The cream of the crop are the games I’ve played more than twice each year over the last 5 years. For those who’ve been reading along over the last few years there won’t be much surprise, but for the record, for the years 2015-19, they are:
All of which I rate a 9 or 10, as you’d expect.
There are only two other games in the running to join the list for this year:
The Game – this is its first year of eligibility, and
Schnappchenjagd – this has had multiple plays every year since 2000 with the sole exception of 2015, so it’ll be taking its rightful place once more among the elite.
It’s unlikely any of the following games will reach those heady heights, maybe Horrified or Hadara if I get them in a maths trade one day, but let’s take a look anyway.
CHAKRA (2019): Rank 3679, Rating 7.2
A semi-interesting efficiency game of collecting differently coloured gems in such a way as to minimise the number of actions it takes to get the gems grouped by colour in their designated slot. They either get placed at the top for free and you percolate them down through the different coloured areas via actions, or at some cost you can insert them into a lower area to minimise the actions spent to move them downwards. The game is working out when that cost is justified, and otherwise collecting gems that allow you to fill colours with the fewest actions. There’s a stupid scoring system and the theme is puke-worthy, but if you can forgive those you may find it worth the 20 minute investment.
HADARA (2019): Rank 747, Rating 7.5
You’re building cards in 5 colours, and the cards move you up an ‘income’ track in that colour – yellow gets you money to build more cards, green defines how many cards you can build, and the others define various ways to earn VPs. In phase A, everyone simply draws 2 cards of each colour, keeping one of each and discarding the other. In phase B, everyone (in turn order) starts buying up those discards. There are bonuses for specialising in a colour, and different bonuses for generalising. A lot of the attraction of 7 Wonders (to which this is simpler variation) is the involvement in what your neighbours are doing, re what to pass on, what resources to buy vs play, and what to play given what they play. Hadara is very sandbox-y. The only thing to be mindful of is investing in a colour that others aren’t investing in so that you get more opportunity to collect more cards of that colour (and mindful of removing cards in colours others are collecting in return for money). Further, all the cards are similar – variations of income vs VPs, with a sprinkling of specials that you may never see due to the random drawing in phase A. I enjoyed the game (it’s well designed!) and would be happy to play more, but there may not be a lot left to explore (there’s only a few ways to earn big points), and this lack of player interaction and the vanilla nature of the cards in the end dropped the rating a little. Our earlier review of Hadara.
HORRIFIED (2019): Rank 483, Rating 7.9
The book trade would call this a young adult co-op. There are a few monsters roaming around the board, and your mission is to move around the board, collect items, and spend them at various places to remove that monster from the game. You keep getting distracted because the villagers need to be continually moved out of the way of the monsters – too many die and you lose the game. The division of tasks is straight-forward – analyse all the things needed to be done to finish off each monster, see who can do each aspect in the fewest actions collectively, and proceed. But it’s a beautifully themed co-op with artwork to match, it plays well, and you can ramp up the difficulty level by adding more monsters. It was easy-to-teach, easy-to-play, and I enjoyed it. (Dale did not enjoy it nearly as much, if at all)
MAYA (2019): Rank 9659, Rating 7.1
Kind of similar to Knizia’s Babylonia in that you can place as many tiles of one type as you like in order to surround temples with a majority. Here however you have to spend a tile (and expand a temple) to draw more tiles, which increases the value of the temple on the turn you don’t get to put out tiles. Interesting on paper, but it turns out that you feel like you only get to play one in every three turns, that you’re constantly setting up the other players, and that you only score well when you’re setup in return. The map feels static because everything must be placed contiguously out from the start space – this helps force competition around the few temples that are open to play against at any given time, but it exacerbates the setting up issue because there are so few places to play. It played ok, but committed the cardinal sins of being rather unexciting and naming itself the same as 3 squillion other games already called Maya just to irritate us.
MYSTERY HOUSE: ADVENTURES IN A BOX (2019): Rank 7744, Rating 6.3
A co-op escape room activity which provides a frame in which to place cards with pictures. That frame limits which pictures you can see. You inspect the cards for minute clues, made artificially difficult by the requirement to use a torch to see inside the frame, and cards which are difficult to inspect due to their shiny reflectivity. Once you see something obscure, punch the coordinates into the app and it’ll either give you an item to use at a different set of coordinates, or a clue, or have you remove cards to reveal more cards, or provide what turns out to be irrelevant detail. Continue searching hard-to-see pictures for obscure details until you solve the puzzle, or until the headache it induces wears you down. It at least provides a framework on which to hang future puzzles (with different sets of cards and objects), but its artificial constraints, repetitiveness, and clue stupidity wore us down quickly.
Rating: 3 (Although I don’t know why I’m bothering because puzzles aren’t games, right!)
