Tag: top 100

Gone, But Not Forgotten: Games That Left My Top 100 (2019 Edition)

Last month, I finished a long (some would say TOO long) project on my blog: my top 100 board games of all time. I started it around towards the end of 2019 and didn’t finish it until March of this year. Perhaps a little embarrassing, especially since I had the year 2019 emblazoned in the title of every post for it. Despite how long it took, I still had a blast doing it and I’m already looking forward to getting a new top 100 together for later this year. It is in the contract of all board game content creators, after all.

However, like anybody with deep seeded abandonment issues, I’m not ready to say bye. I figured I’d do one more bit of content related to my top 100 before I had to actually get creative and think of something else to do. Welcome to Gone but Not Forgotten!

(Which in hindsight, is maybe a pretty depressing title to choose considering the literal pandemic strangling the world at press time.)

In this post, I’m going to highlight games that were on my Top 100 Games of All Time from 2018 but fell out of it by the time I did my 2019 top 100 (which was the one I just featured on my blog). I’m going to describe why it was jettisoned and see if there’s any hope that it may return.

I’m not going to do every single game that left my top 100 because there’s actually a decent number of them and I don’t want this to go on for too long (something I struggled with during my top 100 posts). So, I’m cherry picking the ones that either surprised me the most with their absence and/or had the biggest falls from grace. Let’s get started!

Insider

Insider cover

Previous Ranking: 95

Insider is a social deduction game from beloved Japanese publisher Oink Games. I featured one game from Oink on my 2019 top 100 and that was the fantastic Fake Artist Goes to New York. While Fake Artist is a hidden traitor game meets Pictionary, Insider is a hidden traitor game meets Twenty Questions.

Insider fell from my top 100 for a couple reasons. The biggest one is that it’s in a very crowded social deduction genre. This works against it in a couple ways. One, it’s a genre that feels incredibly same-y from game to game, so once you latch onto a couple of favorites (for me it’s Spyfall, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong and aforementioned Fake Artist) it’s tough to convince yourself to deviate from those. Case in point: I played Insider a few months before making my top 100 and the entire time I was playing it I was thinking, “This is fun, but I’d rather be playing Spyfall/Deception/Fake Artist.”

This is further exacerbated by the fact that social deduction games don’t hit the table that often for me. It is by far the most polarizing genre of games within my game groups. I have multiple friends who flat out refuse to play social deduction games which means if they’re present at game night, none of those games are an option. So, when I finally DO get a chance to pull out a social deduction game, I’m going to make sure it’s one of my favorites and not one that is a tier or two below. Such is the cruel fate beset onto Insider.

Will Insider ever find its way back onto my top 100? I highly doubt it. The reasons I just mentioned for its exclusion are not going anywhere and it’s made even worse by my recent acquisition of Detective Club. Detective Club is a newer social deduction game that focuses on Dixit style cards and clues and it has rocketed up to the top of the list of my favorite social deduction games, along with the other heavyweights I mentioned earlier. An already restrictive field got just that much tighter for Insider, which means its days on my top 100, and possibly in my collection, are over.

Hanabi

hanabi cover

Previous Ranking: 94

Immediately following Insider on my 2018 list was Hanabi. Hanabi is a pretty popular cooperative game in the hobby and it was one of the first games to ever enter my collection. Loyal readers of my 2019 Top 100 may already have a good idea of why Hanabi was booted out: Beyond Baker Street.

Beyond Baker Street is a game that made it into the 60s of my 2019 top 100 and is basically Hanabi, but better. For one, it has a theme I appreciate much more (Sherlock Holmes vs. near sighted mole-people putting together a fireworks display). Two, it has an actual win state whereas Hanabi has what is essentially a high score variant. Listen, I’m not plugging quarters into a Frogger machine at the local arcade; keep your high score chart out of my board games. This fact alone makes Beyond Baker Street the better option for me.

I go into more detail about why I think Beyond Baker Street kills Hanabi in this part of my top 100, so I won’t bother repeating myself. Ultimately though, I can’t remember the last time I’ve played Hanabi since I added Beyond Baker Street to my collection. Because of that, I’d be shocked if Hanabi ever found its way back into my top 100. I respect the brilliance and elegance of its design, which is one of the reasons it’s still in my collection, but it just can’t compete with Beyond Baker Street for actual table time.

Muse

Muse cover

Previous Ranking: 91

Muse is a party game that flew under a lot of radars, despite being part of the immensely popular “Games that have surreal, Dixit style art” category. In this game, two teams are trying to give clues to their teammates in an attempt to get them to guess a specific picture.

The catch: the opposite team not only chooses the picture but also the type of clue the player can give. Clue prompts range from broad (“Name a movie”) to hilariously specific (“Name an appliance/furnishing”). Your opponents are not just trying to pick an awkward, cumbersome clue prompt for you to deal with but also try to pick a picture that collides with the other pictures that will be in the display, making it that much tougher for your teammates to pluck out the one you’re nudging them towards.

I actually really like Muse. I love the concept and I’ve had a good time with it in the few plays I’ve had. The problem: I appear to be the only one in my game group that feels this way.

A common complaint is downtime, which I will admit is enough of a problem that we instituted timers. Since so much of the game is one team quietly whispering to each other as they look at cards and deliberate while the other waits, it can feel like you’re rarely even playing the game. I felt the timer we established did a good job of mitigating this flaw, but even with that the other players seemed to find it to be a ‘meh’ experience.

Considering this is a party game that requires at least four people, that makes it very tough to get to the table. I’ve given up on it and I have this on my ‘sell’ pile. Therefore, unless there are some abrupt, radical changes in opinions on this game among my friends, Muse will likely never return to my top 100.

Concept

Concept cover

Previous Ranking: 89

It’s funny that Concept follows Muse on this list. Whereas Muse is a game I love but my friends didn’t, Concept is the opposite. My friends are crazy about it and it’s one of the most requested party games in my collection. Buuuut, I’m not so jazzed about it anymore.

Now obviously, I like Concept. It was on my top 100 at some point, after all. The problem with Concept is one of burn out.

Concept is a simple game that’s basically Charades, but with pictures. A large board of icons representing certain concepts is used, with clue givers placing out different colored cubes and tokens on the icons to try and get their team to guess what the prompt is. Now, when I first bought Concept, it got played constantly. It was brought out at almost every single game night for a couple months in a row, to the point that I was starting to memorize the prompts. As it traveled from game group to game group, I found myself biting my tongue when somebody started a prompt and I knew what it was by the second cube simply from overplaying the game.

This obviously resulted in me just having less and less desire to play the game. I would sometimes even ‘forget’ to bring the game because I simply wasn’t in the mood to play it. Even casting burnout aside, I also feel the game has some major balance issues. Prompts are either way too easy (‘bubblegum’) or way too hard (‘the way to hell is paved with good intentions’) and the points doled out for them often make no sense for their difficulty.

Funnily enough, I recently got Concept back to the table a couple times over the past few months, ending a long hiatus from the game. The arc was similar to my initial experiences. I went from loving it, not believing I had waited that long to play the game again, to frustration and fatigue. For this reason, I’d be surprised if Concept came back to the top 100. Though I suppose it’s a matter of at what point in my love/hate cycle for this game you find me in.

Oh My Goods!

oh my goods cover

Previous Ranking: 75

Oh My Goods! is an Alexander Pfister design that takes a mere deck of cards and turns it into a satisfying engine builder of crafting supply lines and chaining them together for big points. It’s interesting that Oh My Goods! fell off my list, because at the time I ranked this game in 2018 I hadn’t even played it multiplayer yet. The game managed to get onto my top 100 off the good graces of its solo campaign alone. Fast forward a year and I’ve had the chance to play OMG with actual other humans a handful of times. So is OMG that bad a multiplayer game, that it managed to sink it off the list despite strong impressions from my solo plays??

The answer is sort of yes and sort of no. On the one hand, a big reason OMG is off my list is because I had played soooo many more games between my 2018 and my 2019 top 100 that a lot of games got kicked off just because I had the chance to have so many new experiences. What was ‘great’ in 2018 might seem merely ‘good’ in 2019 after being compared to so many fantastic new games. This is one thing that kept OMG off my top 100. Even though I do like it, it just couldn’t compare with the deluge of excellent games I had the chance to try in between rankings.

BUT on the other hand there is one other niggling issue that kept OMG off my top 100 that it is indeed a flaw with the game that became apparent in multiplayer sessions. This game has a slooooow start. It says 30 minutes on the box, but that’s a lie. Every game I’ve played of this has been at least an hour. And I would say for the first 30 minutes, a.k.a. the time it takes the play the game according to its deceitful packaging, you’re simply building the engine that you’ll run in the second half of the game.

That second half is great. When you’re able to pull the lever on your machine a couple times and watch as cards conveyor down the line of your tableau, getting more and more valuable the farther they go? It’s incredibly gratifying and I’d even argue this is the most satisfying engine builder I’ve ever played from that standpoint. But getting there can be a slog. Constructing the buildings you need to make your engine feels like it can take forever in the early stages, especially if card draws are not kind to you. This isn’t as much an issue in the solo game but in the multiplayer game, it definitely drags.

For those reasons, Oh My Goods! fell off my top 100 and is certainly my least favorite Pfister design. It’s still a good game, but not one that I hold in nearly as high esteem as his other classics.

Captain Sonar

Captain Sonar cover

Previous Ranking: 70

In terms of uniquely visceral, cinematic experiences, I don’t think I’ve played a game quite like Captain Sonar. It’s a real time, team vs. team game of rival submarines trying to sink the other. It’s meant to be an 8-player game, with the two teams boasting four players each and each person having their own specialized, individual job on the sub.

There’s the Captain, who moves the sub around on a grid; the Engineer who is playing a mini puzzle of efficiently crossing out symbols in a spiderweb like network; the Radio Operator who is listening to the other team’s Captain in an attempt to suss out where the enemy sub is; and the First Mate who is…filling up meters? Hey, not all of them can be badass.

It’s a fast paced, frenetic duel of wits, with teammates yelling down the line to each other, torpedoes and bombs exploding, and a hilarious mini game of every player having to initial a part of the sub when it’s time for repairs, making it feel like you’re accepting a FedEx package on a plane that’s careening to the ground. No game will get your pulse pounding like this and by the end of the intense 30-45 minute skirmish, everyone slumps down and pants like they’re in need of a post coital cigarette.

So why on earth did this game fall off the top 100? Well, let’s see. I bought this game at the end of 2017 and the last time I’ve played it was…roughly the end of 2017. This game is borderline impossible to get to the table. As I mentioned, this game plays up to 8 and it honestly is best at 8. You can play with less but you’re not getting the full experience and even then, you’ll need at least 6 to render the game truly playable. This basically locks it down to only playable at parties and guess what: this is NOT a party game. The same people you primarily play Codenames and Just One with are absolutely not going to be ready for Captain Sonar. This is a game with four different jobs which means four different rule sets which is on top of the overall rules that form the framework of the game. The last time I tried to teach this game I had people gaping at me with slack-jawed, open mouths like I had just sacrificed a live goat in front of them. I mean, I had done that, but that was HOURS before the game.

You need experienced, serious gamers to play this game and I can’t remember the last time I had a game day with four ‘gamers’, let alone six to eight. For this reason, Captain Sonar is on my tentative list of games to sell which is likely also a one-way ticket off my top 100 for good.

Coup

Coup cover

Previous Ranking: 68

I love me a good microgame and Coup, a hidden role bluffing game set in a dystopic future, was one of my favorites for a while. I first tried Coup and Love Letter both around the same time, which is fitting since those are probably the two most popular microgames in the hobby. Dedicated readers of my 2019 top 100 will notice, however, that Love Letter is still on my top 100 and Coup is nowhere to be found. What gives?

Quite simply, the more I have played Coup, the more I grew weary of it. It feels very same-y from game to game and bluffing doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding as it does in, say, Skull or Cockroach Poker. In fact, it seems like bluffing is the surest way to get eliminated early, with honest players winning more often than not. I’ll make a bold claim and say that is a pretty big flaw for a BLUFFING game.

There are also many situations, especially in the late game, where players seem like they’re going through the motions, inching along to amass enough coins to eliminate another player. When it’s down to two players, it’s often mathematically clear who is going to win which robs all the suspense and tension out of the game.

Listen, I still like Coup. While I would never suggest playing it anymore, I won’t turn it down if someone else wants to play it. It’s also created some real great gaming memories of daring bluffs resulting in the table erupting in surprise and excitement. But I just don’t think it’s top 100 material anymore, especially with so many excellent new microgames that have outshined and supplanted Coup.

Viral

Viral cover

Previous Ranking: 65

This is perhaps the saddest one for me. I LOVE Viral. It’s an area control game set in the human body, with players controlling armies of viruses that are attempting to control the various organs. Definitely not the best theme for a game in the current times we live in BUT when the world isn’t battling a historic pandemic, it’s such a unique, great theme. It’s also got incredible art from The Miko, one of my favorite artists in the industry, giving it a highly stylized, cartoonish look that instills heaps of charm and personality.

I also love the gameplay itself. It’s got a cool card driven system where players simultaneously play action cards and region cards, meaning you’re trying to figure where best to use your actions while trying to predict what the other players will do so that they can’t interfere with the plans. It has got a vague whiff of programming, which feels fresh in an area control setting.

So, between its theme, art and great gameplay, how the hell did this miss my top 100? Well let’s be fair and say that Viral just baaarely missed it. If I did a top 125, Viral would definitely be somewhere on that list. Like many games that either fell in my rankings or off my top 100, Viral is simply a casualty of not getting played enough. I haven’t played it since, like, the Spring of 2018 and it’s tough to keep a game so highly ranked if you can’t get it to the table. This is something that’s compounded by the sheer number of new games I played between lists.

It’s not from a lack of desire to play, at least on my part. It’s just a tough game to get to the table because you need at least 3 players (there’s a 2 player variant but it sounds awful) and mean, area control games such as Viral are, like social deduction games, incredibly polarizing among my game groups. Anything that involves negative player interaction eliminates a handful of potential players, making it that much tougher to get Viral played.

I think out of all the games on this list, Viral has the best chance of making a triumphant return to my top 100. I really do love the game, I just need to play the damn thing.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Freedom cover

Previous Ranking: 58

This is one that really shocked me. As I was compiling my top 100, I kept wondering when Freedom would show up. And yet, every time I thought Freedom might appear, I just couldn’t talk myself into putting it anywhere on the list.

This is surprising because in terms of sheer design, Freedom is one of the tightest, most well-crafted cooperative games I’ve ever played. And I’ve played a LOT of cooperative games. It’s also a beautifully made package, featuring immersive art and use of real-life photos and portraits to further steep the game in its volatile time period.

The problem with Freedom, and it’s an issue I’ve become more and more aware of the more I play the game, is that it’s not…very…fun? As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the title, this is a game set in the period of slavery in the United States, covering a span of years up through the Civil War. It’s an incredibly dark and harrowing period of history, one that the game deftly handles with respect and care. But as such, it’s tough to get excited playing this game. It’s a melancholy experience that feels almost overwhelmingly stressful from beginning to end. I can’t think of a co-op that puts a knot in my stomach on turn one that doesn’t uncoil till the game is back in the box.

On the one hand, the fact that a game is able to provide this kind of physical and emotional response is a huge credit to its designer and publisher and provides a great piece of evidence supporting the ‘Yes!’ side of the “Are board games art?” debate. On the other, it doesn’t make for an experience I want to go back to again and again and, as such, I rarely have the desire to play this game anymore.

I doubt this game will ever leave my collection because there will be a moment in the future when I want to revisit it. As I said, from a pure game design standpoint it is top shelf quality. But I am skeptical if it will return to the top 100 due to its emotionally heavy, demanding nature.

The Resistance

The Resistance cover

Previous Ranking: 55

The Resistance is perhaps THE quintessential social deduction game in the hobby. Its clean, elegant design makes it an easy starting point for anyone new to the genre and I’ll be the first to admit that this game is genius. It’s an incredibly tense 30-45 minutes of angry accusations, traitorous backstabbing and, wow, just a whole lot of yelling.

But like Insider, The Resistance finds itself in a very crowded space and as much as I respect this game’s razor-sharp design, it also feels a lot more hollow than other games of its type. Unlike other social deduction games which give a solid framework for the arguments that drive their experiences, allowing players to point out concrete evidence to convince others of their pleas, The Resistance often comes down to who is loudest and/or most charismatic.

Sure, there is a logic puzzle underneath the surface of the game, with player decisions providing the jigsaws needed to put it together BUT so much of the information is obfuscated that it rarely feels like you can use actual, yanno, LOGIC to figure it out. It’s like if you were trying to complete a Sudoku with friends but it was torn into different pieces with everyone getting their own and you just have to rely on their word on how to complete it. This brings me back to what I was saying: rarely is a person who cracked the puzzle the winner in The Resistance. It’s whoever was loudest and most obnoxious.

Compare this to Deception: Murder in Honk Kong, which allows players to deduce information based on the cards in front of others. You can actually see evidence that can then be used to zero in on who is lying and who is likely trustworthy. Or my new favorite social deduction game Detective Club, where the players are able to once again use cards to flesh out their defenses as others question them. In The Resistance, it’s all nebulous and so often comes down to players screaming “NUH UH, I’M NOT THE BAD GUY” and “UH HUH, YES, YOU ARE THE BAD GUY” back and forth until either the end of the game or someone collapses, whichever happens first.

I’ve had some great memories playing The Resistance, but it’s ultimately a game that feels more stressful than fun and has been usurped by a handful of other games that I’d rather play. I don’t own The Resistance either, so it’s chances of ever coming back to the top 100 are pretty low.

Paperback

Paperback cover

Previous Ranking: 23

I went into detail in the 40-31 section of my most recent top 100 as to why Paperback is missing. That’s because Paperback has been replaced by its younger sibling, Hardback, a game that was not only on my top 100 but will likely remain there for the foreseeable future.

Both Paperback and Hardback are word based deckbuilders, where players are crafting a deck of cards to create words that will hopefully net them things like money, to buy better cards, and points, which win the game. I played Paperback first and absolutely loved it…but then I played Hardback and I loved it even more.

Again, I do a deep dive into why I prefer Hardback over Paperback in that section of my top 100 so I don’t want to repeat too much of it here. But if you forgot your snorkel, let’s wade through the shallow end and briefly go over a few my points.

For one, I prefer Hardback’s theme (Paperback has a modern-day, pulpy vibe while Hardback sends you to a more Dickensian era of literature). Granted, the theme is just window dressing for both BUT it drives the aesthetics of both games, so it does matter enough to warrant mentioning.

Two, Hardback institutes a system of wild cards that feels much more strategically satisfying and less restrictive. In Paperback, wild cards are specific cards that enter your deck. You just have to hope they come out to use them. In Hardback, ANY card can be a wild. All you have to do is play a letter card facedown and boom. Book that card a plane to Spring Break because that card’s gone wild. However, you lose any abilities or rewards on that card which creates an interesting decision of which cards are worth ditching for creative freedom and which ones should form the groundwork for your word. It not only means you’re not backed into a corner as often as you are in Paperback BUT it adds to the decision space! Win-win.

Three, Hardback has a superior system of drawing new cards into your hand. Paperback simply had cards that let you draw new cards when played, which is pretty standard deckbuilder fare. So, whereas Paperback’s system feels generic, Hardback’s feels unique and exciting. You use leftover crash to grab inkwells which can then be spent to draw new cards…HOWEVER, if you use an inkwell to draw a new card, that card MUST be used in your word or else you forfeit your turn. It adds a suspenseful touch of push your luck, which is my favorite board game mechanism (something I mention no less than, like, 80 times over the course of my top 100).

Finally, both Hardback and Paperback feature surprisingly enjoyable solo and cooperative modes, but Hardback kicks Paperback’s cardboard ass when it comes to this area. Paperback’s cooperative/solo modes feels a bit like an afterthought, something the designer threw in at the last minute that just happened to work pretty well while Hardback’s feel like there was actual design time put into its variant. I still prefer to play this game competitively, but when I’m all by myself (something that happens quite often), it’s great to know that Hardback’s solo mode is an option.

I know some people say Hardback and Paperback are different enough that you can own both. I slightly disagree with that and I honestly can’t see a time when I’d ever choose Paperback over Hardback. Because of that, I just decided to toss Paperback off the list for good and leave Hardback in its place, representing them both in some strange way. Paperback is a great game, no question about that, but there’s only room for one word based deckbuilder from Fowers Games around here, pardner.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories cover

Previous Ranking:  16

The last game on this list is also the one that floored me the most with its absence: Antoine Bauza’s classic co-op Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game of monks defending a village from ghouls and ghosts and unspeakable horrors, getting rid of them as you do with any supernatural threat: by rolling dice and yelling lots of curse words.

Part of what caused in Ghost Stories’ massive fall from grace is just a general change in gaming taste. When I first got into gaming, I rarely played competitive games. It was cooperative games as often as possible and they formed the keystones of my collection. As time has passed though, I have cooled on cooperative games, to the point where I vastly prefer competitive experiences. I still like co-op games, especially if they’re of a certain type (which I’ll get into) but they rarely excite me as much as they once did.

This is especially true for the type of co-op that Ghost Stories is. Ghost Stories is an open information cooperative game, where the game gives you a puzzle that you and your other players need to solve as bad things happen (usually from a deck of cards controlled by the game). I refer to these as ‘Pandemic style’ co-ops. In this case, the puzzle is trying to efficiently ward off ghosts by using special abilities and picking battles that will give you the best odds of success.

These types of co-ops just don’t do anything for me anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m burned out from playing SO many of them when I first got into the hobby, but I just find them a lot more boring than I used to. Since everyone is engaged with the same puzzle with the same information, I tend to disconnect and my mind wanders. Compare this to a limited communication co-op, a subgenre of cooperative game that I am still very much in love with. Think of games in the style of The Mind or The Grizzled, where you HAVE to be engaged because you have information other players don’t. These games kill the Pandemic style co-op for me, and this especially rings true when you consider how many fantastic limited communication co-ops have come out over the past few years.

So, Ghost Stories is already at a disadvantage based on the type of game it is. But I still had Pandemic style co-ops on my top 100 (Dead Men Tell No Tales, Spirit Island and Pandemic itself), so it has to run a bit deeper than that, right? Right you are, dear reader.

You see, I played Ghost Stories somewhat recently and I discovered a pretty fatal flaw: this game is repetitive AF (did I use ‘af’ right? Let me know in the comments). It’s basically just bouncing around the grid of tiles, firing off the same abilities over and over and rolling dice over and over. Rinse and repeat for about an hour. The first couple times you play this game, the repetition is masked by how tense and difficult the game is. As you start to learn the game a bit more and the freshness of the cinematic experience wears off, the game begins to feel mechanical and rote. During that most recent play of Ghost Stories, I found myself repeatedly checking my phone to see the time, and I was constantly eyeballing the deck of cards to see how much more we had to go before the game was over. That’s…not a great sign, huh.

I don’t mean to sound too negative about Ghost Stories. I obviously loved it at one point and I still do really like it. It’s just not nearly the exciting experience it once was, and it’s a game I will only play if someone else requests it. Therefore, despite its once esteemed ranking, I unfortunately wouldn’t expect Ghost Stories to come back to the top 100.

 

*

And there we have it, a collection of games that missed my top 100 despite being on it the previous year. This is not an exhaustive list, as I said. There’s quite a few more that fell off but a lot of them are due to the same reasons (haven’t played it in a while, don’t own it so I can’t replay it, etc.), so I felt repeating the same thing over and over would get annoying after a while. You know, moreso than my blog usually is.

Anyway, this will probably close this chapter on my 2019 Top 100. Unless I figure out a way to milk it even more, I’m likely going to pivot back to normal reviews or lists. Since I’m currently writing this under quarantine, I think I’m going to do a list of my favorite solo games since solo games are becoming pretty useful these days. Either way, stay tuned!

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

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

Let’s get on with it, shall we?

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30-21

20-11

10. Codenames: Duet

codenames duet cover

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

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

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

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

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

9. The Grizzled

the grizzled cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Mr. Jack

mr. jack cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Inis

inis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Grand Austria Hotel

grand austria hotel cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Port Royal

port royal cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Raptor

raptor cover

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Codenames 

codenames cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Scythe

scythe cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………..wait for it……….

 

 

……….it’s coming………

 

 

………..almost there!………

 

 

…………here it is……………

 

 

……….ARE YOU READY……………..

 

 

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

1. Viticulture: Essential Edition

viticulture cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

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

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

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

 

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 20-11

We cracked my Top 25 like the shell of a giant board game egg in my last post and now the yolk of it is running all over the place, oh god, it’s so messy. Let’s carry on with it before it gets all over our pants.

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30-21

 

20. Blood Rage

Blood Rage cover

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.

19. Hanamikoji

Hanamikoji cover

I love myself a good small card game, especially when they’re designed for just two players. Hanamikoji has the honored distinction of being my favorite two player card game, sitting right here at spot 19. In this game, players are rival businesses in the Japanese district of Hanamikoji, trying to win over geisha to come perform at their venue. What ensues is one of the most bloodthirsty, agonizing 15-20 minutes of your life.

Hanamikoji is a microgame, so it’s basically just a deck of cards and some tokens. Every round you and your opponent will play four actions. Both players have access to the same actions, but they can be played in any order. One action involves the player stashing away a card for scoring at the end of the round while another has the player secretly burning two cards to be removed from the round. The other two actions are of the ‘I Split, You Choose’ variety. One has you displaying three cards to your opponent and they get to pick one, with the other two going to you. The last action forces you to make two pairs of cards and, once again, show them to your opponent to get first dibs on which one they want.

