There are few things as cliche as a Top X number of games, at least as far as I can see. Still, there is some value in seeing what games someone enjoys. The truth is, there are few ways more effective to learn about a gamer than seeing their top games, assuming you have some reasoning behind what they chose. So here are my Top 12 games, with some logic behind why they are on the list. Why Top 12? Becuase 12 is the new 10.
Keep in mind that these will be pretty fluid, so this is merely my Top 12 RIGHT NOW. It also isn’t absolute. My top two games are pretty certain, but beyond that it gets pretty muddled.
So without further ado…
12. Tales of the Arabian Nights
We start with one of the most creative games ever. It’s rare to find a game that makes it its business to create narrative, but very few games do it as well as this one. Originally published in the 1980’s, it got a well-deserved reprint last year by Z-Man games, and it looks fantastic. Sure, the game is mostly random, but this isn’t a problem. It’s about sitting back and enjoying the wonderful tales this game will weave for you. This is a great game to play with good friends, and with people who can read dramatically.
It’s easy to spend a lot of money in the hobby gaming world, but you don’t have to. This little gem by Bruno Faidutti has some of the most delicious bluffing ever designed, and it usually goes for about $25. It’s a great game, with lots of tension, great artwork, and fantastic mindgames every time. This is ideal for those who enjoy poker, but long for something a little less hardcore, and a good deal shorter. As a bonus, it plays up to 7 people (though 5 or 6 is best).
10. Summoner Wars
There’s a lot of game packed into this little box. Summoner Wars is a highly expandable game, with two base sets that are playable with each other. It’s a light game of tactical combat, where all of the units are cards played from the player’s hand. One base set is for two players only, but if you have both you can play a great four-player game. Each player picks a faction to play, and they are all good choices. The interaction of the factions with each other makes for a game with a lot more depth and variety than it initially appears, especially with it’s straightforward ruleset. With two new factions due soon, and more expansions on the way, get on this one on the ground floor. It’s a great game, and deserves your attention.
9. Arkham Horror
Arkham Horror is based in HP Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, but that may not mean a lot to you. For all intents and purposes, the game is a darker, more brooding version of Ghostbusters, where players rush around the city of Arkham, sealing gates to other dimensions that keep pouring out monsters. And this game is an absolute blast. Don’t let the myriad rules scare you off. Once you have it down, you will be in for a big treat, a game that combines the story-telling abilities of the above-mentioned Tales of the Arabian Nights with a tricky cooperative game. The best part here is the rich detail that is added into the experience. You may have everything repossessed when you can’t pay loan interest, or you may become deputy of Arkham. The game allows for tons of little sidestories like that, and it’s great because of it. For those who like expansions, this one is a dilly. Fully seven expansions are currently out, but I’ve only played the base game to any great extent. It’s a fantastic game to play with friends for an evening.
At last, a game about the glamorous, exciting world of 16th Century German farmers! Okay, that’s not all that glamorous or exciting, but it’s a fantastic game. Players have to deal with planting crops, raising animals, harvest, and the ever-present need to feed your family. What really makes this a great one is the presence of over 300 cards, representing minor improvements you can make to your farm and occupations you can take. Since each player only gets 14 cards each game, there is a staggering amount of variety to be had here, and it makes for a game that is deep and tense, with lots of planning and strategy. Some may find it a dry, but those people would be wrong. Agricola is a fantastic example of the strategic games that have been coming out of Europe for the past 10 years, and it deserves a spot on this list.
More than any game I enjoy, I am somewhat conflicted about Dominion. The game is pretty much about itself, and the medieval theme isn’t even trying. The thing is, it’s hard to complain that much about theme when the game itself is so enjoyable. It has my favorite quality in any game, which is a simple set of rules, and tons of variety in different card effects and interaction. Well, not so much interaction with Dominion, but boy, talk about variety. The game is essentially about building a deck. You’ve played Magic: The Gathering? Well, it’s like that except the deck-building part is the actual game. You can find tons of different combos among the 10 cards available in each game, to say nothing of the 25 different cards in the base game. And then there are the expansions. Oh mercy, the expansions. Three have come out so far (Intrigue, Seaside, and Alchemy) with the fourth one, Prosperity, due out next month. The thing is, I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. Games go about 20-30 minutes with experienced players, and I often play several games at a stretch with the wife. That means I’ve probably played close to 200 games, and I’m not close to being tired of it yet. It’s a ludicrously addictive game, a robust system, and ton of fun.
6. Power Grid
Just give my five experienced players, and a set of Power Grid. Never has a game looked so tedious and yet been so awesome. Players take the exciting role of a power company. They build power plants, buy fuel, connect cities to the grid, and power those cities to make more money for the next round. The coolest thing about Power Grid is that it absolutely rewards knowing the game well. If there’s one noob at the table, that person will bring up the rear almost certainly. That’s alright though, because any decent game should reward experience. There are legion opportunities to screw other players, usually by blocking their connections and forcing them to pay more money. Then there’s the power plant market, which does an awesome job of simulating supply and demand. The game has a lot of calculations to do, and that bean-counting can be off-putting, but it’s amazing that arithmetic can be this exciting. The best games of Power Grid are tense, hotly contested, and cutthroat.
