This week we will be sharing a series of four end-of-year retrospective articles about our favorite games. We’ll start off with our favorite new games from 2021. These are the hot new games that OG writers particularly enjoyed over the past year. While our tastes are wide and varied, you’ll see a few recurring titles below, particularly The Crew: Mission Deep Sea appears on several best-of lists, along with Ark Nova and Lum Lum Party. Check it out and then share your favorite new games from 2021 in the comments.
Talia: My favorite new game released in 2021 was easily Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile by Cole Wehrle. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play the game 18 times over the course of the year, including 10 plays during a week-long convention back in August. Oath is a tough game to explain, but I think of it as a light roleplaying adventure in a box where the winner is very much secondary to the story that emerges from the gorgeous and entertaining cards along with the evolving map. The theme and artwork of the hundreds of different cards is a blast to explore with a group of like-minded adventurers. My second favorite game of 2021 was definitely Steve Finn’s Nanga Parbat, which is almost as clever as his definitive classic Scripts & Scribes from 2007. Nanga Parbat is a quick, tense two-player game of collecting lovely animal meeples with unique and tricky abilities. I’ll give honorable mentions to Let’s Make a Bus Route: The Dice Game (which is a fast and fun two-player roll-and-write) and to Dominant Species: Marine (especially since no one else at the OG recognizes the brilliance of Dominant Species, and this sequel is a fascinating spin on a phenomenal base game).
James Nathan: For me it was a year that leaned into my line that “I like games which don’t sound like they should work, but do.” Often that’s because the game posits something a bit preposterous, but this year was different. Two of the highlights which I’ve played repeatedly – despite only first playing one of them in December – are the Japanese releases Lum Lum Party and nana. Each seems to present too basic of a premise to “work,” but for me, they’ve both shined. Lum Lum Party is a take on bingo that gives the players agency in 2 areas; first, within some guidelines you can choose the numbers on your board. Second, players take turns around the table influencing the next number that is called. In nana, it’s a take on memory, but you’re looking for 3-of-a-kind, yet it’s been mixed into a game of “Go Fish,” where in addition to flipping cards from the table, you can ask the players if they have the card you’re trying to make 3 of (with the twist being you can only ask for their lowest or highest card).
In contrast to those two, my other standout was The Crew: Mission Deep Sea. It plays like a fully developed version of the base game. From a rules read, I wasn’t expecting it to feel as different from the original, but it’s well worth your time.
Simon: Having only just started playing Boonlake, it is too early to say whether it will be one of my top games from 2021 but the signs are promising.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood – I am playing this through with my family and we are enjoying every moment of it. It is a step up in terms of both gameplay and enjoyment from our sessions of My City from 2020.
- Dinosaur World – I love the theme of this game and I’ve enjoyed my plays so far but I am a little concerned that runtime may be too long for the depth of gameplay.
Mark Jackson: My favorite new game of 2021 was clearly Imperium Classics/Legends (designed by Nigel Buckle and David Turczi)… in fact, so much so that I wrote an extensive review of it right here on the OG.
In short, Imperium Classics and Imperium Legends (two stand-alone boxes that can be used with each other) is – according to my excellent (ha) review – “a tasty amalgam of game design ideas. It’s not New Shimmer (“New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!”) but it packs in the game mechanics: deckbuilding, resource management, tableau building, asymmetric factions, multiple game timers, keywords to differentiate similar actions… whew, I’m exhausted just typing all of that into the review.”
Other new games that made a strong impression include Bad Company, Hadrian’s Wall, Mille Fiori, and Riverside.
Rand: My favorite new game of 2021 is Free Ride. I am always intrigued by the designs of Fridemann Friese, who seems to march to the beat of his own drum. Contrary to some designers who iterate on similar design ideas over the course of many titles, each new title from Friese feels fresh, though usually has some familiar mechanisms with that quirky 2F touch. Free Ride is one such game, blending classic train games like Ticket to Ride, On the Underground, and TransAmerica into a game that gallops along with its own coal-fired energy.
