And so it begins…my top 50 games of all time. If you’ve made it this far, you may as well keep going. Sure, you could argue is a fallacy of sunken costs kind of situation to which I say, yeah, probably, but what else are you going to do as the world burns around us? It’s much better in here than out there and that’s saying something.
On with the show!
Previous ranking: 25 (-25)
What I said last year
One of the go to gateway party games, Dixit is quietly one of the most influential games in the hobby. Its art style has been aped and copied in countless games since and people still refer to it as “Dixit-style art” despite how long it’s been since Dixit’s release. It is also one of the first games to popularize the idea of communicating concepts without being too forthcoming, something that party games today still revolve around.
To tighten the scope of Dixit’s influence, it’s also one of the most important games in my collection. It was one of the first games I ever went out and bought myself and was therefore a keystone in the early days of my collection. It was easily one of the most played games for me and my various groups at that time and was even the first hobby game I ever taught to my parents. You could argue that Dixit gets a big bump in the ranking on this list for nostalgia purposes, but I think that’s unfair to say. Both Pandemic and Carcassonne were games I played quite often around the same time and yet I’ve suffered some degree of burnout on both, resulting in neither game even cracking my top 50. Dixit has no such burnout. I still adore this game as much as the first day I played it and will never turn down a chance to get it to the table.
I suppose I should describe the game at this point? I’m sure most of you know what it is anyway. You have tarot sized cards of surreal, dream like art and one player, called the storyteller, gives a clue for one of their cards. It can be a phrase, a word, even a sound. Then everyone else picks a card from their hand that they think matches the clue, they’re all shuffled up and then put on display for a vote: which one was the original card chosen by the Storyteller?
The brilliance in Dixit lies in its scoring system. If you want people to guess your clue, why not be obvious? Why not just say, “Married couple playing chess underwater as an octopus checks its pocket watch in the background”? Because in Dixit, the Storyteller scores no points if either everyone guesses the card OR if nobody guesses the card. So be too obvious or too vague and you’re just giving your opponents free points. It’s such a clever, sharp system that has, as I mentioned, laid the groundwork for dozens and dozens of party games since.
I love games that require you to stretch your creative muscles over your logical ones and Dixit was one of the first games to scratch that itch for me. Being the Storyteller and having free reign on what clue to give allows for such boundless creative choices, while trying to play a card that matches the Storyteller’s clue allows for equal amounts of devious imagination.
I know many have cooled on the game as time has passed and they’ve moved onto shinier, newer party experiences but for me, Dixit will always have a place in my heart and in my collection. If this is still one you haven’t played, what the hell are you waiting for!?
What I say now
Dixit is no longer in my top 25 and is now *merely* in my top 50. That ‘merely’ is sarcastic, by the way. Number 50 out of all the games I’ve played is still good, especially when you consider how long Dixit has been in my collection and how much I’ve played it over the years. The pandemic has made party games tough (read: impossible) to play, so it hasn’t gotten much table time lately. Perhaps the reason behind its fall, though one could wonder if a tiny bit of Dixit’s shine is finally starting to dull after all these years. I’m interested to see how it plays out over the next year and to discover where I rank Dixit in 2021.
Till then, kicking off my top 50 is still a laudable place to be.
49. When I Dream
Previous ranking: 21 (-28)
What I said last year
In When I Dream, players take turns being the Dreamer, someone who will don a sleeping mask and be given clues, one at a time, by the rest of the players to guess words. Sounds like a straight up word association game, so where’s the twist? The twist is that the other players, who are giving the clues, are given hidden roles and those roles determine how helpful they want to be to the Dreamer.
There are Fairies, Boogiemen and Sandmen. Fairies want the Dreamer to guess the words as they come up, so they have a very straightforward task. They simply want to link their clues as strongly to the clue as possible. Boogiemen, however, are a little more insidious. They do NOT want the Dreamer to guess the word, so they’ll be giving clues to throw off the Dreamer. The Sandman, meanwhile, is the Thanos of this world and they want the number of correct guesses and incorrect guesses to be as even as possible.