As you accumulate cards through these actions, they are placed on the geisha that they represent. Whoever has majority of the cards for that column wins that geisha. You’re either trying to win four of the seven geisha or earn 11 ‘charm points’ (each geisha is worth a certain amount) worth of geisha.

It’s so simple but so terrifying to play this game. Every action feels like it’s going to help your opponent and hurt you and somehow your opponent feels the EXACT same way. It brings shades of games like Lost Cities and Arboretum, which both showed up in my 80-71 section. Every action feels like it’s working against you, you never want to commit to one and it feels like no matter what order you choose to play them in will be suboptimal. Playing the ‘I Cut, You Choose’ actions early feels like a gamble because you have so much less information about what your opponent might have in their hand. You could be gift wrapping them the exact cards they need and be completely ignorant. But playing these actions late means you may be divvying cards that are a lost cause by then. On the flip side, completing the actions that involve storing and burning cards seems silly to do early because you don’t know what geisha you will be aiming to win, making it feel like you’re just firing from the hip with a blindfold. Wait too long, however, and you may end up storing a card you have no interest in or burning cards that have suddenly become important to you.

All of this angst and horror is distilled into a suffocating 15-20 minutes, giving Hanamikoji a more potent punch than many games three or four times its length. I love when small card games put you through torture, as I made clear when discussing Lost Cities and Arboretum way back when, and there’s no other card game that demands a blood sacrifice quite like Hanamikoji. It’s such a superb design and will likely be in my top 25 for quite a while.

18. Biblios

biblios cover

From one nerve-wracking small card game to another, my number 18 is Biblios. Biblios was one of the first full reviews I’ve done on this blog, which you can check out right here. It’s one of the first card games I fell in love with and it continues to be one that I want to get to the table again and again.

In Biblios, you are living through everyone’s biggest power fantasy by donning the cowl of a medieval monk and trying to create the best damn library around. If that doesn’t get your pulse racing, then you’re probably a pretty normal person. But don’t worry about the theme (even though I secretly like it because I’m a weirdo). The real magic in Biblios comes from its gameplay.

Biblios is simply a set collection game at its heart but where it blossoms into a beautiful monk shaped flower is in its unique structure. The game is divided into two phases. There is a card drafting round known as the Gifting Phase where you’ll be gaining and divvying up cards, and then an auction round where you’ll be buying even more cards in an auction format.

First, the Gifting Phase. During this phase, players draw cards from the deck and must do the following: keep a card, give a card to the other players and put a card into the auction deck to be auctioned off in the following phase. The cards are either gold cards to use for the auction, cards that control the dice that mark the point values for the different colors in the game and then the cards of said colors.  The key here, however, is that players draw these cards one at a time and must decide immediately what to do with it. If you draw a high value blue card, do you keep it? What if you’re not working to collect blue? Do you willingly give it to another player, knowing it’ll greatly help them out? Or do you just stow It away in the auction deck, waiting for Future You to deal with it? Every card draw in this phase feels like a mini game of push your luck, trying to decide what to do with each card so that you don’t end up getting stuck with something crappy or giving your opponent something amazing.

The next phase is just a straightforward auction but it’s no less intense. The gold you accumulated in the Gifting Phase is used to buy the cards from the player crafted auction deck, with everyone raising their bid or bowing out to save up for the next card. Even if you made an effort to get a nice, fat stack of gold, it feels like you’re always on the precipice of being completely broke. It’s a tightrope walk of getting good value for cards you want while making sure your opponents don’t get things they need for cheap. This often results in you feeling like you’re overspending or letting your opponents get cards too easily and, like Hanamikoji, the brilliance is that your opponents are thinking the same thing.

Every turn and decision is loaded with anxiety and panic, which culminates in a climactic reveal. At the end, players reveal their hands to see how much of each color they have, which then shows which colors they’ve essentially ‘won’. Points are awarded based on what the die of that color says and whoever has the most points, wins. It’s always a surprising and thrilling revelation, a dramatic release of tension like a slingshot snapping a rock through a window after being held for twenty straight minutes.

I’ll end this by saying that even if you find the theme of monks and libraries to be empty and boring, you’d be doing a disservice to Biblios to not play it. It’s such a superbly designed game with two unique halves that somehow flow together seamlessly. Try it out, Biblios is amazing.

17. Arctic Scavengers

Arctic Scavengers cover

Like a handful of other games on this list, Arctic Scavengers is a game that I would have likely ignored had it not been for an amazing Shut Up & Sit Down review of it. Its cover is horrifically bland, its name is so generic it causes me physical pain and, at the time, I had no idea what a deckbuilder was. But their review was so intriguing and did such a good job of introducing the concept of a deckbuilder that I had to try it. At that point, Arctic Scavengers was my first ever deckbuilder and, to this day, it remains my favorite.

Arctic Scavengers plunges players into a future where climate change has resulted in a second ice age which I guess means it takes place ten years from now. Players will be crafting a deck that represents their tribe trying to survive in this harsh world, with cards representing various tribe members, tools and weapons. The end goal is to have the most tribe members in your deck by the end of the game, which is an interesting twist on deckbuilding. Most deckbuilders reward you for creating razor thin, streamlined decks that you can churn through in one turn, recreating powerful combos like the world’s nerdiest version of déjà vu. But in Arctic Scavengers, you’re looking to stuff your deck to the brim with tribe members, sometimes sacrificing the ability to fall back on reliably drawing synergies in order to just load up on victory points. It’s an interesting balance and creates a fresher, more tactical experience compared to the more mechanical Dominion clones out there where it feels like you’re simply trying to program a scoring algorithm.

The cool twists don’t end there. Another neat wrinkle is how Arctic Scavengers treats trashing cards from your deck. Most deckbuilders offer avenues for you to discard less useful cards to make it more likely for you to get your more powerful ones in a draw. The thing is, you usually need a card that allows you to trigger that ability to trash stuff, meaning you have to wait to get that card and a card you’re willing to trash in the same hand. Arctic Scavengers wants none of that ‘waiting’ nonsense and, hilariously, allows you to trash cards whenever you want. You simply take any cards from your hand that you don’t want and then send them to a communal deck of cards known as the junkyard, which players can sift through to find potentially useful stuff (including the cards you just sent there!).

I love this for a couple reasons. One, it obviously gives a lot more freedom. Is there a card gumming up your deck? Just get it right out of there whenever the hell you want. Two, this card isn’t permanently out of the game. As I said, it simply goes to the junkyard where other players may happen upon it. Every deck starts out with semi-useless refugee cards, who count as tribe members but can’t do anything without the help of a tool. This makes them very inefficient for the start of the game, meaning players channel their inner Republicans and banish them out of their deck for not earning their keep. Hysterically, as the game starts to wind down, players often go back to the junkyard looking for the very refugees they banished earlier, trying to nab them for their points.

(That has to be a very awkward walk home from the junkyard with the refugee shuffling along with trash stuck to them as you cheerfully say, “Hey, sorry about that whole exile thing.”)

Yet another neat mechanism that Arctic Scavengers employs is its multi-use cards. Deckbuilders tend to have cards with very specific functions, while the cards in Arctic Scavengers can be used for a variety of things. The trick is, however, some cards are better at certain actions than others. For example, the Scout is good for drawing extra cards but less useful in other areas while the Brawler is great for fighting (more on that in a bit), but not so helpful otherwise. It feels like you’ll never have a useless hand, something that can’t be said for a lot of other deckbuilders. Even if you aren’t able to use a card for its more effective action, you can pair it with others to help strengthen some other action. Granted, there are still cards that can’t do certain actions so there may be moments of ineffective draws BUT even then you can find uses for those cards.

This comes in the form of the final mechanism that I think REALLY separates Arctic Scavengers from other deckbuilders: the skirmish. Every round, someone peeks at a card from a deck known as the Contested Resources. Contested Resources are powerful cards that aren’t available to buy in the public display. Winning one is often a huge boon to your deck. After players play cards from their hand on their turn, they then take any leftover cards they want to save for the skirmish and put them facedown in front of them. Hell, you can put your entire hand face down if you want to. When the skirmish occurs, everyone flips their cards over and calculates their ‘fight’ rating, which is essentially an action just like everything else on the card. Whoever has the highest fight rating wins the Contested Resource and secretly adds it to their discard pile to become a part of their deck.

I love the skirmish because it adds interaction and an element of bluffing. As much as I love deckbuilders, they can often be multiplayer solitaire affairs, with an occasional ‘take that’ card to add some forced ‘interaction’. Arctic Scavengers is very interactive thanks to the skirmish, with everyone keeping an eye on how many cards their opponents have devoted to the end of the round brawl. This also adds some slight bluffing, as I intimated earlier. Have a bad hand? Devote it all to the skirmish and watch with glee as you win a Contested Resource with nothing but two shovels, two pickaxes and a bottle of pills. On the flip side, if it’s your turn to see the Contested Resource and you know it’s something good, putting down just one or two good cards for the skirmish might make others think it’s nothing worth fighting for, letting you pull off a cheap win. It’s such a cool, unique part of this game that I’ve never seen in any other deckbuilder and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I love this game so damn much.

If you don’t trust me, it’s worth noting Arctic Scavengers is one of the most requested games in my collection. If I’m having a gaming weekend with friends I don’t see that often, Arctic Scavengers is almost always brought up. This makes its lack of popularity in the hobby all the more baffling. If you skipped out on Arctic Scavengers, it’s never too late to try what I believe to be the best deckbuilder around.

16. 7 Wonders: Duel

7 Wonder duel cover

In my 60-51 section I discussed 7 Wonders, one of the most popular and influential card drafting games in the industry. As much as I love 7 Wonders, it doesn’t quite measure up to its 2-player only version, 7 Wonders: Duel. Antoine Bauza, the designer of 7 Wonders, is joined by none other than Bruno Cathala for this game, which makes a lot of sense since Cathala is perhaps the best designer of 2-player only games in the hobby.

In this version of 7 Wonders, the pick and pass card drafting system that has been mimicked by so many other games is now replaced with a public draft from a card display. Cards are put into a specific shape (which changes round to round) with some cards being dealt face up and some being dealt face down. The cards are displayed in such a way that cards overlap each other, which plays into which cards are available for you to take on your turn. On your turn, you simply take one card and either put it in your civilization, discard it for gold, or burn it to build a wonder. Very much like the original 7 Wonders, but what makes this one superior to the original is its tactical back and forth nature.

Like some sort of empire building based ping pong, you and your opponent are constantly trading volleys, taking quick turns to draft the card that best suits your current and potential future needs. The drafting system is brilliant because it adds an exceptional puzzle element. You can look ahead up the shape to see what will be available based on what cards your or your opponent take. When a card is no longer overlapped, it becomes available to draft and if it’s a face down card then it also gets revealed. The tension that comes from trying to figure out what you want to make available for your opponent haunts every decision like Casper the Min-Max Ghost. Flipping over a facedown card is always a gamble because if it’s something that could greatly help your opponent, they’ll just snatch it right up on their turn.

This is further amplified by the three different win conditions in the game. If the game ends after three rounds, it’s just simply about counting victory points in your civilization to see who scored more. BUT there are ways the game can end abruptly before that point with either a Military Victory or a Science Victory.

The Military Victory is a constant tug of war between the opponents. There is a military track with a shield pawn that moves towards the players and if the shield ever ends up in your city, then you’ve immediately lost. The shield is moved by simply taking cards with the shield icon, allowing you to move the shield as many spots as there are icons towards the opponent.

Meanwhile, the Science Victory is about collecting symbols. On certain cards in the game there are scientific symbols and if a player ever collects six unique symbols they automatically win the game through a Science Victory. To further tantalize players to grab these symbols, players get a reward token if they collect two of the same symbol, which often grant some sort of special power or action.

The addition of these two automatic win conditions is such an ingenious touch. It expands the decision space to include more things that just “grab resources and points” and forces your opponent to have to play defense. If you take a couple of military cards in a row and start bearing down towards your opponent’s side of the military track, they suddenly have to shift their own strategies to deny you shields. This opens up your opportunity to start grabbing cards they have to ignore in their quest to deny you the Military Victory. Same goes for the Science Victory which seems very tough to get at first, but surprisingly snowballs when opponents don’t properly defend it. It seems like every game I’ve played of this comes down to one of the players needing just one card to complete the victory, making the last round an absolute nail biter. Facedown cards could be just the card your opponent needs to trigger the win condition, putting even more emphasis on the order in which cards are drafted.

Every time I play 7 Wonders: Duel I am reminded of just how brilliant and great it is. It truly is one of the best two player only games in the hobby and one that should be in everybody’s collection, whether you have the original or not.

15. Five Tribes

five tribes cover

I just got done discussing one of Bruno Cathala’s co-designs, so let’s move onto one that he did all by himself: Five Tribes. Considered by many to be Cathala’s magnum opus, Five Tribes takes the ancient game mechanism of mancala and puts it into a midweight strategy game that will turn your brain into slush (in the best possible way, of course).

Set in an Arabian Nights style setting, players will be guiding meeples around a grid using the aforementioned mancala mechanism, activating the special actions granted by the Five Tribes (hey, that’s the name of the game) of Naquala (hey, that kinda sounds like mancala). Meeples will be randomly strewn about the grid of tiles, looking like someone set off a bomb underneath eight boxes of Carcassonne. On your turn, you take a group of meeples and walk it on a path, dropping meeples off along the way. The last meeple you drop off allows you to grab all meeples of that color from the tile and activate the tribe ability associated with that color.

I won’t go too deep into all the tribes, but they let you do things like grab cards from a marketplace, buy Djinns which grant victory points and special powers, and kill other meeples. In addition to the tribe actions, the tiles themselves have actions which are also activated, meaning you have to think not only about what tribe is the most profitable but what location tile would be great to pair it with. Considering the sheer amount of possibilities every turn gives you, with every potential group of meeples you can grab and airdrop around like Santa tossing presents from his sleigh having strong ramifications for the next turn, you can see why this game is described as puzzle-y. In fact, some could argue it’s a bit too puzzle-y. While I have yet to experience the pleasure of playing this with a person prone to analysis paralysis, I can certainly see this being a nightmarish slog if someone had to min/max every single permutation.

Since I don’t have to deal with that, I become hopelessly engrossed in Five Tribe’s Rubik’s Cube of a game state every time I play it. Mapping out which paths I should take and which ones would give me a good return on points is never not satisfying and being able to pull off a huge turn that gives you a boatload of points is an absolute rush. I can’t think of a game where I get more excited for my turn to come up because I know that it’s going to be a blast to try and figure out.

It’s no surprise I love this game. Five Tribes is like a Greatest Hits album of Bruno Cathala’s design traits: it’s incredibly puzzle-y, as I mentioned; It is one of the most tactical games I’ve ever played, with players being forced to adapt and react based on what the person on the turn before them did; It’s got lots of fun powers in the form of its Djinn cards; It’s just the right length, never outstaying its welcome yet giving you a good sense of getting lots of things done. I have mentioned countless times that Cathala is my favorite designer and while this isn’t my favorite Cathala game, I can’t think of a game that better reflects why he’s my favorite designer.

If you love a good puzzle in your board games, there’s no easier recommendation than Five Tribes. It’s a game I expect to be in the top 20 portion of this list the next few years.

14. Decrypto

Decrypto cover

Word association party games are, as the kids say, my jam. Plenty of them have already popped up in my top 100 and my number 14 is one of the best in the industry: Decrypto.

I have been filled with both excitement and dread to talk about this game. I’m excited because this game is such an amazing and clever design. I’m dreading it because, despite it being a simple game to play, it is a disaster to try and explain. I will do my best but please…have a little pity.

I already briefly mentioned Decrypto earlier in this top 100, when I discussed the game Cross Talk in my 70-61 section. Cross Talk is a word game where you’re trying to give hints to get your team to guess a word, but you don’t want your hints to be too on the nose because the other team gets first crack at it. Decrypto shares this ‘give vague but good hints’ DNA, but in a slightly more involved fashion.

This is a team vs. team game, as many of these games tend to be. Each team has a board propped up in front of them that only they can see. The board has four slots, each filled with a different word card. So, let’s say the words are ‘bear’, ‘ogre’, ‘beach’ and ‘kitchen’. The slots have a number so each of those words correspond to a number 1-4.

The active clue giver draws a card with a 3-number code that their team must guess. Let’s say they draw ‘3.2.1’. That means they need to give clues for beach, ogre, and bear, IN THAT ORDER, so that their team can guess the numbered code. Players guessing never say the words out loud, they say the numbers associated with the words that they believe their clue giver is trying to get across and in the order of the clues given. So, the clue giver can say ‘sand’, ‘Shrek’, and ‘grizzly’ to get their team to say “3, 2, 1.”

HOWEVER.

The clue givers do NOT want to give clues that obviously point towards something because, much like Cross Talk, the other team gets first dibs on intercepting the code. The first turn there is no intercepting codes, it’s just saying clues to provide a baseline. But after that, any clues that sound like they might be related to previous clues allows opponents to cross examine and nail down what the mystery word may be. For example, if the clue givers (which alternates every round) give the clues, ‘grizzly’, ‘polar’ and ‘cave’ for the word ‘bear’, there is a very good chance the opponents will zero in on that being something bear related. From that point on, anything else they think may be bear related, they will be sure to guess the number ‘1’ when they try to intercept the code. If the opposing team intercepts two of your codes, they win the game.

You’re probably thinking, then just be as vague as possible to confuse the other team….which is half right. You DO want to be vague so that the team can’t intercept BUT if your own team can’t figure out what you’re trying to say, then you get a failure token. And guess what? If you get two failure tokens, the other team wins the game. This creates a brutally tight balance between being obvious enough for your team to correctly guess the codes but being vague enough to prevent opposing team from catching the scent.

There are few games as nerve-wracking as Decrypto. The margins of error are ruthlessly thin and the slightest slip up can blow your whole game wide open. It feels like the other team is a flock of vultures circling overhead, just waiting for your team to collapse under the pressure so it can pick on your remains. In this tension, however, comes some of the most satisfying gaming moments I’ve ever experienced. When you do manage to sneak something by your opponents and your team immediately picks up on it, you feel like a genius. When you detect a subtle trend from the other team and intercept a code, you feel like Alan god damned Turing. There is no game that makes you feel as clever as Decrypto and the euphoric rush that gives you is hard to come by elsewhere in the hobby.

Also, Decrypto feels surprisingly thematic. As great as industry darling Codenames is, and while it may or may not show up on later this Top 100, it feels like an abstract exercise in word association. The spy theme is completely pasted on. Not so in Decrypto. Sporting an early Cold War aesthetic, this game makes you feel like you’re all codebreakers as you huddle with your team, desperately trying to get a leg up on the opponents in hushed whispers. It further adds to the endless suspense this game provides and, while it can be exhausting if the game is drawn out, it’s mighty impressive for a word-based party game to pull this off.

Decrypto is a game that I can easily see sneaking into my top 10 at some point. The main reason it’s not this year is simply because I don’t play the game quite as often as I’d like. I just mentioned that this game can be exhausting and that is perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t see the table as often as other games of this ilk. It’s for a very specific crowd and a very specific mood. But when those two things combine and Decrypto does get pulled out, it is a truly amazing experience.

13. Kemet

Kemet cover

In my 40-31 section I discussed a game called Cyclades, a troops on a map game set in Ancient Greek mythology. I also mentioned that it was part of a trilogy and that there was a chance the other two games may show up on my list. Now we’re here! Kemet is my number 13 and the second installment of the trilogy from publisher Matagot.

Kemet trades Cyclades’ Greek mythology and auction mechanism for Egyptian mythology and an action selection system. Players will be selecting actions on a player board and then using action points to referred to as prayer points (or PP *chortle*) to activate them. These actions including adding soldiers, moving soldiers, upgrading your different pyramids or buying tiles that grant special powers. The player board has a pyramid shape with three rows, with a rule stating that you must end your round with an action token on each row. This prevents you from spamming an entire row and forces you to consider the timing of certain choices, so you don’t back yourself into a corner and take a suboptimal action at the end just to satisfy this rule. It’s rare that anyone does find themselves being screwed up so the puzzle here is pretty minimal but it’s still an interesting layer to add to another wise standard action selection mechanism.

Managing your actions and your PP (tee hee) economy are certainly fun problems to wrestle with, but what makes Kemet truly special is its tech tree system. I mentioned earlier that one of the actions you can do is buy tiles that give you special powers, creatively called ‘power tiles.’ The tiles come in three flavors: strawberry, blueberry and vanilla. Or, red, blue and white. Red focuses on attacking and favors aggressive strategies while blue is all about defense, making you an unfavorable target for others to attack. White is all about your action point economy, giving you discounts and more bang for your prayer buck. The types of tiles available to you are determined by the level of your pyramid for that color. If you only have a level 1 red pyramid, you only have access to level 1 red powers.

Figuring out which strategies you want to focus on and then crafting your war engine to fit that via power tiles is unbelievably fun and exciting. It’s easily my favorite part of this game, giving everyone their own asymmetrical feel. What makes this asymmetry special is that YOU chose those powers and YOU crafted your arsenal of weapons, giving a feeling of ownership that other games don’t offer. Most other games of this type that offer special powers dump it on your lap like unwanted paperwork and says, “Here, you’re good at attacking so only do that, have fun.” Not so in Kemet. If you’re looking to pick fights and be an ancient Egyptian bully, you pick the powers to do so. If you want to create an economy engine of action efficiency and creating a surplus of prayer points, then it’s up to you to figure out how to get there. Did I mention there were also monsters you could recruit? Yep, there’s monsters with their own miniatures that become yours and ONLY yours when you take their corresponding tile, once again instilling a satisfying sense of ownership that I have yet to see another game come close to.

Outside of this addictive retail therapy that you get from shopping for powers and abilities, the actual things happening on the board are also fun and exciting. The whole point of the game is to get to 8 victory points and one of the most effective ways to get there is by consistently winning battles in which you’re the attacker. This makes Kemet an incredibly aggressive, bloodthirsty game and I absolutely love it. There’s barely any build up before people are already in each other’s faces and this game probably beats the record for most curse words said in its opening ten minutes. The combat can be a little fiddly, which is probably my biggest complaint with Kemet, but that doesn’t stop the near constant fighting from being cinematic and thrilling.

Kemet obviously isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like games where you are always threatening to destroy other players things or you’re not a fan of having things taken from you, you should probably stick to more relaxing and peaceful fare. Conflict adverse players need not apply, but if you DO like that sort of gameplay, and enjoy a little bit of Euro fixings in your troops on a map games, Kemet is one of the best in the hobby.

12. Bohnanza

Bohnanza cover

Let’s go from battling it out in Ancient Egypt with giant scorpions and war elephants and mummies and go to…trading beans? The hell?

Yes, my number 12 is Bohnanza, a game all about trading beans with each other. Woe be to the person who decides to neglect this game because they don’t think that sounds exciting. Don’t feel too bad though, I was there once too.

When I first got into gaming and started to learn more about the different games available in the hobby, Bohnanza was a game I saw repeatedly mentioned. Looking into it, I saw some somewhat ugly cover art and that it was about trading beans and thought, “Nah, I’m good.” Fast forward a year or so to me surfing through YouTube looking for something gaming related to watch, because that’s what my life has become, when I saw that the YouTube series ‘Game Night!’ had an episode where they played Bohnanza. Curious as to why this game got so much attention and love, I gave it a watch.

Literally twenty minutes into the video, I paused it and bought a copy of the game on Amazon. It looked that fun.

Turns out, it is that fun! The first few times I played Bohnanza it was an absolute blast and I wondered how long the fun would last before it started to feel same-y. That time has yet to come and every time I play Bohnanza, I love it a little bit more. It’s just so, so good and so, so fun.

Bohnanza is actually the brainchild of Uwe Rosenberg who is more known for his midweight to heavy worker placement games, usually about farming in some way. This game is still about farming (what a surprise), but it is most certainly not a worker placement game. Bohnanza is a fast paced, frenetic card game of wheeling and dealing to get the best possible payouts for various beans you will be collecting.

The cards in the game represent various beans which go into your bean fields, planted there until you eventually decide to sell them. Only one type of bean can go in a field, so deciding when to sell them to make room for a new bean is a crucial sticking point in the game. The beans have increasing payouts for your beans when you sell them, obviously goading you to keep collecting and collecting till you maximize profit. This would all seem quite simple if it wasn’t for Bohnanza’s most important rule.

That rule I so expertly teased right there? In Bohnanza, unlike in pretty much every card game since the dawn of card games, you can NOT move the cards around in your hand. They go in one way and out the other, like they’re being placed on a conveyor belt. At the start of your turn, you must always plant the first bean in your hand. Does that bean help you? No? Too bad! It needs to go in a field and if that means ripping up the precious plot of stink beans you’ve been working so hard to cultivate than that’s tough luck.

Because of this, Bohnanza is all about manipulating your hand so that the beans you want to plant stick around and move down the line while the less favorable ones don’t get anywhere near your fields. This is done through trading. On your turn, you get a chance to trade with the other players and this is how you manage your hand without actually reordering it. Any beans that you give to others are immediately handed over, allowing the rest of the beans in your hand to inch forward like they’re at the bean DMV.

