Hello there! And (*extreme John Hammond voice) ‘Welcome to my Top 100 Games of all Time!’ (*end extreme John Hammond voice*)
If you took a mosey on through my blog, you’ll notice my most recent post was announcing that I have been ranking my 100 favorite games so that I could post them over the course of the next couple months right here on the blog. I’m sure you thought it was a bluff and that there was no way I’d ever go through with it and so did I. But here we are! My parents will be so proud, FINALLY.
I’m gonna get to the games ASAP, but just a few bits of housekeeping. As most content creators do when they make a list of this type, I’ll be doling it out in sections of ten games, starting with 100-91. I’m sure this goes without saying, but these are MY favorite games and not necessarily what I’m saying are the BEST games. These are just the games I’ve grown to love over the past few years, particularly in 2019. It’s insane how many games there are that I truly, truly love and it’s sad how many had to miss the cut. It’s also worth noting just how fluid a lot of this list is. A game in the 90s today could easily see itself in the 50s next week based on a great play or two. That’s how close a lot of these games are for me. So, if you’re wondering how certain decisions are made, or why ‘x’ game is ahead of ‘y’ game, you are completely in agreement with me. I mentioned in that earlier blog post that I held tortoise races to decide close ties and that probably wasn’t smart because the authorities came to collect all my tortoises shortly after that post went live. Not only is it incredibly lonely now, but I had to actually THINK and DECIDE what games were better than others. Sigh.
With all that in mind, let’s start the list!
100. The Mind
One thing you’ll notice on this list is that I really enjoy cooperative games that have limited communication between players. I really enjoy trying to cooperate with teammates through intuition and subtext rather than having some Alpha gamer directing my pawn around the board like they’re an air traffic controller. So, it is no surprise that I love The Mind, a game where the most important rule is that you literally cannot talk to each other.
The Mind was a bit of a sensation when it came out last year, being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (the ostensible Game of the Year award) and putting wunderkind designer Wolfgang Warsch on the map. The rules are so simple, I thought I misread them the first time I saw them. The Mind is comprised of a deck of cards number 1-100, and a certain number of cards are dealt to each player each round. Then, the group must simply play their cards in ascending order with no mistakes. The catch? You cannot communicate in any way. No talking, no gesturing, no subtle wagging of an eyebrow. You somehow need to play your cards strictly by reading the room and getting into a rhythm.
If this sounds bonkers, it’s because it is. Trying to get into a cadence with your friends simply by existing in the same space feels as much like an Orwellian sociological experiment as it does a game, but it produces some truly memorable moments. When you and two other people lay down a ‘27’, a ’29’, and a ‘30’ in quick succession, it’s magical. When your friend plays an 84 after a 62 with barely any time in between, the whole table will groan and curse at them. Every time I play this game a new great gaming memory is created and isn’t that what board games are all about (this is the part where the studio audience goes, “awwwww”)?
On a personal level, one thing I’ve been impressed with is how my love for The Mind increases with each play. When I first played it, I enjoyed it but had a feeling that the novelty would fade after repeated plays. The exact opposite has happened. Every time I play it, I love The Mind a little bit more.
And as someone who has spent most of his life in awkward silences, it’s tough to find a game more fitting for me than The Mind.
I haven’t played many pure negotiation games, but I may need to change that if GoodCritters is any indication. GoodCritters, which is a retheme and reimplementation of a game called Tiefe Taschen, casts players as anthropomorphic animals in the Mafia trying to divvy up the loot after a heist. I dunno if there is a Venn diagram out there representing people who are both furries and fans of Scorsese movies, but boy would they like this theme! Loot cards come in different denominations, and every round a player takes the role of the Boss and takes a certain number of those loot cards and splits them up however they see fit. This is the part where everybody starts arguing with each other.
After everyone is done swearing, players play action cards which allow them to either approve the deal or reject the deal, which could result in the Boss being ousted. BUT there are also action cards which let you skim off the top of the loot deck or even rob another player. Playing one of these action cards mean you’re essentially abstaining from the vote which could have implications over the exchange of power.
The ruleset is incredibly open, which means a lot of the heavy lifting has to be done by the players and the various metas they create. This means that if you have a group of shy, sheepish players who are going to try and be nice and fair, Goodcritters maaaay fall flat. BUT if you have a group who is willing to form petty alliances and be mean to each other for little to no reason, congratulations! You may be terrible people, but you’ll have a good time with this game!
The first time I played this game, we played three games of it back to back to back. Over those games, hilarious moments and storylines formed that I still chuckle about. This is far from the deepest experience, but any game that can create such laugh out loud stories is worthy of a top 100 spot in my book.
