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Peter's Top 50 2017: 20-11

2016 was the first year that I wrote a Top 50 games. Here's the 2017 version and games 20-11. 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

20. Power Grid (DO)

The objective of Power Grid is to supply the most cities with power when someone's network gains a predetermined size. In this new edition, players mark pre-existing routes between cities for connection, and then bid against each other to purchase the power plants that they use to power their cities. However, as plants are purchased, newer, more efficient plants become available, so by merely purchasing, you're potentially allowing others access to superior equipment.

Additionally, players must acquire the raw materials (coal, oil, garbage, and uranium) needed to power said plants (except for the 'renewable' windfarm/ solar plants, which require no fuel), making it a constant struggle to upgrade your plants for maximum efficiency while still retaining enough wealth to quickly expand your network to get the cheapest routes.

Power Grid has provided many happy memories in my family. I hadn't been playing modern board games very long when I bought a copy of Power Grid for my sister; much to my amazement, my whole family took to it like ducks to water. Considering my parents aren't young any more, and find picking up new and complex games difficult, it was fantastic to see them immediately grasping what's going on in this excellent economic game. I don't play it all that often but when I do, I'm drawn into the game straight away as all the players try to balance that excellent dichotomy of wanting to expand (and therefore increase income) and trying to maintain a beneficial position in the turn order. The early leader rarely wins; it is a question of timing your run to the finish line perfectly. The game never fails to satisfy.

19. Arboretum (O)

Arboretum is a strategy card game for 2-4 players, aged 10 and up, that combines set collection, tile-laying and hand management while playing in about 25 minutes. Players try to have the most points at the end of the game by creating beautiful garden paths for their visitors.

The deck has 80 cards in ten different colors, with each color featuring a different species of tree; each color has cards numbered 1 through 8, and the number of colors used depends on the number of players. Players start with a hand of seven cards. On each turn, a player draws two cards (from the deck or one or more of the discard piles), lays a card on the table as part of her arboretum, then discards a card to her personal discard pile.

When the deck is exhausted, players compare the cards that remain in their hands to determine who can score each color. For each color, the player with the highest value of cards in hand of that color scores for a path of trees in her arboretum that begins and ends with that color; a path is a orthogonally adjacent chain of cards with increasing values. For each card in a path that scores, the player earns one point; if the path consists solely of trees of the color being scored, the player scores two points per card. If a player doesn't have the most value for a color, she scores zero points for a path that begins and ends with that color. Whoever has the most points wins.

This has to be my favourite game played solely with a deck of cards. It's an incredible brain burner that has players constantly fretting over what to play, what to discard...and keeping an eye on what their opponents are up to. For a game that basically boils down to laying down cards in ascending order from 1-8 in a number of 'suits', player interaction is incredibly strong. This could've been a dry and boring experience, but designer Dan Cassar has excelled himself in creating a game with inherent tension and interest even when it's not your go. Excellent game, though you may struggle getting a copy in English. However, there's no problem in using the more available German or French editions; print the English rules and you're well away.

18. Castles of Mad King Ludwig (O)

In the tile-laying game Castles of Mad King Ludwig, players are tasked with building an amazing, extravagant castle for King Ludwig II of Bavaria...one room at a time. You see, the King loves castles, having built Neuschwanstein (the castle that inspired the Disney theme park castles) and others, but now he's commissioned you to build the biggest, best castle ever — subject, of course, to his ever-changing whims. Each player acts as a building contractor who is adding rooms to the castle he's building while also selling his services to other players.

In the game, each player starts with a simple foyer. One player takes on the role of the Master Builder, and that player sets prices for a set of rooms that can be purchased by the other players, with him getting to pick from the leftovers after the other players have paid him for their rooms. When a room is added to a castle, the player who built it gains castle points based on the size and type of room constructed, as well as bonus points based on the location of the room. When a room is completed, with all entranceways leading to other rooms in the castle, the player receives one of seven special rewards.

After each purchasing round, a new player becomes the Master Builder who sets prices for a new set of rooms. After several rounds, the game ends, then additional points are awarded for achieving bonus goals, having the most popular rooms, and being the most responsive to the King's demands, which change each game. Whoever ends up with the most castle points wins.

Tile-laying is a genre I generally struggle with as I cannot visualise. Games such as Isle of Skye have proven too difficult for me to get my head around while others, such as Carcassonne, are now a little too simplistic for my taste. Castles of Mad King Luwig, however, continues to hold a place in my heart: it's beautiful, the gameplay is flowing with little to no downtime, and at the end of it every player can look with pride on their own little castles! The Master Builder mechanic is excellent; getting players to set the prices for their opponents is so clever and is the heart of a game I have never failed to enjoy. I can't see this leaving my collection in the foreseeable future. Aside from its predecessor Suburbia, which is a bit heavier and includes economic aspects, there's nothing really like it.