What this means then is that the Dreamer has to be wary of which clues they trust because the person giving the clue may not have their best interests at heart. There is no phase in which the Dreamer accuses someone of being a Boogieman or Sandman; they simply have to internalize the information and make guesses based on clues given by the people they think they can rely on. If someone is consistently appearing out of left field with nonsense words compared to the rest of the group, then it’s safe to say the Dreamer will ignore them like everyone ignores the “let sit for one minute” instructions on the back of a freezer meal.
On the clue giving side of thing, it’s perhaps even more interesting. Fairies admittedly have a pretty unexciting task but having a chance to be a Boogieman or Sandman involves a fun game of misdirection and subtle deceit. In order to be effective as a Boogieman, you have to fool the Dreamer into thinking you’re a trusted voice. This means giving clues that kind of fit the word but are just distanced enough that the Dreamer may go the wrong way. I use this example in my review, but imagine the word is ‘lion’. If one player says, ‘big’ and another says ‘cat’, a cunning Boogieman will throw out a word like ‘stripes’ or ‘Asia’. This suddenly points the Dreamer towards ‘tiger’ and unless the Fairies can redirect towards ‘lion’ with enough clues, there’s a good chance the Dreamer will guess incorrectly. Since the Dreamer has no idea which ones they’ve gotten wrong, clues like that essentially give no information to the Boogieman’s true identity.
It’s like the Dreamer is being led through a dark tunnel where the clue givers are taking turns grabbing them by the shoulders and pushing them in a certain direction. It’s amazing fun to see how the clues develop and how to best use your role given the information. One or two awful clues from the Boogieman will be all it takes for the Dreamer to essentially mute them like a Twitter troll, making their job the most tense but also the most fun. I always love being the Boogieman, trying to figure out clever ways to introduce small amounts of chaos to the proceedings. The Sandman is also very interesting to play as, since you’re hopping from side to side like a dream world Littlefinger, and it requires constantly being aware of when to shift gears when one side starts overtaking the other.
When I Dream is just so great because it takes elements many gamers are familiar with (word association, hidden roles) mixing them together in a way we’ve never seen before while also maintaining an extremely accessible ruleset for non-gamers to join in. It also scales amazingly well, a very odd quality for a social deduction-esque to have. I played this at the lowest player count of four and found it still surprisingly works while the higher player counts flourish even more.
What I say now
Another game falling from my top 25 and it’s fitting that this one is right after Dixit, since When I Dream’s artwork clearly takes a cue from Dixit’s surreal, deamy style. This is another party game that feels like it might be unfairly tarnished due to the cruelty of 2020 since I haven’t played it in well over a year. BUT even with that considered, I will admit the last time I played When I Dream it started to feel a bit…same-y? It felt like a lot of clues and misdirection from previous games were being used and it’s very easy to burn through the deck of cards in just a few plays which compounds the problem. I think this sudden discovery/concern bubbling up to the surface has hurt When I Dream’s standing in the list.
That doesn’t stop this from being one of the cleverest party games in my collection, though. When I can play games with big groups again, this is sure to be one of the first party games to hit the table. I can’t wait to see if my aforementioned fears were misguided or if maybe this is a game in dire need of expansion (which I actually think may be on the way? I would check but what do you expect from me, it’s not like I’m getting paid for this). Either way, it’s sure to be a blast.
48. High Society
Previous ranking: 43 (-5)
What I said last year
High Society is a small little card game built around auctions. Everyone gets a hand of identical money cards which they then use to bid on point cards which are drawn randomly from a deck. Like many auction games, you raise the bid or you pass. When everybody’s passed, the person remaining spends their money cards and takes the points in front of them.
Sounds a little straightforward and maybe even a little boring, huh. Well, it would be, if it were not for that good old fashioned Knizia Twist ™. High Society has a very important rule. At the end of the game, everyone counts how much money they have left. Whoever has spent the most money over the course of the game is IMMEDIATELY disqualified. They can’t win, even if they have the most points.
And just that tiiiiny little wrinkle takes a vanilla game of bidding on points and turns it into one of the most clever, exquisitely tense card games money can buy.
Every choice is fraught with anxiety and indecision. Do you raise bids, hoping to get people to waste as much cash as possible but risk getting caught spending the money yourself? When you do want a point card, how much are you willing to spend? Do you focus on taking smaller point cards for super cheap, hoping it’s enough to get you where you need to be? Or do you spend big on one or two of the larger amounts, going quiet for the rest of the game as everyone else is lulled into a false sense of spending security? In just a mere 15 minutes, you’ll have these thoughts racing through your head like a prize horse you just spent way too much money on, why did you spend that much money, WHY DID YOU SPEND THAT MUCH MONEY!?!?
