Welcome back! We’re just outside my top 50, so let’s not waste any time. Well, any more than we already have, at least.
60. Mission Red Planet
Previous ranking: 58 (-2)
What I said last year
Mission: Red Planet is set in a Victorian steampunk universe where people are being sent to Mars in order to stake claim and pillage it of all its resources, something humans are exceptional at. Players will be loading little astronauts into rockets that are then blasted off to specific regions of the titular red planet. The ultimate goal is to secure an area majority in these regions, which then gain you resource chips that give you the bulk of your points by game’s end.
All these things are powered by a wonderful role selection system. Each player has a hand of the same nine roles, each of which does something different. Some involve loading ships, changing a ship’s destination, moving astronauts around on Mars or even blowing a whole damn rocket up. Hey, I’m sure those astronauts totally didn’t have families, don’t sweat it.
At the start of the round, player simultaneously and secretly choose one of their roles to play. Then, counting down (like a lift off, tee hee, get it), when the number associated with your role is reached you announce that you played that card. All players who chose the same role also resolve it and the countdown resumes till everyone has played. Cards played are put into a temporary personal discard but can be picked back up with one of the roles.
What makes Mission: Red Planet such a blast to play is the lunacy and chaos that unfolds around every corner. Yes, it’s certainly possible to plan based on what other roles players have already played and what the board state looks like. But the slightest misread can result in your strategy for that round being totally torpedoed. You thought that Amanda was going to use her Femme Fatale card on Joey? Ha! Nope, she just used a Saboteur and blew up the rocket you were planning on sending to Phobos. You thought Dingus was going to use his explorer to move over to the region with the 3-point chips, allowing you to sneakily gain a majority on that region producing the 1-point ice chips? Why would you think that? Oh you sweet, sweet, child, of course he was going to use HIS Femme Fatale to replace one of your astronauts with one of his, allowing him to gain majority on the ice chips. It’s these crazy moments of unpredictability that create not just moments of fun and laughter, but chances to pivot and cleverly use the role cards in your hand to salvage the situation.
The game has a decently high player count for an area control game (up to six) and even with the full six, this game breezes by. Since players make a lot of their big choices simultaneously and the fact that roles are resolved fairly swiftly, Mission: Red Planet packs a lot of game in a snappy one-hour playtime. It’s so rare to have a legitimate strategy game that plays up to five or six players and does so with little downtime, which makes Mission: Red Planet an absolute gem.
The last positive I’ll mention is the theme. While I don’t care for space or sci fi themes (as touched on when discussing Space Base) I actually really like the way it’s implemented here, thanks to the steampunk coat of paint they’ve sprayed onto it. Seeing the illustrations of goofy Victorian era characters on the role cards brings the game loads of charm and personality, made even better by the cute little steampunk astronauts that make up your playing pieces.
What I say now
I don’t have much to add here, really. I will say that like Tournament at Camelot and Brew Crafters from my last blog post, it’s impressive that Mission: Red Planet has only dropped 2 spots since I literally haven’t played it since my last top 100. It’s a game I want to play, but it can be tough to get to the table since it’s area control (a polarizing mechanism among my gaming groups) and is best with at least 4 people.
Mission: Red Planet will likely find itself crawling back up once I get to play it again.
59. Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Previous ranking: 35 (-24)
What I said last year
I’m one of the many people that find the use of the Lovecraft mythos in the hobby as completely overdone BUT I think it’s law that I must include at least one Lovecraft game on my list so this is my choice. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is, in my opinion, easily the best of FFG’s Arkham series and the best Lovecraft game in the industry, period. It is an LCG, or Living Card Game, which means you buy scenario packs and booster packs with preset cards in them over the course of a campaign. This allows you to experience a cohesive story with decisions and consequences that matter from scenario to scenario.
