I have a lot to say this time, so let’s not waste time!  These are some fantastic games!

Number 30 — Mice & Mystics

Mice and Mystics, from Plaid Hat Games, breathes a bit of fresh air into the traditional dungeon genre.  The story tracks an intrepid band of heroes (who have been turned into mice) as they journey through a castle, slaying roaches, rats, spiders, and centipedes.  Game play is simple – mice take two actions on their turn, which consist of a move plus one of a list of other possible actions.  The mice race against a clock to accomplish a specific mission, which is specified in the chapter the mice are playing.

One thing about Mice & Mystics that sets it apart from other games of its genre is the story.  Currently there are three distinct adventures, each with several different chapters.  The chapters are part of a larger story arc.  The adventures are charming yet challenging.  As I played through the adventures, I found myself becoming immersed in the story, eager to move forward and see how it would resolve.

Additionally, the game gives each mice a host of different special abilities, each allowing different strategies.  Because mice can collect cheese and use it to buy new abilities, the characters evolve and improve as the game progresses, which is important since the enemies become more difficult as well.

In addition to its charming story, Mice & Mystics has great components.  The mice and enemies are made from an excellent plastic that highlights their detailed sculpts.  While I really wish they came pre-painted, they still are impressive even in their stock form.  The artwork on the tiles and cards is great too, and it helps emphasize the rich theme and story.

The game is a bit random, which makes it sometimes a bit more swingy than I would like, but as a whole, the game is a shining spot that works well with players of all ages and skill levels.

And with the new Tail Feathers tactical combat game, which expands the world of Mice & Mystics, I am excited to see how the story unfolds.

Number 29 — Ticket to Ride
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Ticket to Ride is a mainstream classic.  I actually credit Ticket to Ride with one of the best marketing systems I have seen for boardgames.  It came out in 2004 while I was a student and didn’t buy a lot of games.  As I was considering buying it, I saw a note on the box that I could try it for free online.  I went home and played it, and played it, and played it…all night long — I was immediately hooked.  It is a perfect combination of simple design, addictive gameplay, and just the right dose of mean!

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The game involves collecting sets of colored cards to purchase routs across a map.  Players have hidden goals for which they will score bonus points if they can complete them (or lose points if they cannot).  The game currently has a ton of different maps: currently, there are maps for the USA, Europe, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, India, Asia, and Subsaharan Africa.  There is also a new map coming out with England and Pennsylvania; so more excitement is on the way.   Each map has its own features, including special ways to place trains and score points.

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The extra maps add lots of needed variety.  The base game quickly got very familiar, and people with a good memory could dominate.  However, now with so many different maps and also alternate card sets for familiar maps, the game had plenty of variety.

Almost everyone has heard of the game, so there is no need to describe it in depth.  What I like about Ticket to Ride is that it is playable by almost every level of gamer.  It can easily be taught to a new player, yet it can be thoroughly enjoyed by the most seasoned of gamers.  The rules are simple, straightforward, and easy to remember.  Turns come and go quickly, so there is usually no waiting around.  Also, the game is not particularly long, allowing it to be played more than once.

Additionally Ticket to Ride has a fantastic iOS implementation that allows it to be enjoyed anywhere.  In fact, the game is perhaps easier to play online than in person as the app helps you find the cities you are trying to connect much more efficiently than hunting them on a map.  I only wish all the maps would be available on my iPad, as they are all lots of fun to play with.

Ultimately, Ticket to Ride (and its expansions) are excellent and are highly recommended for anyone, regardless of his experience level in boardgames.  Its simplicity make it probably the ultimate family game and the ultimate gateway game, yet behind that simplicity lies a world of depth and possibility!

Number 28 — Pandemic

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Pandemic is THE cooperative game.  I do not know for sure if it was the first one ever (it probably wasn’t) but it certainly was the game that brought cooperation into the spotlight!  Pandemic sees players as a team of scientists working for the Centers for Disease Control and trying to stop the spread of 5 (or 4, if you use the basic game) deadly diseases.  They do so by traveling around the world preventing outbreaks while slowly collecting cards.  By turning in a set of 5 cards of one color, the players can discover a cure.  Only by discovering cures for all diseases before time runs out can players collectively win the game.