To further add to the agony, there are negative penalty cards which do things like remove a point card you’ve already bought or cut your total points in half. When those are up for auction you are bidding to pay money to NOT take it and the person who ultimately decides to fall on the grenade is the only one who doesn’t have to spend cash. This means you always feel like you have to subconsciously stash money away for the purpose of avoiding those penalties because it’ll make any money you’ve already spent on points seem worthless. Yet another way in which Knizia takes a subtle little rule change and uses it to make his game into an instant classic.
What I say now
High Society remains my favorite Knizia game. For what is essentially a dry auction game, it packs a lot of laughter and tension in its brisk 15-20 minutes. One recent game had a memorable moment where my friend sat on his money the entire game, refusing to pay for anything until the last couple cards, thinking he could go on an uncontested spending spree since everyone else would be bled dry by that point. Hilariously, even though he did just that, he STILL ended up being the one who spent the most money because he was too aggressive in trying to get those final point cards. It’s moments of hubris and schadenfreude like this that really make High Society shine.
It has moved down, but only five spots. This is mostly because of some of the new games that have entered the list rather than any inherent problems I’m starting to spot with High Society. The only worrying thing that could cost High Society is how easy it’ll be to get to the table. You see, I’ve introduced this to two groups: one group absolutely loved it, wanting to play games of it back to back to back. The other? They didn’t care for it, like, at all. And it just so happens that the group that didn’t like it is my main gaming group, so, uh, this is awkward.
Will High Society’s stock diminish due to lack of play time? I sure hope not, but time will tell!
Previous ranking: N/A
As if my top 100 needed more Bruno Cathala, here is another ‘new to the list’ game that he designed. Interestingly, it’s not even a recent game from him. Longhorn, my number 47 game, is alllll the way back from 2013, which in board game terms means it might as well be mummified in a tomb somewhere.
Don’t let this game’s age fool you. Throughout this list, I’ve mentioned a couple of games as being some of the industry’s most hidden gems and I think Longhorn deserves a similar title; it’s a game that rarely gets talked about and I only heard of this year. I wouldn’t be shocked if you hadn’t heard of it, so please step into the Church of Cathala, grab an empty pew, and allow me to spread the Gospel of Longhorn.
Longhorn is a two player only game of collecting cows in the Old American West. The game uses a quasi-mancala style mechanism. Players alternate moving a shared token around a grid of tiles, collecting cow meeples (or should I say MOOples hahaha someone please drown me) as they do so. The mancala style twist is that the token gets moved as many spaces as cows collected; so, when you collect cows from a space (choosing all of one color present) you’ve got to keep in mind where that will allow you to move the token.
Sure, you can take three white cows but the only tiles three spaces away will give your opponent something good. But hey, maybe that’s not so bad? Because what makes Longhorn such an unexpectedly juicy puzzle is that you not only need to keep in mind what you’re immediately giving to your opponent, but also to what your opponent can give to YOU. For example, I know moving the token to that tile gives my opponent a cow color they’ve been collecting all game BUT their options for moving the token afterwards may give me something nice in return. Is it worth setting up your opponent if it then sets you up in return? It’s a dilemma that constantly teases you throughout Longhorn’s swift but surprisingly dense 10-15 minutes runtime.
And that’s just the game’s basic mechanism! I haven’t even mentioned all the other wrinkles Cathala has managed to sneak in. For example, there are special action tokens on each tile. When you clear a tile of its last cow, you then take the token. Some are simply end game points, while others let you steal cows from your opponents or take an immediate extra turn. BUT some are bad, like the rattlesnake that scares some of your cattle away or the Sheriff badge which causes you to automatically lose the game if you collect it. These tokens make the game’s tough decisions that much more painful, because you never want to give your opponent the chance to get a good token OR to saddle you with a negative one.
