Tag: port royal

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

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

Let’s get on with it, shall we?

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30-21

20-11

10. Codenames: Duet

codenames duet cover

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

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

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

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

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

9. The Grizzled

the grizzled cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Mr. Jack

mr. jack cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Inis

inis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Grand Austria Hotel

grand austria hotel cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Port Royal

port royal cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Raptor

raptor cover

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Codenames 

codenames cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Scythe

scythe cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………..wait for it……….

 

 

……….it’s coming………

 

 

………..almost there!………

 

 

…………here it is……………

 

 

……….ARE YOU READY……………..

 

 

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

1. Viticulture: Essential Edition

viticulture cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

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

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

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

 

Port Royal Review

Port Royal Review

Arrgh! Welcome to Port Royal, matey! It be here that you do trade with merchants, hire a crew and try to score 12 points before anybody else, just as the real pirates did, y’arrghhh.

(If I was Shut Up and Sit Down, I’d have said all that dressed in full pirate garb but seeing as how I can’t afford a pirate costume, have no talent and do written content instead of videos that traffic lots and lots of viewers, I’ll guess I’ll drop the pirate act and continue the review as normal.)

If you have spent a good amount of time in the hobby, then there is a good chance you know the name Alexander Pfister. He is one of the hottest designers in the industry at the moment, being the mastermind behind heavy Euros such as Mombasa, Great Western Trail and, most recently, Blackout: Hong Kong. Great Western Trail in particular launched his career to the stratosphere, a game that comfortably sits in the top 10 of BGG’s top 100 and is considered a must play if you’re into Euros and cows (I wonder what that Venn Diagram looks like).

For me though, Pfister’s best work is his lighter fare. I’m talking games like Broom Service, a pick up and deliver game of witches delivering potions that has a wonderful social dynamic, Oh My Goods!, one of the most satisfying engine builders I’ve ever played despite it being just a deck of cards, and Isle of Skye, a Carcassonne-esque tile laying game with an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ bidding twist. However, as good as those games are, my absolute favorite Pfister game is Port Royal, a push your luck tableau builder that is one of my favorite games of all time. Seriously. I know, because I once made a list of my top 100 games once because this is my life now.

Port Royal whisks you away to the titular port where you’ll play the role of the world’s nicest, non violent pirate and try to build a crew that can net you gold, complete missions and, most importantly, count as victory points to win you the game. It’s all played with just a single deck of cards, which is the first thing that I’ll rave about. I am beginning to really gain an appreciation for games that do a lot with very little in terms of components, and this is a prime example of that.

A player’s turn is split into two phases: the Discovery Phase and the Trade & Hire phase. In the Discovery phase, you draw cards from this deck one at a time. The cards are mostly gonna be one of two things: ships that can be traded with or crew members who can be hired to enter your tableau. You can stop at any time and enter the next phase of your turn, or you can keep drawing, adding cards to the ever growing display.

But be warned: this wouldn’t be a push your luck game without some sort of risk involved. Then it would be just a push your patience game or push your table space game. Nope, the ship cards I mentioned earlier all have one of five country’s flags on their card and if at any point there are two identical flags in the harbor, you bust. You completely forfeit your turn, everything you’ve drawn is discarded and the next player starts their turn. No one said a pirate’s life was going to be fair or easy. Haven’t you even seen Captain Phillips?

But let’s say you wisely end your turn before your head is taken off by a couple of cannonballs from British ships. You enter the Trade & Hire phase, which means you can now take a look at the display of cards you’ve made and take some for yourself. Here’s the twist: the amount of cards you can take is dictated by the amount of unique flags present on ships in the harbor/display. If you have 0-3 flags present, you can take one measly card. But if you have four of the five flags present? You can take two. If you managed to reveal all five of the countries’ flags without busting, you can take a whopping three cards, which can be a big game changer.

