After getting the results of this year’s personal ranking I felt like there wasn’t much to add from the previous year. Then I compared the lists and realized there were 4 new games to my list in my top 9… that’s crazy! It didn’t dawn on me at first because I felt these were strong games for me since the beginning of 2019 and became mainstays for the year, so it feels I’ve been talking about them for some time already. But these snapshots and their comparisons to the previous years’ are fascinating to review as my exposure to new games and experiences influence my ever-changing taste in gaming.
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9. DEUS [ Last Year: 6 (-3) ]
I know Shuck loves this game for its engine building aspects – and they’re good… really good. Pulling off combo moves is extremely rewarding in this game; but for me, I really love Deus because when we’re done playing and looking at the board it just… feels… epic. During the game I’m caught up in production, area control, synergizing my cards, adjusting my plans to account for missed opportunities, then it’s over. It’s always a bit quiet after a game of Deus as we count up VP with a board full of wooden bits in the background. It takes some time to re-acclimate, coming back from a full blown civ-building exercise in a couple of hours. That’s what I love about Deus. I get all the feels of competing in a massive civilization undertaking compacted into a streamlined conglomeration of mechanics that should be fiddly when combined but instead turn out to be clean and purposeful.
8. FOOD CHAIN MAGNATE [ Last Year: – ]
This game is like an earworm – is that a compliment? I don’t know, it’s just something I can’t get out of my head and I play it hoping I’ll be satisfied, but then I just want another play of it. I have heard its brutal and unforgiving consequences have turned many off to the game but the weight of those consequences seem to be exactly what I want in a sandbox experience; and I would not say that is normally my cup of tea but here I really appreciate it. While Food Chain is not a game of chess by any stretch, it is the first game I’ve played that reminded me of that desperation I felt many times playing against an opponent more prepared or skilled and searching for the angle that might undercut and frustrate their plans. The marketing phase of the game is very abstract in nature and a key to manipulating influences across the board (and perhaps that’s where the chess nostalgia comes from) but that is only one aspect to this open-concept engine builder. I don’t get to play this enough and hope to explore it more in 2020.
7. LORDS OF VEGAS [ Last Year: 8 (+1) ]
Lords of Vegas has been all over my top 10 for the last five years, and apparently it’s not going anywhere. Getting to teach this game and watching new players go from being polite business owners to making risky bets and funding cut-throat deals keeps this game fairly high on my list for potential game night fare. Even better is getting veteran opponents to the table who remember our last stint in Vegas, maybe not too quick to trust our arrangements but then again they’re just using my assets to weaken someone else at the table before they capitalize on the situation. I cannot think of an area control game that has been able to tie its mechanisms so intrinsically with its theme. Lords of Vegas is a risky, high stakes love affair any sane person would avoid in real life but makes for great drama in a board game.
6. SHOGUN [ Last Year: 18 (+12) ]
One of my ideal gaming sessions is the lazy Sunday afternoon wargame. And if you asked me today what wargame I’d want to play, Shogun would immediately come to mind. Each round is first bid for in terms of turn order and round bonuses. Then simultaneous planning occurs for a term where the order of only half the actions to take are known while the future stakes for the impending winter become more and more evident the closer you get to the end. The actions you take each round run the gambit of tax and food collection, conscripting soldiers, movement and combat, and building structures. Reckless abuse of the land and peoples could lead to more difficulty defending your holdings as well as leaving your end of year scoring more to chance in peasant revolts. And have I gone on this long without talking about the cube tower? Not sure how to explain it as cool as it is but you dump cubes in the top of a shelved, plinko tower and the cubes that fall out the bottom are the results of the encounter. Your cubes didn’t come out? Don’t worry, they’re still in there and may benefit you next time. Every game should have a combat cube tower, even games without combat – it’s that cool.
5. SCYTHE [ Last Year: 4 (-1) ]
I hope I’m playing Scythe the rest of my life. It’s the game I see myself playing as an old guy with a bunch of old men like the retired fellas that’d hang around the cotton gin playing dominos while their wives were at bridge night. Scythe is another game that rewards efficient planning of turns and resources; but instead of the peaceful commerce of Concordia, we’re sure to give and take fire as we vye to control area production to create stable empires for our factions. As an objective based scoring system, your in-game achievements translate to points which, in turn, are multiplied based on the popularity of your regime. Most of these achievements come in the form of completing an aspect of your empire and the variety of goals offered create some nice space to experiment and adjust. The base game is enough to serve as a long-term mainstay but the expansions have drawn me to play more frequently. Especially the Winds Gambit which provides for me the one-off variants that keep the game fresh without the time commitment needed to really get the most from Rise of Fenris. Don’t get me wrong though, I totally plan on sinking into the Fenris as soon as the kids are older and my time allowance for gaming grows. This is one of the few games I get everything for and continue to break it out with a sense of pride.
