Welcome back! This is the second part of my Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition)! This means I’m tackling 90-81. If you need a recap on 100-91, click here. Otherwise, let’s get on with it!
90. Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter is a tough one for me. On the one hand, it’s given me some of the most memorable and truly cinematic moments of my board gaming career (is career the right word? Using it anyway). On the other hand, it’s got some serious flaws that have prevented me from getting it to the table lately.
Let’s deal with that icky stuff first so that we end on a high note. For one, this game is loooong. And I don’t mind long games, but this is also a game where a lot of what you’re doing is really similar. You visit locations, mill that location’s deck looking for what you want, maybe kill some zombies and rinse and repeat for 2-3 hours (make that even longer if you’re playing with the full five player count). The game’s drama comes forth in the uncertainty of whether there is a traitor or not and the infighting that should hopefully begin brewing but if you have an uneventful game where nothing triggers that sort of dissention, Dead of Winter can draaag.
Like most semi cooperatives, this is also a very fragile design. One player can torpedo the whole thing, and I’ve even experienced it happen. I played a 5 hour game of this (at the 5 players, which I would not recommend) once and it all ended with one of the players saying, “If I don’t win this, no one will” and then she proceeded to throw all the hard work we spent the entire night doing and cost us the game. You can argue that’s a player problem and not a game problem, which is valid, but I’d also argue that a player making those kinds of moves is perfectly allowed in a semi cooperative design space so we shouldn’t blame a player when they take that avenue. Her decision is even pretty thematic given the game’s post apocalypse theme. While I applaud Dead of Winter for creating a moment that we could see in a zombie movie, I’ll also point out that there’s a reason every character in those movies is miserable. Add to this that luck can WILDLY swing this game (and not in a fun way) and you can see why I have reservations about Dead of Winter.
Okay, so this is a top 100 list so maybe I should say good things about the game, eh? Despite these things I just mentioned, this game still has a place in my top 100 because it does other things very, very well. I mentioned before that the game can often create moments of infighting and mistrust and when those do occur, the game comes alive. One of the first times I played this game, there was an incredible moment where me and another player had a ten minute debate about whether or not to cast out our third member of the colony. That third member pleaded with us as we discussed his fate, and I was full of dread and guilt as we made the decision to exile him. The fact that a game was able to create such an intense, visceral moment with just bits of cardboard continues to impress me to this day.
Dead of Winter is also richly thematic and atmospheric, something that will always draw me to a game. Characters all have appropriate special abilities given their occupation before the end of the world, items make thematic sense and this is all supported by wonderfully immersive, blood drenched art. There is also the famed Crossroads system found in this game, in which players can trigger story moments based on something specific they do on their turn. While they don’t trigger as often as I’d like, when they DO it once again creates great, cinematic moments that make this game feel one of a kind.
So, yes, I have problems with Dead of Winter, but when it’s good, it’s freaking good.
89. Samurai Spirit
The next game is a pure cooperative, this one designed by Antoine Bauza. His most famous cooperative is Ghost Stories (now reprinted as Last Bastion), but I actually think I prefer Samurai Spirit.
Samurai Spirit is a push your luck game that basically rips off the plot of Seven Samurai. You and your friends are a bunch of samurai protecting a village from bandits and you can also turn into animals. Okay, I don’t remember that scene, but I’m sure it’s in the Director’s Cut.
How you defend the village is by drawing cards from a deck of bandits and placing them on either the left or right side of your character’s player board. Placing it on the left means you’re matching up symbols that may be present on the bandit card, which helps prevent various penalties at the end of the round. If you’re not able to match symbols or simply don’t want to, you can place it on the right which triggers a mini game of Blackjack. Every bandit has a number and when you place that card to the right of your board, you adjust a little meter by that amount. Every samurai has a number on that meter that is a ‘sweet spot’ that allows them to activate a special power but if you go beyond that you bust and you’re out of the round. So, yeah, totally Blackjack but with samurais.
Players also have the option to instead support another player and pass a token representing their passive special ability to someone else. This is at the cost of placing a facedown bandit card by the village board, which could result in the village being harmed if that bandit card is revealed to have a ‘fire’ symbol at the end of the round. This adds yet another element of push your luck, but this ability to support other players can create really cool combos between everyone at the table. It’s a cooperative game where you actually feel like you’re cooperating and that’s always a plus, yanno?
