IT’S HERE. IT HAS FINALLY COME. WHAT EVERYONE HAS BEEN WAITING FOR!
No, not the COVID vaccine…though that’s pretty ace too. I’m talking about my top 10! Like a vaccine, it’ll get you sick for a day or two but it’s worth it in the long run!
ONTO THE LIST.
Previous ranking: N/A
Let’s start things off nice and hot with a new to the list game: Orleans. Orleans has the distinction of popularizing the bag building mechanism in the hobby, a type of game that takes the beloved deckbuilding mechanism but uses some Fairy Godmother-esque magic to turn your deck of cards into a bag.
In Orleans, everybody will have their own personal bag which will be chock full of medieval themed character tokens, such as farmers, knights and craftsmen. It’s like a bagged lunch you take into school, but instead of a ham and cheese sandwich it’s your own personal Renaissance Faire. Every round, you’re going to pull out a ‘hand’ of these tokens from the bag and assign them to various spots on your player board, using various combinations to accomplish different actions.
One of the primary actions is using your existing tokens to add even more tokens to your bag, and herein lies the ‘bag building’ mechanism. At the start of the game, your token supply is fairly meager and weak, but clever use of them throughout the game’s first half will allow you to seed the bag with powerful combinations, which can then be used to further yourself along the game’s other action mechanisms. Every game of Orleans is like cooking microwave popcorn, with the flat bag of kernels slowly popping and bursting its way something that bulges with opportunity.
What makes Orleans even more special is that, if you oblige me in stretching this ill-advised popcorn metaphor even farther, you can flavor that popcorn however you damn well want. Orleans is certainly not a ‘sandbox’ game, but the freedom you have in deciding what strategy you want to pursue and the engine you build to accomodate that is unparalleled when compared to the rest of my top 100.
This facet particularly sings when considering the game’s ‘development tiles’, which are special spots you can grab and add to your player board so that only YOU can use them. This means you’re not only thinking about what tokens to put in your bag but also what development tiles complement them. If you’re building a bag with a lot of farmers, perhaps you’ll want to pick up some of the tiles that allow you to use farmers to grab free goods. Or maybe you’ll take all those monks you’ve been hoarding like a Gregorian Scrooge McDuck and grab tiles like that Sacristy and Brewery. Orleans gives you a medieval playground to explore and half of the game’s fun is deciding whether you want to go down the Ye Old Slide or climb the Ye Olde Monkey Bars.
I’ll admit, this style of free form, long term strategy doesn’t usually excite me. I’m far more of a tactical, turn to turn gamer and these mid to heavyweight Euros that put so much emphasis on making a long term plan and executing it are few and far between in my collection. Orleans gets away with it thanks to how damn satisfying and fun the bag building mechanism is. Reaching into your bag and grabbing a handful of tokens each turn is an exciting roulette wheel, with every opening of your palm a Vegas style thrill. Slotting your bounty onto your player board and then pulling the lever to run what you just built feels better and better as you get deeper into the game and the imagination sparkles with possibilities of what kind of strategy you’ll want to try next time. It doesn’t hurt that the game is beautiful either, with the woefully underrated Klemens Franz delivering his best work to date, a vibrant and evocative homage to medieval art.
My time with Orleans is very limited, making it all the more impressive that its debut on my list is triumphantly kicking off my top 10. Hopefully it’ll get back to the table before the next top 100 because this could make a serious run at the top 5, maybe even top 3.
Previous ranking: 14 (+5)
What I said last year
This is a team vs. team game, as many of these [word] games tend to be. Each team has a board propped up in front of them that only they can see. The board has four slots, each filled with a different word card. So, let’s say the words are ‘bear’, ‘ogre’, ‘beach’ and ‘kitchen’. The slots have a number so each of those words correspond to a number 1-4.
The active clue giver draws a card with a 3-number code that their team must guess. Let’s say they draw ‘3.2.1’. That means they need to give clues for beach, ogre, and bear, IN THAT ORDER, so that their team can guess the numbered code. Players guessing never say the words out loud, they say the numbers associated with the words that they believe their clue giver is trying to get across and in the order of the clues given. So, the clue giver can say ‘sand’, ‘Shrek’, and ‘grizzly’ to get their team to say “3, 2, 1.”
The clue givers do NOT want to give clues that obviously point towards something because, much like Cross Talk, the other team gets first dibs on intercepting the code. The first turn there is no intercepting codes, it’s just saying clues to provide a baseline. But after that, any clues that sound like they might be related to previous clues allows opponents to cross examine and nail down what the mystery word may be. For example, if the clue givers (which alternates every round) give the clues, ‘grizzly’, ‘polar’ and ‘cave’ for the word ‘bear’, there is a very good chance the opponents will zero in on that being something bear related. From that point on, anything else they think may be bear related, they will be sure to guess the number ‘1’ when they try to intercept the code. If the opposing team intercepts two of your codes, they win the game.
You’re probably thinking, then just be as vague as possible to confuse the other team….which is half right. You DO want to be vague so that the team can’t intercept BUT if your own team can’t figure out what you’re trying to say, then you get a failure token. And guess what? If you get two failure tokens, the other team wins the game. This creates a brutally tight balance between being obvious enough for your team to correctly guess the codes but being vague enough to prevent opposing team from catching the scent.