This, of course, causes the table to erupt into a storm of negotiations, with every player trying to get the better end of the deal. The amazing part is that Bohnanza manages to conceal the ‘better end’ of a deal because people are going to value certain beans more than others. Sure, it seems like 3 wax beans and a chili bean for one cocoa bean is lopsided, but if you take into account the rarity of cocoa beans and the bind that the cocoa player might be stuck in if they can’t get an extra one and suddenly it’s a little more opaque. There will definitely be moments when players get downright swindled or when a player is so desperate that they start donating beans to others just to unjam their hand, but the game moves by so quickly that it’s tough to cry foul too often.

There’s not much more to say about Bohnanza besides the fact that it’s just one of the most consistently fun games in my collection. Like Arctic Scavengers earlier in this post, this is also one of the most requested games I own. Friends of mine are always asking for ‘the bean game’ or ‘Beanboozled’ (because that’s apparently what they remember the name as). If I want to play a game as often as I want to play Bohnanza and if my friends want to play it as often as they do, then what else do you need to know? Bohnanza is freaking great.

11. Skull

Skull cover

Here we are, at the end of this section and just at the goal line of my top 10. Which game gets the distinct honor of being my number 11, just barely missing the top 10? That game is the bluffing masterpiece known as Skull.

In terms of rule set and components, Skull is perhaps one of the simplest and most bare bones (HAH) entries on this top 100. It’s just some coasters and playing mats, something that could easily be proxied with playing cards or actual coasters at a bar or brewery. But from this simplicity blossoms one of the most lively and addicting games I’ve ever played.

In Skull, everyone has four coasters: three with a flower on it, one with a skull. To start off the round, everyone simultaneously chooses one of their coasters to put face down on their mat. Then the active player gets things started proper by making a choice. They either place another coaster face down, ending their turn, OR they make a wager. When they make a wager, they say, “I can flip over X amount of coasters without hitting a skull” with X being any number of coasters out on the table. Then, bidding begins. The rulebook says you should go in turn order, raising bids one at a time or passing like many auction games BUT I personally prefer a more freeform, yelling based approach. It seems like that tends to be the popular opinion on the internet as well. Regardless of your favored method, people keep bidding till somebody makes a bid that no one wants to top. When that happens, they need to put their money where their overeager mouth is and start flipping.

One of the twists of Skull starts here. When you begin flipping coasters, you MUST start with your own. This means that if you have a skull and you were simply trying to raise the bid to goad others into making careless, panicked wagers, then you’re going to have a bad time. If you make it past your own coasters safely, you then begin flipping other coasters around the table. You can go in any order and flip over any coasters you want, as long as it’s the topmost on any player’s pile. If you make your wager without hitting a skull, you get a point! If you DO hit a skull, you immediately stop and lose your wager. You lose a random coaster as punishment and a new round begins. First to two points wins!

There’s Skull. That’s it. You could literally play this game right now with stuff lying around you. And yet, it’s tough to find a game that elicits more emotion and shouting and laughter and memorable moments than this game. The meta that develops and evolves over the course of the game (or multiple games) is hysterical. My group has people who are the reckless gunslingers, making wild bets and gambles as they fire from the hip, trying to earn a point with a daring wager. When they do land a shot, it’s always a cheer worthy moment, even though it’s not a point for you. On the other side, we have the stoic sentinels who sit silently, constantly putting down skulls so that players fail their wager when they foolishly flip one of their coasters (“They can’t have possibly put down a skull AGAIN”, we say as we flip over the coaster to promptly reveal a skull). What’s amazing though is that among all the laughter and hilarity is a superbly tense game of playing odds and trying to get into your opponents’ heads. This game has a wicked set of fangs to it, even if they’re revealed through a jovial grin.

This game can be hit or miss depending on the group you play it with, but I’ve had it hit FAR more often than miss. And when it does hit, it is an absolute riot. I have begun and ended many a game night with Skull and it is quite possibly the most played game in my collection.

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Holy crap, we’re almost there! We’re almost at the Top 10! Come back next week to see it!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 30-21

We’re driving down the highway of my top 100, the air blowing through the windows as the fresh smell of cardboard and plastic from amazing board games wafts in. What’s that ahead? Is that an exit for the top 30 of my top 100? Let’s take it, shall we?

Here is the beginning of the end, my 30-21.

RECAP:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30. Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye cover

My 2nd favorite designer, Alexander Pfister, made his first appearance on my last post with his excellent card drafting game Tybor the Builder. Here he is making a swift return with his Scottish themed tile layer, Isle of Skye.

In Isle of Skye, players are Scottish chieftains aspiring to be king/queen, which is done by building out your kingdom in a way that satisfies as many scoring objectives as possible. One of the many cool things about this game is that what scores points changes from game to game. Some games the people REALLY want livestock to be surrounding their homes like they’re zombies in a Romero movie while other games they’re obsessed with ships and in others they want a very long, winding road because they’re presumably huge Beatles fans. As if the randomization of scoring objectives wasn’t enough, the order in which they’re scored varies from game to game too. Different rounds have different scoring objectives, which not only makes for a lot replayability but also creates many interesting choices on how to pace the construction of your kingdom. Do you focus on getting lots of little points for the short term in the early rounds or do you spend time building up towards later game objectives to get a large swath of points then?

But the REALLY cool thing in Isle of Skye is how you procure tiles. At the beginning of every round, players draw three tiles and then secretly price them behind a player a screen. One tile gets the literal ax, being discarded back to the tile bag while the other two get any amount of gold that you can spare. When players reveal their prices it’s time to go shopping, Scottish clan style! Every player has a chance to buy a tile from another player by paying the cost they’ve set. If someone takes one of your tiles, you not only get their money BUT the gold you put out to set the price in the process. You essentially gain double the value that YOU set for it! BUT if somebody doesn’t pay for your tile, you are forced to discard the gold you used to set its price, essentially paying for it for yourself. This creates a fascinating mix of auction and ‘I Cut, You Choose’ mechanisms that never fails to fill your stomach with bubbles of dread. Price a tile too low and somebody will snatch it away from you and it’ll feel like you didn’t even get a good return on it. Price it too high though and you may end up paying more for it then you would have liked. It’s even worse if it’s a tile YOU personally want. How high of a paywall do you put on the tile to prevent others from getting it without bankrupting yourself? It’s mortifying and delightful at the same time.

Between Isle of Skye’s dynamic scoring system and its intriguing and unique auction mechanisms, this was an easy pick to be in the top 30. I always look forward to playing it again and would be shocked if it wasn’t around this same spot next top 100.

29. Tricky Tides

Tricky Tides cover

On my last post I talked about Skull King, an amazing trick taking game that I made special care to call “one of my favorite” and not “my favorite” trick taking game. That’s because my favorite all time trick taking game is right here at number 29: Tricky Tides.

A common thread among the trick taking games on this top 100 are that they usually involve some sort of hook or twist that shakes the trick taking formula like a bottle of Snapple. Such is the case with Tricky Tides, which perhaps has the biggest twist of all. The curveball in Tricky Tides’ arsenal? It’s not only a trick taker, but it’s also a pick up and deliver game. Insert Chris Pratt surprised face gif here.

I’ve already raved about Tricky Tides in a full length review this past summer. I loved it so much, I just had to talk about it, so click here to soak it in like a pirate thrown overboard.

The ‘long story short’ version is that players are moving ship tokens around a chain of islands, picking up goods and delivering them to score contracts. The way in which players move is determined by the tricks played. Cards have a compass on them with certain directions highlighted and when you play that card, those are the directions in which you can move the ship. When you move the ship and arrive at an island, you can either take all the cubes of a certain good type or spend cubes that you’ve already gathered to satisfy a contract. It’s all about efficiently moving around the grid, taking resources at the right time to make the most of your limited ship’s hold. It’s like being a nautical logistics company, except there’s also sea monsters. Oh, I didn’t mention the sea monsters did I?

Players who play the highest value on suit card ‘win’ the trick and therefore get to move their ship first, giving them first dibs on whatever is available at the contract and resource cube buffet. BUT play the lowest value on suit card and you get to trigger a sea monster’s power. Stationed around the board at different spots like security guards at a concert venue are sea monsters, all of which are linked to one of the four suits in the game. Whatever suit has been used for that trick determines what monster the ‘loser’ of the trick is able to activate. The powers all have some sort of form of resource manipulation, such as the Octopus’ ability to grab or throw resources to and from adjacent islands or the Shark’s ability to gobble up a cube which then appears on your ship through some sort of gastrointestinal black magic. Being able to activate these monsters not only makes for a nice balancing mechanism if you end up with a crappy hand of low values but also provides nice tactical choices to make. Sometimes you may want to purposely play the lowest card so you’re able to possess a certain sea monster for your own advantages.

I’ll admit that I may be a bit biased towards Tricky Tides thanks to my love of all things nautical, especially when the theme comes through so beautifully in this game’s wonderfully striking art. The art looks like something out of an old sailor’s sketchbook, giving this game an authentic Age of Sail vibe that never fails to give me a warm feeling.

Even with these biases aside, though, I think Tricky Tides is an amazingly clever and unique mix of trick taking and pick up and deliver that feels fresh and fun. It’s one of 2019’s hidden gems and deserves more attention.

28. Menara

Menara cover

My top 100 has only seen one dexterity game so far, way back in my 60-51 section with the game Drop It. My number 28, Menara, is another dexterity game, but while Drop It is competitive, Menara is cooperative. Already that’s a huge point in this game’s favor. Cooperative dexterity games are surprisingly rare, so being able to play one is always a treat.

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.

This is, however, one of the unfortunate handful of games I don’t actually own. Its availability is also suspect, making this a game I may not own for quite some time. Funnily enough, unlike the other games I don’t own on this list, this might actually help Menara’s position for next year? A common critique I’ve heard for this game from critics and friends alike is that the game starts to feel more repetitive and mechanical the more you play it. I can’t speak to that so, as of now, Menara is quite comfortable at spot 28.

27. Bruges

Bruges cover

Despite being one of the most popular and influential designers in the industry, Stefan Feld has only one of his games appear on my list so far. That was Notre Dame, which appeared alllll the way back in my first Top 100 post, the 100-91 section. Wow, I was so young and hopeful then. Anyway, Feld makes a return with his second (and final) game on my list, Bruges.

Set in the titular city of Bruges (it’s in Belgium) during Medieval times, players are going to build houses to recruit influential people, help to construct the canal, and gain reputation in the town square all while trying to avoid various crises tearing through the city. All of this is done with multi-use cards, which have so many uses that it’s borderline comical.

Players will be spending cards to (takes deep breath) gain workers, gain gold, build houses, build the canal, get rid of threat markers and to recruit characters with special powers to your tableau (deep exhale). On your turn, you play one card and choose ONE of these six actions to activate. Unless you’re hiring the character on the card, you’re mostly concerned about the card’s color. The color determines what color workers you take, the threat markers you can dispel, the amount of gold you get (based on how many pips are on the die of that color), whether or not you can add a canal section based on what color is up next in the line AND determines what color house you’d be building (which can matter based on certain character abilities).

This means some colors might mean more to you than other players and some colors may be hotly contested depending on the dice rolls. Brilliantly, players draft cards purely based on color. There are two decks that you refill your hand with and you can see what color the card is based on its back. So, if you really need blue and yellow, you can take any that are at the top, but you’ll have no clue what character will be on the other side of the card. It’s simple but a neat little twist to how you ‘draft’ cards in this game.

Like most of Feld’s games, this is very much a point salad. You can get points through a metric butt ton of ways, giving it a very free, open feel. While the absurd amount of uses for a card is hilarious, especially when you see the border with all the icons reminding you of the actions on every single card, it also means that you’ll never have a useless, dead turn. You always feel like you can accomplish something, even if it’s as simple as getting two workers. Sure, there are times where there’s stuff you’d rather do but can’t because of the colors in your hand, but I rarely leave a turn in Bruges thinking, “What a waste.”

Perhaps my favorite thing about Bruges, however, is just how tactical it is. I’ve mentioned in this top 100 that I am a fan of games that favor tactics over strategy and Bruges is as tactical as they come. You can certainly build towards long term goals or go into it with a certain focus in mind, but this game is all about looking at your hand of cards for that turn and trying to come up with the most efficient use for them. Then, when it’s time to draw back up, it’s all about picking the colors that best suit you as they come out and it’s back to puzzling out what you want to do with the new hand. It’s all about adapting and keeping your possibilities open for the next round, and I adore that style of play.

If I have one tiny nitpick that keeps Bruges from being one of the top 3 Euros on this list rather than in the top 5ish, it’s that it can maybe go on a couple rounds too long. The game ends when one of the decks is empty and that can take a decent amount of time. By the end, your tableau is going to be quite sprawling and unwieldly on the table and that could have been saved by shaving off maybe twenty minutes.

Outside of that minute criticism, Bruges is among the best Euros I’ve personally played. It’s very much out of print outside of Europe, which is a real shame because this one deserves to be an evergreen. If you can track down a copy to try, it’s absolutely a must play.

26. Concordia

Concordia cover

God bless Shut Up & Sit Down. If it wasn’t for their glowing review of Concordia, I likely would have never given it a second look. Even after their review, I honestly still wasn’t convinced. How could this game, with its bland cover and bland theme and bland sounding rule set, be anywhere near as good as everyone is saying?? But more and more people continued to keep raving about it and I had to get a copy just to satiate my curiosity.

For like the 87th time on this Top 100, it’s time to admit I was wrong. Concordia IS as good as everyone says.

I’ll try to get through describing the game without falling asleep. (I promise this game is good! It just sounds so dry and boring!) Players are playing cards in order to complete actions that include producing resources, selling and trading those resources, building little outposts to further your production power, and zzzzzzzzz OH, shit, I got so close! Listen, this is game is Euro 101, so let’s get into what makes this game different and great.

First off is the hand management and hand building aspect. In Concordia, everyone starts off with an identical hand of actions cards. How you use those cards is entirely up to you. Once you use a card, it’s in your discard until you play another card that allows you to pull your discard pile back in your hand. That card rewards you for pulling up more cards, so timing it till the last possible moment while not waiting TOO long is a constant dilemma that teases you throughout the game.

Managing your hand is a tense efficiency puzzle, but Concordia also offers you a chance to build your hand. Throughout the game, a display of cards will be oozing along a track at the top, offering players a chance to buy cards to add to your arsenal of potential actions. Many of them provide more efficient versions of the cards everyone starts with, allowing everyone to laser in and focus on an avenue to victory they find fun and/or advantageous to pursue.

This is all made even more intriguing when you internalize how the game scores. It’s a little tricky to explain, but basically all the cards have a certain Roman God or Goddess listed on its bottom and those cards score in specific ways. Whatever points you get from that God or Goddess based on your board state is then multiplied by the number of cards you have of that God or Goddess. So, if you get 8 points from your Mars cards and you have 3 of them in your hand by game’s end, that’s 24 points. I looove this scoring system, even if it’s a bit of a bastard to teach to newcomers. It makes you really think about what cards you want and also makes for the most exciting final scoring round in any game I’ve played. Since you technically don’t score throughout the game, it’s just an explosion of points after points as you and your opponents tally everything in your hand, your score markers sprinting around the board like it’s the Kentucky Derby.

It doesn’t hurt that this is all contained in one of the most superbly elegant rulesets in any game I’ve played. You literally play a card, do what it says, and there’s your turn. There aren’t any edge cases nagging at you like a stubborn hangnail and referencing the rulebook is almost never needed. Scoring can sometimes trip up players but even that requires just an example for them to understand it. The absolutely only thing keeping this from being higher on my list is simply lack of play. I haven’t played this game in over a year and a half and it felt weird putting a game that’s suffered that long a drought much higher than this spot. When I finally do get a chance to play this again, I see it being in my top 15, easily.

25. Dixit

Dixit cover

Kicking off my top 25 is a game that’s been in my collection longer than pretty much every other game on this list: Dixit. One of the go to gateway party games, Dixit is quietly one of the most influential games in the hobby. Its art style has been aped and copied in countless games since and people still refer to it as “Dixit-style art” despite how long it’s been since Dixit’s release. It is also one of the first games to popularize the idea of communicating concepts without being too forthcoming, something that party games today still revolve around.

To tighten the scope of Dixit’s influence, it’s also one of the most important games in my collection. It was one of the first games I ever went out and bought myself and was therefore a keystone in the early days of my collection. It was easily one of the most played games for me and my various groups at that time and was even the first hobby game I ever taught to my parents. You could argue that Dixit gets a big bump in the ranking on this list for nostalgia purposes, but I think that’s unfair to say. Both Pandemic and Carcassonne were games I played quite often around the same time and yet I’ve suffered some degree of burnout on both, resulting in neither game even cracking my top 50. Dixit has no such burnout. I still adore this game as much as the first day I played it and will never turn down a chance to get it to the table.

I suppose I should describe the game at this point? I’m sure most of you know what it is anyway. You have tarot sized cards of surreal, dream like art and one player, called the storyteller, gives a clue for one of their cards. It can be a phrase, a word, even a sound. Then everyone else picks a card from their hand that they think matches the clue, they’re all shuffled up and then put on display for a vote: which one was the original card chosen by the Storyteller?

The brilliance in Dixit lies in its scoring system. If you want people to guess your clue, why not be obvious? Why not just say, “Married couple playing chess underwater as an octopus checks its pocket watch in the background”? Because in Dixit, the Storyteller scores no points if either everyone guesses the card OR if nobody guesses the card. So be too obvious or too vague and you’re just giving your opponents free points. It’s such a clever, sharp system that has, as I mentioned, laid the groundwork for dozens and dozens of party games since.

I love games that require you to stretch your creative muscles over your logical ones and Dixit was one of the first games to scratch that itch for me. Being the Storyteller and having free reign on what clue to give allows for such boundless creative choices, while trying to play a card that matches the Storyteller’s clue allows for equal amounts of devious imagination.

I know many have cooled on the game as time has passed and they’ve moved onto shinier, newer party experiences but for me, Dixit will always have a place in my heart and in my collection. If this is still one you haven’t played, what the hell are you waiting for!?

24. Spyfall

spyfall cover

At number 24 is my favorite pure social deduction game, Spyfall. In this game, players are given a secret location as well as some sort of occupation or person you’d find there. That is except for one person, who is given a card that merely says ‘Spy’. Then, players simply begin asking each other questions. Things like, “Are we outside or inside?” or “What do you do here?” or “ARE YOU THE SPY, TELL ME YOU TRAITEROUS COWARD”. Players need to answer the question in a way that lets people know that they’re aware of the location they’re in.

However, like Sir Mix-a-Lot, I like big BUTs and I cannot lie and Spyfall has a very big BUT. Players want to let others know that they are clued in on the location BUT they don’t want to be too obvious or else the spy might catch on. If at any point the spy can declare what the mystery location is, they automatically win the game. Even if they don’t get to that point, giving the spy possible ammunition to fit in with good answers of their own is enough to torpedo a win for the non-spy players. If the non-spies can’t suss out the spy and accuse them before time runs out, then that’s another way for the spy to win.

I believe Spyfall was the first pure social deduction game I ever played and it has continued to be my favorite. One of the big reasons is just how damn funny this game is. Everybody is trying to be as cagey as possible, which leads to hysterically vague answers. Even funnier, though, is when the spy thinks the location is one thing and gives an outrageously out of left field answer, shining a huge spotlight on their cluelessness. One time I was the spy and I was confident we were at the zoo, so when asked what my favorite time of day was I said, “Feeding hour.” Turns out we were NOT at a zoo but at a casino, which led to everyone staring blankly for five seconds before simultaneously saying, “Kyle’s the spy.” It also created an image of people at slot machines hearing a dinner bell and rushing over to a feeding trough that had the table rolling in laughter.

Another reason I love Spyfall so much is its snappy length. Whereas games like The Resistance has players relentlessly bickering for close to an hour, Spyfall has a timer of eight minutes. This swiftness not only keeps things from getting too heated and barbaric but allows multiple rounds of it to be played in quick succession. This means more people get a chance to be the spy and an ever shifting meta can grow and evolve like an aggressive flu virus. It makes the game hopelessly addicting and one game of Spyfall easily melts into seven or eight over the course of an hour.

Sure, Spyfall has its warts. Like any social deduction game, it is very group dependent and is maybe the most polarizing game in my collection. I have friends who outright hate this game and refuse to play it because they find it too stressful. For me, I don’t find it stressful because the stress is what makes this game fun. Sweating it out as you try to bullshit your way through a question you have NO clue how to answer is a riotous good time to me but others find it a lot less funny. This is also a game that can grind to a halt if people keep giving the same vague responses, not allowing any new information to enter the game state. There’s a running joke in my group that if somebody asks “What do you do around here?”, you respond, “My job.” It gets a lot less funny, though, when it actually interferes with the game.

Regardless of these ‘flaws’, Spyfall has given me so many memories of fun and laughter that it was an easy choice for me to put it this high on the list.

23. Broom Service

Broom Service cover

After failing to appear in most of my list, Alexander Pfister has now been the designer of three of the last ten entries. That’s including this one right here; my number 23, Broom Service.

Broom Service puts players in the cloaks and pointy hats of witches, trying to deliver potions to various castles. They’re like a magical Amazon Prime, with less illegal working conditions. It’s a pick-up and deliver game at its core but its brilliance lies in an incredible role selection mechanism.

Like a couple of other games on my top 100, Broom Service gives players an identical hand of action/role cards to choose from. Every round, players secretly choose four to play and then a starting player leads off with one of them. Whoever also chose that card as one of their four must also play that card BUT, there’s a twist. Starting with the lead player, players who play that action must immediately declare whether they are going to take the ‘cowardly’ version of that action or the ‘brave’ version of that action. The cowardly version of the action is much weaker and less efficient, but players get to do it immediately upon declaring it. The brave version is stronger and much more rewarding BUT only one player can complete it. If you declare brave and somebody else declares brave after you, you lose out on the action and your turn, which is devastating.

Pfister takes this idea of role selection, something that’s been used in plenty of games before, and infuses it with a socially driven element of push your luck to create some of the most tense but raucous 45-60 minutes you can experience in gaming. Trying to figure out when to play it safe and declare an action cowardly versus pushing your luck and calling brave is a sense of constant dread and terror in this game. Calling brave early means you’re on the edge of your seat as the rest of the players say whether or not they’ve played that card, breathing a sigh of relief if nobody does or banging your head against the table in frustration when somebody steals the brave right out from under you.

I have heard some people in the hobby poo-poo this game for being too punishing when you get your turn skipped due to an ill-timed brave declaration. I can certainly see why some might get frustrated with that but, much like with Spyfall, I find it more comedic than demoralizing when people don’t get their brave actions. That’s including myself! Usually there’s lots of taunting as the one player groans. It’s equally funny when somebody calls cowardly early and it’s revealed they’re the ONLY person who even used that action that round. Again, some may grind their teeth when stuff like that occurs but I think this game is just light and short enough that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Besides, the moment when you do correctly call an action brave and reap the benefits is exhilarating enough for me to forgive the more downtrodden moments.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this whole cowardly/brave action mechanism is in my likely in my top 3 favorite game mechanisms. It’s so unique and clever and creates such moments of equal parts drama and comedy that it’s baffling to me that this game isn’t more popular. While I may or may not have a Pfister game appear later on this top 100, I don’t think he’s made a mechanism more creative or joyful to experience than this one.

Broom Service deserves way more love and attention than it gets and it’s even forgotten in the conversation of Pfister’s own catalogue. So many people focus on his bigger games like Great Western Trail and Mombasa and, much more recently, Maracaibo, that his light to midweight games get left behind like Kevin McCallister on Christmas. Don’t be Kevin McCallister’s parents. Play Broom Service.

22. Just One

Just One cover

Along with Tricky Tides, Just One is one of the few games from 2019 on this top 100. This is mostly because I simply don’t have the means to play as many recent releases (lack of money, space and friends being the biggest obstacles). But Just One is a game I just HAD to play when it first came out. As a fan of word association party games, Just One sounded like it would fit perfectly with majority of my game groups. Considering it’s here at number 22, I guess you can say I was right. For once!

Just One is stupidly simple to explain. It’s a cooperative party game where one player is a guesser and the rest of the group are clue givers. The guesser has a card with five words in front of them so that they can’t see it and name a number one through five. The clue givers write a word on a little whiteboard that they think will help the guesser guess that word.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a modern party game without a twist, so what is Just One’s? After everyone writes their clues, the guesser closes their eyes and the clue givers reveal to each other their clues. If anybody has written a duplicate, ALL copies of that clue are erased. Afterwards, the guesser opens their eyes and must guess the word based on what’s remaining.

Like many party games, including some on this very portion of the top 100, it’s all about straddling a line between obvious and obscure. Go too obvious and you’ll likely collide into someone with a duplicate. Go too obscure, and the guesser will be left scratching their head when all they’re left with is an obtuse, incoherent string of words. It’s incredible fun to get in the heads of your teammates and try to determine what direction they’re going to take so that you can avoid it yourself.

I’ve already taught you the game, so there’s no excuse to go and play it right at this moment. Go on, I’ll wait, I’m used to it.

Back? See? Wasn’t that just a load of fun? Just One is everything I want from a party game. Easy to teach and instantly accessible for just about anyone while still providing enough meat for your brain to chew on (or tofu, if you’re vegetarian/vegan). The game has the open armed feel of a mass market game while not boring me like those tend to do. It’s fast, fun, addictive and so simple that it’s a wonder it took till 2019 for it to exist.

