#10 Shakespeare

I found Shakespeare during a sale event on Amazon. I read the rule book and knew from the onset it would be a top 10. 

I found Shakespeare during a sale event on Amazon. I read the rule book and knew from the onset it would be a top 10. 

 Summary

Nominal Award: Best Alternative Game

Mechanincs: Card drafting, Action Point Allocation

Players: 1-4

Gameplay: 

Players are producing a play for the queen. The play is to have actors, costumes and a set, each of these contributes to its prestige, the scoring upon which victory is based. While prestige may be what players are gunning for, money is just as important. Every player must make enough money to pay his or her hires. Failure to do so will cost prestige. 

Every player begins with an author, an actor and a cratsman. During each of six rounds, players recruit a new hire, a card that gives that player access to a new action. The hire also has a fee that must be paid by the end of the game. The stronger the hire, the higher the fee. A player must carefully weigh the benefits of the hire before they choose to bring it on. Furthermore, players are competing over the hiring field. First choice goes to the lowest bidder. Not the lowest bidder in coins, but in actions.  

Bidding actions is a dynamic unlike any I have seen. By default, a player can have up to five actions. An "action" is the act of using one of his or her hire's abilities. To compete for a great new hire, players essentially must sacrifice the use of one or more of their other other hires.  

After the bidding is over, players use the abilities of their hires to develop their play, make costumes and build sets. The elements that go into these aspects of the production are also open to all players. Therefore, players aren't just competing for access to new hires, but also production elements.  

Scoring happens during the dress rehearsals, during which players compare their progress and tally their points and income. Altogether, a game is six rounds with two dress rehearsals. All hires are paid at the very end. Special objective cards may earn players a few additional bonus points.

Conclusion 

I love, love, love the theme of this game. First, I am a sucker for a game with a unique theme. Second, the artwork is amazing, as each actor resembles a role from a Shakespearean play. Third, having been a theatre person myself, I am aware of the accuracy in how cutthroat producing entertainment was during Shakespeare's time. Even Shakespeare integrated seemingly arbitrary elements into his plays solely for the purpose of pleasing the queen. That is to say: this game, like many others, does contains some arbitrary scoring objectives, but thematically, that's what actually happened in history!

I gave this game the "Best Alternative Game" award because it is the best alternative to when you've played any of my top five games too many times. It has a theme as strong as Mymes or Food Chain Magnate, excellent mechanics to support the theme, no luck (other than drawing the supply and hires) and can be played in about two hours. The only reason it isn't at the top of my list is because I have not played it enough times to make a final decision on its ranking.

In fact, I do have a confession to make.  I only discovered this game a week before publishing my list. In fact, at the time of writing this, I have only played the solitaire version. Barring a complete disaster, I am quite confident this will be a wonderful game to play with others, but I can't describe the competitive experience until I've actually competed!  Nevertheless, I have played soooo many games and even the best of them that are not already on this list are lacking the one thing that I was looking for to fill the void of the #10 spot. They lacked something to distinguish them from every other game on the list. Cosmic Encounter doesn't offer anything that Imperial can't do. Antiquity is inferior to Food Chain Magnate. Agricola takes too long to outrank Myrmes. Istanbul, like Carcassone, in being modular, requires too much luck to stand against Isle of Skye. Shakespeare, by comparison, ties together everything: bidding, drafting, action point allocation, tile placement, but it add the aspect of bidding actions instead of coins and, all the while, remains thematically distinct.

#9 Splendor

Summary

Nominal Award: Best Dessert Game

Mechanics: Card Drafting

Players: 2 - 4 

Gameplay

Splendor is a stupid little game that will always have a place on my shel.? Why is that? Because whenever I've played a time consuming and mentally exhausting stratigic board game, inevitably I'm not quite ready to go home. I need a little "dessert" to accompany the main course. Something sweet and not too filling. Easy rules, quick play. No game hits the spot like Splendor. 

Splendor is a silly little game. Pasted on theme, hugely dependent on luck, one-dimensional mechanics. And, through its simplicity, it accomplishes what no other game can: it fills the void for when you are too tired to too drunk to play another game.