There are few games as nerve-wracking as Decrypto. The margins of error are ruthlessly thin and the slightest slip up can blow your whole game wide open. It feels like the other team is a flock of vultures circling overhead, just waiting for your team to collapse under the pressure so it can pick on your remains. In this tension, however, comes some of the most satisfying gaming moments I’ve ever experienced. When you do manage to sneak something by your opponents and your team immediately picks up on it, you feel like a genius. When you detect a subtle trend from the other team and intercept a code, you feel like Alan god damned Turing. There is no game that makes you feel as clever as Decrypto and the euphoric rush that gives you is hard to come by elsewhere in the hobby.
Also, Decrypto feels surprisingly thematic. As great as industry darling Codenames is, and while it may or may not show up on later this Top 100, it feels like an abstract exercise in word association. The spy theme is completely pasted on. Not so in Decrypto. Sporting an early Cold War aesthetic, this game makes you feel like you’re all codebreakers as you huddle with your team, desperately trying to get a leg up on the opponents in hushed whispers. It further adds to the endless suspense this game provides and, while it can be exhausting if the game is drawn out, it’s mighty impressive for a word-based party game to pull this off.
What I say now
I edited it out of the excerpt above, but I mentioned in last year’s entry that I wouldn’t be shocked if Decrypto found its way into my top 10. Those words were truly prophetic as here we are at number 9, with Decrypto experiencing a five spot surge into the top 10.
Everything I said last year about Decrypto and why it’s so brilliant stands today. In fact, it’s a very big reason why it’s in the top 10. One of the only reasons why Decrypto fell just short of a top 10 appearance last year was due to lack of play. This is a very particular party game for a very particular crowd, so it’s not nearly as easy to get this to the table as, say, Just One. But in year where most games suffered a lack of play due to a pandemic, Decrypto is one of the games that ironically got a bump up in table time due to its ability to be played remotely. Suck it, COVID.
Due to this increase in play time, I was reminded of the sheer genius of this game’s design and how no other game, even Codenames, scratches the word association itch in my brain like this one does. Decrypto has sidled on into the top 10 and it maaay be here a while.
8. Skull King
Previous ranking: 31 (+23)
What I said last year
I’ve had a lot of great trick takers across this top 100 and Skull King is one of the best. The funny thing is that this is one of my highest-rated trick takers on the list and it also happens to be the most traditional trick taker. It’s modeled after a traditional trick taker called Oh Hell, though there are some slight twists to make it its own beast.
Skull King is played over ten rounds, with players being dealt a number of cards equal to the round number (so 1 card for round 1, 2 cards for round 2, and so on). Once everyone gets a good look at their hands, wagering begins and this is where the heart of the game lies. You’re trying to bet the number of tricks you think you can win that round, with big points rewarded for nailing it and increasingly steep penalties for those who are farther away from it.
It’s fair to wonder how one can be expected to precisely predict how many tricks they think they can win with just a passing glance at your hand and guess what? You’re right! But that’s what makes Skull King so fun. Wagering in this game is like jostling a backpack and going, “I think there’s a parachute in here?” before jumping out of plane. You never know if you pull the ripcord and will happily float down to safety or if you will end up popping like a water balloon on the ground.
Skull King is controlled chaos in the best possible way. You can make guesses on what’s in your opponents’ hands by taking note of how aggressive their bid is along with what kind of cards they played so far, using those inferences to better time what cards you play. BUT winning tricks in this game can still feel like trying to grab a brass ring on a merry-go-round as it’s going at 80 miles per hour. When you manage to pinpoint it and nab the exact number of tricks you predicted, it’s an absolute rush. When you don’t, all you can do is laugh at the senselessness of it all and take solace that mostly everybody else is in the same boat as you.
I’m probably making this game sound like it’s just a cacophony of randomness and luck but Skull King is far from it. Like all great trick takers, there is a method to the madness which demands subtle strategy and constantly shifting tactics. There’s almost a push your luck feel to the proceedings as you try to determine when to play your best cards, especially if the titular Skull King, who automatically wins a trick, hasn’t been seen yet.
All in all, Skull King is amazing fun. The fact that it has a pirate theme is great, yes, and suuure, there is a rule that involves everyone yelling, “Yo ho ho!” at the same time but even with these things aside, Skull King is a masterclass in trick taking design.
What I said last year
One of the biggest jumps on my top 100 and maybe the most important since Skull King’s 23 spot climb gives it a cushy slot on my top 10. For good reason, too…this game encapsulates everything that makes trick taking great in one package. I’m talking about the agonizing hand management, the constant evaluation of your opponents to deduce what they might have, the climactic moments when someone plays a card and the rest of the table howls in either pain or excitement. It’s all here and it never fails to be an amazing time.
Before the world caught fire, this was one of the most requested and played games in my collection (another reason behind it’s precipitous increase). After my friends and I are vaccinated, I expect it to pick back up where we left off. Suck it, COVID.
Previous ranking: 4 (-3)
What I said last year
Raptor is a 2-player only masterpiece. At its core, it’s a card driven abstract strategy game, where you and your opponent are activating actions to move your pieces around the board to achieve your objective. The amazing thing is that Raptor breaks from the chains of its abstract design to become one of the most intense and cinematic experiences in gaming.
