a new square or completely replace the resource) means you’ll be pulling your hair out trying to figure out the best course to sail.

As if that isn’t enough, there’s also combat to worry about. Landing on the same space as another pirate is apparently an act of war, because those ships need to fight. Combat is resolved by a simple dice roll, made more intriguing by the presence of gunpowder. Players can choose to add gunpowder to their combat roll, giving an addition of one point per gunpowder token used. It creates a nice sense of push your luck as you try to figure out the odds so that you give yourself a comfortable buffer without overspending. Hilariously, there is an insta-kill side of the die that completely blows up your plans anyway. The winner of the fight gets to rob a player of one of their holds’ squares or to steal a treasure card (bonus point cards seeded throughout the race track), adding a nice bit of interaction to the game.

Like many games on this list, Jamaica is just pure fun. The charming art adds to the fun pirate theme and helps give the game a lighthearted attitude (just like real piracy, right). Watching your best laid plans falter because of a bad die roll or an inopportune combat would seem frustrating, but here it’s part of the game’s appeal. Everybody is getting screwed over and that’s what makes the moments when you chain together a couple of well-timed card plays to get you zipping ahead of the pack so satisfying. Even better, winning the race doesn’t necessarily mean winning the game. Yes, you most likely will BUT people get a certain amount of points for where they finished and they also get points for gold in their hold. Knowing when it’s time to gun for the finish line and when it’s time to pace yourself and hoard gold can be the difference between a last second loss or a surprising win from nowhere.

My only complaint with Jamaica is that it can go a little long, especially if there are a lot of combats dragging the pace of the game down. But that nitpick aside, Jamaica is a game I will always want to play, especially if it’s with a group of five or six.

43. High Society

high society cover

It’s been a while since Reiner Knizia has been on the list. He was last spotted in the 70s (in the list I mean, not the decade) with Lost Cities and he’s back at number 43 with my favorite game of his: High Society.

High Society is a small little card game built around auctions. Everyone gets a hand of identical money cards which they then use to bid on point cards which are drawn randomly from a deck. Like many auction games, you raise the bid or you pass. When everybody’s passed, the person remaining spends their money cards and takes the points in front of them.

Sounds a little straightforward and maybe even a little boring, huh. Well, it would be, if it were not for that good old fashioned Knizia Twist ™. High Society has a very important rule. At the end of the game, everyone counts how much money they have left. Whoever has spent the most money over the course of the game is IMMEDIATELY disqualified. They can’t win, even if they have the most points.

And just that tiiiiny little wrinkle takes a vanilla game of bidding on points and turns it into one of the most clever, exquisitely tense card games money can buy.

Every choice is fraught with anxiety and indecision. Do you raise bids, hoping to get people to waste as much cash as possible but risk getting caught spending the money yourself? When you do want a point card, how much are you willing to spend? Do you focus on taking smaller point cards for super cheap, hoping it’s enough to get you where you need to be? Or do you spend big on one or two of the larger amounts, going quiet for the rest of the game as everyone else is lulled into a false sense of spending security? In just a mere 15 minutes, you’ll have these thoughts racing through your head like a prize horse you just spent way too much money on, why did you spend that much money, WHY DID YOU SPEND THAT MUCH MONEY!?!?

To further add to the agony, there are negative penalty cards which do things like remove a point card you’ve already bought or cut your total points in half. When those are up for auction you are bidding to pay money to NOT take it and the person who ultimately decides to fall on the grenade is the only one who doesn’t have to spend cash. This means you always feel like you have to subconsciously stash money away for the purpose of avoiding those penalties because it’ll make any money you’ve already spent on points seem worthless. Yet another way in which Knizia takes a subtle little rule change and uses it to make his game into an instant classic.

High Society is a game that’s been around for a while but has really seemed to have gotten cult status from its latest edition from Osprey Games. That is the version I own and it’s a gorgeous production, making an already amazing game that much better. I can see this game being even higher by the time I do this list next year because it’s really that good.

42. Stew

Stew cover

The small publisher Button Shy has already appeared on this list once, way back at number 81 with the fantastic Circle the Wagons. They’re back with yet another wallet game and it happens to my favorite offering of theirs: Stew. I already gave this game a full review because I loved it so much, so check it out here if you want a more detailed runthrough.

The abridged version is this: Stew is a game that mixes push your luck, deduction and bluffing and squeezes it into a tight fifteen minutes of tension and misdirection. Players take turns secretly drawing ingredient cards from a deck and then putting them facedown on a vermin card or into the center of the table in the stew. At any point a player can call “STEW!” (the louder and more obnoxious, the better) and reveal the stew one card at a time. If the point values of the ingredients in the stew equal 12 or more, they get two points! If not, everyone else gets a point. First to five points wins.

One of the things players have to keep in mind are those vermin cards I briefly mentioned earlier. Each vermin has a favorite ingredient and if they are unfed by the time the stew is served, they’ll suck up the first ingredient of that type like a hungry, furry little Hoover. Ingredients also interact and score points in different ways so keeping track of what ingredients you put where and how other players are behaving need to be taken into account when you’re trying to determine if a stew is worth eating.