If I had to explain the rules of Splendor in terms of a more popular game, I would say: "Imagine Dominion without any action cards, only treasure and victory cards, including the Prosperity expansion. This is Splendor." Splendor is a card drafting game at the very core: buy cards that give you more buying power to buy more cards that are worth points. Each turn you either pick up currency or buy another card. There is no additional "action" phase. There isn't even flavor text on the cards. The theme of the game is about as strong as a McDonald's happy meal: a means of packaging without any regard for what's inside. Yes. This game scores lower in half of my criteria, but his it out of the park on "learning curve", "fun", and "pacing". It takes about 60 seconds to explain the rules and everyone, absolutely everyone, has fun playing. If you would only stop and think, you would realize that - barring self sabotage - the game awards every kind of strategy and the winner is more often decided by a matter of how the cards are dealt than actual skill, but no one ever does stop to think about it because the pacing is absolutely perfect. Ultimately, its simplicity is its strength and this quaint game of my continues to hit the table, time and time again.

 

#8 Isle of Skye

Summary

Nominal Award: Best Tile Placement Game

Mechanics: Tile Placement, Bidding

Gameplay

One of the well known games of "the canon" is Carcassonne. It doesn't get as much play time with me anymore, even though I loved it when it was new and novel. If I could put a finger on why I don't play it as much, that would be the luck of tile drawing. After you've played a few times, Carcassonne is reduced to a game of probabilities. What it needs is some strategy around how the tiles are picked. Isle of Skye makes this improvement.

Isle of Skye is a tile placing game. Unlike Carcassonne, players place square tiles in their own map (as opposed to a communal map.) Scoring happens at the end of each round. What actually scores points various from game to game (you draw tiles at the beginning of each game to reveal what types of tiles or arrangements will be worth points.) For example, continuous roads, enclosed mountain ranges or sheep tiles might be worth points. Every tile had a variety of features on it. Some tiles are therefore more highly valued than others. Certain rules apply to the placement of times : lakes must border lakes, mountains must border mountains, etcetera.

What sets this game apart is, unlike Carcassonne, three tiles are drawn by each player at the same time and, also simultaneously, players place bids on how they think each of the three tiles should be valued. After everyone had placed their bids, the bids are revealed and, in turn order, players decide which tiles they'd like to buy. Money is paid to the player who placed the bid, however, if a tile is not sold, that player must buy the tile for his or herself.

Conclusion

This bidding process is a brilliant mechanic. If you bid too high on a tile and no one buy it, you yourself must pay that price for it. If they do but it, you keep the money. If it's a tile you want, you have to find the price that you'd be willing to take as compensation for not getting it. Since you have three tiles, (one of which is always "axed" and removed from the market) you can also try to deter people from buying the one you want by lowering the price of the one you don't want. There are probably half a dozen other strategies involved in how you bid on tiles. The game, therefore, is entirely in the bidding. Only after all purchases have been made do you actually place the tile. The scoring of Isle of Skye is admittedly arbitrary. I certainly don't feel like a Scottish lord while I play the game, but I don't know of a tile placing game that is thematically any stronger.

#7 Codenames

Codenames is, at its core, a card game. Like many card games, (Dominion, Netrunner, Machi Koro) it comes in a box that is too big. To save on storage space (and for the sake of a fun project) I made this rip off of Codenames using custom-drawn graphics. It fits in the blue, 3D-printed card box shown on the left.

Codenames is, at its core, a card game. Like many card games, (Dominion, Netrunner, Machi Koro) it comes in a box that is too big. To save on storage space (and for the sake of a fun project) I made this rip off of Codenames using custom-drawn graphics. It fits in the blue, 3D-printed card box shown on the left.

Summary

Nominal Award: Best Team Game

Mechanics: communication, Memory

Players: 2 - 8 

Gameplay

I never expected I would like Codenames. It's designed by Vlaada Chvatil, the designer of Mage Knight and Through The Ages, brilliant games whose only downfall is their complexity and duration. The concept of Codenames, by comparison, is so remarkably simple and short that the contrast was initially off-putting. Honestly, if I hadn't found an interest in the challenge of making my own version and if the ratings on Board Game Geek weren't as high as they are, by the description alone I never would have tried this game.

Codenames is best played with 4-8 players. This allows the players to split into two teams, a blue team and a red team. The playing space is 25 cards with simple words on them..."liquid", "circle", "turtle", etc. Thematically, the cards represent the "code names" of field agents. One person from each team is the designated codemaster and is given a key that shows which cards belong to which teams. Some cards are neutral. One card is an instant death card, the "assassin". Using one-word hints, the codemasters take turns trying to get their teammates to guess their affiliated words. So far, this isn't very different from other hinting/guessing games (Taboo, Password...) Of course, there's a catch.

