After a season of change, I've emerged with a new set of musings gleaned from a new hobby - board games.
A new set of friends who became family (because the season of change definitely included but was not limited to marriage), have introduced me to a slew of various card/board games. Unfortunately I married into a very strategically savvy family, but fortunately they still know how to make the experience fun.
To clarify, "favorite" here equates to the combined most enjoyability and re-playability. The optimal board game for me is something just the two of us can bust out after dinner when we don't want to do dishes right away, enjoy, and move along with our evening.
In ranked order my favorites are:
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Red Dragon Inn
Games that didn't quite make the list:
Ticket to Ride
A bit about the "not quite" list - something they all have in common was that when I learned them the first time, they were poorly explained. The new games I ended up liking the most either were explained systematically with clear win-conditions from the start, or they were completely new to everyone so we figured it out together. I'm sure there will come a day when most, if not all of these games make it into the actual ranking list.
Honorable mentions that don't count because they are not new to me, but would still recommend:
Settlers of Catan (shameless plug for my Bioniclized Catan)
"What did you knock over this time?!?", a game with the Little Peeps (below), which I must admit is not my favorite but for some reason we keep playing it. Every day. Multiple times. But look at that face.
Moving on to the reasoning behind my top choices from the actual games list. I promise this is not just a post about the cat. I hope you don't expect too much explanation or a tutorial on how to play, as this is not a game review blog. I will simply state what I found enjoyable, challenging, and frustrating - like a very subjective pros and cons list.
Common deciding factors are:
Commitment - Some games are highly enjoyable, but are also highly complex and require a larger number of players. Large time and/or social commitment detract from re-playability.
Complexity - Closely tied to commitment, but not the same. Basically, how difficult it was for me to learn. An example of a game that I would consider higher in complexity but lower commitment would be Red Dragon Inn, listed below.
Versatility in # of Players- A game that is easily playable and enjoyable both in a group or just the two of us is ideal. Yes, I'm aware there are many "two player variants" for some of the games lower on my list, but learning a new variant would up the complexity and mental commitment and thus lower the overall enjoyability for me.
Cut-Throatedness - This is where the "sore loser" aspect of this post comes in, and this is probably the most subjective measure on this list. I have learned that I am much more of a sore loser than I originally had thought. Now, this factor is somewhat related to number of players. It is also the reason why Hive and Onitama are at the bottom of my list. They are both exclusively two player games, and you must take something away from the other person to beat them, if that makes sense. I can lose in Splendor all day and feel fine, because it's more of a resource race with optional/minimal "mess with the other person in their face" mechanics. But losing so directly in Hive, losing each turn and knowing it, gets old really quickly.
1. Splendor (image source)
I'm just going to throw an x/10 rating for some of the pertinent factors, and then my 2 cents. And just keep in mind that a 10/10 in a given category may not be a good thing in my book.
Commitment: 3/10 - low time commitment is a plus for me, can definitely play this while a pot of rice simmers or something.
Complexity: 5/10 - not entirely sure how to have an accurate/consistent complexity scale. It was easy enough to learn and play, but the pattern of thinking needed to make progress is so different from my usual that it never feels boring.
Versatility: 8/10 - This is the game we play most often, just the two of us, and one we recommend most to play with friends and/or bring to family gatherings (probably tied with Codenames). The only thing I would improve is to have condensed travel-version, because playing at cafes and informal restaurants (like a pizzeria) is a favorite thing for us to do.
Cut-Throat: 4/10 - There are definitely ways for you to mess with other people in this game, or try to, but there are enough other ways for them to keep progressing or mess with you in return that it doesn't get discouraging (again, very subjective factor).
Pros: Fun, relatively simple to learn, pretty art, very tactile tokens (those things are solid), and a potentially cool Marvel version that I have yet to play.
Cons: I still haven't won a two-player game, the pieces are small enough that the kitten can easily mess up the entire board (most games have this con, now that I think about it).
2. Firefly: The Game (image source)
This game is so so great, we absolutely love it, and actually re-arranged an entire room in our house so we can more easily play this game kitten-free. That is, she gets to roam the whole house while we spread the game and various decks across multiple tables in a small room 😂. It definitely helps to have seen the TV show, which was actually recommended to me for the first time by old BZP friends back when I was in high school :) the only reason this game is #2 and not #1 is because of the effort it takes (combination of time commitment, complexity, and the low points of versatility).