98. Notre Dame
After starting with two somewhat light games, let’s wade a bit into the deeper part of the pool. My number 98 is a mid-weight Euro by Stefan Feld called Notre Dame. Explaining Notre Dame feels like I’m running down a Stefan Feld Design Checklist. Mid weight, dry Euro? Check. Setting is Medieval Europe? Check. Point salad? Check. A looming threat you need to keep at bay, lest you take a penalty? Check. Lots of browns and a somewhat dull look? Check. Those of you playing Stefan Feld Bingo at home likely have most your card filled by now, I wager.
Notre Dame is a heavily card driven game set in Medieval Paris where players control districts surrounding the titular cathedral. Every round, players draft a hand of three cards and then spend two of them to complete certain actions. Majority of the actions involve placing a cube into specific boroughs of your district and then completing the action associated with that borough. The cool thing is that the strength of the action is often determined by the amount of cubes already present. For example, if you place a cube at the bank, you get one coin. But when you place a SECOND cube there, you get two coins and it keeps going up from there. It reminds me of a sort of tighter version of Architects of the West Kingdom, a worker placement game that featured a similar ‘your actions get more powerful with each piece you have at that spot’ gameplay loop.
This creates an interesting decision space where you’re constantly wrestling with the fact that you need to do a little bit of everything vs. the fact that focusing on just two or three boroughs is a more efficient, powerful use of your cubes. Further complicating this is the ever-present plague, something that activates at the end of each round and will wreak havoc on your game if you let it get out of control. I had a friend in one game who flippantly said, “I’m not gonna worry about the plague” and then he proceeded to lose by a mile. Turns out being a grimy slumlord DOESN’T pay. You HAVE to take actions against the plague which means it takes away from actions you could spend bettering your engine and collecting more resources. It’s an agonizing balancing act and creates a richly tactical experience.
I have only played a few of Feld’s designs, but Notre Dame definitely makes me want to play more. And I know I was being a bit of a dick earlier about the color scheme and art, but I actually find the somewhat bland art style in this game charming.
It’s a little tricky for me to get to the table since most of my friends find it too dry, but I think Notre Dame is a joy to play and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of old school Euro.
Anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will immediately recognize Condottiere as something familiar…this game is basically Gwent. Now before you start overloading the comment section (lol, someone commenting on one of my posts, that’s funny), I am well aware Condottiere came out before Gwent and that Gwent was inspired by this rather than the other way around. I’m just saying it so people have a touchstone. As someone who put hundreds of hours into The Witcher 3 and having roughly half that play time consumed obsessively with Gwent, Condottiere feels like spending time with an old friend who has a slightly different haircut from the last time I saw them (‘Hey Gramps…uh…nice mohawk’).
In Condottiere, players are vying over control of 13th century Italy with the end goal being to either control 3 adjacent territories on the board or simply controlling 5 in all. These territories are won by playing battles, which is where the Gwent similarities start to pile up. Players are playing cards from their hands, most of which are soldiers with values attached to them. Ultimately, by the time the battle ends you want your little battle line of cards to have the highest value so that you can claim the territory with one of your cubes.
Of course, it’s not that simple. There are a handful of special cards that spice things up like Grandma’s marinara. There are drummers which double the value of your battle line, there’s a Bishop who destroys every copy of the highest valued soldier (what a cranky old man), there’s even a card that ends the battle abruptly, resulting in hilarious moments where someone wins a territory with one dude holding a crossbow in their line.
At its core, Condottiere is a tense game of hand management. You’re constantly debating whether you want to spend your best cards and really commit to winning that territory, or if you just want to retreat and save your hand for another day. In a clever rule, if you’re the only person with solider cards in your hand in between battles, the round actually ends and you have to discard your whole hand, thus meaning hoarding till everyone else is depleted won’t work. When you throw in some politicking with your friends, the game REALLY comes alive. The last game I played of this was an absolute blast, and a lot of that had to do with the constant fragile alliances being made and immediately being broken as people were selfishly trying to win each territory for themselves.
If there is a main gripe I have with this game that keeps it from being higher on the list, it’s that you can really be boned by a bad hand of cards in this game. I usually don’t mind luck of the draw, but in this game it stings a lot more for some reason. Probably because there isn’t much of a way to mitigate a bad hand and since you’re stuck with it for an entire round, it can be deflating to watch battle after battle being lost. I once drew a hand that was essentially a high school marching band, with nothing but drummers and very few soldiers and it was not fun.
Outside of this unfortunate luck of the draw, Condottiere is a fantastic card game that seems to get even better with each play.
