Last entry we cautiously dipped our toes into my top 50. By the end of this entry, we’ll be ankle deep, wading peacefully through waves of amazing games as the soft summer breeze of opinion blows through your hair and yanno what, this metaphor isn’t working, let’s get on with it.
40. The Blood of an Englishman
Another game that I’m sure loyal readers (lol) will remember me featuring for a full review. You can read it right here. Though I’m sure you’ve read it already, right?
The Blood of an Englishman is pound for pound maaaybe the most underrated game on this list. It’s sitting at a ho hum 6.7 on BGG and it is NEVER talked about by anyone. I take in a LOT of content from the board game media sphere and I have heard about a lot of hidden gems because of that but TBoaE is never mentioned.
I guess it’s up to me then, huh. After all, I’m technically a board game content creator, right? HEY, stop laughing!
TBoaE is an asymmetrical 2 player only game with a Jack and the Beanstalk theme, where one player is Jack and the other is the Giant. The deck of cards that makes up the entire game is dealt out into five stacks of ten cards each, and then the entire game is Jack and the Giant trying to manipulate those stacks of cards in order to achieve their objectives.
Jack is trying to create three beanstalks of ascending order, capping them off with a treasure card at the top. The Giant is trying to align cards that say ‘Fee’, ‘Fi’, ‘Fo’, and ‘Fum’ next to each other OR to make it impossible for Jack to finish off a beanstalk. I really harp on about this in my review, but the asymmetry in this game is fantastic. Not only do the players have different objectives, but the actions they can accomplish are also different. Jack has three actions, but they’re very minor. The Giant only gets one action, but the choices they have drastically alter the board state. This feels immensely thematic, with Jack feeling nimble, quick and annoying while the Giant is slow but incredibly powerful.
And wow, this game is balanced. Once again, I mention this in my review but in 10 plays of this game, I have seen five of those go to Jack and five of those go to the Giant. Thanos would be proud. Anytime anything this asymmetrical manages to strike a 50/50 win rate deserves celebration.
The gameplay itself is excellent as well. Players are basically taking cards from various parts of the stacks and moving them around, hoping to either set themselves up for a big turn or to trap their opponent into unwittingly helping them. It has an abstract feel, for sure, but the thematic way in which the characters behave and the sheer cleverness of the puzzle at hand help this game feel immersive and engaging with every turn.
There’s a solid chance you haven’t heard of or played this game, so let me dust off this diamond in the rough on your behalf. Give it a shot because it really deserves more love and attention.
39. Bang! The Dice Game
Back when I was in college, when I wasn’t too busy being either awkward or drunk (wow, things haven’t changed much), my friends and I consistently played the card game Bang!. I guess you could technically say that was my first hobby game but I didn’t realize it was part of a bigger picture at the time. Fast forward to 2017 and I got to play Bang! The Dice Game, the dice version of Bang!. I wasn’t in love with it, which surprised me because I had heard that Bang! The Dice Game had replaced the original for pretty much everybody.
Luckily, I gave the game another chance later that same year and ever since I’ve considered it one of my top 100 games. I don’t know what clicked in between those plays but I will officially never go back to the original.
People familiar with the original card game will recognize the same basic skeleton. It’s a hidden role game set in the Wild West where one person is a Sheriff and the other players are a mixture of Deputies, Outlaws and Renegades. Deputies want the Sheriff to stay alive till the end, Outlaws want to kill the Sheriff and Renegades just want to be the last ones standing. Whereas the original was built around playing cards that helped you achieve these objectives, this one features a Yahtzee style dice rolling mechanism. The custom dice have icons which allow you to complete actions such as shooting other players and drinking beer to heal (remember kids, beer solves EVERYTHING).
What makes Bang! The Dice Game feel more immediately engaging and exciting than the card game is the push your luck aspect that this game brings. You’re trying to roll the dice to get the actions you need BUT there are negative icons that loom over every reroll. There are dynamite which lock your dice and make you blow up as well as Native American arrows which can cause you to take a lot of damage if you take too many of them. Knowing when to stop and be content with what you have is a key part of the game and one of the reasons it’s so fun and addictive.
