Tag: viticulture

Kyle Hanley’s Top 10 Solo Games

You know what used to be great? Seeing other human beings and fulfilling basic social needs. You know what else used to be great? Going to the grocery store and not being stuck in a Mad Max rally to the toilet paper section only to realize you’re already too late and it’s all sold out and oh god did that person next to you just cough without a mask on OH GOD OH GOD.

If you’re reading this and you’re confused, allow me to elaborate. I am currently writing this in the late Spring of 2020, where the world is smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and life SUCKS. If we’ve moved past the pandemic and life has somewhat returned to normal as you’re reading this, awesome! I can’t wait for that future! But as of now, life is constant anxiety and dread and calling your parents to make sure they’re not dead yet.

But at least we have board games….right? RIGHT??

RIGHT!?

Well, if you were lucky enough to enter the age of quarantine and social isolation with the people you game with, then yes! You have board games! But the vast majority of us probably don’t have that luxury.  In my case, I’m quarantined with my girlfriend and while she does enjoy playing games with me, she’s not absurdly obsessed with the hobby like I am and our selection is limited to games that support 2 players. So while I’m grateful that I get some gaming done and we’ve created a wonderful Saturday night game night tradition, there are certainly times where I want to scratch a gaming itch and she’s either busy or not in the mood. What to do then?

That’s where solo games come in, my friend. Solo gaming was once a huge punchline in the industry, as it is a niche corner of a hobby that is already niche. But things have changed, even before a pandemic forced us to ward people out of our personal space with six foot long pool noodles. Now instead of being a huge punchline in the industry, it’s merely a small punchline.

Yes, people still make fun of the idea of solo gaming but it’s slowly becoming more and more mainstream. Just take a look at any Euro released in the past two years. It’s weirder to see one that doesn’t support solitaire play than to see one that does. Solitaire only games are also becoming more and more popular, often finding life on Kickstarter where dedicated solo gamers scour around likely lonely, socially anxious sharks.

With this surge of solo gaming popularity AND the fact that none of us can leave our houses, what better time to talk about my favorite solo games than now? I’ll even ignore the fact that most content creators have already been doing this in response to the pandemic and pretend that I came up with his idea ALL BY MYSELF.

So, in this post I will be ranking and discussing my favorite solo games that I’ve played over the past few years. Since about 2018, I’ve gotten more and more into solo gaming, to the point that I actively seek out well regarded solitaire experiences. On this list you will find games that are both multiplayer games with splendid solo variants AND games designed solely with one player in mind. I’ll obviously point out which games are which as I talk about them. Also, homebrewed solo variants posted on BGG are not eligible. Since they’re often not official, I won’t consider them as such for the list.

All right, that’s enough talking. Can you tell I’m starved for social interaction lately??? ONTO THE LIST.

10. Orchard

Orchard cover

Orchard is from Side Room Games, a publisher that ALMOST made it onto this list twice. I say almost, because the other game, Maquis, barely missed making my top 10. Maquis did just get its own individual review from me though, so click on that link if you wanna read up on that game.

Let’s talk about Orchard, though. It is an adorable, little microgame about planting trees and harvesting fruit and it’s a mere 18 cards. Is 18 cards ‘microgame’ enough for ya? Well how about this: a single game only uses half the deck, so in reality this game only needs a miniscule 9 cards to create a lovely solo experience.

Orchard is a tile/card laying game, where you’re placing cards down and trying to overlap as many of the same trees/colors as possible. There are three types of trees in Orchard: apple (red), pear (yellow) and plum (purple). When you overlap like colors, you get to place a die of that color on the spot set to the 1 pip. If there’s already a die present, you get to increase its pip level instead. A 1 becomes a 3, a 3 becomes a 6 and it maxes out at 10 from there. You play until the deck runs out and then you tally up the number of pips you have showing to figure out your score.

In terms of simplicity and swiftness of play, nothing on this list compares to Orchard. You can play a game of this in 10 minutes, tops, and then you can immediately replay it with the other half of the deck that wasn’t used. And if you don’t think that’s what I do every time I play Orchard, you are SORELY mistaken. Orchard is such an addictive little package, providing interesting decisions on how to plant your trees and providing a deceptively tough, stubborn difficulty that will have you determined to improve upon your measly point totals.

To further flesh (haha, flesh, like fruit) out the already tricky puzzle is the rotten fruit mechanic. Twice per game you can choose to overlap two trees that are not of the same type at the cost of having to put a rotten fruit token on that spot. This seems like a great way to get out of a tight jam (haha, jam, also like fruit) BUT it not exactly a “Get out of jail for free” card. At the end of the game, any rotten fruit tokens are counted as negative 3 points, meaning if you’re going to use one, then you better damn well be getting a solid chunk of points out of it. It’s always an interesting choice to size up your potential point gains vs. what you’ll lose with the rotten fruit and trying to determine if it’s worth it. It’s certainly a very small mechanism but in a very small game, that’s all you really need.

Ultimately, the main complaint I have with Orchard is that there is no win/loss condition. The game has a point chart detailing your ranking based on the amount of points you scored. Though I am less annoyed by this than I was when I first started solo gaming, I am still not a fan when solo games present a scoring tier system rather than a binary win/loss state. Plus, the scoring tiers are all fruit puns and who would debase themselves low enough to make fruit puns???

Despite that little quibble, Orchard is a surprisingly satisfying game for its size and has provided me with lots of plays during this quarantine. Just writing about it has got me itching to play it again. Which I think I just might do. Hold on, I’ll be back in 10-20 minutes.

9. Crystallo

Crystallo cover

Like Orchard, Crystallo is another solo only tile/card laying game that I Kickstarted. Whereas Orchard is a tight, cute little game of planting a, well, orchard, Crystallo is a sprawling, starkly beautiful game of rescuing fantastical creatures from an evil black dragon.