Samurai Spirit isn’t perfect, which keeps it here in the high 80s. The game can be somewhat hit or miss depending on the construction of the bandit deck. Since the bandit deck is built from a bigger supply of bandit cards that are randomly chosen, you can end up with some bandit decks that are way too hard or way too easy. This is particularly true at the lower player counts, where the deck is smaller and therefore the deck makeup could be a lot less balanced. Will you be facing Satan’s Personal Army or the bandit equivalent of The Three Stooges? It’s a toss up, and that can create either very frustrating games or very boring games.
Despite these balance concerns, when Samurai Spirit is firing on all cylinders, it’s a hidden gem of a cooperative game. Lots of fun, with just the right amount of cooperation, luck and tactics.
88. Magic Maze
Let’s move onto number 88: Magic Maze, the cooperative game about fantasy characters stealing their equipment back from a mall.
Magic Maze has a couple of real unique selling points. One, it’s real time which isn’t SUPER unique but it does separate itself from a lot of other turn based co-ops. Two, you don’t control a pawn or character in this game. You control actions. I may be the guy who moves characters north and east, but you may be the character who moves them south and through portals and Jenny over there may be the one who can trigger escalators and move pawns west. The game is played out over an ever-evolving map of tiles that come out throughout the game and you need to pay attention to when it’s your turn to move a pawn and navigate this sprawling labyrinth as it spreads across your table like a fungus.
Did I mention you can’t talk? Because you can’t talk. Between this and The Mind on my last entry, I’m beginning to think I just don’t like talking to people? Anyway, you’re not allowed to communicate and direct people around unless a pawn goes to a little hourglass symbol. This helps reset the clock and allows players to talk until the next pawn is moved, in which case it goes back to pretending like everyone’s at a funeral.
There is one way to communicate and it’s hilarious. It comes in the form of a big red pawn called the “Do Something” pawn and it is a hellish invention. When you see somebody blankly staring at the board when they’re OBVIOUSLY supposed to move the dwarf pawn down to the next tile, you simply pick up the “Do Something” pawn and start smacking it down in front of them like a gavel to get their attention. If you’re a jackass, at least. You could just set it down in front of them politely, but where’s the fun in that? Watch with delight as your friend frantically darts their eyes around the board, wondering why you’re going to town on the “Do Something” pawn like the world’s most coked up judge.
All these rules combine to make one of the most manic, fun gaming experiences you can ask for. Magic Maze is easily one of my favorite games to bring out to new people, watching their eyes light up as they realize they’re about to experience something they’ve never had before. And then watch that amazement and wonder turn to pure hatred and fury as you’re slamming the “Do Something” pawn in front of them.
Magic Maze would be higher if it was a little bit deeper. The game offers a wide range of scenarios and extra rules as you get longer and longer into the game, but most of them are kind of ‘meh’. The best scenarios are definitely the first three or four, where the game is much more basic. I hear the expansion fixes some of this, but I unfortunately don’t have it. Despite this, it’s still a solid entry on my top 100 and I never have anything less than a blast when playing this game.
Kreus is definitely one of the more obscure and underrated games on this list. It is yet another cooperative game with limited communication, which leads me to believe this top 100 may have just been an excuse to confess my issues with communicating with people.
ANYWAY, MOVING ON.
Kreus is a game where you and your fellow players are gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, trying to create a planet because you’re bored or something. I’m dreading having to explain it and the rules beyond that, because this is a surprisingly tricky game to explain despite how simple it is. The first four or five times I taught this game, I managed to miss a rule every time and somehow it was always a DIFFERENT rule. Very embarrassing. So strap in!
(takes deep gulp of air)
In Kreus, the planet you and your teammates are trying to make is represented by a flowchart. The flowchart is made up of features of the planet, like mountains, river, fish, flowers, etc., as well as the Elements that make up those features. The Elements are just different colored orbs. A deck of cards that contain these features and elements is completely dealt out to the players. Then, round by round you and everyone else are going to try and make the planet according to the flowchart, starting from the top and working your way on down until you’re able to cap it off with the “Planet” card, which is the cherry on top of this cosmic sundae. The actual gameplay is playing cards simultaneously and face down. Starting with the first player, you reveal and place your card into the flowchart you’re trying to make, as long as its legal. If it’s not legal (as in you played an element that isn’t needed for the played features or you played a feature that doesn’t have its prerequisites built yet), the card is discarded and your margin of error get that much thinner.