And not to keep comparing this to the original, but this game is waaay quicker. The original had a long build up period of people setting up their arsenal and then the actual fighting could drag on as well. A game of this could take as little as ten minutes and certainly no longer than twenty. This makes the somewhat archaic mechanism of player elimination present in the game much more palatable, as people who get killed rarely have long to wait for the next game to begin. And believe me, you will want to play this game again. Many a party has started with three or four consecutive games of this and it never fails to be a rootin’ tootin’ good time.
If you tried the original and liked it, I absolutely recommend Bang! The Dice Game. Even if you didn’t like the original I’d still recommend it, because this version streamlines a lot of the fiddliness out of the card game and massages out its flaws into a much smoother, more fun package.
Just a few entries ago I mentioned that The Blood of an Englishman was the most underrated game on my list but my number 38 game is a VERY close second. That game is Histrio, yet another codesign from Bruno Cathala. Sitting at a bafflingly low 6.6 on BGG, this game also doesn’t get enough attention and love. The main reason I consider The Blood of an Englishman more underrated, though, is because Histrio does have some evangelists in board game media who have helped bring this game a little bit more in the public eye.
Histrio is set in a Shakespearian world of anthropomorphic animals where you are trying to make a troupe of actors to put on a play that fits the king’s mood. This is done through a simultaneous selection system. There is a long board of eight different cities which are then populated with cards representing different things players can collect, such as actors, coins or characters with special abilities. Players have a hand of eight cards, one for each city, and every round you choose one to secretly play. Players reveal and travel to that city with an adorable blimp pawn. If you’re there alone, you collect all the cards, being as smug as you want in the process. If others also chose that city, however, then all the cards are discarded and you and the others get a consolation prize in the form of a secret objective card that can be scored at the end of the round.
You’ve probably noticed games with simultaneous selection have started popping up more as we get deeper into the list, including Cathala’s own Mission: Red Planet a few posts back. It’s a mechanism I really like. It includes lots of suspense and double think as you try to figure out what other players are doing and then making sure you exploit that. One thing Histrio does well with this is that if you do make a boo boo and go to the same spot as someone, it’s not a total loss. The secret objective cards you receive can actually be pretty powerful, and I’ve won games solely because of the points they supplied. There’s still plenty of tension in getting the cards you want, but Histrio allows you to adapt when things don’t go as planned.
Another thing I think Histrio does brilliantly is its king’s mood mechanism. At the end of the round, you score points if you managed to make a troupe of actors of the type of play the king demands to see. He either wants a comedy or a tragedy and like your average Millennial trying to choose something on Netflix, he has no clue what he wants. Players can manipulate his mood by adjusting a dial throughout the round, which is done by discarding an actor of that type whenever you collect one or more actor cards from a city. The value of the actor dictates how far the dial moves towards that genre’s direction. So, if I discard a level three comedian, the dial moves three ticks towards comedy.
Of course, in pure Cathala fashion this cleverly presents a dilemma that players are wrestling with the whole game. Discarding high value actors is the best way to make drastic changes to the King’s mood BUT that means you’re losing out on that high value actor in your troupe. You only score big points from actors if the King is in the mood for them, meaning that level 5 tragedian will be awfully useful when the King is in the mood for a tragedy. But then you’re risking him NOT even wanting a tragedy and you can see why this game offers such tasty decisions.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I talked about Histrio and didn’t mention its lavish production values. The game is beautiful, with playful, colorful art and wonderfully chunky pieces. And the stage…my god, that stage. It’s a cardboard, 3-D stage that has the King’s mood dial on top and a rotating backdrop that you can twist around whenever the King changes said mood. It’s got incredible table presence and adds to the gleeful nature of this game. I have heard many call this overproduced, especially considering the game’s weight (it’s barely a Gateway+ style game), but I find it really adds to the experience.
If you’re looking for a game that provides surprisingly tense decision making and gorgeous production values, Histrio is one that you can’t ignore any longer.