Crystallo has you exploring the lair of a black dragon, hoping to free creatures under its imprisonment by surrounding orbs with sets of crystals. You lay cards down one at a time, drawing them from the deck and placing them onto the board in an attempt to surround the orbs that are peppered throughout the cave. When you surround an orb with a specific set of crystals, you get to place a gemstone of that creature onto its orb, showing it’s one step closer to leaving the cave. If you place three of a creature’s gemstone out on the board, you’ve liberated it from the dragon’s clutches. Free all the creatures and you win! Well, uh, the first part!

You see, Crystallo is actually a two-part game. After you free the creatures, the dragon awakes in a fury, probably yells something in Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, and now you need to trap it. Trapping the dragon requires you to place a gemstone of each color onto it, meaning you have to once again go about surrounding orbs with crystals. The nice thing about this part is that you don’t need to rely on random deck draws. When fighting the dragon, you get to put all the cards in your arsenal (made up of leftover cards from part one and a deck of 9 cards made during set up) face up and you can actually plot out how best to trap the foul creature. While this can certainly lead to some AP, as you size up your possibilities and options, it does prevent any sort of frustrating bad luck from torpedoing your hard fought efforts here in the endgame.

The first thing you’ll notice about Crystallo is its magnificent table presence. For a game that is simply a deck of cards and a handful of gemstones, this thing is strikingly gorgeous. As you make your labyrinthine network of orbs and crystals, dotted with the chunky gemstones throughout its criss cross pattern, you’ll stop more than once to sit back and admire what you’ve been crafting without even realizing it. Partnered with its lovely art, Crystallo is perhaps the most Instagram worthy game on this list. I think that’s a compliment? I mean it as one, anyway.

But as my mom repeatedly tries to tell/console me, looks aren’t everything. How does Crystallo play? Amazingly. I love tile layers and the more puzzle-y they are, the better. Crystallo is about as puzzle-y a tile layer as you can get. Trying to efficiently line up your cards to cordon off the orbs with as few crystals as possible is an addictive nut to crack. If you want to face off against the dragon, you should strive to trap multiple orbs with parts of the same sets of crystals, which is easier said than done. You’ll be doing lots of rotating and flipping of a card before deciding where to place it, truly giving the feel of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Except, you know, not boring.

Further complicating things are items you can find and collect. These are things like treasures, which add to your end score (if you decide to log that sort of thing), weapons, which aid in the boss battle against the dragon, and magical artifacts, which allow you to get a gemstone for free. In order to activate the abilities with these items, you need to collect a full set of 3, but doing so means placing the gemstones on their associated card. Any time one of these items comes into play, you have to make a decision: are you going to aim to collect that item, even if it means jamming it in somewhere that is a suboptimal play? Or do you place it in a more efficient spot, possibly sacrificing your chance to place gemstones on it and earn its ability?

In Crystallo’s crisp 20-30 minute run time, you will be faced with tough decision after tough decision, trying to keep an eye on which creatures need the most help while using the cards in their best way possible. Every time I play this game it seems to come down to the last card draw and if I do lose, I know that it’s because I made a poor choice rather than the game screwing me over.

The one concern with Crystallo is that it can feel a little same-y from play to play. The puzzle you’ll be presented with is going to be different, but the game doesn’t offer much in variance otherwise. I have a suspicion that is the reason it includes a robust scoring system; so that whether you win or lose, you have tangible proof of whether you’ve done better or worse from past plays.

Despite this slight criticism, Crystallo is still a fantastic design and is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to get into solo gaming.

8. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden

cabbagehead's cover

It is here that we have a crossover with my top 100; Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden is a game I’ve already discussed in the 80-71 post of my top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition) feature that dominated this blog since last November. You can check out the post I just linked for deeper dive into the game, but I’ll give a brief recap here if your prefer that (I just heard the loudest collective sigh of relief in my head from everyone reading this).

In Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden, you are Mr. Cabbagehead. You are trying to earn the blue ribbon in the neighborhood garden contest and you do that by how else? Laying cards down to form contiguous patches of vegetables, satisfying bonus point objectives in the process, while also trying to mitigate the drawing of neighbor tokens from a bag that give harsh penalties when activated! Duh.

As I mention in my top 100, Mr. Cabbaghead’s Garden is a lovely mix of card drafting and push your luck wrapped around a devious card laying puzzle that feels like it’s always on the brink of going sideways. The neighbors are absolute nightmares to deal with and it seems like they always activate at the worst time, on the worst possible card.

This potent combination of tactical puzzling and hilarious frustration is made all the more enjoyable by the game’s wonderfully charming art and aesthetic. The game features an old Victorian art style, with worryingly detailed anthropomorphic vegetable people populating the game’s cast of characters. To some, they are disturbing looking but to me? Yeah, still kind of disturbing, but in a very humorous, self-aware way that gives the game a delightfully distinct personality.

I will admit, though, that I have played this game a handful of times since ranking it in my top 100, and I have cooled on it juuuust a bit. The more I play the more I realize just how luck driven this game is and how many things need to go right in order to reach the highest score level (a.k.a., that coveted blue ribbon). Perhaps I’m terrible at the game, but I’ve played this countless times and have only barely gotten within 25 points of the blue ribbon score tier. And that is WITH shifting to different strategies, trying different patches of vegetables, making Faustian deals with the devil, etc. As someone who admitted in my Maquis review that I like to play solo games to relax and, yanno, win, I’m ashamed to say my desire to play this game has waned with the increasing possibility that this game is nigh unwinnable without insanely good luck.

Regardless of my recent concerns with the game, it’s still on this list for a reason. When I’m devoting an afternoon or evening to solo play, Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden is always a game I consider playing and it’s given me plenty of hours of great gaming memories.

7. Raiders of the North Sea

Raiders of the North Sea cover

Raiders of the North Sea is one of the more recent additions to this list. I only just discovered its solo mode about a month or two ago, mainly because it was unavailable until about a month or two ago. The solo mode, which is a deck of cards known as the Scheme Deck, was out of print for a while until it was just recently turned into an app that you can download on your phone. I got it on Android for less than $2 and it immediately became one of my favorite games to play solo.