Commitment: 9/10 - We have routinely set aside 3-4 hours for this game, as per instructions, but each time it has taken 4.5+ hours. The exception was playing through a fan-made scenario recently crafted specifically for a two player cooperative game.
Complexity: 7/10 - Not gonna lie, it was a lot to learn at first. So many moving parts to the game and mechanics. That said, once you learn it, it was easy to keep going and pick back up. Still complicated, but not difficult.
Versatility: 7/10 - This is great in versatility because 1 player scenarios are possible and fun, 2 player scenarios are possible and fun, etc. etc., but additionally, there are great fan-made scenarios that are playable and fun. The negatives on versatility are that once you set it up, you're stuck there for a while. There's no sane reason why you would want to take this to a coffee shop for an afternoon unless you want to lose half the tokens and pieces and cards.
Cut-Throat: 2/10 - The way the scenarios are set up, and the variety of ways you can achieve the series of goals to meet the win conditions make the game competitive in the "racing" sense, rather than the cut-throat way. Actually to the point that even I wish there were more direct ways to mess with other players. However, this is not a negative factor for me, because if there were other ways to mess with other players, I would probably be getting the short end of the straw. Both Splendor and Firefly are solid favorites because they are highly replayable with a variety of numbers of players.
Pros: Goes so well with the show! Adds a whole new layer of fun. You get to follow a story line, which is always fun. It's fast-paced enough to keep you engaged and not complex enough that you have to pay attention to every single move every single person makes, so you can relax, grab a snack or chat throughout. Also has cool expansions, or so I'm told.
Cons: Complex set up for comparatively simple gameplay, need lots of time and considerable amount of space. Also kind of expensive, but totally worth it.
3. Codenames (image source)
Don't let the low numbers in the ratings fool you, this game is one of the most enjoyable ones we have on our shelf.
Commitment: 3/10 - This one is nice because you can easily play multiple rounds without getting tired of it, or at least we can when the family gets together. And if someone gets tired or needs a break, they can step out for a round with little to no impact (depending on number of players).
Complexity: 3/10 - Very easy to pick up the gist by just watching a few rounds, although some explaining would probably be necessary before fully playing as both a team member and taking a turn as the codemaster.
Versatility: 3/10 - This is the one major drawback, we've found it best with 6+ players, 4 at the very least, as it's a team game. We haven't tried the 2-player variant yet, but it's enjoyable enough that we have plans to in the near future. It also would not be ideal for a travel game because of the 5x5 grid of small cards that are easily lost.
Cut-Throat: 5/10 - So this 5/10 is more for general competition aspect and perceived pressure during gameplay, not necessarily because of any cut-throat mechanics. Guessing and being the hint-giver/codemaster both feel relatively high pressure to me, but that's part of what makes it so enjoyable.
Pros: great combination of social deduction, word association, strategy and teamwork.
Cons: higher player number needed, so we don't play it as often as we like.
4. Coup (image source)
Coup is probably the game we've had the most laughs with, just the dynamic of how well different people bluff or don't.
Commitment: 2/10 - Pretty simple set up, don't need much table space if any, and a round can probably be as short as 5 minutes, although that somewhat depends on number of players. We probably average 10-15 minutes per round in a game with 5 players.
Complexity: 4/10 - A bit difficult to learn and keep certain rules straight, but also straightforward with refreshingly black-and-white rules compared to all the lying and bluffing the game is based around (my husband describes it as a streamlined version of poker).
Versatility: 6/10 - I would travel with this game! One of the main downsides is that it requires at least 3 players to really make it worth it, although, again, we are researching more into the 2-player variant.
Cut-Throat: 8/10 - This is the exception on the list, the game is by nature cut-throat, with the goal to be the last man standing. I think part of what helps is that the rounds go so quickly, and you tend to go out quickly when you do, so it's not a slow, inevitable defeat you have to watch unfold before you. And everyone else killing each other off after you're out is many times more entertaining and educational anyways.