Perhaps the most charming and relaxing game on my list, Herbaceous is a lovely little push your luck game about collecting and potting herbs. If you were ever looking for a Hobbit Simulator, this might just be it.
Herbaceous’ gameplay is incredibly smooth and simple. There is a deck of cards made up of different types of herbs, like dill, bay, and Herbert Hoover (just kidding). On your turn you draw two cards from the deck and you need to put one in your private garden (a card stockpile only you have access to) and one into the public garden (a card stockpile that EVERYONE has access to). The catch? You draw these cards one at a time, meaning you must decide what to do with the first before ever seeing what the second one might be. Sure, that tarragon looks awfully tasty, but if you put that in your private garden, what if one of the rarer cards, like chives, shows up? Then it’ll be available for just ANYONE to grab, and nothing irks me more than my friends getting chives that belong to ME.
Further adding to this press your luck mechanic is the set collection mechanism that powers the scoring in the game. You have four different pots in front of you to collect sets of herbs and they all have different set categories. One pot only takes sets of identical herbs, while one only takes sets of pairs and another requires a set of unique herbs. Once you pot a set of herbs into one of those containers, it’s locked down for the rest of the game. Making things even worse, this decision needs to be made BEFORE you draw cards, meaning you must decide before knowing what kind of herbs you could potentially add to your sets-in-progress. Herbs haven’t been this tense since…well…ever.
What I love about Herbaceous is that despite the tension that comes from the push your luck mechanisms, it never feels too stressful. As I mentioned before, this is a very relaxing game. The fact that the art is beautifully done by Beth Sobel, one of the industry’s best artists, further adds to this game’s zen like charm.
Another quick point in Herbaceous’ favor is that it’s got a pretty good solo mode. I have been doing a lot of solo gaming over the past year, so I’m always on that lookout for a good solitaire variant. While I certainly wouldn’t buy this game SOLELY because of this mode, it’s good enough to burn 10-15 minutes and to keep this game always in the back of my mind.
Also: there is a bonus point card that is called The Biscuit and it’s literally just a picture of a biscuit on a plate and oh man does that never fail to make me smile.
95. Ex Libris
There are going to be a lot of games on this list where I’m going to say, “This game would probably be a bit higher if it got to the table more often” and Ex Libris is one of those games. Ex Libris had a lot of hype when it was first released and it’s gone somewhat quiet since then, which is a shame because this game’s pretty damn good.
Ex Libris is a game that is set in a magical fantasy world, but instead of slaying goblins or diving into dungeons for treasure, you’re setting up a library. Yep, hope you’ve brushed up on the Dewey Decimal system lately!
It’s easy to raise a sarcastic eyebrow and go, “Libraries? Seriously? What, is this Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Overdue Book?” but the theme is one of the best things about this game. If you want a game about mindlessly killing orcs and dragons, go to Kickstarter and take your pick from the hundreds available. But how many games let you build a fantasy library??
How you build this library is through a fusion worker placement and tile laying. On your turn, you place a worker down on one of a constantly rotating batch of locations, and the actions you do help you with gaining cards or laying down cards. The cards feature the spines of books (all uniquely named!) as well as symbols pertaining to the genres of those books. The building of library involves putting these cards down in a tile laying style puzzle, trying to collect certain symbols while taking care to keep things in alphabetical order.
I will admit, I am much more fond of the tile laying aspect than the worker placement part of the game. Puzzling out where to put books in your library can be excruciating. Do you really want to jump from B to F? What if some ‘D’ or ‘E’ books come into your hand? You’re always pushing your luck against the clock. If you’re too conservative and barely build your library, other players can rush to the end and leave you with a library half their size. But play too cavalier and you may lock yourself out of good options that come down the line.
I love this puzzle so much that I wonder if maybe this game wouldn’t have benefited from being stripped down and turned into strictly a card game, where the only mechanic was tile laying. BUT, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love about the worker placement chunk of the game. For one, everybody has a special worker who is some sort of fantasy archetype, like a wizard or witch or trash golem (huh?). Not only are these special workers adorable custom meeples, but whenever you place them on a spot they activate a special, often thematic power. The aforementioned wizard can use his magic to slide his book shelves around, giving him versatility in the construction of his library. Meanwhile, the Gelatinous Cube swallows and takes cards from any players foolish enough to share a location with it. I definitely sense there may be some balance issues as some powers seem waaay more useful than others, but that doesn’t bother me too much. It can be used as a handicap for players who aren’t able to grok the game as easily as others.