Along with a one-word hint, the codemasters may also specify the number of guesses their team may take. For example, if I was on the blue team and "turtle" and "circle" were our words, I might say "Shell, two." This is harder than it sounds. Since your teammates are guessing only out of the selection on the table, an incorrect guess risks giving a point to the opposing team. Furthermore, a word like "shell" might be too vague. If the word "ocean" belongs to the red team or, worse yet, happens to be the assassin, my hint might hurt more than help. If I want my team to guess two or more agents, I will have to come up with a more specific hint to help them guess our agents and not others. This makes the game far more competitive.

 

Conclusion

I love this game. I have played two through seven players. (The two-player version is played against a "dummy" for a high score.) The game is an absolute riot with all players every time. In fact, I have a group that gets together for games on a monthly basis. This one (and Avalon) always hits the table. Sometimes when we play it, we play it hours longer than anyone originally said they were willing to stay. I would attribute its popularity to the brilliant competition that results from players being able to take more than one guess. Often, players want another chance to prove that they can get three or four correct on a single try. Other times, people just want another chance to not "blow it" by picking the assassin. Whatever the reason is, this party game is a complete masterpiece.

 

#6 Avalon

 

Summary

Nominal Award: Best Party Game

Mechanics: Hidden Identity, Voting

Players: 5 - 10

Gameplay

Large group, hidden identity games like Ultimate Werewolf, Bang and Mafia often involve player elimination. I really don't like this. Being the first to be eliminated ruins the experience for me. I much prefer any game that lets all players play the whole time. That's why Avalon is on this list.

Avalon isn't won by the last person standing, it's won after a team (whose identities are hidden) accomplishes their objective. In Avalon, it's King Arthur and his knights against Mordred and his minions. Players take turns choosing who will be on a team to go out on a quest. The whole group votes to approve or reject the team and, if the team is voted through, the members of the team secretly play a "success" or "fail" card. Of course, Arthur wants the majority of quests to be successful and Mordred wants them to fail. The result of the mission is the basis upon which players argue their cause: "I wasn't the person who failed the mission! It must have been so-and-so because she was on the last mission that failed..."

Like other hidden identity identify games, some players have special abilities. The signature special character is Merlin, a servant of Arthur who knows the forces of evil. Merlin's presence in the game motivates table talk, however, there is a caveat to Arthurs victory: even if the minions of Mordred are unable to fail the majority of missions, they can still win the game if they can correctly guess who is playing as Merlin.

Conclusion

I have only ever played incredible and dramatic games of Avalon, though people in my gaming circle have also had less exciting experiences. The degree to which players get into the table talk will make or break the game. If there are one or two players who will work to provoke other players and drive the discussion, the game is out of this world. That being said, I would not recommend the game to a whole group of first-timers. Not knowing what the experience can be like can actually cause the game to fall flat.

#5 Legends of Andor

Summary

Nominal Award: Best Cooperative Game 

Mechanics: Area Movement, Dice Rolling

Players: 2 - 4

Gameplay

You only think Pandemic is good because you haven't played Legends of Andor. Now, I love Pandemic, but here's it's biggest flaw: about 50% of the time I play, one person at the table has no idea what is going on and another veteran makes every descision for them. A game of Legends of Andor is the great equalizer in this matter.

Legends of Andor is a cooperative adventure game where players assume the role of a hero commissioned to protect the castle of Andor and carry out various quests. Like Pandemic, enemy monsters appear throughout the land as determined by cards that are revealed as you play. And of course, each player has a special ability which, when utilized effectively, can give the players a big advantage.

Unlike Pandemic, Legends of Andor includes five "Legends" in its box, each of which tells a part of an over-arching narrative and provides unique win conditions. Rather than having a shuffled deck of cards to draw from and place "disease cubes", Legends of Andor has "story cards" that get revealed as you progress through the game. The story cards contain a bit of flavor text adding top the story and also introduce objectives and events. I have a group of friends who I've played the of the five missions with. Given the story so far, we have our own theories about what the next legend will be like, given how the story has progressed.

The story cards do two things to improve the game experience. First, they moderate the difficulty level. In cooperative games, a bad shuffle can be a recipe for disaster. While the story cards will sometimes call for a roll of the die to add variety to the game, it is not so easy to create the perfect storm. Secondly, beginning with the introductory legend, the story cards actually teach you how to play as you play. This enables a group of brand new players to sit down and begin playing almost immediately. Finally, they put every player on the same page. Assuming everyone is playing the legend for the first time, everyone is equally unsure of what could go wrong.