Okay, so that’s a sort of okay description. The trick in this game is, as I mentioned, the lack of communication. Obviously if this game allowed you to just freely discuss the contents of your hands, you would be able to find the perfect order to play your cards. Having restrictions on that makes this a tense puzzle of reading your players moves and making your best guess of what they played so YOU know what to play. You can spend gems to activate special actions that help alleviate the restrictions, like showing a card to another player or exchanging cards, but even that comes with some sense of reading between the lines (“why the hell did they show me a fish”).
This game is very reminiscent of The Mind, in that you’re trying to play cards in a certain order without being able to actually discuss it. The Mind is more based from a social perspective however, while Kreus is more seeded in trying to game the system. Based on what’s in your hand, versus what has already been played, versus what special abilities other players have triggered that round, you can make your best assessment on what you need to play. When you and your teammates manage to play the correct sequence of cards without a single word spoken? That’s the kinda magical moment that keeps Kreus on my top 100.
Monikers is a game that is based on a public domain game that has several different names: Fishbowl, The Hat Game and Celebrity are a few of the names given to the DIY versions you play with your friends, while people in the hobby will recognize Time’s Up as an officially published version of the game system. So, you could technically put any of those versions here at my 86 spot but Monikers is the version of this game that I own and have played endless hours of, so that’s the one I’m putting on my list.
Monikers/Fishbowl/The Hat Game/Celebrity/Time’s Up is a game where two (or more) teams are trying to guess more words and phrases than the other team(s). These words and phrases are on cards that make up a unique deck for that game. On your team’s turn, a clue giver is trying to give clues to lead your team to guessing whatever is on that card. Pretty standard party game stuff, so far. But there are two unique twists that make this game as memorable and funny as it is.
The first twist is that the game is played over three rounds and each round narrows the amount of stuff the clue giver can say and give to their team in order to guess the word. First round is easy: the clue giver can say whatever they want as long as it isn’t part of the word or phrase itself. Second round is tougher: in this round, the clue giver can only give ONE word to lead their team to winning the card. Third round is madness: only charades/silent gestures can be used to get your team to guess the card.
Which of course leads me to the second twist that makes this game system so brilliant. During these three rounds, the SAME deck of cards is being used. This means players have to remember from previous rounds what words have been guessed and use that to their advantage as the clues get vaguer and more stupid as the game goes on
The end result is a hilarious game where inside jokes and callbacks run rampant. As you get deeper and deeper into the game, your brain latches onto references from previous rounds, creating a cacophony of laughter whenever they pop back up. This leads to situations like in a recent game for me, where somebody pantomiming a fire breathing dragon led to someone (correctly) shouting, “BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.” Another saw a friend of mine running to block a door with his back, fear and panic on his face in order to get across the word “Hodor”. Perhaps my favorite of all is a very simple moment when my friend gave a serene, welcoming gesture with his hands and face which got me to correctly guess, “Richard Attenborough”.
It’s these little moments that pepper a night of Monikers that make it such a fun, hysterical experience. There’s not much else to add, so I’ll close with my favorite Monikers story. One night, I introduced it to three friends and we were playing 2 v. 2 for an hour or so. Another friend came in during the third round of a game and saw us guessing extremely specific prompts off of fairly basic charades gestures. She stood there dumbfounded, not realizing it wasn’t normal Charades, and just softly said, “how did you guys do that.”
If you like party games or often find yourself playing games in big groups, it’s tough to go wrong with Monikers. Just be prepared for the entire night to go by without realizing it.
2019 brought a lot of big life events for me. I moved in with a girlfriend for the first time, I was asked to be my best friend’s best man in his wedding, I got my first ever paid freelance writing job. But these are all dwarfed by one realization I made in 2019. And that realization is: I really like trick taking games.