The other unique aspect of the worker placement portion of Ex Libris is a bit more of a double-edged sword. In this game, the worker placement spots are not a static selection of actions. Instead, they are location tiles that are constantly getting swapped in and out, meaning every game is going to have a fresh and somewhat chaotic feel to it. On the one hand, this is great. I love how each location feels thematic and the art that goes along with it, oozing personality with each tile. But what I don’t love is having to learn and relearn these locations throughout the game. If you play this consistently, it’s probably not an issue. But as someone who doesn’t get this game to the table nearly as often as I’d like, it can be a bit daunting for new players and it’s honestly one of the reasons why I sometimes hesitate to pull it out. Again, this makes me wonder if a straight up card game version of Ex Libris wouldn’t have been a smarter move.
Despite those complaints, there’s a reason why this game is still on my top 100. It’s got a great central puzzle, its whimsical art and theme burst with charm and personality, and it too has a very enjoyable solo mode. Give it a shot, I feel like this game has unfairly been lost to the annals of time (read: 2018, which is definitely the annals of time in board game years).
94. Schotten Totten
I love a good two player card game, especially if they’re packed with tough, tense decisions. If you do as well, look no further than Schotten Totten. Designed by game design great Reiner Knizia, this game has also been published under the name Battle Line. While Battle Line carried a Carthaginian ancient warfare theme, Schotten Totten is about Scottish clans trying to increase their territory by passive aggressively kicking boundary stones back and forth. They are ostensibly the same game, but I will take Schotten Totten’s theme over Battle Line’s any day and the difference in production values between Iello’s Schotten Totten and GMT’s Battle Line is laughable. One has humor and personality and vibrant colors (Schotten Totten) and the other (Battle Line) has art and graphic design that looks like it was made in Print Shop ‘95.
Schotten Totten is classic Knizia in its simplicity to depth ratio. On your turn, you play a card and you draw a card. When you play a card, you’re playing it to one of the many stones that divide your side of the board from your opponents. You’re basically trying to make 3 card poker hands on your side that beat the hands on your opponent’s side. And that’s it!
And from this simple seed blossoms a beautifully tense flower of a game. You and your opponent are in a constant game of Chicken over the stones. Commit to only a few stones and you show your hand too quickly, allowing your opponent to zig while you zag. But play to too many stones too early and you’ll wear yourself thin, not allowing you any escape valves when you realize a hand may be lost. You’ve got to balance keeping your options open with forming strong foundations and this is both scream inducing and addicting.
There’s not much else to say about Schotten Totten. The fact that it’s been around as long as it has in two different versions is all you need to know.
93. The Quest for El Dorado
Hey, look who’s back! It’s Reiner Knizia again! That’s cool, he’s fun.
Whereas Schotten Totten is one of Knizia’s stalwart classics that has stood the test of time, El Dorado is a much more recent offering from the Good Doctor. That doesn’t make it any less respectable and it is in fact widely considered one of his best games in years. El Dorado is Knizia’s foray into deckbuilding and it makes you hope that he returns to the genre soon. He seamlessly blends deckbuilding with a race element that creates a super fun experience.
In The Quest for El Dorado, you are an explorer trying to make it to the fabled lost city of gold, El Dorado which seems fitting because El Dorado is the only damn place explorers seem to be going in board games. Like most deckbuilders, everyone starts with an identical deck of cards. These cards represent your movement abilities as well as some gold which aid in buying new cards for your deck. Green cards let you use machetes to slice your way through green spaces while blue cards feature paddles allowing you to move through blue spaces. Gold cards double as movement cards to move through yellow spaces (which are villages, so apparently you’re just bribing the indigenous people??) as well being the most efficient cards to use when buying new ones. On your turn, you have a hand of four cards which you can use to move your meeple along the (highly modular) map or buy new cards and then it’s the next player’s turn.
This brings me to the first thing I love about this game, and that’s just how silky smooth and quick this game is. Turns are brisk affairs and using a good hand of movement cards to march ahead of the pack never fails to feel satisfying. This satisfaction is multiplied tenfold when you pull out one of your big cards that you recently added to your deck which lets you machete your way through jungle thicket like a human shaped lawn mower.
Don’t mistake this simplicity and speed for shallow. There are still plenty of great choices to make and building your deck feels like a constant tactical exercise in preparing for what you need while ditching cards that you don’t. Since the maps are modular and full of variance, there will be times when you see stretches of certain types of spaces. See lots of blue? Load up on paddles like the world’s most paranoid sailor. See lots of green ahead? Grab so many machetes that your deck looks like the garage in the Voorhees household. And when you see the landscape changing again? The game offers campsites which allow you to ditch cards from your deck. Payers find themselves hauling ass over there to ditch their paddles or machetes into the campfire to make room for better stuff. It’s like you’re cooking a pot of soup and changing the spices on a constant basis to fit the tastes of the guests coming in and out of the kitchen.