37. The Grimm Forest
My number 37 is a game that has some similarities to Histrio. They both have out of this world production values and they both are centered on a simultaneous selection mechanism where you’re trying to go to locations by yourself. This game is The Grimm Forest, a game of fairy tale characters, building houses, and just so many god damned wolves.
In The Grimm Forest, you are a relative of one of the original Three Little Pigs, who have gotten too old and demented to keep up with their rock star lifestyle of building houses. Your job is to go out and build three houses to continue their legacy because that’s what pigs do, dammit. I don’t know if this is canon, but that’s the premise for the game.
Like I briefly mentioned earlier, the game features a similar Histrio style system, where you’ll be choosing one of three to four locations (depending on player count) in secret and then revealing at once to see where everybody goes. The locations all produce a resource of some type, with the fields providing straw, the forest providing trees and the brick yard producing bricks. If you go there alone, you get everything, just like Histrio. But if you go there with others, the resources are split equally with the remainder being left on there for the next round.
So that part of the game is awesome, capturing what makes simultaneous selection so great. Having only three/four locations really narrows the scope of your options and means the chances of clumsily butting into somebody feels like a constant threat. But after that resource gathering phase, there’s another phase where you actually manage the resources. In this phase, called the Build Phase, you can use those resources to construct parts of your houses, gather small amounts of extra resources or draw cards with special powers known as Fable cards.
Speaking of Fable cards, those cards are what really spice the game up. Fable cards are cards featuring different fairy tale creatures or tropes that allow you to pull off a special ability in a later round. Many of them are placed face down at locations and then are revealed after everyone has already picked their destination, allowing either a boon to whoever is at that location or, more likely, a destructive power to really screw with an opponent who was foolish enough to go there.
I’m usually not a fan of ‘take that’, but when it’s so baked into the design of a game I find it much more agreeable. Also, since you generally target locations rather than players, it feels much less direct and confrontational. It’s more like, “Well, how was I supposed to know you’d be at the forest!?” as you slyly grin. There’s also plenty of times when you misjudge a player’s destination and end up targeting nobody with your Fable card which is often hilarious, especially when that happens to the other players.
Another batch of zany powers you’re able to get access to are from the Friends cards. Friends cards are like Fable cards, except they are rewarded whenever you build the walls section of a house, because they’re coming to shack up with you. Unlike Fable cards, which are basically one use, Friend cards stay in front of you and provide a passive bonus or special ability of some sort. They’re all modeled after fairy tale characters such as Pinocchio, Snow White and Tom Thumb, and the cool thing is that when you procure a Friend, you choose to either put it in front of you or in front of someone else. This means that if somebody is absolutely killing it with a super powerful Friend card, you can force them to discard it by giving them someone less useful. It also allows you to avoid giving yourself a crappy Friend card if you’re really attached to the one you have. The Friend cards are very obviously not balanced but this mechanism allows players to do the balancing themselves, which I found to be a very sharp design decision.
Last thing I’ll rave about are the production values. The game includes minis for everyone’s pig character as well as a couple of the monsters BUT I will say I actually find them superfluous. I would have, in fact, preferred standees featuring the game’s art because wow, talking about amazing. The art in this game is phenomenal, featuring a warm, vibrant color palette that never fails to give me a feeling of comfort and peace when looking at it. It perfectly fits the whimsical fairy tale theme of the game and it’s easily among my favorite art in all of board games. And while the minis feel unnecessary, the game does include another 3-D component that I feel IS crucial to the experience. The houses you build throughout the game are chunky plastic pieces, which you literally build piece by piece like LEGO blocks. Not only is this insanely tactile, but it’s also practical. Being able to look around the table and clearly see the progress on everyone’s houses helps you plan and strategize as to where you need to go and who might need to be knocked down a peg.
Simply put, The Grimm Forest is fantastic and it’s a game I’ve grown to love more and more with each play. This game had a lot of buzz when it was Kickstarted and it has unfortunately died down since then. Don’t let that dissuade you, this game is a treasure.
