At last we’ve come to the portion of the list everyone’s been waiting for: the best of the best in my opinion. These five games are the five I would choose if I could only have five games in my collection, as they all hit on very different aspects in gaming. Each provides a different experience from the other and demonstrates some of my varied taste in board games. The true positioning could be shifted on a daily basis from 3-5, and even 1-2 could flip-flop on a given day. I’m pretty happy with this ranking right now as going down as the official ranking, though.
So if you’re ever wanting to play one of these, let’s make it happen! I don’t know that I could play any of these “enough” times!
#5 – Kingdom Builder, published by Queen Games. Designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. 2-4 Players.
I’m going to say something controversial. Moreso than stating that Caverna is better than Agricola, or that Century: Spice Road is better than Splendor. You ready for this? Kingdom Builder is the best game Donald X. Vaccarino has designed. Period. I’m not trying to ruffle your feathers, Dominion fans. That is a fine game, and worthy of all the praise and acclaim it receives. But you’ll never convince me that it is a better game, and this is coming from a self-proclaimed lover of the deckbuilding genre.
What I love about Kingdom Builder is the variability and the simplicity. It is variable with the four boards and powers that will be available each play and with the three scoring conditions that will be present. It is simple mechanically in that you’ll place three settlements on the board on the terrain type matching your card. But that settlement must be placed adjacent to one of your existing settlements on the board, if able. That right there is the crux that makes this game shine.
Why? Because you can feasibly lose the game on Turn 1. That first placement matters. It matters so very much, both in terms of potential powers you gain and in terms of your options in future rounds. A really poor placement can leave you floundering in the same area of the board until the game ends, and don’t even try claiming it is because of the restriction of the card draw. That 1 card is what makes this game hum. If you add in a 2nd card, or a hand of cards to play from, the game loses its excellence and allows for sloppy planning. As Edward from Heavy Cardboard would say, “Plan better. Play better.” For such a light and simple game, there are so many excellent and meaningful decisions to be found with those early placements.
Every time you can place in a new part of the board, you’re faced with a similar challenge: find the optimal placement that will keep future options open while maximizing the point potential. It isn’t always easy. It sure as heck isn’t always obvious. I lose way more than I win in Kingdom Builder, but I always want to play it again. The game is the perfect time for setup and gameplay. The shifting of just those scoring objectives makes the same board play out in a completely different way. Seriously. Change those three cards but keep the same board and don’t shuffle those land cards and you’d see different decisions happening along the way.
Maybe I’m the biggest advocate for this game. Maybe no one else thinks it is as absolutely brilliant as I do. But I am yet to teach it and have someone dislike the game. In fact, the majority of new players are wildly enthusiastic about the experience when it is over and immediately want to dive back in for a second play.
And 50+ plays into this game, I’m still loving it. I don’t see that changing over the next 50 plays and beyond.
#4 – Lignum, republished by Capstone Games. Designed by Alexander Huemer. 2-4 players.
Every other game in the Top 5 gave me a strong reason to believe I would like the game before playing it. Lignum, on the other hand, came out of no where. I expected a fun game based on the description and my previous history of success with a Capstone Games title (Haspelknecht). But this game blew past each and every expectation I had going into the game and then some.
What is it about Lignum that I love? It is that perfect Euro game with management of resources, balance of short-term and long-term planning, and a feeling that you’re never doing enough to succeed. You need to plan the path you take each season, as many spaces can only go to one person. So if you really need that Sled, you’re faced with the decision of how fast should you jump to where that is located. Everyone you hire costs money, and they last only for the season, so you need to account for gaining enough cash flow to pay those seasonal costs. Winter seasons are tough to plan for, as there is so little you can do that season, yet that one decision can have waves of impact.
You can plan seasons ahead to execute a stronger action, but you need to really make sure that action is what you need and when you need it, while also ensuring that doesn’t prevent you from adding in another action on the next season when you travel around. Food and saws can be scarce resources, unless you’re willing to pay for them. Collecting sets of tokens can be ways to cash in for some much-needed funds or turned in for some powerful extra actions.
There is so much in this game that I love. It burns my brain in the right ways, and is that one Euro game I’ll want to grab off the shelf first if someone wants to play a Euro game. There may be ones that come along later that do it better, and ones like Lisboa might claim that crown with more plays. But right now, I love what Lignum manages to accomplish over the course of a session. It is far, far from that BGG Hotness and deserving of your immediate attention.
