Welcome to my personal and professional top 100 games as of March 2021. Each member of my game group compiles their own list each year around March, and we use each of our lists to determine what our favourite games are, and what our collective favourites are. It’s also really interesting to see how a game can rise and fall throughout a year, as we reflect on multiple plays of each game.
The best example is Terraforming Mars, which was on my list of top 50 games three years ago, but each time I play it, I like it less and less. My most recent play of it I found myself actively disliking the experience, so when it came time to make this list, I let it fall off completely.
Another interesting facet of having your own top 100 list is that you can scoff and feel superior when you see other top 100 lists, especially ones that are crowd sourced, like Reddit’s /r/boardgames top 100, or the Board Game Geek top 100, both of which have a pretty stark bias toward more complex games. I’ll talk more about my thoughts on these lists in a summary post at the end of this series.
This Complexity Bias in Ratings graph is from Dinesh Vatvani, who has an excellent series of posts about analyzing board games, that you can read on his website
Alright, enough chatter. Without further ado, here is the start of my top 100 games:
100 – Codenames
Codenames, by Vlaada Chvátil, is a game that needs no introduction, as it is constantly one of the best selling games each time I see a game store publish their yearly sales report. Codenames is an incredibly fun party game that takes only a minute to explain, encourages players to be both clever and witty, and often ends in uproarious laughter. Players are split into teams and take turns making one word clues, hoping to lead their team to their agents by guessing the correct word cards on the table. If they fail and their team members guess the wrong cards such as the bystanders or the other team’s agents, the turn is promptly ended. If you happen to inadvertently lead your team to the assassin, the whole game is over.
One of my favourite aspects of this game is trash talking the other team as they try to guess their spymaster’s clues. There’s nothing better than watching their perturbed faces as I try to throw them off-base. “Your spymaster said space, of course they want you to pick Turkey! Everyone knows about the Great Turkey Belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter!”
99 – Stone Age
Stone Age by Bernd Brunnhofer (the box features his pen name, Michel Timmelhofer) is a worker placement game set in the titular time period. In Stone Age, you’re placing your workers onto various spots on the board, hoping to acquire goods, cards, buildings, or to improve your tribe. For every worker you assign to a spot you get a die to roll, which increases the amount of goods you can earn.
Stone Age is unique in that it’s one of the few games I can think of that lets you feed your people rocks, and features the “Bone Hut” action space where you put two workers in and three workers come back to your hand at the end of the round. It’s a simple game to teach and understand which makes it a good game to introduce to people who may be skeptical about these ‘newfangled board game things’.
98 – Pax Pamir: Second Edition
I’ve only played Pax Pamir: Second Edition by Cole Wehrle once on Tabletop Simulator, but I am incredibly keen to try it again. Pax Pamir has players shifting their allegiance between the British, Russian, and Afgani factions. The game ends when one player achieves victory, requiring all players to keep each other in check.
Pax Pamir is the kind of game that you can’t give a fair review to after only a single play. The decisions you make and interactions that occur between the players will change based on everyone’s knowledge of the available cards in the game. The interplay of the mechanics and subsequent consequences for your (many) choices is deep and rewards those who explore it. The game offers many ways to subvert your opponents expectations, leading to exciting plays and situations.
I do need to prioritize getting Pax Pamir back to the table. One play is not enough for this complex game to show you all that it has to offer, despite the rules being fairly straight-forward.
97 – Qwirkle
Qwirkle by Susan McKinley Ross is a hand management, tile placement game about placing shapes and colours onto a shared structure. Each turn you place your pieces on the board, matching either their colour, or the depicted shape (a rainbow of squares for example, or a variety of red shapes). The hook is that every piece that goes down must match either the colour or the shape (but not both) of the connected pieces.
Placing more pieces connected grants you more points (think Scrabble style scoring), and placing the 6th piece of a set earns you a ‘Qwirkle!’ that comes with 6 bonus points if you shout out the word (yes, the shouting is mandatory).
