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?
10. Codenames: Duet
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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……….
…………here it is……………
……….ARE YOU READY……………..
………….MY NUMBER ONE FAVORITE GAME OF ALL TIME IS:
1. Viticulture: Essential Edition
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!