Tag: Stew

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2020 Edition): 60-51

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.

57. Kingdomino

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.

56. Shh

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.

55. Aerion

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.

54. Sagrada

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.

53. Stew

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.

52. Menara

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.

51. Queenz

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.

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We’re almost at the top 50! Congratulations everyone, you’re doing great! See you again soon!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 50-41

We’ve arrived! It took us till 2020, but we’re at the top 50 of my Top 100 Games (2019 Edition)! Let’s get on with 50-41, before 2021 gets here.

Previously on my top 100:

100-91

90-81

80-71

60-51

50. Lorenzo il Magnifico

lorenzo cover

Starting off the top 50 is another mid-heavy Euro, this one being set in the Italian Renaissance. It’s Lorenzo il Magnifico, a worker placement game using a clever dice mechanism that will give you nightmares. More on that later.

In Lorenzo, you’re taking on the role of Italian noble families trying to gain favor and influence across many different tracks. I basically just played Euro Mad Libs with that description, but hey, that’s what the game is. You’ll be placing your family members, represented by cylindrical pieces, on certain columns. The columns contain cards which can then be added to a certain part of your player board and you’re hoping to build an engine that will spew you out resources and/or advance you up certain tracks.

What makes Lorenzo special is how it uses dice. Each round, three dice are rolled to determine the strength of your workers. The dice are colored the same as your workers (orange, black and white) and whatever the dice value is will be how strong your worker of that color is. If the orange die rolled a three, everybody’s orange worker has a strength of three. This is important because the worker placement spots you’re sending your family members out to are all locked by a certain strength value. Some spots may only require a strength of one, while others require seven. If your worker doesn’t have the available strength, you can use servants to supplement the value at a one to one ratio.

Remember when I said this mechanism will give you nightmares? That’s because working around the rolls of the dice is the lifeblood of Lorenzo, and it will seem quite often that the dice have declared a blood feud against you. When the dice are rolled and it’s revealed that none of them rolled higher than a four, the entire table slams their heads down in frustration. While the board doesn’t literally shrink, low dice rolls means the available spaces tighten to an almost suffocating amount. Getting to higher spots means spending more servants, something players are often hesitant to do since resources like that are hard to consistently come by. This results in the lower spots on the columns being quickly taken up, forcing players to either pay big or to settle for something less enticing.

This is made even more difficult by the penalty imposed when a player enters a column. The first player in a column gets in for free, but all other players must pay a three-gold fee to go to a spot in that same column. I mentioned earlier resources are hard to come by, so yeah, that’s not great. I think the phrase “knife fight in a phone booth” is a bit overused, so I’ll instead say that Lorenzo feels like a Scottish dirk fight in a phone booth. I can’t think of a worker placement game where being first player was so important. Last time I played this game, whenever somebody placed their worker on the spot that allowed them first dibs in the next round, the table would erupt into curse words and threats.

I will admit, Lorenzo very nearly straddles the line to the side of ‘too tight’. I enjoy my Euros to feel tough, but if I’m constantly just one resource short of what I need to do, that can get a little exhausting. Lorenzo strays into that territory a little more than I like, which is why it’s not deeper in my top 50 despite having lots of things that I absolutely love.

I don’t want to end on a negative note since I really do love this game, so let me conclude by saying that despite this somewhat punishing difficulty, Lorenzo still packs an immensely satisfying puzzle in a tight 90 minutes. It’s one that I could see rising a bit when I get to play it more and learn to be more efficient with its systems.

49. Trapwords

trapwords

It’s been a while since I featured a game I’ve already reviewed, but that changes with Trapwords. As always, you can click here to see the full review.

Trapwords is one of the newer entries in the word association party game craze , something that began back in 2015 with Codenames and really hasn’t subsided since. In Trapwords’ case, it takes inspiration from the old mass market game Taboo. In Taboo, players had to get their team to guess a word but had a list of ‘taboo’ words that they could not use in their description. By mass market standards, it was somewhat fun, but the static nature of the list of words held it back. Trapwords fixes that by making a much more dynamic system, wherein it’s YOU who makes the list of words for your opponent and, oh, by the way, you keep it a secret from them. So, they have no clue what they can and can’t say as they try to get their team to guess the word.