The downsides of Qwirkle involve the colours. If the room has poor lighting, it can be nearly impossible to differentiate some of the colours, and don’t even bother with this game if you’re colour blind. The perks are that the tiles are thick wooden pieces that won’t blow away in the wind, and if you buy the ‘Travel Edition’, then it comes in a little pouch that is easy to bring camping or to the beach, which I can’t say about many games.
96 – Cacao
Cacao by Phil Walker-Harding is a clever tile laying game about gathering cacao fruit and selling it to villages, while amassing gold by travelling up a river (I guess there’s gold at the end of the river?).
In Cacao you take turns placing one of your square worker tiles adjacent to a jungle tile in the middle of the board. If due to your newly placed tile, there are now 2 worker tiles adjacent to 1 unoccupied jungle space, you have to fill this space with a tile from the jungle supply. Each one of your worker tiles depicts a number to actions along each of the sides. When you place your tile, you can do that many actions on the jungle tile that the side was placed against.
Cacao offers a unique spin on player interaction. If you place your tile near one of your opponents, you choose what tile will be adjacent to his workers, perhaps forcing them to take sub-optimal actions. As the jungle tiles begin to sprawl along the table, it creates a pleasant pattern of jungle and worker tiles. Cacao is easy to teach and play, and is a wonderful game to bring along to a family game night.
95 – Lanterns: The Harvest Festival
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival by Christopher Chung is another family friendly tile placement game that looks gorgeous on the table, and has a friendly way to interact with your opponents.
Using the theme of floating lanterns on a lake, players pick up cards by playing a tile into the lake. When a tile is placed, all players receive a lantern card that matches the colour on the side of the tile that is facing them (no side-by-side gaming here!). You use those cards to satisfy recipes (that depreciate in value as they get claimed by other players) for points at the end of the game. The winner is the player who uses the cards other players give you efficiently and earns the most points.
When introducing hobby games to people who aren’t traditionally ‘board gamers’. I find it’s very helpful to use a visually appealing product. Lanterns: The Harvest Festival fits that bill perfectly. Another way this game appeals to non-gamers is that it keeps everyone involved regardless of whose turn it is, so people do not get bored between turns. Lanterns: The Harvest Festival has been a large success with my family, and has become a go-to gift for couples who are just starting on their board gaming journey.
94 – Potion Explosion
Potion Explosion by Stefano Castelli, Andrea Crespi, and Lorenzo Silva is a marble drafting game about collecting resources and crafting powerful potions (which you can then drink to take advantage of special abilities).
Potion Explosion features a tray that has 5 marble chutes. On your turn you may pick and 1 marble from the chute and remove it. If your action causes two marbles of the same colour to collide, then you take those as well, and so on until the chain reactions stop.
With a surplus of ingredients in your hand, you’re tasked with completing potions for points, and completing sets of the same potion for even more points. You can take a little help and pull a second marble on your turn (this one does not trigger explosions), but doing so will cost you 2 victory points at the end of the game.
Potion Explosion’s marble chute and mechanic of ‘causing’ explosions is brilliant. It takes the potentially boring concept of set collection and adds a fun toy factor on top. Plus, getting one of those turns where you can chain 4 or 5 explosions to end up with 9 marbles in your hand feels amazing.
I introduced this game to my Candy Crush /Bejewled loving mother, who ended up falling in love with it. I suspect if she lived closer, I would have bought this game and played it over a dozen times with her by now.
Potion Explosion also has an app on Android, iOS, and Steam.
93 – Coloretto
Coloretto by Michael Schacht is a push-your-luck card game about drawing cards, placing them in rows, then claiming rows. The goal is to get as many cards of one suit as you can, but not to have too many suits in the end.
There’s also an advanced scoring rule that rewards players that get some, but not all of the cards in a suit, as the amount of points you get for that suit at the end of the game crescendos, but quickly diminishes if you get too greedy.
