#50 High Society
Sometimes, the best things come in the smallest boxes. Of all Reiner Knizia’s auction designs, High Society is the most flexible and the best value. A single deck of cards with simple rules that has the agonising limited bid options of Ra and the nasty profit trap moments of Modern Art. Simple and quick, vicious and addictive it deserves a place in every collection.
#49 Space Hulk
I wish someone would redesign the Space Hulk campaign. With iterative improvements across four editions, it’s still a pain to set up, and many of the scenarios are horribly imbalanced. But the fact it’s had four editions spanning as many decades is testament to how tight and thrilling its core gameplay loop is. Not to mention the incredible figures and tiles of the latest printings.
This is a game I should, by all right, hate. Despite the pretty plastic pieces and cartoon gods, it’s a classic two-player abstract and a very thinky one at that. But watching the towers build up on the board is addictive, the game is quick, and the vicious dance of trying to be first to climb to the top of a tower is hypnotic. The huge slew of player powers and variants in just ambrosia.
#47 Letter Jam
Until I’d played this, I didn’t really believe anyone could make a co-operative word game. Yet here we are, and all that’s standing between Letter Jam and mass-market success is the peculiar game model that makes this work. It’s hard to explain how the game involves clues of words missing a letter that will allow players to guess their own word but after one round, everyone gets it. Hoping my Dicebreaker review will help Letter Jam get the crossover success it deserves.
When is a dungeon crawl not a dungeon crawl? When it’s a tile-based game of condemned criminals fighting demons in a bizarre alternative renaissance. There’s so much in this box, from the cool painted figures to the fascinating and novel asymmetry between the players, that it’s hard not to be impressed. The exciting gameplay helps too. Better-balanced scenarios and expansions would have helped even more.
#45 Hammer of the Scots
I had an incredible time learning the ins and outs of this game. The premise, everyone’s favourite British war thanks to Mel Gibson, is compelling and the gameplay is addictive. You’re always wanting one more try at annexing that bit of territory. After about fifteen games, though, the appeal faded somewhat and a lot does hinge on how well first-striking Wallace rolls in combat.
#44 Phantom Leader / Phantom Leader: Deluxe
Sometimes, I feel wargames should be judged more often on how closely they recreate the feelings and decisions faced by the most senior commander for the scale. By that standard, the Leader series should be the best of the lot. Phantom Leader is my favourite, just for its historical setting. Its schtick of having to plan an operation, load a wing up with ordnance and send them into an unknown of limited intel with limited ability to influence the unfolding operation is taut beyond belief.
#43 Junk Art
Junk Art is the ur-stacking game, a box of cunningly shaped bits that can be balanced and combined in a surprising number of ways, and a deck of mini-games to play them with. Even the deck is an exercise in creativity with weird co-op and competitive stacks, a trick-taking game and blank cards for your own inventions. There’s a good reason I reviewed Junk Art among my creativity quest series.
#42 Mare Nostrum: Empires
The original Mare Nostrum was an unloved classic of yesteryear, an empire building game that used Euro-style mechanics to brilliant effect. Sadly, rather than appeal across two genres, it seems to have repelled both. The Euro crowd didn’t like the no-holds-barred conflict and DOAM fans didn’t feel there was enough of it. Both were wrong and the game is excellent, as you can find out for yourself in this clearer, cleaner edition that’s only missing the mythical creatures from the original game’s expansion.
I’ll always love this as the first co-op game I played that had a mechanic to make players cooperate, instead of just taking orders from the bossiest. It’s so simple and so gentle it’s about the perfect family game, yet playing a high-scoring hand is an incredible challenge. Some find the vague communication rules annoying, but to me, it’s part of the charm: make it work for your group how you want it and finding ways around your choices become an aspect of the strategy.
#40 Pitchcar / Carabande
Flicking games have, on the whole, left me cold. And they hurt your fingernails. Pitchcar will also hurt your fingernails but it’s a thrilling, chaotic race to the finish where skill is paramount. Some of the expansions which feature jumps and even a loop the loop are miracles of game engineering and amazing fun to boot. Working your way through a crowded track, round the bends and chicanes to take the chequered flag is as satisfying as the insane pile-ups are fun.
There were a lot of epic conquest games in the last section of the list. There are a lot of skirmish games in this one. Wildlands is one of the absolute best, building blow by blow action from a simple card-based system which is still flexible enough for numerous small expansions and variants: see my Helter Skelter review, for example. Its unique angle is borrowing concepts from skirmish wargames, like interrupts and elevation, but making them super-simple.
