Alas, this summer proved too busy for me and so many of my favorite conventions (or, in some cases, those I’ve yet been to at all) have passed me by. Regardless I still find myself in a tabletop fever of sorts and with that, felt the need to dive into my Top 10 games. A couple quick notes about this list. It is by no means ranked in any particular order, but rather a list of my 10 favorite games at this time and though I may have second thoughts on some of my choices by the end of writing this, I will keep my spontaneity in tact by keeping the list unchanged. Lastly, you may notice a particular game missing from this list (an obvious one, you might say) and I’ll discuss that choice at the end. Enjoy!
Games are relaxing and therapeutic to me, as I imagine they are for many others. Being so immersed in the hobby, however, tends to warp the term “relaxing” when you think about it. To a runner, a 5K+ jog in the morning is about as calming as it is for a weightlifter working towards lifting some insane number of pounds yet I would think about many other things to do in my spare time than those activities. If you’re enthusiastic about something, no matter how “stressful” it may be too others, it will most likely be therapeutic to you. My point is, not all board games are relaxing at their core. Or more specifically, that’s not their intent. For me, Tokaido is one of the exceptions. Though it is a competitive game, Tokaido is about the journey and the travelers in said journey and more importantly, which of them is having the most rewarding experience. It isn’t about who collected the most gold or who conquered the most regions. Who wins or loses depends on the foods one sampled, the gifts they bought for themselves or loved ones, the paintings they created, and the good vibes they gained from taking time in hot baths and meeting fellow travelers on the road. With the wrong group it could be just as competitive and cut-throat as a game can get, but when you find that right combination of 3-5 players, Tokaido is a pleasant 45 minute to 1 hour look into the finer things life has to offer.
I can’t get this game out of my head and I’ve only played it a couple of times! For anyone who spent any part of their childhood (from Elementary school to High School/Early college) playing card games, this game fires on all the nostalgia cylinders. It’s filled with homages to various shows, games, and moments in nerd culture that it’s hard to not pull yourself away from the bias you’ll most certainly have. But if/when you do there’s quite the game there! You get to live the life of a professional trading card player, the kind of sort you imagined or watched on tv when you were under the age of 10. You frantically buy and sell booster packs, “ripping” them open to get that sweet card you need to get your deck ready for the next tournament where you get to show off your awesome combination that no one else saw coming. It’s a roller-coaster ride that I’ll gladly get on again and again and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s combination of real-time gameplay and a simple tournament system gives an experience that’s about as close as you can get to living the “dream” life of a make believe, professional TCG player in a 2-3 hour window.
We’re going to take a detour here and touch on Numenera, the D20 focused RPG Game designed by Monte Cook Games. Built upon the Cypher System, Numenera is a story driven, weird sci-fi game where players journey a strange world billions of years in the future. The unique world, which is presented in a “medieval” condition where the general population knows little and the harsh environment/machinations of individuals has stunted the current civilization’s progression, provides the opportunity to dive into so many fantastical elements aside from the typical sci-fi. According to the book, our players are part of the Ninth World. Eight other civilizations have risen, fallen, traveled the stars or succumbed to alien overlords. The core rulebook does its best to keep these details vague except for a few key points (like the examples I listed above). It opens doors to interesting storytelling opportunities. Players could be wandering the desert, sheltering themselves from the onslaught of the Iron Wind (a swirling cloud of nano-bots that warp reality in cthulhu-esque ways as they re-write matter chaotically), searching through ruins of a prior world only to open a portal that leads to another planet, potentially inhabited by members of even another prior world. It’s hard to summarize just how fun, strange, and wild the setting of Numenera is. As for the gameplay, it is story and exploration driven, rewarding players for creative thinking and discovering secrets, keeping rules light in all the right places while having some crunch when players look for it. My only qualm about the game is that I don’t get to play it enough!