This game has been difficult for me to rank because there are some things I really don’t like about it. Let me get those out of the way. For one, the LCG model is predatory, plain and simple. To even get into the game you need a core set, which includes starter cards and a mini campaign that spans three scenarios. But something that many people don’t realize is that if you really want to get into the deck building aspect of the game, you’ll need to buy a SECOND core set so that you can get extra copies of starter cards. Not having those extra copies to construct your deck with means you’ll be playing with a sub-optimal deck and making an already brutally hard game into a nigh impossible one. If you don’t care about deckbuilding, then fine! You don’t need a second core set. But if you want to explore the rich possibilities that constructing a deck can offer and to truly experience the game for what it’s meant to be, then a second core set is a necessity. So that’s $80 MSRP right there.
After buying two core sets, you’ll soon realize that the three scenarios can be played rather quickly, especially since one of them is ostensibly a tutorial scenario that’s much shorter than the other two. To really experience Arkham Horror: TCG you need to dive into the other campaigns, which are broken up into things called ‘cycles’. To get into a cycle, you need to buy the core set for THAT cycle ($30) and then the booster packs which offer the rest of the campaign’s scenarios (usually 8 of them at $15 each). Did I mention there’s like 4-5 cycles to choose from?
What’s that sound? Oh, nothing. Just the sound of my bank account plummeting to zero like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to begin a rant on the rampant exploitation of consumerism that FFG exhibits with this game. Let’s go onto my next big negative and that is the set up this game requires. Since this game is scenario based, you have to set up the scenario and that requires sifting through cards and looking for matching symbols and compiling them into decks. Sometimes the scenario even requires very specific cards from past scenarios that’ll have you going, “where the hell did I put that”, and you’ll find yourself digging through your boxes of past sets and scenarios, helplessly trying to find the exact character or item. THEN there’s often more set up, trying to get the locations in the proper order and choosing some cards to set aside while others get shuffled and god, it’s just really tedious. I often have long hiatuses between scenarios because the thought of setting up the next scenario just fills me with dread, and not the kind Lovecraft intended.
By this point I’m sure you’re wondering, “Kyle, how on earth is this game on your top 100, let alone at number 35 if you’re whining this much about it.” I’ll tell you why. Because outside of the predatory business practices this game is a poster child for and outside of the fiddly set up scenarios often require, this is one of the most superbly immersive, atmospheric and cinematic games in the hobby.
The basic gameplay structure of AH: TCG is nothing special. It’s fairly Pandemic-like in its approach, featuring an action point system and a deck of mean cards that try to ruin your day. You could even argue it’s a little mechanical, but the stories and settings this system takes place in more than make up for that. The scenarios all take place in their own unique setting, such as a university campus or a museum or literally the whole town of Arkham. This, along with special objectives that differ from scenario to scenario, provide a feeling of freshness with each new episode you play and they do a great job of immersing you into the story.
That’s not to mention the cool cinematic moments that AH: TCG manages to create using just cards and generic tokens. One scenario has you rushing towards the front of a train as the cars in the back slowly get ripped into a portal, the location cards being discarded as this happens. A night time trek in a museum is made all the more frightening as you find yourself being stalked by an enemy that randomly respawns and happens to be stronger each time it appears. One scenario has you sneaking around a club owned by the mob, with mobsters that only react if they see you doing something odd in a location, turning the experience almost in to a stealth game. AH: TCG has provided me with some of the most truly memorable moments in gaming and I still have so many scenarios to explore.
The art, supplied by a deep roster of artists from within the industry, also does a great job of immersing you in the world. The locations, characters and items are drawn in an incredibly evocative way and help add atmosphere to a game that is already dripping with it. Thrown a soundtrack from any number of survival horror games, and you have an experience that is almost oppressively atmospheric.
So yes, this game is flawed, but most of my problems come from OUTSIDE the actual design of the game. When I’m actually playing the game, I’m fully drawn into the world and story, experiencing something that is truly one of a kind.
What I say now
Wow, I had a lot to say about this game last year! And somehow you expect me to say even more?? Fine, I’ll try.
The drop for Arkham Horror: TCG comes from, quite simply, the tedium of setting it up. I haven’t played this game in ages due to the sheer effort it takes to get the scenarios and decks set up and that’s…kind of sad. Because as I said last year, this game is really special when you’re actually playing it and immersing yourself in its horrors. But getting to that point? Just drown me.
I’m trying to get the energy to get back into this game soon. If and when I do, I’m interested to see where it ends up next year.