Now, I don’t want to be too broad here. I still don’t care for your standard, ‘old fashioned’ trick taking games like Euchre or Bridge. Things that you would play in the kitchen of your grandparents’ house/apartment need not apply here. But when a trick taking game takes that basic premise of playing suited cards and trying to win tricks mixes that up with some other mechanism or clever twist? I discovered in 2019, that I adore those kinds of games. The first game of this type is Claim, a two-player trick taking game about trying to win factions in a goofy, medieval fantasy world.
There are a lot of cool little twists that make Claim so unique and clever. The first is the round structure. Claim is played over two rounds, where the first round is spent winning cards that will then form your hand in the second round. This itself is brilliant, but then when you add in the faction abilities, Claim somehow gets even better. You see, the suits in Claim are different factions/ fantasy races. You have things like Knights, Goblins, Dwarves, etc. These factions all have a specific ability that activates at certain times. For example, a Knight card will always beat a Goblin card, even if the Goblin card has a higher value. Then there’s the shape shifting Dopplegangers, which act as wild cards and can allow you to play them instead of the led suit. These abilities add an extra layer to an already delicious parfait of subtle strategy and quick, satisfying card play.
Add to this some incredible art by The Miko, who is easily one of my top 3 favorite artists in board games, and you’ve got an amazingly charming card game that you’ll want to play again and again.
84. Take 5
Also known as 6 Nimmt!, Take 5 is an incredibly clever and chaotic card game that can be taught to just about anyone. In the game, you and the other players are simultaneously playing cards face down and then revealing, watching as they get sucked into an ever growing display of cards, hoping they latch onto a spot that doesn’t result in you taking any cards from said display. This is one of those games where taking cards means taking points and points = bad.
The display of cards is made up of four rows, all of which have a maximum card capacity of five. When you play a card from your hand, starting with the lowest number played, you must then place that card at the last spot of one of the rows following these two rules: rows must be in ascending value AND you must place your card next to the card it’s closest in value to. So, if I play a 28 and the four rows end in a 57, 83, 17 and 26, I would place my card next to the 28.
But what happens when you can’t place a card down? What if your card is lower than the ends of all the rows? As a penalty, you take a row of your choice and replace it with the card you played. Sounds awful, BUT it’s not as bad as the other thing that might happen. Remember when I said each row only has a max capacity of five cards? Yeah, this game is called Take 5 for a reason. If you play a card that would end up being the 6th card in that row, you’re forced to take ALL five cards in that row, leaving behind the card you played to start a new row as a shameful reminder of your folly.
Thus creates a wild, raucous experience of pushing your luck and playing the odds, hoping that you can dodge sucking up any cards like an over eager vacuum cleaner. Every card you play feels like a coin you’re dropping into a slot machine, with the revelation of everyone’s cards acting like the pull of the lever as you desperately hope to see that nobody interfered with your plans. When things go well, you breathe a sigh of relief as you harmlessly place your card into its rightful spot, your muscles relaxing as you live to see another day. But when something you didn’t predict does happen, and you’re stuck putting your card at the end of a truly nasty row? It’s a hilarious exercise in futility, as you watch helplessly as your card slides into spot as if being drawn in by a tractor beam that you can’t control. Then, like a rogue Mento falling into a bottle of Diet Coke, the row explodes and ends up in your lap as the entire table laughs and high fives.
It’s tense, it’s exciting, it’s hilarious. Yes, it sucks when you get stuck with a bunch of cards with high point values (represented by bull horns for some reason), but this is a rare game where failing can be as fun as succeeding. This is mostly because EVERYBODY is suffering at the table, as volleys of groaning and cursing go back and forth in an exercise I can only call Misery Tennis. But while everybody else is groaning, you’re laughing and when YOU’RE groaning, they’re laughing. After all, this I just a small 30 minute card game, not some sort of 3 hour Euro. Best to not take it too seriously and enjoy it, even if you just had a stratospherically bad round.
Take 5 is one of the most recent additions to my collection (thanks to an amazing review by Shut Up and Sit Down) and the fact that it has already broken onto my top 100 shows all you need to know about it. I can definitely see this game being even higher come 2020.