Oh, oh! And the scoring system! So, at the end of the game you’re going to get points for the cows you’ve collected. Duh, you probably say, but mind your tongue because I’m getting to the good part. Cows are worth points equal to the number of cows of that color left on the board; if there are 2 orange cows left, each orange cow you have is worth 2 points. This means that the more you collect of a certain color the more you’re diluting its point value, adding the slightest hint of market manipulation to this already deceptively thinky game. This can even result in your opponent completely tanking the color you’ve collected a lot of by taking the last cows off the board, meaning their worth is now ‘0’. This is balanced by the fact that if one player collects all of one color, they automatically win the game, adding yet ANOTHER cool layer to this parfait of a game.
I’ve gone on much longer than I anticipated about this unassuming and small two player game, which clearly shows how much I enjoy it. I could easily see it moving up the ranks by 2021, considering this is a game I’ve only added to my collection earlier in the year.
Previous ranking: 44 (-2)
What I said last year
Jamaica is a game where you and your opponents are racing around the titular island, using a mixture of card play and dice placement to efficiently collect resources and move your ship. It’s yet another game on the resume of one Bruno Cathala, who will somehow show up on this list even more frequently than he already has. Every turn an active player referred to as the Captain rolls two dice and then chooses to place them on spots representing a day action and a night action. Whatever the pips on the dice show denotes how powerful the action will be.
What are day actions and night actions? Those are the actions you’ll be activating throughout the game and those are selected by playing cards. Everybody has their own personal deck of cards which they draw from for a hand of three. The decks are all identical, but through shuffling everybody will obviously get different cards at different times. When the Captain decides where to place the dice, everyone simultaneously chooses a card and then reveals. On one side of the card is the day action and on the other is the night action. Everyone takes turns resolving their cards based on the dice and the round ends. That’s basically the game until someone crosses the finish line.
Like many of Cathala’s games, Jamaica is rich with tactical play. Taking a look at the board, at your hand of cards and what the dice can give you requires constantly adapting your plans to what is most effective for that turn. Maybe you really wanted to move forward, but you only have that available as a day action and the day action die has a weak value. Perhaps you move backward instead, to minimize the damage from such an action? There’s also some surprisingly puzzley resource management involved as well. Traveling around the board requires one of two types of currency: food and gold. If you’re short on the cost to end your turn on that space, you get pushed back to a space you can afford and that can be devastating. Everyone has a ship hold of six squares but those fill up fast, and a devious mechanism wherein you can’t add to squares (you either have to fill a new square or completely replace the resource) means you’ll be pulling your hair out trying to figure out the best course to sail.
As if that isn’t enough, there’s also combat to worry about. Landing on the same space as another pirate is apparently an act of war because those ships need to fight. Combat is resolved by a simple dice roll, made more intriguing by the presence of gunpowder. Players can choose to add gunpowder to their combat roll, giving an addition of one point per gunpowder token used. It creates a nice sense of push your luck as you try to figure out the odds so that you give yourself a comfortable buffer without overspending. Hilariously, there is an insta-kill side of the die that completely blows up your plans anyway. The winner of the fight gets to rob a player of one of their holds’ squares or to steal a treasure card (bonus point cards seeded throughout the race track), adding a nice bit of interaction to the game.
Like many games on this list, Jamaica is just pure fun. The charming art adds to the fun pirate theme and helps give the game a lighthearted attitude (just like real piracy, right). Watching your best laid plans falter because of a bad die roll or an inopportune combat would seem frustrating, but here it’s part of the game’s appeal. Everybody is getting screwed over and that’s what makes the moments when you chain together a couple of well-timed card plays to get you zipping ahead of the pack so satisfying. Even better, winning the race doesn’t necessarily mean winning the game. Yes, you most likely will BUT people get a certain amount of points for where they finished and they also get points for gold in their hold. Knowing when it’s time to gun for the finish line and when it’s time to pace yourself and hoard gold can be the difference between a last second loss or a surprising win from nowhere.
My only complaint with Jamaica is that it can go a little long, especially if there are a lot of combats dragging the pace of the game down. But that nitpick aside, Jamaica is a game I will always want to play, especially if it’s with a group of five or six.
What I say now
Not much to add about Jamaica, as it’s only dropped an almost imperceptible 2 spots. I love Jamaica as much as I did last year and would be interested to see if it would have had a chance to rise ever so slightly had I had the chance to play it this year. As a game that is best with at least 4 players, it’s another one of those COVID casualties. Really looking forward to the day I can play this again.