Two other faves from the year are Japanese small releases: ラムラムパーティー (Lum Lum Party) and ウリニゲセブン (Sell Out Seven). James Nathan briefly described Lum Lum Party above, so I’ll give a quick pitch for Sell Out Seven. You are a convenience store owner trying to sell the least amount of meat (in this game, represented by 8 ga electrical wire) by disguising it in bread sculptures (represented by clay). Each player makes their hot dog sculptures and puts them out for sale, then whoever has the most meat at the end of the game wins…unless you sold the least hot dogs. It’s silly, quick, and rewards creativity – certainly in post-game memories, if not in-game scoring.
Tery Noseworthy: Probably the best of 2021 releases that I have played, which is admittedly a much smaller pool than usual, was Witchstone. I like the tile placing engine, and even though the rest is an amalgam of other game mechanics everything makes sense thematically and it flows well. It also seems to work well for both 2 and 3 players; I have yet to try it with 4.
In second place is Cascadia; my husband kick-started this, which means I was expecting miniatures and monster fighting and complex, poorly written rules. What we got was a light but very enjoyable tile laying game (with very clear rules!) that can be made easier or harder depending on who you are playing with. It also works well at all player counts. I also enjoyed Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition. I love Terraforming Mars, and for me it kept the feel of the main game while shortening the overall playing time. I’d still rather play TM, but this is a nice substitute for when I have less time. I have heard lots of people say Race for the Galaxy is much better, but since I never got into that, maybe that is what I like Ares so much.
Other 2021 releases that I played and liked include Mystic Paths, Summer Cap, and The Crew: Mission Deep Sea, and Jekyll vs Hyde. I do have three 2021 pre-orders that I am anxiously awaiting – Ark Nova, Boonlake and Ghosts of Christmas.
Liga: 2021 was for me a really good year despite the limitation due to the pandemic. I was able to start again to work with games both in schools, training well over 100 educators and teachers on the use of games in education, and there was also the restart of the great game events starting from Play – the Games Festival which had well over 20,000 admissions. I was able to play a lot of games, new and old, with my family, with my friends, and in schools. My selection reflects the times of publication of the games in Italy, which do not always coincide with the international releases. My work with games in schools and educational contexts often forces me to wait for the Italian edition which is more accessible and usable. So I’m still waiting for some of the 2021 releases.
Witchstone was probably the game that impressed me most of the 2021 releases I was able to play. I really like the way it combines a tile placement engine with a varied scoring system with different scales of combined and interconnected values. I was also very impressed by Canvas, a game that I must admit I took mainly for the impressive beauty from a graphic and material point of view, but which also struck me for the fluidity and beauty of the mechanics.
Finally, I can only mention Genotype: a Mendelian Genetic Game, a truly exceptional title both in terms of mechanics, material choices, and depth of play that was the inspiration for the realization of Pixel – Imagine of (the) Universe, a still unpublished game that the GAME Science Research Center is developing together with INAF on the issue of image resolution in astrophysics and of which I am one of the authors. There are many games I’m still waiting to play released in 2021 that I have already in my collection waiting for the right time that I think could be on the top: Wonderbook, Ankh: God of Egypt, Cascadia, Kemet: Blood and Sand, and Descent: Legends of the Dark.
Mitchell Thomashow: I still have quite a few games from 2021 that I haven’t gotten to yet. There is only so much game playing time. And when I do find a game that I like I tend to play it at least a dozen times. With the exception of Dominant Species: Marine, none of the medium to heavy weight Euros caught my eye and I found Witchstone and Iki disappointing. I loved my first few plays of Faiyum but then the game flamed out as a 2 player. I would like to try it at a higher player count but I worry about it’s length. Of these games, none are ground breaking or even necessarily long-term keepers, except Land and Sea which is one of the more competitive and versatile tile games I’ve played, and Dominant Species: Marine, which I think is brilliant. I also enjoyed the versatile scoring system of Cascadia. I love the artwork for Glow and the game has a quirky vibe that I find appealing. I’m not yet sure whether it’s play value will sustain. And Illuminations is very, very good. Here is what I most enjoyed. The order from top to bottom reflects which I think will ultimately have the most sustained gaming interest.