58. Blood Rage
Previous ranking: 20 (-38)
What I said last year
When I first got into the hobby, Blood Rage was a game I was resistant against trying. The cover art didn’t appeal to me, the title sounded like the name of a high school death metal band that was trying too hard, and the fact that it was so miniature heavy led me to believe that it would have shallow, mindless gameplay. Of course, as anyone reading this top 100 can attest, I am quite often wrong, to the point that “Wow, Kyle sure was wrong a lot” will be the thesis scholars take away from this blog when they study it hundreds of years from now. Blood Rage is another such occasion of my eternal ineptitude.
It took me just one play of Blood Rage for me to realize how good it was. What I thought was going to be a brain-dead slugfest with shoehorned Norse gods and miniatures turned out to be a thoughtful Euro driven game of building card combos and action efficiency. The game centers on drafting cards and then using those cards with allotted action points in a way to maximize your points. Figuring out what cards you want to take and what possible combos you want to exploit is fun in itself, but then the actual game of moving figures around the map, getting into combat and trying to figure out when to time the cards you’ve drafted is a wonderfully tense but action packed puzzle.
The variety of strategies you can take is a huge draw for me. Do you focus on combat, recruiting high powered monsters and investing in the payout of victory points from winning battles? Do you strategize around ‘quests’ which are essentially objectives you can work to achieve from round to round? Or do you employ the now infamous Loki strategy, which involves purposefully killing off your own warriors and losing battles to reap victory points from your own failures? All of these and more are viable and they’re all entertaining in their own ways to employ. It can be a little frustrating when a card you desperately need to complete your engine is randomly not in the game (a certain amount of cards are burned every round), but the stuff happening on the board is so entertaining that it’s not a deal breaker.
Honestly, the first time I played Blood Rage I was convinced it would be in my top 10 for my entire gaming life. It sits here at 20 for two big reasons. One, I’ve simply played more games since Blood Rage that have bumped it up the line. Two, and more tragically, I simply haven’t played Blood Rage in quite some time. It’s going to be close to two years since my last Blood Rage play and I don’t own a copy or have anyone local who does. Like Concordia on my last post, it’s tough to keep ranking a game super high if I haven’t even played it recently and, unfortunately, Blood Rage is the latest victim of that reality.
I do hope to get my own copy some day because Blood Rage truly is a fantastic game. Underneath its Iron Maiden exterior is one of the sharpest and most tactically bountiful designs in the hobby.
What I say now
Another game with a considerable drop. I closed out last year’s entry talking about how I don’t own Blood Rage and that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed since. That’s certainly not going to help a game hold high positions on the list and that proves true for Blood Rage here.
Another reason behind the fall is that since the last time I’ve played Blood Rage, I’ve played more of these types of games (area control, troops on a map games with Euro style mechanisms and roots) and I like them all more than Blood Rage. This genre has honestly become one of my favorites, so it’s becoming a bit crowded in my collection, causing Blood Rage to get lost in the mix like Bilbo Baggins at a crowded concert. These games will be showing up later on the list and are a key factor in Blood Rage’s decline.
But hey. Blood Rage is still in my top 100 and only just outside the top 50 which shows that it’s still a fantastic game. If I had a chance to pick up this game cheap, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Previous ranking: 52 (-5)
What I said last year
Kingdomino isn’t just one of Cathala’s simplest games, it’s one of the simplest gateway games you can find in the hobby. It’s a tile laying game (hey, been a while since we had one of those! Welcome back, buddy!) where the tiles are chunky little dominos. Instead of numbers, the dominos have land types (such as fields, forests or swamps) and you’re placing these dominos in a 5 by 5 grid to form your kingdom.
One thing you’re keeping an eye on is crowns. Crowns are important because they’re how you score points. At the end of the game, everyone takes a look at their contiguous groups of land types and then they multiply the number of squares present times the number of crowns also present in that area. So, if you have a patch of forest that is four squares big and has one crown, that’s four points. But if you had two crowns, that’s eight points! No crowns present? Absolutely nothing. It creates an interesting decision space where you have to choose going all in with one or two big land areas populated by a few crowns or whether to focus on putting a lot of crowns spread across smaller land areas. I’m happy to report that after many plays of this game, both strategies are viable.