And herein lies the push your luck element that drives the draw phase. The moment a flag is present in the harbor, you’re sweating bullets. Losing a whole turn is rouuugh, and you’ll be double guessing every draw from the deck. Every time you bust you’ll be cursing yourself like Chris Farley in that SNL skit where he hosted the talk show, calling yourself an idiot and asking why you didn’t just stop drawing and go to the next phase. But when you manage to get four or five flags in the harbor, you feel like a pirate god, Blackbeard meets Jesus as he walks on water to do business with the myriad of merchants docking into port.

So let’s talk about the Trade & Hire phase, which replaces the push your luck found in the first phase with card drafting and tableau building. As mentioned, you take the cards you’re allotted, but what to choose? If you take a ship in the harbor, you gain the number of coins printed on the card. Alternatively, you can use coins gained from ships to hire crew members, who give victory points and a passive ability throughout the game. For example, there are sailors and pirates who give you swords which allow you to swat away low level ships in the Discovery phase like the annoying gnats they are, mitigating your risk of busting. There are Mademoiselles, who give you a coin discount on hiring any future crew members. There are Governors, who allow you to grab an extra card during the Trade and Hire phase. There are more I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say that there are enough characters and powers to allow a wide breadth of options and to cultivate a game flow where multiple players can follow their own strategies. What’s also cool is that these crew members’ abilities stack when combined with other cards of the same type. So if you manage to get four Mademoiselles in your crew? That is a four coin discount on all purchases, my friend.

Port Royal Mademoiselle
Though now you’re becoming less pirate and more pimp, which is a bit disturbing.

But guess what. When you’re done taking cards from your display, everybody else around the table has a chance to grab a card from the display too! If that makes your blood boil like a Republican complaining that welfare is just lazy people making money off your hard work, don’t worry. If the players opt to take a card on your turn, they pay you one coin for doing business on your turn. So you can pump the breaks and let go of the Reagan bobblehead you were gripping in rage, bud.

This brings me to one of the things I really like about Port Royal: positive player interaction. Positive player interaction is where the decisions of other players can positively interact with things you’re doing on your own and not enough games feature it. Most games that feature interaction with players do it in a more negative and conflict heavy manner, where you take things from other players and destroy things they’ve built. I have no problem with this, area control is full of that and it’s one of my favorite types of games. But positive interaction is perhaps even better because it leaves things people feeling…uh, positively.

It’s nice to have a game where somebody does something and you can say “Thanks! That actually kinda helps me out!” instead of “I hope, when you least expect it, you stub your toe on something really hard.”

There are even crew members that have powers built around the idea of other players doing things. Take for instance, the Jester (ah, that old pirate archetype) who gets a coin whenever anyone busts on their turn OR if there are no cards left in the display by the time it comes to their turn to draft.

Port Royal Jester
Some men just want to see the world burn.

Then there is the Admiral, who gets you two coins every time the display has five or more cards when it’s your turn to draft. Meaning when you see somebody drawing card after card, you’re greedily rubbing your hands in excitement like a goblin for the payout that your Admiral(s) will give you. Sure, it’s not all a happy go lucky montage of everyone high fiving and patting each other on the back. This isn’t a cooperative game after all. There are times when opponents will take a card you really needed, but it’s rarely back breaking and never feels like they’re out to get you. Ultimately, this constant positive player interaction, from the aforementioned crew members to the payouts you get from players drafting on your turn, make a pirate game less about plundering treasure and ship combat and more about fair trade in a peaceful port town.

(Hmmm…maybe the theme is kind of thin here. But who cares, anything pirates and nautical is awesome in my book.)

The next thing I want to rave about is how many avenues to victories there are in this game. I have played this game more times than I can count and I’ve seen almost every strategy employed and each one has worked at least once. I’ve seen somebody go heavy into Mademoiselles so that they could buy whatever they wanted in the last portion of the game since everything was so cheap. I’ve seen somebody go heavy on swords so that they were able to fend off any ship that they drew from the deck, allowing them to search for the exact card they needed. I’ve seen somebody load up on Admirals and get so much gold that they were like a pirate Jeff Bezos. Any strategy is effective, it all comes down to how smart you are when you’re pushing your luck and pulling the trigger at the right time for the cards that will help bolster your tableau and push you to victory. This certainly isn’t a super deep game but seeing this many paths to victory in a game that is just a deck of cards and plays in less than an hour is always heartening.

