It is all Edward Uhler’s fault, really. He did a podcast going over his Top 20 Thinky Fillers and, at the end of it, he asked to hear ours. And while it would be simple enough to just come up with a list of titles, that wouldn’t be an equivalent of the thoughtful dialogue he provided with each entry on his list. And so this list was born.
I restrained myself to the same restrictions Edward used when defining a thinky filler:
1) A game you wouldn’t go to a game night specifically with the intention to play. i.e. it wouldn’t be the feature game of the night. And barring some formal event, such as a tournament, that holds true with all of these. There might be days when I’m hankering to play one of them and would go out of my way to get in on a game of it, but most of the time I wouldn’t turn down a play of, say, Pipeline in lieu of getting in a game of most of these on any given game day.
2) A game that plays in 45 minutes or less, which I chose to ignore two different times for games that have a 60 on the max printed time but are nowhere near that for me. Being a primarily 2-player gamer, there are games that play in that 45 minute or less timeframe that don’t reflect that published time (i.e. Glass Road, which would also be in my Top 10). But it did help me keep to about 25 games to choose from.
I was pleased and unsurprised to find very little crossover with Edward’s list. Why not surprised? We have different tastes and game in vastly different circles. There are games on his list that are heavily centered around auctions and trick-taking games, neither of which are usually in my preferred wheelhouse (although you may find a few exceptions in here). I enjoy dueling games a lot more than I expect he does, and so you’ll find a heavy emphasis on some of them in here. While they aren’t necessarily classifiable as heavy, they are definitely thinky when a person wants them to be. Finally, a lot of the games on his list I honestly haven’t played and, ergo, they can’t possibly be here.
All in all I am very happy with this list. I will make the same qualifier that Edward mentioned at one point: on a given day, the games can fluctuate in order on here. The line of separation between some of these are relatively thin. Also worth noting is that a game rated higher as a thinky filler is not necessarily a reflection of its ranking as an all-time favorite game. Those are two very different approaches to a list, and could lead to some drastic changing of the order in which these would appear interspersed with other games.
And thus with no more ado, I shall embark upon this extensive list.
#20 Antinomy – This game didn’t sound like much at first. I had really low expectations for this little wallet game. However, the first play shattered what I thought going into the game and secured this as a staple in my portable collection. The cleverness comes from how you move around, as you have a hand of three cards that have a color, a number, and a symbol. To move forward on the line of cards, you use the number and that is the exact number of spaces you can move forward, swapping the used card with the card where you end up. Moving backward on the line you choose either the color or the symbol, going to a card matching one of those and, again, swapping the played card with the one in the line. You are trying to get a set of 3 in your hand that match in color, symbol, or number to form a Paradox – but one of the four colors is off-limits and that changes after every Paradox. And when you score said Paradox, you mix your three cards up and randomly place them on the line either to the left or right of your figure, taking the 3 cards that were there into your hand – so oftentimes you’re starting over again with hopefully 2 useful cards and trying to figure out how to move with what you have to get that card or two you need to trigger the next Paradox. Add in the consideration that one of the 18 cards is removed from the game randomly during setup and you are trying to outmaneuver your opponent to score 4 Paradoxes first.
#19 Black Sonata – The first of two solo-only games to make this list and a third (Maquis) just narrowly missed out. Yes, fillers aren’t just limited to groups of gamers. Hidden movement shouldn’t be a possibility for a solitaire game, but somehow they pulled it off in Black Sonata. Deduction definitely shouldn’t be able to pair with that hidden movement, either. And again, it is done brilliantly in this game published by Side Room Games. Move across the map searching for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, trying to get clues as to her identity. The game has far more replay value than you’d expect, and it exercises my brain in a way that few other games tend to offer.
#18 The Climbers – This game has table presence that is second to none, and thankfully some really exciting gameplay to match. It is always going to be better with more players, but even with 2 this has enough to offer to keep things interesting as you maneuver blocks to try and be the highest on the stack when players are unable to move any further. I’m yet to meet someone who hasn’t enjoyed playing this when it hits the table, and there is something exciting about a game that almost requires you to be standing while playing.