I haven’t even gotten to the best part of this game! My favorite part of Kingdomino and one of the reasons why it’s remained such a favorite of mine is the drafting system. Players draft tiles using a little king meeple, which they place to stake claim on a domino in a column. The dominos are generally ordered by how good they are, with the better tiles being towards the bottom of the column. If you put your meeple on the bottom domino, that’s great! You likely got yourself a good tile. But where your meeple is in the column determines drafting order for the next set of dominos. So, the top dominos are not as good but taking one guarantees you get first dibs on the next batch whereas going for a domino on the bottom means you’re taking a risk at getting absolute garbage in the next round. It’s a wonderful bit of push your luck that never fails to feel clever and interesting whenever I play this game.
The game is also very quick. A two player game of this can be finished in ten minutes and a four player game can easily clock in at under twenty, closer to fifteen with experienced players. Combining this with its ease to teach and introduce to people, especially non gamers, makes Kingdomino a stalwart entry in the gateway portion of my collection.
Even if I’m not using it for gateway purposes, Kingdomino is still an incredibly fun and cute game that I still enjoy after countless plays. Like most of Cathala’s games on this list, it’ll have a place on my top 100 for years to come.
What I say now
Kingdomino is down five spots, but that’s, as we say in the hobby, small beans. In fact, I recently had a chance to play this before making this top 100 and it reinforced what a fun, charming game this is. The drafting system is still engaging after all these years and the push and pull of managing land types vs crowns is a fantastic decision space.
Kingdomino is Bruno Cathala at his most elegant and that results in a game that will, as I said last year, likely be on my top 100 for a looooong time.
Previous ranking: N/A
There are three ‘new to the list’ games in this section, with the first of those being Shh. Shh is perhaps the most obscure game on my top 100, an incredibly small game from a line called the ‘Pack-O’ games. This line’s hook? All the games are so tiny that they’re in boxes that look like little packs of gum.
Don’t let this game’s diminutive, bubblegum size fool you. This is a word-based cooperative game that has a lot of bite to it.
The game is a small deck of cards representing each letter in the alphabet. All the vowels are put to the side and the rest of the cards, the consonants, are dealt out to all the players. Players then need to work together to try and empty their hands of their cards. How do they do that? By cooperatively building words with the letters.
The trick is players can collectively only work on one word at a time, so once somebody begins a word, everyone is locked in with that one word until it is complete. The other twist? You can’t talk or discuss any sort of strategy. I mean, what did you expect? The game is called Shh, not Talk Amongst Your Friends.
The limited communication variety of cooperative game is among my favorite game types and when you combine it with a word game, another type of game I’m quite fond of, it’s a surefire recipe for a game I’ll enjoy. Shh does not disappoint. Trying to figure out what word your friend is trying to get you to spell while not revealing whether or not you even have the letters to continue it is excruciating, especially when said friend is biting their lip, red in the face over how you can’t make out what they’re aiming for. Conversely, when you start a word and you get nothing but blank stares in return, it’s hilariously painful.
But when you are able to sync up with the other players, effortlessly playing down letters to form a long word without skipping a beat? It’s a pure, unadulterated hit of dopamine. I still remember specific moments, like when we managed to end the game by playing QUIVER or when we played TEQUILA to get ourselves out of a corner (which is the first time in history alcohol solved a problem for me rather than creating one). These type of limited communication co-ops live and die by these moments, so the fact that Shh is chock full of them in such a microscopic package is quite the feat.
My biggest worry about Shh was how its size and depth would hurt its replay value, as I assumed there would be certain strategies or words that would be used time and time again and be easy crutches for the players to fall back on. After playing this game well over 10 times, I’m happy to report that was mostly unfounded. Sure, there are some words that involve the letters Q or Z that I find my groups use game to game, but outside of those few it’s really astounding how much shelf life Shh has.