Seeing as how this is one of my top five favorite games ever, I don’t have much to complain about. My only issues with this game are from the publishing side of things. I have the Steve Jackson Games copy, which was the version that was published in North America. The first problem with how they handled publishing this game is the box art. The box art is a detailed painting of a frowning pirate locked in a rigid action figure pose, sword in one hand and flintlock in the other. Not only does this dour looking pirate ready for combat mislead the player into thinking this is a more traditional pirate game of swordfights and ship raids, the art doesn’t match the art in the game AT ALL. Klemens Franz, who is easily one of my favorite artists in board gaming, supplied the illustrations for the cards and his warm, cartoony style is literally the opposite from the art on the cover, which is dark and dim with muted colors. The box art also looks incredibly generic, like it should be the front page of a menu at a pirate themed restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland.

Port Royal cover
Definitely looks like the kind of place that has 2 and a half stars on Yelp.

The second sin that SJG committed with this game is even more egregious because it actually has ramifications on the game going forward. The European version of the game has expansions available, but they are completely incompatible with this version because: A) The cards are different sizes and B) the ships in the North American version have specific countries tied to their flags (as I mentioned a couple of times before) while the European version has flags that are simply colors. These two things mean that the European expansions can’t be played with the North American copy, making it feel like I have the inferior version. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, but according to comments on BoardGameGeek, SJG has no intention of publishing the expansions themselves. So yeah, that sucks.

Aside from these unfortunate publishing decisions for the North American version, there’s nothing I can criticize about this game. The push your luck is addicting, the tableau building allows for forging your own strategy and creating your own unique crew, and it’s all tied together by the wonderfully endearing Klemens Franz art. I’ll end the review with a quick story. I actually just played this game a few weeks ago, and there was a point where I looked over at my opponent who was just a few points away from the game winning twelve. I looked at the gold he had, looked at the gold I had and did the math to discover there was no way any of us could stop him from winning on his next turn. I was incredibly bummed. NOT because someone besides me was going to win. Nope, I was bummed because that meant the game was going to be over. I love this game so much I literally became depressed when it ended. If ‘this game is so good it’ll make you sad,’ isn’t a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Top Ten Board Game Soundtracks

You know what’s nerdier than playing board games for hours on end, with no sunlight and only pizza and pretentious craft beer for sustenance? Doing that exact thing, but with thematic soundtracks in the background for each board game you play.

I dunno about you, but when I play board games, I like, nay, require, a soundtrack in the background. This soundtrack can’t be any old soundtrack, no. I’m not talking about playing Bruce Springsteen while I bust out a game of Sheriff of Nottingham. Both because that makes no thematic sense and also because I would never subject anyone’s ear drums to Bruce Springsteen unless they were like a war criminal or something (and even then, I’m pretty sure it’s against the Geneva Convention). When I choose a soundtrack, it’s lovingly chosen and well thought out, perfectly matching the theme and feel of whatever game we’re playing. In a previous review of Biblios (on this very site, check it out!), I briefly mentioned that I play Gregorian chant in the background. This is a perfect example of the type of soundtracks I choose. As I play Biblios, the soft hum of monks singing in the background transports me to the Middle Ages, where I can practically hear the sound of footsteps echoing down the monastery’s stone hallway. Suddenly, this game about collecting sets of cards becomes more than that. It becomes a trip to another era and an extremely atmospheric experience that I remember fondly time and time again.

If it sounds like I’m way too passionate about this, it’s because I am. I have gotten so bad with soundtracks and games that my enjoyment is somewhat hindered if I’m unable to play one in the background. One time I went out of town to a friend’s place, and he sheepishly told me upon my arrival that his wi fi was going to be out until the next day. This is bad because YouTube is my main source of soundtracks. Fast forward a couple hours later where we are about to play a game set in Ancient Egypt, and we’re furiously searching throughout his roommate’s extensive movie collection, yelling, “THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING EGYPTIAN THEMED TO PLAY IN THE BACKGROUND, DOESN’T HE OWN THE MUMMY??”