Raiders of the North Sea is one of the most popular worker placement games of the past decade, featuring a unique “put down a worker, pick up a worker” system that breathed fresh life into a slightly stale genre. In the game you’ll be hiring a crew, gathering supplies and sailing out to raid nearby settlements who…probably deserve it? I dunno, the game doesn’t explicitly say, so let’s just assume we’re raiding and pillaging a bunch of Neo Nazis or anti-vaxxers or something.

In my opinion, any worker placement games these days should come with a solo mode. It shouldn’t be too hard to implement solo rules in a worker placement game since the main source of interaction is the blocking of spots. RotNS’s Scheme Deck replicates this very simply: every card has a location you can’t go to for that turn. Easy!

Beyond that, the Scheme Deck will also wipe clear certain raiding locations throughout the game, forcing you to raid aggressively and giving the feel of an opponent who you need to keep an eye on. Any solo game that can imitate the feeling of turn angst that comes from worrying over whether your opponent can mess with your plans is worth celebrating. RotNS has this in spades.

Honestly, RotNS’s stock can only go up from here. It sits here at number 6 but could very easily find itself in the top 5 a few months from now. I simply haven’t had the time with RotNS as I have the other games you’re about to see and I’m excited to give it some more plays. If you own the game and didn’t realize the solo deck was available digitally, go buy it!

6. Paper Tales

Paper Tales cover

Card drafting is one of the most popular mechanisms in the hobby and Paper Tales is a more recent addition to the genre. It’s of the ‘pick and pass’ variety, wherein you pick a card from a hand and then pass that hand to the person next to you. Sounds like the perfect type of game to play in a pandemic, eh?

Luckily, Paper Tales has a dedicated solo mode courtesy of its expansion Beyond the Gates, allowing me to enjoy the game without worrying about contagion. Even more luckily, this solo mode is excellent.

In Paper Tales, you are building a medieval fantasy kingdom, attempting to gain points through various avenues. It has more than a few similarities to card drafting heavyweight 7 Wonders: the drafting of cards that grant passive resources, building a military to win wars against adjacent opponents and constructing buildings that act similarly to 7 Wonders’ titular wonders.

You could certainly do worse than mimicking the most popular card drafting game in the hobby, but you also better bring some fresh new ingredients to the stew if you expect people to not just stick to 7 Wonders. Don’t worry, Paper Tales smartly does just that.

For one, Paper Tales provides spatial constraints to building your kingdom. Whereas in 7 Wonders, where you build your empire across a laughably sprawling tableau that stretches from one end of the table to the other, Paper Tales requires you to build your tableau in a tight  2×2 grid, with the chance to add a mere 5th card at some point in the game. Certain cards are more efficient in either the front or back row (military power is judged through the front row cards, for example) so there is an extra puzzle-y element to building your tableau, something I’ve not seen in other drafting games.

Another cool twist is the ageing system. At the end of every round, you must put an ageing token on every card in your kingdom. If there’s already a token on the card? It dies and leaves your kingdom. This means most cards you draft and put in your kingdom will only be around for two rounds, forcing you to constantly adapt and change strategies based on what new cards enter the system. Most games have you constructing a big, long term engine that supplies a steady stream of points over the course of an entire game, while Paper Tales forces you to build multiple mini engines that grant bursts of points here and there before crumbling into dust. Each engine you build in Paper Tales is like a shotgun made of spun sugar.

So, this is great and all, but what about the solo mode? You know, the whole reason we’re here? Paper Tales takes a fairly interactive mechanism (card drafting) and somehow replicates it in a solitaire format that makes me completely forget I’m all by myself (and that’s something that NEVER happens). When playing solo, you’re pitted against the Lich King, an AI opponent who will gain points based on cards you feed him throughout the game. When it’s time to draft, you’ll draw a full hand of five cards from the deck, pick one and then pass the rest to the Lich King. Then you draw a new hand of four cards, pick one, and again, pass the rest to ol’ Mr. Lich. Then it’s three cards, pick one, pass the rest to the Lichy Lich. For the final two cards, you’re actually going to pick up and shuffle the Lich King’s pile of cards (the ones you’ve been recklessly passing to him), draw two, pick one to keep, until finally getting your last card by simply drawing the top card off the Lich King’s deck.

This clever system manages to imitate so much of what makes card drafting great. Since you know what cards the Lich King will get big points off of, you can hate draft to keep those away from him, just like you’d hate draft an opponent when you see them focusing on a specific strategy. The fact that you get your last two cards from the pile you passed to the Lich King creates that feeling of angst when you pass up on a card in the hopes that you’ll see it later in the draft. And all of this is done swiftly and with almost zero maintenance. It’s such a magically smart way to implement drafting in solitaire circumstances and I hope that all future drafting games keep this in mind. A mechanism I once thought would be impossible to implement solo is now something that I think should ALWAYS come packaged with a solitaire mode.

There’s only one unfortunate reality that keeps Paper Tales from cracking the top 5 on this list: I haven’t actually played the multiplayer yet! I procured my copy of Paper Tales after the pandemic lockdown started and therefore have only experienced this game solitaire. When judging solo versions of multiplayer games, I like to compare how the solo experience translates the feel of a multiplayer game. While I’ve played enough card drafting games to know this game does a great job of translating the mechanism, I still can’t say for sure how well it translates the specific Paper Tales experience. For this reason, Paper Tales is slightly held back.

I have no clue when I’ll have the chance to play Paper Tales multiplayer with other human beings, but I’m sure that when I do and I can TRULY see how the solo mode compares, Paper Tales’ stock will only move up.

5. Viva Java: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game

Viva Java Dice cover

This next game is not just underrated for its surprisingly good solo mode, but for its base multiplayer mode as well. The dice version of Viva Java: The Coffee Game (was the title not explicit enough), this is a roll and write before it was considered holy law for every game publisher to put out at least two roll and writes a month.

In the game, you have dice with different colored coffee beans which you then roll and use in one of two ways. One option is to make a blend with the beans, crafting quasi poker hands that are placed on a central disc and will hopefully not be beaten and replaced by your next turn. This feels a bit like the ‘entering Tokyo’ mechanism in King of Tokyo. Just like in that game, if nobody kicks you out, you get points, creating a sense of push you luck whenever you decide to blend.

