This is the fourth year I’ve done a big countdown for my top twelve games, but I still feel like it’s a work in progress. My first installment back in 2010 seemed to assume that these were the twelve “best games EVAR,” like there was a standard that these games were held up to, and they were the ones found to be at the top of a linear list of every game I own. Now that I’m putting together this list for the fourth time, that’s obviously a load of crap. Not that I don’t consider these games among the best ever made, but the list this year is almost totally different from the first one that I published in 2010. I mean, I put Dominion on the first iteration of this list, and Puzzle Strike on the second one. Those might reflect the last time I wrote much positive about either one of those games. One list by itself doesn’t mean much anyway. I’m not the same gamer I was in 2010, and that’s fine. I keep doing these lists because they tell me a lot about where I am right now as a gamer. Consider this a portrait of what I want in a game in December of 2013. Continue reading
The very first entry I wrote for this blog last year was a list of my Top Twelve games. I went back to that entry a while ago, and I realized that a lot of it has shifted drastically. There hasn’t been much movement at the top, but I played a lot of stuff recently that has unseated other games on the list. So I thought it’d be fun to revisit my top twelve over a year later, and I think you might find some of the changes interesting.
12. Puzzle Fighter
Last year’s list had an appearance from the very good game Dominion, the first of the recent spate of deck-building games. Well, Dominion is still a game I enjoy, but it didn’t make this year’s list. Part of that is a general weariness from the whole deck-building mechanism, but the other side of it is that I found a game I like more. Puzzle Strike is like a weird parallel universe version of Dominion. The structure is almost identical, but there’s a great deal more interaction between the players, and there’s just more personality here. But Puzzle Strike sets itself apart by being a surprisingly deep experience out of the box. I love that each person has their own character and set of moves, and there’s parts of this game that I still haven’t completely figured out. I don’t always play deck-builders, but when I do, I play Puzzle Strike (usually).
Agricola was on last year’s list, just a little higher. My own tastes have kind of moved past this one, but it struck me that it has really had the legs to remain one of my very favorites. It’s a very nuanced game. A small decision will have an unforeseen consequence down the line, and I like that kind of causality in a game. The best part of Agricola are the hands of cards that each player gets. It keeps every game different, but it never sends it so far off the track that the game is way unbalanced. They simply revalue the different actions for all of the different players, and that makes for something that I still love to play. Great game, and one that has stayed steady for 3 years.
10. Power Grid
I haven’t played as much Power Grid as I did when I first got the game, but that’s part of the natural arc of any game. Fact is, Power Grid remains one of the best games in its class, and jumping back in is like putting on a comfy pair of jeans. When everyone around the table knows the game well, there’s some wonderful battles of wits that go on between the players. There’s a little bit of auctioning, a little bit of economics, and a little bit of route building. And each part is executed really well. It’s a tense game that I will always cherish.
9. Space Hulk
Somewhere along the path, the term “Ameritrash” became associated with long drawn out games like Twilight Imperium, with volumes of rules and nuanced strategies. But Space Hulk is really Ameritrash gaming at its finest. This is such a fast and furious game, and I’m always excited when I get a chance to play it. There’s something almost elemental about the excitement generated by a game of Space Hulk. I love the thrill of shooting down a hallway to kill an oncoming Genestealer, and I love the visceral thrill of pulling off a flanking move. But despite the guns and aliens, this isn’t a stupid game. It’s intelligent and thoughtful if you’re into that, and I think its broad appeal is what has impressed me about the game. And of course, it looks awesome.
8. Fury of Dracula
Another new addition to my list, Fury of Dracula is one of the best of a class of games that I call “narrative games.” It operates in the context of a story to give the game meaning and enjoyment, a little like Arkham Horror. Arkham Horror is a fun game, and it made last year’s list, but this one is better. There are a lot of rules, but the whole experience is actually pretty streamlined. One player plays Dracula, and the other four players play hunters who seek the hidden count around the board. There’s a very fascinating balance between the two sides. Dracula has little margin for error, but if the Dracula player knows what he’s doing, he can be very formidable. It rewards knowledge of the game very well, and the atmosphere is unmatched in gaming.