#17 Penny Rails – A train game in 18 cards? Ha! And yes, please! Travis D. Hill has a brilliant design here. It isn’t as thinky as I expected it to be, yet there is still sufficient planning and adapting that can be done – especially when it comes to manipulating the shares you own and getting them set for the final scoring. This is a game that is extremely simple to learn but has a lot of space for strategy and outplaying your opponent, making it a perfect, portable train game that will eat up a good chunk of table space.
#16 Friday – This game is so agonizing with its decisions. The problem is that you start with a deck of mostly negative cards, and every “point” you fail an event by costs you some of your life points. However, you can also remove cards by paying those life points, thus culling your deck enough to make it a well-tuned machine. The game has decisions every turn, as you choose from two events that tell you a target number you need to meet and how many “free” cards you get off your deck. Deciding when to take the loss, or when to pay a life for an extra card, is a key aspect of the game. This game is universally considered to be a great challenge, with most players losing more often than they win in this little solo deckbuilder. It is the game I grab when I want a quick solo game but don’t have much time, and I’ve never played a round of this that I didn’t enjoy or a round that didn’t cause me to agonize over some of the decisions along the way.
#15 Bushido – You are going to take one look at this game from Grey Fox Games and think I lost my mind. Yes, it is a game involving dice rolling. Lots of dice rolling at times. The vast majority of the game is centered around playing one of your 5 cards and rolling the pool of dice from that. So what makes this thinky, in spite of the dice you’ll be rolling? There are two primary things that make this a thinky game, both of which I really love. First, the draft of cards to start the game. You’re going to get a total of 5 cards, will see a total of 20 cards and get to choose from either 17 or 18 of those, depending on whether you’re the first to draft or will be the first to act. The cards not only determine dice you’ll roll later, but also trigger abilities and, if you get several cards in the same school, can allow you to boost plays of a card for more dice. Second comes in having your three guards and switching between them during the game. Unless it goes horribly for one person, you will be changing your guard eventually in the game and knowing when to make that change so you are advancing your plans instead of reacting to the situation is a key to elevating your game. Better yet, being able to recognize when an opponent is about to change guard, or down to a certain set of cards, and making your play to capitalize on that is what makes Bushido shine, bad die rolls or not.
#14 Battle Line – A Knizia classic and with excellent reason, because this provides some interesting decisions along the way. You’re deploying cards onto your side of the board, trying to get the strongest 3-card combination based heavily around poker suits. There are tactics that can break those rules a little, but in general you cannot get above 3 cards on a battle nor can they be moved once placed. The cleverness not only comes in how you deploy cards, but also how you “win” a battle – if you can prove the opponent is unable to win that battle (by open information, not based on cards in your hand), you can claim the battle early. Once a battle is decided, no other units can be deployed there. With 9 fronts to fight over, this has always been a tense and close battle of wits when played – and I really, really should get in on that print run with the Medieval theme because that is totally my jam.
#13 Blue Moon Legends – A run of Knizia games right here, and this one barely gets the edge over Battle Line because of the sheer variety in the game. There are quite a few preconstructed decks in the game, many featuring a faction that introduces some special mechanic bound to their faction. With even more cards in here to construct custom decks, this is definitely my sort of game. The gameplay is fast and simple, with cards having two different values and the person who begins a battle chooses the value. Then you alternate placing cards until you exceed the previous value or withdraw from the battle. Depending on the number of cards played on your side, you will either pull one or two dragons toward your side if you win. I really enjoyed my first plays of the game, and can’t wait to find my own copy to dive into it further.
#12 Biblios – One of my favorite kind of dice game is the one where dice are never rolled, such as in Biblios. However, that is not what makes this a truly remarkable little game. You’re going to go through the deck of cards twice, the first time drafting cards to your hand, your opponent’s hand, or to a discard pile. Then you will go through said discard pile and auction the cards off, one by one, where you either bid gold cards or regular cards (depending one which card type is up for grabs) to try and gain the cards you need – or deny the ones the opponents need – to get a majority of points in each of five different “suits” of cards. However, winning a suit only determines who scores the points, and the value of winning said suit is represented by the corresponding die, which has its value manipulated during the game when Church cards are obtained. This game is clever, cutthroat, and surprisingly good even with 2 players.