The REAL problem with Shh, and the reason why it misses my top 50 is its scalability with player count. It plays 2-4, but I don’t think this game is worth playing unless you have EXACTLY 3. Four players is a chaotic nightmare, like everyone is trying to bake a cake together while blindfolded on a sinking ship. Meanwhile, two players is the opposite; since the consonant cards are dealt out between the two of you, you know EXACTLY which letters your teammate has, robbing all tension and uncertainty from the game. But 3? *chef’s kiss*
Like I said, this game is pretty obscure so if you haven’t heard of this one, it’s absolutely worth checking into. If you like cooperative games and/or word games, it’s a must have for your collection.
Last year’s ranking: N/A
The next game is another ‘new to the list’ entry, although I have actually written about this one before. My loyal readers/groupies will recognize Aerion as a game that made it on my Top 10 Solo Games blog post from a few months back. It was good enough to earn the bronze medal on that list and here it is at number 55, which I think is pretty darn good for a game I only play solo.
Because I feel like I’ll be repeating myself anyway, here’s an excerpt from that post describing Aerion and why I love it so much:
Aerion is the Oniverse’s foray into the Yahtzee style dice rolling genre, where players will be attempting to build airships according to specific blueprints. The blueprints have resources that must be gathered to complete them and you gain these resources by rolling dice.
Each resource has a poker hand style requirement to gain it, such as ‘three of a kind’, ‘full house’, ‘two pair,’ ‘straight’, etc. If the dice you rolled match the requirement, you can gain that resource and put it into one of your two hangars. This two hangar limit already imposes restrictions on what you can do; since you can only build two ships at a time, some of the resources are presently useless to you, forcing you to make tough decisions on which airships keep your probabilities high and your possibilities open.
Even if you make a wise choice on which airships to work on, there’s going to be plenty of points you don’t roll the dice you need. So, what then? Like any Yahtzee style game, Aerion allows you to reroll dice…at a price.
Any time you want to reroll and get a better combination, you must discard a resource from the available display. Since there’s a limited supply of, well, everything in this game, you’re narrowing your options for Future You. Choosing what to keep and what to sacrifice is at the heart of almost every turn in Aerion, and it’s an excruciating tight wire act.
Aerion ranks so highly on this list for a lot of reasons. First and perhaps, most importantly, it’s just damn fun. Rolling dice is such a tactile delight and there’s something just deeply satisfying about making gambles that pay off over the course of a couple rolls. Aerion moves extremely quickly, so you’re always rolling, always calculating the odds, always cheering or groaning.
Another is because, like Viva Java earlier on this list, it has the exact difficulty I look for in a solo experience. While I win more often than not, it never feels like it’s spoon feeding me victories. I still have to work for it and I still have to make smart choices to pull out the win.
Lastly, I just love the aesthetics of this game. Art is subjective and I know that the art in the Oniverse is particularly polarizing, but I love it. There’s something about its scribbled, hand scrawled look that is so endearing to me. The fact that the dice are a cotton candy blue with purple pips further enhances this game’s cheerfully charming demeanor.
June 2020 feels like three decades ago, but it’s only actually been about 6ish months. So, unsurprisingly, not much has changed with my feelings on Aerion. It continues to be one of the most consistently played games in my solo gaming rotation and I STILL haven’t even tried the plethora of mini expansions that come in the box.
Aerion still has a ton of life in it for me, so don’t be surprised to see if even higher next year.
Last year’s ranking: 48 (-6)
What I said last year
In Sagrada, you are tasked with making stained glass windows, which is done via putting multicolored dice down in a grid. As you draft dice to put them in the grid, you need to keep in mind some simple placement rules. You can’t put the same number next to each other and you can’t put the same color next to each other. There’s also set restrictions on your grid that you may need to follow, such as having to place a yellow die on the yellow spot.
What comes from this is basically Board Game Sudoku, a surprisingly crunchy puzzle of trying to align your dice in a way that doesn’t break any rules but also doesn’t screw you over on a future turn. Meanwhile, there’s how you actually win the game in the form of scoring objectives, which give prompts such as ‘score your pairs of 1s and 2s’ or ‘score rows with all unique numbers’ and so forth. There’s also private objectives that give everyone a color, wherein they score points equal to the value of all the pips of that color in their window. Trying to balance all these things while dealing with the random luck and chance of the dice pulls and dice rolls is headache inducing, but in the best possible way.