This section of the top 100 has so far been populated by lighter, more Gateway level games so let’s beef it up a bit with something heavier. My number 36 is Cyclades, a mid weight area control game set in Ancient Greek mythology. It happens to be codesigned by…(checks notes)…ahh, yes, Bruno Cathala. Who could have guessed.
Cyclades is the first of a trilogy of games put out by publisher Matagot. The games in the trilogy-Cyclades, Kemet and Inis-are all loosely related in that they’re all Euro style dudes on a map games set in some sort of ancient mythology. The similarities end there, however, as all the games have different designers and fairly different mechanisms. Will Kemet and Inis appear later on my list? STAY TUNED TO FIND OUT.
Enough about that, let’s dive into Cyclades. As I said, it’s set in the world of Ancient Greek mythology and players are trying to win the favor of the different Greek gods and goddesses as they aim to build two metropolises on the board. Once somebody has two metropolises under their control at the end of the round, they win. Players accomplish this by building fleets of ships, sending soldiers over to conquer islands, and building different types of buildings, such as forts and temples.
These actions are given to you by the gods and goddesses available for that round who are essentially put up for auction. Players bid to try and take control of that god or goddess so that they can use the actions associated with them. Most of them are thematic as well, making it easy to remember who does what. Poseidon builds ships and lets you control your fleet, Ares lets you create soldiers and move them to battle, Zeus demands you buy priests and temples while Athena attracts philosophers and universities.
I won’t go much deeper than that because there’s a lot of minutiae to talk about with what those actions do and the implications they carry. The main thing you need to worry about is that auction. Shrewd bidding is the key to winning this game, not around the map, conquering islands. A clever rule states that if you get outbid for a god, you cannot immediately rebid on that god. You have to find someone else to bid on and the only way you can go back that original is if you get outbid AGAIN on that 2nd god. This means if you really want to activate a certain god this round, you want to try and price it high enough so nobody wants to bother outbidding you. But spend too much and you might have enough gold to do anything impactful on your turn, because everything requires gold in this game. This push and pull of trying to decide what gods and actions are worth spending your precious gold on is one of the delightful dilemmas that this game pressures you with.
Another aspect I love about this game are the creatures, who come out one at a time from a big deck. The creatures are all from Greek mythology, obviously, and, like the gods, feature thematic powers. Medusa freezes soldiers in place while the Sirens attract ships to their doom and the Cyclops builds you a building because apparently he’s a contractor in the Greek myths? Whatever, MOST of them have thematic powers, and it’s always fun to pay for a card and then use it on an unsuspecting opponent.
Cyclades also has a surprising number of effective ways to win. You need two metropolises but how you get there is up to you. Want to focus on military, constantly using Ares to invade other islands and take their hard earned buildings for your own? Go ahead, ya big jerk. Want to go early on Zeus so that you can load up on priests and temples, which provide big discounts on bidding and buy monsters? Sure, you do you. Want to sneak a victory with Athena, recruiting philosophers that give you an automatic metropolis when you obtain four of them? You think therefore you can.
Really, I love Cyclades enough to almost consider it for my top 25 but one thing holds me back: Pegasus. Seasoned veterans of the game probably already know where I’m going with this. Pegasus is one of the cards in the creature deck and his ability is that he’s able to teleport all the soldiers off one of your islands to an opponent’s island, basically paratrooping them into battle. It’s the only way someone can invade an island without winning Ares and in the right context, it is EXTREMELY powerful. A common strategy is to get Zeus at the end of the game when somebody already has two metropolises and is about to win, to then use Zeus’ ability to mill through the creature deck until you find Pegasus so that you can then teleport an army in order to steal one of those metropolises at the buzzer, effectively winning the game for yourself.
You probably think that’s an incredibly specific scenario, but this is how HALF of my games of Cyclades have ended. It’s gotten to the point where I warn players about Pegasus at the start and say, “Here’s what this card does and why it can ruin the ending of the game” and yet it still occurs. I could remove Pegasus from the deck, I guess, but I hate doing that sort of thing. And outside of the end, the threat of having Pegasus attack is integral to the rest of the game. It just sucks that it can be used to anti climactically take the game away from someone, even if it does seem to require specific context.