#11 Pixel Tactics – Part of the thinky nature for this 1v1 game comes from the ways in which you can use the cards – every card can be used in one of 5 ways, offering a ton of decisions from the very start. After the beginning step of choosing your leader, you still have a whopping four ways to deploy every card you draw, utilizing their specific abilities based on location in your 3×3 grid to gain an advantage over your opponent. Most of the time this is a game of inches, so to speak, where you are trying to break through their defenses to drop a small chunk of damage on their leader before they can reestablish some form of protection. Playing the cards at the right time, in the right way, to capitalize on your advantage opportunities is what makes this game a clever, thinky little filler for me.
#10 Omen: A Reign of War – This game is full of tough decisions, much of it stemming from one of my favorite things in a game: multi-use cards. There are a host of decisions, starting from the beginning of your turn where you need to decide how to use your 3 wealth actions: taking coins, cards, or a combination of them…but if you use all 3 in one area you get a 4th of that type, so you’ll want to position yourself to be able to take all cards or all coins. You’ll want to play powerful units onto the three cities, both to try and defend the areas your opponent might be trying to win while also setting yourself up for some scoring of your own. Tiles from winning a city battle count as 2 VP, but have an ability you can use essentially at the cost of 1 VP so you need to decide if that ability is worth the loss of points. Monster cards can be played onto a city or used for their ability, always giving you pause over which is more desirable. Oracles are weak in power but have useful abilities that will trigger every turn. And let’s not forget about the Offering phase at the end of the game, where some of your more useful cards will also be worth more if sacrificed from your hand right here for coins or cards. There are so many agonizingly wonderful decisions to be made in this game that it has quickly become one of my absolute favorites.
#9 The Speicherstadt – This game is genuinely cruel in execution, with such a tight economy and a clever bidding mechanism that can boil down to a screw-over in epic proportions to deny a player the card they want or need. I’ll never forget my first game, where my scoring marker literally went off the edge of the track during a brilliant success. Or my second play weeks later where it never moved above 0 because I was being aggressively blocked by my wife and the other players in a multiplayer game. Both were exhilarating and fun in different ways, and I’ve been watching for a good deal on Jorvik for at least two years. It is probably about time I pull the trigger and pick up the Viking retheming of this game, because it is still one of my favorite Feld games that I have ever played, and one of the most unique.
#8 Res Arcana – This is a game that, in some respects, is really similar to Bushido. No, you aren’t rolling dice, or even trying to fight the opposing player. But each player gets a deck of 8 cards, and that is all they will see for the entire game and need to figure out a winning strategy from that. There are options to draft those cards, or play the default way of getting them by chance and seeing what you can piece together from what was dealt. Either way this game is a lot of fun to collect resources in order to gain monuments or places of power in order to then gain victory points. It is a game that never overstays its welcome and, in fact, often ends sooner than players would like because it is fun getting to that “one more turn and I could have…” state of engine building. This one absolutely will remain a staple in my collection for many years to come, along with many others on this list.
#7 The King is Dead – I will never, ever forget a 3-player game I played of this. I had taught the game to two friends and this was our second play of it. Silence filled the room as we individually struggled with what cards to play and when, and where to remove the cubes so as to set ourselves up while not opening things for the other players. My wife came in and was baffled by our intense focus on the game, and for me that will always stand out in my mind. This game is a brilliant exercise in area control where, rather than being tied to a single affiliation or adding dudes to a map, you are taking cubes off after each action and trying to position yourself to side with the eventual winner of the three factions in the game. The map shrinks in size as areas resolve, and the reduction in units on the map makes those final areas even more difficult to manipulate toward resolving in the way you want. An excellent game with two that becomes unparallelled with three, and a game I still itch to play years later.
#6 Oh My Goods! – This game suffers on this list probably more because of a difficulty to find a willing player than because the game isn’t a great thinky filler. It pushes the envelope in terms of hitting the upper limit on the thinky filler timeframe, but I feel it would still qualify for the list as long as it isn’t a 4-player game with all new players. Much of the decision-making factors around the press-your-luck aspect of what cards enter the market, but that doesn’t have to dictate your play. Deciding what buildings to construct, whether to have your main worker perform sloppily for less production or at regular capacity is an interesting puzzle depending on the early flop. But the reason I love this game and how it becomes a puzzle is in the chaining of production, where if you plan it right you can make a ton of product or, late in the game, money for points. Few games give me the same satisfaction as I feel when I manage to get that chain combo set up just right to where I can not only crank out goods with efficiency during the game, but also capitalize on the final chaining activation to blow up my scoring potential.