In Raptor, one player is a band of scientists who are suspiciously armed to the teeth and the other is a mother raptor and her babies. The scientists can win in one of two ways. They can either capture all the babies (I’m sure their intentions are harmless) OR shoot the mama raptor with five bullets, putting her into a deep slumber (again, I’m sure it’s fine). The raptor can either win by getting all her babies to safety, off the game board OR by eating all the scientists.
How the actual game plays is through a card based action selection mechanism that is so brilliant that I have no clue why another game hasn’t copied it. Each player has a deck of cards valued 1 through 9 with a special action listed on them. The special actions differ between the players, allowing the raptor to do things like teleport her babies to her tile or to scare scientist figures into a state of such catatonic terror that they spend the game on their back until the scientist player wakes them up. The scientist is able to do things like launching sleeping grenades to put babies to sleep from far away or using frickin’ flamethrowers to block movement on the board.
Players draw a hand of three cards from their deck and then simultaneously choose one to play facedown before dramatically revealing at the same time. The cards are then compared; whoever played the smaller number gets to immediately take their special action while the person who played the larger number gets a number of basic action points equal to the difference between the two numbers.
It’s an absurdly clever system that creates more moments of unbearable tension than any other game I’ve played. Every turn you’re trying to get into the head of your opponent, attempting to zero in on what special action they need in order to deny them it while also making sure you get a solid chunk of action points. Of course, there will be points where you desperately need to trigger a special action and your opponent is thinking the same thing. Once that meta is established, the endless spiral of double think swallows your mind hole. You know your opponent wants to get reinforcement scientists so you’ll want to cancel that out BUT they know that too so they likely won’t play that card but what if they’re banking on you thinking that and WILL play that card so do you just counter it anyway and then you reveal and GOD DAMMIT, THEY DIDN’T PLAY THE REINFORCEMENT CARD, THEY’RE GETTING SO MANY ACTIONS NOW.
The mind games above the table are a nerve-wracking battle of wits and it’s matched by the intensity of the game on the table. Deciding how to move your pieces and spend your actions to better your board position is just as excruciating as figuring out what card to play. As the scientists, you want to be as close to as many babies as possible, but that might mean splitting your figures across the map. That could spell danger for you when the raptor takes down a couple scientists and you’re left with a couple of useless figures who are now too far away to do anything. On the other hand, clumping them together makes it more efficient to take down and capture baby raptors one at a time but means that if the mama raptor gets near you, you might as well just hand her an after-dinner mint. As the raptor, you have to decide which babies are worth focusing on and which are, horrifyingly, worth sacrificing for the good of the family. You also want to make sure you’re in positions where you can reach much of the board but that often means being out in the open and that opens you up to being shot at by the scientists.
If you’re playing a drinking game where you take a drink every time I say the word ‘tactical’ then crack open a new beer and start chugging because that’s exactly what this game is: tactical. This game is perhaps the most tactical game on my top 100 and one of the most tactical games I’ve ever played, period. It’s impossible to plan more than one move ahead because you have no clue what cards you’ll have at your disposal and you have no clue if you’ll even be able to use them for what you intended.
You wanted to play that value 7 to get a handful of action points because you thought your opponent was playing low? Oopsies, they played an 8 and now you activate that action. Guess you gotta reevaluate your next turn! This sort of stuff happens constantly throughout Raptor, meaning that if you aren’t ready to adapt at a moment’s notice then you will have what we in the hobby call ‘a bad time’. As someone who salivates at the prospect of playing games that requires this much tactical thinking and adaptation, Raptor is so firmly in my wheelhouse that I should start calling it Captain Raptor.
(that was really stupid, I’m sorry, I’m running out of stuff to say)
I’ll end this fanboyish rambling by mentioning this game’s tightwire balance. When I first played the game, I thought the scientists had a huge advantage over the raptor. I didn’t mind it too much though, because games were still close and the raptor was still a lot of fun to play as. But as I’ve played it more and more I’ve realized that the scientists, while easier to use as a new player, are not overpowered and that the raptor is incredibly powerful after you get the hang of managing her arsenal. I now consider it a toss up between the two sides and this balance creates absurdly tight games. Every game seems to come down to the wire, with each side desperately trying to get just the ONE action they need that will give them the advantage. This also means that there are rarely quick, blowout victories, with even a slow start able to be overcome by one or two clever card plays.
I recently played six straight games of this with a friend one night over the course of two hours. That seems like a lot, but we honestly could have played six more. Every single game was fun, intense, and filled with nail-biting tension. My friend commented that no game gets his pulse racing like Raptor and I think I have to agree with him (something I don’t often do with friends).
What I say now
This one both hurt and surprised me to move down the list. Yes, it’s only 3 spots, but any sort of movement in, out and within the top 10 seems magnified.
That being said, I don’t like Raptor any less than I did when it was number 4. Other games have increased in favorability and Raptor was the unfortunate collateral damage. This was even more pronounced by the fact that Raptor hasn’t gotten played for quite a while. Even though 2 player only games are the main thing I’ve been playing with my girlfriend in quarantine, she’s not a huge fan of aggressive, confrontational games and this is a VERY aggressive, confrontational game. It’s also absurdly stressful and I personally haven’t been in the mood to willingly stress myself out lately. Can’t imagine why.
Raptor remains a masterpiece, however. It is firmly in my top 10 and I still whole heartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys 2 player only games.
