Number 20 — Dungeon Fighter

Dungeon Fighter … how to describe this game?!  It is one of the most visually engaging games I know – it draws a crowd every time it comes out, perhaps more than any other game I own.  A dungeon crawl game in name, Dungeon Fighter adds several additional layers of silliness.

The game involves a team of heroes questing for treasure in a dungeon.  However, unlike more traditional dungeon games (such as Descent), the core mechanism of the game involves throwing dice at a giant target and trying to hit the bullseye.

The basic rules require the die to bounce one on the table before coming to rest on the target.  However, the monsters you fight, the rooms you fight in, and the weapons you choose to use may make hitting that target very difficult.  For example, fighting Medusa naturally requires you to close your eyes.  Add to that the sword of friendship (which makes you put your die in someone else’s hand, take them by the wrist, and throw it like that) in a dangerous room that requires you to jump in the air before throwing, and you may just have taken on too much to handle.

The silly chaos that ensues is the reason I love Dungeon Fighter.  It is easy to teach, the humor is clever, and the game is well thought out and engaging.  And because of this, I get it to the table often.  Dungeon Fighter always goes over well…plus, it has a Pussy Demon:

On the whole, Catacombs (my Number 21) is probably a better game.  However, I get Dungeon Fighter played much more easily.  And while in no way a serious strategy game, Dungeon Fighter is non-stop laughter from the moment the dice begin to fly.

Number 19 — Keyflower

Keyflower is a fascinating little game where you use workers to bid for tiles and/or to activate them.  The game sees players compete to add the most attractive tiles to their villages.  This is done through a unique bidding mechanism: players bid one of four colors of meeples on a particular tile: the first color bid sets the color of the bid, and other players are forced to use that particular color.  Players spend turns either placing a bid or using any tile in play.  When used, the owner of the time eventually gets all the meeples used.  Having a popular tile means you’re bound to have people pay you to use it.

The game features a wide mix of mechanisms, from a form of worker placement to planning, delivery, timing, and even push-your-luck as you try to make the most of the four rounds of the game.  Additionally, players each know a few of the special scoring tiles that will come in the final round, allowing them to plan their village around a tile that they know will come up.

The thematic connection of the game is loose.  However, Keyflower rises above that and survives on the strength of the interactivity of the game’s core mechanisms.  There are also two expansions, though I have yet to try them – from the rules, they seem to add more complexity without adding much in the way of fun, but I should reserve judgment until I have had time to try them.  But even with just the base game, Keyflower is a fantastic game, and one I am always eager to play.

Number 18 — Neuroshima Hex!

One think I love in games is asymmetry, and Neuroshima Hex has that in spades.  The game sees players trying to destroy their opponent’s base while protecting their own.  This is done through tile placement.

The game is almost more of an action puzzle than a game, as players try to place their pieces to make best use of priority and range to ensure that their attacks trigger and hit the desired targets.  And as the game currently exists, there are more than ten different armies, each with its own unique strengths, weaknesses, and play style.  I have yet even to try them all!  Yet despite all the asymmetry, the game nonetheless feels balanced and plays smoothly.

While battle can be a bit chaotic, as long as players enter the game realizing that anything can happen and that best-laid plans will certainly go awry, the game can be a fast yet fulfilling experience.  Also, while the game can handle several different players, it really is best enjoyed with 2.

The chaotic nature of the battles is somewhat off-putting for some players.  It often results in frustration as your best-layed plans are thwarted by something you failed to see.  However the chaos of Neuroshima Hex comes by design, not by carelessness.  It is a fascinatingly simple game, yet one that allows fascinating tactical choices at every turn,  There is also an excellent iOS implementation.  Neuroshima Hex is hands down the best abstract strategy game out there, and one of my all-time favorites.

Number 17 — Stockpile

This game came out of nowhere.  It sounded like a game that I would not enjoy – stock games have a tendency to be tedious.  However, I was nonetheless curious enough to try it (although more because the name of the publisher is a reference to Mormon history).  And I was really glad I did!

Stockpile is one of the cleanest game designs I have encountered in a long time.  The goal is simple: buy and sell stocks and make the most money possible.  However, the way stocks are acquired is refreshing.  Players place two cards on various stock piles, one card face up and one face down.  The cards are either one of six types of stock or an action card or trading fee.  Then, players use a refined auction mechanism to bid for the stocks.