I’m sure you can immediately see why this will be hilarious. Watching the opponent clue giver start and sputter and stop and start again as they helplessly try to obtusely describe the word like a robot short circuiting during a Turing test never fails to be a riotous occasion. That is until it’s your turn to attempt the same and you suddenly forget what a sentence is, let alone how to use one.

When you’re making up your secret list of trapwords, you’re going deep into your Sherlockian mind palace, trying to figure out what obscure term the opponent clue giver will think is safe in an effort to trip them up. If the word is tiger, do you go with the obvious ones like “cat” and “stripes”? Or do you go deeper, thinking of less common ideas like “Tony” or “Asia”? Or do you go even DEEPER and say “lions” and “bears”, hoping the clue giver fancies themselves clever by doing a Wizard of Oz themed fill in the blank ? Creating trapwords is just as fun and suspenseful as the actual clue giving, which is a real feat.

The unfortunate thing that holds Trapwords back is simply how many other word games it’s competing against, especially in my collection. I won’t list them because it would spoil what’s likely to come later, but Trapwords finds itself in a very crowded space. When I have a group of friends over for party games, it tends to get lost in the shuffle, not quite standing up against the heavyweights of the genre.

When it does get to the table, though, Trapwords has yet to fail. It’s always been a good time and writing this entry has me really wanting to get it played for the first time in a while.

48. Sagrada

sagrada cover

Dice drafting made a long overdue debut in my last entry with My Village, a mid-heavy euro about managing a village and being stalked by the Grim Reaper. Dice drafting returns at my number 48 spot with Sagrada. Sagrada is much lighter than My Village, but it’s a wonderfully addictive puzzler of a game.

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.

47. The Fox in the Forest

the fox in the forest cover

In my 90-81 entry, I raved about a two-player trick taking game called Claim, which took trick taking and injected it with a unique round structure and zany special powers. My number 47 is another two-player trick taking game and one that is a lot more popular and well known. This is, of course, The Fox in the Forest.

The Fox in The Forest whisks players off to a beautiful fairy tale style world of witches and foxes and swans. You know, the usual. Players are playing rounds of 13 tricks with some fairly standard trick taking rules. The player leads with a suit which must then be followed if able, with a trump suit looming over the proceedings. Much like Claim, though, there are some clever wrinkles that provide a breath of fresh air to the stale attic smell that can sometimes accompany trick taking games.

Like Claim (I’ll stop comparing them at some point, I swear), TFitF includes special powers to create some unpredictability in how things are going to unfold. Things like being able to change the trump suit or exchanging a card from the deck with a card from your hand adds just the right bit of wonkiness, as well as an extra layer of tension as you try to time these powers for maximum effectiveness.

What really makes The Fox in the Forest stand out among other trick takers, however, is its brilliant scoring system. At the end of the round, you’re going to score based on the amount of tricks you’ve taken. This is something lots of trick takers do, but The Fox in the Forest has a scoring rubric for how many points you get for the amount of tricks you take. While being handed a scoring rubric might make you feel like you’re back at school and about to write an essay, you’ll immediately forgive it when you realize how sharp this system is.

It scores like this: If you get zero to three tricks, you are considered Humble and your humility awards you six points, which is the highest amount. But after that, the points diminish drastically, dipping down to only one point if you won four tricks. This steadily climbs back up with each extra trick won until you hit yet another sweet spot: the seven to nine trick range. If you manage that (called the Victorious ranking), you get six points, just like when you were busy being humble (not that you’d ever bring that up again, you humble humbler, you). But guess what? After the Victorious range is the Greedy range, which is what you get if you win 10-13 tricks. Your reward for that? Zero points. Yep, win TOO many tricks and you leave the round empty handed.

Many trick takers involve betting at the start of the round on how many tricks you’ll win, with the game then centering on trying to hit as close to that wager as possible. TFitF’s system feels like a modern reinvention of that system. It feels much more fluid and tactical and exciting as you try to figure out where on the scoring spectrum you want to hit as you actually play the round. Those other trick takers can feel slightly frustrating as you try to hit your static number and you realize you misjudged at the start of the round but in TFitF, you get to adapt and change your plans turn by turn. There’s also a wonderful push your luck element that bleeds through because of this. Trying to not win any tricks at all or trying to hit the seven to nine sweet spot is fun and rewarding but winning just one trick too many is devastating. Figuring out when to commit or when to zig when your opponent is zagging is what makes TFitF such a smart, satisfying game.