My only complaint is with the scoring mechanism. You’re simply making a random deck of 13 cards and then scoring yourself based on how many cards you correctly guess. There’s even a whole rule with passing that literally everyone I’ve ever heard talk about this game completely ignores (some don’t even realize it’s a rule in the game). I wish there had been some sort of concrete “You win” or “You lose” condition, but I also recognize that adding extra rules for scoring would probably result in a game that hasn’t been streamlined to perfection.

Regardless of my own personal qualms with a less than stellar ‘win’ condition, Just One has managed to stand out against a lot of competition in both the industry and my very own collection as a word game that demands to played over and over again. In less than a year, I’ve already had to invest in new dry erase markers thanks to the ones in my copy being dried from overuse. If that isn’t worthy of a top 25 spot, I dunno what is.

21. When I Dream

When I Dream cover

Closing out this section of list is yet another word game, this one blended with hidden roles and some traces of social deduction. This is When I Dream, a game about fairies, boogiemen and sandmen battling it out for the attention of someone taking a nap (which isn’t creepy at all). This is yet another game that I’ve already reviewed on the blog, a review you can read right here.

In When I Dream, players take turns being the Dreamer, someone who will don a sleeping mask and be given clues, one at a time, by the rest of the players to guess words. Sounds like a straight up word association game, so where’s the twist? The twist is that the other players, who are giving the clues, are given hidden roles and those roles determine how helpful they want to be to the Dreamer.

There are Fairies, Boogiemen and Sandmen. Fairies want the Dreamer to guess the words as they come up, so they have a very straightforward task. They simply want to link their clues as strongly to the clue as possible. Boogiemen, however, are a little more insidious. They do NOT want the Dreamer to guess the word, so they’ll be giving clues to throw off the Dreamer. The Sandman, meanwhile, is the Thanos of this world and they want the number of correct guesses and incorrect guesses to be as even as possible.

What this means then is that the Dreamer has to be wary of which clues they trust because the person giving the clue may not have their best interests at heart. There is no phase in which the Dreamer accuses someone of being a Boogieman or Sandman; they simply have to internalize the information and make guesses based on clues given by the people they think they can rely on. If someone is consistently appearing out of left field with nonsense words compared to the rest of the group, then it’s safe to say the Dreamer will ignore them like everyone ignores the “let sit for one minute” instructions on the back of a freezer meal.

On the clue giving side of thing, it’s perhaps even more interesting. Fairies admittedly have a pretty unexciting task but having a chance to be a Boogieman or Sandman involves a fun game of misdirection and subtle deceit. In order to be effective as a Boogieman, you have to fool the Dreamer into thinking you’re a trusted voice. This means giving clues that kind of fit the word but are just distanced enough that the Dreamer may go the wrong way. I use this example in my review, but imagine the word is ‘lion’. If one player says, ‘big’ and another says ‘cat’, a cunning Boogieman will throw out a word like ‘stripes’ or ‘Asia’. This suddenly points the Dreamer towards ‘tiger’ and unless the Fairies can redirect towards ‘lion’ with enough clues, there’s a good chance the Dreamer will guess incorrectly. Since the Dreamer has no idea which ones they’ve gotten wrong, clues like that essentially give no information to the Boogieman’s true identity.

It’s like the Dreamer is being led through a dark tunnel where the clue givers are taking turns grabbing them by the shoulders and pushing them in a certain direction. It’s amazing fun to see how the clues develop and how to best use your role given the information. One or two awful clues from the Boogieman will be all it takes for the Dreamer to essentially mute them like a Twitter troll, making their job the most tense but also the most fun. I always love being the Boogieman, trying to figure out clever ways to introduce small amounts of chaos to the proceedings. The Sandman is also very interesting to play as, since you’re hopping from side to side like a dream world Littlefinger, and it requires constantly being aware of when to shift gears when one side starts overtaking the other.

When I Dream is just so great because it takes elements many gamers are familiar with (word association, hidden roles) mixing them together in a way we’ve never seen before while also maintaining an extremely accessible ruleset for non-gamers to join in. It also scales amazingly well, a very odd quality for a social deduction-esque to have. I played this at the lowest player count of four and found it still surprisingly works while the higher player counts flourish even more. It’s a party game that will forever be in my collection and has easily earned its spot here in the top 25.

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Ahhh, we’re almost there! Just two more posts to go! See you in a week for 20-11!

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.

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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!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 60-51

Welcome back to my 2019 Edition of my Top 100 Games of all Time. Yes, it’s 2020, and yes I’m regretting starting this so close to the end of last year. But if I had made a smart decision, it wouldn’t have been on brand. Here are my previous posts, if you haven’t caught up yet:

100-91

90-81

80-71

70-61

Let’s get right back into it with my 60-51!

60. Space Base

space base cover

I’ll be honest, I had NO interest in Space Base when it first came out. A super generic sci fi theme with a super generic title and super generic art and super generic “roll dice, get stuff” gameplay? No thanks. But I had heard so many good things about it and I had a friend who I thought would really enjoy it the mechanisms and theme, so I bought it for him for his birthday. And hey, if I just happened to give it a try, then let’s see how it is.

Well. I was indeed able to try it and like many, many times in my life before, I was proven dead wrong. The hype is well deserved for Space Base because this game is loads of fun.

I already very briefly mentioned what this game is about but allow me to go into a bit more detail. Space Base finds you creating a fleet of spaceships, each with their own special powers and abilities that are activated by dice rolls. You’re trying to build a fleet that will create some sort of engine that you can activate with dice as often as possible, eventually rocketing (teehee) you to 40 points. If you’ve played Machi Koro, this is basically the deeper, more gamer-y version of that game, except not garbage.

Okay, I’m being a little hard on Machi Koro, there was a time when I actually liked that game. But when I played it enough times, I realized it was completely luck based and that your best strategy was to just choose a certain combo of two buildings that VERY obviously went together and just pray the dice rolls went your way. Space Base fixes these issues with some very clever design decisions.

The first is that you’re always rolling two dice, whereas rolling two dice was a benefit you had to unlock in Machi Koro. In addition to being able to dual wield dice like a Wild West outlaw twirling six shooters, you can split those dice across your fleet however you see fit. Meaning if you roll a four and five, you can either attach one die to the four spot and one to the five spot and activate your ships in those areas OR you can combine the two to make nine and activate the ship in your nine area. This small little change immediately transforms the autopilot gambling of Machi Koro into a satisfyingly strategic game of hedging your bets and dice mitigation.

Another amazing little tweak: dice rolled on other players’ turns can ALSO be used to activate ships in your fleet. Once again, you can use the dice however you see fit. The difference is rather than activating active ships in your fleet, you’re actually activating ships that have been sent out of your fleet. This occurs when buying a new ship for a certain dice slot; you remove the old ship, flip it upside down to show a new benefit when activated on your opponent’s turns and slide it underneath the top of your board. These ships stack as more and more are sent out, meaning you can really set yourself up for some powerful activations when it’s not even your turn.

All these small improvements to the “chuck dice, get stuff” formula that Machi Koro made popular make a game that is 45 minutes of non-stop, thrilling fun. Every single dice roll is worthy of your attention and everyone’s calling out numbers they want like a rowdy roulette table in Vegas. In addition to this primal joy one gets from gambling, picking ships and crafting your fleet is also good fun. The ships have a fun range of powers, getting you simple things like advancements on one of the three tracks in the game to more advanced things like dice manipulation or activating other ships in adjacent slots. There’s even a ship that literally wins you the game if you activate it enough times! Puzzling out how to combine certain ships in a way that’ll give you a rip-roaring engine and then eventually being able to pull the levers on that engine never fails to be amazingly fun.

Ultimately, Space Base is a game that will likely find its way higher on the list after I get the chance to play it more. Its generic space theme and lackluster art do it no favors (god damn, I wish this game was themed with pirate ships instead!) but ignoring it like I did for so long would be a huge mistake.

59. Drop It

drop it cover

I’ll be the first to admit that I used to think dexterity games were for kids. Why would I want to flick pebbles or stack building blocks when I could be doing grown up things like rolling dice and playing cards?? Exactly! Well, I was an idiot, as I’m sure you’ve realized at this point in the top 100. I got to play a handful of dexterity games over the past year and they are, admittedly, a ton of fun.

Out of that handful, the best competitive dexterity game I’ve played yet is Drop It. If you’ve ever seen Plinko played on the Price is Right, this is essentially the board game version of that. You have an array of shapes in your player color and one by one, everybody’s dropping them down a hollowed out plastic window, trying to get points based on where the shape is located. However, if you don’t adhere to certain restrictions (such as two of the same shapes touching each other or two of your own shapes touching each other), then you don’t get any points. It’s a game of dropping and stacking shapes in such a way that you can earn yourself maximum points while setting things up to make it very hard for your opponents to get anything.

Like most dexterity games, this is silly fun but there are some surprisingly tactical decisions here. You get to choose which shape you drop next and there are definitely places you can drop the shapes that make it hell for the next players’ turn. These tiny decisions help make Drop It just a bit less mindless than your average dexterity game, and one of the reasons why I consider it my favorite of the competitive type.

I honestly don’t know how high Drop It will be next time I do my top 100. I don’t own a copy and I feel like the shelf life of most dexterity games are somewhat short due to their shallow nature. But that’s for future Kyle to worry about! Right now, I love Drop It and anybody who turns there nose up at dexterity games should just drop the Grey Poupon and give it a try.

58. Mission: Red Planet

mission red planet cover

Another entry, another Bruno Cathala game. At this point, I should just ask him to sponsor the blog. My number 58 is one of his more popular games, Mission: Red Planet, a game he happened to co-design with the other well known Bruno in the industry: Bruno Faidutti.

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.

I find few things wrong with Mission: Red Planet, though I will say that this is a game that may need more than one play before it really comes to life. The first time I played it I liked it but didn’t love it. The second time though, I had a better idea of how to use the role cards and the combinations you can pull off with them over a series of rounds. This brought a cadence to my playstyle that caused the game to sparkle, and it’s a game that gets better every time it comes to the table. Like many games on this list, I feel like it could be even higher if I was just able to consistently play some of these damn games more.

Anyway, check it out, it’s awesome.

57. The Quacks of Quedlinburg

quacks cover

It’s tough to think of a more unique and exciting designer to gain notoriety in the past few years than Wolfgang Warsch. He’s already appeared once on my list with his experimental but amazing silent co-op game The Mind, and he makes his return in my 57 spot with the game many consider to be his best: The Quacks of Quedlinburg.

Originally published in Germany under a name I will not ever attempt to pronounce or spell correctly, Quacks is a scrumptious blend of bag building and push your luck. Push your luck is my favorite mechanism and pool building is my second favorite mechanism, so I guess you could say I’m inclined to maybe like this game. In the game, you and your opponents are ‘quack doctors’, which is another term for a charlatan or snake oil salesperson. You’re brewing potions to sell at a fair in Quedlinburg but because you’re all terrible at your job, there’s a constant chance of you blowing yourself up.

How this comes across in gameplay is via its bag pulling mechanism. Everyone simultaneously pulls chips out of their bag and places it into their cauldron, which has a number track that spirals out from the middle. You look at the value of your chip and place it that many spaces ahead on the track, creating a snaking path of different colored ingredients. You can stop at any point; if you do, are able to get the gold and victory points labeled on the spot you stopped at. If you don’t stop, however, and end up with seven points or more of an ingredient called cherry bombs, you blow up. This is this game’s version of ‘busting’ and your turn immediately ends.

The one nice thing about this game, especially when compared to others in the push your luck genre, is that busting is not the worst thing in the world. Yes, it’s definitely better to NOT bust but you still get to pick a reward for that turn (either the gold or the victory points at the last spot you stopped at, rather than both). You also disqualify yourself from rolling a bonus die that’s rewarded to the person who advanced the farthest in their cauldron but considering most push your luck games have a very ‘all or nothing’ approach to busting, this is surprisingly friendly.

After everyone is done pulling from their bags, whether from choice or violent explosion, the bag building part of the game takes over like a night shift security guard coming into relieve someone of their post. Everyone takes the gold they won that round and spends it on new ingredients to put into their bags. The ingredients all have unique abilities and properties and many of them combine well with others. For example, there is the mandrake root which helps erase a cherry bomb from your cauldron or the crow skulls which grant you points if you have more than your neighbors. The bag building portion is certainly not the deepest. If you’re expecting Orleans, go play that instead. But there’s still fun to be had figuring out the most efficient use of your money while making sure to pick ingredients that synergize well.

There’s not much else to say about Quacks except that it’s just pure fun and excitement. Every pull from your bag is one tinged with suspense, as you’re desperately hoping for the ingredient you need. It’s like grabbing into a bag of Halloween candy, with every pull either coming with a triumphant ‘aha!’ (“Yes, Twix!”) or a dejected moan (“Oh God, Three Musketeers…where’s my dog…”). There can certainly be moments of frustration when you manage to pull nothing but cherry bombs despite your bag being loaded with pumpkins and mushrooms, but the game is so light that it never feels overwhelming.

I unfortunately don’t own this game, but it’s definitely one I intend on adding to my collection someday. If you enjoy fun, this game is for you. If you don’t, stick to Twilight Struggle.

56. Pandemic

pandemic cover

While Pandemic is only at spot 56, I don’t think there’s a more important game on this top 100. Without this game, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t be here. Not literally here, Pandemic didn’t save me from a fire or something. But what it did do is introduce me to the hobby and is the game that got me obsessed with trying as many other games as possible. So, if you’re looking for who to blame for me writing this, send all your hate mail to Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic. (Though don’t ACTUALLY send hate mail, he seems like a very nice fellow).

If you’re reading this list, you’ve probably played Pandemic. It’s the one cooperative game in the hobby that pretty much everyone has played and it’s the one that created the system of ‘take actions, bad stuff happens’ co-op games that have been one of the dominant forces in the industry this decade. In it, you and up to three other friends are various rapid responders trying to stop the spread of four deadly diseases (it’s apparently not a great time for Earth, making it perhaps a little too true to life). You take actions doing things like moving around the map, removing disease cubes, building research stations and ultimately trying to cure all four diseases by handing in five cards of each disease’s color.

The catch is that after your turn, the game takes a turn, done by flipping over cards from an annoying stack of cards called the ‘Infection Deck’. This deck is an unfeeling, merciless force that adds cubes to the various cities on the map, possibly creating outbreaks in the process. Outbreaks spread cubes out which can lead to more outbreaks which accelerates the clock to end the game. Another thing to worry about is that at certain points in the game, you have to shuffle the Infection Deck’s discard pile and place it back on top, meaning cities that may have just gotten cubes will be susceptible to even more.

It’s a brilliant system and it’s no wonder that so many other co-op games have copied it or at the very least, iterated on it. Pandemic combines a tight, brain burning puzzle of efficiently using actions with a palpable cinematic tension as you flip over cards at the end of every turn, wondering if it’s going to be the ONE city you can’t afford to see.

Another shining star sticker to place on Pandemic’s accolade chart are the Role cards. The different roles everyone play as all have a special ability and they’re all fun and useful to exploit. Pandemic is one of those rare co-op games of this style where every character feels crucial to victory. When I’m playing as the Dispatcher, I think, “Damn, if I was the Medic I’d be in good shape right now” and when I’m the Medic I’m cursing the fact that I’m not the Scientist because THEY’D be so useful at that moment and when I’m not the Scientist I lament that I’m not the Operations Expert and so on and so on. Listen, not a day goes by where I don’t wish I was somebody else, but in board game terms it’s awesome to see a roster of characters so deep and powerful. A lot of co-op games of this style have very clearly overpowered characters or character combinations where it feels like playing a game without them present is going to result in a loss 90% of the time (I’m looking at you, Water Carrier from Forbidden Desert).

So, with how incredibly sharp and important Pandemic is, why is not even in my top 50? Quite frankly, I just played it too damn much. As the big game that got me into gaming, this was one that I played over and over again before I started to get a big collection. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the game feeling just a bit stale. But like a delicious loaf of French bread left out on the counter overnight, this doesn’t make it bad! It just means that my desire to play it has gone down and that I’ve moved onto newer and fresher (and therefore more exciting) experiences.

Don’t let that deter you. Pandemic will ALWAYS have a place in my heart for introducing me to a hobby that I’ve been obsessed with for the past 4ish years and I implore anyone who hasn’t experienced it to amend that immediately.

NOTE: Hey, Kyle here, just gonna interrupt myself because I couldn’t find a natural way to bring it up when discussing Pandemic up above. Even though I discussed only the base game here, I’m including all the games of the Pandemic system for this entry. I’ve played Pandemic Iberia, which is awesome, and Pandemic Legacy Season 1 which is even more awesome. But I feel like it’s a waste of entries to include all those games of such a similar system on the list, so consider them all under the same umbrella at this 56 spot. On with the list!

55. Spirit Island

spirit island cover

It’s fitting that the game immediately following Pandemic on my list is Spirit Island, a game that many gamers have claimed to replace Pandemic with. In fact, Spirit Island is often referred to as ‘gamer’s Pandemic’ and while that has a sniff of elitism to it, I see that meaning that it’s just a deeper, more complicated version of Pandemic. And honestly? That’s pretty spot on.

Spirit Island tasks you and your fellow players to defend an island from colonial invaders, putting you in the role of powerful, vengeful spirits who can summon the forces of nature and beyond to do their bidding. The theme is fantastic and is a wonderful middle finger aimed at all the “Let’s colonize some indigenous people!” games out there.

How the game actually plays is quite similar to Pandemic, in that players take their turns trying to manipulate the board state which is then followed by an A.I. deck wreaking havoc on everything you just accomplished. The colonists in this game even act similarly to Pandemic cubes, slowly spreading out like an uncontrollable mold, generally doing more damage the more densely located they are.  Like the disease cubes, one of your main worries is to constantly keep this  spread at bay because the moment it becomes too much to handle, it’s probably too late.

However, don’t mistake Spirit Island for just another Pandemic clone, but with more rules. There are structural similarities, but the game plays vastly differently. Rather than a rigid action system, Spirit Island is all about hand and resource management and savvy card play. Your spirit comes with its own unique set of cards and tech trees to level up, as well as supply of energy that you must dutifully manage. Throughout the game you’ll be leveling up these tech trees and spreading your own presence out on the board, which allows you to further your reach in swatting down those pesky colonists. There is even a hand building aspect to the game, with players gaining the ability to add new cards to their arsenal at certain points. One of my favorite parts is drawing and picking new cards that gel with my spirit’s playstyle. It adds a touch of ownership and customizability to it that many other cooperative games of this type lack.

Another excellent aspect of Spirit Island is that it’s a cooperative game that actually requires cooperation. A novel idea, I know, but Spirit Island does this brilliantly through a few ways. One, the game has so much going on that it’s impossible for one player to quarterback (though I’m sure some will still try). The wealth of stuff to manage requires players to say, “Okay, what can you do? I can shore up over here pretty good but there’s no way I can handle that area” and stuff like that. One of the things that’s gotten very old with Pandemic is that it’s so easy for an alpha gamer to essentially play the game by themselves thanks to perfect information and its somewhat transparent puzzle. Not so in Spirit Island. Not only does everybody have their own hand of cards to parse and manage, but there’s just so much to compute that unless you’re playing with Alan Turing, an alpha gamer is unlikely to take over.

Perhaps more importantly, spirits are designed purposely to have blind spots in their abilities. This means that spirits will HAVE to cooperate because there are things they simply can’t accomplish without another spirit around to hoist them up. Lightning’s Swift Strike, for example, is a quick, offensive powerhouse that can constantly remove colonists off the board, like a mobile bug zapper. But when it comes to actually defending the island, they’re completely helpless, resulting in the invaders doing a ton of damage of their own. On the flip side, you have Vital Strength of the Earth who is a defensive juggernaught but makes molasses look like Usain Bolt. Combine these two spirits, however, and you got yourself a dream team of abilities and powers that are able to tag each other in when they desperately need it, like Undertaker and…uhh…The Rock? Were they both around at the same time? I don’t know wrestling.

Anyway, this reliance on cooperation makes Spirit Island a constantly engaging puzzle for everyone involved and makes the game decently long run time (2-3 hours, depending on player count and experience) go by like a tropical sea breeze. I haven’t even mentioned the insane amount of content this game offers, such as the wide array of spirits, colonists with special powers and even scenarios to try. It’s a game that will keep you busy for quite some time.

I’ve raved about this game, so it’s probably a bit puzzling as to why it’s not in the top 50. For one, I’ve simply cooled on this type of Pandemic style cooperative game, so I think that causes me to subconsciously rank these types of games lower. Another reason is that this game’s depth comes at the cost of some fiddliness. Unless you play this game consistently, getting it back to the table and reteaching yourself all its intricacies and edge cases is daunting. Therefore, I just don’t play it nearly as often as I probably should.

Still! Number 55! That’s pretty damn good and doesn’t change the fact that Spirit Island is an amazing cooperative experience.

54. 7 Wonders

7 wonders cover

Much like Space Base, I had hesitance with trying 7 Wonders. Despite praise being thrown around like, “instant classic” and “hugely important to the hobby”, I just never had an interest in it. Part of this reluctance was that I had already played drafting games before trying 7 Wonders and I felt that 7 Wonders probably didn’t offer anything new to hook me. Being the ostensible godparent of the genre, I figured the games I had already played were basically 7 Wonders, but better since they had 7 Wonders to iterate off of and to evolve from. Another big reason is I had already played 7 Wonders Duel, which I loved and heard was widely considered to be better. So why go back, I thought?

Why, Kyle? Why?? WHY!? BECAUSE IT’S 7 FRICKING WONDERS, THAT’S WHY.

Yes, yes, I know. Just like I said with Space Base, I was proven wrong (told you it happens a lot!). Despite my misgivings, I got to play 7 Wonders and found it to be an amazing design.

As mentioned, 7 Wonders is the game that kind of started the whole card drafting craze. I know there were some before it, but 7 Wonders is the one that really made the mechanism a household name. When I’m talking about card drafting, I am talking about the mechanism in which everyone has a hand of cards, they pick one to keep and then pass the rest over to the next. You keep picking cards in this manner till the hands have been played. Different games use this system in their own unique ways. In 7 Wonders’ case, whatever card you pick immediately goes into your tableau.

Your tableau represents an ancient civilization that you’re building, and the cards grant you things like resources, military strength (to bully your neighbors into taking negative points) or synergistic combos that will helpfully net you big time end game points. The decisions are often tough but rewarding. There are so many ways you can build your civilization and all the strategies seem viable in their own ways. Even if you don’t like the choices the cards give you, you can trash a card for gold or use a card to build underneath a wonder which grants its own rewards. Because of this, turns are constantly satisfying and every card you play feels worthwhile.

There’s also lots of positive player interaction in 7 Wonders that I love. If you have a resource symbol another player doesn’t have, they can pay you gold to ‘borrow’ it for a purchase. There are also cards that give YOU points for cards your neighbors might have. So, if you see your neighbor is building up a big science-based infrastructure, you can snag the card that gives you points for science cards your neighbors possess. I can’t think of many games that offer me anything other than pure, unbridled hatred for my opponents, so it was such a cool, refreshing thing to see in 7 Wonders.

I’ll be interested to see where 7 Wonders stands next top 100 because, like others I’ve mentioned, I don’t own a copy of it. And honestly, as much as I love 7 Wonders, I’m not sure if it’s a game I need to own myself strictly because my collection is already at critical mass and I have some drafting games that I like better (STAY TUNED). But if ever given the chance to play it again, I’d absolutely jump on it because there’s a lot to love about 7 Wonders.

53. Sheriff of Nottingham

sheriff of nottingham cover

One of the most popular bluffing games in the industry holds my 53 spot: Sheriff of Nottingham. In Sheriff of Nottingham, you and your opponents take turns being the titular Sheriff. When you’re the Sheriff, players hand you a bag stuffed with up to five cards, claiming a certain good, such as cheese or chicken. BUT, in pure bluffing game fashion, they may be lying. If you call them out on it and open their bag only to find they’ve been telling the truth, you pay a penalty per card. If you open it and discover they’re sneaking in contraband, such as crossbows or pepper (the law really hates pepper in this game), then THEY pay the penalty.

That’s pretty much the game! As you can see, this is far from a deep experience. But what makes Sheriff of Nottingham so much damn fun is the negotiation and the role play that blossoms from the simple mechanisms. You can bribe the Sheriff to open a bag or to not open a bag or even offer them goods if they let you go through. They can haggle right back, threatening to open unless you provide something in return. All the while, players are (hopefully) doing this in shoddy British accents, dramatically playing the parts of humble merchants or of a ruthless Sheriff.

This game was firmly in my top 25 for a while but has recently fallen because I’ve realized how much the game relies on everyone buying into the role playing aspect. If you have everybody being goofy and doing stupid voices, this is one of the most fun games you can play. But if even half the table is playing it straight, it will sink the experience. My last playthrough of this had me being the only one acting like a dumbass and it was not nearly as pleasurable as past playthroughs. Waaay back in my 100-91 section, I talked about a game called Goodcritters and said that if everybody isn’t getting into it, the game will fall flat. The same can be said for Sheriff, unfortunately.

Ultimately though, if you think you have a group that will really buy into it and act like a bunch of assholes at the Renaissance Faire for an hour, Sheriff of Nottingham is incredible amounts of fun.

52. Kingdomino

kingdomino cover

Who’s that French man setting up a cot in the corner? Oh, that’s just Bruno Cathala. I figured since he’s been on this list so many times, he should just make himself at home and stay till the end of the top 100.