Deckbuilding is one of my favorite genres and The Quest for El Dorado is one of my favorites to feature the mechanism. This is another game, like Ex Libris, that could easily find itself higher if I just had more time to play it. I definitely want to get it to the table again soon, and I would suggest you think of doing the same.
92. Dead Men Tell No Tales
I feel like there are two breeds of cooperative games: puzzle-y co-ops and limited communication co-ops. I already mentioned my love for limited communication co-ops in my description of The Mind. But puzzle-y co-ops, in the vein of Pandemic or the Forbidden series of games? I have been starting to get burnt out on them. Those were the types of games that I pretty much exclusively played when getting into the hobby and I loved them then, but my desire to play that style of cooperative game has decreased with each passing month. BUT there are still games in that style that I greatly enjoy and will not mind playing no matter the mood. Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of those games.
DMTNT is a game where you and your band of fellow pirates are boarding a ship you just scuttled to loot your hard earned treasure. The trouble? The ship is burning (I mean, you should have seen that coming) and also populated with skeletons and ornery treasure guards. You need to work together to keep the fires at bay while constantly prepping for combat so that when you come across one of those aforementioned treasure guards, you can ask them nicely for their treasure (with your sword).
Let’s be honest, this game is a tad derivative. It’s a game where you spend action points to keep things on the board from getting out of control lest they spread to other parts of the board and cause a chain reaction that makes an untenable situation. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s basically Pandemic: But With Pirates. But that’s okay! I love pirates (it’s my favorite board game theme!) and the game adds a ton of thematic touches which help separate it from Pandemic: you have a combat meter which you’re constantly trying to keep at a healthy state in case you need to fight some fools; there are items you can use and swap with your teammates to adapt to new situations and problems; there’s a cool tile laying mechanism where you are basically building out the ship as you play; there’s rum.
These little thematic flourishes can sometimes bog down the game with edge cases and constantly checking the rules, but it’s worth it when you consider how much it adds to the atmosphere and cinematic nature. I already said pirates is my favorite theme in board games and this game absolutely revels in that theme. As such, no matter how much I cool on cooperatives of this nature, I have a feeling DMTNT will be a fixture in my top 100 for quite a bit longer.
Small card games are going to pop up a lot on this list, so prepare thyselves. I already had Herbaceous and now I’m rounding out this portion of the list with Coloretto. Like Herbaceous, Coloretto is a set collection game driven by a push your luck mechanism. The deck of cards is comprised of different colored chameleons and you’re trying to collect certain colors by game’s end.
On your turn, you can either draw a card and add it to one of the stacks of cards being formed in front of the players OR take one of the stacks of cards and essentially bow out for the rest of the round. Each stack (the number of which differs based on player count) can only hold three cards so options get pretty tight fairly quickly. There’s a constant tension of trying to figure out when it’s time to get a stack and get out or to push things juuuust a bit longer to either make a stack that much sweeter for yourself or to maybe sabotage a stack that was looking good for your opponent.
The reason why there will be stacks of differing quality for the different players is the way Coloretto scores. You don’t simply score your sets of different colors, getting points for having as many chameleons as possible. Where would the game in that be? No, instead Coloretto has a devilishly clever system in which you only score positive points for THREE of the sets you collected and the rest net you negative points. And suddenly, that little rule transforms Coloretto into a peaceful game of trying to collect lots of cute little chameleons into a ruthless, cutthroat experience.
As you draw cards from the deck, you’re constantly aware of what colors your opponents want so that you can sully any potential piles that have those colors. Oh, you’re working on blue? And you’re eyeing up that stack of two blues? It’d be a shame if I put this purple chameleon there and OOPS, I JUST DID, GUESS YOU’RE WORKING ON PURPLE NOW TOO.
What I love about the bloodthirsty nature of this game is just how passive aggressive it feels. You’re just calmly adding a card to a stack and you hear groans erupt from another player. You play coy and be all, “Oh, sorry, were you gonna take that? Huh. Sorry” as you laugh uproariously on the inside. Of course, when it happens to you, it’ll fill you with an eruption of rage as you see your friend lackadaisically ruins the stack you wanted while very purposely avoiding eye contact despite the smirk on their face.
It’s a tense and thoughtful game despite its small package and short length. It’s without a doubt a game that you’ll play three or four times in one sitting and I have yet to get tired of its subtle but wicked tactics.
And that’s it! 100-91! Wow. That was a much longer trip than I expected. I really hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and ramblings on these games, and invite you to join in next week for 90-81!