TFitF falls a bit into the trap that some trick takers unfortunately do, and that is that it can feel a little bit samey round to round (and therefore game to game). Because of this, I have a feeling this 47 spot is probably it’s ceiling on my top 100. But this isn’t Kyle Hanley’s Predictions for Future Top 100s, this is Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 as of 2019. And right now, The Fox in the Forest is very comfortable right here, thank you very much.

46. A Fake Artist Goes to New York

fake artist cover

Social deduction has only showed up once on my list so far, courtesy of Deception: Murder in Hong Kong back in my 70-61 entry. It pops up again here at spot 46 with A Fake Artist Goes to New York. Published by the quirky and lovable Oink Games, a Japanese company with a fervent cult like following in the industry, Fake Artist is what happens when you take Pictionary and add a hidden traitor to the mix.

In Fake Artist, a game master comes up with a hidden prompt for the table to draw. They write it down on tiny little white boards and hand them out to the players, also giving a category for some extra direction. So, if the game master writes the prompt “Mickey Mouse”, they’d say “character” as their category (I really hope Disney doesn’t copyright strike this blog now). The twist is that one player does not receive this prompt. They’re simply given a blank board or a board with an ‘X’ or, if you’re my game group, an expletive. Regardless of how the game master conveys it, this means that person is the Fake Artist and they’re job is not letting the other players know that.

Players then take turns adding to a drawing of the prompt, adding one single uninterrupted line to the communal picture. After everyone has had two turns, a vote is held: who is the Fake Artist? Players point to their choice. If the Fake Artist isn’t caught, the Fake Artist wins. If they ARE caught, however, they have one last chance. If they’re able to correctly guess what the prompt is, then they win!

I’m sure you see why this game is so clever, then. If the players who know the prompt draw something too obvious, then the Fake Artist will have a much better chance of guessing it if caught. Draw too vaguely, however, and you’ll find yourself with a giant Fake Artist shaped target on your back. Going back to the Mickey Mouse prompt (please Disney, don’t, I’m begging you), does a player draw two circles representing the ears? Or is that too obvious? Maybe instead they draw the turrets of the Disney castle, letting those in the know that they’re aware it’s a Disney character they’re drawing. But what if they don’t catch on??? Then it looks like you think it might be a Harry Potter or Game of Thrones character or something and while Disney owns everything, they don’t own those (yet).

It’s hilarious fun. Watching players squirm as they draw otherworldly shapes with no apparent connection to any prompt at all, let alone the prompt at hand, will have the table roaring in laughter. On the flip side, somebody drawing something so blatantly obvious will have the table groaning as the Fake Artist slyly grins to themselves, knowing they’re in the clear no matter what. A recent game of this had the prompt “Genie”, which I partnered with the category “Disney” (wow, I’m really tempting fate here). One of the players drew an obvious genie’s lamp which resulted in the rest of the table pursing their lips in frustration and, as the game master, it was hysterical to watch their silent fury. The best part though is looking at the final picture, admiring it in all its surrealist nightmare glory.

I will admit, the first time I played this was such a fun experience that I thought it was guaranteed to be a perennial entry in my top 25. It’s since fallen a bit and the main reason is because this can be very hit or miss depending on player count. Most social deduction games have a more the merrier approach to player count, but I actually find Fake Artist to be much better on the lower end of its player count range. It plays 5-10, but anything above seven is problematic. By that point, the drawing not only takes forever to go around the table, but there’s so many players to add to it that by the end, no one knows what to draw. This results in pictures that clearly show what the prompt is and when it doesn’t, there’s so many different colored markers that the Fake Artist almost always gets away, no problem. With five to seven, though, the game sings. The drawing moves around quickly and there’s just enough people to add some confusion as to who the Fake Artist might be without it being impossible to crack.

The fact that this game is so high on my list despite it failing miserably at half of its player count should show you just how good this game is when it does fire on all cylinders. As of the creation of this list back in November of 2019, it was my favorite Oink game and it’s definitely one you should check out if you consistently find yourself with five to seven players.

(SHAMELESS PLUG FOR THE BLOG YOU’RE LITERALLY READING RIGHT NOW: While I haven’t reviewed Fake Artist, I did write a blog post about it. It was a post wherein I took pictures from past games of Fake Artist I’ve had and wrote descriptions of them as if you were walking through a museum. Check it out here if you want to see the absolute garbage fires that people end up drawing in this game.)