Or your second option is to pick one color that you rolled and funnel those into research points. The amount of research points you get is the number of dice rolled of that color (so if you have 3 green and decide to use green for research, you get 3 points on the green track). These research tracks all have various special powers associated with their color and if you get them high enough, you can strengthen that power even further. Another cool aspect of this mechanism is that when you max out a track, you get a point payout BUT you can no longer use that color’s power, like the game shutting off a special ability spigot just as you were filling up the pitcher. The trade off of losing your ability for the sake of gaining a handful of points is one of the game’s most arduous decisions.

The solo mode operates mainly the same as the base game, with the exception that you operate an enemy A.I. Operating this A.I. is easy; you roll dice on its turn and if it makes a blend, it does so like a normal player and scores points for it until it’s eventually removed.

The neat thing is that the game comes with two A.I.s, each with their own special power that aids them in making blends as often as possible. One of the A.I.s rerolls dice, trying to improve their potential blends, while another simply takes extra dice and rolls them all in an attempt to get a blend through sheer blunt force. Admittedly, these powers offer superficial differences. Both A.I.s’ powers are equally as effective at getting the job done, and it’s not like your strategy changes based on which one you’re facing. Still, it’s awesome that they offer the choice and it helps keep things fresh from game to game.

I have recently rediscovered Viva Java and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to play it again. It’s such a refreshing, fun solo game to play. It’s the perfect difficulty: challenging, but fair. Whether I win or lose it often feels like it came down to the last possible turn. While it’s tight enough to warrant having to think choices through, I never feel stressed or anxious when playing this game. It’s, dare I say, relaxing?

Another subtle facet of this solo mode that I adore is that running the A.I. means rolling dice, and who doesn’t love that? Rolling dice for your solo opponent feels so much more tactile and satisfying than merely turning over a card and I can’t help but feel that adds to this game’s addictive nature. It’s like pulling the lever down on a slot machine and I can’t help but keep feeding coins into it.

I don’t have too much to disparage VJ: TCG: TDG (ugh, except for maybe the name) as a solo mode with, except that maybe, like Crystallo earlier, it feels a little same-y from game to game. The different A.I.s, as well as a difficulty scaler, do help adjusting things to keep it somewhat fresh but even with that there’s not much that’s going to change from one experience to the other. That’s certainly not a deal breaker. I’ve gotten a ton of fun out of this and I still look forward to pulling it out again (I hope that quote isn’t taken out of context if I run for office). But it is worth mentioning.

It’s still a damn good solo game and one that I wish more people would be talking about.

4. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

arkham horror the card game cover

Here we have yet another game that previously appeared on my top 100. I had a LOT to say about Arkham Horror: The Card Game in my 40-31 post, so if you wanna see me ramble for like two pages worth of a Microsoft Word document, be my guest and click here!

It takes the formula found in the Arkham Horror board game and Eldritch Horror (explore locations and perform skill checks as awful things happen) but tightens it down with a vice like grip into an episodic campaign-based card game. This turns those longer, often bloated affairs into smaller, bite sized offerings. Playing the game through episodes allows the designers and developers to tell a much more coherent story than those found in, say Eldritch Horror, because it’s a contained environment that allows them to tailor everything specifically to that.

And as such, no game is as immersive as Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Set in a Lovecraftian world of grotesque beasts and unimaginable horrors, this game drips with atmosphere. Each episode contains its own twists, tricks, unique monsters and surprises, making every new chapter a joy to play and discover. It’s a truly artisanal Arkham experience, a craft beer version of Lovecraft versus the watered down macrobrew of Eldritch Horror.

In one episode, for example, I’m exploring a dingy night club run by the Mob, and I can practically hear the 1920s jazz and smell the stale whiskey in the air as goons glare at me from across the room. In another, I’m scouring an abandoned museum where a constant sense of dread is provided by a boss monster that stalks you throughout, appearing randomly and more powerful with each encounter. No game transports me to its locales like AH: TCG and there are times where I get legitimate goosebumps from this palpable sense of immersion.

So why is this only number 4? For one thing, and I mention this in my top 100, this game is tedious as hell to set up. The downside of having specially created and curated episodes with their own locations and enemies and mysteries is that you have set them up. This requires pulling decks of cards from past episodes and combining them with the episode specific cards, along with making adjustments based on decisions you’ve made throughout the campaign. The end result is worth it, considering the stuff I’ve already raved about, but it does make me less likely to pull it out than the other three games ahead on this list.

Another reason why this barely misses the top 3 is because of some balance issues when playing solo. While the game mostly works great solo and even moves at a smoother pace than when teaming up with another player, it also means that if your character doesn’t have the skills to handle a certain enemy or situation, you’re out of luck. In a game that demands so much from you, difficulty wise, it can feel almost suffocating when you realize your combat based character can’t pass this plot important Evade skill check because you have the agility of a pregnant walrus. When it creates dire consequences that ripple throughout the rest of the campaign it can, again, make me less likely to play. As I said, I often solo game to relax and I don’t think ‘relax’ and ‘Arkham Horror: The Card Game’ have been combined in any sentence, ever.

Despite those hangs ups, it says a lot for what AH: TCG does right that it manages to still be held in such high regard in my mind. If I’m looking for an atmospheric, cinematic experience, there’s no better solo option than this one.

3. Aerion

Aerion cover

Aerion is the most recent entry in the Oniverse series, a collection of games designed with solo play in mind. My only contact with this series has been with the digital implementation of Onirim, the progenitor of the universe. While that game is amazing, it’s ineligible to make the list because I’ve only played it digitally and I’m weird so I don’t think it should count in that case. (Raiders of the North Sea still counts because it’s just a digital version of a deck of cards, I still need the physical game to play it, in case you were ready to pounce on that in the comment section)

But it was that experience with the digital app that has made me interested in the Oniverse series, especially as I’ve gone deeper and deeper down the solo game rabbit hole. When I needed to get my Miniature Market order past the shipping threshold (a problem I’m sure many gamers are all too familiar with), I picked up Aerion on a whim because it was on sale and because, again, I’ve always been keen on trying more of these Oniverse games.