Previous ranking: 26 (-19)
What I said last year
God bless Shut Up & Sit Down. If it wasn’t for their glowing review of Concordia, I likely would have never given it a second look. Even after their review, I honestly still wasn’t convinced. How could this game, with its bland cover and bland theme and bland sounding rule set, be anywhere near as good as everyone is saying?? But more and more people continued to keep raving about it and I had to get a copy just to satiate my curiosity.
For like the 87th time on this Top 100, it’s time to admit I was wrong. Concordia IS as good as everyone says.
I’ll try to get through describing the game without falling asleep. (I promise this game is good! It just sounds so dry and boring!) Players are playing cards in order to complete actions that include producing resources, selling and trading those resources, building little outposts to further your production power, and zzzzzzzzz OH, shit, I got so close! Listen, this is game is Euro 101, so let’s get into what makes this game different and great.
First off is the hand management and hand building aspect. In Concordia, everyone starts off with an identical hand of actions cards. How you use those cards is entirely up to you. Once you use a card, it’s in your discard until you play another card that allows you to pull your discard pile back in your hand. That card rewards you for pulling up more cards, so timing it till the last possible moment while not waiting TOO long is a constant dilemma that teases you throughout the game.
Managing your hand is a tense efficiency puzzle, but Concordia also offers you a chance to build your hand. Throughout the game, a display of cards will be oozing along a track at the top, offering players a chance to buy cards to add to your arsenal of potential actions. Many of them provide more efficient versions of the cards everyone starts with, allowing everyone to laser in and focus on an avenue to victory they find fun and/or advantageous to pursue.
This is all made even more intriguing when you internalize how the game scores. It’s a little tricky to explain, but basically all the cards have a certain Roman God or Goddess listed on its bottom and those cards score in specific ways. Whatever points you get from that God or Goddess based on your board state is then multiplied by the number of cards you have of that God or Goddess. So, if you get 8 points from your Mars cards and you have 3 of them in your hand by game’s end, that’s 24 points. I looove this scoring system, even if it’s a bit of a bastard to teach to newcomers. It makes you really think about what cards you want and also makes for the most exciting final scoring round in any game I’ve played. Since you technically don’t score throughout the game, it’s just an explosion of points after points as you and your opponents tally everything in your hand, your score markers sprinting around the board like it’s the Kentucky Derby.
It doesn’t hurt that this is all contained in one of the most superbly elegant rulesets in any game I’ve played. You literally play a card, do what it says, and there’s your turn. There aren’t any edge cases nagging at you like a stubborn hangnail and referencing the rulebook is almost never needed. Scoring can sometimes trip up players but even that requires just an example for them to understand it. The absolutely only thing keeping this from being higher on my list is simply lack of play. I haven’t played this game in over a year and a half and it felt weird putting a game that’s suffered that long a drought much higher than this spot. When I finally do get a chance to play this again, I see it being in my top 15, easily.
What I say now
Ohh, Concordia. What am I gonna do with you. I’ll be honest, I have no clue where to rank this game. In terms of the one play I’ve had of it and how much of a masterclass in design this is, this feels like a top 20 game for me. BUT, and it seems like there’s always a BUT, I haven’t played this game since the summer of 2018. It is incredibly tough to rank a game sorely off of one play from two and a half years ago, no matter how good it is.
With that in mind, I guess you can say 45 is a pretty good spot for it. If I don’t get a chance to play this by next top 100, I dread Future Kyle having to rank this. If I DO get to play it, which I am going to try like hell to, then don’t be surprised if Concordia finds itself back up in the top 25 area of the list.
Previous ranking: 24 (-20)
What I said last year
In this game, players are given a secret location as well as some sort of occupation or person you’d find there. That is except for one person, who is given a card that merely says ‘Spy’. Then, players simply begin asking each other questions. Things like, “Are we outside or inside?” or “What do you do here?” or “ARE YOU THE SPY, TELL ME YOU TRAITEROUS COWARD”. Players need to answer the question in a way that lets people know that they’re aware of the location they’re in.