45. Incan Gold

incan gold cover

Also known as Diamant, Incan Gold is one of the most popular push your luck games in the industry. For good reason, I say. I actually credit Incan Gold as being the game that made me fall in love with push your luck, the mechanism that I consider my favorite in all of board games.

In my 90-81, I talked about a game called Celestia, a game where you and other players are flying on an airship and trying to decide whether you want to keep flying farther down the line or whether you want to jump off to safety. Incan Gold has this same “stay or go” decision, except it’s streamlined and distilled down to its simplest, purest form.

In Incan Gold, you and the other players are diving into a temple, trying to end up with the most treasure at the end of five rounds. Play is simple: a card is turned over from a deck displayed for all to see. If it’s a treasure card, it’ll have a value of gems that are then divided equally among all the players in the temple with the remainder being placed on the card. If it’s a threat card (representing things like snakes and fire and lots of rocks), it simply gets placed in the row UNLESS it’s the 2nd threat of its type. In that case, the round ends and anyone still in the temple ‘busts’.

After each card draw, however, each player is given the chance to either keep going through the temple OR to run back to their tent to fondle their treasure like Gollum after a two-week hiatus from the One Ring. If you do go back to your tent, all the treasure you’ve accumulated on that run through the temple is safely banked away for end game points. If you keep going, you can increase your treasure stockpile BUT at the risk of losing it if the round ever ends due to two identical threats.

This decision is made all the more delicious by a couple of other factors. One, everyone makes this decision simultaneously. There’s no chance for group think to dictate who stays or goes. Part of what makes this game so suspenseful is trying to get into the heads of your opponents to figure out what they’re gonna do, allowing you to make the most efficient choice for your plans. The other reason why staying or going isn’t as simple as it seems is because it’s possible to grab more treasure on the way out. I mentioned earlier that when treasure cards are divided, the remainder is left over on the treasure card. That’s because anyone who leaves grabs any leftover treasure for their own, just as you’d expect from a selfish COWARD. Of course, this is muddied if OTHER people leave too. If you leave at the same time as others, the leftover treasure on the cards is once again divided equally. If that’s not possible, nobody leaves with anything extra. This makes that simultaneous selection process even more agonizing. If you think a mass exodus is going to occur, it might do you good to wait a bit longer to try and grab more of the treasure scraps on your way out. Conversely, leaving earlier than expected is a great way to sneak out with all the leftover treasure and to keep yourself safe from an abrupt bust that may occur. Factor in ‘relics’, special cards that CANNOT be split on the way out and are only awarded to lone escapees and you can see why Incan Gold is Heart Palpitations: The Game.

There’s so much to love about Incan Gold. It is beautifully tense, with moments of great triumph and deflating failure. It has a great player count range, playing comfortably with as little as four all the way up to eight, making it a great option for parties where you aren’t necessarily in the mood for true ‘party’ games. It’s fairly quick, meaning you can probably get two to three games done in under an hour. I have only two minor complaints. One, if somebody gets real lucky in the first round or two, this can be a very hard game to catch up to them in. And two, there are also times where rounds can be major duds, with two of the same threat being drawn before there’s even a treasure card revealed. These flaws are what keep this game from my top 25 but let’s not pretend that the top 50 isn’t a great place to be.

If you enjoy push your luck, Incan Gold is an absolute must have. If you are on the fence about push your luck, as I was when first getting into the hobby, I can’t think of a game that’s better to convert you into a fan than this one.

44. Jamaica

jamaica cover

At some point in this top 100 (it’s all starting to blur together, my god, what is even real anymore) I mentioned that the pirates theme is my favorite theme in board game. Anything remotely pirate themed or even nautical themed automatically gets a bump up due to my biases. My number 44 is a pirate themed game and in addition to having my favorite theme, it also happens to be an excellent game.

Jamaica is a game where you and your opponents are racing around the titular island, using a mixture of card play and dice placement to efficiently collect resources and move your ship. It’s yet another game on the resume of one Bruno Cathala, who will somehow show up on this list even more frequently than he already has. Every turn an active player referred to as the Captain rolls two dice and then chooses to place them on spots representing a day action and a night action. Whatever the pips on the dice show denotes how powerful the action will be.