I am so, so grateful for that lark of a decision.

Aerion is the Oniverse’s foray into the Yahtzee style dice rolling genre, where players will be attempting to build airships according to specific blueprints. The blueprints have resources that must be gathered to complete them and you gain these resources by rolling dice.

Each resource has a poker hand style requirement to gain it, such as ‘three of a kind’, ‘full house’, ‘two pair,’ ‘straight’, etc. If the dice you rolled match the requirement, you can gain that resource and put it into one of your two hangars. This two hangar limit already imposes restrictions on what you can do; since you can only build two ships at a time, some of the resources are presently useless to you, forcing you to make tough decisions on which airships keep your probabilities high and your possibilities open.

Even if you make a wise choice on which airships to work on, there’s going to be plenty of points you don’t roll the dice you need. So, what then? Like any Yahtzee style game, Aerion allows you to reroll dice…at a price.

Any time you want to reroll and get a better combination, you must discard a resource from the available display. Since there’s a limited supply of, well, everything in this game, you’re narrowing your options for Future You. Choosing what to keep and what to sacrifice is at the heart of almost every turn in Aerion, and it’s an excruciating tight wire act.

Aerion ranks so highly on this list for a lot of reasons. First and perhaps, most importantly, it’s just damn fun. Rolling dice is such a tactile delight and there’s something just deeply satisfying about making gambles that pay off over the course of a couple rolls. Aerion moves extremely quickly, so you’re always rolling, always calculating the odds, always cheering or groaning.

Another is because, like Viva Java earlier on this list, it has the exact difficulty I look for in a solo experience. While I win more often than not, it never feels like it’s spoon feeding me victories. I still have to work for it and I still have to make smart choices to pull out the win.

Lastly, I just love the aesthetics of this game. Art is subjective and I know that the art in the Oniverse is particularly polarizing, but I love it. There’s something about its scribbled, hand scrawled look that is so endearing to me. The fact that the dice are a cotton candy blue with purple pips further enhances this game’s cheerfully charming demeanor.

What makes me even more excited about Aerion is that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game’s content. I’ve played the game a handful of times, but only with its base ruleset. Included in the game are about 6 mini expansions, all of which add a little extra twist. Knowing that I still have all of those to explore is such a treat and makes me wonder if Aerion will someday find itself at the number 2 or number 1 spot of this list.

Until then, it takes home the well-deserved bronze medal.

2. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective 

SHCD cover

My number 2 solo game is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and is perhaps the most unique one on this list. It’s less a board game and more an interactive novel, but that doesn’t prevent it from being one of my all-time favorite solo gaming experiences.

In SHCD, you are an underling to Sherlock Holmes, one of the so co called Baker Street Irregulars. You need to solve a mystery before Sherlock does and to do this you’re given a map of 1800s London, a directory of addresses in the city, and ten separate case books, each one providing a new mystery to solve.

When you want to tackle a case, you simply take its book and read its introduction. It’s usually a scene that provides you the basic details to the crime or mystery you’ll be tasked with unraveling and when you’re done reading it, the game just kind of lets you figure the rest out on your own.

And I absolutely LOVE this. The game doesn’t provide any sort of “Maybe you should check here, first!” or “Go to this location to begin the case” style prompts. It’s literally a couple of paragraphs and the rest is on you. The murder took place in Hyde Park? Then maybe you should check there. Is there a suspect that’s already been detained? Go to the jail to see if you can interview them. A firearm was used? Maybe start visiting all the gunsmiths in town to see if any shady customers came in recently. This lack of hand holding makes it so satisfying when you decide to track down a lead that actually ends up being fruitful.

Whatever you decide, you find the address you want to go to in the London directory or on the map and then you look up that address in the case book. So, if you want to go to Hyde Park and its address is “95 NW” you flip to the “95 NW” entry in the case book. If a location isn’t part of that case, it simply won’t have an entry. If it does have an entry, you read another section of text (some short, some long) depicting a scene that occurs while you’re there and hopefully you can find new hints or leads that will lead you to other locations.

There’s also a newspaper that is paired with every case book, showing the headlines and news for that particular day. If you thought the hints in the case book were vague, they’re somehow even vaguer here. To figure out which bits from the newspaper are helpful requires a little more outside the box thinking. For example, you might find out the murder victim was an actor. You then might browse the newspaper and see a very brief blurb about a new show at a certain theatre, a show you know the victim was a part of. This now opens up a new place to investigate if you want to perhaps give the theatre a visit.

You keep doing this, going from location to location, hoping to find leads or clues that will help you crack the case, until you think you have enough information to solve the mystery. At that point, you go to the end of the case book and answer a handful of questions. If you know the answers, awesome! You get points. If you have no clue what the question is even referring to, you don’t receive anything except a creeping sense of embarrassment. After you tally up your points, you read an epilogue where Sherlock smugly tells you how you how he solved the case and how many leads he used to figure it out. You subtract a certain amount of points based on the difference in leads between you both and if you end up with over 100 points, you have won!

You will not win.

Sherlock’s maddening, supernatural senses of deduction means he will use like 3 leads and insane leaps of logic to ascertain the solution to the puzzle. It’s one of the biggest complaints about this game and is often a source of frustration to many players. For me? I don’t mind it too much. I just have sort of come to terms that I’ll likely never break the 100 point barrier and instead try to make sure I can answer all the possible questions correctly. If I manage that, I consider the game a success.

I adore the elegance of this system. It manages to create a sense of discovery and immersion while simply being a couple of books and a map. I am one of those Luddites who can’t stand app integration in games and I think SHCD is a prime example of how to create a richly engrossing, cinematic experience with a minimalist, technology-free approach. Plus, it doesn’t create any sort of disconnect that would occur from being like, “Let me just grab my 1800s era iPhone to trigger the next lead.”