Yep, Cathala is back again at my number 52 spot. This one is Kingdomino, a game he designed by himself and is also the only game for which he won a Spiel des Jahres. You can use that for trivia at your next party, by the way, it’s a great conversation starter.

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.

51. My Village

my village cover

A mechanism that I’m surprised hasn’t shown up on this top 100 yet is dice drafting, because dice drafting is a god damned delight. It’s become one of my favorite mechanisms over the past year or so and My Village is one of the games that brought me to this epiphany.

My Village is a spiritual successor, quasi sequel to the game Village. I have yet to play that game, but from my understanding it is an action selection game where you’re picking cubes and taking the action associated with them. There’s also a cool mechanism in which your family members can die and wow, that came out a lot harsher than I expected.

My Village takes the juice of a lot of similar concepts and actions from Village but squeezes it into a game of dice drafting and dice placement. Throughout the game you’ll be drafting dice to activate things in your own personal village board, something that will grow and develop over the course of the game. These things include a crafts stall where you can make items to sell, a church to build so that you can score its number of windows at the end of the game (no, seriously), and even a man with a stick who’s clearly on a pretentious journey to find himself.

There are a lot of avenues to take in My Village. The things I mentioned above are just a small sliver of what your board is capable of, making this one of those Euros where you clearly need to focus on just one or two things unless you want your brain to start leaking out your nose. It’s certainly not a sandbox style game but it is a very open point salad game.

This freedom is one of the things I adored about My Village when playing it. Even though it’s a game with some very tense decisions, I found it strangely relaxing to tend to my village, picking the most efficient spots for my dice, trying to build up clusters of points to try and win the game. There are plenty of options you have with the dice so it’s rare to feel railroaded by bad rolls.

Another mechanism I really liked was the plague mechanism. Remember when I maybe a little too cheerfully said people would die in this game? That comes at the hands of the plague, a push your luck mechanism that’s constantly looking over your shoulder, awkwardly breathing down your neck. Whatever you activate in your village will cost time, which is then represented by the Grim Reaper (no, seriously) making a circuit around your village. When he makes a complete circle, the bell tolls for someone in your village and they pass away. You then bury them on a cemetery board and roll a plague die because if there’s one thing rats love, it’s fresh family corpses. A rat token moves forward as many spots as rolled and when it reaches the end of its track, players could potentially lose a whole ton of points. In a neat twist, players can draft black dice which accelerates the Grim Reaper on his quest to erase your family name (jesus, did you kill his dog or something) which then in turn causes the plague die to get rolled more often. This can be beneficial for you if you’re either trying to race to the end game or if you really wanna try and screw over your opponents into losing any points they foolishly didn’t bank away in their house.

My Village is very much a point salad Euro but its great drafting mechanisms and the way it uses time as a currency to whittle down your work force and march impending doom upon you helps separate it from the pack.

*

Ahhh, that’s it for the first half of my top 100! Tune in next week for the start of my top 50!

 

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition): 70-61

You’re still here, huh? Awesome! I thought I’d be the only one! We’re officially on the fourth entry of my top 100 games of all time (2019 edition), which means we’re getting closer and closer to the top 50. Here’s links to the other entries if you’ve been somehow to busy to read them:

100-91

90-81

80-71

Let’s keep it going!

70. Beyond Baker Street

beyond baker street cover

I’m not a huge fan when somebody loudly proclaims, “’X’ game replaces ‘Y’ game!” and it’s not just because loud people make me nervous. It’s because I feel like any good game, even if similar to another, has its place and time with the right crowd and the right setting. Beyond Baker Street is an exception for me. This game completely and utterly destroys Hanabi for me, to the point where I don’t see myself ever playing that game again.

Before I go any further, allow me to explain Hanabi, just in case somebody doesn’t know what it is. Hanabi is a cooperative game where everybody is nearsighted fireworks technicians trying to put on a fireworks display on the world’s darkest night. I’ve made a couple of assumptions on the theme because the central mechanic is that you and your teammates hold out your cards so that everyone else can see them, but you can’t. The game is then spent giving players clue on the contents of their hand, hopefully hinting to them what is safe to play to the table and what should be discarded.

Hanabi isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination and it is objectively a pretty brilliant design. BUT I have some hang ups with Hanabi that have kept it from being a co-op that I loved rather than merely liked. The first kind of goes hand in hand: the boring theme and abstract nature. The theme of fireworks is completely pasted on and is only there to disguise the fact that this is basically an abstract exercise in card counting and probability crunching. It’s a very mechanical, dry experience and that was always a huge drawback for me. The second big minus is the win state, or lack thereof. In Hanabi, you don’t win or lose. You simply either suck or sucked a little bit less, and a score chart will tell you which of those pertain to you. There is a perfect game you can aspire to attain, and that is basically the win state my friends and I have adopted, but that is super hard to the point that it barely feels fun trying to get it.

By now, you’ve probably forgotten what game is even on this spot because I’ve talked about Hanabi for so long, but there is a point! I hope! I’m saying all this to explain why I find Beyond Baker Street such a better game than Hanabi. It takes the general conceit of Hanabi (trying to play cards that are facing away from you in the proper place), but gives it a much better theme, an actual win/loss condition and just an all around more appealing package.

Whereas Hanabi cast you as the world’s least qualified fireworks operators, Beyond Baker Street has you inhabiting the wonderful Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes. Your goal is to solve a mystery before Holmes can, using the exact mechanisms from Hanabi. You have a hand that’s facing away from you, you have to give very specific clues to the other players, you have to play them in the proper place, blah blah blah. I already went over this during my Hanabi rant (see, told you I had a point!), so I won’t retread too much ground.

There are a few extra elements here in Beyond Baker Street that make it a bit of a deeper experience. For one, rather than trying to get numbers 1-5 in ascending order in columns of specific colors, you’re trying to get a certain value of a card color in one of three spots on the board (for example, you might need a sum of 11 in blue cards). This allows for a little more creativity and freedom in how you play, rather than Hanabi’s much more rigid, ‘three mistakes and you literally blow up’ mentality. Also present is an added condition you must meet before you win the game. This is a track called the “Impossible”, which must reach EXACTLY 20 by the time you finish the three spots I mentioned earlier. How you move this track is by discarding a card to the ‘Impossible’ section, which basically acts as a discard pile, but a discard pile with a point. You do need to be careful, though, because discarding too many cards in this fashion accelerates Holmes on his personal track, which results in a loss if he gets to the end of it. I quite enjoy the image of Holmes on an anachronistic mo-ped, cackling with delight as your failures somehow power his engine to go faster.

Jesus, I just realized how much I’ve been rambling about this game, so I’ll end it here. Basically, if you like Hanabi, you’ll love Beyond Baker Street.  It’s everything Hanabi is, but better.

69. CrossTalk

crosstalk cover

As we get deeper into this top 100, you can expect word-based party games to pop up more and more often. I love this type of game, since it’s usually an incredibly social experience that still forces you to use your ol’ noodle (I believe that’s the technical term). CrossTalk has the honorable distinction of being the first game of this type to appear on the list.

CrossTalk is a word association game with a twist. Players are split into two teams, with teams being made up of a clue giver and a clue guesser. The clue givers on each team choose a clue or phrase they need to get their teammates to guess and then they proceed to write down a private clue that only THEIR team will get to see. As in most games of this type, clues can only be one word. After this private clue has been shared, clue givers begin giving public clues and this is where CrossTalk gets interesting.

Whereas most games of this type have a clue giver giving a clue and their team guessing the word, CrossTalk flips it on its head. Instead of your team guessing, the OTHER team guesses. Now the importance of the private clue becomes clear. With your public clues, you’re likely going to want to be as cagey and obscure as possible so that your opponents can’t zero in on the word. Using the private clue to provide some direction for your team as you spout nonsense allows them to maybe have a leg up when it’s their turn to guess. It’s like the party game version of The Da Vinci Code, with both clue givers crafting elaborate riddles in the hope that their team can crack it before the other. When it works out, it’s incredibly satisfying and creates high five moments on your side of the table. When it doesn’t, you’re left screaming, “HOW WAS ‘JELLY AND ‘HELICOPTER’ NOT OBVIOUSLY ‘COWBOY’??” which is equally fun.

This game bears a lot of similarities to another word association game in the hobby called Decrypto. I can’t say whether or not I like this better than Decrypto because I don’t want to reveal whether or not it ends up on my list, but I can say that if you like Decrypto, you’ll like this. I feel like it’s basically the family version of that game, a sort of “Baby’s 1st Decrypto”. It scratches the same word association plus deduction itch in a shorter time frame and with a much less intimidating rules explanation. It’s great fun for any fan of these types of party games.

68. Tiny Towns

tiny towns cover

Tiny Towns was an industry darling earlier this year and I feel like the buzz has died down on it considerably. Which sucks, because this game’s awesome! Obviously! It’s my number 68 and will probably climb by the time my next top 100 comes around (oh god, if I ever finish this one).

Tiny Towns involves a lot of stuff that we’ve seen in other games but puts a fresh new spin on them. In Tiny Towns, everyone is the mayor of a, well, tiny town. You’re all woodland critters trying to escape the predators of the forest by forming your own idyllic little medieval style village. It’s like you’re creating a witness protection program, but for mice.

How you build this town is by placing different colored cubes on your personal player board grid. The cubes represent different building materials, like brick, glass and wood. Resources are doled out by someone called a Master Builder, who yells out the resource that they and everyone else must place in their town on that turn, like the bingo operator at a retirement home. As you do this, you’ll (hopefully) manage to arrange a combination of specific colors in a specific shape, which allows you to remove those cubes and build the building associated with that pattern. You’re ultimately trying to build buildings that synergize well with each other and create nice little batches of points across your town, while also making sure to fill as much space as possible because empty squares are negative points at game’s end.

It’s a very simple game, but don’t mistake that for it being an easy game. This game is anything but. It is a vicious wolf in a gateway game’s clothing. As you place resources in your town, the panic sets in by, roughly, the 3rd cube. Your early misplaced confidence turns to dread when you realize you’ve already blocked off a corner of the board by placing glass in the wrong spot or when you notice that where you were planning on building your farm isn’t as efficient if you had planned to build it over there or when the Master Builder calls out stone as the resource, what the hell are you going to do with this stone, YOU DON’T NEED STONE, DAMMIT.

By the halfway point of the game, everybody is drenched in sweat, panting and gasping with each cube, cursing at themselves for not realizing 8 turns ago that obviously they should have been aiming to build a tavern and not another cottage. When each new, useless cube has to come into my village, I hide it in a corner of my grid like a hoarder stuffing things away in their attic, hoping that I’ll just never need to worry about that again.

It’s stressful, but also very fun. It also helps that when things are going well, the game is incredibly satisfying and tactile. Your town pops up in front of your very eyes, each cute little building springing up out of your carefully planned moves and forming an eye pleasing village for you to admire (until everything goes wrong, of course).

Tiny Towns also offers great amounts of replayability. The different buildings you play with are randomly selected at the beginning, meaning there are lots of different combinations that can be played with and explored. There’s also a variant called Town Hall that takes away the Master Builder and instead uses a resource deck that spits out the resources for you, with everybody picking their own resource to use every third turn. This is mainly for higher player counts, where more players means less control, but it can still be used to freshen things up at lower player counts if you feel like the Master Builder thing is getting stale. I’ve even seen reviews that say they prefer the Town Hall variant and use it as the base rules. Lastly, for lonely people like me, the game offers an excellent solo mode. It’s a score based solo mode which is not how I prefer my solitaire play, but it’s otherwise such an elegant and addictive mode that I’m able to forgive it.

With a robust player count of 2-6 players and a package that oozes variety and replayability, it’s tough to find a game on my list that offers more bang for your buck than Tiny Towns.

67. Love Letter

love letter bgg

I’m going to be honest. I’m shocked that after all these years, Love Letter still manages to find a place on my top 100. It’s one of the smallest and simplest games on this list and yet I still find myself going back to it again and again.

Love Letter is the game that many credit with kicking off the microgame craze, games that are incredibly small but manage to offer compelling, replayable experiences. In Love Letter’s case, it’s a deck of a mere 16 cards that somehow manages to be not only a game, but one that’s damn fun too.

In Love Letter, players are competing to get a love letter to the princess, which I guess was the Medieval version of sending unsolicited nudes. Everyone has a hand of just one card and on their turn they draw one from the deck and choose one of their two cards to play. The cards represent different characters in the kingdom, like the guard or the priest or the princess herself. They each have an ability when played and you’re essentially just trying to survive until the end of the round with the highest numbered card in hand. First person to win a set number of rounds wins, ostensibly because you’re the best at pestering the poor princess.

Congratulations! I’ve officially taught you the entire game! This is one part of what makes Love Letter so amazing. Its simplicity makes it so accessible and easy to pick and play. And once you are playing, it immediately gets the endorphins going. Cards are thrown on the table as players laugh and groan and cheer and as soon as one round is done, you’re ready to start the next one. It’s such an addictive, lively experience.

It’s tough to really say much more because Love Letter is such a small but pure experience. When my friends and I have spent the whole night drinking and it’s two in the morning, but we want to get just one last game in, Love Letter is often the go-to choice. This game has created so many great memories from that type of scenario and for that reason alone, I don’t see Love Letter leaving my top 100 anytime soon.

66. Cursed Court

cursed court bgg

 

I always love when I get to shine a light on a lesser known, under the radar game and Cursed Court is certainly in that category. It’s got a bit of a cult following and this year I’ve heard more and more podcasts get the chance to play it and love it. Hopefully this results in more people getting the chance to play this unique game, because it’s a real gem.

Cursed Court is a delicious concoction of bidding, deduction and bluffing. The game board represents a nine by nine grid of Medieval era characters and players will be placing plastic poker chips on various parts of the board to bet on who they think will be present in that current round. This is determined by a deck of cards that contains four copies of each character. At the start of the round, a card is dealt facedown between the player to your right and the player to your left. This means you and LeftPlayer McLeft have some information about who will be present, as well as RightPlayer O’Rightley. But, they of course have cards dealt between their other sides as well, which means they have some information you don’t know.

After this hidden information is dealt out, a card is flipped over face up for the entire table to see and bidding begins. Players then place any amount of chips they have (starting with a supply of 20) on a part of the board either representing a single character OR a specific combination of characters. You placing a wager there essentially means you think that character or combination of characters will be present by the end of the round. Places with another player’s chips can be bumped off, but the cost is double what’s already there. So, if RightPlayer O’Rightley has four chips on the King character, you can bump them off by placing eight of your chips there.

After four cards are flipped face up from the deck and everyone has placed four wagers down, all the face down cards are revealed and people score based on where they bet. If you bet on a single character, you get points based on how many copies of that character are present. If you wagered on a specific combination of characters, you get points only if every character in that combo is present. After four full rounds of this, whoever amassed the most points from the smartest wagering wins! I just hope it isn’t RightPlayer O’Rightley, they’re so smug when they win.

Cursed Court deserves so much more love. I imagine it’s generic name and artwork may have had something to do with its lack of popularity, but that needs to be remedied as soon as possible. It is such an interesting cocktail of mechanisms. You’re using deduction, making decisions based on what you know versus how other players are playing their wagers. You need to be economical with your chips, making efficient bidding another element you need to keep in mind. Twenty chips sounds like a lot, but they go fast. The bluffing is one of the more subtle pieces of Cursed Court and may not even seem apparent to new players. You can use big bids on areas you don’t think are showing up to entice someone else to bump you off, then cackle in their face when it’s revealed you were completely full of crap. Combine all of this with the incredibly tactile chips you use for wagering, and Cursed Court never fails to be a good time.

I don’t know how available this game is currently and I fear this game’s lack of big success dooms it to not being reprinted. If you can track down and try this game, you absolutely need to. Perhaps word of mouth will give this game the second chance it so desperately deserves.

65. Deception: Murder in Hong Kong

deception cover

My next game is an unfortunate casualty of the simple fact that I don’t own it and nobody in my area does anymore (EDIT: I have since gotten this game for Christmas! Thanks, Santa!). Otherwise, I feel like this game would get played a lot more consistently and it would find its way quite a bit higher on this top 100, because it is an excellent social deduction experience.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a game very similar to Mysterium, (which was on my 90-81 section), in that a silent clue giver is trying to give hints and clues to a group to determine how a murder was committed. The twist here is that unlike Mysterium, this is not fully cooperative. One of the players is the murderer and the other players need to root them out.

Every player, except the clue giver, has two rows of cards in front of them. One row is potential murder weapons and the other row is some specific clue that was left at the scene of the crime. Everyone closes their eyes and the murderer points at one of the weapons and one of the clues in front of them and now the clue giver knows what they’ll be trying to get the others to guess. The clue giver has a bunch of clue boards in front of them with specific categories and items of that category, such as ‘Day of the Crime’ and ‘Murderer’s Personality”. These categories are mostly randomized throughout the game, meaning all cases are going to have a different set of clues. The clue giver needs to figure out how to take these fairly disparate clue elements and create a pattern for the other players to see, allowing them to link that to two items in front of the murderer. How do you let someone know the murderer used a garden trowel and left behind a stereo speaker by only telling them something random, like the victim’s expression? Who knows! That’s for you to figure out! But it does create hilarious images of the world’s most maddeningly cryptic investigator, trying to lead people to figure out a murder by saying, “Well, what I can tell you is that the victim appeared to be very, very scared!”

And speaking of hilarious, I know it’s weird to call a game literally about murder ‘hilarious’, but that’s kind of what this game is. When the murderer gives an extremely flimsy argument over something in an effort to deflect suspicion but immediately gets caught because of it, it’s hysterical. When the clue giver is having a bad round and gives a series of clues that make absolutely no sense whatsoever, it’s also a riot. Like any good social deduction game, the arguments and debates are the lifeblood of this game, and those arguments and debates more often result in laughter. This is a nice change of pace from other social deduction games like, say, The Resistance where most arguments end with everyone wanting to strangle each other.

Social deduction games are incredibly polarizing, but I do find Deception: Murder in Hong Kong one of the more accessible ones. The presence of a clue giver means someone who isn’t fond of being stuck in the center of heated exchanges can simply request to play that role more often and the presence of public clues allows the murderer to deflect a little more easily than, say, Spyfall. Every game I’ve had of this, even at lower player counts, has been amazing. It’s a game I really want to get into my own collection (EDIT: AGAIN, THANKS SANTA) and when I finally have it, I’d be shocked if Deception doesn’t find a way into the top 50.

64. Abyss

abyss cover

Who’s that? Oh, don’t mind him. It’s just Bruno Cathala again! Abyss is another game that I feel would be higher if I had a chance to play it more before finalizing this list. I do own Abyss but it just hasn’t hit the table as much as I’d like.

At its core, Abyss is basically a set collection game. You’re trying to collect cards to then spend on other cards which you can then spend to gain big scoring tiles and you’re trying to collect the types that synergize well with each other. All of this done in a somewhat moody but beautiful underwater fantasy world that really helps immerse you into the gameplay.

On your turn, you choose one of three actions. The action you’ll be doing most is gathering ally cards which are then in turn spent on the bigger character cards (which provide points and special abilities). This is done through a really cool push your luck mechanism. You’ll be turning cards over from the deck of allies, placing them on a track. When you turn over a card, however, the other players get first crack at whether or not they want to purchase that ally from you. If they do, they pay a certain amount of pearls (another of the game’s currency) to you and then they’re blocked from buying again on your turn. This puts a cool twist on the usual push your luck formula, because in this case you’re trying to prevent high cards from getting into the hands of your opponents. As such, you may be prone to calling it quits a little early and taking a card you may not want as much.

This clever drafting system is the fuel in Abyss’ engine, but there are other things to do as well. A second action is taking all of one type of card from a place called ‘The Council’, which is just the place where discarded allies go after a player’s draft ends. The other action you can do is to actually spend these allies on characters, which come in the form of big tarot sized cards. These are the cards that will be getting you most of your points and, as mentioned, sport some cool special powers as well. Some characters also have keys which allow you to get another type of prize: location tiles. Location tiles are long tiles representing a certain location in the world of Abyss, and they often have some sort of scoring condition. These are things like “Get x amount of points for your red characters” or “Get x amount of points for unique characters” and so forth. It’s self-explanatory stuff and they also provide direction. You’re obviously going to want to take characters that gel with the locations you’ve drafted and vice versa. The one caveat with locations, though, is that when you take a location tile it is placed on the bottom of three of your character cards, thus erasing their special ability. This creates a tough decision: how badly do you want a location if it means losing a really useful power? Just another thing I love about this game.

The art and production values of this game are stellar as well. The art is incredibly detailed and immersive, helping to craft a world that feels lived in and authentic. It feels unique and original, like Game of Thrones meets The Little Mermaid. I also briefly mentioned the pearls above, a currency used in the game to pay players on their turns, as well as to supplement purchasing character cards. The pearls are little plastic balls that you keep in a shell shaped cup and wow do I love those little guys. It’s so satisfying and tactile to put a handful of pearls into your cup as they clink and roll around, ready to be spent on something that bolsters your tableau.  Easily one of my favorite board game components and just another small touch of why I love Abyss.

Like Deception, more consistent play of this would likely see this game in the top 50. As it stands, it’s still an excellent game worthy of my 64 spot.

63. Tournament at Camelot

tournament at camelot cover

In my 90-81 section, I made mention of my newly discovered love of modern trick taking games. Tournament at Camelot is the next trick taking game on my list and another prime example of why I’ve fallen in love with the genre.

Tournament at Camelot casts you and your opponents as different characters of Arthurian legend, duking it out to see who can be the least dead by game’s end. I once described this as Super Smash Bros meets King Arthur, and I feel like that is an apt description. Play is pretty standard trick taking fare; someone plays a card and everybody has to play a card of the same suit if they have it. Whoever plays the lowest card must take all the cards played in the trick, which is going to count as damage points at the end of the round. This marks the first twist the game provides. You’re not trying to win tricks, you’re trying to not lose them. It flips the script on a tried and true formula and it helps keep TaC fresh compared to other trick takers.

The twists don’t stop there. What truly makes TaC special is the wide range of special powers that players can use throughout the game. Each player starts with a character from the tales of King Arthur, such as Morgan le Fay, The Lady of the Lake and King Arthur himself. Each character has a unique ability to start the game off with, as well as a companion with an ability that triggers after a certain damage threshold has been reached. “But that’s not all!” I say in my best infomercial voice possible. In addition to these powers there are also Godsend powers. Godsend cards are special abilities (tied to items and characters that are also references to Arthurian legends) that are given to players below the leader(s) as a sort of catchup mechanism. It’s a nice pick me up for the tournament attendees, but instead of a 5-hour Energy or cooler of Gatorade, it’s things like a flaming sword or a gigantic lion with a human face (for some reason). These powers all bend the rules and break the game in fun, often hilarious ways. By the third round, almost everybody is armed with some sort of zany arsenal of abilities, creating a raucous, chaotic slug fest to the finish line.

As if the game wasn’t fun enough, TaC also sports some of my favorite board game art. It’s actual, authentic medieval style art, which is something I absolutely adore. I know, I know, I’m a weirdo, but I’ve always loved that art style. TaC contains tons of it, allowing the already ever present theme to drip through even more.

Tournament at Camelot was one of my first modern day trick takers and I still rank it among the best of them. If you have any interest in trick takers at all, this is a must own.

62. Small World

small world cover

My number 62 is another one of the hobby’s most popular gateway games and one that I definitely played to death when I first started gaming. I am talking about Small World, the cartoonish fantasy area control game of drafting different races and powers in an effort to wipe other players’ races off the map. It’s genocidal fun for the whole family!

The main draw of Small World is the myriad of fantasy races and goofy special powers that are combined randomly every game and then allowing players to pick which of those combos they want to play. Do you want to play as the Alchemist Trolls, a heavily defensive race that will produce extra gold every turn? Or do you take the Flying Merfolk, who can zip around wherever they want on the map, cherry picking the areas that border water and give them extra points?

This system of picking and using randomized armies brings two cool things to Small World. The first is the draft itself. When you pick your race and power combo, you have a whole column to pick from. The first combo is free and you can take it without spending precious gold. But if it’s a relatively weak combo that you want no part of (“Seafaring dwarves?? Absolutely not”), then you can pick a combination farther down the column with the caveat that you must place a gold coin on every race you skip. Then later on, if you anybody picks a combo with gold on it, hey! Free points! This is one of the first games that used this clever drafting system and we are finally starting to see other games copy it for use in their own systems (Century: Spice Road, Majesty: For the Realm and Micropolis to name a few). It creates a wonderful decision space where you’re constantly trying to figure out the value of how powerful a combo will be versus how much it’ll cost you to get to that.

The other cool aspect that this brings comes in the form of the decline mechanism. Like The Beatles or Butterfinger BBs, nothing lasts forever, and such is true for your races in Small World. As time goes on, your race is going to start to thin out more and more and you’ll have to decide when you’ll want to put them in decline. This simply means you spend a whole round taking most of those units off the board, flipping the remaining ones over to a black and white side and then getting ready to pick a new race in the next round. Timing for going into decline is absolutely crucial. Go into decline too early and you’re not being as efficient with your race’s powers. Go into decline too late, however, and you’ll end up having some very low scoring rounds since your current race is mere scraps on the board. If you time it just right, you can maximize points from your race in decline AND the new active race and that is ultimately the key to success in Small World.