- Dominant Species: Marine
- Land and Sea
- Great Plains
- Lost Cities: Roll and Write
- Word Hustle
I’m really looking forward to Free Ride, Mille Fiori, (when they are available), Cosmogenesis, Unforgiven, Streets, Ten, Scout, and The Crew: Mission Deep Sea (which are in the collection).
Joe Huber: I’m sorry to say, but I’m still waiting on the first 2021 release to really strike home for me. I do think it might be Free Ride, which sounds like a good fit for me, but – for now, I have no 2021 releases in my collection, and none that were particularly close. I should note that I am enjoying Luz, which I discovered due to the reprinting in 2021, but as I always credit games to their initial release date it’s a 2014 game for me.
Larry: My most anticipated 2021 titles are ones I’ve yet to play. So here are the only games from this year that I have at least some positive feelings about.
- Imperial Steam – I’ve played this four times and I love it. It’s a rules heavy, but totally absorbing train game. It’s ridiculously hard to teach and a bear to set up, but the gameplay is excellent. Extraordinarily unforgiving game, though, so you have been warned!
- Corrosion – Very clever and slickly designed and developed game. Once you get a little experience, it doesn’t last that long at all, which is a complaint some have made. It gives me two great games from 2021, with hopefully more to come!
- Coffee Traders – Quite good, but runs pretty long.
- Hadrian’s Wall – Fun, but obviously very solitaire-ish.
- So Clover – Kinda fun, but maybe a bit fragile. There are similar games I like better.
It’s a very incomplete list and one I hope to add to once we get more of the Essen games to the table.
Eric Martin: Favorites of 2021
- The Crew: Mission Deep Sea and Free Ride
Fun 2021 releases that don’t reach the “favorite” category:
- TEN, So Clover, 7 Wonders: Architects, and Art Robbery
- Ark Nova – Fantastic tableau builder, nice theme, great strategy game
- Let’s Make a Bus Route: The Dice Game – Great 2 player version of the original
- Aqua Garden – Fun family weight game but the “Sea-ples!” put this over the top
- Jekyll vs Hyde – Nice asymmetric 2 player trick taker
- Dune Imperium – Decent mix of deck building and board. +1 for the theme
- Yokohama Roll and Write – Wonderful adaption of the board game, hope they release an English version soon
- Sleeping Gods – Love it, finally a nice balance of churning and exploring
- Glow – beautifl art, fun light weight drafting game
- Carnegie – waiting on the physical game but I find this Euro compelling
- 詠天記 (Eetenki the Queen Himiko Chronicles) – waiting on the physical game, but wonderfully unusual theme and game paly make this a winner
- Honorable mention: Bitoku might replace something here but I’ve only played it once
- Ghosts of Christmas
- Kemet: Blood and Sand
- Lost Cities: Roll & Write
- Maglev Metro
- Mystic Paths
- The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
- Whale Riders
- Ankh: Gods of Egypt
- Descent: Legends of the Dark
- Maglev Metro
- Shelfie Stacker
- So Clover!
- Mystic Paths
- Card Rails
- Mini Express
- Ramen! Ramen!
- The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
- Ark Nova
- Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
- Azul: Queen’s Garden
So many yet to play (but hope to in 2022): Ausonia, Brazil: Imperial, Cartaventura, Euthia, Free Ride, Genotype, Gutenberg, Imperial Steam, Khora, King of the Valley, Living Forest, Lum Lum Party, Mille Fiori, nana, Schichtwechsel, Settlement, Shamans, Sleeping Gods, Unsettled, Watch, Witchstone
- Jekyll vs Hyde
- Honey Buzz
- Seven Wonders: Architects
- Sleeping Gods
- Age of Sigmar: Bladeborn
- Free Ride
- Mille Fiori
- Dice Miner
Alan How: I played a bunch of games in the last 12 months, and all of the following games were published during the last year. My top games were:
- Ark Nova
- Brian Boru
- Coffee Traders
- Dark Ages: Heritage of Charlemagne
- Final Girl
- Free Ride
- Great Wall
- Hadrian’s Wall
- Imperial Steam
- Shiver me timbers