However, like Sir Mix-a-Lot, I like big BUTs and I cannot lie and Spyfall has a very big BUT. Players want to let others know that they are clued in on the location BUT they don’t want to be too obvious or else the spy might catch on. If at any point the spy can declare what the mystery location is, they automatically win the game. Even if they don’t get to that point, giving the spy possible ammunition to fit in with good answers of their own is enough to torpedo a win for the non-spy players. If the non-spies can’t suss out the spy and accuse them before time runs out, then that’s another way for the spy to win.
I believe Spyfall was the first pure social deduction game I ever played and it has continued to be my favorite. One of the big reasons is just how damn funny this game is. Everybody is trying to be as cagey as possible, which leads to hysterically vague answers. Even funnier, though, is when the spy thinks the location is one thing and gives an outrageously out of left field answer, shining a huge spotlight on their cluelessness. One time I was the spy and I was confident we were at the zoo, so when asked what my favorite time of day was I said, “Feeding hour.” Turns out we were NOT at a zoo but at a casino, which led to everyone staring blankly for five seconds before simultaneously saying, “Kyle’s the spy.” It also created an image of people at slot machines hearing a dinner bell and rushing over to a feeding trough that had the table rolling in laughter.
Another reason I love Spyfall so much is its snappy length. Whereas games like The Resistance has players relentlessly bickering for close to an hour, Spyfall has a timer of eight minutes. This swiftness not only keeps things from getting too heated and barbaric but allows multiple rounds of it to be played in quick succession. This means more people get a chance to be the spy and an ever shifting meta can grow and evolve like an aggressive flu virus. It makes the game hopelessly addicting and one game of Spyfall easily melts into seven or eight over the course of an hour.
Sure, Spyfall has its warts. Like any social deduction game, it is very group dependent and is maybe the most polarizing game in my collection. I have friends who outright hate this game and refuse to play it because they find it too stressful. For me, I don’t find it stressful because the stress is what makes this game fun. Sweating it out as you try to bullshit your way through a question you have NO clue how to answer is a riotous good time to me but others find it a lot less funny. This is also a game that can grind to a halt if people keep giving the same vague responses, not allowing any new information to enter the game state. There’s a running joke in my group that if somebody asks “What do you do around here?”, you respond, “My job.” It gets a lot less funny, though, when it actually interferes with the game.
What I say now
Had you asked me in 2019 where I thought Spyfall could potentially be in 2020, I would have said I could see it falling out of my top 25. Those negatives I mentioned above-its polarizing nature and the occasional logjam of a game state-certainly portended an eventual decline. But 20 spots? Definitely more than I anticipated.
The reasons are the ones mentioned above but also one that I did not foresee: there are two social deduction games I now rank higher than Spyfall and have more or less replaced it in my collection.
Now, I don’t want to sound too extreme. I still LOVE Spyfall and if given the chance, I’d play it in a heartbeat. But it’s already a game that was already tough to get played and now with two new games that are both more well liked between me and my friends? That’s not helping Spyfall’s standing.
That being said, Spyfall is still one of the funniest and most addictive party games in my collection. I have no clue where it’ll end up on this list in 2021 but it’ll always have a special place in my heart.
43. Bang! The Dice Game
Previous ranking: 39 (-4)
What I said last year
Back when I was in college, when I wasn’t too busy being either awkward or drunk (wow, things haven’t changed much), my friends and I consistently played the card game Bang!. I guess you could technically say that was my first hobby game but I didn’t realize it was part of a bigger picture at the time. Fast forward to 2017 and I got to play Bang! The Dice Game, the dice version of Bang!. I wasn’t in love with it, which surprised me because I had heard that Bang! The Dice Game had replaced the original for pretty much everybody.
Luckily, I gave the game another chance later that same year and ever since I’ve considered it one of my top 100 games. I don’t know what clicked in between those plays but I will officially never go back to the original.
People familiar with the original card game will recognize the same basic skeleton. It’s a hidden role game set in the Wild West where one person is a Sheriff and the other players are a mixture of Deputies, Outlaws and Renegades. Deputies want the Sheriff to stay alive till the end, Outlaws want to kill the Sheriff and Renegades just want to be the last ones standing. Whereas the original was built around playing cards that helped you achieve these objectives, this one features a Yahtzee style dice rolling mechanism. The custom dice have icons which allow you to complete actions such as shooting other players and drinking beer to heal (remember kids, beer solves EVERYTHING).