#3 – Mystic Vale, published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Designed by John D. Clair. 2-4 Players.
I love deckbuilding games. If I had to choose a mechanic that is mine, this would probably be the one I would claim. The improvement of a deck over time, combined with generating an efficient engine, is something that I really enjoy. My wife, on the other hand, has never been a big fan of them. Back in the day we owned Dominion and her tactic was, without fail, to simply buy money until she could buy a Province. Sure, she might buy 1-2 cards from the market on occasion, but she never crafted engines. And it was frustrating because I was spending my time trying to hone an engine that would run effectively based on the changing market of cards that could compete with that Big Money strategy. Too often I was 1-2 turns too slow, and her repetitive tactic combined with my disappointment against that tactic saw us sell off Dominion.
Imagine my excitement when I discovered that she actually enjoyed playing Mystic Vale. What followed was a solid week of playing this time and again while it was being borrowed. It was the first game I reviewed that I didn’t own (yet). And it is one of my favorite games in my collection to this day.
What she appreciates is a static deck in terms of cards. You’re not making a small deck bigger. You don’t need to trash cards in order to make things efficient. You start and stay at that same number of cards. But the strategies to pursue outside of that are where this game shines. This is very much a game of adapting to what appears. Tier 1 cards are cheap, but in a 2-player game only a dozen will ever appear. Worst case scenario, that is 4 unique cards (in the 3 different slots). Best case scenario there are 12 unique cards. But whether or not that card you need is in the place you need is never a guarantee. And you can’t just place it over something already existing, either, meaning every purchase and placement of an advancement is important in the long term. And you can’t always plan for what will show up in the game.
The game has a limited timer that is wholly dependent upon the purchases players make and how risky they choose to play. I’ve seen games go long and scores hit the 50-60 range. I’ve seen fast games where everyone is in the low-to-mid 20’s. Even though you are building your own engine, the game really rewards paying attention to what else is purchased and how fast those VP chips are being taken. Some of the best cards come with either greater risk of spoilage or less reward in end-game VP.
And those Vale cards are absolutely a viable strategy to win the game, even if they are frequently overlooked and can be difficult to obtain consistently. Early in the game, I’ll usually take an advancement with 1-2 of those symbols over one that generates more mana. Many times that pays off with those Vale Cards.
This is a game that is innovative in the realm of deckbuilders and a lot of fun to play. I’m always excited to see what direction the game takes as I begin to look at the cards flipping out for purchase. If you dislike deckbuilders but haven’t tried this, take my wife’s enjoyment of this as a hint that there is something a little different about Mystic Vale. You might just find yourself loving this game. And if you enjoy building engines or deckbuilding, this is very much the game for you.
#2 – Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, published by Fantasy Flight Games. Designed by Nate French. 1-2 Players.
In terms of number of plays, this game is king of the mountain. I logged about 50 solo plays of this one in about 5 months last year, and it is still my #1 played game of 2018. I have a feeling it will always be my most-played game, and it is my most-expanded game (and I’ve hardly scratched the surface on my collection). But the #1 overall spot isn’t necessarily the game you play the most, but rather the best and your favorite overall game. And this one falls just a little short in that race.
But let’s focus on what this does so freaking well: diversity in playthrough. Allow me to define that for you, because it is what makes this game shine for me, although it is dependent upon expanding a collection. Even by just picking up a single cycle, you gain 8 more heroes to use. A wealth of new player cards. And 9 scenarios to play through. Add that to the 12 heroes and 3 scenarios in the base game, and suddenly you have a ton of variability right there. You use 3 of the 20 heroes to run through a scenario. There are many combinations you could try and run through an individual scenario. Or all of the scenarios. Now take this and multiply by half a dozen cycles, two saga series, and some print on demand scenarios. Almost a hundred heroes. Almost a hundred scenarios. Hundreds of player cards to construct decks to play with. And the ability to play 1-4 players…and this game is a blast at all four player counts.
Some people dislike the deck construction aspect. I personally don’t understand that, as I think that is the best thing about this game. Building something and running it against a known (or unknown) quest to see how it fares over repeated plays. Swapping out a few cards to see how that affects the effectiveness of the deck. Getting slaughtered by the game and then trying to puzzle out how to overcome the obstacle. That high of making it past after banging your head in frustration for several plays.