RINGMASTER: WELCOME TO THE BIG TOP (2019): Rank 8421, Rating 6.5
A quick Fluxx, and by quick, it really can be over in a minute or two (as I’ve seen). Pure filler territory, and it’s all about card effect combos. Draw a card, play a card (and yes, it’s hard to believe designers are still making this classic design mistake of inserting unnecessary downtime into the game by making the whole table watch you read a new card at the start of your turn and re-analyse your hand rather than simply drawing at the end of your turn and doing that while others are playing). Anyway, you want to quickly draw into a card that defines a win condition which matches your cards in hand or those you draw later. If you don’t, play a card that stuffs up other people while you wait for the right cards to come along. It’s completely random but there’s uh-huh satisfaction in laying out a winning combo and hey, a really quick game covers a lot of sins – you know what you’re getting.
SIXSTIX (2015): Rank n/a, Rating 6.3
Kind of like a poor man’s Make ‘n Break. You’ve got three actions and any number of swivels (instead of a timer) to move the six sticks in the middle of the table around so that their positioning matches that on one of your cards, thus scoring that card. Nearly every turn will score you two cards, making the rare 1 card turns (where you’re hosed by cards which are nowhere close to how the stix are positioned after the last player’s turn) game-determining. With 2 players it’s kind of fine, but with more you probably want to play with a timer to limit the analysis paralysis (but then it becomes more of a skill test than a game!).
SKULK HOLLOW (2019): Rank 2260, Rating 7.7
One plays the monster (4 come with the game, each with a different deck and a different set of actions for variety) aiming to kill off the heroes before the hero player inflicts the required wounds on the monster. The cards are simple – inflict melee wound, range wound, move, gain reserve power. The hero player needs to build up reserve power and search for a hand to inflict enough damage that the monster finds difficult to fix and then hope the right cards are drawn to just keep on hitting while you’re in position. We found it a bit too attritional (2 wounds forward, 1 wound healed, or move a guy into position and inflict wounds but have him killed), with too many lulls while you dig for the cards you need. We enjoyed the game for its simplicity, but came away feeling that the required style of play wasn’t perhaps in keeping with our thematic expectation of insouciance.
LA STANZA (2019): Rank 5219, Rating 6.9
It’s rare I’m this disappointed in a big box Euro. You’re trying to collect as many of one colour tile as you can, and execute that colour’s action as quickly and often as feasible to maximise your points (in that colour) before jettisoning the colour and building up and repeating in another colour. But your ability to do so is massively impacted by the tiles that other players leave you, whether they leave any tiles in your desired room for you to actually land on, as well as how the tiles come out when they refill. The tile choice a player has each turn is so constrained that it turns into a game of increasing frustration at the lack of opportunity to execute a strategy as well as at the continual shafting, sometimes accidental, sometimes obvious – their own turn’s been shafted so they may as well screw with someone else’s turn and so the wheel turns. While the individual parts held design elements of interest, the sum of it wasn’t a game I enjoyed.
SPOTLIGHT ON: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (2004): Rank 1565, Rating 6.5
With so many games designed for 4 players these days, it’s not easy finding light to midweight Euros that take 6 players well. I really like this as a nice light game for 5 or 6 players with decent decision making throughout, and after 15 years on the shelves it still gets airplay a few times a year when the numbers fall its way. The gameplay is about obtaining low valued cards (which represent days travelling) in the types of sets that are required for your next few turns to move from location to location around the world. Each card you take will be aligned with an action (become new start player, swap cards, etc) so it’s ideal when a useful card appears under the action you want, but usually there’s a decision to make on whether to take the action you really want with a not-so-good card, or take a good card with a not-so-helpful action. It’s also a race game where the player coming into London last can’t win unless they come in on the same turn as the second last player, so you may need to play non-best cards in order to advance and not fall too far behind. There’s a lot of luck in the cards, but turns are fast, there are lots of good decisions to make, and the theme is fabulous. It fills a niche for 6 players that doesn’t have a lot of coverage.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry: Hadara is a good solid game that I’d be happy to play more often. Not sure about it’s replayability, although if there’s an issue, the expansions (which seem to be well regarded) should help with that. It’s just the sort of well designed, fast playing middleweight that Hans im Gluck regularly produces.
When Around the World in 80 Days came out, my entire group felt that it deserved to win the SdJ that year (Niagara won instead). We felt it checked all the boxes that the jury was looking for. It still holds up as a good family game, 15 years later, which is quite an achievement. And, as Patrick says, it plays well with 6. It may have been deprived of the big prize, but it seems as if it’s emerged victorious in the long game.
Agree with both Patrick & Larry about Around the World in 80 Days… but note that there are two other games you might bump into with the exact same name:
- From 1986, a Ravensburger game designed by Wolfgang Kramer which uses cards for movement
- From 2016, a re-theme of David Partlett’s classic SdJ winner, Hare & Tortoise
Brandon K: I absolutely adore Hadara and I think it boils down to that two part drafting mechanism that they use throughout the game. It works perfectly. I haven’t had a chance to play it again using the expansions, hopefully I can remedy that soon as it is a delight to play, and quite honestly a delight to see in play, both colorful and vibrant.
I’ve been eyeballing Horrified at our local Target, maybe I should pull the trigger, I’m just a bit gunshy with Prospero Hall titles at the moment, especially when I see it sitting next to the Top Gun game.