Speaking of immersion, that’s the next thing I’ll discuss. I talked about how good Arkham Horror: The Card Game was at drawing me into its world and SHCD is no different. When I’m playing SHCD, I’m transported to Victorian London. I can feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, the choking smog in the air and the taste of a jet-black stout at the local tavern. Okay, maybe that last one is just the beer I’m drinking in the real world, but you get my point. The act of taking down notes throughout the investigation further immerses me into my role as a Victorian era detective, as I jot down leads and attempt to draw connections between them. As someone who really likes the whole Victorian London era and aesthetic, this is endlessly entertaining to me.

This is a game that can technically be played with others. It’s often touted as a great couples game, where you and your partner can spitball ideas and possible leads, passing the case book between each other like it’s the beer list at a brewery. But for me, this is exclusively solo. I like the idea of trying to come up with connections myself rather than debating them with someone else and the thought of bringing others into the game makes me fearful of breaking that beloved immersion I was just gushing about. I’m sure I’d like it just fine with one or two others, but I can’t see a situation where I’d even want to try it. I adore this is as a solo experience, so why bother?

Out of all the games on this list, this is likely the most divisive and it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For one, it is, as I said at the beginning, not exactly a typical board game, straying closer to the realm of a Choose Your Own Adventure or interactive novel. There is lots of reading in this game and if you aren’t prepared to take pages of notes, you will not get anywhere close to solving the mystery. Lastly, the open-ended nature of this game has also been loudly complained about by its detractors. As someone who grew up on old school point and click adventure games, I have no problem with this game’s nebulous nature and lack of guidance. I love that the case ends when you feel like you have enough information and that the game offers no hints as to when that might be. Again, personal preference, so if that sounds like something that would cause you to pull your hair out, SHCD may not be for you.

But if any of what I’ve described does sound interesting to you or if you think it’d be a cool experience, I implore you to track down one of the game’s installments (there are 3 available, I believe, each with their own ten cases) and give it a shot. Honestly, this game was close to being my number one, but barely missed it due the game’s one-off nature; once you solve the game’s cases, there’s literally zero replay value, a huge downside for me. Well, that and because of my how much I love my actual number one.

Speaking of which….

1. Viticulture: Essential Edition

viticulture cover

Readers of the top 10 of my top 100 are likely experiencing some déjà vu. Viticulture is my number one favorite game of all time AND it’s my favorite solo game??? Yep. And one of the reasons why Viticulture IS my favorite game of all time is, in fact, due to its solo mode.

I mentioned earlier with my Raiders of the North Sea entry that worker placement games should all come with solo modes and Viticulture is the prime example of how to successfully pull it off. The dummy player you’re playing against is so simple to maintain and there are barely any extra rules beyond that to muddy the already elegant design of Viticulture’s base game. All you do is flip over the top card of a dummy player’s (called the Automa) deck and place their workers on the specified spots.

And that’s it! I’ve literally taught you the bulk of the solo rules.

Ease of play is a huge plus for me when it comes to solo games. I’ve played some solo games where running the dummy player is more work than your turn, requiring things like flow charts to parse what their move is supposed to be. So, the fact that Viticulture has barely any overhead in terms of running its Automa is one big reason why it sits at number one.

It’s also an incredibly tight experience. The goal of the solo mode is to surpass 20 points in 7 rounds. I have played this solo mode so many times and it seems to always come down to that last round, requiring some sort of clever combination of cards and actions to put me over the hump. Even though I’ve won the vast majority of my solo plays, it never feels easy and I always need to bring my A-game.

If you want to see why I love Viticulture so much, I suggest you read the top 10 portion of my top 100 that I linked earlier. Everything I say there pretty much applies here because Viticulture solo is essentially Viticulture multiplayer. Yes, there are times where the randomness of the Automa deck results in them taking a spot that makes no sense for that point in the game (“Drawing vine cards in the last round? You do you, I guess.”) but it feels so remarkably close to the multiplayer base game that I barely miss having others around the table with me as I play. At least with the Automa I can curse them out and not feel like I have to apologize later.

Listen, it’s pretty simple. Viticulture is my favorite game of all time and the fact that its solo mode allows me to play my favorite game of all time with little difference from playing it multiplayer is a HUGE reason why it sits at number one. It’s probably my most played solo game and despite the frankly stupid number of plays I have under my belt, I still love to go back to it.

If you want to see how solo gaming is done right, especially when it’s not even designed solely for solitaire play, look no further than Viticulture.

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!

 

Top Ten Board Game Soundtracks

You know what’s nerdier than playing board games for hours on end, with no sunlight and only pizza and pretentious craft beer for sustenance? Doing that exact thing, but with thematic soundtracks in the background for each board game you play.

I dunno about you, but when I play board games, I like, nay, require, a soundtrack in the background. This soundtrack can’t be any old soundtrack, no. I’m not talking about playing Bruce Springsteen while I bust out a game of Sheriff of Nottingham. Both because that makes no thematic sense and also because I would never subject anyone’s ear drums to Bruce Springsteen unless they were like a war criminal or something (and even then, I’m pretty sure it’s against the Geneva Convention). When I choose a soundtrack, it’s lovingly chosen and well thought out, perfectly matching the theme and feel of whatever game we’re playing. In a previous review of Biblios (on this very site, check it out!), I briefly mentioned that I play Gregorian chant in the background. This is a perfect example of the type of soundtracks I choose. As I play Biblios, the soft hum of monks singing in the background transports me to the Middle Ages, where I can practically hear the sound of footsteps echoing down the monastery’s stone hallway. Suddenly, this game about collecting sets of cards becomes more than that. It becomes a trip to another era and an extremely atmospheric experience that I remember fondly time and time again.

If it sounds like I’m way too passionate about this, it’s because I am. I have gotten so bad with soundtracks and games that my enjoyment is somewhat hindered if I’m unable to play one in the background. One time I went out of town to a friend’s place, and he sheepishly told me upon my arrival that his wi fi was going to be out until the next day. This is bad because YouTube is my main source of soundtracks. Fast forward a couple hours later where we are about to play a game set in Ancient Egypt, and we’re furiously searching throughout his roommate’s extensive movie collection, yelling, “THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING EGYPTIAN THEMED TO PLAY IN THE BACKGROUND, DOESN’T HE OWN THE MUMMY??”