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Pandemic is a fantastic game which combines very simple rules with a thrilling cooperative feel.  Of course, the game can be made more or less difficult, though I typically like to play on a harder setting.  Also, the game is greatly enhanced by its expansions.  The first expansion (which added several new player roles, advanced viral strains, and the aforementioned 5th disease) is indispensable.  The second expansion completely changes the way diseases are cured and, while not vital to enjoying the game, adds a new level of challenge that will breath new life into the game for experienced players.  There is also a THIRD expansion now which adds some new and different ways to play the game and is quite enjoyable.  The game also features a well-designed iOS app, though this is still in need of expansions to be fully enjoyable.

Of course, as one of the first cooperative games, Pandemic also was one of the first games to feature the dreaded Alpha Player.  Because of this, it is perhaps best enjoyed solo, though it can be an enjoyable group experience as long as all the Alphas in your group agree to keep themselves in check.  Overall, though, Pandemic is a well-designed game that is still as fun as it was when it first came out, making it my second-favorite cooperative game.

And no discussion of Pandemic would be complete without a mention of its child, Pandemic Legacy.  Pandemic Legacy is largely the same as Pandemic, except that the game is designed to change as it goes along.  Many people are enamored with Pandemic Legacy, and I must say I quite enjoyed my playthrough.  However, after the excitement of the story wore off, I really feel it may be more gimmick than game — it is basically a systematic introduction of Pandemic’s various expansions, done with a story.  It is a lot of fun, but ultimately the base version of Pandemic is preferable.

Anyway, Pandemic is a great game, and especially great as a solo experience.

Number 27 — Eclipse

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Eclipse is a fantastic space exploration game.  Some people use the term 4X for games of this genre, but this is an incredibly stupid term and I refuse give it more than this passing reference.  In Eclipse, players take the role of one of several unique races, each seeking to expand its galactic empire.  Players can develop technologies, explore the galaxy, colonize new planets, and of course develop an arsenal of heavily-armed battleships to conquer other players.   The game provides points for just about any strategy, so each is viable.  However, as players empires expand, their resources become stretched thin, requiring players to manage the size of their empire carefully.

Eclipse has been chided by some for not being a lighter version of Twilight Imperium (“TI”).  (TI, is a lumbering behemoth of a space game where players spend the whole weekend watching for an AP player stare at his hand of cards, then listen to a 20 minute filibuster (called negotiation), then play your turn for 10 seconds and then repeat).  Eclipse takes whatever fun there is in TI, cuts off all the 200 pounds of excess fat, and delivers a slimmer, smarter, and above all shorter game that is about 1000 times more fun to play (you can cook dinner and play a game of Summoner Wars on your ipad in the time it takes for your turn to come around again in TI — this is speaking from experience).  Of course, the expansion allows you to play with 9 players, but you should NEVER DO THAT.  Seriously, what’s wrong with a 4 player game?  And 3-4 is where Eclipse shines.

In fact, I don’t like to compare Eclipse with TI — Eclipse is better compared to Through the Ages.  It has the same cost and expansion engine that Through the Ages has. then adds to it some technology and exploration and an actual board.  In fact, it almost took TI’s spot when I was making the list — I was ready to make them share a spot like King of Tokyo and King of New York.  However, the games are too different, and I really like them separate and apart from each other.  Eclipse takes the best elements of both TI and Through the Ages and makes them better.  I love, for example, how players can build unique ships and go for galactic dominance or avoid combat all together.  I like the way technology doesn’t have to follow a linear tech tree, but is cheaper if you do.  I love the way that expansion and resources and costs are handled.  I love the way that players can take as many or as few actions as they want, with each course providing its own rewards and penalties.  I love the way that the different races all have subtle distinctions but do not require many new or complex rules.