Outside of Pegasus, this game is awesome. I love dudes on a map games, especially when they’re driven by Euro style mechanisms. Cyclades is exactly that and will probably be in the top 50 of this list for a couple more years.
35. Arkham Horror: The Card Game
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.
Okay, so that last entry was a little packed with lots of wildly rambling thoughts, so I promise it’ll be smoother from here on out. My number 34 doesn’t have near the baggage as Arkham Horror: The Card Game came with, and that’s because it’s an exceptionally clean, fun design. My number 34 is Ethnos, a game that’s popular for not being as popular as it should be.
Designed by Paolo Mori (one of the most underrated designers in the business), Ethnos feels like Ticket to Ride with splashes of Small World in it. It’s a fantasy area control game of collecting sets and playing them on a map and it’s tough to think of a game on my top 100 that moves as smoothly and quickly as this one.
Turns are very simple. Either draw a card (from the deck or a face up display) OR play a set. Playing a set involves you playing a set of either the same color or the same fantasy race and includes a couple of clever wrinkles that help make this game feel so fresh and special.
First up is the leader mechanism. When you play a set, you choose one of the cards to be your ‘leader’, which does two things. One, the location on the card determines where you’re going to put your disc, which is used for area majority purposes. Two, your leader choice determines the special power you get to activate. The cards all represent different fantasy races, all with unique special abilities. Whichever race your leader is, allows you to activate that race’s power.
Another clever aspect of Ethnos’ card play is that the size of the set you must play is determined by the number of discs you have on the location the set is being played to. Your set must contain, at minimum, a number of cards equal to the number of discs on that location. So, if you’re playing a set to add a disc to the blue area and you already have two discs there, your set must contain at LEAST two cards. This is a design choice because it means the stronger you are in a location, the harder it is to get even stronger allowing a natural way for players to catch up and contest it.
The final twist in Ethnos’ Rummy-esque set collection and card play is that when you play your set, ALL remaining cards in your hand are discarded to a face up display. That’s right, years of Ticket to Ride training you to hoard cards like a doomsday prepper with canned beans means absolutely NOTHING here. Keeping cards for the future is useless, so Ethnos is a superbly tactical game of adapting to card draws and figuring out when it’s time to strike and when it’s time to hold out for just oooone more card.
This is made even more tense by the push your luck mechanism that decides when it’s time to move onto the next round. Randomly strewn throughout the second half of the game deck are dragon cards and when the 3rd dragon card is drawn, the round IMMEDIATELY ends. Nobody gets an extra turn to play one last set. Once the first dragon card is drawn, tension immediately descends upon the table like a pop-up Florida thunderstorm, drenching everyone in angst with each draw of a card from the deck. It’s a small but brilliant touch and makes the somewhat simple decisions of Ethnos feel a bit weightier.
The main criticism levied at Ethnos is its theme and aesthetics. It’s got a generic pasted on fantasy theme and look to it, with somewhat dull art that evokes a bygone era of Tolkienesque dwarves, elves and orcs. I will admit the art is somewhat drab looking and could have used some more color and vibrancy, but I take issue with all the other complaints. The fantasy theme doesn’t bother me because I love fantasy so I may be biased, but I wouldn’t even say it’s pasted on. Sure, some of the races have abstract powers, but plenty of them have thematic powers. The Wingfolk fly to anywhere on the map while powerful Minotaurs count as an extra card when cashing in a set. Playing Giants rewards you with playing bigger sets than other players and Skeletons crumble into dust when it’s time to score sets at the end of each round. Could Ethnos have been themed something else? Sure, the theme doesn’t run THAT deep but to call it lazy and pasted on as so many people have is a disservice to this game.