What makes Bang! The Dice Game feel more immediately engaging and exciting than the card game is the push your luck aspect that this game brings. You’re trying to roll the dice to get the actions you need BUT there are negative icons that loom over every reroll. There are dynamite which lock your dice and make you blow up as well as Native American arrows which can cause you to take a lot of damage if you take too many of them. Knowing when to stop and be content with what you have is a key part of the game and one of the reasons it’s so fun and addictive.
And not to keep comparing this to the original, but this game is waaay quicker. The original had a long build up period of people setting up their arsenal and then the actual fighting could drag on as well. A game of this could take as little as ten minutes and certainly no longer than twenty. This makes the somewhat archaic mechanism of player elimination present in the game much more palatable, as people who get killed rarely have long to wait for the next game to begin. And believe me, you will want to play this game again. Many a party has started with three or four consecutive games of this and it never fails to be a rootin’ tootin’ good time.
What I say now
Boringly, I don’t have a whole lot to say here. If I have a game night with a big group, Bang! The Dice Game remains of my favorite games to open with and I can’t wait till that sort of thing is possible again.
42. Air, Land & Sea
Previous ranking: N/A
The second ‘new to the list’ game in the 50-41 range is a 2 player only card game called Air, Land & Sea. It is in the same mold of card games like Lost Cities (which appeared earlier on this list) and Schotten Totten (which has fallen off my top 100 but is still an excellent game); I’m talking games where you and your opponent are on opposite sides of a line and playing cards to specific columns, often in an effort to ‘win’ them.
In the game, players have three columns they’ll be battling over: the titular Air, Land and Sea theatres. When you play a card to a column, you can play it face up for its face value (but it must match the theatre type) or play it face down for a base 2 points (but then it acts as a wild). The sum of the values determines your score in that theatre and whoever has the highest score in two of the three theatres wins the round.
So far so 2-player-Lost Cities-style-card-game, right? Ahh, yes, but here’s where Air, Land & Sea takes this proven 2-player recipe and adds some of its own herbs and spices, making it the Colonel Sanders of the genre (which is definitely a comparison no one asked for, including Air, Land & Sea itself).
Let’s go back to what happens when you play cards face up. When you do so, you often get more points for them than when playing them face down for a mere ‘2’ but you also get to activate a special ability. You see, every card has a power that allows you to either break a rule or manipulate cards on either side or to change up how the column scores. The true strategy and tactics in Air, Land & Sea lie in making the most of these powers and triggering them at the right time for maximum potency. Puzzling out the various combos that bubble beneath the surface of this game’s tiny 18 card deck is one of the pure joys of playing this game. Even after double digit plays, I still find new ways to link up cards and time their abilities for powerful swings in my favor (and, sadly, so do my opponents).
And that’s not even the coolest part of the game! By far my favorite rule is that you can literally just quit. During the round, if you see that with the cards in your hand and with how things are playing out on the table that you’re likely going to lose, you can surrender the round. Doing so gifts your opponent points but if you do it early enough in the round, it’s less points than they would have gotten had it been played out to the end.
This idea of ‘tactical retreats’ is such a brilliant, sharp mechanism and one that leads to lots of sweaty palms and darting eyes as you and your opponent math out how imminent defeat could be. It makes you feel surprisingly clever when you retreat early with a bad hand and it’s exhilarating when you’re about to retreat but your opponent beats you to it. Plus, quitting things is one of my favorite things to do in life, so it’s about time a board game rewarded me for doing so.
The main thing keeping this game from my breaking the top 40 is its generic art and theme. I don’t necessarily mind the World War II theme but it’s partnered with art that is tofu levels of bland and uninspiring. A fresh, flashier coat of paint could go a long way for this game.
Make no mistake, though. This game’s smart, engaging mechanisms more than make up for any of its boring art. It’s one of the best 2-player only card games I’ve played and deserves a spot in just about anybody’s collection.
Previous ranking: 36 (-5)
What I said last year
Cyclades is the first of a trilogy of games put out by publisher Matagot. The games in the trilogy-Cyclades, Kemet and Inis-are all loosely related in that they’re all Euro style troops on a map games set in some sort of ancient mythology. The similarities end there, however, as all the games have different designers and fairly different mechanisms. Will Kemet and Inis appear later on my list? STAY TUNED TO FIND OUT.