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In fact, the only things I don’t like about Eclipse is that it is utterly impossible to store and that it takes up waaaay too much table space.  Also, I wish the tiles wouldn’t move around so much – perhaps the hexels guy should make some big enough to hold Eclipse tiles.  I did recently get a GripMat that I want to try with Eclipse — that might resolve the jostling tile issue!  These minor complaints aside, though, Eclipse is the best strategic space exploration game out there (although there is one better space-themed game).

Number 26 — Rum & Bones

A few weeks ago I said Libertalia was the second-best pirate themed game there is!  Well, Rum & Bones is the best pirate themed game (in my opinion, which is always right)!  I do not know what MOBA means (and even after looking it up, I did not understand it) — it is one of those annoying terms that showed up one day and won’t go away.  But people tell me Rum & Bones is a MOBA board game.  Since they aren’t Lavar Burton, I guess I do have to take their word for it!

In Rum & Bones, each player (or team, if you’re desperate to force this into a 3-4 player game night) takes on one of two opposing pirate crews.  Players assemble a team of 5 different pirate heroes, plus a swarm of puny pirate crewmen.  The game automates the crewmen, causing them to spawn, move, and attack in pre-programed ways, while players control their heroes.  The crewmen are really there to serve as an obstacle and to prevent players from just rushing to objectives.  Also, by attacking the crewmen, heroes earn gold which can be used to activate special abilities.

However, the heroes are where the game shines — each of the game’s four factions has a unique theme and playstyle, and the heroes bring that forward.  Some crews are fast, some are agile, some are gifted in healing, some are gifted in spawning even more crewmen — players build their crew according to their own specifications.  While each faction has some unique characters only it can use, the game comes with a huge pile of mercenary heroes that can be on any team.  Many of these are nods to famous pirates or characters from works of literature.

The ultimate goal of the game is to destroy objectives on the opponent’s ship (which earn points).  There are also monsters that come up from time to time (all the time) which when killed also earn points.  The game is very in-your-face and combat happens on each and every turn.  However the dice-based combat system is straightforward and easy to understand and does not bog down the game.

Game components are fantastic, although I really ache for pre-painted figures.  The design and iconography is simple and intuitive, and the rules never get in the way.  But most importantly, Rum & Bones is just fun!

The game’s only drawbacks are that it is impossible to store and takes FOREVER to set up.  But the rules are simple, clean, and straightforward, and gameplay is engaging.  Also, despite what the box says, this is a two-player only game.  This makes it harder to get to the table at a larger game night, unfortunately, especially since there are some two-player games I like better.  But all that aside, Rum & Bones is an excellent game.  Players will immediately find themselves taking on the roles, speaking like a movie pirate, and absolutely involved in the game from the moment it starts.

 

Number 25 — Champions of Midgard

Another new game to my list this year, Champions of Midgard is a viking-themed worker placement game.

Let’s start with the negatives: the component quality is sub-par.  Although the art is fine, the cards and cardboard have a thin, cheap feel to them.  The dice, while functional, are not particularly attractive.  It feels like corners were cut in producing this game, at least in the component department, which is really a shame because the game itself is excellent.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what I enjoy about Champions of Midgard: everything else!  I enjoy worker placement games anyway, so I was primed to like this.  For example, I love Lords of Waterdeep, although that game is somewhat dry and repetitive after a few plays.  Champions takes that worker placement system and streamlines it, plus adds a nice element of dice-based combat.

In Champions, players are competing for glory (aka points).  This is gained by a number of different actions, but mostly from fighting monsters.  Most of the actions deal with allowing players to collect the dice they will need to battle a horde of monsters that never stops.  Players can try to challenge local monsters for some points and gold, or they can save up to go on a journey to fight larger monsters in hopes of a greater payoff.  There are secret objectives which can guide a player’s choices, and each player also has unique special abilities that need to be exploited in order to have the best chance of success.

The game is hard to describe, but it is really lots of fun to play.  If you enjoyed Lords of Waterdeep but were looking for something more thematic, this is the game for you!  Although really all you are doing is gathering resources to score points, the game mechanisms manage to tell a story of vikings fighting monsters, and the luck-elements of the game add some variety and randomness that adds more life to the game.