An easy thing to praise Sagrada for is its table presence. It’s chock full of tiny, translucent multicolored dice and when everybody’s windows start to take shape, it’s one of the prettiest sights in board gaming(not counting the selfies I take of me and my Kallax, stay tuned for info on a calendar coming soon). I’m a sucker for great board game components and Sagrada’s dice are some of the best looking in the business. There is one huge caveat, unfortunately: they are not colorblind friendly. I have some colorblind friends who are able to play just fine, but another who can’t play this game because the blue and green are impossible for him to tell apart. Something like that to occur in today’s day and age of gaming is fairly unforgivable, so that’s definitely a knock against it.
Outside of that accessibility issue, there’s not much to complain about with Sagrada. Its puzzley gameplay, beautiful table presence and easy to learn rules make it a must have in any collection.
What I say now
When I first played Sagrada, I knew it would be a cornerstone of the gateway game section in my collection and that’s held up pretty well. It remains one of the most satisfying puzzle-based games of this weight. I recently introduced it to my girlfriend after having not played it for a while and it felt like I had wrapped myself up in a nice, warm blanket that had been stowed away for far too long.
It has dropped 6 spots, but that is, as with many games on the list, a product of new games entering the top 100. I still love Sagrada and would rarely turn down a game of it.
Previous ranking: 42 (-11)
What I said last year
Stew is a game that mixes push your luck, deduction and bluffing and squeezes it into a tight fifteen minutes of tension and misdirection. Players take turns secretly drawing ingredient cards from a deck and then putting them facedown on a vermin card or into the center of the table in the stew. At any point a player can call “STEW!” (the louder and more obnoxious, the better) and reveal the stew one card at a time. If the point values of the ingredients in the stew equal 12 or more, they get two points! If not, everyone else gets a point. First to five points wins.
One of the things players have to keep in mind are those vermin cards I briefly mentioned earlier. Each vermin has a favorite ingredient and if they are unfed by the time the stew is served, they’ll suck up the first ingredient of that type like a hungry, furry little Hoover. Ingredients also interact and score points in different ways so keeping track of what ingredients you put where and how other players are behaving need to be taken into account when you’re trying to determine if a stew is worth eating.
Every time I talk about this game I compare it to Welcome to the Dungeon, a much more well known game where players are either putting monsters into a dungeon or choosing to remove equipment that can be used to counter those monsters. Like Stew, there’s a lot of hidden information and you must glean what other players know based on what decisions they’re making. The difference is that Stew captures the same feeling with a more streamlined system, in a quicker play time and with no player elimination. Quite simply, Stew is everything Welcome to the Dungeon wishes it could be. If you like Welcome to the Dungeon, that’s fine, but I would implore you to try Stew.
I don’t know the availability of Stew because Button Shy games tend to periodically go out of print. I was aware of a Kickstarter they were running in which a Stew reprint was unlocked as a stretch goal, but when that comes to fruition, I have no clue. If and when Stew is available, there are few games I find as easy to recommend as this one. It’s cheap, it’s extremely portable and it’s accessible enough to teach to just about anyone. Despite its small size and countless plays (the wallet for my copy has literally ripped in half from being carried around and opened so much), I have yet to tire of this microgaming masterpiece.
What I say now
Stew has suffered a bit of a decrease but nothing TOO major. I will say the amount of times I’ve played this game may finally be starting to catch up with it, as it’s a game I rarely suggest on my own to play. But if somebody else suggests it? I’m all in, and I always have a great time with it.
Despite this slight hint of Stew burnout, I am excited to see where it ends up next year. I finally got the game’s expansions, which add new ingredients and vermin, and I can feel that Stew shaped fire in my heart beginning to rekindle. Till then, Stew remains one of the industry’s most hidden gems and just barely misses a repeat appearance in my top 50.
Previous ranking: 28 (-24)
What I said last year
In Menara, you and your fellow players are trying to build a temple together, playing the role of archaeological contractors, apparently. The temple is going to be constructed with wooden pillars which are placed on wonkily shaped platforms. You’re trying to get your temple to be a certain amount of levels high before time runs out while also trying to make sure the temple doesn’t fall over like your drunken uncle at a Christmas party.