Like many of the great gateway games, it’s easy to see why Small World has been so popular. The art is colorful and inviting, the gameplay is simple to explain (though the amount of powers can make new players’ heads spin), and it offers a ton of replayability and variety. Small World only misses cracking my top 50 mainly because, as I mentioned earlier, I played the mess out of this game when I first got it and have suffered a tad bit of burnout. Another big reason is because I’ve played a lot more area control games since my Small World days and those games are, quite simply, better than Small World.

Still, I can’t foresee a day where Small World will leave my collection and I also don’t expect it to leave this top 100 any time soon.

61. Brew Crafters

brew crafters cover

As a millennial white male, I have two main loves in life: board games (obviously) and craft beer. My number 61 just happens to combine those two! Brew Crafters is a worker placement game about making craft beer and running your own brewery and, for my money, it’s one of the most underrated Euros in the industry.

In Brew Crafters, you and your other players will be collecting ingredients, brewing beer and building infrastructure for your burgeoning brewery, all while trying to avoid horrifying amounts of debt (something many of us can relate to!). It’s pretty standard worker placement fare, but the way that the cozy looking art mixes with the theme and the gameplay makes it a surprisingly immersive jaunt through the world of craft beer and brewing.

The game’s rounds are broken into two distinct phases. The first phase has you doing a lot of resource gathering; you’re going to spots to pick things like hops, malt and yeast or hiring workers that provide passive special powers. The second phase involves brewing beer and building your brewery, which includes things like building additions and advancing up tech trees to grant you more efficient actions. Managing both phases is pivotal in making a well balanced brewery that can consistently pump out beer like an 80s hair metal band pumped out power ballads. There are various beer recipes for everyone to brew, allowing everyone to focus or specialize on different types. Do you focus on the lighter, easier beers that require fewer ingredients but net fewer points? Or do you try to brew the heavier, tougher beers that are chock full of hard to get ingredients but give more points? There’s also a tiny race element in the form of Gold Labels, which are little bonus point tokens given to the first person to brew a certain type of beer.  All the while, you’re desperately trying to get a steady flow of cash coming in, so you don’t have to take debt tokens throughout the game (there are no mobsters in the game, but it’s heavily implied that SOMEONE is not happy with you spending money so flippantly). It’s a surprisingly tough, tight game that will have you hand wringing in between turns, telepathically begging your opponents not to take the hops you oh so need.

I mentioned earlier that I find this to be a very underrated Euro, mainly because this game is rarely mentioned when great worker placement games are being discussed. This is a damn shame and I’d honestly rate Brew Crafters even higher on this list if it wasn’t so hard to get to the table (both figuratively and literally (this game’s footprint should have its own zip code)). As a disclaimer, I can kinda see why it didn’t catch fire. If you’re not into the theme of craft beers and breweries, this will likely seem like a very dry, vanilla worker placement game. In an era of board gaming where game designers sneeze and accidentally shit out two new worker placement games, you really have to add some sort of wrinkle or fresh take to the genre to really stand out. Brew Crafters, as good as it is and as much as I love it, doesn’t really have that.

BUT if you’re like me and love a good craft beer or a weekend trip to a brewery, then Brew Crafters will engross you with a deep, thoughtful experience that goes down as smoothly as a chocolate marshmallow stout.

 

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 80-71

We are at the third installment of my Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition), which means we’re about to wrap up the original trilogy. And immediately after this I’m going to run it into the ground with needless sequels like it’s a Disney franchise. If you haven’t caught up (SHAME ON YOU) here is my 100-91 and here is my 90-81.

And now, onto 80-71!

80. Lanterns

lanterns cover

Tile laying is in my top 3 game mechanisms of all time (why yes, I did rank my top 10 favorite game mechanisms while I was bored at work one day, why do you ask?), so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see some pop up on the list. My last entry had the wonderful tile laying microgame Circle the Wagons and we’re continuing the trend with my number 80: Lanterns.

Despite never catching fire quite like Ticket to Ride or Splendor, Lanterns is still one of the more popular gateway games in the hobby. This is for very good reason, and I actually like it more than those gateway behemoths I just mentioned. Lanterns is simple, quick, but incredibly puzzle-y and interactive, something every great gateway game should strive for.

In Lanterns, you’ll be dropping the titular paper lanterns into a big ass lake, watching them float around like multicolored lily pads. Normally this would be littering, but this is the big Harvest Festival, which means who cares if they’re not biodegradable! This is for the Emperor!

You’ll be placing tiles down into a communal landscape (like many tile laying games) and collecting different colored cards based on how you place them. The tiles are sectioned off into quarters, each with a different batch of colored lanterns inside. Upon placement of the tile, the players all receive a colored card matching the colored lanterns that are facing them. As the game goes on, you’re trying to cash in sets of these cards to gain points from constantly diluting pile of tokens.

Not since this past Thanksgiving with your Trump loving Uncle have you cared more about where people are sitting at a table. You have to constantly be peeking at the cards they’ve collected and making sure you don’t allow them to get a set while also being sure to get colors that YOU could use. Bonus cards applied from color adjacency and getting tokens from decorative floats that allow you to exchange cards add even more layers to this scrumptious puzzle. You’ll be fidgeting with your hand of three tiles, rotating them and squinting at the board, imagining the ramifications of each decision. The fact that this is all done in a brisk 30 minutes and that it can be taught to all your non gamer friends helps cement Lanterns right here at spot 80.

79. Hand of the King

hand of the king cover

Hey! I’ve already reviewed this one! You can read it right here! That means I can take this entry off, right? I’ll see you in ten minutes.

FINE, I guess I’ll still actually write about it. Hand of the King is an abstract strategy game set in the Game of Thrones universe, designed by my favorite game designer, Bruno Cathala (spoiler alert: he’s gonna show up on this list a LOT). In this game, you’ll be maneuvering a bald man around a grid, grabbing cards representing members of the various Houses from the books. As you gain majorities in these Houses, you’ll gain that House’s banner BUT other players can swipe the banner away from you if they either match or beat your current majority. The result is a constant tug of war over the various houses, with banners flying between players faster than crossbow bolts at a wedding hosted by Walder Frey.

There are also some nice decisions that come from the presence of ‘Companion’ cards representing other GoT characters that activate a special ability. Players can grab and use one of these cards if they take the last character of a House from the board. This creates a constant sense of tension throughout the game: do you take that last character from House Stark, even though it won’t give you a majority and the banner is already lost? Or do you shore up your majority in House Lannister, guaranteeing yourself the banner till game’s end? For just a quick 10-15 minute game, Hand of the King packs more punch than a House Clegane family reunion.

Another lovely bit about this game is that it scales incredibly well. One would think this would be best at 2 players, given its back and forth, extremely tactical nature. But it actually plays really well at 3 and also features an amazing 4 player team variant, where two teams of two are trying to share between them more banners than the other team. The best part about this variant is you can not discuss strategy with your teammate unless you spend a raven token, of which each player only has one of. Then you can find a corner of the room to discuss strategy like you’re Littlefinger scheming in the back of a brothel.

I feel bad for this game and think it went really under the radar. I think I may have mentioned this in my review (what, you expect me to go back and read it? Pssh), but I can’t help but feel that the game’s license is what held this back. Which is ironic, because Game of Thrones is gigantic, even with the show’s less than stellar (Read: shitty) final season.

If you are one of the people that dodged this game due to its license, please give it a shot. Though the game’s Companion cards are surprisingly thematic, this game is an abstract and the theme is mostly window dressing. If you DO like the license, then what the hell are you waiting for!? Buy this game, it’s super cheap and you’ll have more fun with it than two Lannister twins with a free, secluded bedroom.

78. Thunder and Lightning

thunder and lightning cover

I love me some good 2 player only games and Thunder and Lightning is a VERY good 2 player only game. Set in Norse mythology, Thunder and Lightning casts 2 players as Loki and Thor squaring off, each one trying to find a specific card in the other player’s deck. Anyone who has played the classic game Stratego (one of the few mass market games I’d vouch for and still be willing to play today) will instantly feel familiar with this game.

Both players have their own decks of cards which are functionally the same but differ in some art and card names. The cards represent various figures and tropes of Norse mythology and players will be playing these cards to a battlefield. Cards are placed facedown in a 3 by 4 grid, where your opponent can then try to fight their way through it using cards on THEIR side of the battlefield. There are also other cards that you can play immediately for powers which allow you to do things such as draw randomly from your opponent’s hand, target specific cards on the battlefield, bring back some cards from your discard, etc. If at any point a player can find the card they’re looking for (Odin’s Crown for Loki, Odin’s Ring for Thor) then they win!

Thus begins an agonizingly intense game of bluffing, hand management and secretive tableau building. Every decision is fraught with tension as you try to sneak into the mind of your opponent, trying to discover why they’ve played cards in certain positions or why they’re triggering certain powers. Are they keeping their hand so large because they drew your MacGuffin and are trying to lower the odds of you plucking it out with an Odin’s Ravens card? Or is it to throw you off the scent that they’ve already played your MacGuffin into their battlefield, waiting innocently in a corner as you pay no mind to it? Or is it simply because they like having a lot of cards and options? And what do YOU even do? Do you play strong solider cards to your frontlines, creating a sturdy defense? Or do you space them across your battlefield to provide a nice surprise for your opponent as they get deeper into your lines? Questions like this will pinball around your brain and you’ll constantly doubt and rethink your actions as you try to come up with the best use for the cards in your hand.

My only complaint about Thunder and Lightning is that the game can go on pretty long, especially if neither player draws their opponent’s MacGuffin until late in the deck. It’s entirely possible for both player’s MacGuffins to be buried in the 2nd half of their decks, meaning it will be a long time before anyone even draws it. Considering there are also cards that can raise casualties back from the dead further elongates a game that can take over an hour. This complaint is amplified by the fact that a bad bit of randomness can literally lose you the game, thus making an hour plus runtime a little tougher to swallow.

Besides that one sticking point, Thunder and Lightning is a fantastic addition to anyone’s 2 player only game collection.

77. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden

cabbagehead's cover

A common complaint we board gamers have is that we have so many games and we constantly want to play those games, but there’s only so many opportunities to play them. Sure, you can emotionally blackmail your friends into feeling sorry for you so that they’ll come over and play but take it from me, they catch to my, I mean YOUR, tricks pretty fast. So, what’s a board gamer to do when they have that old craving for board games but no one around to help satiate it?

What’s that? Do something productive and meaningful, like volunteer or clean your house? Hahahaha, goodness no! Just play a solo board game instead!

I’ve already mentioned solo variants to games on this Top 100 and how I’m on the lookout for great solo modes, but I haven’t mentioned any solitaire only games. Allow me to rectify that with my number 77, Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden.

Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden throws you into the role of the titular Mr. Cabbagehead, who finds himself trying to win the blue ribbon for his community’s garden contest. How you make that garden is by playing cards representing specific vegetables in a grid, trying to situate them in a way that gets you a lot of points from getting like vegetables together in a big patch as well as trying to complete certain formations. Which means, yep, another tile laying game. Told you I liked them!

Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden has a couple of cool mechanisms in it that help make it unique in this very crowded genre. The first is how you draft the cards that go in your garden. Every turn, you draw three cards and put them in a row and then you have to manage these little bee tokens based on which of those cards you want. If you want the middle card, you can just take it for free and you don’t have to involve any of those pesky bees in your affairs. But if you want the card on the left you need to pay a bee token from your supply to the beehive next to the deck. Meanwhile, if you want the card on the right you have to take a bee token from the beehive. If you can’t do either of these, because either your supply or the beehive is empty, you cannot take that card. This cute little drafting system introduces a small element of push your luck to the game, causing you to carefully consider how much of a bind you’re willing to put yourself into for future turns. I guess you could say it’s all about managing your beeconomy.

Ah yes, there’s the reason I’m forced to play solitaire only games like this, glad I can skip the therapist bill for that one.

Moving on, let’s talk about neighbors. Like, not in general, but in the game. Mr. Cabbagehead has an awful cast of characters in his neighborhood, and they’re constantly stalking outside the garden gate, waiting for Mr. Cabbaghead to go on holiday so they can slink through and steal some vegetables. How this is represented in game terms is that at the end of every turn, your draw a certain number of neighbor tokens (decided by the vegetable cards you didn’t draft) and place them on the neighbor they represent. When it’s time for Mr. Cabbaghead to go get lit at some music festival for the weekend, the neighbor with the most tokens steals a specific type of vegetable. Unless there is a tie which means no neighbors visit. So, on top of managing your beeconomy (no, I’m not letting it die) you also have to be thoughtful of how many neighbor tokens you’ll have to pull based on which vegetable card your draft. Having vegetables stolen is back breaking in this game. I’ve had one measly stolen vegetable cost me well over 30 points once because of where it was placed and how central it was to my strategy. Managing your neighbors to avoid this from happening is as essential as the actual gardening itself.

The last thing I’ll rave about is this game’s theme and art. The game sports a very Victorian era aesthetic and feel that makes it incredibly charming. The illustrations are even inspired by old vegetable drawings you would find in Victorian literature and the anthropomorphized vegetable people that inhabit the game world are also ripped straight from the era. Sure, it can be a little creepy looking, to the point that the characters look like something the Umbrella Corporation would engineer in their company garden. But the somewhat grotesque nature perfectly falls in line with the tongue in cheek humor that oozes from the game’s flavor text and its rulebook (the rulebook for this game might be my favorite rulebook ever, it’s hilarious). The end result is a super unique and charming look and feel to this game that really elevates it from the more generic looking tile layers out there.

My one complaint about this game is that it can feel very swingy if you run into bad luck. I mentioned earlier that a single vegetable being stolen from your garden can result in you losing 30-40 points, and there’s many times you lack the control to prevent that sort of thing from ever happening. Yes, there are ways to mitigate the random draw of neighbor tokens and you can plan ahead and situate your garden in a way that losing a certain vegetable won’t be devastating, but there are a ton of times where you’ll play the odds in your favor and still come out with a negative outcome strictly because of bad luck. I’m convinced the only way to get the blue ribbon in this game (which is the ‘top’ score) is to not only play perfectly mistake free but to also not have ANY sort of bad luck plague your garden. Any Cabbaghead experts out there willing to prove me wrong, I’d be more than happy to hear it!

All that being said, this game is a quick 15-20 minutes, so it’s not like you should really care that much about swingy randomness. Because despite it, this is such an enjoyable, charming little game that any aspiring solo gamer should have in their collection.

76. Carcassonne

carcassonne cover

All this talk about tile laying games, and we haven’t even mentioned the grand poohbah of them all: Carcassonne. Arguably the game that really brought tile laying into the mainstream of the board game hobby, Carcassonne continues to be one of the most popular gateway games into the hobby; if there was a Mount Rushmore for gateway games, Carcassonne would 100% be on it. I credit Forbidden Island and Pandemic for getting me into the hobby, but Carcassonne is the first competitive game I truly fell in love with. Here we are, over four years later and Carcassonne is still on my top 100.

Carcassonne tasks players with building the titular city as well as its surrounding countryside, placing tiles out in a communal landscape (wait, didn’t I just say that a few games ago), and placing their meeples on various features to try and score them if they ever finish them before game’s end. As the landscape grows, players become invested in certain areas, creating a tense race to the finish line as each player hopes and prays the tile they draw is the exact tile they need to complete something (Narrator voice: “They won’t.”)

There’s just so much to love about Carcassonne, but one thing I’ve always adored is how it’s very versatile in the type of game it can be. If you want to play a peaceful game of city building, not getting in each other’s ways and just enjoying the piece of art everyone is creating, this game allows that. However, if you want a vicious game of cutthroat maneuvers and constantly butting heads, Carcassonne can be as mean as all hell. I have some friends who enjoy the more peaceful playstyle, and it’s always a serene, relaxing experience. But I have other friends who will ALWAYS place tiles in a way that either attempts to snipe your territory or that makes it incredibly difficult for you to complete the feature you’re working on. Whether it’s a lovely stroll through idyllic France or an absolute massacre, Carcassonne manages to be a great time either way.

I am a little surprised Carcassonne is relatively low on this list (not that spot 76 is anything to sneeze at!) and I simply think that’s because I played SO much of this when first getting into the hobby. When first getting into board gaming, I pretty much exclusively played cooperative games. When I did play a competitive game, though, Carcassonne was ALWAYS the one to hit the table. It certainly holds a nostalgic corner of my heart, but I do think the constant play of it in those first few years has resulted in a tad bit of burnout.

Regardless, Carcassonne is still amazing and anybody who hasn’t played it absolutely needs to. It is an evergreen classic in this hobby for a reason, and there are so many tile layers we have Carcassonne to thank for.

75. Hive Mind

hive mind cover

This is perhaps the most mass market-y game on my list. In fact, if it didn’t have the name of an established publisher and of literally one of the most influential designers to ever work in the industry on the box, it’d be easy to think this was mass market. But to cast it aside simply because of that would be a grave mistake, because Hive Mind is one of the most purely fun party games you can buy.

Designed by industry legend Richard Garfield (the guy who designed Magic: The Gathering, perhaps you’ve heard of it), Hive Mind is a ridiculously simple party game that can be explained by simply saying this: it’s reverse Scattergories. On your turn, you pick a card from a box and pick one of the six prompts it has (or even create your own if you’re feeling adventurous). These prompts are things like “Name 5 rides you’d find at an amusement park” or “Name 3 things that are red” or “Name 10 reasons why Boar & Arrow is your favorite board game blogger”. After the prompt is given, players write their answers and then, one by one, share what they’ve written. So, using the “Name 3 things that are red” prompt, I might write ‘firetruck’, ‘Elmo’, and ‘bricks’. As I say these answers, anyone who matches with me announces (read: shout excitedly and obnoxiously) that they have the same answer and people get points based on how many others they matched with. Whoever has the least matches gets knocked down a level in a big beehive (there’s a bee theme to this game, by the way, so I’ll try and fit my ‘beeconomy’ joke in here somewhere), and a new round is played until someone is kicked out of the hive.

The fun in this comes from the loud, raucous conversations that these prompts and answers ignite. Going back to the example prompt I gave, I say firetruck and the entire table cheers that they match except for one person, who puts their head in their hands and groans, moaning, “How did I not think of firetrucks.” But then I get to ‘bricks’ and nobody matches on that so I complain for two straight minutes about how on earth can you not say bricks, things are literally described as ‘brick red’, come on! All of this with slightly more cursing, of course, this blog is trying to stay in the PG to PG-13 range. Then it goes onto the next person, which starts a brand-new batch of groans and high fives. It’s an incredibly social game, one where you want to agree with people which is a delightful change of pace from many social board games.

Hive Mind has easily been one of the most successful games with non-gamers for me. It’s sooo easy to teach and the fact that most people already have played Scattergories means they have a touchstone to help them understand it even easier. It’s a favorite at holiday family functions for me, with my mom constantly asking me if I’ve “brought the bee game”. My 90+ year old grandfather, who was in the last months of his life and entering the nasty stages of dementia, was able to play this game with us and everyone had an absolute blast with it. Not to get sappy, but aren’t moments like that what board games are all about?

If you have a game group that enjoys these casual kinds of party games, it’s tough to find a better recommendation than Hive Mind.

74. Lost Cities

Lost Cities cover

My next game marks a triumphant return of Reiner Knizia, who hasn’t been seen since doing double duty in my 100-91 blog post. On that list, one of his two games that appeared was Schotten Totten, a two-player card game that involved playing cards on your side of the table in a tug of war match over different areas. My number 74 is often compared to Schotten Totten and it’s another one of Knizia’s classics. I am, of course, talking about Lost Cities.

In Lost Cities, players are partaking in expeditions to various regions, such as the Amazon, the Arctic and to what is either the center of a volcano or literally Hell. Like Schotten Totten, players play a card and draw a card. When playing a card, you either play it to a specific expedition on your side of the board (making sure the card values are in ascending order) OR to a communal discard pile for that specific expedition. When you draw a card, you either take blindly from the top of the deck or take the top card of any one of those communal discard piles.

What could be a fairly standard game of drawing and playing cards efficiently is transformed into a panic inducing game of chicken and press your luck thanks to one little rule in the scoring. Knizia is known for little twists and wrinkles that take simple designs and rulesets and turns them into beautifully tense experiences that make your brain scream for mercy. Lost Cities involves one of his best ‘Knizia twists’

(No, ’Knizia twists’ is not an actual term in the industry and yes, it sounds like a brand of German pretzels, but I’m coining it anyway).

In Lost Cities, players score the cards they played to their expeditions by simply adding the values together. So, if I play a 1, 2, 4, and 6 in the Amazon, that is 13 points for me! There are also hand shake cards which can multiply that by 2, 3 or even 4. That means if I play two handshakes there, I get 39 points! Awwww, yeeeeah, I just kicked the Amazon’s ass. BUT…remember that Knizia Twist ™ I mentioned earlier? The moment you play a card into an expedition you immediately start at negative twenty points for that area. Thematically, that is the capital you’re investing to jumpstart such a grand adventure. In gameplay terms, it means you need to get a value of at least 21 in that expedition if you want to score any sort of positive points. That example I used earlier means that I would have scored 13 minus 20 which equals… (checks calculator)…negative 7 points. And those handshake cards? Those are applied AFTER the twenty point deduction, so let me check my calculator again….ah, yes, that is now negative TWENTY-ONE points. It appears the Amazon kicked MY ass.

This creates such an agonizing dilemma. You don’t want to play into an expedition before you’re pretty sure you can amass the cards needed to get over that 20 point threshold. BUT doing so means you have to tread water with your hand, discarding cards to the communal discards before committing to an expedition. BUT doing this means that you may give the exact cards that your opponent needs to get started on any expeditions they’re working on so you just never wanna play a card to an expedition or to a discard but you have to so what do you do and ahhhh, i want my mommy!

Lost Cities is everything I want in a card game: simple and quick but packed with suspense and tough decisions.

73. Arboretum 

arboretum cover

Going from one card game that will give you a panic attack to another card game that will give you an even bigger panic attack, we’re here at number 73: Arboretum. Arboretum is a game that found life in two different editions: once published by Z-Man Games, and now published by Renegade. The Renegade version has vastly prettier art (in my opinion, of course) done by the always wonderful Beth Sobel. A game that has enough popularity to be published twice by two different publishers is usually a good sign for a game, and such is certainly the case for Arboretum.

Arboretum, besides being a word I’ve already misspelled like five different ways while writing this entry, is a card game about planting trees and making the best, well, arboretum. Planting trees requires placing them out in a grid like fashion in front of you, making Arboretum yet another tile laying style game on my list. But the heart of Arboretum is in its hand management. And it is not a warm, gentle heart at all. It is a dark, gnarled, brambly heart that lies in the tree hollow of this game.

Let me explain. Like Lost Cities, Arboretum has a very simple gameplay loop. On your turn, you draw two cards (either from the deck or from one of the personal discard piles in front of each player) and add them to your hand. You then play one to your arboretum and discard another card to the discard pile in front of you. Playing to your arboretum is where you’re gonna get points; you want to play cards of the same type (suits are tree species in this game, like oak and maple) together and in ascending order, because that’s how you score each species. But like Lost Cities (again), there are some scoring twists that make a relaxing game of walking through an arboretum into a game that will trigger PTSD the next time you look at a tree.

As mentioned, points are given based on how you laid out your species of trees in your arboretum. You score a species based on finding a continuous path of ascending trees that start and end with that species in your arboretum.  The twist here is that only one person will score any given species per game. That honor goes to whoever has the cards of that species left in their hand that adds up to the highest total value.

Welcome to Tree Hell.

Every decision you make in this game will be overflowing with self-loathing and doubt, as you’re constantly second guessing every choice you make. When playing into your arboretum, you never want to commit to a certain suit of card because that will cause others to prevent you from getting it. When playing into your discard, you never want to give your opponent something they can use. But if you’re wishy washy and conservative with every decision, you’ll clog your hand and never gain any ground on anything. It’s brutal, it’s mean, it’s infuriating and I love every single minute of it.

The 30-45 minutes you spend playing Arboretum is a white knuckled adrenaline rush, with every synapse in your brain is begging for mercy. By the time it’s all done, you’ll feel like you’ll need a cigarette. The only reason why Arboretum isn’t higher is because I just haven’t played it as much as I’d like. I wouldn’t be shocked if in 2020, this game creeps its way into my top 50.

72. World’s Fair 1893

world's fair cover

I’ve already mentioned a couple of gateway games this list with Lanterns and Carcassonne and my number 72 is perhaps the most underrated gateway game of them all. This game is World’s Fair 1893, an area control and set collection game set in, surprisingly, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

World’s Fair has a modular board where five areas, each representing a different department of exhibits at the World’s Fair (like agricultural and electrical), are situated around a big Ferris wheel which acts as the round tracker. Cards are randomly dealt out to each area, with more cards being added at the end of every turn. On your turn, you’re going to place one of your cubes in the area of your choice, which does two things: one, it allows you to take all the cards and add them to your player area and two, it allows you to have a cube in that area for area majority purposes at the end of the round (more on that later).

The cards you’re collecting come in three flavors: cards representing exhibits that pertain to each department, cards representing tickets for midway attractions and historical figures from the real life World’s Fair. The historical figures have special abilities you activate on a subsequent turn and the midway tickets give you a point per card and move the round tracker around the Ferris Wheel but the cards you really need to pay attention to are the exhibit cards. These exhibit cards all match the color of an area on that board, the very areas you’re vying for area majority in throughout the round. This is important, because players get to cash in a certain amount of exhibit cards for scoring tokens at the end of the round. But how many? That’s determined by the rankings of the area majority in that area. If you have the majority in that area, you get to cash in more exhibits than anybody else.