Previous ranking: 7 (+1)
What I said last year
Inis has players placing and moving clans on tiles representing various areas of Ireland, getting into clashes, building temples and fortresses, and getting super drunk at festivals (that’s not me being stereotypical against the Irish, there are legitimately festivals in the game). As they do so, they’re trying to strengthen their position in one or more of the game’s three win conditions, hoping to achieve them before the other players. How players manipulate these pieces on the board and complete actions is through card play.
You get these cards in a variety of way. The main nuts and bolts that stitch your hand together are green colored cards called Action cards. Action cards are drafted at the start of every round and the same deck is used throughout the game. This means that as you play the game, you get to know the cards better and better, allowing you to see which ones combine well together and which ones are less potent for a given situation. It creates a great meta game that evolves over the course of the game and even bleeds into future plays.
Other cards include the red Epic Tale cards, which are gained through various other cards in the game. They add a dash of chaos and unpredictability to the proceedings, allowing players to activate special powers that can drastically alter the board state. The strengths of these cards are often circumstantial, which is a gripe I’ve seen people level at this game, but I honestly don’t mind it. They’re a fun way to inject some variance and tomfoolery into the game state and turn any meta on its head.
The last kind of card you’ll see are the yellow Advantage cards, which are rewarded to players for being chieftans of location tiles. Being a chieftan simply means you have more pieces of your color at a location than any other player. Each location has an Advantage card tied to it, allowing a specific ability for that player to play and use. Some Advantage cards are definitely better than others, which lead to some locations being more hotly contested, like people are rushing to choose between vacation real estate in Hawaii instead of Montana. (Listen, no offense Montana, but the thing you’re best known for is dinosaur bones. If your most popular attraction is already dead, that’s a bit of a problem).
By the midway point of the game, players are fanning out hands that are a patchwork of green, red and yellow like proud peacocks in mating season. Since cards are the lifeblood of this game, your hand is the heart of it, meaning you need to maintain its health in order to succeed. The more cards you have, the more control you have. In order to deal with hand size disparity, Inis includes a wonderfully smart passing system. If you don’t want to take your turn, you simply say “Pass” and it’s the next players turn. As long as the rest of the players don’t consecutively pass before your next turn, the round still continues and you’re able to still participate. This allows you to stall and buy some time for the right moment to trigger a certain card or make a huge move, while hopefully thinning out the hands of your opponents to prevent them from getting the upper hand. I can’t think of a game where sitting back and doing nothing can be such an important decision. If only real life worked like that.
It’s tough to narrow down and focus on what makes Inis so great because Inis is a bit of a weird game. Its three different win conditions lead to strategy and direction and feeling a little opaque, especially for a first play. It has a mechanism where you must declare you have one or more of the win conditions like it’s god damned Uno, spending a whole turn to take a ‘Pretender’ token that you can’t win the game without. Its game length can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as 3 hours depending on how things play out.
And yet, here it is at number 7. So let me just talk about things I do love!
Thing the First: It has my favorite combat system in an area control game, ever. You literally just attack someone and they lose a soldier or a card. Then they do the same to you, causing both players’ armies to slowly erode away like you’re watching a time lapse video of ice melting. It does a great job of making war feel senseless and pointless, something you don’t expect from a troops on a map game. Even more brilliantly, before every action in the combat, players can unanimously agree to peace and end the conflict. This means that technically a game of Inis could end without a single battle and that it’s the players themselves who are choosing to not coexist.
Thing the Second: I’ve mentioned my love of tactical games so many times on this top 100 that you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘tactical games’ is the name of some publisher that’s sponsoring the blog. But what can I say, I like what I like and I love tactics over strategy. Inis is one of the most tactical games on my top 100, forcing you to change your plans every round based on the cards you draft and what your opponents have done. This game is a tactical player’s dream.
Thing the Third: I adore the theme and art in this game. I literally named this blog after the coat of arms from my family’s Celtic ancestry, so it’s safe to say that I’m all in when it comes to anything Celtic. The game does a great job of immersing you into its Celtic setting and mythology, with Epic Tale cards that are based on actual Celtic myths and evocative art on the location tiles that transports you to the setting. The psychedelic card art is maybe a little more 1970s than mid hundreds, but it’s still incredibly striking and attractive. Playing this with the Braveheart soundtrack in the background creates such a wonderfully engrossing experience that it almost makes you forget Mel Gibson was involved with that movie.
Thing the Fourth: This game has got a ton of replayability and variety. There is no static nature to this game. Everything comes out in a different order every time you play it: from the location tiles to the Epic Tale cards to the cards you draft at the beginning of every round. This breathtaking amount of variance allows for Inis to feel different and fresh every time you play it. That’s something I really put a lot of stock into, so the fact that Inis excels in this area is a huge notch in its pro column.
Honestly, I love Inis enough that I could see it being a top 5 or even top 3 game for me some day. The main thing keeping it from that hallowed company is that I have had one or two rough plays of this game, where it dragged on for almost three hours and it devolved into a ‘bash the leader’ slog. The good thing is that that has only happened at the four-player count. At three players, games last for little over an hour. Now, I’ve heard the expansion helps fix this problem at higher player counts which plops it immediately on my radar). If I play this a couple more times and find the game is at a more consistently trim run time, Inis is without a doubt in the running for my favorite game of all time.