#38 Combat Commander: Europe
Speaking of skirmish wargames, the multi-use cards and narrative detail of this game of infantry combat are second to none. It’s another one of those games that saw a lot of table time initially for my SUSD review but then fell off, so I’ve not explored many of its numerous expansions. Partly that’s down to the typical wargame components, partly the lack of tanks, but they’re poor excuses for not playing such a great game.
There are no better late-night drunken games than Skull. In those strange small hours when everyone is considering going to be but isn’t quite ready to pack it in yet, this is the box to pull out. All the fun of Poker without any of the faffing over hand combinations, choosing variants or losing money and with lovely, intricate skull art. What’s not to love, except losing to your own miss-timed bluff?
Some games are all about the anticipation. Being able to see what’s coming but not do anything about it until it’s your turn. And when it is your turn, the pressure turns up as to whether you’re going to act or let the moment pass. Ra, with its short turn cycle and simple yet excruciating decision tree, is the anticipation game par excellence. Spoiled only by its horrible scoring rules which kick what should have been a family classic into the long grass of hobby gaming.
#35 Battle Line
The tactics cards in Battle Line give it a slight edge over its kissing-cousin Schotten-Totten. But at its core what I love about this game is the endless, delicious, unknown that stretches out before you at every turn. You have just enough information to make a meaningful play, but never enough to let up on the tension right up until the winning card.
#34 Tiny Towns
An abstract game that you play by assembling cubes on your own player mat has no right to be this good. But it bowled me over by how such simple rules could spawn such brutality, both on yourself and your other players. The former because the shifting patterns of trying to squeeze new builds into your cramped grid is excruciating. The latter because it’s far more fun to ignore your own mat and sabotage everyone else’s by picking resources they don’t need.
Mean, in your face euro games are by their nature very much a niche concern and one that’s largely gone out of fashion. Which is a shame, because I love them. Santiago is the best example of this small genre, where players bribe an overseer to water their crops in parched farmland, leaving the others to wither and die. It’s got the essential strategic challenge of a good Euro with an unashamed dose of vicious screw your neighbour.
#32 Warhammer Underworlds
Amidst the chorus of love for the original box, Shadespire, I was a naysayer. The game seemed very random and the base teams were not balanced. I’m still convinced on the balance, but expansion warbands quickly fixed that. And on the game itself, I’d just misunderstood it. It looks and smells like a tactical wargame but really, it’s a card game where you use your on-board forces to meet and cycle objectives as fast as possible - which may, or may not include tangling with the enemy. Once that’s understood, it’s novel genius becomes clear and each new box has only made it better. Oh, and the Games Workshop figures are, of course, incredible.
Splendor is often mentioned among the great gateway games and it deserves to be right at the top. It’s an engine builder, lightly disguised with some heavy smooth chips and fine art. But where most games in this genre pile on the complexity, Splendor keeps it simple to make an engaging game that’s hard to play well, with plenty of variety and a dash of player interaction.
Hannibal has a nasty tendency to fall flat on its face, partly due to the battle card system throwing up unexpected results at critical junctures. That's a pretty bad flaw for a long game. But when it all comes together, my word but it's incredible. An extended rollercoaster of historical narrative, thrilling battles and rich strategy topped off with cunning bluffs. I think I got this message out in my review.
#29 Res Arcana
I open every review of Res Arcana by pointing out how the entire concept is impossible. You should not be able to have a deck-based game in which each player’s deck is entirely random, at least not a balanced one. And yet here one is, every play a thrilling new tactical race to navigate as you race other players to the ten-point victory. Minor issues with player count have been ironed out with the excellent expansion, Lux et Tenebrae, making a brilliant whole.
#28 Star Wars: Destiny
I really didn't want to get into this, but a single game convinced me that the starter packs alone are fun enough to make it worthwhile. A whole box of boosters later and I stand by that opinion. It's got so much jammed into its tiny rules and play-time, from dice-rolling to action economy to play order and timing and resource management that it's just a delight. The well-realised Star Wars theme and deck construction are just icing on the cake.
#27 Fury of Dracula
Since I last did a list like this, Fury of Dracula is the game that’s dropped the most places. Sure, all the editions of this deserve praise for their rich re-enactment of literature's greatest vampire story. Whether it's the hurried hunt of the original or the creeping chase of later editions, the scope of its pan-European scale shines through. But since my glowing review of 3rd edition, I’ve grown to realise the game has issues that won’t ever quite seem to go away, particularly downtime for the Dracula player.
Root is a pain to get to the table: no matter how good the included tutorial playthrough is - and it’s pretty good - getting to grips with four-sided asymmetry is a pain. But it’s a lot less painful than other multi-handed games like Dune, plays in a couple of hours and delivers just as many rewards. Both a strategic and tactical challenge that alters under you with each play, it’s also a pointed socio-political commentary on the abuse of power.