Over on Fortress: Ameritrash, Nate Owens posted his countdown of his twelve favorite boardgames ever, a process he revisits yearly. While I’ve done a yearly roundup of my top games of the year for some time now, I’ve never really done an all-time favorites list, so I thought I’d give it a try.
What’s more, I’m attempting to list them in order, which makes it even harder. As you can imagine, take this with a grain of salt; I’d probably have a different list if I made it next week.
#12: The New Era/Winter
It might be a mistake to go in reverse order here, because a lot of what I like about The New Era (and its expansion, Winter, which I feel solidifies the design), is a result of things yet to come on the list. It has a lot of different things going on: economic engine, resource management, worker placement, and direct confrontation all covered in a tasty post-apocalyptic theme. The wide variety of the cards and the fact that you’re unlikely to see a lot of the deck in a typical game bring it sort of into the world of collectible card games and deckbuilders as well. It’s a bear to teach without overwhelming new players, though, and its iconography is pretty opaque, which has helped it not go as far as I’d like. Still, there are few people I’ve taught it to who haven’t come away liking it.
#11: For Sale
There are any number of smallish card games that could go here: Coloretto, Sticheln, Palastegefluster, and Bohnanza would all be easy contenders. But For Sale wins the spot for being such an attractive, simple, and fun package. It’s a quick-playing game of two pure auctions, something I don’t otherwise go for. I also like that on the surface it seems that the highest card is always the best, but a skilled player can use a hand of mediocre houses quite effectively. This game often gets played while waiting for other players to arrive and I always enjoy those plays. We’re killing time until we get to the “real” game, but I still value the time spent with this one.
#10: San Juan
There are any number of smallish card games that could go here: Another smallish card game, but a meatier one. San Juan was one of the first games I ever rated a “10” on BoardGameGeek, and it’s still a strong favorite. I don’t care if I never play its big brother, Puerto Rico, again, but I’ve played the hell out of San Juan. I tried the similar Race for the Galaxy (which also could be compared to The New Era) and couldn’t get into it, but San Juan really works for me. My only issue with it these days is that it could really use an expansion to mix things up a little more, as its become pretty samey over the years. Still, it’s a true favorite and a great example of a lot of game in a small package.
#9: Ascending Empires
It is very tempting to look at Ascending Empires next to things like Twilight Imperium or Eclipse and dismiss it as a jokey novelty thing because when it comes time to send your spaceships across the galaxy to wage war or explore planets you flick them, Crokinole style, towards your target. Sometimes the ship goes off the board. Sometimes it bounces off the planet you were aiming for. Sometimes it flips on its side and rolls off course. And yeah, that goofifies things a little. But you shouldn’t let that put you off because it’s at the heart of a strong, solid 4x space game that’s a lot of fun and cutthroat as hell. And once you’re into it, the “silly” flicking becomes part of a gripping narrative. No one ever has fond memories of when they had a 4 movement for their dreadnought and moved it exactly four hexes, but you’ll remember incredibly lucky and absurdly unlucky flicks. It’s a damnable shame that this game shipped with weak cardboard boards that warp and don’t fit together well. The right materials would have made it cost way too much but oh, what a game it would be. (I recently played on a custom plexiglass board and I assure you I would consider paying whatever it would cost to get one of my own.) As it is, though, it’s perfectly playable and eminently enjoyable.
DungeonQuest is one of the dumbest and most ridiculous games out there. People complain about the fact that you can die, through no fault of your own, on the first turn because of the card you draw or tile you pull. My response to this is that if you don’t have a story of dying on turn 1, you haven’t played enough. It’s random as hell, brutal and unfair, there’s no interaction, and it can reward a cowardly and cheap victory unless, as you should, you houserule that this is not permitted. And I love it. It’s so much dumb fun. Fantasy Flight recently did a reissue of it that looked to add a bunch of “depth” to it, like a card-based strategic combat system. Like many players, I ditched those combat cards in favor of a single die roll because that was far more appropriate and fun. DungeonQuest is too busy trying to kill you to care about your strategy depth and balance issues. And let me tell you, the first time you make it to the center and back, even if you don’t “win”, you’ll have more joy in your heart and desire to high five anyone who’s around than you would winning most other games. In fact, every time I’ve played, a victory — a real victory — has been celebrated by all the players, not just the guy who pulled it off, because everyone is so happy to see this nasty and vicious game get defeated for a change.
#7: Tigris and Euphrates
I apologize if going from DungeonQuest to Tigris and Euphrates in one jump breaks your brain; I really should have put some kind of intermission in there. When I first got to BoardGameGeek in 2005 or so, T&E was the top game, but was on its way out. It’s seen as a classic Eurogame design, yet there’s a lot about it that would turn off many current fans of the genre. There’s a fair amount of randomness in the tile draws, no real catch-up mechanism, and it’s nothing but non-stop player-on-player warfare. And it’s wonderful. Reiner Knizia, hero to many, villain to others, has diminished in my esteem, but he’ll always have created T&E and nothing can take that away. Every time I play it I think, “Why don’t we play this more often?” It’s even fun to try and describe its weirder parts to others: “There are colors, but you’re not any of them. You don’t own anything on the board. You win if you have the most fewest.” Yet it all works, and it works in such a way to create a tense, tough, but rewarding and memorable game. It’s one of the few games in my top ten that I would try and make an argument for being in everyone’s.
There are two games that I couldn’t imagine not having in my list but also couldn’t imagine adding: Talisman and Illuminati. I played the hell out of these in college and loved them, and I still have copies of both, if not my original plastic clamshell copy of Illuminati. Both are buggy, sloppy, slogfests of a game, and I’ll probably never really play either of them ever again, but I loved them both and still hold a great deal of fondness for them.
Tomorrow: Find out what #s 6-1 are in part two, as well as the enigmatic GAME ZERO.