Soundtracks are serious business, people.

To show why, I’ve compiled a top ten list of my favorite soundtrack and board game combinations. As you’re about to see, these soundtracks range from movie and video game soundtracks, to a couple of random playlists on YouTube that just happen to have generic instrumental music that happens to work well with that board game. Picking only ten was agonizing, and I am absolutely sure I missed or even forgot of a couple combos that I really love, so this list is by no means 100% definitive. But what it does do is give you a good peek into my brain and thought process when picking soundtracks. I’m not sure anyone should get a peek into my brain and thought process at any point, but this should be safe and should definitely not reveal any of the deep seeded psychoses that plague me every day and every hour and the crushing anxiety and the oh dear I’m starting to ramble, onto the list!

10. Board Game: Fuse
Soundtrack: The Metal Gear Solid alert music

Fuse Soundtrack

Fuse is a cooperative dice drafting game where you and your teammates try to defuse a certain amount of bombs in real time. This makes it seem a lot calmer than it actually is, as Fuse is actually ten minutes of you and your teammates yelling, “AHHHHHH, I WANTED THE BLUE DIE, AHHHHHH”. It’s exhausting and intense, and as such needed a soundtrack that was equally as relentless and heart pumping. My choice for this one is the Metal Gear Solid alert music, which is the music that plays in the video game when Solid Snake gets caught by guards in between its forty minute long cutscenes.

It’s perfect because the pace of the music never slows down, much like the game, and also because it is super iconic. While I’m sure a lot of people won’t recognize this music, enough people should so that their pulses will instantly start pumping and they’ll be looking for the nearest cardboard box.

9. Board game: Literally anything Western themed
Soundtrack: Red Dead Redemption OST

Western Themed Board Game Soundtrack

Okay, this is a bit of a cop out. I’m not going to choose a specific board game for this one and am instead going to open an umbrella and just say that anything with a cowboy/western theme deserves the incredible Red Dead Redemption soundtrack as its background music. The ominous violin that starts the OST off, accompanied with the mournful whistling that’s eventually broken by a sharp, craggly guitar riff gives me gooesbumps every time I fire this one up. Whether I’m playing Dice Town, Bang! The Dice Game or Colt Express, this masterpiece of a soundtrack fits it like whiskey in a shot glass, pardner.

Since this entry was kinda cheap, I promise I won’t just pick a general theme and will only focus on specific games from here on out.

8. Board game: Literally anything archaeological themed
Soundtrack: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune OST

Archaeological Themed Board Game Soundtrack

Right, so, uh, I lied. Just one more time, I’m gonna go for a general theme rather than a specific game. Hey, don’t blame me, blame the fact that archaeology and treasure hunting is represented by more games than numbers that exist. For every one of those games, whether it’s the amazing two player card game Lost Cities or the wonderful deckbuilder The Quest for El Dorado or the imaginatively named Archaeology: The New Expedition, my go to soundtrack is that of the classic PlayStation series, Uncharted. In this example, I use Drake’s Fortune, but Uncharted 2 and 3 work just as well, so dealer’s choice.

7. Board Game: The Grimm Forest
Soundtrack: Trine 2 OST

The Grimm Forest Soundtrack

The Grimm Forest whisks you away to a land of fairy tales living together, where magic and wonder hides around every corner. So what are you doing in this game? Building houses, of course!

Despite the fact that the game has you doing housework like you’re some sort of fairy tale contractor, the art and characters in this game really do help engross you in a world where fairy tales are real, and I needed to find a soundtrack that also captures that magical feeling. Turns out, it wasn’t me who would find that soundtrack. This soundtrack was actually at the suggestion of a friend I was playing The Grimm Forest with, so credit is due to him. That soundtrack is the OST for Trine 2.

What the hell is Trine 2 you ask? Trine 2 is a somewhat obscure video game where you and up to two other players cooperatively navigate a fantasy world, solving puzzles and exploring mystical locales. It isn’t fairy tale themed, but the music the game provides has a whimsy and charm that pairs extremely well with the fairy tale world of The Grimm Forest.

