Early on each year, you’ll often see people sharing their updated “favorite games of all time” lists. I was rather engrossed in these through the first half of 2021 and it’s got me thinking…what are mine? It’s certainly impossible to declare that this is a comprehensive list of the best games of “all time” because I certainly haven’t played everything. In fact, I could probably complete a list with games that I expect to make it into my top 10 that I haven’t even played yet. But for now, we’ll call this list “a collection of my favorites as of 2021”. Without further adieu…
10. Kingdom Builder
This 2012 Speil Des Jahres winner from Queen Games masquerades as an area control game but, when it comes down to it, it’s truly just an abstract strategy game with a storybook fantasy theme painted on. It’s simple and concise but still presents a fun and clever gameplay that always keeps players engaged and motivated to advance their empires across the board in order to complete scoring goals set out at the beginning of the game. I will never turn down a play of Kingdom Builder and, despite many lukewarm reviews accumulating in its decade of existence on Board Game Geek, I always find the game to be fun and exciting and its theme and artwork to be charming and relatable.
- Quick, simple, and fast-paced gameplay (draw a card, play some settlements)
- Easy set up/tear down
- Classic and charming theme (though some may feel tired of this, I enjoy it quite a bit)
- New interactions can be discovered by combining different board quadrants (increases replayability)
9. Terraforming Mars
Terraforming Mars is may not be the most visually striking thing in the world. The art has been frequently criticized for being a little too “D.I.Y.” and the components are certainly nothing to write home about. When it’s all said and done, the initial rules explanation may come off as a little clunky and contrived. I was certainly surprised by all of this when I first set up this highly regarded game for the first time and cracked open the rulebook to learn it.
When played, however, Terraforming Mars’ greatness speaks for itself. This game is a fantastic engine-building space epic. Players generate resources each turn to develop technologies used to build cities, greenery, uncover water, and generally make Mars more inhabitable.
- Engine building elements provide a great feeling of accumulating momentum throughout the game
- Game variants allow for drafting of cards (this is often the preferred way to play)
8. Paladins of the West Kingdom
Paladins of the West Kingdom is a worker placement game from Shem Phillips acclaimed West Kingdom Trilogy. While all three titles in the set (Architects, Paladins, and Viscounts) are quite highly regarded, Paladins is certainly the most complex.
Besides the management of color-coded workers (used differently based on their identity), the primary mechanic of Paladins is the gradual accumulation of attribute points (strength, faith, and influence) which will allow players to achieve more in actions associated with each category throughout the game. There is an awful lot going on in Paladins and far more routes to victory than one can master in the course of just one game so decisions will have to be made on what will be prioritized each time. This creates a diverse experience each and every time the game is played.
This game is certainly a heavy one but, in terms of rules, is not terribly difficult to grasp for anyone with any sort of Euro-style board gaming experience. The decisions that players are faced with each turn will often have implications on what is possible in future turns so planning ahead can cause some brain drain. Add in the fact that other players just might snatch up the some of the public action spaces that are integral to your plans and things get even more difficult.
- This game is heavy in decisions (which can be considered a drawback to some) but allows for players to truly feel in control of their own results
- High in diversity due to variety of available action tracks and end-game scoring bonuses
- The game doesn’t feel inherently “mean” but there are significant and meaningful points of interaction related to suspicion and blocking actions
7. Spirit Island
Known as the “cooperative settler destruction game”, Spirit Island casts players as ancient spirits who are sworn to protect a small island from European colonists. As colonists threaten to explore, build, and ravage the island, players (assuming the roles of ancient spirits) are tasked with defending it to protect the native peoples known as the Dahan.
Spirit Island was recommended to me about a hundred times before I finally decided to give it a shot. I’ve always enjoyed games like Pandemic or Horrified but they are certainly not my favorite styles of games to play. In my opinion, both can get a little monotonous and formulaic. I had similar expectations for Spirit Island and was initially resistant to it because I thought it might be a slightly more involved version of the same old cooperative trope. I was terribly wrong about this one.
Spirit Island has some fantastic depth to it and a ridiculous amount of variation that provides for some major replay value. Where Pandemic shines in its offerings of asymmetric player powers, Spirit Island takes that to the extreme, providing eight unique spirits in the base game which involve different innate abilities, different upgrade paths, and a unique set of starting cards to begin with. The different combinations of these spirits provide for some very exciting strategic synergies and combo potential.