What are day actions and night actions? Those are the actions you’ll be activating throughout the game and those are selected by playing cards. Everybody has their own personal deck of cards which they draw from for a hand of three. The decks are all identical, but through shuffling everybody will obviously get different cards at different times. When the Captain decides where to place the dice, everyone simultaneously chooses a card and then reveals. On one side of the card is the day action and on the other is the night action. Everyone takes turns resolving their cards based on the dice and the round ends. That’s basically the game until someone crosses the finish line.

Like many of Cathala’s games, Jamaica is rich with tactical play. Taking a look at the board, at your hand of cards and what the dice can give you requires constantly adapting your plans to what is most effective for that turn. Maybe you really wanted to move forward, but you only have that available as a day action and the day action die has a weak value. Perhaps you move backward instead, to minimize the damage from such an action? There’s also some surprisingly puzzley resource management involved as well. Traveling around the board requires one of two types of currency: food and gold. If you’re short on the cost to end your turn on that space, you get pushed back to a space you can afford and that can be devastating. Everyone has a ship hold of six squares but those fill up fast, and a devious mechanism wherein you can’t add to squares (you either have to fill a new square or completely replace the resource) means you’ll be pulling your hair out trying to figure out the best course to sail.

As if that isn’t enough, there’s also combat to worry about. Landing on the same space as another pirate is apparently an act of war, because those ships need to fight. Combat is resolved by a simple dice roll, made more intriguing by the presence of gunpowder. Players can choose to add gunpowder to their combat roll, giving an addition of one point per gunpowder token used. It creates a nice sense of push your luck as you try to figure out the odds so that you give yourself a comfortable buffer without overspending. Hilariously, there is an insta-kill side of the die that completely blows up your plans anyway. The winner of the fight gets to rob a player of one of their holds’ squares or to steal a treasure card (bonus point cards seeded throughout the race track), adding a nice bit of interaction to the game.

Like many games on this list, Jamaica is just pure fun. The charming art adds to the fun pirate theme and helps give the game a lighthearted attitude (just like real piracy, right). Watching your best laid plans falter because of a bad die roll or an inopportune combat would seem frustrating, but here it’s part of the game’s appeal. Everybody is getting screwed over and that’s what makes the moments when you chain together a couple of well-timed card plays to get you zipping ahead of the pack so satisfying. Even better, winning the race doesn’t necessarily mean winning the game. Yes, you most likely will BUT people get a certain amount of points for where they finished and they also get points for gold in their hold. Knowing when it’s time to gun for the finish line and when it’s time to pace yourself and hoard gold can be the difference between a last second loss or a surprising win from nowhere.

My only complaint with Jamaica is that it can go a little long, especially if there are a lot of combats dragging the pace of the game down. But that nitpick aside, Jamaica is a game I will always want to play, especially if it’s with a group of five or six.

43. High Society

high society cover

It’s been a while since Reiner Knizia has been on the list. He was last spotted in the 70s (in the list I mean, not the decade) with Lost Cities and he’s back at number 43 with my favorite game of his: High Society.

High Society is a small little card game built around auctions. Everyone gets a hand of identical money cards which they then use to bid on point cards which are drawn randomly from a deck. Like many auction games, you raise the bid or you pass. When everybody’s passed, the person remaining spends their money cards and takes the points in front of them.

Sounds a little straightforward and maybe even a little boring, huh. Well, it would be, if it were not for that good old fashioned Knizia Twist ™. High Society has a very important rule. At the end of the game, everyone counts how much money they have left. Whoever has spent the most money over the course of the game is IMMEDIATELY disqualified. They can’t win, even if they have the most points.

And just that tiiiiny little wrinkle takes a vanilla game of bidding on points and turns it into one of the most clever, exquisitely tense card games money can buy.

Every choice is fraught with anxiety and indecision. Do you raise bids, hoping to get people to waste as much cash as possible but risk getting caught spending the money yourself? When you do want a point card, how much are you willing to spend? Do you focus on taking smaller point cards for super cheap, hoping it’s enough to get you where you need to be? Or do you spend big on one or two of the larger amounts, going quiet for the rest of the game as everyone else is lulled into a false sense of spending security? In just a mere 15 minutes, you’ll have these thoughts racing through your head like a prize horse you just spent way too much money on, why did you spend that much money, WHY DID YOU SPEND THAT MUCH MONEY!?!?