Sometimes friends just want to roll up their sleeves and have a good ol’ brawl. But why make the goal just to kill each other? Instead, CMON has created a game where players are crammed into twisting alleys and crumbling city squares with the objective to save the city of Arcadia. Played over a series of quests (campaign style, or in an episodic variant that can place you anywhere in the story) the guilds (players) of Arcadia Quest are forced to (sort-of) band together to save trapped townsfolk, free a district from an orcish menace, or rescue creatures from gruesome fates, just to name a few. The catch is that at the end of it all, who are the townsfolk going to remember as the saviors? And so the players set out to accomplish these missions while comedically stabbing each other in the back. While the Fox Guild may have felt confident in their ability to take out Schmetterling, the orcish fiend that is attempting to serve the town’s nobility for dinner, they were unaware of the Panda Guild’s scheme to bide their time, pick the lock letting them in the back of the stronghold and to land the killing blow on Schmetterling themselves, claiming their guild as the savior of the day. Thematically, this game is a whopping good-time and mechanically it’s a breeze. All players do is move and attack, skipping their away around the narrow passageways and stone walls that makes up their beloved city while dodging, scheming, allying, and colluding their way to victory. A simple, yet fun, combat dice symbol (hits vs defenses), with some exploding dice thrown in and unique character abilities that trigger off certain results, gives this game a surprising amount of depth if you look for it, but also keeping it light and fun!
The Resistance: Avalon
There are a lot of games that can fall under this category. Spyfall, Dead Last, Sheriff of Nottingham, all of these games do a great job of making players doubt their trust in one another. Though not all of them are “hidden role/ social deduction” games like The Resistance: Avalon, they certainly scratch a similar itch. Avalon, however, does a great job of balancing that feeling of “oh my god, I’m so alone I don’t know who’s with me or against me” with “I got this, I know what I have to do to win, I just need to get them to trust me!” Like many of these games, however, it shines or plummets depending on the group. While this game should give every player a voice, it’s easy to fall victim to the strongest personality in the room, or to have players who could care less in their effort to discover who is with them or not. There have been games released since then that aim to solve these problems, and they most certainly do so, but then that spark that comes with a couple great rounds of Avalon has yet to be matched. I look forward to the day a game like that does come along because that game will be amazing! Until then, there’s Avalon and I’m totally fine with that.
I love deckbuilders. I think most people do, don’t they? Where I think a lot of people are getting to the point that they would much rather have deckbuilding be a part of a greater whole than an entire game, I think it’s still good to have a couple solid deckbuilders in a collection. If you’re someone like me, who has a myriad of player types in their group, ranging from extremely casual to quite competitive, Paperback is great to have. It caters to the more casual crowd, being a scrabble-meets-deckbuilder but with a little more depth than you expect. Rather than just spilling your newly acquired cards onto the table the moment you draw them you have to sit there and think about what word you could possibly form. As you sit there and wrack your brain over this quandary, you must also consider if your word can even score enough points to snag a vital letter or better yet one of the wild cards that propels the game towards its inevitable conclusion. There are some take-that cards included in the game that mess with your opponents, but you can remove them (as I have) to make for a more friendly competitive game. It’s hard enough trying to scramble a word together to only have someone throw a wrench in it. This is a great game for families, close friends, significant others, fans of word games/puzzles, and just those who want a nice game to play.
I. Love. This. Game. I don’t hear it mentioned enough. In fact, the only time I ever hear about this game is from the very same group that recommended it: Shut Up and Sit Down. First off, go watch their review. It’s awesome. Second, go buy the game, because if you have a close group of friends that you don’t mind spending a couple hours wheeling and dealing over some 1960s business districts you’re in for a real treat. Chinatown is all about playing the room. It’s a set collection, tile placement style game with a shrewd “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” layer thrown on top of everything. The point of the game is to have the most cash, but to do that you’ll need to complete sets of businesses (tiles drawn from a bag) and you need to complete these businesses via placing them on adjacent tiles, that you also need to own but probably don’t. The game is designed as such where you will absolutely not be able to do so on your own. And so you need to find yourself in profitable positions or by buying your way into one. This is done via trading for tiles, property ownership, or cash. The trading has no limitations except that they have to happen in the moment. No future promises are binding, and so 1:1 trades will turn into tri trades or even quadruple trades. It’s a great game, and rewards multiple plays to find out how you can read your fellow players and weasel your way to victory. If you are fortunate enough to find a dedicated group of 3-5 players who love this game then I say go for it and give this game a go!