7. Twilight Struggle
Another newcomer, Twilight Struggle is the best two-player game I’ve ever played. Players take opposing sides of the Cold War, each one of the superpowers during that 40-year era. They take turns playing cards to add influence to different nations around the world, and to push for coups behind enemy lines. The cardplay is excruciating, and it can be overwhelming after one game. But the second game? I was swept away in the waves of a new alternate history. The best thing about the game is its dynamic nature. The whole thing can shift on one well-played card, and that tension makes for something unmatched in the realm of board gaming. It’s not a short game (assume 2-3 hours per session once you get experienced), but it’s worth every minute. And GMT, please get me that deluxe edition reprint soon!
6. Mare Nostrum
I wondered for a while why Mare Nostrum received such a lukewarm response when it came out, eventually resulting in its current out-of-print status. But now I’m pretty sure that it’s because the game is pretty fragile. If there’s one inexperienced player at the table, they have the potential to upset the whole session if the other players let them. There’s an inherent openness to the game that a lot of people probably found annoying. But I think that’s one reason I like the game. The mechanics really exist as a way for the players to interact with each other, and when you do know the game the little imbalances go away, and you’re left with one of the most remarkable designs of recent years. The players make this game, and when its firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing quite like it. This one needs to get back into print, because more people need to experience it.
Innovation is a game that marches to its own beat. It is uncompromising in its focus and its nature. And I love it. The players each represent a civilization that is creating new ideas and inventions constantly, represented on 105 unique cards. Every card that is played is affected by what’s been played, and by what other players are doing. The different cards all work together in drastic and unexpected ways, and it makes for a game that feels fresh every time I play it. Innovation recently got an expansion, called Echoes of the Past. This is just about the best expansion to anything I’ve ever played, period. It’s the advanced version of the game, and it’s required for those who love Innovation. This is a game that will be horrible for some people, but the people its for will love it.
If you don’t know why Tichu made the list this year, then you obviously haven’t played it. Most people I know who have tried it have been instantly smitten, and it’s now one of the most-loved games by me and my friends. A climbing game in the tradition of Gang of Four and Scum, this one adds the interesting wrinkle of partners. The result is the best card game that I’ve ever played. Heck, if you could find two more people I’d play right now.
3. The Settlers of Catan
A classic by any reasonable measure, The Settlers of Catan remains the very best game to come out of the German gaming scene. It’s accessible, loose, and fun. In some ways, it’s too bad that it’s been published by a hobbyist company, because I think it could be an even bigger hit from more major company. I guess it’ll have to be content with just being the biggest hit that the board gaming hobby has ever seen. Not only that, but the Seafarers and City & Knights expansions remain the standard that all other expansions need to try to meet. They freshen the game, bringing it to exciting new places, while always remaining Catan at their core. A classic , no matter what snooty board gamers may say about it.
2. Battlestar Galactica
What to say that I didn’t already say in my recent review? BSG is just about the most thorough exploration of a setting and its accompanying themes in a board game. There’s such a great sense of tension and story going on here, and yet there’s so much more than that. Like most of the best games, it relies on the players to really make it excellent, and I think that’s what’s kept me coming back to this one. Yes it’s long, and yes the expansions have never really been able to reach the same heights as the original game, but what heights those are.
1. Cosmic Encounter
No surprises here. Cosmic Encounter is, for my money, the best game ever designed. It’s always different, always interactive, and always exciting. It’s remained my favorite game because of how it brings out the most fun parts of people’s personalities. I’ve been able to adapt it to numerous different groups by tinkering with it. Recently, we played a game with two alien powers per player, and it was excellent. After over 50 games, I still feel like there’s acres of game to discover here, and I look forward to every one of those games. I could get rid of every other game I own, and if I still had Cosmic Encounter, my collection would feel complete.