To further add to the agony, there are negative penalty cards which do things like remove a point card you’ve already bought or cut your total points in half. When those are up for auction you are bidding to pay money to NOT take it and the person who ultimately decides to fall on the grenade is the only one who doesn’t have to spend cash. This means you always feel like you have to subconsciously stash money away for the purpose of avoiding those penalties because it’ll make any money you’ve already spent on points seem worthless. Yet another way in which Knizia takes a subtle little rule change and uses it to make his game into an instant classic.

High Society is a game that’s been around for a while but has really seemed to have gotten cult status from its latest edition from Osprey Games. That is the version I own and it’s a gorgeous production, making an already amazing game that much better. I can see this game being even higher by the time I do this list next year because it’s really that good.

42. Stew

Stew cover

The small publisher Button Shy has already appeared on this list once, way back at number 81 with the fantastic Circle the Wagons. They’re back with yet another wallet game and it happens to my favorite offering of theirs: Stew. I already gave this game a full review because I loved it so much, so check it out here if you want a more detailed runthrough.

The abridged version is this: 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.

41. Fuji

fuji cover

Wolfgang Warsch has appeared twice on this list and he’s back to make it a trilogy. This will be his last appearance, sadly, but it’s with a real good one: Fuji.

Fuji is perhaps Warsch’s most overlooked and underappreciated game. Like The Mind, it’s a cooperative game with limited communication (yep, I still love them) but this one is about dice rolling and pushing your luck. It’s also a bit of a doozie to try and explain, especially without the components in front of us. Let’s give it a try!

In Fuji, you and your fellow players are hikers walking along Mount Fuji when it decides to erupt. Those pesky volcanoes, always choosing to become massive agents of death and destruction at the worst possible times! You and the rest of the group must escape to a nearby village for safety, trying to outrun the lava. I mean, I’ve seen lava before, it doesn’t exactly reach Olympian speeds. This can’t be hard…right?

How you escape the lava is by rolling dice and moving along a path of cards. The cards all have certain prompts on them pertaining to the different colored sides of the dice you roll and potential values. Everyone rolls their dice behind a player screen and then they decide what card they’re going to mark as their destination. In order to get to that destination, you need to have rolled a higher combined sum of the specific dice faces and colors that make up that card’s prompt than your neighbors on your left and right. So for example, if I want to go to a card that has a prompt marked as all pink and blue faces with even numbers, that means that if I add up all my dice that have pink or blue faces with even numbers, I need to make sure that sum is higher than the sum of my neighbors’. Still with me? No? Okay, cool, let’s keep going. I rolled five dice: two yellow threes, two blue fours and a pink six. According to that prompt, I would have a value of 14 (from my two blue fours and the pink six). When we all reveal our dice behind our player screen, I need to hope that my neighbors don’t exceed 14 with their pink and blue faces of even numbers.

Okay Kyle, you’re not trying to write a rule book here, just tell the folks why you like this game so much.

Will do! One of the things I love about this game is how unique and weird it is. It’s so tricky to explain because it’s really not like anything that’s out there. I can’t think of any other co-ops that are built around secretly rolling dice and trying to intimate to your teammates what you’ve rolled. Every time I’ve played this, it manages to feel fresh and exciting and I think that’s partly because of its one of a kind nature.

It’s also just a great push your luck game, where you’re basically pushing your luck against your own teammates. Again, very weird but awesome. There’s also some decisions to be made outside of just trying to race to the village. Equipment cards are strewn about the pathways and they’re constantly teasing you to take that extra turn to grab it in hopes of getting something good. When you do have equipment, there’s always discussion about when to trigger it and how to make the most of their powers. This is pretty common in cooperative games, but it also feels fresher here because of the unique context it’s featured in.

Admittedly, the whole ‘you can’t communicate’ thing is a little hackneyed and contrived here. You can discuss basically everything EXCEPT the actual values you rolled. You can say things like, “This is the best place for me, everywhere else is awful” or “PLEASE don’t go there, you will regret it” or just curse over and over again, hoping everyone else takes the hint that you’re not moving anywhere. But even if it does feel a little tacked on, I appreciate it from the social aspect. It makes the game about reading between the lines and thinking about the probabilities and then trying to hedge your bets from there. Does the lack of communication create magical moments as found in The Mind or Kreus, another game from earlier in my top 100? Not exactly, but it’s still damn fun.

All in all, Fuji is a strange but incredibly fun beast. Partnered with some real striking art that has a slightly scrawled, hand drawn aesthetic (a style that I adore) this game keeps me coming back for more. It’s flown under the radar a bit, and it seems like one of Warsch’s more polarizing games, but I absolutely love it.