Every time I talk about this game I compare it to Welcome to the Dungeon, a much more well known game where players are either putting monsters into a dungeon or choosing to remove equipment that can be used to counter those monsters. Like Stew, there’s a lot of hidden information and you must glean what other players know based on what decisions they’re making. The difference is that Stew captures the same feeling with a more streamlined system, in a quicker play time and with no player elimination. Quite simply, Stew is everything Welcome to the Dungeon wishes it could be. If you like Welcome to the Dungeon, that’s fine, but I would implore you to try Stew.

I don’t know the availability of Stew because Button Shy games tend to periodically go out of print. I was aware of a Kickstarter they were running in which a Stew reprint was unlocked as a stretch goal, but when that comes to fruition, I have no clue. If and when Stew is available, there are few games I find as easy to recommend as this one. It’s cheap, it’s extremely portable and it’s accessible enough to teach to just about anyone. Despite its small size and countless plays (the wallet for my copy has literally ripped in half from being carried around and opened so much), I have yet to tire of this microgaming masterpiece.

41. Fuji

fuji cover

Wolfgang Warsch has appeared twice on this list and he’s back to make it a trilogy. This will be his last appearance, sadly, but it’s with a real good one: Fuji.

Fuji is perhaps Warsch’s most overlooked and underappreciated game. Like The Mind, it’s a cooperative game with limited communication (yep, I still love them) but this one is about dice rolling and pushing your luck. It’s also a bit of a doozie to try and explain, especially without the components in front of us. Let’s give it a try!

In Fuji, you and your fellow players are hikers walking along Mount Fuji when it decides to erupt. Those pesky volcanoes, always choosing to become massive agents of death and destruction at the worst possible times! You and the rest of the group must escape to a nearby village for safety, trying to outrun the lava. I mean, I’ve seen lava before, it doesn’t exactly reach Olympian speeds. This can’t be hard…right?

How you escape the lava is by rolling dice and moving along a path of cards. The cards all have certain prompts on them pertaining to the different colored sides of the dice you roll and potential values. Everyone rolls their dice behind a player screen and then they decide what card they’re going to mark as their destination. In order to get to that destination, you need to have rolled a higher combined sum of the specific dice faces and colors that make up that card’s prompt than your neighbors on your left and right. So for example, if I want to go to a card that has a prompt marked as all pink and blue faces with even numbers, that means that if I add up all my dice that have pink or blue faces with even numbers, I need to make sure that sum is higher than the sum of my neighbors’. Still with me? No? Okay, cool, let’s keep going. I rolled five dice: two yellow threes, two blue fours and a pink six. According to that prompt, I would have a value of 14 (from my two blue fours and the pink six). When we all reveal our dice behind our player screen, I need to hope that my neighbors don’t exceed 14 with their pink and blue faces of even numbers.

Okay Kyle, you’re not trying to write a rule book here, just tell the folks why you like this game so much.

Will do! One of the things I love about this game is how unique and weird it is. It’s so tricky to explain because it’s really not like anything that’s out there. I can’t think of any other co-ops that are built around secretly rolling dice and trying to intimate to your teammates what you’ve rolled. Every time I’ve played this, it manages to feel fresh and exciting and I think that’s partly because of its one of a kind nature.

It’s also just a great push your luck game, where you’re basically pushing your luck against your own teammates. Again, very weird but awesome. There’s also some decisions to be made outside of just trying to race to the village. Equipment cards are strewn about the pathways and they’re constantly teasing you to take that extra turn to grab it in hopes of getting something good. When you do have equipment, there’s always discussion about when to trigger it and how to make the most of their powers. This is pretty common in cooperative games, but it also feels fresher here because of the unique context it’s featured in.

Admittedly, the whole ‘you can’t communicate’ thing is a little hackneyed and contrived here. You can discuss basically everything EXCEPT the actual values you rolled. You can say things like, “This is the best place for me, everywhere else is awful” or “PLEASE don’t go there, you will regret it” or just curse over and over again, hoping everyone else takes the hint that you’re not moving anywhere. But even if it does feel a little tacked on, I appreciate it from the social aspect. It makes the game about reading between the lines and thinking about the probabilities and then trying to hedge your bets from there. Does the lack of communication create magical moments as found in The Mind or Kreus, another game from earlier in my top 100? Not exactly, but it’s still damn fun.

All in all, Fuji is a strange but incredibly fun beast. Partnered with some real striking art that has a slightly scrawled, hand drawn aesthetic (a style that I adore) this game keeps me coming back for more. It’s flown under the radar a bit, and it seems like one of Warsch’s more polarizing games, but I absolutely love it.

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That’ll do it for another one. We’ve just cracked off the lid of the top 50 and we’re ready to get even deeper! Come back next week for 40-31!

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.

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