Enough about that, let’s dive into Cyclades. As I said, it’s set in the world of Ancient Greek mythology and players are trying to win the favor of the different Greek gods and goddesses as they aim to build two metropolises on the board. Once somebody has two metropolises under their control at the end of the round, they win. Players accomplish this by building fleets of ships, sending soldiers over to conquer islands, and building different types of buildings, such as forts and temples.
These actions are given to you by the gods and goddesses available for that round who are essentially put up for auction. Players bid to try and take control of that god or goddess so that they can use the actions associated with them. Most of them are thematic as well, making it easy to remember who does what. Poseidon builds ships and lets you control your fleet, Ares lets you create soldiers and move them to battle, Zeus demands you buy priests and temples while Athena attracts philosophers and universities.
I won’t go much deeper than that because there’s a lot of minutiae to talk about with what those actions do and the implications they carry. The main thing you need to worry about is that auction. Shrewd bidding is the key to winning this game, not storming around the map, conquering islands. A clever rule states that if you get outbid for a god, you cannot immediately rebid on that god. You have to find someone else to bid on and the only way you can go back that original is if you get outbid AGAIN on that 2nd god. This means if you really want to activate a certain god this round, you want to try and price it high enough so nobody wants to bother outbidding you. But spend too much and you might have enough gold to do anything impactful on your turn, because everything requires gold in this game. This push and pull of trying to decide what gods and actions are worth spending your precious gold on is one of the delightful dilemmas that this game pressures you with.
Another aspect I love about this game are the creatures, who come out one at a time from a big deck. The creatures are all from Greek mythology, obviously, and, like the gods, feature thematic powers. Medusa freezes soldiers in place while the Sirens attract ships to their doom and the Cyclops builds you a building because apparently he’s a contractor in the Greek myths? Whatever, MOST of them have thematic powers, and it’s always fun to pay for a card and then use it on an unsuspecting opponent.
Cyclades also has a surprising number of effective ways to win. You need two metropolises but how you get there is up to you. Want to focus on military, constantly using Ares to invade other islands and take their hard earned buildings for your own? Go ahead, ya big jerk. Want to go early on Zeus so that you can load up on priests and temples, which provide big discounts on bidding and buying monsters? Sure, you do you. Want to sneak a victory with Athena, recruiting philosophers that give you an automatic metropolis when you obtain four of them? You think therefore you can.
Really, I love Cyclades enough to almost consider it for my top 25 but one thing holds me back: Pegasus. Seasoned veterans of the game probably already know where I’m going with this. Pegasus is one of the cards in the creature deck and his ability is that he’s able to teleport all the soldiers off one of your islands to an opponent’s island, basically paratrooping them into battle. It’s the only way someone can invade an island without winning Ares and in the right context, it is EXTREMELY powerful. A common strategy at the end of the game when somebody already has two metropolises and is about to win, is to win Zeus and then use his ability to mill through the creature deck until you find Pegasus so that you can then teleport an army in order to steal one of those metropolises at the buzzer.
You probably think that’s an incredibly specific scenario, but this is how HALF of my games of Cyclades have ended. It’s gotten to the point where I warn players about Pegasus at the start and say, “Here’s what this card does and why it can ruin the ending of the game” and yet it still occurs. I could remove Pegasus from the deck, I guess, but I hate doing that sort of thing. And outside of the end, the threat of having Pegasus attack is integral to the rest of the game. It just sucks that it can be used to anti climactically take the game away from someone, even if it does seem to require specific context.
What I say now
A shallow drop of five spots for Cyclades. The main reason behind Cyclades failing to hold strong in the mid-30s is the criticism I ended last year’s write-up with: Pegasus. He still feels like a borderline broken card/mechanism and I have yet to grab myself a copy of the Titans expansion which purportedly fixes it (and irons out a few other wrinkles too).
If I get a copy of Titans, I would love to see if Cyclades makes a run at the top 25 because it truly feels like a game of that caliber for me. Till then, Cyclades faces a slow but steady decline down the list.
And so it goes for the first installment of the top 50 of the top 100 (there’s probably a more elegant way to say that). Come back soon for the start of the top 40!