What I say now
Ahh, Inis. How close you came to cracking my top 5 this year. Early in 2020, I had a couple of fantastic three player games of Inis and it’s the main reason it moved up. I simply adore this game’s richly tactical gameplay and the theme never fails to immerse me. It juuuuust missed the top 5 because I still have a somewhat sour taste in my mouth from over-long, repetitive four player games of this and I never did get the expansion I mentioned in last year’s entry.
When that day comes, I truly think Inis won’t just enter my top 5 but make a real run at the number 1 spot. I like it that much.
5. Grand Austria Hotel
Previous ranking: 6 (+1)
What I said last year
GAH casts players as hoteliers in pre-war Vienna, working hard to attract and feed guests so that they can be sent up to their rooms, all the while trying to make sure a very fickle (read: asshole) Emperor approves of their hotel. It’s a tight game of resource management, where you must keep track of things like time, money and coffee (which makes it sound like a Millennial Simulator, but it’s obviously a bit more than that).
GAH is a dice drafting game that has an immensely clever system for picking said dice. Every round, a bunch of dice are rolled and are separated into columns by number. The numbers denote what action those dice can be used for. For example, if you take a one, that allows you to take cake and pastry resource cubes, a four lets you take money or Emperor favor points, a five lets you hire a staff member, etc.
The cool twist is that the strength of that action is determined by the amount of dice in the column when you draft it. So, if the ‘four’ column has three dice, I get the four action at a strength of three. In this case, it allows me to take any combination of three dollars or Emperor points.
Obviously, this creates tense tactical decisions. If you take a die from a column that has a lot of dice in it, you’re getting a potent version of that action. But the more dice means the better you chance of that action sticking around till your next turn, so do you take something that’s less strong but scarcer? On the flip side, taking an action that only has one or two dice seems woefully inefficient. BUT its rarity means that maybe that action won’t be around by your next turn, which can put you in a huge bind if it’s an action you really need.
This mortifying tight walk defines Grand Austria Hotel and its all the more petrifying by the sheer amount of stuff you need to get done in this game. To get points, you need to fill rooms which means you have to get guests (which costs money) and then you need to feed them which means getting resources like cake and wine and coffee and then when they’re fed you need to make sure you have a room prepared that matches their color and also there is an Emperor who visits three times a game who will give an absolutely brutal penalty to anyone who hasn’t gotten far enough along on his Emperor track and by the way did I mention you only have fourteen turns to get this all done???
It’s like the board game version of the children’s book When You Give A Mouse A Cookie. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of these types of Euros in which you need to take countless baby steps just to achieve one thing BUT Grand Austria Hotel gets away with it because of one thing.
Do you know what that thing is? Come on, you can guess it. I’m sure you know what I’m about to say.
Yes, Grand Austria Hotel manages to be so good, for me, because it’s more tactical than strategic. Told you that you could have guessed it!
Don’t get me wrong, like many games, Grand Austria Hotel involves some degree of long-term planning. You’ll need to look ahead at the public objectives and Emperor track and figure out things you might want to work towards during the game. But every decision made to get to those points is purely tactical. The board state changes so much from round to round and even from turn to turn that you are constantly making reactionary decisions, picking things based on what the dice are offering as well as what kind of guests are available. So many Euros are about picking a long-term strategy at the start and then mechanically following that path like you’re a just activated Manchurian candidate. So, when a Euro like GAH provides fluidity and a need to constantly shift your plans, I’m drawn to it like a hipster to an IPA.
Within this whirlwind of tactical decisions, you’ll find satisfying moments where you trigger a guest’s special power that triggers another’s and maybe even another’s, which results in a cascade of rewards and future opportunities for your hotel. GAH can be tough, but it’s never not gratifying. Few Euros I’ve played provide the rush that Grand Austria Hotel does.
What I say now
Like Inis, Grand Austria Hotel gets a one spot bump thanks to an early 2020 play that once again showcased what a masterclass in design the game is. The consistent tightness of this game’s puzzle makes it seems like it’ll be impossible to achieve your goals and yet somehow the game gives you juuuust enough to pull it off. It’s a truly delicate line that no other Euro has walked so nimbly.
And similarity to Inis: this is one of the few games on this top 100 that I could see becoming a contender for my number 1 overall spot if I get to play it more consistently. We’ll see what 2021 brings!
4. Port Royal
Previous ranking: 5 (+1)
What I said last year
Alexander Pfister makes one last stop on my top 100 with what is, in my opinion, his best game. It’s another one of his lighter games: the push your luck card game Port Royal.
Port Royal checks a surprising amount of boxes for me. A lighter weight Pfister game? Check. Push your luck? Check. Pirate/nautical theme? Check. Klemens Franz artwork? Check. The fact that all these elements come together in a brilliant design doesn’t hurt its cause either.
I love Port Royal so much that I’ve already reviewed it on the blog. You can read that here, but here’s the recap. This is a game of pushing your luck against a deck of cards so that you can draft cards into your tableau. The cards going into your tableau not only give points (importantly, since it’s a race to 12) but also some special abilities, giving this game just the faintest whiff of that new engine builder smell.
When it’s your turn, you draw cards from a deck one a time and place them into a face up display (I’ll refer to it as the harbor from here on out). You can stop whenever you want, allowing you to enter a drafting phase in which you take some of those cards allowing you to either discard them for coins or purchase them to go into your tableau. The number of cards you can take is determined by the number of unique ship cards you’ve drawn into the harbor. If zero to three country’s flags are represented by ships in the harbor, you can only take one card. However, if there are four flags represented, you get to take two cards. If all five flags of the countries present in the game are represented by ships, you get to take a whopping three cards, which is pretty huge in this game.