I mentioned one of the reasons I love Drop It so much is that it isn’t a completely mindless affair. You aren’t just dropping shapes down a slot, you’re trying to pick shapes and aim based on what makes the most tactical sense. It’s far from deep but having things to consider and ponder is what separated Drop It from other dexterity games I’ve tried. Menara is similarly not just about dumbly placing columns, with shaky hands being the only determiner of whether you win.
For one, there is a slight element of resource management. Players have ‘hands’ of pillars and at the start of their turns can trade some pillars from their hands with pillars in a communal reserve known as the camp. Pillars can only be placed on spots that match their color, so there is a constant need to rotate the colors you have at your disposal. Again, this isn’t MENSA level stuff, but the need to think about what colors should be in your hand and at the camp is quite welcome in a dexterity game.
The real strategy and tactics, though, lies in how players pace themselves in the game. On your turn, you have to flip over an action card that tells you what action you need to complete on your turn. This includes things as simple as placing a pillar or two to more advanced things like finishing off an entire platform of pillars or even moving entire platforms from one level to another. These actions are separated into decks by difficulty and players choose what deck they want to draw from on their turn.
This creates an excellent sense of pushing your luck and hedging your bets on what you think you’re able to accomplish in the short term without screwing yourself over in the long term. Starting off with easy cards and working your way up seems simple, but you’ll be setting yourself up for a murderous second half of the game. Dip into the hard cards too early, however, and you may not have the proper foundations to even accomplish the actions. Not being able to complete an action results in another level being added to your endgame win condition, making your job that much tougher.
It’s such a unique way to handle the pacing of a game, because players literally control it themselves. Being able to pick what difficulty to try at the right time is key to winning and it felt like a really fresh take on the cooperative game. Add in the actual dexterity elements which is a bundle of nerve-wracking fun and it’s easy to see why this game ended up so high on my top 100.
What I say now
Menara is a game I recently added to my collection, as it was one of the few in last year’s top 100 that I didn’t have ready access to. As such, I was able to finally play it again for the first time in over a year and I was excited to see how that would affect its ranking.
As you can see, it’s actually suffered a sizable drop down. Whoops?
Listen, it’s still a great game. I love the idea of cooperative dexterity and it’s got some tough decisions to make as you try to pace yourself across the different decks of cards. But it’s also got a very procedural feel to it that makes your choices feel more by the book and scripted than organic and naturally clever. This was a common complaint I’ve heard about Menara and I’m starting to come around to this viewpoint.
The other big negative I’ve discovered in my recent reintroduction to Menara is that I suddenly suck at the game? I used to be pretty good at it and I had never been the person to knock down the tower. But now? I can’t even make it past the 15-minute mark. Usually lasting 15 minutes is worth bragging about, but not in Menara’s case.
You’re probably asking, “Kyle, how is that the game’s fault? Shouldn’t you be blaming your parents that you suck so hard?” and you’re right. I’m not holding my sudden lack of dexterity against the game but what I am saying is that if you lose this game at the 15-20 minute mark, as I’ve been doing consistently since having bought the game, it is a VERY underwhelming experience. A winning game of Menara is going to take you around 45 minutes to an hour complete, so losing the game that early makes me feel like I just got done sat down after cooking a big pot of pasta and then having Slimer from Ghostbusters flying through to eat it all on me. Losing a game in the later stages of the game sucks, but at least you feel like you got a worthwhile experience. Losing a game before you even hit 20 minutes? It makes Menara feel like a waste of time and a somewhat tedious experience.
I guess my point is that my recent suckage at the game leads me to believe that Menara could have benefited from a shorter, tighter run time. It was honestly something always in the back of my mind, that 45 minutes to an hour for a dexterity game was perhaps a little overboard. I’m now convinced of that even more, that this is a game that should have been trimmed down to 20-30 minutes. That way if you do lose early, as has been the case with my plays recently, it doesn’t feel like such a daunting ask to set it up and try again because I know I’m not staring down the barrel of a possible hour long game.