5. Space Hulk
See that tagline? “Man versus alien in desperate battle.” There’s no better way to describe Space Hulk. It’s a vicious game, reminiscent of the classic movie Aliens. One player takes the roll of Space Marines, tasked with clearing out the titular vessel before the hideous Genestealers can slaughter them and spread their ugliness all over the galaxy. Some of my favorite game moments come in this game, like the remarkable moments when a Genestealer comes tearing down a narrow corridor as a Space Marine unloads clips of ammo at them, trying to blast the bugs away. It’s a dramatic game, but one that is remarkably streamlined in its rules and execution. It got a special Third Edition reprint by Games Workshop last year, which unfortunately sold out within a matter of weeks. It’s a shame too, because Space Hulk is a testament to the fact that games are a visual medium. Since this is set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it comes with some 32 fantastic miniatures representing the two sides, as well as super-thick cardboard tiles, debossed with their fantastic details. It’s a sumptuous game with a cinematic execution. There can only be one Space Hulk, and it’s a masterpiece.
4. Mare Nostrum
You may have played the classic game Civilization several years ago. Heck, you may still be playing that same game from several years ago. Fortunately for you, there’s an alternative. Mare Nostrum is one of the most excellent game designs I have ever had the pleasure of playing. It crams all of the feeling and epic sweep of a civilization game into a tidy 2-3 hours. Players will trade, fight, and build their way to victory. This is the type of game that I call “self-balancing.” Some factions (like Rome or Egypt) seem a lot stronger than others, but it’s mostly up to the other players themselves as to how easy they will make it for each other. Balance lies in what is called the “metagame,” or the activity that happens among the players, not the various rules of the game. It’s a wonderfully open world, and it’s a crying shame it isn’t being printed right now. If you are lucky enough to have a copy, I recommend highly that you get the Mythology expansion, which adds room for a sixth player (Atlantis!) and several other ideas, like mythological creatures and gods. It makes an awesome game even awesomer.
3. The Settlers of Catan
Now this is one with which you may be familiar. The Settlers of Catan is easily the most well-known hobby game today, one that has generated a ton of buzz and countless hours of fun. I’ve often told people that I minored in Catan while in college, and it’s not far from the truth. The exciting resource system, where players produce resources depending on die rolls, remains one of the best uses of dice in a game. And the trading system? Pure perfection. More than any game I can think of, The Settlers of Catan is a fantastic balance between accessibility, light strategy, and interaction. There isn’t much else to say about it, except that everyone should own a copy. The expansions (Seafarers and Cities & Knights) are both very good, and I would recommend them, but the base game remains the perfect way to play with 3 or 4 players. What’s that? You say there are only two of you? You’re in luck! The Catan Card Game is ideal for couples who love Catan but can’t get enough people together for the classic version.
2. Battlestar Galactica
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that a licensed board game is about as promising as a licensed video game, and 95% of the time you’d be right. The thing is, Battlestar Galactica is no ordinary game. It’s a thrilling game of suspicion, duplicity, uneasy cooperation, and of course, Cylons. Players work together to get the human race to the mythical planet Earth. The catch is, some in their midst are Cylons, evil machines who have infiltrated the fleet. The Cylons work in the midst of the humans, currying their trust and casting suspicions. Other games have done this traitor-in-our-midst thing before, often to great effect, but none of them have approached this one. The game will be even cooler if you are familiar with the TV show on which it is based, but knowledge of the series is hardly a prerequisite. Anyone can enjoy this game, since it isn’t only about the series, but about the overall themes of the show. Betrayal, hopelessness, political turmoil, and heroics all play their part, and the game weaves a fantastic story with those themes, one that anyone can understand. Don’t let the license scare you away. This is one of the best games ever.
1. Cosmic Encounter
It took me a while to understand what was so amazing about Cosmic Encounter, but over time it has proven itself to be the most amazing game I can think of. First published in 1977, the newest edition came along in 2008 from Fantasy Flight games. The premise is simple: players take the roles of different alien races, who each try to establish bases in the colonies of their opponents. This is done through diplomacy, a shot of luck, and sheer brute force, often working at the same time. The key is, each alien race has a rule they can break throughout the game. When you consider that each player has a different alien power, and that the game comes with fifty (50) alien powers to choose from, you suddenly begin to see how things can go awry. The game will be entirely different every time, because the alien powers are always shifting. When you throw in mini-powers called flares, and an expansion or two, the game goes completely bananas, and you just need to hang on for the ride. The biggest laughs I’ve heard around the game table have been a result of the shifting alliances, the extreme effects of cards, and the outright chaos of Cosmic Encounter. This is gaming as it was meant to be, with constant interaction and shifting strategies. When I think I have this game figured out, it morphs into something altogether different. It is always surprising, always fresh, and always a classic. Fantasy Flight has released a small expansion, upping the number of alien powers to 70, and adding some new components, as well as room for an extra player. If you buy Cosmic Encounter (and you absolutely should) then you should buy the Cosmic Incursion expansion as well.