The rub is that if two cards of the same flag ever show up in your harbor, you bust. Your turn ends immediately and as Willy Wonka once said, “You get nothing!” Not being able to do anything on your turn is devastating, so knowing when to stop drawing and be content with what you have versus going all in to get exactly what you want is a big part of this game.
There’s a lot of stuff I love about Port Royal outside of the general stuff I mentioned earlier. One cool mechanism is that after you draft your card(s), your opponents also get an opportunity to draft one card from the display you made with the caveat that they have to pay you one coin for doing business on your turn. This sort of positive interaction is always welcome in games and it helps inform how much you want to push your luck. Sometimes you’re not going to want to give your opponents a chance to get something juicy outside of their turn, even if you get a gold in return, causing you to stop drawing a little earlier than usual. Other times you may feel it’s in your best interest to be generous, pressing your luck a bit further so that your display is a smorgasbord of options for the other players. It’s a real cool touch and one that I wish other games would take a nod from.
What I say now
Hey, another game moving up one spot on the top 10! It’s like I really, really like these games or something. I talked last year about why, mechanically, Port Royal is so great, so allow me to delve into the emotional resonance I’ve realized this game has with me.
My favorite board game podcast, Board Game Barrage, did an episode a few months ago about ‘comfort food’ games. A comfort food game is a game that gives you a warm, nourishing feeling whenever you play it, while also being simple and accessible enough to enjoy in just about any setting or mood. Imagine a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes on a cold Winter’s day.
I’ve come to realize that Port Royal is my comfort food game. It’s a game that never fails to brighten my spirits with a sense nostalgic glow. It is basically a given that any game night will end with a game or two of Port Royal and just thinking of that makes me yearn for those days to be a reality again.
Seems like I might be getting too deep and reflective here so let me end by saying this game is really fun to get super drunk to while blasting sea shanties in the background. OHHH, THE YEAR WAS 1778
3. Mr. Jack
Previous ranking: 8 (+5)
What I said last year
True OG fans of this blog will recognize Mr. Jack as a very special game. It was the FIRST review I ever wrote for this site. It’s right here if you want to read it and see how this blog has grown over the past year (hahaha, it hasn’t at all).
Mr. Jack was a deliberate choice as my first review. It was the first game I ever bought in a hobby board game shop, the first one I ever taught myself without videos (a mistake I’d never make again), it was the first Bruno Cathala game I’ve ever played and it was the first game I fell in love with that wasn’t called Pandemic. Because of these things, I have a huge nostalgic fondness for it and I’ll be the first to admit that may be why it’s so high on my top 100. Even if I disregard that nostalgia and bias, however, Mr. Jack is still a masterclass in 2-player game design.
In Mr. Jack, one player is the titular Mr. Jack, a depraved criminal stalking the streets of Whitechapel disguised as someone else, while the other is the investigator, trying to figure out which character on the board is the true identity of Mr. Jack. In my review, I describe this game as a mixture between Clue and Chess and I stand by it. Players are manipulating pieces on a board and activating special powers trying to achieve their goal, which often has to do with adjusting how much information will be revealed about Mr. Jack’s identity at the end of the round. Mr. Jack wants to make sure that as little information is revealed while the investigator wants to eliminate as many possibilities as they can, hoping to whittle them down to one by the end of the game.
How this is all achieved is through a character draft. Every round, a snake draft occurs where the first player picks a character to move and activate and then the next player chooses two characters to move and activate. The first player chooses the remaining character and then an important question is asked by the investigator: is Mr. Jack visible or invisible? If Mr. Jack is visible, it means the character who is secretly Mr. Jack (which is assigned at the start of the game) is either next to another character token or next to a streetlamp. If the character is not next to a character or streetlamp, then that means Mr. Jack is invisible. Whatever the answer, this allows the investigator to flip over all characters in the opposite state to their grayed-out side, which means they are no longer a suspect. It’s kind of like flipping down characters in Guess Who when you eliminate a certain physical feature.
Obviously, the deduction is pretty basic. It’s just fifty-fifty and you’re simply eliminating possibilities rather than doing actual hardcore, Holmesian deduction. But where the magic in this game lies is in that character draft. I mention it in my full review, but it’s such a unique take on drafting. Most games that drafting based involve drafting things to a tableau or drafting actions to accomplish, but I’ve never seen a game where you’re drafting characters to then move around on a board and activate abilities with. This system is crafted to perfection in Mr. Jack, creating torturous decisions on who to take and who to leave for your opponent based on board position, their special powers and who has been eliminated as suspects. It’s like picking players for your team in Victorian gym class and it’s bursting with tactical play.
Mr. Jack is perhaps Cathala’s most underrated game. When people discuss their favorite games he designed or co-designed, it’s rarely, if ever, brought up. Even general discussions of favorite 2-player games often leave Mr. Jack out in the cold like Fred Flintstone at the end of The Flintstones’ title sequence (thank you, reader, for participating in the most stupid metaphor I’ve ever used). This is an absolute crime and if you enjoy tactical games or 2-player only games, then you need to rectify this.