17. The Resistance: Avalon (O)

The Resistance: Avalon pits the forces of Good and Evil in a battle to control the future of civilization. Arthur represents the future of Britain, a promise of prosperity and honor, yet hidden among his brave warriors are Mordred's unscrupulous minions. These forces of evil are few in number but have knowledge of each other and remain hidden from all but one of Arthur's servants. Merlin alone knows the agents of evil, but he must speak of this only in riddles. If his true identity is discovered, all will be lost.

When played in the correct manner, there aren't many games I enjoy playing more than Avalon. It's a high quality social deduction game that shines with 7-8 players trying to work out who the good guys are, who's secretly a bad guy, and so much more. The risk is that games can descend into a shouting match where the loudest player dictates what's happening- this is a pity because there's some really clever game design here. The simple mechanic of not allowing Merlin's team to know each other from the start introduces a state of suspicion and tension that usually lasts until the final mission. I always say that you can tell a good game when discussions continue long after the game has finished. With Avalon, this is inevitable and underlines just how good a game it is. But there's the caveat: you've got to play with a group of people who fully enter into the spirit of the game. Deception: Murder in Hong Kong produces the more consistently enjoyable experience, but The Resistance: Avalon hits highs that Deception cannot. That's why it's still my no.1 social deduction game.

16. Castles of Burgundy (O)

The game is set in the Burgundy region of High Medieval France. Each player takes on the role of an aristocrat, originally controlling a small princedom. While playing they aim to build settlements and powerful castles, practice trade along the river, exploit silver mines, and use the knowledge of travelers.

I've played a few different Stefan Feld games and this one is top of the pile for me. It's become a tradition for my wife and I to play this on our anniversary so you can understand that we're quite attached to it. The components are awful, the artwork average at best...but the excellent gameplay more than makes this a bargain at £20 new. It tends to go a bit long with 3 or 4 players so I prefer this to be a 2 player only experience. All in all, it's an evergreen classic that I enjoy every time it hits the table.

15. Clans of Caledonia (DO)**

Clans of Caledonia

Clans of Caledonia is a mid-to-heavy economic game set in 19th-century Scotland. At this time, Scotland made the transition from an agricultural to an industrialized country that heavily relied on trade and export. In the following years, food production increased significantly to feed the population growth. Linen was increasingly substituted by the cheaper cotton and raising sheep was given high importance. More and more distilleries were founded and whisky became the premium alcoholic beverage in Europe.

Players represent historic clans with unique abilities and compete to produce, trade and export agricultural goods and of course whisky!

This was one of the big Kickstarter projects of 2017, reaching an impressive €391,228 funding. Aside from Miniatures games that seem to attract insane levels of backing- e.g. Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5 earned $12,393,139- this was a well supported game that is hitting retailers very soon. The mechanics will be very familiar to anyone who's played a few economic Eurogames but they're put together in a very pleasing package. There are good levels of interaction, a nice blend of tactics vs strategy and a very satisfying commodity speculation system. All in all, it's a very good game and I look forward to many more plays.

14. Above and Below (O)

Above and Below

Above and Below is a mashup of town-building and storytelling where you and up to three friends compete to build the best village above and below ground. In the game, you send your villagers to perform jobs like exploring the cave, harvesting resources, and constructing houses. Each villager has unique skills and abilities, and you must decide how to best use them. You have your own personal village board, and you slide the villagers on this board to various areas to indicate that they've been given jobs to do. Will you send Hanna along on the expedition to the cave? Or should she instead spend her time teaching important skills to one of the young villagers?

A great cavern lies below the surface, ready for you to explore-- this is where the storytelling comes in. When you send a group of villagers to explore the depths, one of your friends reads what happens to you from a book of paragraphs. You'll be given a choice of how to react, and a lot will depend on which villagers you brought on the expedition, and who you're willing to sacrifice to succeed. The book of paragraphs is packed with encounters of amazing adventure, randomly chosen each time you visit the cavern.

At the end of the game, the player with the most well-developed village wins!

I love the blend of Euro-style action selection, set collection and narrative adventures in this gorgeous game by Ryan Laukat. Decision making can be key in this game, though you'll need a bit of luck when venturing down into the caves. There are several viable strategies that players can pursue and the game provides enough challenge that even the most experienced players can sometimes come unstuck. Reading the paragraphs from the book adds tension and excitement to this wonderful experience that I always enjoy immensely.