I know some of you are probably asking, “Kyle, why not the Shrek soundtrack?” Well, I can’t find the actual score to Shrek on YouTube and instead it has the official film soundtrack which means you’ll be listening to “All Star” by Smashmouth as you play this game so unless you want that…actually that sounds awesome, feel free to replace any soundtrack on this list with “All Star”.

6. Board Game: Decrypto
Soundtrack: The Imitation Game OST

Decrypto Soundtrack

Decrypto is a cool spin on the word association party game craze that was started by Codenames. Codenames is one of my favorite games of all time and while Decrypto doesn’t quite live up to its lofty standards, it is still a fantastic game that deserves an equally excellent soundtrack. Enter The Imitation Game, the movie where Benedict Cumberbatch beats Hitler up in a fight using the Time Stone and his supernatural powers of deduction.

Wait a sec, please. (checks Wikipedia)

Okay, yeah, I mixed up a couple of Cumberbatches in my head, this is the one where he leads a bunch of codebreakers in World War II to try and crack the Nazi enigma machine. In all seriousness, this is one of my favorite movies and surprisingly fits this word association party game very well. As you and your teammates huddle around a notepad, stressing out over what your opponent’s code is, you’ll hear the haunting strings and tinkling keyboards of this fantastic score.

Fun fact time! I read a designer diary for this game, an apparently the box’s cover art was heavily inspired by The Imitation Game, as it looks quite a bit like the switchboard heavy machine Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing builds in the movie. Just wanted to add that here for a little vindication.

5. Board Game: Bohnanza
Soundtrack: Stardew Valley OST

Bohnanza Soundtrack

Before he was making two hour long worker placement games about EVERY type of farming, Uwe Rosenberg made a little card game that was about farming oh my god, is this guy serious?

Sigh. Okay, farming aside, Bohnanza is a masterpiece of game design. It’s a card game where you and your opponents are rival bean farmers and the only way to victory is to wheel and deal your way to the most efficient payouts possible, trading cards from your hand to manipulate the fact that you can’t change the order of your cards. I could go on and on about this game, so I’ll stop it there and just saw that the Stardew Valley soundtrack and this game are *chef’s kiss gesture*

The banjo that pops in and out of the music helps add to the farming theme, while the general mellow and optimistic tone of the whole package really jives with the lighthearted and cartoony art of Bohnanza‘s cards. Sure, a lot of this game is ruthlessly ripping off poor Grandma of her stink beans so that you can get rid of the one pesky card that is clogging your hand, but it’s still a pretty chill game otherwise, also fitting for Stardew Valley‘s soundtrack. Sorry, Grandma, but you kinda had it coming when you made those vaguely racist comments over dinner.

4. Board Game: Port Royal
Soundtrack: Sea Shanties

Port Royal Soundtrack

This is my first soundtrack selection that isn’t selected from a video game or movie, and is in fact just a YouTube playlist made by some good Samaritan. Port Royal is one of the most underrated games in the hobby, an Alexander Pfister design that mixes push your luck and tableau building in a Klemens Franz illustrated pirate theme. It’s a game I adore and will likely be writing one of my upcoming reviews for it (HOW’S THAT FOR A TEASE, EH?).

For this one, I loooove playing sea shanties in the background, courtesy of the YouTube video I linked. As I said, it’s just a random assortment collected by someone on YouTube, and there’s not much else to say about it. Just some pirates singing while working, and it really gels with the theme.

Now, as much as I love sea shanties, I understand that they’re an, uhh, acquired taste, so if this idea of listening to an off tune band of scallywags singing with no instruments to guide them, I would suggest either the Pirates of the Carribeans OST or the soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

3. Board Game: Viticulture
Soundtrack: Sicilian Mandolin Music

Viticulture Soundtrack

And this is my second selection that is just a generic collection of music rather than an actual soundtrack from something. And oohh, is it a good one. I listened to the first minute or so of this soundtrack after I found it on YouTube for the sake of providing the link in this article and I felt a swell of happiness and nostalgia for games of Viticulture, games that immediately bubbled to the surface of my memory at the first twang of this video’s mandolin.

