We’re into the territory where the best of the best begin to reside. These are, 100%, games I would always say “yes” to playing if the opportunity were to arise. Including this surprise appearance by the #10 game here, which got a small bump last month when I got in another play of it as a 2-player game and was reminded of how much I liked the game and got to see how differently it can play based on player count and familiarity with the game.
#10 – Nations, published by Lautapelit.fi. Designed by Rustan Hakansson, Nina Hakensson, Einar Rosen, and Robert Rosen. 1-5 players.
This game was lower on the list, and then I played the game once again right before I ran my rankings one last time. And boy, did this game benefit from that recent play, which served to remind me just how much I enjoyed this one. While I could lament about the MSRP of this game ($100), the honest truth is that the gameplay probably is worth that price tag even if the components themselves are not. And now I can confirm that this one plays solidly as a 2-player game, which was yet another reason for the gentle nudge up the list.
I played a LOT of Civilization II on the PC in my younger years. One of my earlier purchases was the Fantasy Flight version of Sid Meier’s Civilization which, while good, was never able to deliver the experience I was looking for in a civ-like board game. Combat was uninteresting and most of the early game was exploring the map while the rest was just spamming up whichever track could lock in a faster victory. This game is far more interesting, with a diverse range of cards that you’ll see a fraction of in a 2-player game (yay replay value and inability to depend on Card X to appear, forcing you to adapt your strategy to what is there rather than what you know is coming).
It also happens to have a mild worker placement aspect on your own board, and I use the term loosely. But you still assign those workers there and reap the benefits and penalties of said spot. You have to manage a few spaces for upgrades on your board while also juggling your resources efficiently. This is a Euro gamer’s Civ game, and I absolutely love it after a handful of plays. I can’t wait to dive into the solo mode on this one, and to get this to the table with my wife. I think this would be one she’d enjoy and completely dominate at, much like she did with Sid Meier’s Civilization.
#9 – Argent: The Consortium, published by Level 99 Games. Designed by Trey Chambers. 2-5 Players.
Fun fact: I’ve been writing this list backwards (#6-#10) and a theme for #7-9 could easily be “games I absolutely love but my wife does not”. And that is best exemplified in this game right here, a game she should absolutely love but does not. Yet. I’m still holding out hope that she can be converted if she gives it another chance now that I have some 2nd Edition upgrades in the box. Everything about this game should be right for her: worker placement, its like Harry Potter, ability to interfere with your opponent directly. And, truthfully, I know the one hangup that killed it for her: the end game scoring.
But that is what sets this game apart. You have 10 voters, only 2 of which are common knowledge. Over the course of the game you’ll hopefully be placing down marks, which let you see the voter card underneath that mark and will provide you information about one of the scoring conditions in the current game (such as most Mana at the end of the game, or most Knowledge tokens, etc.). There is an Influence Track which looks like it should be victory points, but it isn’t. It is used to gain Merits, but also importantly to serve as a tiebreaker if you both have the same number of X on a voter. First edition rules it was simply the higher influence wins the tie. I think she’ll enjoy 2nd edition a little more, which makes the 1st tiebreaker go to whoever put down a mark on the voter’s card and the influence be the 2nd tiebreaker if necessary.
This game is big. And long. It ramps up and become ridiculous as you gain better spells and max them out. Yet a round could end in a few turns, because it ends when all of the belltower cards are taken. The game has replay value, as each mage character has two sides, and there are six different ones to choose from. Every generic spell power has two sides. Every tile for the board has two sides. You can mix and match and play this game dozens of times and never have the same experience. And I absolutely love it. Easy enough to teach how to play it in 15 minutes, deep enough to take a full game to truly understand the game’s scoring and how to maximize your progress toward objectives. This game can appeal to both the Euro and Ameri-gamer camps in equal measure. Play this game. It is worthy of at least that. One play. That may be all it takes to hook you like it did for me.
#8 – Race for the Galaxy, published by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Tom Lehmann. 2-4 Players.
There was a moment in time when this was probably my #1 game. You have to rewind back to 2014, a very early time still in my gaming growth. My wife and I played this probably 20-30 times in the first few months we owned the game. This game was what got me into solo gaming, as I wanted more…more…more. It remains a game I love dearly, even though it rarely hits the table anymore, as I’ve found a new solo love that consumes that attention and my solo gaming on this one made it so my playstyle ruined the game for my wife. You see, in order to beat the Robot in solo you have to get an engine going fast. Really fast. So you start to see combos that are not overpowered, but are efficient enough to end the game before a larger engine can take off.
Part of me still regrets playing this one solo, as she used to love the game. She’s won the last few times we’ve played, but I still see that reflexive cringe if I mention the game. This game offers a lot of fun, synergistic combos, some interesting action selection mechanics (especially with 2-players!), and a great multi-use card system. I haven’t expanded beyond the first expansion, and that was primarily for solo mode. And, to be honest, the game hasn’t really needed anything beyond that. I will probably pick up the new Start Worlds promo at some point, but this is a gem of a game right out of the base box. Don’t let that iconography scare you away from experiencing an outstanding game and a true classic.
#7 – Oh My Goods, published by Mayfair Games. Designed by Alexander Pfister. 2-4 Players.
This game came out of nowhere and swept its way up my list. The game reinforces everything that I already suspected: I like engine builders which is something you can see repeated on this part of my Top 25 list. This game simply clicks for me in ways I still don’t understand. I can see those combinations and what I need to keep and build in order to use those production chains. I tend to fall behind in the early game and then roar back to life for a strong end of the game. Unfortunately, I think this game is destined to follow the same cycle as Race for the Galaxy and become a game my wife won’t willingly play very often.
I like the press-your-luck aspect in this one, which is only as big as you want it to be on some rounds. You set your worker, and how well they will work, after seeing just half of the market. That half can be as small as 2 cards or as many as 10+. Every card is multi-purpose, which is another thing I love. This game has all of the delightful heaviness and brain burn of a medium Euro game, but it compacted into a deck of cards which makes the setup and teardown fast. The game is easy to explain, apart from the production chains, and can go from on the shelf to playing in 15-20 minutes with a teach included. And it will often finish in under an hour per play. This game put Alexander Pfister on my radar, even moreso than Isle of Skye, as a designer to watch. It is utterly delightful and a game I absolutely love to play and need to get the expansion to add solo play into the mix.
#6 – Hanamikoji, published by Emperor S4 and Deep Water Games. Designed by Kota Nakayama. 2 Players.
It isn’t easy to put this one at this spot. The game is deserving of more, of making that final cut into the top 5. But the games ahead of this one simply cannot move. If I could make a 5a. and a 5b., this one would slip right into that slot.
But I can’t and therefore I will not.
It amazes me how many agonizing decisions you are given every time I play this game. you have four actions per round. They are the same four actions, and each can only be done once. You’re never going to have perfect information. Four of the cards you see in your hand over the course of the round will finish on your side of the board. Three will go to your opponent’s side. Two will be removed from the game, and your opponent won’t know which cards they are. One will come out at the very end and be on your side, but your opponent won’t know which card you selected until the end of the round. So much imperfect information that provides incredibly challenging decisions throughout the entire game. I love this game so much and the challenge it packs into a small footprint and a simple decision space. I get delighted when I teach a new person and I realize the game has clicked because they are letting out agonized sounds while trying to determine which action to choose and which cards to play. The game is as graceful and elegant as a geisha, and deserves to be in every collection. Unless you never play games with 2 players. For a 15-minute experience, this is always going to be my #1 go-to game.