Welcome to this year’s top 50 games list in which I list my personal top 50 games at this point in time. My choices are not limited to games from this calendar year, but instead represent my current thoughts on the top 50 games out there. Next year, some of the games featured may move up and down as my opinions change and I get the chance to play more games or revisit old favourites.
This series will comprise 5 posts, each covering 10 games as we work down from number 50 to number 1. Let’s kick things off, shall we?
50: Ladies and Gentlemen
Designer: Loïc Lamy
Plays: 4-10 players in ~30 minutes
Ladies and Gentlemen is a strange game from France. In this game, players split into teams of two, with each player taking on the role of either husband or wife. The husband must play a little stock market trading game to raise money, whilst the wife goes shopping to put together an outfit for the next ball. They do this by picking out beautiful dresses, shoes, hats, gloves and accessories, as well as hiring servants.
Of course, the ladies need not worry their little heads about the actual money, as the husband is the one who manages that side of things. It is therefore ultimately up to the husband to decide whether or not the items the ladies have chosen are affordable or not and it is they who have the final say on any purchase.
The game is a lot of fun, especially with groups of 6 to 8 players. This is my number 50. meaning it was good enough to make the cut, but not necessarily my first choice for game night. Situational is the perfect term for this game, as it really depends on the dynamic of the group.
49: Smash Up
Designer: Paul Peterson
Plays: 2-4 players in ~45 minutes
Smash Up is a fun little card game in which you take two disparate factions and smash them together to create your deck. This might result in you playing as Ninja Dinosaurs, Pirate Wizards or Robot Zombies. You then take turns playing action and minion cards in order to beat the score on a location, or ‘Base’, card in order to score points. Amass 15 points and you win!
The game itself is good, but does suffer from some minor admin issues around scorekeeping, but nothing that can#t be overcome by some paper and a pencil. What might appeal to the expansion-junkies out there is how expandable the game is, with many, many, many new factions released over several expansions, increasing the options available to you and, therefore, the replayability. Maybe if I had a few expansions to mix in this would have found its way higher on my list.
48: Betrayal at House on the Hill
Designers: Rob Daviau, Bruce Glassco, Bill McQuillan, Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast (originally Avalon Hill)
Plays: 3-6 players in ~60 minutes
Betrayal at House on the Hill is definitely a game of two halves. The first half of the game sees you and a group of friends exploring a creepy old house (possibly on a hill), placing tiles each time you stumble into a new room, ultimately giving a unique and randomised house each time. As you explore different things happen and different items are found and a set of conditions will be met which will determine which scenario will take place during the second half of the game.
In this second half, you will play out one of dozens of scenarios that range from a haunted house, to demonic possession, to a giant bird carrying the house away. The huge variety of possible scenarios and the cool, narrative approach are the big selling points of this game and the reason it makes the list, even if some of the mechanisms can be a little clunky.
47: Wits and Wagers
Designer: Dominic Crapuchettes
Publisher: North Star Games
Plays: 3-7 players in ~25 minutes
The problem with trivia games is that once a question has been asked, you either know the answer or you do not. There are no decisions to be made or real game to be played, it’s just a binary switch based on general knowledge. That’s a lot of fun if you’re getting answer right, but if you don’t have the breadth of knowledge of the other players it can be incredibly frustrating. Wits and Wagers addresses this in a really interesting and effective way.
All of the answers are given numerically on small whiteboards which are then ordered from highest to lowest. Players are then invited to bet on which answer or answers they reckon are closest to the correct one. This really opens up the game as those with a good general knowledge can gain points based on correct answers, but everyone can also participate in the betting and can amass chips based on their judgement of which answer sounds the most plausible.
This is the only trivia game I have in my collection, because this is one of the only one that is actually a ‘game’ and not just a quiz. Really cool idea, well executed.
46: Welcome to the Dungeon
Designer: Masato Uesugi
Plays: 2-4 players in ~30 minutes
A cool, little filler game, Welcome to the Dungeon is a game if memory, bluffing and pressing your luck. You take on the role of one of four heroes and start drafting monsters to populate a dungeon. Each time you draw a creature you may keep it, removing it from the dungeon at the expense of a piece of equipment, or sending it into the dungeon that you or another player will need to face at the end of the drafting phase.
The last player who has not passed will then enter the newly-populated dungeon. They will fight each of the monsters in turn, with certain pieces of equipment neutralising specific creatures. Those who are not overcome by equipment will damage the player who is aiming to make it to the end up the dungeon with at least one HP left. The winner is the first player to successfully complete two dungeon runs.
The game is quick, simple and conducive to a nice discussion and atmosphere. It’s very much on the light side in terms of complexity, but there’s definitely a place for that in my collection.
45: Love Letter
Designer: Seiji Kanai
Plays: 2-4 players in ~20 minutes
Despite being described as ‘microgame’, it’s really cool to see just how much game can be squeezed out of a small handful of components in Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter. This is the smallest and simplest game I own, but it delivers a great experience every time I play, really exemplifying the themes of bluffing and deduction.
In this game, you are trying to deliver your love letter to the princess whilst undermining your potential rivals. Each turn sees you drawing one card and playing one card, with the end goal of exposing other players to knock them of the game whilst maintaining the highest number card you can to win.
The game is tiny, consisting of a deck of 16 cards and a few cubes to keep score with, but it encourages a really positive, really intense interaction between players, similar to what you’d expect from larger social deduction games such as The Resistance or Coup. I think this might rise in coming years as I try to get more games of it under my belt.