It helps that Viticulture is one of my top two favorite games of all time and even the game I consider my favorite depending on the day you ask me. What’s the other game? Guess you’ll have to stay tuned to my blog to find out. HOW’S THAT FOR ANOTHER TEASE, EH?

(It’s Scythe, by the way)

Viticulture is a worker placement game set in Italy where you own a vineyard and make wine, trying to be the best at owning a vineyard and making wine. This game is already one of the most immersive board gaming experiences I’ve played. Thanks to the thematic and methodical way in which you make the wine, and the warm, inviting art by the supremely talented Beth Sobel, I actually feel like I’m in the beautiful, sun soaked landscape of Italy. It’s as if I’m there, plucking grapes from vines, crushing them down into juice and preparing them for sale so that your Aunt Sally can get sloshed up at the family Christmas party. When you add to this formula the wonderful Sicilian and Mediterranean music found in the video above (and maybe even a glass of wine yourself), and you will have a gaming experience you will never forget. Well, maybe you will forget it if you have enough of that wine, you naughty lush you!

2. Board Game: Skull
Soundtrack: Guacamelee! OST

Skull Soundtrack

Back to official soundtracks, the silver medal goes to the oh so awesome combination of Skull and the soundtrack for Guacamelee!. Skull is a masterpiece, a brilliant bluffing game that will have you and your friends hooting and hollering and cheering and groaning like no other. Guacamelee! is a sidescroller beat ’em up, and is something in the video game world known as a Metroidvania. I won’t go into it here, but suffice to say that Guacamelee! is an incredibly fun game that is set in Mexican mythology and draws off the folklore of that region. The soundtrack takes mariachi and salsa music and combines it with electronica in a way that easily makes it one of my top three video game soundtracks of all time. Tying it back to Skull, Skull‘s heavily draws off of the sugar skull motifs that have come from Mexico, and was one of the reasons why I was drawn to Guacamelee! as its backing music.

From the first bombastic blare of the mariachi horns in this soundtrack, you’ll be tossing aside that wine from Viticulture and replacing it with some tequila as you buckle up for an incredible party game experience. Skull has no theme, so this soundtrack is purely for the aesthetics of the game but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a near perfect match.

1. Board Game: The Grizzled
Soundtrack: Valiant Hearts: The Great War OST

The Grizzled Soundtrack

I mentioned earlier that I when I play games without soundtracks or some sort of background music, that it actually can hamper the experience for me. That being said, I will never turn down a game because there is no soundtrack present and I obviously still have lots of fun playing board games, even if there is no ambient music available.
There is juuuust one exception. And that is my number one choice for board game and soundtrack combination: The Grizzled and Valiant Hearts.

The Grizzled is a cooperative game set in World War I and it is my favorite cooperative game that I’ve ever played. One of my favorite things about it is its art. The hand scrawled art style, created by the tragically late Tignous, looks like it was taken straight from a sketchbook, perhaps even one used by someone in the very trenches of the first World War. This art is fairly similar to the hand drawn art of Valiant Hearts, which is an indie video game also set in World War I.

Neither of these games are exactly what you’d call uplifting or lighthearted. After all, The Grizzled is game where you can go home as a selfish, demoralized mute with a life long, crippling fear of whistles and can still technically win. Not exactly a party game. They both deal in very heavy themes of war in one of history’s worst. This strong thematic link already makes the two a perfect pairing and it is even more apparent when you actually listen to the soundtrack as you play.

The somber piano that permeates Valiant Hearts‘ soundtrack tugs at your heartstrings as your play cards in The Grizzled. Melancholy strings buzz in the background as you and your teammates struggle to deal with the obstacles being thrown in your way. The music takes an already amazing cooperative game and helps it transcend the bits of cardboard that make it up. I probably sound like I’m exaggerating, and maybe I’m just weird, but this board game and soundtrack combo is such an important part of my gaming memories. And no, I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING. Okay, maybe I’m sobbing a little but it’s just so damn beautiful.

Do yourself a favor and play The Grizzled and then do it with this soundtrack. I hope it’s as moving for you as it is for me.