I may have mentioned it on my previous list (jesus, two entries in and they’re already starting to blend together, please help), but if I haven’t then allow me to say it now: I effing love push your luck. In fact, it is my favorite board game mechanism. As such, when a game is centered on that mechanism, I’m inclined to like it. It’s no surprise, then, that Celestia finds itself on my top 100.
Celestia is a push your luck game in the style of Incan Gold, where you and a group are pressing forward on an increasingly dangerous path, and the crux of the game is deciding whether to stay and take guaranteed points or to stay juuust a bit longer to squeeze out a bit more. While Incan Gold has you going through a fairly generic temple setting, Celestia has you travelling on a steampunk style airship, making pit stops in a vibrant Wonderland-esque cul-de-sac of floating cities.
Celestia is played over a series of ‘journeys’, which involve moving from city to city. At each city, a new captain takes over making this either the most fair, egalitarian group of air travelers ever assembled or the most indecisive. Whoever the captain is must roll a certain number of threat dice, the number of which gradually increases throughout the journey. These threat dice might be rolled to a blank side, which reveals no threat (awesome!), or show some sort of threat icon (booo!). The threats involve things like ‘Sky Pirates’, ‘Lightning’ or ‘A Whole Shit Ton of Birds’. The captain must beat these threats by playing cards from their hand which have a matching icon. If the captain does, congratulations! Onward to the next floating city that definitely isn’t just an LSD hallucination! However, if the captain CAN’T play cards to beat the threats? Well. Hope your family took out a nice life insurance policy, because that airship is going DOWN.
The key here is that before the Captain reveals whether or not they can defeat the threats and safely fly everyone to the next city, every other player gets to decide whether to stay with their fearless leader or parachute on down to the current city tile the ship is on, grabbing a victory point card from the city. Victory points increase down the path, which entices people to stay on board but the chance of getting NO points can scare even the most stronghearted explorer. After all, you know what they say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the flaming airship wreckage.
While players decide whether or not to drop out, the Captain can say whether or not they have the cards to beat the dice. The fun part is, they can tell the truth or bend it to their advantage. This extra bit of bluffing is what makes Celestia sing, and it creates lots of table talk and negotiation as people try to figure out what to do. Every game I see alliances form, with two or three people becoming each other’s Ride or Die, always jumping ship at the same time or sticking together during even the darkest of times. It’s hilarious when one of these alliances goes deep down the journey’s path, managing to snag a high point victory card from one of the final cities as everyone else bitterly mumbles under their breath. It’s even funnier when an alliance foolishly crashes together, making one wonder if Kool Aid is one of the in flight refreshments.
Like many push your luck games, Celestia is full of laugh out loud and stand up moments. Add in the extra social dynamic of bluffing and table talk, and you have an easy top 100 entry for me.
Ohh, Mysterium. I have such conflicted feelings about you, you beautiful bastard. Mysterium is a cooperative party(ish) game where one player is a ghost who has been murdered and the rest of the players are trying to figure out the who, where and how of said murder. The ghost does this by giving cards with surreal, dream like illustrations on them to try and point the other players to pictures of suspects, locations and weapons.
It’s easily become one of the most popular gateway games in the hobby over the past handful of years and it was one of my favorites upon first becoming a board gamer. I do have conflicted feelings about it, however, and I simultaneously think the 82 spot is too low AND too high for this game.
Let’s start with the negative: this game is a bear to set up. This is ostensibly a party game, which means you’ll be playing it in, you guessed it, party type settings. The problem is, party games should take no longer than five minutes to set up and play and even that is pushing it a bit. I can’t count how many times I’ve been setting up Mysterium with a big group of people watching me expectantly, as I apologize profusely for taking so long to set up as I rummage through the box like it’s a crate of Legos, looking for the exact right piece. There’s lots of shuffling, randomly picking cards, finding duplicates of all those cards, shuffling and randomly picking again based on each player in the game, then getting everything set up in the exact right area, and more and more and more. What’s worse, a lot of what’s being set up is the secret information for the ghost which means nobody else can really help them out. This results in scenarios like mentioned above, with most of the group staring blankly at one person as they clumsily sort through cards like the world’s least prepared amateur magician. I have decided against bringing Mysterium to many parties because I dread that cumbersome and long set up time.