What I say now
Like Decrypto earlier in this entry, Mr. Jack is one of the VERY few games to get a bump up due to quarantine. As mentioned before, most gaming has been done between my girlfriend and I so two player games are heavy in the rotation. One those two player games is Mr. Jack, a game I already loved (obviously) but have a newly rekindled adoration for.
It’s worth noting that Mr. Jack was once my favorite game ever. Granted, that was a long time ago, back when I first got into the hobby and when I had only played a couple dozen games as opposed to over a couple hundred. Still, the fact that it once was my favorite game and that it’s still stubbornly sticking around my top 10 (and now my top 3!) shows how deep my affection for this game goes.
Like I said last year, this game is criminally underrated. If you enjoy puzzle-y and tactical games, there are few better in the hobby than this one.
Previous ranking: 3 (+1)
What I said last year
If there’s one game I likely don’t have to explain it’s Codenames. It’s one of the most popular, famous games in the hobby and is the game to most effectively penetrate the mainstream market since Ticket to Ride. I mentioned it in my Codenames: Duet discussion that even my parents own a copy of Codenames and I just want to mention that again. My 60+ year old parents went out and bought a copy of this on their own accord after I introduced it to them. That’s amazing.
That being said, I’ll still briefly explain it just so that there’s context to what I talk about later. Codenames is a game of word association and deduction where two teams are trying to guess their words from a grid. A spymaster for each team has a key that shows which words pertain to them and they must give clues linking those words. Neutral cards are also seeded throughout the grid, gumming up the works, but worse than that is the assassin. One word on the grid is the assassin, a card that means your team instantly loses if they pick it. So, if the assassin word is ‘river’ you better damn well not give any clues that accidentally point your teammates to ‘river’.
Codenames is ingenious in so many ways. Let’s take, for example, it’s exquisite simplicity. Codenames can be taught to anyone in under five minutes. People super new to board games may need half a game to understand all the concepts but the gist of it can be understood quite quickly. What makes this simplicity such a feat is when you realize the surprising depth and thinky-ness of this game. Trying to link words together without accidentally leading your team to your opponents’ words or the assassin is going to fire off the synapses in your brain like a Tommy gun, especially for new players.
With repeated plays, you’ll find yourself acquiring a certain deftness with giving good clues. The subtle ways you can lead your team to a word while eliminating other, more unsavory possibilities is a skill that grows with each play, proving once again the subtle brilliance of Codenames’ system. Codenames is perhaps the most played game in my collection (it’s between this and Skull) and I still find myself astounded at the clever associations either I or other players can make. It’s a linguistic playground that I never get tired of visiting.
Lastly, let’s talk about the assassin. The assassin is perhaps my favorite rule in the game. From a mechanism standpoint, it’s there to prevent players from just guessing willy nilly. If the specter of an instant loss looms over the table, players tend to be a lot more timid when guessing potential words. BUT if one team starts to get a sizable lead, teams are forced to start making wild guesses and to stretch out possible associations to incredulity. As the board shrinks, the chance of hitting that assassin grows and, beautifully, it’s at these points in the game when those aforementioned shots in the dark need to occur. It creates such incredible, edge of your seat moments that you wouldn’t expect from a 15-minute party game.
When I first bought Codenames and experienced it, I made it my mission to bring it to EVERY party I could. These parties were often with different groups of people and every time I would meet back up with one of these groups, I would discover someone from that party had immediately gone out and bought their own copy of the game. It spread like a contagion all over my home state of Pennsylvania, and I can’t think something that better exemplifies how good Codenames is. It deserves every copy sold and every bit of recognition it gets.
What I say now
Another game getting a bump up the top 10 and another one due to remote play during quarantine. CGE, Codenames’ publisher, developed and released a free web-based version of the game for players to use and it’s fantastic. I appreciated it not only for re-forging social connections that I have so desperately missed over the past year(s???), but also because it once again proved to me that Codenames is one of the sharpest, most clever designs in the hobby.
Considering how much I’ve played Codenames over the years, I’m shocked whenever I do my rankings and see how highly I still rate it. Burn out usually happens at this point, but Codenames keeps trucking along, boasting an insanely long shelf life.
Like I said last year: this game is a bona fide classic and deservedly so.
1. Viticulture : Essential Edition
Previous ranking: 1 (no change)
What I said last year
Viticulture is a worker placement game in which you are running a vineyard in Tuscany, trying to wine things up better than your opponents. This means you’ll be planting vines, harvesting grapes, turning those grapes into wine and ultimately fulfilling wine orders. In the meantime, you’ll also be trying to build a workforce and infrastructure which makes these things easier and more profitable.
There are some things that make me wonder why Viticulture is my favorite game. For one, worker placement is a mechanism I’m not even THAT crazy about. Sure, I like it, and if I made a top 10 list I’m sure it’d sneak on there but I don’t think it’d even hit my top 5. On top of that, it is a pretty vanilla worker placement game in terms of how it uses the mechanism. There’s no crazy hook here or twist to the genre that makes you go, “Ohh, I haven’t seen this before!” It’s pretty standard ‘place a worker and do the action’.
And yet…here we are. Number one out of 100 and number one out of the 300+ games I’ve played over the past four years. Why?