A row of cards exists for each player. Once you claim cards you’re out for the round. The hook becomes deciding to stay in to possibly get a couple extra cards, but if you wait too long, the available rows fill up with suits that you desperately don’t want, and you may find yourself with a mitt full of junk.
Coloretto is one of the first ‘designer’ games that found its way into my hands. Back before I really got into the board gaming hobby, a friend of my girlfriend was moving to France for a couple of years. He mentioned having to sell all his games because transporting a board game collection to the other side of the world just doesn’t make sense. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) offered to store his collection for him, as she had just moved into a bigger house with 2 roommates.
I pulled Coloretto off the bookshelf and opened the rules. My wife and I instantly fell in love with this game, playing it about a dozen times and roping in her roommates to play it as well. Little did I know that push-your-luck mechanics are one of my wife’s favourite things (best exemplified in her favourite game, Can’t Stop, which I’ve touched on here and here). Remind me to never take her to Vegas…
I’ve often heard that more people prefer Zooloretto, which uses similar mechanics in a larger board game, but I haven’t had the chance to play it yet.
You can play Coloretto online on Board Game Arena.
92 – Camel Up
Camel Up By Steffen Bogen is a betting, dice rolling, racing game. The joy of Camel Up is the unpredictability of how the camels will race along the track, and not knowing who will come in first.
In Camel Up You don’t play as a specific camel, aiming to be the first to cross the finish line. Instead you play as a gambler, makings bets on which camel will be the first and last to finish. The hook of the game is that if a camel moves and lands on a space that already contains a camel, they stack up. When a camel moves, all the camels on top of them move along as well (this clearly simulates real-life camel racing).
Camel Up also features a fun pyramid that holds a die for each of the camels. Each round consists of those die getting pulled out of the pyramid one by one until each die has been rolled once. Each camel may only have one die in the pyramid, but they will often move multiple times in a round by stacking on top of the competition.
Camel Up is a pleasant low-stakes gambling game. Because the race is so unpredictable and short, throwing caution to the wind is the perfect way to enjoy this hilarious game. The randomness of which camel moves first and how ‘Laggy Larry” can be in last place, hop on the back of the right camel and ride them all the way to victory creates dynamic and exciting moments, especially if you managed to bet on the dark horse that stole the victory.
The goal of the game isn’t to be the fastest, or the best, but to be the richest. You’ll rely on the information your opponents give you when they choose to move a camel, and make bluffs, claiming to have the knowledge on which camel will ultimately come in first to take the cup.
91 – Pandemic: The Cure
Pandemic: The Cure is a dice based version of the extremely popular Pandemic game. In Pandemic: The Cure, coloured dice represent the four viruses that threaten to envelop each continent. It’s your mission to spread out, treat the diseases, and discover the cure quickly before time runs out. On top of that, you get to roll a mittful of dice over and over, which really is one of my favourite things to do.
I find that Pandemic: The Cure plays more quickly than its full board brother, but the increased randomness makes it more difficult to effectively plan and win the game. You can roll your action die as many times as you want to try and earn the actions you desperately need to perform, but one of your die faces will contribute to the pandemic and one bad die roll of 5 biohazard symbols could easily cost you the game.
Comparing the randomness to the base Pandemic game, you almost always know where the diseases are going to spawn, so you can plan to have the right resources around to mitigate the disasters. Because Pandemic: The Cure abstracts away the individual cities and instead focuses on entire continents, it’s harder to know where the hot spots are going to be.
That said, I still really like Pandemic: The Cure. Designer Matt Leacock has developed a fantastic cooperative system that is satisfying to play, and Pandemic: The Cure feels significantly different enough differentiate it from others in the Pandemic line of games. The asymmetry of the player roles is higher in this version, as each player get their own set of action die that will push them toward a specialization. For example, the medic’s die are full of heals, but severely lack die that allow the player to move around efficiently. The strong asymmetric nature of the player roles and higher degree of randomness does inspire replayability, as a dream team might fail, while an unlikely duo could pull out a surprise victory that releases us all from a
two week year long quarantine.