 

Number 24 — Le Havre

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Le Havre is a game about building buildings in a harbor.  It may sound dry, but it’s not.  Each round, players take one action.  This could be collecting a huge pile of goods or placing their single worker on an action space.  It is a different take on traditional worker placement games in which players only ever have one worker.  This adds several new considerations, as players are limited by the total number of actions they can take and need to make the most of every one.

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Ultimately, Le Havre is all about making money.  Everything you do allows gives you points in some way — this is perhaps the best rendition of the “point salad” style of game.  For example, collecting resources allows players to build buildings (worth points).  These open up new action choices for for all players, and when another player uses your building, you receive some sort of bonus.  Yet Le Havre is somehow more than mere resource collection and use.  It is also all about timing.  For example, if a player has used (and blocked) a building you own, you can use a free action to sell the building to the bank, thus evicting the other player and opening the building for use.  It is an intricate maximization puzzle of taking the goods and actions you need, upgrading, and making the most use of what you have.  And while Le Havre also features the ubiquitous “feed your people” mechanism, though in Le Havre it is acceptable to miss feeding for a couple rounds, as you can always take out a loan and pay it off later.

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As with many eurogames, Le Havre is actually very difficult to describe, and I am not doing it justice here.  I will say, though, that the game offers players one of the best experiences eurogaming has to offer.  Unlike most other worker placement games where getting “more” is always the goal, Le Havre makes you consider carefully each turn.  It is tense and thrilling and interactive, and it is one of the best economic games out there.  While not overflowing with theme, the different buildings do have logical, thematic effects.  And since everything you do takes you toward your goal, there is never really a turn where you have nothing to do.  As always, beware playing with an AP player if you ever want to finish, but with the right group of 2 or 3 other players, Le Havre shines.

One other note: it seems that last time Le Havre came in as game number 8, so it has fallen quite a bit.  However, this is not because my love for it has waned – rather it is a bit older and kind of hard to get to the table.  Fortunately, there is an excellent decent app implementation that I can use to get my fix and remember how great a game it is.  Le Havre is a game I would rarely turn down, though, and a fantastic economic game.

Number 23 — Concordia

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Concordia is a superb eurogame, involving delivering goods in the Mediterranean (or in England of Germany if you play with an expansion).  There is really not much in the way of theme or story to be found here.  What you will find, however, is a smooth engine, a refinement of the rondel system (without actually using a rondel).

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Unfortunately, there is no way to describe Concordia without making it sound boring, but keep in mind that it is far from boring!  Players start with identical hands of cards.  Each turn, players will select and play one of their cards and perform the indicated action.  Some of these actions involve moving figures around a map and building buildings, buying and selling goods, a recruiting more figures, and buying more cards for your hand.  Once played, cards are discarded until the player plays a card that reclaims them.

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One of the interesting things about Concordia is its unique (and somewhat complicated) scoring system.  In addition to providing actions, cards also provide scoring.  Each card is allocated to one of several different scoring systems (named after Roman gods).  For example, one card will give you points based on how many different provinces you have buildings in, while another will give you points for having buildings in a different type of location (such as one that produces grain, for example).  A good part of the game is not only spreading out across the map, but also trying to acquire cards to maximize your scoring opportunities.  The game will reward careful, directed expansion much more than haphazard sprawling.  And this is probably what makes the game stand out among a crowded market of themeless eurogames.

 

Number 22 — Dead of Winter

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Dead of Winter is a game that everyone knows about already!  The game took the world by mid-summer ice storm at GenCon 2014, then promptly went out of stock everywhere.  Now it has become available finally and people are getting to experience this genius experiment in social dynamics.

The concept of Dead of Winter is simple and familiar: survive a harsh environment and a zombie onslaught.  Each game features an overall goal to drive player’s actions, forming a common goal to which most (or all) of the players will be working, as well as a new crisis each round that must be satisfied to prevent terrible consequences.  However, in order to win, players also have individual objectives that must be completed.  The brilliance of this set up is that individual objectives are always somewhat (or significantly) out of harmony with the main objective and the crisis.  This means that players are forced to weigh the survival of the group against their own individual needs.  Add to this that there is a possibility that one of the players will be a traitor, working to thwart the overall mission, and you can start to see where the conflict comes from.