Сonclusion

The story of Legends of Andor motivates people to play with the same group. I have played the first Legend about five times with five different groups of people. I've gotten all the way to legend 4 with one group (we had to play legend 3 three times before we beat it.) I really like this, but at the same time, if the occasion arose, I wouldn't be as excited about the prospect of playing legend 1 again with a new group. Legends of Andor is really best with any group that is willing to commit to a regular game night. Once the group is established, the game has a great deal of replay value. We are determined to succeed at each mission in consecutive order, so we have already played five times and we still have two legends left. Once we are finished, I've heard there are new modules that are written and published online. The box contains tons of potential, with two sides of the map and dozens of items and characters to help you on your quest.

 

#4 Concordia

Summary

Nominal Award: Best Civilization Game

Mechanics: Card Drafting, Resources Management, Area Management

Players: 2 - 5 

 

Gameplay

Concordia is about colonizing Italy or Europe. (There are two sides of the board.) Mechanically, colonizing is your "run of the mill" procedure: collect resources to build varying types of cities that produce more resources. Continue like this, expanding, building other things or selling at the market. What sets this game apart is the card playing mechanic. Like a deck builder game, one of the things players can do is use their colony resources to buy more playing cards. A turn consists of simply playing a card from your hand and laying it in front of you. Unlike many other deck builders, you always begin with your whole deck in your hand. There is no "luck of the draw", you have access to everything. The catch is, once you play a card, you cannot play it again until you pick up all your cards, which is, in itself, a card action. Timing is everything.

Conclusion 

Concordia is so interesting it wins not only "Best Civilization Game," but also "Favorite Game to Lose" because I enjoy playing no matter what the outcome. Inevitably, in each game I always say aloud, "I don't even care if I lose, I love the game so much!" I think one of the characteristics that lends itself to such an award is that victory points are only tallied at the end. If you fall behind early on, you aren't distracted or discouraged by the point differential. This also makes the game more enjoyable for new players.

 

#3 Imperial

Imperial was out of print when I discovered it, so the first time I played it was on iOS. I liked it so much I spent several weeks making my own copy using 3D printed pieces, poker chips and chipboard.

Imperial was out of print when I discovered it, so the first time I played it was on iOS. I liked it so much I spent several weeks making my own copy using 3D printed pieces, poker chips and chipboard.

Mechanics: Area Control, Stock Market Simulation

Players: 2 - 6

 Gameplay

If I am going to spend over an hour on a game, I would like there to be no luck involved. I hate the feeling of losing due to a bad hand or the roll of the dice after I've invested a great deal of time into an otherwise good game. (*cough* Twilight Struggle *cough*)

Imperial is a war and diplomacy game involving no luck. It is also the second Mac Gerdts game on this list. The period just before WWI and Europe was a mess with alliances and the spread of imperialism. Players assume the role of investors buying national bonds from the six works powers, Austria, Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany and Russia. The investor with the highest value bond controls that country and influences its political actions. By spreading influence, the country can earn more in taxes, a part of which comes back to the player for future investing.

Conclusion 

Imperial is really a game within a game. On one level, the investors are pitting the counties against each other, acting on the interest of each individual country, but on a much higher level, the investors' ultimate goal is to make themselves the richest. This can lead to some devilish manipulation.

The only downside to the game is that - while it plays up to six players - the more you have, the greater the chance that a player might lose control of any country at all. Being "benched" in this manner is a bit of a drag, but the game does provide an opportunity to get back in the game through investing using the "Swiss Bank".

The table talk and under-the-counter deal making involved in Imperial really enrich the experience. It also has one of the strongest themes of any game on my top ten list, second only to Food Chain Magnate. I love the historic undertone of the game. Overall, it's wonderful game for a get together with some close friends with whom you can actually expect to talk to.

#2 Food Chain Magnate

Nominal Award: Best Card Drafting Game

Mechanics: Card Drafting, Tile Placement

Players: 2 - 5

 Gameplay

Food Chain Magnate is produced by a group called Splotter. This company made Antiquity and Roads and Boats which are both unforgiving, heavy, heavy strategy games, void of all luck, and our driven by strong thematic elements. It sounds like the perfect recipe for someone like me, but a game of either can easily take over five or six hours to finish. I don't play either very often, even though they get a nod for literally being too much of a good thing.

Food Chain Magnate, in the other hand, shares the strategic brilliance of its predecessors while proving to be a two hour game.