*

That’ll do it for another one. We’ve just cracked off the lid of the top 50 and we’re ready to get even deeper! Come back next week for 40-31!

Stew Review

Stew Review

A couple of weeks ago, I did a review of Biblios, a game about trying to curate a monastery’s library in Medieval times. If you thought that theme was more soporific than a turkey breast injected with half a gallon of Nyquil, then get allow Stew liven things up. In Stew, you and up to 3 other players are pioneer farmers, trying to make the best winter stew.

Hmm, yanno, there may be a reason as to why board games haven’t gone quite mainstream yet.

Okay, maybe this bit of info will make it more exciting. In Stew, you and up to 3 other players are pioneer farmers, trying to make the best winter stew and ONLY ONE OF YOU CAN EAT IT. If this were a commercial, this would be the part where the explosions would happen, metal music would start blaring and you’d hear a Wilhelm scream somewhere in the chaos.

STILL not exciting enough? Damn, you must have ice water in them veins. Okay, if the theme doesn’t sell you, at least allow me to explain the game to you and tell you why this game, which is made up of just a mere 18 cards, is one of the most fun and addictive games I’ve played over the past couple months.

Before getting into the game, let me give you a little bit of info about this game because there’s a very good chance you haven’t heard of it, even if you are plugged into the hobby. Stew is a game published by an independent publisher called Button Shy Games. If you don’t know who they are, allow me to change that. They’re a game company that specializes in something called ‘wallet games’ which are exactly what they sound like. They’re games not just small enough to fit in a wallet, they’re literally IN a wallet. Button Shy handcrafts all their games in custom made wallets, meaning their games can quite literally fit in your pocket.

stew wallet
So small you can whip it out anywhere, especially in front of family and friends! Hmm, I dunno why Button Shy hasn’t adopted that as a tagline yet…

I have played a couple of other Button Shy Games and they have ranged from good (the meta heavy In Vino Morte, a party game where you’re poisoning your friends in a style that evokes that one scene from The Princess Bride) to very good (the two player tug of war Avignon: A Clash of Popes, a game where you and your opponent are pushing and pulling cards to get three of them on your side) to excellent (the cooperative city builder Sprawlopolis, a game that manages to pack a crunchy tile laying puzzle in just, again, 18 cards). After playing all these, I’m happy to report that Stew is my favorite of the bunch.

If Stew were an actual stew, the recipe would read like this: add one cup of push your luck, one ounce of deduction and a pinch of bluffing into a bowl and stir for 15 minutes. Serves 2-4 people.

If I had to compare it to a more well known game, the obvious choice would be Welcome to the Dungeon. In Welcome to the Dungeon, players are passing around a deck of cards that’s comprised of creatures. On their turn, they are either adding creatures to the dungeon or tossing them to the side and removing equipment that can help kill said creatures. This keeps going until one player is finally forced to enter the dungeon and take on the creatures everybody else put in there and hoping they don’t die but let’s face it, they probably are going to die and horribly.

The first time I played Welcome to the Dungeon, I reeeaally wanted to like it just fell short. One big issue was player elimination. Sure, it’s a fairly short game, but it’s just long enough that being eliminated early can be a huge problem (which happened to me). It also can be a little fiddly when you actually enter the dungeon and then have to cross examine every creature that pops up with the equipment you’re still holding while keeping track of your health in your head. This all led to an ultimately disappointing experience. Luckily, Stew takes the formula that I oh so wanted to love in Welcome to the Dungeon and makes an actual good game out of it!

Play is very simple. Every one is passing around a deck of ingredient cards and looking at the top card. These ingredient cards all have certain point values and represent the hallmarks of any great stew such as hearty potatoes, flavorful garlic and…a rock?

stew rock
Okay, who the hell invited Charlie Brown?

After looking at this top card, they then have a choice: put that ingredient face down in the stew or put it face down on a vermin card (more on the vermin later). Eventually, the stew will get bigger and bigger until some brave soul yells “STEW!”, which is the universal phrase anyone shouts when about to eat some stew. They take the cards in the stew and reveal them. If the sum of the points on the ingredient cards equals 12 or more, congratulations! You’ve eaten a damn fine stew and earn yourself two points. However, if the stew is 11 points or less then you have eaten a stew that can only be described as ‘not good’. With this, you receive no points, the rest of the players get one point and you are forced to write a negative review on Yelp. First to five points wins.