Another big minus for it is that despite this game’s fairly simple rules overhead (person plays a card which other players then have to link with another card), there are some real fiddly bits that can grind the game down, ESPECIALLY with the end game. I HATE the final round of this game. I won’t go into the gritty details of it, but the last round, assuming your group makes it there, has this real contrived, convoluted set up and pay off that never fails to feel like the game has fallen flat on its face. If there was ever a second edition of this game which smoothed out the end game and streamlined set up (WITHOUT app assistance, that’s cheating), Mysterium would probably be in my top 50 games, not just my top 100.
Phew. Okay. Now that I’m done railing against this game, let’s talk about why it is in my top 100! That’d probably be helpful.
Despite its rough edges, Mysterium still sits on my top 100 because I love the rest of the game so damn much. I love its theme and concept. It’s unique and immersive and the rule where the ghost can’t talk and can only communicate via knocking on the table is one of my favorite rules ever. The art is astounding. And I’m not just talking about the dream like vision cards the ghost is doling out for clues. I mean the art representing the suspects, the parts of the mansion, and the weapons is fantastic as well. It has this somewhat dark, Victorian era tone to it that perfectly fits the theme and further helps to make this one of the most atmospheric games you can play. And speaking of playing the game: that’s amazing too! I am very much a right brained individual, so games that focus on creativity and imagination (usually a staple of party games) are right in my wheelhouse. I love being the ghost and trying to figure out how to link the cards in my hand with the cards I need to get the other players to guess. As the paranormal investigator, I love trying to get inside the ghost’s head and to spot connections among the visions I’ve been given. All of these things combine to make a truly special gaming experience, even with the loud complaints I logged against it.
So, yeah. As you can tell, I have mixed feelings on Mysterium. It might be the most flawed game on this list, but the fact that it’s on here tells you all you need to know.
81. Circle the Wagons
Loyal readers of this blog know I love me some Button Shy. Button Shy is a game publisher that’s been making a ton of waves in the industry lately, thanks to their portable wallet games. They’re appropriately named since they literally come in a little wallet. Besides the unique packaging, these games also have another trademark: they’re all comprised of only 18 cards. These microgames often pack a big punch despite their diminutive size and I’ve reviewed Stew, Sprawlopolis, Tussie Mussie and Seasons of Rice over the past year in an effort to showcase how awesome this publisher is.
Yet here we are at number 81 with a Button Shy game I HAVEN’T reviewed yet, something I quite regret because it’s one of my favorites from the company. Circle the Wagons is a two player tile laying game (played with cards) where both players are competing to make the best frontier town. Cards involve symbols of various Wild West tropes, like six shooters, bottles of moonshine and forts. These icons are laid on top of various land types, such as mountains, plains and deserts. The goal is to take these cards and puzzle them together in such a way that you earn the most points, combining points given from your biggest contiguous areas of each land type AND points from three random public scoring objectives.
This is all pretty typical tile laying stuff, so what separates Circle the Wagons from the rest? That lies in its brilliant drafting mechanism. Taking its name quite literally, you take all the cards available in the game and put them in a giant circle. Players then take turns drafting the cards they want to use from the circle starting with the first available card. BUT you have a choice: take that first available card for free OR jump ahead in the circular queue to grab something that might seem a little more beneficial for your landscape. The catch being, all the cards you skipped? They go straight to your opponent.
With this simple but incredibly clever system, Circle the Wagons becomes a superbly tactical experience that has you sweating every decision, despite the fact that it’s a mere 18 cards. Do you jump ahead to take that card that fits perfectly in your landscape, knowing you’re giving your opponent a ton of stuff for free? Or do you play conservatively, tip toeing down the circle, daring your opponent to be the first to jump ahead and play the part of a Wild West Santa Claus? It’s tight, it’s addictive and at just around ten minutes per play, it’s incredibly quick. Like many of the microgames and fillers I’ll have on this list, it’s one you’ll easily find yourself playing repeatedly in the same sitting, the board game equivalent of a bag of potato chips. If you’re new to Button Shy and are looking for a starting point, Circle the Wagons is as good as any.
That’s another one in the books, folks! Thanks for joining and check back in a week or so for 80-71!