Soundtracks are serious business, people.

To show why, I’ve compiled a top ten list of my favorite soundtrack and board game combinations. As you’re about to see, these soundtracks range from movie and video game soundtracks, to a couple of random playlists on YouTube that just happen to have generic instrumental music that happens to work well with that board game. Picking only ten was agonizing, and I am absolutely sure I missed or even forgot of a couple combos that I really love, so this list is by no means 100% definitive. But what it does do is give you a good peek into my brain and thought process when picking soundtracks. I’m not sure anyone should get a peek into my brain and thought process at any point, but this should be safe and should definitely not reveal any of the deep seeded psychoses that plague me every day and every hour and the crushing anxiety and the oh dear I’m starting to ramble, onto the list!

10. Board Game: Fuse
Soundtrack: The Metal Gear Solid alert music

Fuse Soundtrack

Fuse is a cooperative dice drafting game where you and your teammates try to defuse a certain amount of bombs in real time. This makes it seem a lot calmer than it actually is, as Fuse is actually ten minutes of you and your teammates yelling, “AHHHHHH, I WANTED THE BLUE DIE, AHHHHHH”. It’s exhausting and intense, and as such needed a soundtrack that was equally as relentless and heart pumping. My choice for this one is the Metal Gear Solid alert music, which is the music that plays in the video game when Solid Snake gets caught by guards in between its forty minute long cutscenes.

It’s perfect because the pace of the music never slows down, much like the game, and also because it is super iconic. While I’m sure a lot of people won’t recognize this music, enough people should so that their pulses will instantly start pumping and they’ll be looking for the nearest cardboard box.

9. Board game: Literally anything Western themed
Soundtrack: Red Dead Redemption OST

Western Themed Board Game Soundtrack

Okay, this is a bit of a cop out. I’m not going to choose a specific board game for this one and am instead going to open an umbrella and just say that anything with a cowboy/western theme deserves the incredible Red Dead Redemption soundtrack as its background music. The ominous violin that starts the OST off, accompanied with the mournful whistling that’s eventually broken by a sharp, craggly guitar riff gives me gooesbumps every time I fire this one up. Whether I’m playing Dice Town, Bang! The Dice Game or Colt Express, this masterpiece of a soundtrack fits it like whiskey in a shot glass, pardner.

Since this entry was kinda cheap, I promise I won’t just pick a general theme and will only focus on specific games from here on out.

8. Board game: Literally anything archaeological themed
Soundtrack: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune OST

Archaeological Themed Board Game Soundtrack

Right, so, uh, I lied. Just one more time, I’m gonna go for a general theme rather than a specific game. Hey, don’t blame me, blame the fact that archaeology and treasure hunting is represented by more games than numbers that exist. For every one of those games, whether it’s the amazing two player card game Lost Cities or the wonderful deckbuilder The Quest for El Dorado or the imaginatively named Archaeology: The New Expedition, my go to soundtrack is that of the classic PlayStation series, Uncharted. In this example, I use Drake’s Fortune, but Uncharted 2 and 3 work just as well, so dealer’s choice.

7. Board Game: The Grimm Forest
Soundtrack: Trine 2 OST

The Grimm Forest Soundtrack

The Grimm Forest whisks you away to a land of fairy tales living together, where magic and wonder hides around every corner. So what are you doing in this game? Building houses, of course!

Despite the fact that the game has you doing housework like you’re some sort of fairy tale contractor, the art and characters in this game really do help engross you in a world where fairy tales are real, and I needed to find a soundtrack that also captures that magical feeling. Turns out, it wasn’t me who would find that soundtrack. This soundtrack was actually at the suggestion of a friend I was playing The Grimm Forest with, so credit is due to him. That soundtrack is the OST for Trine 2.

What the hell is Trine 2 you ask? Trine 2 is a somewhat obscure video game where you and up to two other players cooperatively navigate a fantasy world, solving puzzles and exploring mystical locales. It isn’t fairy tale themed, but the music the game provides has a whimsy and charm that pairs extremely well with the fairy tale world of The Grimm Forest.

I know some of you are probably asking, “Kyle, why not the Shrek soundtrack?” Well, I can’t find the actual score to Shrek on YouTube and instead it has the official film soundtrack which means you’ll be listening to “All Star” by Smashmouth as you play this game so unless you want that…actually that sounds awesome, feel free to replace any soundtrack on this list with “All Star”.

6. Board Game: Decrypto
Soundtrack: The Imitation Game OST

Decrypto Soundtrack

Decrypto is a cool spin on the word association party game craze that was started by Codenames. Codenames is one of my favorite games of all time and while Decrypto doesn’t quite live up to its lofty standards, it is still a fantastic game that deserves an equally excellent soundtrack. Enter The Imitation Game, the movie where Benedict Cumberbatch beats Hitler up in a fight using the Time Stone and his supernatural powers of deduction.

Wait a sec, please. (checks Wikipedia)

Okay, yeah, I mixed up a couple of Cumberbatches in my head, this is the one where he leads a bunch of codebreakers in World War II to try and crack the Nazi enigma machine. In all seriousness, this is one of my favorite movies and surprisingly fits this word association party game very well. As you and your teammates huddle around a notepad, stressing out over what your opponent’s code is, you’ll hear the haunting strings and tinkling keyboards of this fantastic score.

Fun fact time! I read a designer diary for this game, an apparently the box’s cover art was heavily inspired by The Imitation Game, as it looks quite a bit like the switchboard heavy machine Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing builds in the movie. Just wanted to add that here for a little vindication.

5. Board Game: Bohnanza
Soundtrack: Stardew Valley OST

Bohnanza Soundtrack

Before he was making two hour long worker placement games about EVERY type of farming, Uwe Rosenberg made a little card game that was about farming oh my god, is this guy serious?