Luckily, the ostensibly tepid sales and outspoken groaning towards the game’s looks and themes hasn’t been enough to kill off Ethnos outright. It’s still in print and plenty of people in the hobby have spread the Gospel about its stellar quality. If you passed by this one because you were turned off by the look, it’s not too late to try this amazing game.
33. Tybor the Builder
While I haven’t reviewed Tybor the Builder, I have briefly discussed it in a previous blog article. That article is here, and it’s a recap of some gaming I did over the course of St. Paddy’s Day weekend in 2019. In that article, I rave about Tybor and it was easily my favorite game from that weekend. Almost a whole year later from that first play and I still absolutely adore this card drafting game.
Tybor the Builder marks the first appearance by Alexander Pfister, who is my second favorite designer in the hobby. This game is an installment in his Oh My Goods Universe, which is kind of like the MCU but instead of superheroes it’s generic European medieval people. I quite like Oh My Goods, the progenitor of this ‘universe’, but some pacing issues keep it from my top 100. Tybor the Builder, however, finds itself firmly implanted here at number 33, mixing simple but tactical decisions with fast flowing, smooth card drafting.
In Tybor, you’re drafting cards and using them to build out a little tableau. The cards in the game are multi use, meaning when you choose one to draft you can do one of multiple things with them. You can either put them at the top of your player board to station them as villagers, which helps with scoring end game points based on symbols they provide as well as providing discounts for buildings. You can hire them as part of your workforce, which allows you to spend them later on building buildings. Which brings me to the last thing you can do: actually building things. After all, it’s called Tybor the Builder, not Tybor the Union Rep. When this is done, you simply discard the card you drafted as well as the necessary amount of strength from your work force and choose a building from a face up display to put in your village. These buildings provide the bulk of your points, as well as the occasional power to activate.
This multi-use card mechanism gives a lot of versatility not seen in other drafting games. It never feels like a card you draft is wasted since you’re always able to use it for something. This also makes hate drafting feel a lot more impactful. In so many drafting games, hate drafting (which is when you take something that’s less useful for you simply to keep it out of the hands of an opponent) feels like you’re punting away your turn and that you’re better off just trying to bolster your own points rather than subtracting potential points from an opponent. In Tybor, hate drafting is a viable option as there’s usually something you can do with the card as well.
I love games that do a lot with very little and that’s very much the case with Tybor. You essentially have three options on your turn but trying to puzzle out the best course is surprisingly satisfying. The game also moves at a very brisk pace, allowing you to build up a village quickly but ending at just the right time.
I don’t have much more to say about Tybor. If card drafting is something you enjoy, it’s tough to find a game that does it better than this one.
I briefly mentioned how much I like pool building in a previous post and deckbuilding is probably the most common/popular form of pool building. It just so happens my number 32, Hardback, is one of my favorite deckbuilders.
Hardback is a word-based deckbuilder that is the spiritual successor to Paperback, which is also a word-based deckbuilder. Both are published by Fowers Games and both are great, but I prefer Hardback to Paperback. I’ll touch on why throughout this entry, but first let’s talk about Hardback on its own terms.
Casting players as Dickensian authors in Victorian times, Hardback is all about trying to build words with cards. The cards in Hardback have letters on them and players must make words with said letters as they also attempt to build a deck that allows them to consistently make even more powerful, higher scoring words. Cards also grant rewards such as points and money, with points getting you closer to winning the game and money allowing you to buy cards to add to your ever-fattening library of letters.
At the beginning of your turn, you draw your hand of five cards (because that is apparently a mandatory rule in every deckbuilder) and that is your selection of letters that you’re trying to make a word with. Can’t make a word with those letters? Don’t worry! Hardback has a very clever mechanism where you can play any card facedown as a wild card with the caveat that you won’t be given the rewards that card grants. This is already one thing that I much prefer over Paperback, where wild cards were actual cards that you had to hope to draw if you wanted to use them. This extra versatility means you’re rarely backed into a corner and trying to decide what cards to sacrifice for wilds is a constant, interesting decision in this game.