Level99 Games (company behind Millennium Blades) makes another appearance with a great 2-player game, BattleCon. The name is a bit of a misnomer, with BattleCon actually being the name of the fighting system but also the “umbrella” name over the others in the series. Currently released are BattleCon: Devastation of Indines, War of Indines, and Fate of Indines. Each version offers a certain “buy-in” level to the game, making this a great idea for a massive card game. Players can either tip their toes in the water, see if the game is for them before continuing towards the deep-end, or they can cannonball dive and see what works. By the way, nothing wrong with doing a cannonball like I did with Devestation of Indines. In every game, you are introduced to a roster of potential fighters, each organized into tiers of difficulty to play (as opposed to how good they are). Like many 2D fighting games, players can pick from this roster and go toe-to-toe with a fellow player and their fighter. From there, players duck, dodge, and fight their way to victory, chipping away at their opponent’s life total by forming pairs of cards. The right half, called bases, are the same for every fighter, meaning that all players can dodge, throw, burst, etc. The second half, which forms the left side, is called a style and is unique to each fighter. Using vague terms, an aggressive fighter might use an attack called “relentless/throw” against a defensive player playing “warding/dodge.” The next turn the tables can turn and the same fighter could play “menacing/dodge” while the defensive player uses “dormant/burst.” The aggressive fighter will not have access to cards like “dormant” or “warding” but he does have the ability to dodge, burst, and so on. As cards are played, pairs are placed into a cooldown area where they won’t be able to be used for a couple of turns. It’s an amazing system to get lost in and the gameplay can be very tense and exciting. There are a lot of subtle things going on that aren’t important to learning/playing the game, but if you want to get good at the game they’re there for you to absorb. There will be another kickstarter in the fall, I believe, and if you’re interested it could be a great entry point into a fantastic series of games.
This was a tough choice for me. First off, I love Codenames, so don’t get mislead. But there are several great party games that cater to casual and “hardcore” gamers pretty well. In putting Codenames on this list I thought about what games brought about the best “experiences” whether through intense but enjoyable moments or overwhelming laughter. In that light, games like Rhino Hero, Monikers, and Skull have all come to mind. But in the end I think Codenames is just a tad ahead of the rest. With a grid of seemingly random words in front of you, two players (on opposing teams) try to use 2 words (or rather 1 word and 1 number) to get the other players on their team to figure out what words they are referring to. If, say, Team Red needs to guess Automobile and Wrench, the team member who is giving the clues can say “Mechanic: 2” with the hopes that their team will understand that there are 2 cards in front of them that relate to a mechanic. This is all done with a pokerface, and the clue-giver often has to hold back their gleeful joy as their team figure out their subtle hints or has to contain their internal screaming, barely being held back as they keep a stern face. Why would someone freak out? Well for one, if a team member picks a word that the other team is trying to guess then that team gets a point and is one step closer to victory. Or better yet (or worse yet) if any team picks the card that is secretly labeled as the assassin (only known to the clue-givers) then that team immediately loses, regardless of how much they were winning or losing. What you end up seeing are some very uneasy, silent moments, as clue-givers strain to come up with the perfect clue, followed by their absolute silence being interrupted with their teams deliberations. Once a word is chosen, loud chatter ensues, typically cheering or deploring the choices of the players. “Why would you say that?!” “How could you not guess that I meant that??!!” It’s a great for small or large groups, close friends and acquaintances, at conventions or the office.