Calculating points is not as easy as just revealing what’s in the stew, however. Remember those vermin I vaguely mentioned earlier? Yeah, they’re a bunch of a-holes and they are gonna steal stuff from your stew if you didn’t feed them. If a vermin is unfed when the stew is taken off the stove, they steal specific ingredients as they pop up. For example, the rabbit steals the first carrot revealed from the stew, the fox steals the first chicken and the gopher steals the first leek (because everyone knows that gophers just effing LOVE leeks). This is bad because those are precious points leaving your stew and in this game, every point is precious. There is even a vagabond who just kinda chills outside and then pops in to see what’s in the stew. If there is a chicken in the stew, he mooches some of it off you and you lose 3 points. If there isn’t, you get a bonus 3 points as he passes it on by because he is apparently the pickiest drifter ever.

These vermin help provide much of the suspense in Stew, as you’re not quite sure what your opponents put in the stew and what they fed to the vermin. You CAN use the stone, which subtracts 3 points from your stew, against these vermin but most of the time you’ll get ingredients which makes every decision tense. Side note: using the stone on the vagabond paints of dark picture of these pioneers just straight up murdering this guy with a rock, making it feel like Stew takes place in a Coen Brothers film.

stew vagabond
No word yet on whether there will be an expansion where you hide him in a wood chipper.

 

Feeding these blasted vermin is important, but if you’re feeding them high scoring ingredients, then the stew won’t have enough points to put you over the 12 point threshold. Don’t feed enough of them though, and it won’t even matter what’s in the stew because it’s all just gonna be taken by these surprisingly stealthy and precise animals who know exactly what to take from your steaming bowl of stew. All this doesn’t even take into account that every player is side eyeing each other, twitching their fingers like gunslingers in a Wild West duel, wondering who will pull the trigger and yell ‘STEW!’ first.

And so begins the madness and double thought that you’ll be ensnared by for Stew‘s 15-20 minute run time.

This game will have you thinking and double thinking and triple thinking every decision that you and your friends make. The stream of consciousness that occupies your thoughts throughout this game would look like the ramblings of a psychopath if put on paper. ‘Ohh, Sally just put a card on the fox, which means she might know there’s a chicken in the stew and wants to keep it in there but wait maybe she fed the fox the chicken and she’s trying to lead us into believing there is going to be chicken but then again maybe she wants us to think that so that we don’t try to eat the stew and oh look Trevor just put something in the stew maybe it’s a potato those really rack up the points but the raccoon isn’t fed yet so that’s just gonna steal it anyway but maybe that’s what he wants and oh god it’s my turn I just turned over a garlic what do I doooooooo’. The transcripts of your brains thoughts at game’s end will read like a James Joyce novel, but much more enjoyable and less pretentious.

That sort of panicked battle of wits is one of the reasons why I love these types of games. It reminds me of Skull, one of my all time favorites,  with every move being scrutinized and lots of bravado and confidence being deflated with each flip and reveal of the card. Cheers will erupt and groans will echo throughout the game, such as when you angrily shake the Stone card in everyone’s faces, demanding who put it in the stew. It’s an incredibly social game for that reason and helps showcase what makes board games so damn fun.

And you know what? Like with Biblios, I poked fun at the theme earlier in this article, but I honestly love the concept behind the game. It’s so unique and fun, with rustic looking art that really helps add to the pioneer era feel they’re going for. Throw on some bluegrass music in the background, and you’ll be wearing a straw hat and slugging down moonshine in no time.

I honestly don’t have much bad to say about Stew. As I already mentioned, the game will only take around 15-20 minutes, meaning it not only doesn’t outstay its welcome but is perfect for playing back to back (to back). Sure, the strategic depth of the game lives and dies by the meta, but that’s par for the course for these type of games. And really, that’s the only negative thing I can say: if you don’t like these types of games, games with bluffing and misdirection and doublethink, then Stew won’t do anything to change your mind.

I’ll simply end by saying that if this kind of game does appeal to you, do not hesitate to pick this up. You can find it on Button Shy’s site, along with the rest of their wallet game catalog. Tell them Kyle from Boar & Arrow sent you. Actually, they’ll have no clue what any of that means, but I’ve always wanted to say that.