Pros: Very strategic and simple once you learn it, and has a significant social aspect, which is always a fun variable to throw in.
Cons: If you're very against lying, morally, this is not a game for you.
5. Boss Monster (image source)
Commitment: 3/10 - This is another game that's easy to play in under half an hour. The setup is comparatively simple, and it's easy enough to play a second or third round if you want to.
Complexity: 4/10 - Pretty straightforward, but the variety of monster/trap rooms and combinations lend variability that keeps everything interesting.
Versatility: 7/10 - Great to play two player, because there is some element of randomness/luck involved that tables can turn quickly (something I like and annoys my husband). Also good with groups, and theoretically could be played while out and about, but probably not outside.
Cut-Throat: 4/10 - This one really depends on number of players. Even if it's just the two of you, it's possible to win without messing with the other player, which can get tiring if you're always the target. However, it's obviously not as fun if you don't play the "gotcha" cards on the other player, thus it's better as a more-than-two player game, but can be played pretty sustainably as such.
Pros: Great pixel art! I have the biggest nostalgic soft spot for pixel art. Also what I think is a creative, unique dungeon/deck-building theme that I think is just charming.
Cons: Not initially as much variety in the decks as I'd thought, we were interested in expansion packs pretty early on.
6. Azul (image source)
Commitment: 4/10 - Although we haven't played it in a while, it's pretty simple to set up, put away, etc. It can be played in under an hour, although sometimes it's extended past that. The players have the ability to trigger the last round pretty early on, so the play time can vary greatly.
Complexity: 3/10 - Pretty easy to learn and then teach. The only somewhat tricky part is learning the scoring. And a lot of the scoring turns into honors system, which is fine for adults, but if we teach the nieces I have a feeling we'll have to keep a closer eye on their score counters.
Versatility: 7/10 - Great for 2 players, great for more than that, with the only difference in set up being the number of tiles available each round. Also tactile enough to take different places without fear of it blowing away (that is, no cards), although it can take up a decent amount of space. And I'd highly caution against losing even a single tile.
Cut-Throat: 2/10 - Nice and chill, and honestly gameplay went better when we focused on our own scores. When we tried to get to the resources (tiles, in this case) that we thought everyone else wanted, instead of the ones we knew we needed, it was a much longer game with much slower progress overall. That is, a more cut-throat style of gameplay is possible, but nets an overall negative result based on our experience (of course, maybe we were doing it wrong? I'm sure it's possible to play that way and do it well. Shrug).
Pros: So pretty! Very tactile, and I would love to teach this game to our niece. And my mother. I think the fact that it doesn't look like a scary strategy game (which it's not, really), appeals to a wider player base. Also it's tactile-centric, which is always fun. Very solid tiles, and again, just beautiful, fun designs.
Cons: Honestly, the only con in this game for me is that I'm constantly stuck playing with highly strategic people who do the equivalent of counting cards, so they're just always ahead and in power the entire game. Some level of unpredictability/luck would be useful.
7. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion (image source)
Commitment: 9/10 - We needed to schedule an extra 45 minutes for setup alone, essentially, although this included small talk and such. Imagine a somewhat streamlined version of D&D that's just dungeon crawling and fighting. So far it has a fun story (bonus is that you don't need a DM, the guide books/monster decks are basically the DM for you). But we needed upwards of 5 hours per scenario, every flat surface we owned, and needed to schedule the sessions with our other two players, which always becomes a logistics battle sooner or later.
Complexity: 10/10 - I'm not sure where to begin describing this complexity, so just trust me. Like, I'm sure there are much more complex games out there, in fact, I know there are. But out of the games mentioned here, this is far and away the most complicated.
Versatility: 1/10 - Not much flexibility in setup, like even if one of the various decks a player has set out gets nudged over an inch, everything feels off.
Cut-Throat: 2/10 - It's a cooperative campaign game, so that's cool. Very limited movesets for your characters, at least the level we're at. But the scenarios themselves felt pretty challenging. More than once we spent 3+ hours working our way through a room, only to fail and have to start over (usually we just called it an evening and rescheduled).
