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Peter's Top 50 2017: 10-1

2016 was the first year that I wrote a Top 50 games. Here's the 2017 version and games 10-1. Each game is linked to the relevant Boardgamegeek page. I have adapted/borrowed descriptions of each game to give you some flavour as to what it's about, then follows my thoughts.

  • O = Own
  • DO = Don't own
  • ** = New to my Top 50

10. Caylus (O)**

Caylus

1289. To strengthen the borders of the Kingdom of France, King Philip the Fair decided to have a new castle built. For the time being, Caylus is but a humble village, but soon, workers and craftsmen will be flocking by the cartload, attracted by the great prospects. Around the building site, a city is slowly rising up.

The players embody master builders. By building the King's castle and developing the city around it, they earn prestige points and gain the King's favor. When the castle is finished, the player who has earned the most prestige wins the game.

Caylus is the granddad of Eurogames and was among the first to employ the worker placement mechanic. Originally published in 2005, the gameplay still stands up against newer releases; indeed, I believe it's arguably the smoothest implementation I've ever come across. The constant dichotomy between helping to build the castle- thus avoiding penalties and earning bonuses- and developing the board, combined with a streak of nastiness provided by the Provost, provides tension and tough choices throughout. Give it a go...

9. Crisis (O)

"Crisis is a turn-based game for 1-5 players who assume the roles of businessmen, trying to rebuild their businesses and create value at a particularly challenging time. By skillfully placing their managers in a position to invest in companies, trade resources, and navigate the local bureaucracy and regulations, they can thrive and prosper in a time when others might struggle and decline."

When I went to Essen in 2016, getting one of the few copies of Crisis was to be my first port of call on the Thursday morning. A hallmark of new releases at Essen seems to be a complete paucity of information as to how games will actually play leaving prospective purchasers pretty much riding the hype wave or banking on a designer's previous success. For Crisis, however, I got a really good idea of what the game would be like and judged it a perfect fit for me. How right I was. This is a superbly tight and brutal economic worker placement game, with the added bonus of being suitable for solitaire play and actually rewarding! All the players are working to save the economy of Axia but this is far from collaborative. Peaking at no.2 in 2016's list, Crisis has moved down to no.9 this time around. However, it's still a magnificent game and I invite you to read my full review for more information.

8. Spyrium (O)**

Spyrium is set in an alternate world, an England set in a steampunk-based universe. Players build factories, needing workers to manage the production of a commodity previously unknown to us called "Spyrium". Producing Spyrium in one factory, then processing it in the next results in victory points (VPs) for that particular player. Alternatively, Spyrium can be purchased, but the material is rare and expensive, and players are constantly scraping for money.

Only those who from the beginning of the game manage to increase their regular income or their base of permanently employed workers (who can be used again and again to raise money) will be flexible enough to get their hands on the important end-of-game buildings to generate many VPs.

The circular nature of the game is flexible as each player can decide for himself when to move out of the placement phase and into the activation phase. With the two tracks in the game, those involved with delivery during the worker phase can then be used to raise money, to purchase an adjacent card, or to work on their own in an idle factory. All of these things are important, but in the end only the player who has dealt best with the lack of money, workers, and Spyrium will win.

William Attia, creator of Caylus and Spyrium, earns the right to be one of only two designers doubly represented in my Top 10 with this fascinating 2013 release. It's a slow burner that I have enjoyed more every time I've played it. It's pretty unique, has incredible depth for a game that doesn't take all that long, and provides some excellent moments of exhilaration/frustration.

7. Great Western Trail (O)**

America in the 19th century: You are a rancher and repeatedly herd your cattle from Texas to Kansas City, where you send them off by train. This earns you money and victory points. Needless to say, each time you arrive in Kansas City, you want to have your most valuable cattle in tow. However, the "Great Western Trail" not only requires that you keep your herd in good shape, but also that you wisely use the various buildings along the trail. Also, it might be a good idea to hire capable staff: cowboys to improve your herd, craftsmen to build your very own buildings, or engineers for the important railroad line.

If you cleverly manage your herd and navigate the opportunities and pitfalls of Great Western Trail, you surely will gain the most victory points and win the game.

Some designers you just seem to get on with right? You may have tried lots of games they designed and they all hit the nail on the head. Alexander Pfister? Not so much for me; he's rather hit and miss. But Great Western Trail is one heck of a hit. Once again there's nothing really revolutionary here, but the overall design is very different to anything else I've played. So you've got:

  • Action selection - move up to three (can be increased during the game) locations on the board and perform the relevant action(s)
  • Deck building - when you reach Kansas City, score the cattle you have in your hand as you send them off to market
  • Tile placement - players can build their own buildings to give themselves more options and possible actions

Combined, you've got a incredibly deep game with lots of decisions to be made and strategies to explore; however, you are limited on your turn by what locations you can physically reach, and therefore what actions you might accomplish. This generally keeps the amount of thinking and Analysis Paralysis quite low so downtime is not a big issue in this game. It recently cracked the BoardGameGeek Top Ten and, being available for £35-£40 (in the UK), is an absolute bargain.