The thing that sets Stockpile apart from other stock games is that each player has a piece of secret insider information about how one stock will perform.  This guides players choices of what stocks to bid on, and later, which stocks to sell.  The game thrives on asymmetry of information.  The game also comes with two expansion modules, including special player powers and an alternate pricing board on which set stocks of different companies behave differently.  Plus, who wouldn’t want a game with President Trump in it!?
Component quality is great, and the rules of the game are super simple.  But what impresses me most about the game is how well-designed it is.  Everything, from the iconography to the the graphic design, is straightforward and intuitive.  Stockpile is a game that works well with almost anyone, and it is easily my favorite stock game.
 Number 16 — Favor of the Pharaoh

Favor of the Pharaoh is effectively an amped up version of the classic Yahtzee.  But don’t let that turn you off.  While the game takes its inspiration from Yahtzee, it adds enough customization and choice to make it into something great.

Effectively, the game is a race to roll seven of a kind.  The problem, though, is that players only start with three dice.  Each turn, players roll their dice and cash in different combinations in order to purchase different tiles.  These tiles allow players access to more dice and allow the to manipulate their die results.  And while there is a good deal of luck as would be expected in any dice game, by amassing a winning combination of tiles, players can count on enough control to be able to roll what they need.  This makes the decision of when to trigger the end game one of extreme importance.

The game is in fact a reprint of one of my favorite games from yesteryear, Um Krone und Kragen.  However, whereas the older version always ended up playing out the same, Favor of the Pharaoh is a great improvement, adding several new combinations and assuring variability in each game.
the game is well-produced and comes with a wide variety of dice, each doing something unique.  Not t mention, there is also a well-designed insert to sort and store.  Favor of the Pharaoh is an excellent next-step game, one that can easily be taught to new gamers.  It is fast and fun and a great addition to any collection.

Number 15 — Mage Wars

Mage Wars is a game in which players take on the role of magic wielders fighting in an arena.  There are many different mages to use, including a priestess, a necromancer, a druid, and a warlock.  Each mage has specific strengths and weaknesses and comes armed with a spell book loaded with the spells they need to equip themselves with powerful weapons, summon ferocious creatures and boost them with enchantments, and cast powerful attacks at their opponents.

Now, the genre of dueling mages is relatively crowded.  What Mage Wars brings to the gaming table to set it apart from the others of its type is its spell book.  Unlike other games, in which players are dependent on drawing the cards they need, Mage Wars allows players to pre-construct their decks and have immediate access to each card in their arsenal.  Players are allowed to go to the book and pick exactly what they need for the moment at hand.

Once the game starts, the theme really kicks in.  Since there is no randomness in the card draws, you quickly find yourself locked in a battle of wits with a ruthless opponent.

The game is fantastically fun from the first moment, but it does have a few flaws.  Because of the multiple layers of theme and strategy, there is a lot of bookkeeping required, and lots of competing effects with timing priorities that players have to sort out. Furthermore, the game makes use of a lot of key words that require frequent reference to the rulebook.  On the other hand, the rulebook is very well organized and contains a super-useful glossary which is easy to reference and takes what could have been a disaster and turns it into a triumph.  As the game has grown, though, the glossary will need to be updated to contain all the terms from the expansion.

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The other big problem with Mage Wars is that it has a super steep learning curve.  Even if you throw out the deck customization and just give a new player a starter spell book, the fact that the player needs to select specific cards each turn means that he has to spend a long time familiarizing himself with the contents of the spell book.  And if you have an AP opponent, you should probably just play something else, as he will be staring at the cards for hours.  Also, with all the expansions, the game has very much outgrown its cavernous box, and there is no realistic way to store it.

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There is, however, a new line of the game just coming out now.  The Academy version does away with the board and tactical movement aspects of the game and allows players to focus on just the back and forth spell battle.  This greatly simplifies gameplay and serves as a great entry point for players to learn the game’s core mechanisms.

I love the variety and customizability that Mage Wars offers.  And while it has fallen out of my Top 10 (mostly because of the presence of a new game in very much the same genre), Mage Wars is a game I continue to enjoy whenever I have a chance!