War of the Ring: Second Edition
I’m obviously a huge Lord of the Rings fan. So let me tell you that if you’ve ever wanted to experience the novels in board game form, then War of the Ring: Second Edition is pretty darn close. It’s a 2 player game, though there are rules for more players but the premise is the same. There are two sides, that of the Free Peoples and that of the Shadow. The game begins after the Fellowship has been formed and has set out from Rivendell. The armies of the Free Peoples, however well formed they may be, are scattered across the lands, mostly sticking to their own borders to brave the oncoming storm. And man is the storm intimidating. All around the board are legions of red miniatures, representing the Shadow. Southrons and Easterlings, Orcs of the Misty Mountains, Mumakil, Nazgul, the beautiful rendering of Middle Earth, done by John Howe, is masked by the many red figurines that are littered across the board. It’s an overwhelming feeling and fits perfectly with its subject material. Using an action selection system via dice rolls, both players take turns using up one of their die to perform an action. These actions range from recruiting more troops, moving armies across the land, drawing or playing event cards, and a few mechanics unique to each side. Each side also has a few special characters. The Free People have the members of the Fellowship, and there is a great mechanic that allows you to form your own “what-if” Fellowship with various guides and breaking off members at different moments. The Shadow has Saruman, The Witch-King, and The Mouth of Sauron. All the many characters included in the game come in at thematically appropriate times and have abilities that stick true to their character. I’ve already rambled enough but this game is quite literally, Lord of the Rings in a box. It has good vs evil, faced with odds that seem insurmountable and differing win conditions appropriate to each side. The Shadow needs to dominate the land and/or capture the ring-bearer while the Free Peoples needs to sneak their way into Mordor against impossible odds. If you have a friend who is equally invested in the theme, and you have a few hours to spare, you won’t want to pass up on this great, great game.
Honorable Mentions, and the Paper Elephant in the Room
Okay. There a bunch of other games that I couldn’t help but list somewhere. Plaid Hat Games has a treasure trove of designs that are great for so many people that I’m amazed, even while writing this, that I didn’t put one of their products above. I blame it on keeping the list to 10 games. In my opinion, they have one of the best Hidden Movement games with their Emerson Matsuuchi’s Specter Ops. Though Specter Ops is different in some aspects than, Letters from Whitechapel (another hidden movement game I love), it is probably the best in the genre in what it sets out to do. Their semi-cooperative game Dead of Winter is a great entry to our hobby, especially if you have Walking Dead fans or just general zombie fans in your circles. It’s not the easiest game to grasp at first, but can be easily taught if you make yourself familiar with the rules. Being cooperative, it helps get players invested in a game knowing that they have others helping them beat a greater goal. The added mechanic of a hidden traitor and secret win-objectives adds a fun element in a game that those outside the hobby will eat up the first time they experience it. It’s heavy approach on theme and use of storytelling means that new gamers can easily create visuals in their head and become all the more invested for it.
Ryan Lakaut of Red Raven Games also has some great games that should belong in most (if not all) collections. The biggest example I can personally think of is Eight Minute Empire: Legends and its expansion Lost Lands. Having a great area control element while incorporating unique drafting systems Eight Minute Empire: Legends is a fun, somewhat streamlined game that takes aspects of some longer 2-3 hour games and condenses them into 45 minutes to an hour of fun! His other games, though I haven’t played them, have received great acclaim (specifically City of Iron and Above and Below).
Honestly, I could keep going and going just covering honorable mentions. What I may do, and I’m becoming more certain of it as I continue writing this, is return to this and make another list of 10 games, giving other games their due.
Ok. On to the “Paper” Elephant in the room. “Where’s The Lord of the Rings: LCG?” you may ask. I decided to keep it off the main list since I definitely have a bias towards the game. I write about it frequently, discuss the artwork and the artists, share decks of my own design or others, and so on. Is it the best game ever? Probably not. Is it one of my favorite games? Most certainly so. When I got into the hobby a few years back and learned that there was even such a thing as a cooperative board game, I knew I had to get one. When I discovered that there was one with a Lord of the Rings theme and that it was a card game as well? I was quite set on getting it. The game does have its flaws but we, as players, are fortunate enough to have a great team of developers who are constantly improving it. Not that the base game or older quests were flawed games (far from it) but rather the industry is moving along at a clip and older games are quickly becoming obsolete. With the way the game is developing, it’s continuing to stay on the curve, coming up with new elements or ways to play that not only keep the game exciting, but present unique mechanics that keep up with the times.
Anyway, I hope this list helped you learn a little bit more about myself as a gamer. But more importantly, I hope it got you thinking about some other games that are out there. Or even more importantly, if The Lord of the Rings is the only tabletop game you play, then hopefully this list will get you to explore some of the countless amazing games that are out there to experience.
What would be your top 10? Let me know below!
Thanks for reading.
-The Secondhand Took