#5 Liberation – If someone a year ago tried to tell me they were wanting to take the hidden movement portion of Star Wars: Rebellion and make it into an 18-card game, I would have called them crazy. Well, they accomplished that task in admirable fashion, as Liberation always reminds me of Star Wars: Rebellion’s hidden movement element and it is done in such a clever way. Both sides use the same deck of cards but play them in very different ways, giving a delightful asymmetry that goes beyond the division between hunter and hunted. Whether I am sweating as the Liberation side, hoping my opponent picks the wrong planet to target as they get closer and closer to my hiding place, or blindly flailing as the Dynasty, trying to find those elusive nuisances, I am always having fun and engaging my brain in the manner I greatly enjoy.
#4 Hanamikoji – Like another game a few spots higher on this list, Hanamikoji is one that doesn’t look like it should be a brain-burning experience. However, these geishas provide some agonizing decisions to make along the way because you get exactly four actions to attempt to curry favor with either four of the seven geishas, or 11 points worth of geisha value. And the worst part is the knowledge that you are choosing these actions with imperfect information, as you will never know every card in play since one is removed, and two of the actions taken by your opponent will “remove” three cards face-down so you won’t know which one they saved to add at the end and which two they’ve removed. Deciding what order to take the actions, since you must take all four of them exactly once in a round, and choosing which cards to select, makes this game a truly thinky game.
#3 Race for the Galaxy – While randomness plays a pretty strong factor in some games of Race for the Galaxy, the thinky aspect comes from your ability to pivot toward a functional strategy based upon the early cards you discover. Yes, it is possible to get oh-so-close to having that perfect scoring engine and never obtain that one card that would make it all come together. The temptation becomes strong to dig and dig and dig for that one card you know is in there, but with such a large stack of cards that isn’t a reliable strategy. Being able to accept that and find ways to score and win without those perfect engines is the key to Race for the Galaxy, and exactly why this gets such high marks. It isn’t so much a game about perfection as it is about finding a way to get something up and running quickly, a lesson that I learned the hard way over and over and over again while losing to the Robot AI that comes in the first expansion. It is less of an engine tuning game and more of a, well, a race to get points faster. And when playing against opponents, being able to master reading what they might choose for actions so you can maximize the benefit to you while minimizing the benefit for them is where the thinky aspect really can take off to the next level.
#2 Arboretum – It should be illegal for a game that looks so innocent to be so brutal. Scoring notwithstanding, this game is responsible for providing a dozen or so of the most agonizing turns you’ll ever have every time you play the game. It sounds simple, because you’re drawing two cards into your hand of 7, playing one, and discarding one. I’ve let out more profane words at a hand of cards when playing this game than any other because there are too many times where one of those decisions isn’t an easy one – either because I want that card for future purposes or I need to keep it to deny an opponent. Then there is the scoring, where you may discover that all of your hard work remains just scoring potential rather than points because your opponent DID have that 1 which negates the 8 in your hand, allowing them to score those trees instead of you. Finding the right balance between what you need to score and what you need to reduce the opponents’ scores is a huge part of why this game is so high on this list.
#1 BattleCON – This has become my go-to game when I really want to burn my brain with a single opponent. Because there is absolutely no luck involved, the game pits two players against each other to see who can establish and maintain the upper hand in a duel. You know exactly what your opponent is capable of, giving you open information at all times. Choosing your attack pairs is one of the most critical decisions in the game, as you need to factor in not only what your opponent might play, but also consider where you want to be positioned on the board, whether or not your attack can hit from there, if you can sustain damage and be able to strike back, and how playing X now will affect you for the next turns because those cards won’t be back for two more rounds. There is an incredible amount of variety in even one box of this game, and with nearly a hundred fighters spanning them all this is a game you can play over and over without running out of variety because the characters all play so differently from one another. This won’t be for everyone’s collection, but it manages to provide the best opportunity for thinky situations turn after turn.