Pros: It is fun once you get going. It really is. It just takes a lot to get there. It also has an intriguing story and a cool world. It's expensive, but you get so much bang for your buck. I'm constantly amazed how much fit into the game box (and continues to fit back in).
Cons: It's just a huge effort any time we want to play. Sometimes I miss playing (it's been a few months), but the other two players in our party are busy now with holiday stuff, so it's unlikely we'll play again anytime soon.
8. Red Dragon Inn (image source)
Okay so as a bit of a disclaimer, I think I've only actually played this one once? I really enjoyed it when I did, so that should say something. But the disclaimer is to note that I have no idea how to really rate it.
Commitment: 5/10 - It felt like it took a long time, but we had a large amount of players.
Complexity: 4/10 - It was simple once I got the hang of what a turn looked like. It's a fun balancing act and "gotcha" tricks you play on other players, or tavern-goers. There's a gambling mini-game built in that I remember really hating/being confused by though.
Versatility: 5/10 - It seemed easy to play with many people (we had 7 at one point), but I imagine playing with two players would be much less fun.
Cut-Throat: 5/10 - Most of the game seemed based on playing your cards' effects on other players to their detriment, but with enough players, the effects felt spread out enough that it didn't feel cut-throat.
Pros: Great art, fun concept, you can choose a character to play as and get really into it if you want.
Cons: Unsure, but it was fun (except gambling, no idea why that gets to be a thing).
9. Hive (image source)
Commitment: 3/10 - Very easy to play even while you wait for your pizza to come out, fits on a pretty small area usually, but the hive has no boundaries and can grow in weird directions if you're not careful.
Complexity: 3/10 - I say it's like streamlined chess without a board. My husband who plays chess for fun (shudder) disagrees.
Versatility: 9/10 - This is very fun because you can really take it anywhere. We've played it outside on a mountain top, in the aforementioned pizza place, in our backyard, etc. Fun shape, fun concept, easy to teach others. Only detriment in versatility is that you don't have the option to expand past a two-player game.
Cut-Throat: 9/10 - I believe this fits the "zero sum game" category. If you progress, it's to the detriment of your opponent. Thus, the reason why I can only lose so many times in a row - you feel every inch that's taken from you. Also, it really depends on pacing. If you fall behind by one step, it's only a matter of time before you lose, and you know it within one or two turns. It is possible to draw, though.
Pros: Versatile, fun and well-designed tiles, I think it's a pretty unique concept (surround you opponent's queen bee using your other bug tiles with their specific movement abilities), easy enough to play with kids. I definitely did this and lost to a six year old not on purpose.
Cons: You can lose to a six year old.
10. Onitama (image source)
Commitment: 4/10 - This one varies in time commitment, although the surface area required is probably one of the smallest on the list, along with Hive and Coup. Games can be quick, under 10 minutes, or run over 45 minutes. It really depends on the cards you have to work with and how stubborn/careless both of you are.
Complexity: 4/10 - Simple enough concept, and interesting. It's kind of like checkers but you have a rotating set of move patterns (Tiger, Cobra etc. that you see in the picture), and the strategy involved in how the cards rotate between you and your opponent really stretched my brain. I liked it.
Versatility: 7/10 - Pretty good travel game, it comes with a roll-up mat that's like a mouse pad, and pretty solid figurines. Cards have potential to blow away though. Also can only play 2 players.
Cut-Throat: 9/10 - Again, since it's like chess/checkers, you win based on the other person losing. Sometimes it's possible to have a stalemate, but that's rare from what we've found. This is another one I can only lose so many times in a row.
Pros: Really pretty cards! I like the mythos worked in, like you see the tiger lunging forward, the cobra I think is supposed to be dancing back and forth trying to hypnotize. I find it more tolerable than chess or checkers because of the rotating moveset mechanic.
Cons: Really can drag on if you let it. Also if your game has 5 bad cards, you're kind of stuck with them for the game.
Phew. I didn't think this post would take the entire afternoon when I sat down with the idea, but here I am, one afternoon later 😅. If you stuck with me this long, thanks, and I hope it was worth your while one way or another - maybe an idea for a holiday gift or something.
I am always open to new suggestions, and of course any hints for improving this or that!