4. MOMBASA [ Last Year: – ]
Alexander Pfister at his best. Mombasa does what Pfister tends to do in pulling various game mechanics together into a seamless symphony of crunchy point earning metrics, but does so without feeling alluding or derivative. Sure there are other investment simulations. Other worker placement systems. Other card cycling, track staging, achievement unlocking, exploration, resource managing, drafting board games out there. But to play through so many angles without feeling the game is bloated with features for features sake is a real treat to experience. I cannot defend that the iconographic language is less intuitive than I wish it were and that that alone can be a bit overwhelming at first go. But the blemishes are soon eclipsed by a game that is greater than the sum of its parts: that within a crunchy euro-style game players are forced to interact and contend as in a business stock-holding game – and that is probably the best of its unlikely amalgamations.
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3. CONCORDIA [ Last Year: – ]
Oh Concordia. Like the prickly pear you’ve kept me from your sweet fruit by the burs and trappings of your exterior. But no more. Concordia hit the table about midway through 2018 and ever since I just can’t get enough. It’s the same feeling I had about Carcassonne back in 2007 when I was reintroduced into hobby gaming. And after owning and culling hundreds of board games, getting somewhat exhausted as a collector and plateauing as a gamer, a whole new vista opened and Concordia served as a gatekeeper. Trading in the Mediterranean is one of those cliche phrases we throw around and that’s really the theme here. Gameplay rewards efficient planning but just about everything you do on your turn will give you something, if not as much as you’d like. The crux of the system is in the scoring as each card you have at the end of the game scores a different aspect of your mercantile infrastructure and drafting the right card (or many times just more cards) is key to staying competitive. I will say that the near complete obfuscation of everyone’s score during the game is much more enjoyable than playing online where scores are tracked for all to see during play. Having played both ways, seeing your plans successful often grants more gratification in this game than endgame metrics, and having an ever-present tally in front of you tends to detract from the experience.
3. MADEIRA [ Last Year: – ]
My first play of Madeira was back in 2017. I was miserable. Now it’s my #2 game. Well first of all I probably had no business jumping into that first game. I figured I could learn as I go and didn’t really pay close enough attention to how it all worked together. Mostly I just made sure I didn’t offend the rules while the connections between all the various facets were lost on me. It became an albatross to my gaming experience – every time I came across the game’s title or artwork it just sent a feeling of discouragement that there was a game out there I couldn’t even understand enough to know if it were any good. A year later I finally got another play and this time I really worked at seeing the big picture, and it was beautiful. At its core Madeira is a dice drafting game with a layered action selection system built around the dice. Your success in the game is often determined by how efficiently you can satisfy a series of tasks with those actions across several theaters of colonial management. As a development simulation there are many tasks to juggle and prioritize, and without much of a personal tableau your actions and those of your opponents are constantly influencing the boardstate of the island affairs. No longer an albatross but a dear friend and bedfellow, I’m really putting efforts toward developing an expedient method of introducing this game just so I can have more opportunities to play it.
1. GLOOMHAVEN [ Last Year: – ]
I couldn’t weigh in on Gloomhaven last year due to my inexperience with the game. Its exposure led to the decline of Descent 2.0 in my rankings, but I needed to campaign before an adequate assessment could be made. Well the hype is for real! There’s so much about this dungeon crawling, tactical experience that sings to my tastes in gaming. The leveling system is robust and thematic – and that sounds trite compared to how I really feel about it. I spend much time between games planning how I might level to craft my character’s usage, then given the satisfaction during the next scenario to see those very payoff moments I planned for; not to mention my delight when witnessing similar acts by my teammates (who I might add often reenact scenes with great enthusiasm). The gameplay itself is certainly engaging and I am delighted to report that though all dungeon crawling tactical games suffer from the smash’n’bash formula from one degree to another, Gloomhaven’s gameplay is varied enough between scenarios and abilities that the turn-to-turn cycle hasn’t felt inflated or redundant. I would also mention that out of the crawlers I’ve played it has provided the best opportunity for role play to the degree that it has encouraged this behavior in our group without playing an actual RPG (did I mention our fondness for reenaction?). Fantasy dungeon crawling is at my genesis of gaming but I have also changed with the hobby as it has changed over the years and I really think Gloomhaven brings this beloved genre along to meet the modern gamer where we find ourselves today.