Sigh. Okay, farming aside, Bohnanza is a masterpiece of game design. It’s a card game where you and your opponents are rival bean farmers and the only way to victory is to wheel and deal your way to the most efficient payouts possible, trading cards from your hand to manipulate the fact that you can’t change the order of your cards. I could go on and on about this game, so I’ll stop it there and just saw that the Stardew Valley soundtrack and this game are *chef’s kiss gesture*

The banjo that pops in and out of the music helps add to the farming theme, while the general mellow and optimistic tone of the whole package really jives with the lighthearted and cartoony art of Bohnanza‘s cards. Sure, a lot of this game is ruthlessly ripping off poor Grandma of her stink beans so that you can get rid of the one pesky card that is clogging your hand, but it’s still a pretty chill game otherwise, also fitting for Stardew Valley‘s soundtrack. Sorry, Grandma, but you kinda had it coming when you made those vaguely racist comments over dinner.

4. Board Game: Port Royal
Soundtrack: Sea Shanties

Port Royal Soundtrack

This is my first soundtrack selection that isn’t selected from a video game or movie, and is in fact just a YouTube playlist made by some good Samaritan. Port Royal is one of the most underrated games in the hobby, an Alexander Pfister design that mixes push your luck and tableau building in a Klemens Franz illustrated pirate theme. It’s a game I adore and will likely be writing one of my upcoming reviews for it (HOW’S THAT FOR A TEASE, EH?).

For this one, I loooove playing sea shanties in the background, courtesy of the YouTube video I linked. As I said, it’s just a random assortment collected by someone on YouTube, and there’s not much else to say about it. Just some pirates singing while working, and it really gels with the theme.

Now, as much as I love sea shanties, I understand that they’re an, uhh, acquired taste, so if this idea of listening to an off tune band of scallywags singing with no instruments to guide them, I would suggest either the Pirates of the Carribeans OST or the soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

3. Board Game: Viticulture
Soundtrack: Sicilian Mandolin Music

Viticulture Soundtrack

And this is my second selection that is just a generic collection of music rather than an actual soundtrack from something. And oohh, is it a good one. I listened to the first minute or so of this soundtrack after I found it on YouTube for the sake of providing the link in this article and I felt a swell of happiness and nostalgia for games of Viticulture, games that immediately bubbled to the surface of my memory at the first twang of this video’s mandolin.

It helps that Viticulture is one of my top two favorite games of all time and even the game I consider my favorite depending on the day you ask me. What’s the other game? Guess you’ll have to stay tuned to my blog to find out. HOW’S THAT FOR ANOTHER TEASE, EH?

(It’s Scythe, by the way)

Viticulture is a worker placement game set in Italy where you own a vineyard and make wine, trying to be the best at owning a vineyard and making wine. This game is already one of the most immersive board gaming experiences I’ve played. Thanks to the thematic and methodical way in which you make the wine, and the warm, inviting art by the supremely talented Beth Sobel, I actually feel like I’m in the beautiful, sun soaked landscape of Italy. It’s as if I’m there, plucking grapes from vines, crushing them down into juice and preparing them for sale so that your Aunt Sally can get sloshed up at the family Christmas party. When you add to this formula the wonderful Sicilian and Mediterranean music found in the video above (and maybe even a glass of wine yourself), and you will have a gaming experience you will never forget. Well, maybe you will forget it if you have enough of that wine, you naughty lush you!

2. Board Game: Skull
Soundtrack: Guacamelee! OST

Skull Soundtrack

Back to official soundtracks, the silver medal goes to the oh so awesome combination of Skull and the soundtrack for Guacamelee!. Skull is a masterpiece, a brilliant bluffing game that will have you and your friends hooting and hollering and cheering and groaning like no other. Guacamelee! is a sidescroller beat ’em up, and is something in the video game world known as a Metroidvania. I won’t go into it here, but suffice to say that Guacamelee! is an incredibly fun game that is set in Mexican mythology and draws off the folklore of that region. The soundtrack takes mariachi and salsa music and combines it with electronica in a way that easily makes it one of my top three video game soundtracks of all time. Tying it back to Skull, Skull‘s heavily draws off of the sugar skull motifs that have come from Mexico, and was one of the reasons why I was drawn to Guacamelee! as its backing music.

From the first bombastic blare of the mariachi horns in this soundtrack, you’ll be tossing aside that wine from Viticulture and replacing it with some tequila as you buckle up for an incredible party game experience. Skull has no theme, so this soundtrack is purely for the aesthetics of the game but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a near perfect match.

1. Board Game: The Grizzled
Soundtrack: Valiant Hearts: The Great War OST

The Grizzled Soundtrack

I mentioned earlier that I when I play games without soundtracks or some sort of background music, that it actually can hamper the experience for me. That being said, I will never turn down a game because there is no soundtrack present and I obviously still have lots of fun playing board games, even if there is no ambient music available.
There is juuuust one exception. And that is my number one choice for board game and soundtrack combination: The Grizzled and Valiant Hearts.

The Grizzled is a cooperative game set in World War I and it is my favorite cooperative game that I’ve ever played. One of my favorite things about it is its art. The hand scrawled art style, created by the tragically late Tignous, looks like it was taken straight from a sketchbook, perhaps even one used by someone in the very trenches of the first World War. This art is fairly similar to the hand drawn art of Valiant Hearts, which is an indie video game also set in World War I.

Neither of these games are exactly what you’d call uplifting or lighthearted. After all, The Grizzled is game where you can go home as a selfish, demoralized mute with a life long, crippling fear of whistles and can still technically win. Not exactly a party game. They both deal in very heavy themes of war in one of history’s worst. This strong thematic link already makes the two a perfect pairing and it is even more apparent when you actually listen to the soundtrack as you play.

The somber piano that permeates Valiant Hearts‘ soundtrack tugs at your heartstrings as your play cards in The Grizzled. Melancholy strings buzz in the background as you and your teammates struggle to deal with the obstacles being thrown in your way. The music takes an already amazing cooperative game and helps it transcend the bits of cardboard that make it up. I probably sound like I’m exaggerating, and maybe I’m just weird, but this board game and soundtrack combo is such an important part of my gaming memories. And no, I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING. Okay, maybe I’m sobbing a little but it’s just so damn beautiful.

Do yourself a favor and play The Grizzled and then do it with this soundtrack. I hope it’s as moving for you as it is for me.