Like all great games, this system creates an interesting balance. In order to get a green card you might need to place a cube in the red area, which seems counterproductive because then your cube is counting towards an area majority that doesn’t even allow you to cash in green cards. It’s incredibly tactical and you’ve got to weigh the benefits of certain areas on a turn by turn basis. It’s a surprisingly crunchy puzzle given how simple the gameplay and choices are on a given turn.

I’m also a huge fan of this theme. I’ve always been drawn to the look of the late 1800s/early 1900s (yanno, minus the horrifying amounts of racism and sexism back then) and this game captures that aesthetic brilliantly. There is flavor text on all the cards, giving you a little bit of trivia about that specific exhibit at the fair, doing a great job of immersing you even further. Even the damn round tracker evokes the theme perfectly, the Ferris Wheel carriage moving around the circle to indicate how quickly the round might end.

All in all, I think it’s a damn shame that this game doesn’t get more respect. I truly believe it should be in the same conversation as Carcassonne and Splendor when we talk about evergreen gateway games, but World’s Fair never quite got that amount of attention. Correct this injustice by giving this game a try.

71. Naga Raja

nagaraja cover

We end this section of my top 100 with Naga Raja, another game I’ve already reviewed. Read that very post right here or continue reading for the Cliff Notes version.

Naga Raja is a two player only game and the second appearance on this list by my favorite designer, Bruno Cathala. In this game, you and your opponent are rival archaeologists trying to explore their temples and uncover prized relics before the other player does. This is done with multi use cards, tile laying and dice chucking, which all simmer and cook together to make a fine fondue for two.

Players are going to use their cards for one of two things: they are either going to commit them to use the dice that’s printed at their top OR they’re going to spend special dice called naga to activate a card for its special ability. I’m a big fan of multi-use cards, and I love how they’re used here. Having to choose one of two uses for them helps keep things tactically rich and engaging, but simple and streamlined.

But that’s only half the game. The other half is the actual exploration of your personal temple board, which starts out as a 3 by 3 grid surrounded by nine face down relic tiles. Throughout the game, you’ll be rolling dice (given by cards, as I said) and whoever rolls more pips gets to grab a tile that’s up for auction. The tiles involve pathways that, when put into your temple, you’re trying to link together in a way that it connects the relic tiles to the entrance. Doing so flips over the tile, getting you points. The game is a race to 25 points, so being as efficient as possible with getting the right tiles and placing them in the right place is key.

There are some other subtle things that make Naga Raja great. For one, there is a mini push your luck element involving cursed relics. There are three of these things among your nine treasure tiles and they are worth the most points. But if you expose all three, you automatically lose the game (which is not the first time someone would get in trouble for exposing something). This creates a great deal of suspense when somebody has two cursed relics flipped over. Every flip of a relic tile after that becomes a hold your breath, peek through one eye kind of affair.

The special abilities you can activate on the cards are also a ton of fun to manage. Some are straightforward, like being able to draw more cards or allowing you to add pips to your dice rolls for the sake of the tile auction. But others allow some deviously clever plays, like the ones that allow you to rotate or slide tiles around your temples, or to even screw around with your opponent’s temple like the world’s least wanted interior designer. When you pull off a game changing move with one of these abilities, it creates such satisfying moments of feeling like you outwit your opponent…until they do the same thing to you, of course.

Naga Raja is such a cool, unique blend of different mechanisms that create a great back and forth battle of tactics and luck for two players. Partnered with some really great art by the always fantastic Vincent Dutrait, and you have yourself an easy top 100 pick for me.

*

Three down, seven to go! Thanks for reading and come back in another week or so to see what makes the list in the 70-61 section!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition): 90-81

Welcome back! This is the second part of my Top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition)! This means I’m tackling 90-81. If you need a recap on 100-91, click here. Otherwise, let’s get on with it!

90. Dead of Winter

dead of winter cover

Dead of Winter is a tough one for me. On the one hand, it’s given me some of the most memorable and truly cinematic moments of my board gaming career (is career the right word? Using it anyway). On the other hand, it’s got some serious flaws that have prevented me from getting it to the table lately.

Let’s deal with that icky stuff first so that we end on a high note. For one, this game is loooong. And I don’t mind long games, but this is also a game where a lot of what you’re doing is really similar. You visit locations, mill that location’s deck looking for what you want, maybe kill some zombies and rinse and repeat for 2-3 hours (make that even longer if you’re playing with the full five player count). The game’s drama comes forth in the uncertainty of whether there is a traitor or not and the infighting that should hopefully begin brewing but if you have an uneventful game where nothing triggers that sort of dissention, Dead of Winter can draaag.

Like most semi cooperatives, this is also a very fragile design. One player can torpedo the whole thing, and I’ve even experienced it happen. I played a 5 hour game of this (at the 5 players, which I would not recommend) once and it all ended with one of the players saying, “If I don’t win this, no one will” and then she proceeded to throw all the hard work we spent the entire night doing and cost us the game. You can argue that’s a player problem and not a game problem, which is valid, but I’d also argue that a player making those kinds of moves is perfectly allowed in a semi cooperative design space so we shouldn’t blame a player when they take that avenue. Her decision is even pretty thematic given the game’s post apocalypse theme. While I applaud Dead of Winter for creating a moment that we could see in a zombie movie, I’ll also point out that there’s a reason every character in those movies is miserable. Add to this that luck can WILDLY swing this game (and not in a fun way) and you can see why I have reservations about Dead of Winter.

Okay, so this is a top 100 list so maybe I should say good things about the game, eh? Despite these things I just mentioned, this game still has a place in my top 100 because it does other things very, very well. I mentioned before that the game can often create moments of infighting and mistrust and when those do occur, the game comes alive. One of the first times I played this game, there was an incredible moment where me and another player had a ten minute debate about whether or not to cast out our third member of the colony. That third member pleaded with us as we discussed his fate, and I was full of dread and guilt as we made the decision to exile him. The fact that a game was able to create such an intense, visceral moment with just bits of cardboard continues to impress me to this day.

Dead of Winter is also richly thematic and atmospheric, something that will always draw me to a game. Characters all have appropriate special abilities given their occupation before the end of the world, items make thematic sense and this is all supported by wonderfully immersive, blood drenched art. There is also the famed Crossroads system found in this game, in which players can trigger story moments based on something specific they do on their turn. While they don’t trigger as often as I’d like, when they DO it once again creates great, cinematic moments that make this game feel one of a kind.

So, yes, I have problems with Dead of Winter, but when it’s good, it’s freaking good.

89. Samurai Spirit

samurai spirit cover

The next game is a pure cooperative, this one designed by Antoine Bauza. His most famous cooperative is Ghost Stories (now reprinted as Last Bastion), but I actually think I prefer Samurai Spirit.

Samurai Spirit is a push your luck game that basically rips off the plot of Seven Samurai. You and your friends are a bunch of samurai protecting a village from bandits and you can also turn into animals. Okay, I don’t remember that scene, but I’m sure it’s in the Director’s Cut.

How you defend the village is by drawing cards from a deck of bandits and placing them on either the left or right side of your character’s player board. Placing it on the left means you’re matching up  symbols that may be present on the bandit card, which helps prevent various penalties at the end of the round. If you’re not able to match symbols or simply don’t want to, you can place it on the right which triggers a mini game of Blackjack. Every bandit has a number and when you place that card to the right of your board, you adjust a little meter by that amount. Every samurai has a number on that meter that is a ‘sweet spot’ that allows them to activate a special power but if you go beyond that you bust and you’re out of the round. So, yeah, totally Blackjack but with samurais.

Players also have the option to instead support another player and pass a token representing their passive special ability to someone else. This is at the cost of placing a facedown bandit card by the village board, which could result in the village being harmed if that bandit card is revealed to have a ‘fire’ symbol at the end of the round. This adds yet another element of push your luck, but this ability to support other players can create really cool combos between everyone at the table. It’s a cooperative game where you actually feel like you’re cooperating and that’s always a plus, yanno?

Samurai Spirit isn’t perfect, which keeps it here in the high 80s. The game can be somewhat hit or miss depending on the construction of the bandit deck. Since the bandit deck is built from a bigger supply of bandit cards that are randomly chosen, you can end up with some bandit decks that are way too hard or way too easy. This is particularly true at the lower player counts, where the deck is smaller and therefore the deck makeup could be a lot less balanced. Will you be facing Satan’s Personal Army or the bandit equivalent of The Three Stooges? It’s a toss up, and that can create either very frustrating games or very boring games.

Despite these balance concerns, when Samurai Spirit is firing on all cylinders, it’s a hidden gem of a cooperative game. Lots of fun, with just the right amount of cooperation, luck and tactics.

88. Magic Maze

magic maze cover

Let’s move onto number 88: Magic Maze, the cooperative game about fantasy characters stealing their equipment back from a mall.

Magic Maze has a couple of real unique selling points. One, it’s real time which isn’t SUPER unique but it does separate itself from a lot of other turn based co-ops. Two, you don’t control a pawn or character in this game. You control actions. I may be the guy who moves characters north and east, but you may be the character who moves them south and through portals and Jenny over there may be the one who can trigger escalators and move pawns west. The game is played out over an ever-evolving map of tiles that come out throughout the game and you need to pay attention to when it’s your turn to move a pawn and navigate this sprawling labyrinth as it spreads across your table like a fungus.

Did I mention you can’t talk? Because you can’t talk. Between this and The Mind on my last entry, I’m beginning to think I just don’t like talking to people? Anyway, you’re not allowed to communicate and direct people around unless a pawn goes to a little hourglass symbol. This helps reset the clock and allows players to talk until the next pawn is moved, in which case it goes back to pretending like everyone’s at a funeral.

There is one way to communicate and it’s hilarious. It comes in the form of a big red pawn called the “Do Something” pawn and it is a hellish invention. When you see somebody blankly staring at the board when they’re OBVIOUSLY supposed to move the dwarf pawn down to the next tile, you simply pick up the “Do Something” pawn and start smacking it down in front of them like a gavel to get their attention. If you’re a jackass, at least. You could just set it down in front of them politely, but where’s the fun in that? Watch with delight as your friend frantically darts their eyes around the board, wondering why you’re going to town on the “Do Something” pawn like the world’s most coked up judge.

All these rules combine to make one of the most manic, fun gaming experiences you can ask for. Magic Maze is easily one of my favorite games to bring out to new people, watching their eyes light up as they realize they’re about to experience something they’ve never had before. And then watch that amazement and wonder turn to pure hatred and fury as you’re slamming the “Do Something” pawn in front of them.

Magic Maze would be higher if it was a little bit deeper. The game offers a wide range of scenarios and extra rules as you get longer and longer into the game, but most of them are kind of ‘meh’. The best scenarios are definitely the first three or four, where the game is much more basic. I hear the expansion fixes some of this, but I unfortunately don’t have it. Despite this, it’s still a solid entry on my top 100 and I never have anything less than a blast when playing this game.

87. Kreus

kreus cover

Kreus is definitely one of the more obscure and underrated games on this list. It is yet another cooperative game with limited communication, which leads me to believe this top 100 may have just been an excuse to confess my issues with communicating with people.

ANYWAY, MOVING ON.

Kreus is a game where you and your fellow players are gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, trying to create a planet because you’re bored or something. I’m dreading having to explain it and the rules beyond that, because this is a surprisingly tricky game to explain despite how simple it is. The first four or five times I taught this game, I managed to miss a rule every time and somehow it was always a DIFFERENT rule. Very embarrassing. So strap in!

(takes deep gulp of air)

In Kreus, the planet you and your teammates are trying to make is represented by a flowchart. The flowchart is made up of features of the planet, like mountains, river, fish, flowers, etc., as well as the Elements that make up those features. The Elements are just different colored orbs. A deck of cards that contain these features and elements is completely dealt out to the players. Then, round by round you and everyone else are going to try and make the planet according to the flowchart, starting from the top and working your way on down until you’re able to cap it off with the “Planet” card, which is the cherry on top of this cosmic sundae. The actual gameplay is playing cards simultaneously and face down. Starting with the first player, you reveal and place your card into the flowchart you’re trying to make, as long as its legal. If it’s not legal (as in you played an element that isn’t needed for the played features or you played a feature that doesn’t have its prerequisites built yet), the card is discarded and your margin of error get that much thinner.

(long exhale)

Okay, so that’s a sort of okay description. The trick in this game is, as I mentioned, the lack of communication. Obviously if this game allowed you to just freely discuss the contents of your hands, you would be able to find the perfect order to play your cards. Having restrictions on that makes this a tense puzzle of reading your players moves and making your best guess of what they played so YOU know what to play. You can spend gems to activate special actions that help alleviate the restrictions, like showing a card to another player or exchanging cards, but even that comes with some sense of reading between the lines (“why the hell did they show me a fish”).

This game is very reminiscent of The Mind, in that you’re trying to play cards in a certain order without being able to actually discuss it. The Mind is more based from a social perspective however, while Kreus is more seeded in trying to game the system. Based on what’s in your hand, versus what has already been played, versus what special abilities other players have triggered that round, you can make your best assessment on what you need to play. When you and your teammates manage to play the correct sequence of cards without a single word spoken? That’s the kinda magical moment that keeps Kreus on my top 100.

86. Monikers

monikers cover

Monikers is a game that is based on a public domain game that has several different names: Fishbowl, The Hat Game and Celebrity are a few of the names given to the DIY versions you play with your friends, while people in the hobby will recognize Time’s Up as an officially published version of the game system. So, you could technically put any of those versions here at my 86 spot but Monikers is the version of this game that I own and have played endless hours of, so that’s the one I’m putting on my list.

Monikers/Fishbowl/The Hat Game/Celebrity/Time’s Up is a game where two (or more) teams are trying to guess more words and phrases than the other team(s). These words and phrases are on cards that make up a unique deck for that game. On your team’s turn, a clue giver is trying to give clues to lead your team to guessing whatever is on that card. Pretty standard party game stuff, so far. But there are two unique twists that make this game as memorable and funny as it is.

The first twist is that the game is played over three rounds and each round narrows the amount of stuff the clue giver can say and give to their team in order to guess the word. First round is easy: the clue giver can say whatever they want as long as it isn’t part of the word or phrase itself. Second round is tougher: in this round, the clue giver can only give ONE word to lead their team to winning the card. Third round is madness: only charades/silent gestures can be used to get your team to guess the card.

Which of course leads me to the second twist that makes this game system so brilliant. During these three rounds, the SAME deck of cards is being used. This means players have to remember from previous rounds what words have been guessed and use that to their advantage as the clues get vaguer and more stupid as the game goes on

The end result is a hilarious game where inside jokes and callbacks run rampant. As you get deeper and deeper into the game, your brain latches onto references from previous rounds, creating a cacophony of laughter whenever they pop back up. This leads to situations like in a recent game for me, where somebody pantomiming a fire breathing dragon led to someone (correctly) shouting, “BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.” Another saw a friend of mine running to block a door with his back, fear and panic on his face in order to get across the word “Hodor”. Perhaps my favorite of all is a very simple moment when my friend gave a serene, welcoming gesture with his hands and face which got me to correctly guess, “Richard Attenborough”.

It’s these little moments that pepper a night of Monikers that make it such a fun, hysterical experience. There’s not much else to add, so I’ll close with my favorite Monikers story. One night, I introduced it to three friends and we were playing 2 v. 2 for an hour or so. Another friend came in during the third round of a game and saw us guessing extremely specific prompts off of fairly basic charades gestures. She stood there dumbfounded, not realizing it wasn’t normal Charades, and just softly said, “how did you guys do that.”

If you like party games or often find yourself playing games in big groups, it’s tough to go wrong with Monikers. Just be prepared for the entire night to go by without realizing it.

85. Claim

Claim cover

2019 brought a lot of big life events for me. I moved in with a girlfriend for the first time, I was asked to be my best friend’s best man in his wedding, I got my first ever paid freelance writing job. But these are all dwarfed by one realization I made in 2019. And that realization is: I really like trick taking games.

Now, I don’t want to be too broad here. I still don’t care for your standard, ‘old fashioned’ trick taking games like Euchre or Bridge. Things that you would play in the kitchen of your grandparents’ house/apartment need not apply here. But when a trick taking game takes that basic premise of playing suited cards and trying to win tricks mixes that up with some other mechanism or clever twist? I discovered in 2019, that I adore those kinds of games. The first game of this type is Claim, a two-player trick taking game about trying to win factions in a goofy, medieval fantasy world.

There are a lot of cool little twists that make Claim so unique and clever. The first is the round structure. Claim is played over two rounds, where the first round is spent winning cards that will then form your hand in the second round. This itself is brilliant, but then when you add in the faction abilities, Claim somehow gets even better. You see, the suits in Claim are different factions/ fantasy races. You have things like Knights, Goblins, Dwarves, etc. These factions all have a specific ability that activates at certain times. For example, a Knight card will always beat a Goblin card, even if the Goblin card has a higher value. Then there’s the shape shifting Dopplegangers, which act as wild cards and can allow you to play them instead of the led suit. These abilities add an extra layer to an already delicious parfait of subtle strategy and quick, satisfying card play.

Add to this some incredible art by The Miko, who is easily one of my top 3 favorite artists in board games, and you’ve got an amazingly charming card game that you’ll want to play again and again.

84. Take 5

take 5 cover

Also known as 6 Nimmt!, Take 5 is an incredibly clever and chaotic card game that can be taught to just about anyone.  In the game, you and the other players are simultaneously playing cards face down and then revealing, watching as they get sucked into an ever growing display of cards, hoping they latch onto a spot that doesn’t result in you taking any cards from said display. This is one of those games where taking cards means taking points and points = bad.

The display of cards is made up of four rows, all of which have a maximum card capacity of five. When you play a card from your hand, starting with the lowest number played, you must then place that card at the last spot of one of the rows following these two rules: rows must be in ascending value AND you must place your card next to the card it’s closest in value to. So, if I play a 28 and the four rows end in a 57, 83, 17 and 26, I would place my card next to the 28.

But what happens when you can’t place a card down? What if your card is lower than the ends of all the rows? As a penalty, you take a row of your choice and replace it with the card you played. Sounds awful, BUT it’s not as bad as the other thing that might happen. Remember when I said each row only has a max capacity of five cards? Yeah, this game is called Take 5 for a reason. If you play a card that would end up being the 6th card in that row, you’re forced to take ALL five cards in that row, leaving behind the card you played to start a new row as a shameful reminder of your folly.

Thus creates a wild, raucous experience of pushing your luck and playing the odds, hoping that you can dodge sucking up any cards like an over eager vacuum cleaner. Every card you play feels like a coin you’re dropping into a slot machine, with the revelation of everyone’s cards acting like the pull of the lever as you desperately hope to see that nobody interfered with your plans. When things go well, you breathe a sigh of relief as you harmlessly place your card into its rightful spot, your muscles relaxing as you live to see another day. But when something you didn’t predict does happen, and you’re stuck putting your card at the end of a truly nasty row? It’s a hilarious exercise in futility, as you watch helplessly as your card slides into spot as if being drawn in by a tractor beam that you can’t control. Then, like a rogue Mento falling into a bottle of Diet Coke, the row explodes and ends up in your lap as the entire table laughs and high fives.

It’s tense, it’s exciting, it’s hilarious. Yes, it sucks when you get stuck with a bunch of cards with high point values (represented by bull horns for some reason), but this is a rare game where failing can be as fun as succeeding. This is mostly because EVERYBODY is suffering at the table, as volleys of groaning and cursing go back and forth in an exercise I can only call Misery Tennis. But while everybody else is groaning, you’re laughing and when YOU’RE groaning, they’re laughing. After all, this I just a small 30 minute card game, not some sort of 3 hour Euro. Best to not take it too seriously and enjoy it, even if you just had a stratospherically bad round.

Take 5 is one of the most recent additions to my collection (thanks to an amazing review by Shut Up and Sit Down) and the fact that it has already broken onto my top 100 shows all you need to know about it. I can definitely see this game being even higher come 2020.

83. Celestia

celestia cover

I may have mentioned it on my previous list (jesus, two entries in and they’re already starting to blend together, please help), but if I haven’t then allow me to say it now: I effing love push your luck. In fact, it is my favorite board game mechanism. As such, when a game is centered on that mechanism, I’m inclined to like it. It’s no surprise, then, that Celestia finds itself on my top 100.

Celestia is a push your luck game in the style of Incan Gold, where you and a group are pressing forward on an increasingly dangerous path, and the crux of the game is deciding whether to stay and take guaranteed points or to stay juuust a bit longer to squeeze out a bit more. While Incan Gold has you going through a fairly generic temple setting, Celestia has you travelling on a steampunk style airship, making pit stops in a vibrant Wonderland-esque cul-de-sac of floating cities.

Celestia is played over a series of ‘journeys’, which involve moving from city to city. At each city, a new captain takes over making this either the most fair, egalitarian group of air travelers ever assembled or the most indecisive. Whoever the captain is must roll a certain number of threat dice, the number of which gradually increases throughout the journey. These threat dice might be rolled to a blank side, which reveals no threat (awesome!), or show some sort of threat icon (booo!). The threats involve things like ‘Sky Pirates’, ‘Lightning’ or ‘A Whole Shit Ton of Birds’. The captain must beat these threats by playing cards from their hand which have a matching icon. If the captain does, congratulations! Onward to the next floating city that definitely isn’t just an LSD hallucination! However, if the captain CAN’T play cards to beat the threats? Well. Hope your family took out a nice life insurance policy, because that airship is going DOWN.

The key here is that before the Captain reveals whether or not they can defeat the threats and safely fly everyone to the next city, every other player gets to decide whether to stay with their fearless leader or parachute on down to the current city tile the ship is on, grabbing a victory point card from the city. Victory points increase down the path, which entices people to stay on board but the chance of getting NO points can scare even the most stronghearted explorer. After all, you know what they say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the flaming airship wreckage.

While players decide whether or not to drop out, the Captain can say whether or not they have the cards to beat the dice. The fun part is, they can tell the truth or bend it to their advantage. This extra bit of bluffing is what makes Celestia sing, and it creates lots of table talk and negotiation as people try to figure out what to do. Every game I see alliances form, with two or three people becoming each other’s Ride or Die, always jumping ship at the same time or sticking together during even the darkest of times. It’s hilarious when one of these alliances goes deep down the journey’s path, managing to snag a high point victory card from one of the final cities as everyone else bitterly mumbles under their breath. It’s even funnier when an alliance foolishly crashes together, making one wonder if Kool Aid is one of the in flight refreshments.

Like many push your luck games, Celestia is full of laugh out loud and stand up moments. Add in the extra social dynamic of bluffing and table talk, and you have an easy top 100 entry for me.

82. Mysterium

mysterium cover

Ohh, Mysterium. I have such conflicted feelings about you, you beautiful bastard. Mysterium is a cooperative party(ish) game where one player is a ghost who has been murdered and the rest of the players are trying to figure out the who, where and how of said murder. The ghost does this by giving cards with surreal, dream like illustrations on them to try and point the other players to pictures of suspects, locations and weapons.

It’s easily become one of the most popular gateway games in the hobby over the past handful of years and it was one of my favorites upon first becoming a board gamer. I do have conflicted feelings about it, however, and I simultaneously think the 82 spot is too low AND too high for this game.

Let’s start with the negative: this game is a bear to set up. This is ostensibly a party game, which means you’ll be playing it in, you guessed it, party type settings. The problem is, party games should take no longer than five minutes to set up and play and even that is pushing it a bit. I can’t count how many times I’ve been setting up Mysterium with a big group of people watching me expectantly, as I apologize profusely for taking so long to set up as I rummage through the box like it’s a crate of Legos, looking for the exact right piece. There’s lots of shuffling, randomly picking cards, finding duplicates of all those cards, shuffling and randomly picking again based on each player in the game, then getting everything set up in the exact right area, and more and more and more. What’s worse, a lot of what’s being set up is the secret information for the ghost which means nobody else can really help them out. This results in scenarios like mentioned above, with most of the group staring blankly at one person as they clumsily sort through cards like the world’s least prepared amateur magician. I have decided against bringing Mysterium to many parties because I dread that cumbersome and long set up time.

Another big minus for it is that despite this game’s fairly simple rules overhead (person plays a card which other players then have to link with another card), there are some real fiddly bits that can grind the game down, ESPECIALLY with the end game. I HATE the final round of this game. I won’t go into the gritty details of it, but the last round, assuming your group makes it there, has this real contrived, convoluted set up and pay off that never fails to feel like the game has fallen flat on its face. If there was ever a second edition of this game which smoothed out the end game and streamlined set up (WITHOUT app assistance, that’s cheating), Mysterium would probably be in my top 50 games, not just my top 100.

Phew. Okay. Now that I’m done railing against this game, let’s talk about why it is in my top 100! That’d probably be helpful.

Despite its rough edges, Mysterium still sits on my top 100 because I love the rest of the game so damn much. I love its theme and concept. It’s unique and immersive and the rule where the ghost can’t talk and can only communicate via knocking on the table is one of my favorite rules ever. The art is astounding. And I’m not just talking about the dream like vision cards the ghost is doling out for clues. I mean the art representing the suspects, the parts of the mansion, and the weapons is fantastic as well. It has this somewhat dark, Victorian era tone to it that perfectly fits the theme and further helps to make this one of the most atmospheric games you can play. And speaking of playing the game: that’s amazing too! I am very much a right brained individual, so games that focus on creativity and imagination (usually a staple of party games) are right in my wheelhouse. I love being the ghost and trying to figure out how to link the cards in my hand with the cards I need to get the other players to guess. As the paranormal investigator, I love trying to get inside the ghost’s head and to spot connections among the visions I’ve been given. All of these things combine to make a truly special gaming experience, even with the loud complaints I logged against it.