Players assume the role of a food chain CEO and draft employees (cards) to help increase the success of the company. Each employee provides an action (such as cooking burgers, advertising pizza, stocking drinks, or training employees into higher positions (greater abilities)) The CEO, for example, always has the ability to hire one employee and manage the employees. The number of cards a player is allowed to have active is limited by the number of management slots. Therefore, a player must find a balance between cards that can take actions (like those listed above) and cards that can act as managers. Training and promoting cards provides new abilities, but also requires a salary. Finally, players must capitalize on bonuses they earn by being first to satisfy preset objectives. For example, the first to produce a burger gets a "home of the original burger" bonus, making every burger they sell more valuable.

Ultimately, players are battling over the patronage of customers on the main board. Price adjustment and advertising can win more clients, but a player can only do this effectively if they first manage the company effectively.

Conclusion 

One of the reasons Food Chain Magnate is so good is because of the pacing. Players simultaneously plan which cards they'd like to play, then in turn order, each player plays ALL of his or her cards. While a few players might occasionally take an extra thoughtful turn that takes a bit longer, being able to play all your cards in one turn really keeps the pace up. Furthermore, the growth of a company trends to be exponential, making the endgame very, very quick.

This game is best in a group of experienced players, but the intuitive mechanics and fun card-drafting make it easy to teach to anyone willing. I would never be able to say the same about other games by Splotter. The game awards craftiness as there are countless paths to victory. In fact, a player can easily make a last-minute comeback if he or she can capitalize on his or her own bonuses and the weaknesses of the opponents.

#1. Myrmes

 

Summary

Nominal Award: Best All-Around Game

Mechanics:  Worker placement, Route Network Building, Resource Management

Players: 2-4

 

Gameplay

In Myrmes, players assume the collective consciousness of an ant colony, controlling the actions of the queen, soldier, and worker ants. The winner is determined by the colony that earns the greatest number of victory points which can be earned through several ways. Typically, the winning colony will be the one owned by the player who not only manages his or her own colony effectively, but informs his or her strategy by the seasonal advantages and gameplay of other players.

Variation in every game is provided by a roll of the dice. The result signifies the seasonal advantage in the next three seasons. (During the fourth season, winter, players must feed their colonies. There is no variation in winter.)

At the beginning of each season, players place their ants in action spaces within the colony. The actions can build up the ant hill, collect dirt, rocks or food, hunt, explore... in all honesty, it's pretty much what you would do in any worker placement /civilization game. Thematically, however, it is brilliant how your workers are spent like currency to complete actions. Some (but not all) actions require ants be returned to the supply, representing their death. It really seems hive-minded: individuals get sacrificed for the good of the colony and new ones grow to replace them. You must plan which ants to use as soldiers and which ants to use as workers.

That is not my favorite part. The best part is the main board, which represents the world outside each player's colony and is the common area where the colonies battle for resources. By playing the explore action (I guess it's technically the "exit anthill" action) an ant can step into the hexagonal grid garden (starting from the "tunnel entrance") to achieve objectives. While it does this, it sets pheromones in place to make traveling for subsequent ants easier. Mechanically, both hex spaces and pheromones (which can cover multiple hexes) represent one move point. By strategically laying three pheromones across nine hex spaces, for example, a move that would have been impossible (nine hexes) becomes accessible (three pheromones) to that player. Therefore, laying pheromones is key to spreading influence and harvesting resources. An aggressive player can even "throw off the scent" of another colony's older pheromone and replace it with their own. Therefore, the garden is a constant battleground and a colony can never neglect their network.

 Conclusion

Myrmes wins the "most balanced game" award. It is so rich, the strategy is so deep, the theme is so intuitive and, perhaps what I like best of all, a good player can always make a comeback if they watch for a weakness in their opponent's ant colony. Probably the most rewarding aspect of Myrmes is its pacing and duration. There are far too few games of this strategic caliber that can be played in two hours. It is only three years (nine rounds) long. While the roll of three dice determines the seasonal advantages of each year, those dice rolls are the only bit of luck. (Though the seasonal advantage applies to all players equally. It is only "lucky" if you happen to have your colony in such a position that the revealed seasonal advantage is optional. Furthermore, you can offset the dice by spending larvae - a tactic that can be extremely powerful when done effectively.)

Unfortunately, the game does have a high learning curve. Myrmes is not very fun to play a new player against a veteran. Also, while the game can be played in two hours (even less), expert players might take much longer. There is a LOT to think about. At some point, players might spend too much time trying to get into the heads of their opponents. For some people, this might sound like a deterrent, but honestly, I really enjoy the battle of wits.