Like Mr. Fantastic giving an unwanted proctology exam, we’re getting deeper and deeper into my top 50. Let’s kick off the 30-21 range!
30. Isle of Skyle
Previous ranking: 30 (0)
What I said last year
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, often feeling like you didn’t even get a good return on it. Price it too high, though, and you’ll be forced to take, probably 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.
What I say now
The epitome of consistency, Isle of Skye hasn’t budged, making it the first game on the list to be at the same exact position as in 2019. Not too terribly surprising, considering what a rock-solid game this is. I had a chance to play this shortly after my 2019 Top 100 and was once again reminded of what a fantastic, replayable design Pfister created.
Whaddya say, Isle of Skye, same place next year? See ya then.
29. Deception: Murder in Hong Kong
Previous ranking: 65 (+36)
What I said last year
Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a game very similar to Mysterium, in that a silent clue giver is trying to give hints and clues to a group to determine how a murder was committed. The twist here is that unlike Mysterium, this is not fully cooperative. One of the players is the murderer and the other players need to root them out.
Every player, except the clue giver, has two rows of cards in front of them. One row is potential murder weapons and the other row is some specific clue that was left at the scene of the crime. Everyone closes their eyes and the murderer points at one of the weapons and one of the clues in front of them and now the clue giver knows what they’ll be trying to get the others to guess. The clue giver has a bunch of clue boards in front of them with specific categories and items of that category, such as ‘Day of the Crime’ and ‘Murderer’s Personality”. These categories are mostly randomized throughout the game, meaning all cases are going to have a different set of clues. The clue giver needs to figure out how to take these fairly disparate clue elements and create a pattern for the other players to see, allowing them to link that to two items in front of the murderer. How do you let someone know the murderer used a garden trowel and left behind a stereo speaker by only telling them something random, like the victim’s expression? Who knows! That’s for you to figure out! But it does create hilarious images of the world’s most maddeningly cryptic investigator, trying to lead people to figure out a murder by saying, “Well, what I can tell you is that the victim appeared to be very, very scared!”
And speaking of hilarious, I know it’s weird to call a game literally about murder ‘hilarious’, but that’s kind of what this game is. When the murderer gives an extremely flimsy argument over something in an effort to deflect suspicion but immediately gets caught because of it, it’s hysterical. When the clue giver is having a bad round and gives a series of clues that make absolutely no sense whatsoever, it’s also a riot. Like any good social deduction game, the arguments and debates are the lifeblood of this game, and those arguments and debates more often result in laughter. This is a nice change of pace from other social deduction games like, say, The Resistance where most arguments end with everyone wanting to strangle each other.
Social deduction games are incredibly polarizing, but I do find Deception: Murder in Hong Kong one of the more accessible ones. The presence of a clue giver means someone who isn’t fond of being stuck in the center of heated exchanges can simply request to play that role more often and the presence of public clues allows the murderer to deflect a little more easily than, say, Spyfall. Every game I’ve had of this, even at lower player counts, has been amazing.
What I say now
Someone’s been drinking their Red Bull, I see! Deception has flown up the list all the way from 65 to 29 and it honestly doesn’t come as a surprise to me. When I ranked Deception last year, I didn’t have my own copy but have since procured one as a gift. It’s amazing how much more you’ll play a game when you actually own it.
These recent plays have solidified Deception as one of my favorite social deduction games, causing it to even surpass Spyfall which had appeared in the 50-41 range. Spyfall’s tumble came in big part due to Deception’s ascension. It’s an absolute riot of a time and is just barely edged out as my favorite in the genre by a new game that will appear oh so soon.
Previous ranking: 32 (+4)
What I said last year
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.
What I say now
Hardback remains one of my favorite deckbuilders in the hobby and it even finds itself a couple spots higher than last year. That is because, as I foreshadowed in last year’s entry, I finally got to play it competitively again. I’ll gladly go to bat for this game’s solo and cooperative modes, but the competitive play is truly where this game shines. Gee, who would have thought, a game designed as a competitive game plays best as a competitive game.
Obviously, this means all the positive stuff I rambled about last year still stands. I don’t know how much farther this can creep up, as I have a suspicion this may be Hardback’s ceiling but I guess I’ll just have to play it more to find out. Oh, the things I’ll do for science.
27. Arctic Scavengers
Previous ranking: 17 (-10)
What I said last year
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.
What I say now
Arctic Scavengers has slid 10 spots, enough to take it out of my top 25. While I’m sure that’s disappointing for Arctic Scavengers to hear, it shouldn’t beat itself up too much. This decline is almost exclusively just because I haven’t played it in a while. In fact, I haven’t played it since last top 100 and that usually precipitates a tumble down the list.