Filling roles in a group setting, allowing you to diversify the content of the decks so everyone can contribute without needing everyone to do everything.
And when a quest gets too easy, there are Nightmare decks to go around and crank the difficulty to 11. They present new and interesting challenges as you work your way through the familiar quests!
This game is one I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing. I’m working to build a local community of gamers on this one, and that is going to be something I’ll continue to do. It isn’t cheap to get into this game, but it also doesn’t require you to collect everything, or punish you for not getting things in order or not having everything. I can play and succeed against the newest cycle without needing to purchase everything up to that cycle.
This game is my type of game. Long live the LCG, but even if it died today I could easily play the content that exists for a lifetime and not have it grow stale for me.
#1 – War of the Ring, Published by Ares Games. Designed by Robert Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello. 2-4 Players (but really 2 players…)
If you look at the number of plays a year that a game receives, this one would fall short of the top billing. However, as Joel Eddy has mentioned in defense of Caylus being his #1 game, your top game doesn’t have to be one you’re playing all the time. It is rather what game do you enjoy the most when it hits the table, and for me it is easily War of the Ring by Ares Games. This has it all for any Tolkien fan (or any Tolkien super fan like me): two sides vying with different goals, hidden movement of the Fellowship to destroy the ring, active hunting for the ring by the shadow player, endless hordes of enemies for the shadow player, a feeling of dread and despair for the free peoples…
It feels like I am playing Lord of the Rings out on the board when this game hits the table. Sure, the rules are complex and I’m still not 100% certain I am playing everything perfectly. I’d have to dive back into that rulebook, now that I am better at learning and teaching games, to see what little things I may have missed. I’ve missed a lot of things over the years and have corrected them along the way, and every correction makes the game more and more interesting.
The sides are as close to balanced as you could hope for in a game like this. Seriously, there are discussions on BGG where it demonstrates that both sides have a win rate that is remarkably close to 50% overall. Will a skilled player win more times against a new player? Absolutely. But it isn’t a guaranteed thing.
The cards in here are outstanding, with thematic and fun effects at times. The dual use of the cards really shines, making you decide what manner you want to utilize them. Sometimes it is needed short-term to help win a key battle. Other times you know this card is going to be played for the main effect using one of your dice.
I’ve rolled my eyes at the complaint about the political system. It is thematic. The Free Peoples nations were resistant to the idea of a real threat, unwilling to believe that the land was being overrun by Sauron and his armies. You need to spend time and resources to convince those nations that there is a real threat before they are willing to grow their armies and march to war. Sending someone from the Fellowship can speed up that process, just like a battle or two within a territory can convince them that the threat is there and impacting their nation. This isn’t tacked on to add a funky mechanic for complexity’s sake. Read the books. The nations all dragged their feet at first regarding Sauron and his forces. This mechanic is thematic. Period. End of discussion.
There are interesting decisions on both sides throughout the game. Can a string of bad rolls ruin your plans? Sure, it happens. I’ve had all of my progress as a Shadow player wiped in a matter of a few battles gone wrong and had to backpedal and reevaluate where to strike and when. I’ve had to abandon conquests because it would take too long and too many dice to reach the previous conquest site with reinforcements (or a new force). I’ve seen the Free People win by conquering Shadow Strongholds and win by Dunking the One Ring. I’ve seen the Shadow armies win by conquering Free People Cities and Strongholds and seen them win by corrupting the Ring Bearer. I’ve seen Minas Tirith and the rest of Gondor be a crucial battle site and I’ve seen it ignored for the entirety of a game.
While each game follows the same overarching narrative path, the route taken to victory on both sides will change from game to game based upon opening moves and the cards being dealt. And that is what is wonderful about this: I’m witnessing my favorite story being played out on a board, where I can make unique and interesting decisions that alter the narrative.
Add in the two expansions and the experience only gets better for me. I’m saddened that I didn’t get the Special Edition of the game when it was being run, but my standard version of the game is still the perfect game. If you want the best experience in board games, I’d argue it can be found at the table with this game and one other player, vying for the fate of Middle-Earth. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think it is time for Second Breakfast.