Okay, so, that was a pretty negative write up over a game I consider my 52nd favorite game. So, let me end by saying that even with my recent frustrations, Menara is still a lot of fun and can create some real memorable experiences. It’s just starting to show a few cracks here and there.
Previous ranking: N/A
The last entry in my 60-51 range, and the game to just barely miss a coveted spot in my top 50, is a ‘new to the list’ game called Queenz. Co-designed by designer-I-most-definitely-don’t-stalk Bruno Cathala, Queenz is a tile lying game about building a garden to attract Jerry Seinfeld and his other bee friends to hang out and make honey.
In Queenz, the gardens you will be growing will be made up of two types of tiles: polyominoes and circular flower tiles that go on top of them. On your turn, you draft flower tiles by controlling a gardener pawn that walks around a grid. Whatever row or column they’re on, you can take flowers following some Splendor style rules (take 3 of different colors, 2 of the same, or 1 with bees (more on bees later)). When you hoard enough of these flower tiles, you can then spend your turn grabbing an actual garden tile which are the polyomino, Tetris style pieces.
As you place these polyominos into your garden, joining them together with other polyominos you’ve gotten throughout the game, you place the flower tiles you’ve recently collected on top of them. You’re generally trying to get the same colors adjacent to each other because you get points for doing so, including from colors you’ve already placed in your garden from previous turns. If I place a big batch of blue that’s touching an already present swath of blue in my garden, I get points for ALL the blues now touching each other (sounds kind of dirty, but let’s ignore that). This creates an almost illegally gratifying exponential scoring system, where a small group of colors starts off getting you 2 or 3 points but then turns into 5 or 6 and that swells to 10 or 11. Your garden feels less like patches of flowers and more like hurricanes swirling and forming across the tableau, slowly getting more monstrous as the game goes on.
As rewarding as it is to do your best impression of Poison Ivy from Batman and become an unstoppable botanical terror, flowers aren’t the only way to get points in Queenz. Remember when I mentioned Jerry Seinfeld? Yep, there are bees in this game, hence the Queenz title (complete with the obnoxious ‘z’ at the end). Though harder to come by, you can grab flowers that have bees on them and when you place those out in your garden you can partner them with beehive tokens. Doing so scores you points for every bee surrounding the beehives you’ve seeded your garden with, even allowing you to score bees multiple times if they surround multiple hives. This can result in humongous end game points, dwarfing even the most impressive point gains your opponents may have gotten from their flower colors throughout the game.
What’s that? You want even more ways to get points? Okay, all right. Here’s one more. You can also race to get a honey diversity bonus. While that sounds like something an organic cooking blog would espouse as a benefit to eating natural honey, it’s actually another scoring mechanism. Whenever you score a certain color of flower in your garden, you receive a honey pot of that color. If you collect a honey pot of every flower color in the game, you get a token that rewards bonus points.
The rub is that the tokens decrease in value, meaning it pays to be the first to accomplish the milestone. I really love this extra mechanism because it rewards people for not just focusing on building one or two huge areas of the same color. It lets you diversify your garden and adds yet another avenue to win the game.
So, for better or worse, Queenz feels like a greatest hits collection of mechanisms seen in other tile layers. It’s got the polyomino puzzling of modern day classics like Patchwork and Barenpark, a tile drafting system reminiscent of obscure and out of print but delightful Maori, and a scoring system that evokes the satisfying exponential system of gateway game behemoth Azul. And yet, despite all these obvious inspirations, all of these disparate parts and mechanisms are molded together in a way that makes the game still feel refreshing and ‘Cathala’esque rather than derivative and trite. The tactical considerations when moving to gardener to draft flowers, the multitude of ways to score, the plethora of satisfying choices every turn…it reeks of Cathala’s design ethos and it is an oh so pleasant smell. I mean, ‘Essence of Cathala’ should totally be a perfume or cologne.
Perhaps it’s because it’s one of Cathala’s new-ish games, but this one doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of buzz (HAHAHAHA) yet. It’s an absolute gem, though, so hopefully this gets more attention soon.
We’re almost at the top 50! Congratulations everyone, you’re doing great! See you again soon!