Number 14 — Castles of Mad King Ludwig

As a child, the thought of castles fascinated me.  In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, players construct their own castles trying to score the most points.  Each round, players can buy one of several different rooms, which are put on sale by one “master builder” — that player has the task of prices of the different rooms.  As a reward, that player gets any money spent on the rooms during the round.
As the game progresses, players castles grow and spread.  They each take on their own special feel.  Players also have different secret scoring cards which encourage building in different ways.  Also, the different rooms interact with each other in different ways, so players are forced to choose carefully not only what rooms they need, but also the placement of the tiles with respect to each other.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is in essence a re-implementation of one of my top games from my last top 100 list, Suburbia.  However, whereas Suburbia saw players placing a grid of blue, yellow, and green hexagons in a more abstract representation of city planning, Castles has players building visually-intriguing castles.  Castles of Mad King Ludwig also streamlines some of Suburbia’s less-intuitive mechanisms, such as the balance between reputation and income, making it a superior game.

Number 13 — Specter Ops

Specter Ops is a hidden movement game in which one player is an agent, trying to avoid detection while trying to activate several objectives.  The other players are trying to stop him.  The agent player moves in secret, recording his movements on a separate pad, while the hunters move around the board.  The game becomes an extremely tense game of hide and seek, with the agent player making use of corners and alleyways to avoid being seen.

Each player has several special abilities that can help him in his task.  Agents also have access to special equipment which they activate at various times to prevent detection and avoid attacks by the hunters.  The game is well-balanced, and when playing as the agents it can be one of the most tense hours of gaming available.

Specter Ops has replaced several other hidden movement games for me, such as Letters from Whitechapel.  This is because the streamlined mechanisms, special abilities, and superior components take this game over the top.  Specter Ops works well with any experience level, and players are always in for a fascinating game experience each time they play.

Number 12 — Agricola

Agricola has players take on the roles of struggling subsistence farmers in the middle ages.  By the end of the game, players are tasked with turning their two room wooden hut into a large stone mansion with a vibrant and successful farm.

At its heart, Agricola is a worker placement game.  Players send each member of their families out to do a particular action, such as gather wood, fish for food, build rooms and stables or, oddly enough, renovate the house while having a baby.  Every few rounds there will be a harvest, in which crops are harvested, animals are bread, and the workers need to eat.  Agricola is probably not the first to require feeding, but it is probably the game that popularized this.

Additionally, Agricola has endless variety.  The reason for this is that each player has a hand of 14 cards that they can use.  The cards allow players special abilities for scoring or bending the regular game rules.  And there are hundreds and hundreds of cards that have been produced for the game (including many many expansions, this means that each game will always be different, allowing players to plan different strategies based upon their hands.

And lest you think the game is too serious, there are also all manner of silly things you can add.  For example, the “legen-dairy” deck, which proves that even a game about starving subsistence farmers doesn’t have to take itself too seriously!

Agricola is often justly compared with its re-implementation, Caverna.  The two are effectively the same game, though Agricola is significantly more cutthroat.  Caverna has almost too many choices, while Agricola requires players to make very clever plans and more difficult choices.

However, the since the two games are almost the same, they can effectively share a spot on my list.  But either way, Agricola was a pioneer in games of its field, and it is a timeless classic that deserves a place in any collection.

Number 11 — The Voyages of Marco Polo

Last up before we reach the top 10 we have Voyages of Marco Polo, another euro game involving travel and trading.  The game follows the voyages of several merchant-explorers trying to establish trading posts on the route to the far east.

Each round, players roll dice, then take turns using these dice to take various actions.  However, Voyages of Marco Polo has some unique features that set apart from traditional dice-placement games.  For example, players are never truly blocked in this game. If you want to take an action that someone else has already taken, you can do so with any dice at a modest cost.  This rewards players for timing their actions carefully but does not penalize them unduly.

Additionally, players have special abilities that help them set priorities and use different strategies.  Players also have a set of secret objective cards promising bonus points for visiting certain cities.  Players then make the best use of their actions to travel, collect goods, and fulfill different contracts in order to increase their scores.

The rules are straightforward and easy to learn.  The game mechanisms fit the theme, although the theme is not particularly strong.  Game components are also high quality, although the resource tokens are somewhat ambiguous as to what they represent.
This game came out of nowhere for me.  It looked like a boring, dry euro game, but once I tried it, I was hooked.  It is a fantastic design, and I am always looking for a chance to get it to the table.
And that’s it for this list.  Next time we will wrap this whole project up with a discussion of my top 10.
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