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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Number 14 — Castles of Mad King Ludwig
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.
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.
Number 11 — The Voyages of Marco Polo
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.