Everyone loves a good top 10 list, right?
More than that, however, I wear my influences on my sleeve. As a designer, you can define me somewhat by what I like to play. Not completely, but at least a little bit. So to decide whether you might an enjoy a game I create, I invite you to peruse my list of favorite games, starting with number 10 and ending with number 1. As a rule, I’ve left my own games off the list, because, well, that would be tacky.
I am in awe of Vlaada Chvatil. He is a true innovator of board game design, and nothing speaks more to this than Mage Knight, a game I wish I had more time to play. I love the way every hand of cards you draw is a puzzle – you know what you want to do on the board, but can you do it with what you have? And when the answer to that question is a very non-obvious “yes,” well, that’s just a superb feeling. And even if the answer is “no,” that’s okay, too, since you’re not forced to play your whole hand each turn. You can do something small and wait for those couple extra cards you need next turn. I love how it captures that beautiful fantasy role-playing feeling of wandering the wilderness and murdering monsters in a deterministic, Euro game that is always interesting. And the fact that it plays so well even as a solo experience is just another testament to its power.
I’ve greatly enjoyed the recent glut of narrative puzzle-solving games. You’ve got your Unlocks, your Exits, your T.I.M.E. Stories, but nothing is quite so pure and engaging as Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. There’s no time limit. You get a score at the end, but it hardly matters. This is all about the journey – strolling around London, reading little snippets of story, trying to piece together some grand mystery. I also love how open-ended it is. The only list telling you where to go next is a giant directory of every building in London. It is up to you to determine which leads are important, which I find very rewarding.
I’ve never played a Vital Lacerda game I didn’t like, and this one is easily my favorite. Your turn sounds so simple on the surface – play a card, then draw a card – but the huge variety of options on how to play that card, and the domino-like effects that happen because of it, leading sub-actions and bonus abilities. It’s like a finely crafted clock, where every piece fits perfectly into every other piece, and all of it affects and keys off each other in satisfying ways. And let’s not forget that it is also Lacerda’s most thematic game. Every little bit not only leads to compelling game play, but also has thematic grounding. It is truly an amazing and beautiful piece of work.
First of all, I will admit Seasons has its faults. And the beginning card draft can absolutely kill inexperienced players before the game even starts, leading to a lot of frustration. When playing the game with experienced players, though, all this falls away to give a wonderful experience of cut-throat engine-building that leads to epic games of memorable plays.
I still love Agricola, but you will no longer find it on this list. A Feast for Odin has overtaken it as my second favorite Uwe Rosenberg game. Admittedly, it has its flaws. I really don’t think those dice are necessary, the worker-placement economy is very loose (as in, you can do pretty much whatever you want to do), and the occupations aren’t as impactful as I’d like them to be, but dammit if I still don’t get unbelieveable amounts of joy from grabbing weirdly shaped pieces of cardboard and trying to make them fit on my player board (and exploration and shed tiles, of course). With all the various bonuses you can get from surrounding things, and increasing your income by covering large swaths of space, it scratches that spatial reasoning itch perfectly while also giving me a pretty good engine-building, worker-placement game built around it.
Another Vlaada Chvatil favorite. It is so high on the list because I think I have played it more than any other game in my collection. It is just perfect in so many situations. It’s very easy to explain, you can run through it in an hour or less, and it is always vastly entertaining. There is something very primal about racing to build your spaceship each round – studying the pieces and figuring out the best way to fit them all in. And I have never had so much fun losing at a game than when I watch in horror as meteors rip my ship into tiny pieces.
I think what transitions this game from great into a modern classic is that every card has a unique worker power that can greatly impact the game when played well. It gives you that replayability as well as a direction to go at the start. Because there are plenty of directions to go that are all very well balanced. You want to do everything, but you’ll never be able to, and that is always a hallmark of a tight, well-crafted game. Plus it is not that hard to teach, and can be played in a relatively short amount of time, compared to most Euros. Each time I play this game, I discover new depths and end up loving it even more.
I will readily admit that I am not a fan of Pandemic. Add in a 12-game campaign full of twists, new mechanics, and evolving characters, though, and you get something far better than the original. I got Season 1 the Christmas after it came out, and my wife and I flew through it in a couple weeks, just devouring the story and loving every minute of it. We did the same thing again when Season 2 came out. It is not a perfect game (it’s based on Pandemic, after all), but it represents something truly innovative and engaging in board game design.
My love of Glass Road is well documented. It is stellar largely because of how much depth it packs into such a short play time. I have played this more than any other Euro in my collection, because it can be played so quickly. And through all these plays, I have never grown tired of the game. Trying to suss out what cards your opponents are going to play, and playing your own in such a way as to capitalize on that – it’s just brilliant.
Oh, Terra Mystica, we certainly have had a long, torrid love affair, haven’t we? That second play sent me on a bender that is still showing its effects today. Except that now you have been replaced by a younger, better version. I feel bad about it, and it’s not that I don’t still love you. You’d be number 2 if you weren’t so similar to my new top love. Not that you’re the same, per se. You still have your merits, but, it’s just, look, we need to make room for Gaia Project now. It takes the economy of the buildings and action mechanisms in Terra Mystica that create a very tight game play experience which rewards proper plan-making, but then cranks everything up to a significantly higher degree. And that tech track is so well intergrated into the rest of the game, it’s just a beauty. Then there is still all that variability thrown on top of it – it is a breath-taking design. The game has strong player interaction and competition over planets without any direct conflict. It’s great. It’s fabulous.