It’s just a little difficult to get Arctic Scavengers to the table because it doesn’t play super great at 2. With the skirmish mechanism, you need at least 3 for this game to really shine. Once I get a chance to play this again, I’m sure it will recover some of its placing. I do, in fact, still consider this my favorite deckbuilder and think anybody who is a fan of the genre NEEDS to play this game.
26. Detective Club
Last year’s ranking: N/A
Juuuust barely missing my top 25 is a ‘new to the list’ game that proudly wears a badge declaring, ‘Kyle’s Favorite Social Deduction Game’. That’s right, my number 26 is my new favorite social deduction game, something I masterfully teased a few entries back. That game? Detective Club.
Detective Club is cut from the same cloth as social deduction games like Spyfall and A Fake Artist Goes to New York, wherein one person out of a group doesn’t know something and they need to blend in as the other players try to determine who is the odd one out. These games often tend to be equal parts mortifying and hilarious and Detective Club is no different.
Whereas Spyfall is a game of interrogating your friends about a specific location, asking each other maddeningly vague questions and getting even vaguer answers back, and Fake Artist is Pictionary but with one of the players waking up from a coma halfway through, Detective Club is a game of interpreting pictures with Dixit-style surreal art. Every round, a rotating game master looks at their hand of Dixit-style cards and picks a theme. They write that theme down on a bunch of notebooks and they hand one to each other the other players.
BUT, and there’s always a BUT, one of the players gets a blank notebook. That player has no idea what the theme of the round is and they have to, and this is the technical term, ‘bullshit their way through it’. Why this matters is because after the notebooks get handed out, the game master plays a card that ideally follows that theme. Everyone else must do the same, playing a card from their hand that best exemplifies whatever the chosen, secret theme is. After this, a second card is played from everyone’s hands in this fashion and now I’m sure you see where the whole ‘bullshit their way through it’ comes in.
If you’re the person unlucky enough to get saddled with a blank notebook, you need to keep a keen eye on the cards that have been played and try to play something from your hand that might fall in line with it. Notice the other players’ cards all have water on them? Maybe the theme is something aquatic, so pull a card from your hand that can fit in with that. See lots of red on the other cards? Try your luck with a red heavy card and hope the theme is red or red adjacent. Trying to pick apart what threads the pictures together makes you feel like you’re Tom Hanks from The Da Vinci Code, except you’re doing it in a matter of seconds and you likely have a better haircut.
This would all be fun enough, but the REAL fun comes in when everyone stands trial. After two cards have been played by everyone, the Game Master reveals the theme and then describes why they chose their two cards. Then, one by one around the table, everyone must do the same, taking the stand in this kangaroo court in hopes that they can persuade the others that they knew the theme was ‘farts’ all along.
This phase of the game is by far my favorite, resulting in hysterical moments of players tugging at their collars like a used car salesperson weeks behind on commission, desperately trying to hide their nerves as they do their best to pitch their argument. Even if you knew the theme, it can be hard to convince the others if you were stuck with trash in your hand. A running joke in our group is starting off your defense by saying, “Okay, OBVIOUSLY I knew the theme was ‘farts’ but I had a bad hand so these will be a stretch…” which is then immediately answered with loud boos and groans.
Wonderfully, Detective Club fails to be as overbearingly intense for players uncomfortable with lying since you get to hear what the theme is before making your case. I’m sure there are some people out there who are uneasy with any sort of lying or thinking on the spot, but it’s nothing compared to Spyfall’s assault on one’s nerves. This automatically makes it a game I’m more liable to play, since people in my game groups who can’t tolerate the merciless anxiety of Spyfall tend to find this one much warmer and more welcoming. Plus, this game is so funny that it manages to diffuse any sort of tension that may arise.
Detective Club is truly social deduction at its best: a cocktail of humor, quick thinking and playful arguing. If you like the genre, this is the next crown jewel in your collection. Even if you don’t like these types of games, this is still one worth trying out since it kneads out the genre’s more stressful knots. Don’t be surprised if this manages to sneak on the top 25 by next top 100.
25. Letter Jam
Previous ranking: N/A
Welcome to the top 25! Our first stop is another ‘new-to-the-list’ game, a unique and brilliant mix of cooperative deduction and word building called Letter Jam.
In Letter Jam, you and your teammates will be cast into the roles of the world’s most confused wordsmiths. You’ll be collectively spelling words together using letter cards BUT the game sports a Hanabi style twist: you can see everyone else’s card, but you can’t see yours.
What this entails is everybody attempting to spell words using the letters of their teammates in a way that those players will be able to deduce what their mystery letter is. The clue giver places little numbered poker chips out in front of everyone’s whose letter is in the word, the number denoting where in the word their letter is located.
So, if I receive the ‘2’ chip and I see the rest of the word is spelled out as ‘S-?-I-T’, OBVIOUSLY my letter must be a ‘P’, right? No other possible word, eh? Definitely not! Now that I’m confident letter is a ‘P’ and definitely not anything else, I can place that card facedown and move onto my next one. The goal is basically for everyone to deduce what all of their letters are in front of them, with the number of cards being determined by difficulty level.