44: Galaxy Trucker
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Plays: 2-4 players in ~60 minutes
The thing about Galaxy Trucker is that it is half of a really, really great game. I love the first half of this game, where you race against other players and a timer to build a ship out of a hodge-podge of component tiles. You’ll find yourself scrambling to fill your ship with engines, guns, crew quarters, life-support systems, batteries, cargo holds and shield generators. Sometimes, you end up with a perfect ship that is well-balanced and contains everything you need. Most of the time, you’ll end up with a total mess of barely functioning parts superglued together into something that is shaped vaguely like a ship – and isn’t that more fun?
The second half of the game can also be fun, with players racing their ships through a dangerous galaxy, picking up cargo, boarding abandoned ships and stations, navigating meteor storms and being attacked by marauding pirates. Generally, you can expect to have large chunks of your ship blown up or shot off. This half of the game is very much out of your hands, as these events very much happen to you. You are relying on the integrity (lol) of your ship design to see you through. If they survive long enough to return to port, players receive credits for a speedy arrival, for selling any cargo they may have gathered, and for having the most beautiful (or least beaten-up) ship. They also lose credits for those bits of their ships that were so inconveniently destroyed.
The game is a lot of fun and it can be fun to see how well your group’s ships hold up against the cold, uncaring galaxy, but the real joy of this game is in that initial building phase.
43: Knightmare Chess (Third Edition)
Designers: Pierre Cléquin, Bruno Faidutti
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Plays: 2 players in ~90 minutes
Chess is alright, but you’ll notice it does not make this list. I don’t doubt that Chess is a fantastic game with a massive depth of strategy, but it lacks two things I love in a game: theme and asymmetry. I love theme and asymmetry and have previously written on the importance of both theme and asymmetry. I am saying theme and asymmetry a lot…
Knightmare chess doesn’t do a whole lot to up the theme, but it does add a lot of asymmetry, arming each player with a deck of cards with which to enhance their game. These cards could create one-off events or change the way specific pieces move or capture. They could even make really fundamental changes to the board, such as by turning the board into a sphere, allowing your pieces to leave one edge of the board and reappear at the opposite side.
This shakes up the game quite considerably and creates hidden abilities in what is usually a game of perfect knowledge. It also adds an element of luck to a game that is otherwise entirely decided by the skill of the two players. I have yet to have a game of this that was not incredibly entertaining.
42: Lords of Waterdeep
Designers: Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Plays: 2-5 players in ~60 to 120 minutes
There are games that have a really well-embedded theme that seems so tied to the mechanisms of the game that it seems that only this theme could work with this game. I’m thinking of games like Battlestar Galactica here. Then there are games like Lords of Waterdeep that have themes that are very much pasted on. Sure, it uses the Dungeons & Dragons IP, but this game really has nothing mechanically to do with D&D. Instead, this is a fantastic and elegant example of the Worker Placement genre of board games.
In a Worker Placement game, each player place their workers on specific areas of the map to complete tasks and/or gather resources. This also has the side-effect of occupying a space and denying said space to other players. Lords of Waterdeep is an incredibly pure example of this idea and sees you taking on the role of a lord of Waterdeep, a major city in the Forgotten Realms setting. In terms of fitting into the D&D theme, you’d be one of the dudes who sends the player characters out on quests. Sure enough, you will spend your time in this game sending out your agents to recruit heroes (warriors, rogues, priests and wizards, each represented by coloured cubes) to fulfil quests, thereby earning you rewards such as money, more heroes or other effects. It’s all quite simple and easy to learn.
The simplicity of the game is a major factor in the appeal of this game and whilst I don’t consider this a ‘gateway game’ to introduce new players to the hobby, I do consider it a ‘next step game’ for new players who have tried out and gotten the hang of a couple of modern board games. Depending on the group, this can get quite competitive, and there is an expansion that adds some more cool stuff to the core game. This is the first of two Worker Placement games on my list, and is definitely the most accessible of the two.
Designer: Jim Bailey
Publisher: Grindhouse Games
Plays: 2 players in ~120 minutes
One game that did not make my list this year is Games Workshop’s Space Hulk. Now, Space Hulk is actually a very good game in the dungeon crawl genre – a genre that I have written about loving not once, but twice in the past. The biggest problem I have with Space Hulk is that it just feels outdated and clunky in how it plays. Incursion does not feel that way, and has a far more interesting theme, taking place in an alternative, sci-fi/horror version of World War 2.
In Incursion, one player will take on the role of the Americans, raiding a Nazi stronghold, whilst the other player will take on the occult-loving Nazis. The Americans will be armed with advanced weaponry and suits of powered armour, whilst the Nazis employ a horde of zombies, backed up with a couple of named characters and some werewolves.
The game is a classic dungeon crawl, with the onus usually on the Americans to storm the base, fulfil their objectives and escape before drowning in a sea of Nazi zombies. This is the first of a few dungeon crawls on my list. The reason it is not higher is probably that although it does flow well once you have learned the rules, it is not the most straightforward to learn and can be a little fiddly. My first couple of games were a tad frustrating, but once we’d got the hang of it, I’ve really enjoyed this game.
The next ten games on the list will feature some real classics, including another Worker Placement game, a couple of Deck Building games and some cooperative fun!