If that wasn’t enough, the game offers a variety of board set-ups, optional adversaries with a wide range of difficulty levels, and optional scenarios which can affect the speed at which spirits are able to play their cards or the way that explorers impact the board.
- Unique theme that feels unexplored by many games (at least from this perspective)
- Loads of depth that make it difficult to coach others through their plays – effectively limits alpha gamer problems
- Tons of replay value
- Provides lots of opportunity for increasing levels of difficulty (more difficult spirits to pilot, higher level adversaries, etc)
Though Scythe may come off as an aggressive area control war game based on its dark theme and heavy focus on mech miniatures, I’ve heard it more accurately described as a “euro-style efficiency puzzle”. In fact, combat is a very small piece of this game that can actually be entirely avoided should a player chose to pursue victory in one of the many other routes (the completion of six goals trigger the end of the game and combat victories are just two of ten). For some, this might come off as a disappointment, but if you go into Scythe without any expectations, you’ll certainly be wowed by its unique engine building and resource gathering mechanics that are paired so eloquently with one of the coolest thematic deliveries in board gaming.
One of my favorite aspects of Scythe is the way in which it tells such a rich story in ways that other euro games struggle to do. Admittedly, my experience with the campaign-based expansion Rise of Fenris certainly plays into this impression, but even in the base game, encounter cards, which are collected by each faction’s leader mini, present an image of a scene and allow that player to decide how to proceed based on the circumstances. For example, a scene depicting a mech traversing a foggy lake allows a player the option to either help the mech cross by illuminating the way with a lantern, purchase the mech from its stranded pilot, or “shout nonsense until the mech comes close enough for you to rob it” which all yield different results.
- Asymmetrical faction powers are paired with asymmetrical player mats each game
- The minis are extremely cool and art is top notch
- Strong thematic immersion and story telling aspects (Rise of Fenris is highly recommended if this interests you)
5. Lost Ruins of Arnak
We reviewed Lost Ruins of Arnak earlier this year and it rose rather quickly to the top of our All Time Points list so its no surprise that it’s made its way onto my top 10. This game is a thematically rich research conversion with a blazingly fast one action per turn format that keeps all players engaged and plotting. In Lost Ruins of Arnak, there is a subtle deck-building theme present alongside an even more subtle worker placement theme and both combine to create something unique and refreshing despite millions of other takes on either concept already hogging our collections.
We’ve already spoken quite a bit about this game in our review, so I’ll simply link that here (click to view our review) and keep things moving…
- Unique and puzzley resource conversion elements are paired well with deck building and worker placement
- The art is AMAZING and components are top notch
- Gameplay moves fast and keeps everyone engaged
4. Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Castles of Mad King Ludwig has been near and dear to my heart for many years. We put a lot of emphasis on the art, theme, and component quality in our reviews and this one certainly doesn’t deliver there, but what it lacks in charm, Castles of Mad King Ludwig makes up for in one of the most extraordinary gameplay designs I’ve ever come across. There are just so many fantastic layers of rewarding decision making that allow for high scoring combo plays, clever tricks, and fancy market manipulation.
The core idea with Castles of Mad King Ludwig is that players compete to build a castle one room at a time taking into consideration the benefits of adjacency for certain types of spaces. For example, a bowling alley would make it difficult for those in a nearby bed camber to sleep. Some rooms provide bonuses for connections to others while other rooms may lose points when specific room types are built adjacent. Each type of room provides a different type of bonus when all doors are connected to another space.
At the start of each turn, the starting player (known as the Master Builder) will arrange the available room tiles in the market to determine what players must pay to add them to their castle. This is often the most difficult decision of the game because the money paid for these tiles is collected by that same player. While this game does not involve a closed market economy, there are some elements where the same currency is being passed back and forth in this way so players must be clever to place tiles in price ranges that are reasonable for others to buy but not too cheap as to miss out on potential income.
Play passes back and forth until players have seen a certain number of rooms (depending on the number of players) and have assembled a sprawling castle that makes follows a rather insane floor plan (Ludwig is MAD, remember) and then scoring begins.