13. Kingsburg (DO)

In Kingsburg, players are Lords sent from the King to administer frontier territories. The game takes place over five years, a total of 20 turns. In every year, there are 3 production seasons for collecting resources, building structures, and training troops. Every fourth turn is the winter, in which all the players must fight an invading army. Each player must face the invaders, so this is not a cooperative game.

The resources to build structures and train troops are collected by influencing the advisers in the King's Council. Players place their influence dice on members of the Council. The player with the lowest influence dice sum will be the first one to choose where to spend his/her influence; this acts as a way of balancing poor dice rolling. Even with a very unlucky roll, a clever player can still come out from the Council with a good number of resources and/or soldiers.

Each adviser on the King's Council will award different resources or allocate soldiers, victory points, and other advantages to the player who was able to influence him/her for the current turn. At the end of five years, the player who best developed his assigned territory and most pleased the King through the Council is the winner.

Kingsburg is a game I have played almost exclusively with my wife, Emma, and friends Aaron and Sarah. I love the dice placement mechanic in lots of games but this is probably my favourite implementation so far. For starters, there's almost always something meaningful you can do with your actions. There might be the odd occasion when you cannot use your last dice because there are no available spaces you can go to, but these are pleasingly rare. The game requires constant planning but never gets bogged down with Analysis Paralysis, at least not for long, because players can only perform a few actions (as determined by dice rolls). Every decision a player makes during the course of the game will have an effect, usually to their own game. This is not present in many games and goes some way to explaining why I like this game as much as I do. The luck factor is low- even allowing for the odd poor dice rolls- and the best player will likely win. But everyone will have had a good time.

NB: I have only played the first edition with the To Forge a Realm expansion. It is highly recommended not to play the first edition base game only. As of 2017 there is now a second edition which includes the changes implemented by the addition of the expansion.

12. Skull (O)

Skull & Roses is the quintessence of bluffing, a game in which everything is played in the players' heads. Each player plays a face-down card, then each player in turn adds one more card – until someone feels safe enough to state that he can turn a number of cards face up and get only roses. Other players can then overbid him, saying they can turn even more cards face up. The highest bidder must then turn that number of cards face up, starting with his own. If he shows only roses, he wins; if he reveals a skull, he loses, placing one of his cards out of play. Two successful challenges wins the game. Skull & Roses is not a game of luck; it's a game of poker face and meeting eyes.

Does Skull deserve to be ranked so highly in my Top 50? If you're evaluating my list purely by game design and scope then certainly not, because it's probably the simplest game I own. If, however, you were to rank my Top 50 by a pleasure:size ratio then pound for pound Skull would be my no.1! Every time I play this (21 games and counting) I will be laughing with enjoyment, or else cursing my big mouth for bidding too high. It's true that anyone could play this with a standard deck of cards, and indeed I would if I didn't have my copy to hand, but the artwork is lovely and I cannot, in all good consciousness, consider that I have wasted my money by buying it. Wonderful.

11. Via Nebula (O)**

A game of Via Nebula starts with a board showing a hexagonal grid, some production sites with a few available resources on them (wood, stone, wheat, and pigs), building sites in various areas scattered over the whole board, and a lot of mist.

Turn after turn, players have two actions at their disposal from these options: They may clear the mist of a hex to create new paths of transportation, open new production sites, open a building site in a city, carry resources from any production site to their own building sites, and, of course, achieve a construction. Resources and paths through the mist may be used by all the players. This initially induces a kind of cooperation, but eventually other players will take advantage of your actions!

To achieve a construction, you fulfill a contract on one of your cards. You start the game with two contracts, and four more contracts are available for all players to see and use on a first come, first served basis — and that's where the cooperation abruptly stops. Additionally, most contracts have special powers that are triggered on completion.

_The game ends when a player finishes a fifth building. Opponents each take two final actions, then players score based on the number of cleared hexes and opened production sites and the point value of their contracts, with a bonus for the player who ended the game.

Here's a cracker with which to end this particular segment. Designed by Martin Wallace, designer of many famous (and more heavyweight) games including Steam and Brass, Via Nebula is a beautiful game which uses some elements you'd find in a 'Train game' such as route building and delivering goods. I've written a full review here although if I'm being brutally honest it turned out more like a love letter than critique of game design. While it may not be the most well-rounded or detailed review I've ever written, the reader should hopefully be in no doubt as to the reasons I love this game. It's suitable for both gateway gamers and hardened veterans because while there is loads of strategy involved, the rules are incredibly easy to get to grips with. The artwork and components are charming and set off the game design perfectly. _

So there you have items 20-11 of my Top 50 (2017). Keep your eyes open for the last installment and items 10-1.