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Dead of Winter always brings to the table an emerging narrative, due in part to its core mechanisms and also due to the “Crossroads” cards, which cause certain effects to trigger as players make different choices during the game.  With a name like Dead of Winter, you would expect death to be a frequent visitor to the colony, and it is indeed, both in the form of characters dying due to exposure and due to a relentless horde of zombies!  And then there’s also the Cursed Evil Red Die of Doom!

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What I love about Dead of Winter is how tense it is.  The game’s mechanisms are carefully crafted to create paranoia and suspicion.  Additionally, the traitor mechanism is introduced well, requiring the traitor not only to tank the main objective, but also to complete his own individual objective.  This keeps the traitor working with the colony just enough to keep suspicion and doubt in the mix.  Victories are rare in the game, for either side, but when they happen they are thrilling.

And then add to this whole package the amazing and evocative artwork!  As with most Plaid Hat Games, the entire game is a beauty to behold.  And other game components and graphic design are well-thought out to move gameplay along without getting in the way.  And even though Dead of Winter is perhaps to involved for some groups, with the right mix of players it is an experience that cannot be duplicated in any other game.

Number 21 — Catacombs

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Catacombs is probably the most serious dexterity game there is.  The game involves a team of heroes questing through a dungeon to fight another player (the overlo dead 2 rd) who controls the monsters.  The interesting thing about the game is that all combat happens by flicking disks around a board.  Players flick to move or attach, for example, a hero player will flick his disk at a monster, and if he hits it, do it damage.   It is all kind of hard to describe, but think Flick Em Up with a Dungeon Quest or Descent theme.

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Of course, in any dexterity game, where skill is very much a part of the experience.  You would think that would hamper enjoyment, but it really doesn’t.  Since there isn’t really a competitive professional disk-flicking circuit, no one has natural talent (though a Crokinole player may have an upper leg here), and each hero and monster has different special abilities and can acquire equipment to mitigate his lack of pinpoint accuracy in flicking.   The game’s theme and charm help players transcend the fact that they’re flicking wooden bits at each other and somehow feel like they are actually in a dungeon fighting for their lives.  Gameplay is simple, yet the game retains a level of sophistication.

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Now…let’s talk about the artwork.  The game was originally published with some artwork that was pretty awful!  Drawings were austere pencil sketches that just looked bad.  The design of the boards too was far from attractive.  And for this reason, I had a good deal of trouble getting this game to the table in the past.  Also, the serious and grim artwork made the game seem much too serious — a game of flicking disks around a board needs to be light-hearted.  Up until now, all the pictures have been from the new version, but here are some old ones to compare:

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Enter the reprint.  Elzra games picked up this utter gem of a game, polished it up, and put on some light-hearted, bright artwork that really captures the fun-filled romp this dungeon is intended to be!  The sad part is that Elzra chose to publish many of its characters as Kickstarter exclusives, so I need to think carefully of whether I want to pay scalper prices on ebay or whether I can live with not owning everything.  Also, only the base game is out at present (although it includes some of the mechanisms from the original expansions and the expansions have reportedly been printed but just haven’t shown up in the online stores).

The reprint also adds some great ideas, including a larger board and a cardboard wall to help prevent disks from flying off the table and getting lost.  Excellent design choices, light-hearted and fun artwork, and of course a 2″x 2″x 2″ Gelatinous Cube monster all breath much needed new life into this game and bring it back to the table.

However, whether you are crazy and prefer the old dark serious version, or whether you want the fun-filled resurrection, Catacombs is one of the best dexterity games there is and is more-than-deserving of a try!  And while Catacombs is certainly not your traditional dungeon crawl, the game sheds some of the extra weight that those other games carry and offers a fresh, unique take on a genre that is at best an overcrowded arena.  Without spoiling the list too much, Catacombs is easily my second-favorite dungeon exploration game!

And that takes care of another ten games.  We now enter the top 20 — just one week to go!

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