- Lots of points of decision making allows for strategic play
- Clever and unique design
- Fun easter eggs in the art
Maracaibo features a giant rondel in which players sail around the Caribbean to deliver goods (via multi-use cards), recruit crew, enlist the help of villagers, explore the island for various rewards, and participate in military conflict with one of three different nations. Each of four turns is meant to advance a legacy narrative which will manipulate the game board, allowing for more stops along the circuit or more difficulty in certain routes.
One of the most exciting parts of the game is the ability to upgrade one’s ship board by shipping goods and uncovering bonuses that can help a player to build towards a certain theme. These upgrades provide a good deal of variety that can contribute to many different strategies which allow players lots of options for personalization.
While players can take their time to stop at every island along their path to maximize their rewards, there is also a benefit to racing ahead to the finish. Since each player can advance their ship one to seven spaces along the rondel, the option of getting to the finish line very fast is always on the table. Doing so provides extra victory points and opportunities for other advantages that other players won’t have if they lag too far behind.
This game is definitely on the heavier side, however, the decision tree grows appropriately throughout the experience so that newer players can develop an understanding for the game’s concepts as they play. Though Maracaibo comes from the overplayed European trading/colonization lineage of games, the theme is executed in a unique way that feels well supported by its mechanics.
- Legacy elements add to a lot of diversity in gameplay
- Ship upgrades are loads of fun
- Lots of routes to victory
- Cards can function for three different roles (which provide lots of options for their use)
Orleans is one of those games where you are faced with a puzzle to solve on every turn. As players draw workers with unique roles from a bag, each is faced with a different set of variables to either acquire more workers to build their bags and acquire different bonuses unique to each class or perform a variety of other actions to move along the map, build settlements, retire workers, or collect gold (most of which result in the accumulation of points or multipliers for the end of game scoring).
Like many of the other games on the list, Orleans presents players with lots of different options for personalizing their strategy by the way in which they choose to build their bag and access the bonuses associated with the workers they acquire. For example, a certain type of worker will allow a player to claim a tile which can do anything from providing an additional placement space to allowing that player to place a certain worker piece as a wild. While doing so, one must always consider the balance of the workers in their bag, however, as they will only be able to draw a portion of them each turn. There’s just enough randomness here to make this game slightly stressful but endlessly exciting.
There’s tons of great expansion content for Orleans, too, including Invasion, which includes a number of different modules such as solo modes and two-player variants. One of its greatest assets, however, is its cooperative module in which all players band together to complete a number of tasks to prepare the city for an invasion before the conclusion of the final turn. This is very challenging and whenever I have won this, its always been by the skin of my teeth.
- Unique mechanics
- Many routes to victory
- Tons of diversity in gameplay options via expansion content
While I’ve included a lot of euro games on this list, it doesn’t mean that I don’t play my fair share of dungeon crawlers, too. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with titles like Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Dungeons and Dragons games, and Descent: Journeys in the Dark but there isn’t a game of any kind that I’ve played more than Gloomhaven and it’s not even close. This game just has so much to offer that it’s price tag, while quite a bit higher than the others on this list, seems like an outrageous bargain for the amount of content you are getting.
In Gloomhaven, a party of adventurers explores a fully imagined world one scenario at a time via progression through a scenario booklet and variable hex boards that are assembled differently for each encounter. Since Gloomhaven is primarily a combat-focused game, much of its focus is on the development of each character’s abilities in combat which are represented by leveled combat cards which are divided in two halves (top and bottom). Each round, players pair together two of these to determine their actions when their turn comes up in initiative order. A top action (often an attack) is selected from one and a bottom action (often a move) is selected from the other. Because of this variability, players will discover tons of exciting combinations within their collection of ability cards that not only pair well with their own set-ups but also with their teammates’.
Of course, there is plenty of loot to acquire throughout the game, but even more impressive to me was the game’s unique system for unlocking new characters through the completion of a “life goal”. When a character’s life goal is achieved, that character is retired and a new character is unlocked from a sealed box within the larger game box. In total, there are 17 character boxes in Gloomhaven and only a few of them are available at the beginning of the game so there’s a lot to explore here!
Gloomhaven provides hundreds (not an exaggeration) of hours of game play through a thick spiral-bound book of well-written scenarios. After nearly two years of regular adventures with my party, we’ve not completed the game yet and still have plenty of loot left to acquire.
- Hundreds of hours of gameplay
- Unlockable characters (in sealed boxes to prevent spoilers)
- Unique and effective card-based combat system
- Well-written scenarios and immersive story