Obviously, the trick of the game is including as many people in a clue/word as possible while also making sure that the word is unique enough that you narrow the letter options down for the people trying to guess. If you give the clue ‘sand’, the person with the ‘s’ is gonna have a rougher go of it. Is it ‘land’? ‘Band’? “Wand’? You have to maximize your efficiency by giving as few clues as possible, so getting your teammates to nail their letter in one word is optimal.
Okay, I said it was optimal, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Letter Jam is a deviously tough puzzle, made even harder by the fact that it’s essentially puzzles within puzzles. There is the ‘trying to formulate a word and give a clue out of the visible letters’ puzzle (probably a pithier way to say that) and then there’s the actual deduction of figuring out your letter when given a word. Wading between these two layers of riddles feels like your brain is jogging on two separate treadmills, one for each foot (assuming your brain had feet, I guess).
Keeping the proceedings moving and helping the game from ever being bogged down by indecision is a great free form clue giving system. Quite simply, anyone can step forward and spell a word for the group, which they’ll have to mark by taking a delicious little jelly looking token, which I can assure you doesn’t taste as good as it looks or so I was told by my, uh, dog. This means the game, despite being very thinky, won’t gridlock at one player while a basic restriction system forces everyone to give at least one clue so that some Chomsky wannabe can’t dominate the conversation.
Every time Letter Jam gets played, I’m impressed with how smart and clever it is. While it’s certainly quieter and more pensive than your average party game, it is such an engaging, interactive experience that it’s become one of my go to games for groups of 5-6 (insert obligatory ‘whenever it’s safe to do that again’ pandemic comment’). It also scales surprisingly well and, while I definitely prefer it at the higher player counts (with the max of 6 being ideal), I wouldn’t turn down a game of this at either 2 or 3.
To round this out, Letter Jam is an amazing word game that I honestly expect to inch deeper into this top 25 by next list.
24. Tricky Tides
Previous ranking: 29 (+5)
What I said last year
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.
What I say now
As someone who’s grown to love trick taking games even more over the past year, it’s no surprise Tricky Tides got a bit of a bump. I’m still obsessed with this game’s marriage of theme and aesthetics, and the balance of tactical hand management with strategic resource management is a scrumptious peanut butter and chocolate style pairing.
I’m not shocked Tricky Tides snuck into the top 25 and I’m frustrated more people haven’t played this one. Play it and thank me later, I’ll even allow you to Venmo me something.
23. Five Tribes
Last year’s ranking: 15 (-8)
What I said last year
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.
What I say now
A bit of slippage for Five Tribes, but it still remains in my top 25. And for good reason: this game rules. I feel like Five Tribes’ stock only decreased because of other games invading the top 25, because I’m still in love with the endlessly puzzle-y gameplay this gem provides. If I get a chance to play this again before next top 100, which I don’t see why I wouldn’t, I could see it bouncing back towards the teens like Jennifer Garner in ’30 Going On 13’. Yes, I just referenced ’30 Going On 13’, who else in board gaming content creation can you say that about?
22. 7 Wonders: Duel
Previous ranking: 16 (-6)
What I said last year
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.
What I say now
Another beloved Cathala design (though this one is a co-design) that’s fallen just a tad. But like Five Tribes, which I apparently just barely rank behind this game now, this isn’t an indictment on 7 Wonders: Duel. Hell, it’s still in the top 25. It’s just there is a LOT of competition and as much as I still love this incredible, tight design there’s only so much room towards the top.
Don’t fret too much, 7 Wonders: Duel. I suspect you’ll still be on the top 25 come next year too.
Previous ranking: 34 (+13)
What I said last year
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.
What I say now
Jumping 13 spots from a place in the mid-30s into my top 25, Ethnos is a game that I grow fonder and fonder of with each play. The eternally underrated Paolo Mori turned in his masterpiece with this design, I believe. It’s got incredible variety, it’s lightning quick and breezy yet still satisfying and substantive while its delicate balance of grabbing quick, short term points vs. entrenching yourself for the long game never fails to sparkle.
I have a lot of issues with the game’s publisher CMON, but I have perhaps no bigger beef with them than when it comes to their treatment of this game. Not only is this game screaming for expansion content and they’ve failed to deliver any, but they don’t even keep this game regularly in print. It got a soft reprint a little while back but since being out of stock since then? Nothing. I really, really hope this game gets the second chance it deserves, whether it’s with a new publisher or through a shinier second edition from CMON themselves. This is truly a must have game in everyone’s collection.
That’ll do it for my 30-21. Next time you visit, we’ll be even deeper into my top 25 with the 20-11 range! Come back soon! But not like, too soon, I need to get it finished and I’m lazy, but yanno, soon-ish!