Another cool, mechanism in this game is ink. In many deckbuilders, drawing more cards to supplement your hand of five is generally done by playing cards that allow that ability. Not so in Hardback. There is no “Draw ‘x’ amount of cards” action in this game. Instead, you need to buy ink which you can then spend to draw an extra card at a 1:1 rate. The catch is, whatever cards you draw with ink you MUST use in your word. If you’re unable to use the letter(s) you drew in a word, you essentially forfeit your turn. This simple bit of push your luck feels incredibly fresh in this genre and makes yet another thing that I vastly prefer in Hardback over Paperback.
The last great mechanism I’ll discuss is slightly less original, and that’s the idea of building combos in Hardback. In Hardback, each card you buy is part of a genre, such as horror or romance (but really, what’s the difference between those?? *snare roll*). If you combine cards of the same genre within the same word, you often get to activate a bonus ability on those cards, thus encouraging the synergizing of like genres within your deck. Like I said, this is far from original (it’s pretty much lifted straight from another deckbuilder called Star Realms) but the way this combo building is partnered with letters helps make it a little more thoughtful. Sure, you have a couple of cards in the mystery genre in your deck but do you really need another ‘Y’? Building a deck in Hardback isn’t as simple as just blindly buying cards of the same type, because you still need to actually make words with those cards. You’ll be cursing yourself when you have a hand of cards that looks more like the name of a Lovecraftian Old One than an actual word.
Hardback would likely be higher on my list if I played it more in its competitive multiplayer form. Truth be told, I’ve gotten the vast majority of my plays in its solo mode and when I have played it with others, it’s mostly been with the cooperative variant. And while these modes are surprisingly excellent, I can’t help but feel like I’m not playing the game the way it is truly meant to be experienced.
Therefore, I’m quite interested to see where Hardback is next year. I have a feeling it could sneak into my top 25 if I get to play it against others a few more times.
31. Skull King
I’ve had a lot of great trick takers across this top 100 and Skull King is one of the best. The funny thing is that this is one of my highest-rated trick takers on the list and it also happens to be the most traditional trick taker. It’s modeled after a traditional trick taker called Oh Hell, though there are some slight twists to make it its own beast.
Skull King is played over ten rounds, with players being dealt a number of cards equal to the round number (so 1 card for round 1, 2 cards for round 2, and so on). Once everyone gets a good look at their hands, wagering begins and this is where the heart of the game lies. You’re trying to bet the number of tricks you think you can win that round, with big points rewarded for nailing it and increasingly steep penalties for those who are farther away from it.
It’s fair to wonder how one can be expected to precisely predict how many tricks they think they can win with just a passing glance at your hand and guess what? You’re right! But that’s what makes Skull King so fun. Wagering in this game is like jostling a backpack and going, “I think there’s a parachute in here?” before jumping out of plane. You never know if you pull the ripcord and will happily float down to safety or if you will end up popping like a water balloon on the ground.
Skull King is controlled chaos in the best possible way. You can make guesses on what’s in your opponents’ hands by taking note of how aggressive their bid is along with what kind of cards they played so far, using those inferences to better time what cards you play. BUT winning tricks in this game can still feel like trying to grab a brass ring on a merry-go-round as it’s going at 80 miles per hour. When you manage to pinpoint it and nab the exact number of tricks you predicted, it’s an absolute rush. When you don’t, all you can do is laugh at the senselessness of it all and take solace that mostly everybody else is in the same boat as you.
I’m probably making this game sound like it’s just a cacophony of randomness and luck but Skull King is far from it. Like all great trick takers, there is a method to the madness which demands subtle strategy and constantly shifting tactics. There’s almost a push your luck feel to the proceedings as you try to determine when to play your best cards, especially if the titular Skull King, who automatically wins a trick, hasn’t been seen yet.
All in all, Skull King is amazing fun. The fact that it has a pirate theme is great, yes, and suuure, there is a rule that involves everyone yelling, “Yo ho ho!” at the same time but even with these things aside, Skull King is a masterclass in trick taking design.
We’re getting there, people. Just three more posts to go! Next stop: the top 30!