So, yeah. As you can tell, I have mixed feelings on Mysterium. It might be the most flawed game on this list, but the fact that it’s on here tells you all you need to know.

81. Circle the Wagons

circle the wagons cover

Loyal readers of this blog know I love me some Button Shy. Button Shy is a game publisher that’s been making a ton of waves in the industry lately, thanks to their portable wallet games. They’re appropriately named since they literally come in a little wallet. Besides the unique packaging, these games also have another trademark: they’re all comprised of only 18 cards. These microgames often pack a big punch despite their diminutive size and I’ve reviewed Stew, Sprawlopolis, Tussie Mussie and Seasons of Rice over the past year in an effort to showcase how awesome this publisher is.

Yet here we are at number 81 with a Button Shy game I HAVEN’T reviewed yet, something I quite regret because it’s one of my favorites from the company. Circle the Wagons is a two player tile laying game (played with cards) where both players are competing to make the best frontier town. Cards involve symbols of various Wild West tropes, like six shooters, bottles of moonshine and forts. These icons are laid on top of various land types, such as mountains, plains and deserts. The goal is to take these cards and puzzle them together in such a way that you earn the most points, combining points given from your biggest contiguous areas of each land type AND points from three random public scoring objectives.

This is all pretty typical tile laying stuff, so what separates Circle the Wagons from the rest? That lies in its brilliant drafting mechanism. Taking its name quite literally, you take all the cards available in the game and put them in a giant circle. Players then take turns drafting the cards they want to use from the circle starting with the first available card. BUT you have a choice: take that first available card for free OR jump ahead in the circular queue to grab something that might seem a little more beneficial for your landscape. The catch being, all the cards you skipped? They go straight to your opponent.

With this simple but incredibly clever system, Circle the Wagons becomes a superbly tactical experience that has you sweating every decision, despite the fact that it’s a mere 18 cards. Do you jump ahead to take that card that fits perfectly in your landscape, knowing you’re giving your opponent a ton of stuff for free? Or do you play conservatively, tip toeing down the circle, daring your opponent to be the first to jump ahead and play the part of a Wild West Santa Claus? It’s tight, it’s addictive and at just around ten minutes per play, it’s incredibly quick. Like many of the microgames and fillers I’ll have on this list, it’s one you’ll easily find yourself playing repeatedly in the same sitting, the board game equivalent of a bag of potato chips. If you’re new to Button Shy and are looking for a starting point, Circle the Wagons is as good as any.

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That’s another one in the books, folks! Thanks for joining and check back in a week or so for 80-71!

Kyle Hanley’s Top 100 Games of All Time (2019 Edition): 100-91

Hello there! And (*extreme John Hammond voice) ‘Welcome to my Top 100 Games of all Time!’ (*end extreme John Hammond voice*)

If you took a mosey on through my blog, you’ll notice my most recent post was announcing that I have been ranking my 100 favorite games so that I could post them over the course of the next couple months right here on the blog. I’m sure you thought it was a bluff and that there was no way I’d ever go through with it and so did I. But here we are! My parents will be so proud, FINALLY.

I’m gonna get to the games ASAP, but just a few bits of housekeeping. As most content creators do when they make a list of this type, I’ll be doling it out in sections of ten games, starting with 100-91. I’m sure this goes without saying, but these are MY favorite games and not necessarily what I’m saying are the BEST games. These are just the games I’ve grown to love over the past few years, particularly in 2019. It’s insane how many games there are that I truly, truly love and it’s sad how many had to miss the cut. It’s also worth noting just how fluid a lot of this list is. A game in the 90s today could easily see itself in the 50s next week based on a great play or two. That’s how close a lot of these games are for me. So, if you’re wondering how certain decisions are made, or why ‘x’ game is ahead of ‘y’ game, you are completely in agreement with me. I mentioned in that earlier blog post that I held tortoise races to decide close ties and that probably wasn’t smart because the authorities came to collect all my tortoises shortly after that post went live. Not only is it incredibly lonely now, but I had to actually THINK and DECIDE what games were better than others. Sigh.

With all that in mind, let’s start the list!

100. The Mind

the mind cover

 

One thing you’ll notice on this list is that I really enjoy cooperative games that have limited communication between players. I really enjoy trying to cooperate with teammates through intuition and subtext rather than having some Alpha gamer directing my pawn around the board like they’re an air traffic controller. So, it is no surprise that I love The Mind, a game where the most important rule is that you literally cannot talk to each other.

The Mind was a bit of a sensation when it came out last year, being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (the ostensible Game of the Year award) and putting wunderkind designer Wolfgang Warsch on the map. The rules are so simple, I thought I misread them the first time I saw them. The Mind is comprised of a deck of cards number 1-100, and a certain number of cards are dealt to each player each round. Then, the group must simply play their cards in ascending order with no mistakes. The catch? You cannot communicate in any way. No talking, no gesturing, no subtle wagging of an eyebrow. You somehow need to play your cards strictly by reading the room and getting into a rhythm.

If this sounds bonkers, it’s because it is. Trying to get into a cadence with your friends simply by existing in the same space feels as much like an Orwellian sociological experiment as it does a game, but it produces some truly memorable moments. When you and two other people lay down a ‘27’, a ’29’, and a ‘30’ in quick succession, it’s magical. When your friend plays an 84 after a 62 with barely any time in between, the whole table will groan and curse at them. Every time I play this game a new great gaming memory is created and isn’t that what board games are all about (this is the part where the studio audience goes, “awwwww”)?

On a personal level, one thing I’ve been impressed with is how my love for The Mind increases with each play. When I first played it, I enjoyed it but had a feeling that the novelty would fade after repeated plays. The exact opposite has happened. Every time I play it, I love The Mind a little bit more.

And as someone who has spent most of his life in awkward silences, it’s tough to find a game more fitting for me than The Mind.

99. GoodCritters

goodcritters cover

I haven’t played many pure negotiation games, but I may need to change that if GoodCritters is any indication. GoodCritters, which is a retheme and reimplementation of a game called Tiefe Taschen, casts players as anthropomorphic animals in the Mafia trying to divvy up the loot after a heist. I dunno if there is a Venn diagram out there representing people who are both furries and fans of Scorsese movies, but boy would they like this theme! Loot cards come in different denominations, and every round a player takes the role of the Boss and takes a certain number of those loot cards and splits them up however they see fit. This is the part where everybody starts arguing with each other.

After everyone is done swearing, players play action cards which allow them to either approve the deal or reject the deal, which could result in the Boss being ousted. BUT there are also action cards which let you skim off the top of the loot deck or even rob another player. Playing one of these action cards mean you’re essentially abstaining from the vote which could have implications over the exchange of power.

The ruleset is incredibly open, which means a lot of the heavy lifting has to be done by the players and the various metas they create. This means that if you have a group of shy, sheepish players who are going to try and be nice and fair, Goodcritters maaaay fall flat. BUT if you have a group who is willing to form petty alliances and be mean to each other for little to no reason, congratulations! You may be terrible people, but you’ll have a good time with this game!

The first time I played this game, we played three games of it back to back to back. Over those games, hilarious moments and storylines formed that I still chuckle about. This is far from the deepest experience, but any game that can create such laugh out loud stories is worthy of a top 100 spot in my book.

98. Notre Dame

notre dame cover

After starting with two somewhat light games, let’s wade a bit into the deeper part of the pool. My number 98 is a mid-weight Euro by Stefan Feld called Notre Dame. Explaining Notre Dame feels like I’m running down a Stefan Feld Design Checklist. Mid weight, dry Euro? Check. Setting is Medieval Europe? Check. Point salad? Check. A looming threat you need to keep at bay, lest you take a penalty? Check. Lots of browns and a somewhat dull look? Check. Those of you playing Stefan Feld Bingo at home likely have most your card filled by now, I wager.

Notre Dame is a heavily card driven game set in Medieval Paris where players control districts surrounding the titular cathedral. Every round, players draft a hand of three cards and then spend two of them to complete certain actions. Majority of the actions involve placing a cube into specific boroughs of your district and then completing the action associated with that borough. The cool thing is that the strength of the action is often determined by the amount of cubes already present. For example, if you place a cube at the bank, you get one coin. But when you place a SECOND cube there, you get two coins and it keeps going up from there. It reminds me of a sort of tighter version of Architects of the West Kingdom, a worker placement game that featured a similar ‘your actions get more powerful with each piece you have at that spot’ gameplay loop.

This creates an interesting decision space where you’re constantly wrestling with the fact that you need to do a little bit of everything vs. the fact that focusing on just two or three boroughs is a more efficient, powerful use of your cubes. Further complicating this is the ever-present plague, something that activates at the end of each round and will wreak havoc on your game if you let it get out of control. I had a friend in one game who flippantly said, “I’m not gonna worry about the plague” and then he proceeded to lose by a mile. Turns out being a grimy slumlord DOESN’T pay. You HAVE to take actions against the plague which means it takes away from actions you could spend bettering your engine and collecting more resources. It’s an agonizing balancing act and creates a richly tactical experience.

I have only played a few of Feld’s designs, but Notre Dame definitely makes me want to play more. And I know I was being a bit of a dick earlier about the color scheme and art, but I actually find the somewhat bland art style in this game charming.

It’s a little tricky for me to get to the table since most of my friends find it too dry, but I think Notre Dame is a joy to play and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of old school Euro.

97. Condottiere

condottiere cover

Anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will immediately recognize Condottiere as something familiar…this game is basically Gwent. Now before you start overloading the comment section (lol, someone commenting on one of my posts, that’s funny), I am well aware Condottiere came out before Gwent and that Gwent was inspired by this rather than the other way around. I’m just saying it so people have a touchstone. As someone who put hundreds of hours into The Witcher 3 and having roughly half that play time consumed obsessively with Gwent, Condottiere feels like spending time with an old friend who has a slightly different haircut from the last time I saw them (‘Hey Gramps…uh…nice mohawk’).

In Condottiere, players are vying over control of 13th century Italy with the end goal being to either control 3 adjacent territories on the board or simply controlling 5 in all. These territories are won by playing battles, which is where the Gwent similarities start to pile up. Players are playing cards from their hands, most of which are soldiers with values attached to them. Ultimately, by the time the battle ends you want your little battle line of cards to have the highest value so that you can claim the territory with one of your cubes.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There are a handful of special cards that spice things up like Grandma’s marinara. There are drummers which double the value of your battle line, there’s a Bishop who destroys every copy of the highest valued soldier (what a cranky old man), there’s even a card that ends the battle abruptly, resulting in hilarious moments where someone wins a territory with one dude holding a crossbow in their line.

At its core, Condottiere is a tense game of hand management. You’re constantly debating whether you want to spend your best cards and really commit to winning that territory, or if you just want to retreat and save your hand for another day. In a clever rule, if you’re the only person with solider cards in your hand in between battles, the round actually ends and you have to discard your whole hand, thus meaning hoarding till everyone else is depleted won’t work. When you throw in some politicking with your friends, the game REALLY comes alive. The last game I played of this was an absolute blast, and a lot of that had to do with the constant fragile alliances being made and immediately being broken as people were selfishly trying to win each territory for themselves.

If there is a main gripe I have with this game that keeps it from being higher on the list, it’s that you can really be boned by a bad hand of cards in this game. I usually don’t mind luck of the draw, but in this game it stings a lot more for some reason. Probably because there isn’t much of a way to mitigate a bad hand and since you’re stuck with it for an entire round, it can be deflating to watch battle after battle being lost. I once drew a hand that was essentially a high school marching band, with nothing but drummers and very few soldiers and it was not fun.

Outside of this unfortunate luck of the draw, Condottiere is a fantastic card game that seems to get even better with each play.

96. Herbaceous

herbaceous cover

Perhaps the most charming and relaxing game on my list, Herbaceous is a lovely little push your luck game about collecting and potting herbs. If you were ever looking for a Hobbit Simulator, this might just be it.

Herbaceous’ gameplay is incredibly smooth and simple. There is a deck of cards made up of different types of herbs, like dill, bay, and Herbert Hoover (just kidding). On your turn you draw two cards from the deck and you need to put one in your private garden (a card stockpile only you have access to) and one into the public garden (a card stockpile that EVERYONE has access to). The catch? You draw these cards one at a time, meaning you must decide what to do with the first before ever seeing what the second one might be. Sure, that tarragon looks awfully tasty, but if you put that in your private garden, what if one of the rarer cards, like chives, shows up? Then it’ll be available for just ANYONE to grab, and nothing irks me more than my friends getting chives that belong to ME.

Further adding to this press your luck mechanic is the set collection mechanism that powers the scoring in the game. You have four different pots in front of you to collect sets of herbs and they all have different set categories. One pot only takes sets of identical herbs, while one only takes sets of pairs and another requires a set of unique herbs. Once you pot a set of herbs into one of those containers, it’s locked down for the rest of the game. Making things even worse, this decision needs to be made BEFORE you draw cards, meaning you must decide before knowing what kind of herbs you could potentially add to your sets-in-progress. Herbs haven’t been this tense since…well…ever.

What I love about Herbaceous is that despite the tension that comes from the push your luck mechanisms, it never feels too stressful. As I mentioned before, this is a very relaxing game. The fact that the art is beautifully done by Beth Sobel, one of the industry’s best artists, further adds to this game’s zen like charm.

Another quick point in Herbaceous’ favor is that it’s got a pretty good solo mode. I have been doing a lot of solo gaming over the past year, so I’m always on that lookout for a good solitaire variant. While I certainly wouldn’t buy this game SOLELY because of this mode, it’s good enough to burn 10-15 minutes and to keep this game always in the back of my mind.

Also: there is a bonus point card that is called The Biscuit and it’s literally just a picture of a biscuit on a plate and oh man does that never fail to make me smile.

95. Ex Libris

ex libris cover

There are going to be a lot of games on this list where I’m going to say, “This game would probably be a bit higher if it got to the table more often” and Ex Libris is one of those games. Ex Libris had a lot of hype when it was first released and it’s gone somewhat quiet since then, which is a shame because this game’s pretty damn good.

Ex Libris is a game that is set in a magical fantasy world, but instead of slaying goblins or diving into dungeons for treasure, you’re setting up a library. Yep, hope you’ve brushed up on the Dewey Decimal system lately!

It’s easy to raise a sarcastic eyebrow and go, “Libraries? Seriously? What, is this Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Overdue Book?” but the theme is one of the best things about this game. If you want a game about mindlessly killing orcs and dragons, go to Kickstarter and take your pick from the hundreds available. But how many games let you build a fantasy library??

How you build this library is through a fusion worker placement and tile laying. On your turn, you place a worker down on one of a constantly rotating batch of locations, and the actions you do help you with gaining cards or laying down cards. The cards feature the spines of books (all uniquely named!) as well as symbols pertaining to the genres of those books. The building of library involves putting these cards down in a tile laying style puzzle, trying to collect certain symbols while taking care to keep things in alphabetical order.

I will admit, I am much more fond of the tile laying aspect than the worker placement part of the game. Puzzling out where to put books in your library can be excruciating. Do you really want to jump from B to F? What if some ‘D’ or ‘E’ books come into your hand? You’re always pushing your luck against the clock. If you’re too conservative and barely build your library, other players can rush to the end and leave you with a library half their size. But play too cavalier and you may lock yourself out of good options that come down the line.

I love this puzzle so much that I wonder if maybe this game wouldn’t have benefited from being stripped down and turned into strictly a card game, where the only mechanic was tile laying. BUT, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love about the worker placement chunk of the game. For one, everybody has a special worker who is some sort of fantasy archetype, like a wizard or witch or trash golem (huh?). Not only are these special workers adorable custom meeples, but whenever you place them on a spot they activate a special, often thematic power. The aforementioned wizard can use his magic to slide his book shelves around, giving him versatility in the construction of his library. Meanwhile, the Gelatinous Cube swallows and takes cards from any players foolish enough to share a location with it. I definitely sense there may be some balance issues as some powers seem waaay more useful than others, but that doesn’t bother me too much. It can be used as a handicap for players who aren’t able to grok the game as easily as others.

The other unique aspect of the worker placement portion of Ex Libris is a bit more of a double-edged sword. In this game, the worker placement spots are not a static selection of actions. Instead, they are location tiles that are constantly getting swapped in and out, meaning every game is going to have a fresh and somewhat chaotic feel to it. On the one hand, this is great. I love how each location feels thematic and the art that goes along with it, oozing personality with each tile. But what I don’t love is having to learn and relearn these locations throughout the game. If you play this consistently, it’s probably not an issue. But as someone who doesn’t get this game to the table nearly as often as I’d like, it can be a bit daunting for new players and it’s honestly one of the reasons why I sometimes hesitate to pull it out. Again, this makes me wonder if a straight up card game version of Ex Libris wouldn’t have been a smarter move.

Despite those complaints, there’s a reason why this game is still on my top 100. It’s got a great central puzzle, its whimsical art and theme burst with charm and personality, and it too has a very enjoyable solo mode. Give it a shot, I feel like this game has unfairly been lost to the annals of time (read: 2018, which is definitely the annals of time in board game years).

94. Schotten Totten

schotten totten cover

I love a good two player card game, especially if they’re packed with tough, tense decisions. If you do as well, look no further than Schotten Totten. Designed by game design great Reiner Knizia, this game has also been published under the name Battle Line. While Battle Line carried a Carthaginian ancient warfare theme, Schotten Totten is about Scottish clans trying to increase their territory by passive aggressively kicking boundary stones back and forth. They are ostensibly the same game, but I will take Schotten Totten’s theme over Battle Line’s any day and the difference in production values between Iello’s Schotten Totten and GMT’s Battle Line is laughable. One has humor and personality and vibrant colors (Schotten Totten) and the other (Battle Line) has art and graphic design that looks like it was made in Print Shop ‘95.

Schotten Totten is classic Knizia in its simplicity to depth ratio. On your turn, you play a card and you draw a card. When you play a card, you’re playing it to one of the many stones that divide your side of the board from your opponents. You’re basically trying to make 3 card poker hands on your side that beat the hands on your opponent’s side. And that’s it!

And from this simple seed blossoms a beautifully tense flower of a game. You and your opponent are in a constant game of Chicken over the stones. Commit to only a few stones and you show your hand too quickly, allowing your opponent to zig while you zag. But play to too many stones too early and you’ll wear yourself thin, not allowing you any escape valves when you realize a hand may be lost. You’ve got to balance keeping your options open with forming strong foundations and this is both scream inducing and addicting.

There’s not much else to say about Schotten Totten. The fact that it’s been around as long as it has in two different versions is all you need to know.

93. The Quest for El Dorado

el dorado cover

Hey, look who’s back! It’s Reiner Knizia again! That’s cool, he’s fun.

Whereas Schotten Totten is one of Knizia’s stalwart classics that has stood the test of time, El Dorado is a much more recent offering from the Good Doctor. That doesn’t make it any less respectable and it is in fact widely considered one of his best games in years. El Dorado is Knizia’s foray into deckbuilding and it makes you hope that he returns to the genre soon. He seamlessly blends deckbuilding with a race element that creates a super fun experience.

In The Quest for El Dorado, you are an explorer trying to make it to the fabled lost city of gold, El Dorado which seems fitting because El Dorado is the only damn place explorers seem to be going in board games. Like most deckbuilders, everyone starts with an identical deck of cards. These cards represent your movement abilities as well as some gold which aid in buying new cards for your deck. Green cards let you use machetes to slice your way through green spaces while blue cards feature paddles allowing you to move through blue spaces. Gold cards double as movement cards to move through yellow spaces (which are villages, so apparently you’re just bribing the indigenous people??) as well being the most efficient cards to use when buying new ones. On your turn, you have a hand of four cards which you can use to move your meeple along the (highly modular) map or buy new cards and then it’s the next player’s turn.

This brings me to the first thing I love about this game, and that’s just how silky smooth and quick this game is. Turns are brisk affairs and using a good hand of movement cards to march ahead of the pack never fails to feel satisfying. This satisfaction is multiplied tenfold when you pull out one of your big cards that you recently added to your deck which lets you machete your way through jungle thicket like a human shaped lawn mower.

Don’t mistake this simplicity and speed for shallow. There are still plenty of great choices to make and building your deck feels like a constant tactical exercise in preparing for what you need while ditching cards that you don’t. Since the maps are modular and full of variance, there will be times when you see stretches of certain types of spaces. See lots of blue? Load up on paddles like the world’s most paranoid sailor. See lots of green ahead? Grab so many machetes that your deck looks like the garage in the Voorhees household. And when you see the landscape changing again? The game offers campsites which allow you to ditch cards from your deck. Payers find themselves hauling ass over there to ditch their paddles or machetes into the campfire to make room for better stuff. It’s like you’re cooking a pot of soup and changing the spices on a constant basis to fit the tastes of the guests coming in and out of the kitchen.

Deckbuilding is one of my favorite genres and The Quest for El Dorado is one of my favorites to feature the mechanism. This is another game, like Ex Libris, that could easily find itself higher if I just had more time to play it. I definitely want to get it to the table again soon, and I would suggest you think of doing the same.

92. Dead Men Tell No Tales

dead men tell no tales cover

I feel like there are two breeds of cooperative games: puzzle-y co-ops and limited communication co-ops. I already mentioned my love for limited communication co-ops in my description of The Mind. But puzzle-y co-ops, in the vein of Pandemic or the Forbidden series of games? I have been starting to get burnt out on them. Those were the types of games that I pretty much exclusively played when getting into the hobby and I loved them then, but my desire to play that style of cooperative game has decreased with each passing month. BUT there are still games in that style that I greatly enjoy and will not mind playing no matter the mood. Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of those games.

DMTNT is a game where you and your band of fellow pirates are boarding a ship you just scuttled to loot your hard earned treasure. The trouble? The ship is burning (I mean, you should have seen that coming) and also populated with skeletons and ornery treasure guards. You need to work together to keep the fires at bay while constantly prepping for combat so that when you come across one of those aforementioned treasure guards, you can ask them nicely for their treasure (with your sword).

Let’s be honest, this game is a tad derivative. It’s a game where you spend action points to keep things on the board from getting out of control lest they spread to other parts of the board and cause a chain reaction that makes an untenable situation. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s basically Pandemic: But With Pirates. But that’s okay! I love pirates (it’s my favorite board game theme!) and the game adds a ton of thematic touches which help separate it from Pandemic: you have a combat meter which you’re constantly trying to keep at a healthy state in case you need to fight some fools; there are items you can use and swap with your teammates to adapt to new situations and problems; there’s a cool tile laying mechanism where you are basically building out the ship as you play; there’s rum.

These little thematic flourishes can sometimes bog down the game with edge cases and constantly checking the rules, but it’s worth it when you consider how much it adds to the atmosphere and cinematic nature. I already said pirates is my favorite theme in board games and this game absolutely revels in that theme. As such, no matter how much I cool on cooperatives of this nature, I have a feeling DMTNT will be a fixture in my top 100 for quite a bit longer.

91. Coloretto

coloretto cover

Small card games are going to pop up a lot on this list, so prepare thyselves. I already had Herbaceous and now I’m rounding out this portion of the list with Coloretto. Like Herbaceous, Coloretto is a set collection game driven by a push your luck mechanism. The deck of cards is comprised of different colored chameleons and you’re trying to collect certain colors by game’s end.

On your turn, you can either draw a card and add it to one of the stacks of cards being formed in front of the players OR take one of the stacks of cards and essentially bow out for the rest of the round. Each stack (the number of which differs based on player count) can only hold three cards so options get pretty tight fairly quickly. There’s a constant tension of trying to figure out when it’s time to get a stack and get out or to push things juuuust a bit longer to either make a stack that much sweeter for yourself or to maybe sabotage a stack that was looking good for your opponent.

The reason why there will be stacks of differing quality for the different players is the way Coloretto scores. You don’t simply score your sets of different colors, getting points for having as many chameleons as possible. Where would the game in that be? No, instead Coloretto has a devilishly clever system in which you only score positive points for THREE of the sets you collected and the rest net you negative points. And suddenly, that little rule transforms Coloretto into a peaceful game of trying to collect lots of cute little chameleons into a ruthless, cutthroat experience.

As you draw cards from the deck, you’re constantly aware of what colors your opponents want so that you can sully any potential piles that have those colors. Oh, you’re working on blue? And you’re eyeing up that stack of two blues? It’d be a shame if I put this purple chameleon there and OOPS, I JUST DID, GUESS YOU’RE WORKING ON PURPLE NOW TOO.

What I love about the bloodthirsty nature of this game is just how passive aggressive it feels. You’re just calmly adding a card to a stack and you hear groans erupt from another player. You play coy and be all, “Oh, sorry, were you gonna take that? Huh. Sorry” as you laugh uproariously on the inside. Of course, when it happens to you, it’ll fill you with an eruption of rage as you see your friend lackadaisically ruins the stack you wanted while very purposely avoiding eye contact despite the smirk on their face.

It’s a tense and thoughtful game despite its small package and short length. It’s without a doubt a game that you’ll play three or four times in one sitting and I have yet to get tired of its subtle but wicked tactics.

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And that’s it! 100-91! Wow. That was a much longer trip than I expected. I really hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and ramblings on these games, and invite you to join in next week for 90-81!