6. Kraftwagen (O)**

In Germany in 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of auto pioneer Carl Benz, undertook the first cross-country drive in an automobile. While making the trek from Mannheim to Pforzheim, her car ran out of fuel in Wiesloch. Mrs. Benz stopped into the city drugstore to obtain the appropriate chemicals to make more fuel, effectively creating the world´s first gas station.

By the year 1928, Germany possessed a dense road network where combustion engines had triumphed over electric and steam engines and where cars were produced via assembly lines. Manufacturers began producing more affordable vehicles for the broader population.

In Kraftwagen, players advance the state of automobile development and production by playing as start-up companies. They must research new technologies and build improved chassis and engines. Early Grand Prix races provide the young companies with prestige and money, but the players must maintain a key balance of fulfilling the demand preferences of buyers at the lowest possible price.

Kraftwagen, for me, took the best bits of Glen More and then improved them dramatically. I still rate Glen More within my Top 30 because it's really very good, but Kraftwagen deserves its place up near the top of my 2017 list. Matthias Cramer is a designer I have a lot of time for; he seems to specialise in meaty, thinky Eurogames that never outstay their welcome. I love the adaptation of the rondel mechanic present in Kraftwagen because it works so well with the other parts of the game. There is also a whole new tension, not present in Glen More, that lets a player send a car to the market after they have taken an action on the rondel. It means that players not only need to be wary of what actions their opponents are taking, but whether or not they will be putting a car up for sale immediately afterwards. This is an absolutely brilliant game.

5. First Class (O)**

In First Class: Unterwegs im Orient Express, players try to score as many fame points as possible by building a rich network of rails, by building luxurious train cars, or by serving well-paying passengers.

First Class is a card game that feels more like a board game, and since each game is played with the base cards and two of five modules, the game offers lots of variety as not all elements are used in each playing.

From the same designer as Russian Railroads, Helmut Ohley, comes First Class, a game described by many as Russian Railroads: The Card Game. While there are a lot of similarities, I think the differences are more stark then that description suggests. Russian Railroads is a 2 hour worker placement game of developing your own railroads, buiding factories, upgrading and increasing your locomotives, and generally collecting points for certain achievements. It's almost entirely a solitary experience of efficiency and racing the other players to the best spots. It is also a game I am spectacularly bad at.

First Class has a similar theme but the gameplay is so different. Instead of worker placement, you have card drafting. A common, randomised pool of cards is created at the start of each of the six rounds and players take it in turns to choose a card and perform the action. Each player has space for two trains that they can develop during the course of the game. There are also secret (and not so secret) objectives that will award the players points depending on what cards they have collected during the game. Then comes the bit of genius: a system of modules that completely change how the game plays. The base game includes five of these modules, two of which will be chosen before the start. They then give vastly different abilities and present whole new strategies.

If you'll excuse the pun, this game is a classic engine builder. In the first four rounds, players will only be scoring a smattering of points whilst they try to select the cards and abilities that will best aid them for the major point scoring after the final round. It has that incredibly satisfying multiplier effect with players able to accomplish more and more until the conclusion of the game when, you hope, you'll be able to score hundreds of points and achieve a noble victory. And all of this can be achieved in something like 40-80 minutes, depending on the player count. Wonderful!

4. Specter Ops (O)

A secret agent of A.R.K. has infiltrated a top secret Raxxon facility, attempting to complete three mission objectives before they escape — but they are hunted by genetically modified Raxxon Hunters. Players can choose which side they wish to join.

Specter Ops is a sci-fi, stealth ops game of hidden movement that's similar to Scotland Yard. Players are trying to locate/capture a mysterious agent, who keeps track of their sneaking via a private map. The other players take control of unique characters who must use their wits, abilities and technology to help them hunt down this infiltrator. Items like flash grenades, scanners, and the like are at the disposal of this covert agent.

Hidden movement is a genre of game I really like, and I've tried most of them. And unfortunately, most of them have certain flaws that keep them from appearing in my Top 50. Fury of Dracula? Too long, convoluted and fiddly. Scotland Yard? Too simplistic. Letters from Whitechapel and Escape from the aliens in outer space? Decent, but not electrifying.

Specter OPS is an ultimate game for me because it uses a simple ruleset to create amazing tension. The board is moody and evocative; the characters are cool and all brilliant in their own way. If you want to know more, check out my review and interview with designer Emerson Matsuuchi. If you don't want to know more, I assume you already know how awesome it is or are just plain weird.

3. Shogun (O)**

Shogun is based on the Wallenstein (first edition) game system. The game is set in the Sengoku period (approx 1467-1573) which ends with the inception of the well-known Tokugawa Shogunate.

Japan during the Sengoku or “Warring States” Period: each player assumes the role of a great Daimyo with all his troops. Each Daimyo has the same 10 possible actions to develop his kingdom and secure points. To do so he must deploy his armies with great skill. Each round, the players decide which of the actions are to be played out and in which of their provinces. If battle ensues between opposing armies, the unique Cubetower plays the leading role. The troops from both sides are thrown in together and the cubes that fall out at the bottom show who has won immediately. Owning provinces, temples, theaters, and castles means points when scores are tallied. Whichever Daimyo has the highest number of points after the second tally becomes – SHOGUN!