Let’s start with the theme. I’ve been withholding my use of the ‘f’ word this entire top 100 but now that I’m on number one, I’m cashing it in: I fucking love this theme. I am much more of a craft beer guy than a wine guy, but I still love the whole idea of vineyards and the wine making process. I live in Pennsylvania where there are lots of vineyards on rural stretches between towns and I just love the calm, pastoral look of them. Viticulture manages to capture this theme perfectly despite being, like many board games, an abstract representation of it.
One big reason is the art. Here’s my second ‘f’ word: I fucking love this art. Beth Sobel, an artist I’ve praised throughout this top 100, has her best work to date in this game. Her serene arts style flawlessly encapsulates the relaxing feel of running a vineyard and wine culture. Every time I see this game’s art, whether from opening the board or sifting through its cards or by simply seeing it on my shelf, I instantly get a warm feeling that rushes through my whole body. It’s rare for art to give me a physical reaction but when you combine it with this setting and this gameplay, I can’t help but feel legitimately comforted by it.
The game’s gameplay and flow also help to add to the game’s tranquil atmosphere. I already mentioned that Viticulture has a somewhat basic approach to worker placement, but I actually think that’s to its benefit when you consider the theme. The act of simply placing a worker and getting its action and then moving onto the next person is wisely elegant and keeps things immersive. There’s no fiddly rules to distract you, no edge cases to stumble upon. It’s simply you, your worker and the goal you have in mind. As you harvest grapes and place them on your crush pad and prepare your cellars to transform them into wine, it’s impossible to not feel like you’ve just pulled on a cozy sweater.
Don’t mistake this for an ‘easy’ game, though. Despite the game’s elegance, warmth and welcoming demeanor, Viticulture still requires precise planning and execution. You need to complete actions in a proper, efficient order and mistiming something or allowing yourself to be blocked out can set you back an entire round. Because of this, there’s still plenty of tension. Yes, the game does have the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) grande worker, a plus sized worker pawn which allows you to muscle in and activate an action even if all the spaces are blocked. Some people complain this takes the bite out of Viticulture’s tight systems and is too forgiving when compared to the classics of the genre like Agricola or Caylus. I disagree. The only thing it removes is frustration. Besides, there’s still the agonizing decision of when to use your grande. Do you use them earlier for an action you sort of need, risking not having it later when you’re stonewalled from getting an action you ABSOLUTELY need? Players are always nervously fidgeting with their grande worker, rubbing it like a rabbit’s foot as they flip flop over when to use it.
Another thing I love about Viticulture that it doesn’t get enough credit for is its hand management. I truly believe this game is as much about hand management as it is about worker placement. The game has a hand limit of seven which seems loose…until about halfway through the game. By that point, smart players will have stuffed their hands full of cards like ambitious taxidermists, meaning they’re constantly juggling which ones to discard at round’s end. The game’s visitor cards, which are special powers that can be used when they’re discarded, provide so many useful abilities that it’s impossible to narrow down which ones to keep and which ones to turn away like some sort of vineyard bouncer. Figuring this out is one of the many joys of Viticulture.
What makes this even better is that this hand management puzzle feels fresh and different every time. I have played this game a handful of times multiplayer and countless times solo (more on that later) and during every play I see a brand-new combination of cards used to pull off impressive moves and strings of actions. Another common complaint leveled at this game is that it’s ‘too random’ and the cards are ‘too swingy’ which I again disagree with. While there are sometimes an opponent plays a card where you go, “Damn, that would have fit perfectly with what I have going on here”, chances are you can answer right back with something really good too. In my opinion, there are no bad cards in this game. You just have to plan and use them right.
The last thing I’ll talk about is this game’s solo mode. All Stonemaier games now institute solo modes known as Automa modes, solitaire variants designed by Morten Monrad Pederson and his Automa Factory development team. But this was the first game to include it when the base game’s first expansion came packaged with it. I have become an active solo gamer over the past two years and one of the big reasons is this Automa mode.
Viticulture’s solo mode manages to take feel of the multiplayer game and condense it down to one player without losing any of the feel of the normal version. Sure, you lose the competition against actual human beings, but no solo mode can replicate that (yet). The game retains its feel and flow and there’s barely any extra rules. You have a deck of cards that tells you where to put enemy workers to simulate another opponent and there’s one extra rule about how to activate bonus actions and that’s all. Set up, play and tear down can be done in under an hour and you are able to get the same Viticulture experience without having to call a single friend. This solo mode blows my mind every time I play it. And oh boy, I have played it. A ton. Too many times, some might say. But I keep coming back to it because it’s so addictive and such an easy, hassle free way to continue experiencing my favorite game of all time no matter the time or place.
What I say now
Yep, I still fucking love Viticulture.
And that’ll do it! Phew! I know I bled into the following year AGAIN, but yanno, I’ll just do what I’ve done with all my shortcomings for the past year and blame it on the pandemic.
Like I did last year, I hope to do a ‘Gone but Not Forgotten’ post wherein I talk about games that dropped off the top 100 that surprised me or that I feel need mentioning. Expect that sometime within a week to, oh, I dunno, maybe a couple months.
But seriously, if you made it through all of these posts: THANK YOU. These posts are a lot of fun to do but they’re also pretty exhausting, so if even a couple people read them and enjoy them, that’s enough for me. I will definitely be doing another top 100 for 2021, so keep an eye out for that later in the year. Hopefully another pandemic won’t erupt and I’ll get to have game nights again?? Who knows. Till then, thanks for reading!