Keen board gamers often eventually find themselves in a pigeon hole of their own creation, it seems to me. I'm no different; I've been in the hobby four and a bit years and have a pretty good idea what I like and, more importantly, what I don't like. Shogun is proof to me that it pays to try something new, outside of your board gaming comfort zone, once in a while. I don't like area control, dudes on a map, fighting blah blah blah. But I love Shogun. Check out my review for more information. I wouldn't be surprised if this has risen even higher in next year's Top 50. We'll just have to see...

2. Glass Road (O)**

Glass Road is a game that commemorates the 700-year-old tradition of glass-making in the Bavarian Forest. (Today the Glass Road is a route through the Bavarian Forest that takes visitors to many of the old glass houses and museums of that region.) You must skillfully manage your glass and brick production in order to build the right structures that help you to keep your business flowing. Cut the forest to keep the fires burning in the ovens, and spread and remove ponds, pits and groves to supply yourself with the items you need. Fifteen specialists are there at your side to carry out your orders...

The game consists of four building periods. Each player has an identical set of fifteen specialist cards, and each specialist comes with two abilities. At the beginning of each building period, each player needs to choose a hand of five specialists. If he then plays a specialist that no other player has remaining in his hand, he may use both abilities of that card; if two or more players play the same specialist, each of them may use only one of the two abilities. Exploiting the abilities of the specialists lets you collect resources, lay out new landscape tiles (e.g., ponds and pits), and build a variety of buildings. There are three types of buildings:

  1. Processing buildings
  2. Immediate buildings with a one-time effect
  3. Buildings that provide bonus points at the end of the game for various accomplishments

Mastering the balance of knowing the best specialist card to play and being flexible about when you play it – together with assembling a clever combination of buildings – is the key to this game.

Glass Road is unique. There are many games out there that people might suggest are unique or contain something unique; in my opinion, this often isn't the case. Most games are very derivative of others that have gone before them. Playing Glass Road, you will of course see some familiar design elements. It's a Eurogame and as such, it has things in common with other Eurogames including those by the same designer Uwe Rosenberg. But the action selection mechanic, combined with the rotating resource tracks, is an amazing piece of design. It's a bit confusing at first- new players are invariably going to struggle to understand exactly what's going on for a little while- but once you've got your head around the concept, you will love it. And that's not to say that experienced players will find things easy; this is a game that you probably couldn't feel confident of doing well at after your 100th game because every play is different and challenging. It is a 10/10 game for me as I cannot see any flaws, not including the solitaire version which I have not played. Not only that, it is a joy to play.

and finally...

1. Le Havre (O)

Le Havre

In Le Havre, a player's turn consists of two parts: First, distribute newly supplied goods onto the offer spaces; then take an action. As an action, players may choose either to take all goods of one type from an offer space or to use one of the available buildings. Building actions allow players to upgrade goods, sell them or use them to build their own buildings and ships. Buildings are both an investment opportunity and a revenue stream, as players must pay an entry fee to use buildings that they do not own. Ships, on the other hand, are primarily used to provide the food that is needed to feed the workers.

After every seven turns, the round ends: players' cattle and grain may multiply through a Harvest, and players must feed their workers. After a fixed number of rounds, each player may carry out one final action, and then the game ends. Players add the value of their buildings and ships to their cash reserves. The player who has amassed the largest fortune is the winner.

My journey through modern board gaming has done a loop. For a good long while I rated Le Havre as my favourite game; then, almost inevitably, I moved onto other shinier games. I still rated Le Havre highly but it was usurped in favour of titles such as Specter OPS and then Crisis. I suspect part of the reason for this was not being able to get hold of a copy for what I considered a reasonable price. With only a limited amount to spend on board games, and Le Havre long out of print, the prices being quoted for new or even second hand copies was too much for me. So, plays were few and far between. Fast forward to UK Games Expo 2017 and Le Havre had finally been reprinted, thus allowing me to finally get my own copy for £37.50: an absolute steal!

It's an incredibly deep, strategic game in which you're faced with difficult decisions every round. Long term goals sometimes have to be postponed in favour of short term solutions. Faced with having no food to feed your workers, do you take the pile of fish that will sort you for a round and a half but sacrifice the chance to build a ship which will give you food every turn? These are the kinds of questions you'll be asked throughout. There's also a nice level of interaction as all buildings, even those built by your opponents, are available for use, often at a cost. This means you're permanently interested in what your competitors are up to because you're going to want to take advantage of their businesses.

I haven't written a review for Le Havre but that's something I will have to put right in 2018 because it is a stunning game in this writer's humble opinion. The eagle-eyed will also have noticed that the #2 and #1 spots both belong to Uwe Rosenberg. Respect sir.

So there you have the final ten items of my Top 50 as of 2017. Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment below.