All hail Jimmy Neutron. I’ve had a brain blast.
As both a terrible programmer, and board game enthusiast. I like lists. I like big lists, and tiny little baby lists. So what should a list lover do? Maybe create a list?
I’m going to rank my collection of games, on a semi-regular basis. Providing my woefully witty commentary along the way. Each game will be ranked on the day, but then added to a mega-list.
What I love about this idea is that I get away from the concept of board games being good, or bad, or great. As to be honest, most board games I play are good, but if you keep saying games are good you’re not really providing context around how good it is. A list will force me to make hard decisions, while also giving you context around how good I think a game is.
Let’s jump into it.
Today’s five games: Crossfire, Dune Imperium, Dinosaur Island, Empyreal Spells & Steam and Root.
#5 Dinosaur Island
Designer: Jonathan Gilmour, Brian Lewis
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
A good game that never rises to its potential. First up, this game has probably one of, if not my favourite graphical designs of any game. I love the loud colours, and the retro vibe of all the graphics. That’s not the issue.
The issue is that for a game about dinosaurs and the excitement they generate. This game doesn’t have any. Instead it has complexity. It has five phases in a round, and each phase has you doing something different mechanically, it’s like Dinosaur Island went to the discount store and bought everything – not because it needed it, but because it was half price. This makes the game incredibly wide and varied.
But each phase occupies a different mental space, making it hard to connect what you did in phase one, to what you’re going to be doing in the remaining four phases.
It also tanks the pace of the game.
Outside of that, it’s a game of incremental upgrades which is at ends with a theme as big as dinosaurs. You put in all this work to recreate some of the largest animals on the planet, your reward? Some points, some excitement, and some security issues. With the exception of the DNA system, which is great, the theme isn’t communicated through the mechanics of the game.
An example of a minuscule reward is when you hire some of the most experienced professionals on the planet to only get small incremental benefits. You get to draw an extra visitor, or your security increases by 1. These benefits aren’t the kind that get me out of bed, or get a board game from shelf to table.
It has it’s merits though, like the DNA track which to me is the most interesting part of the game. Deciding which DNA to get and how to convert basic to advanced. It’s the most fun I had with the game.
Otherwise, everything else works and that makes Dinosaur Island a solid board game. But with the exception of the DNA tracks, the game is devoid of innovation. Which makes it a hard game to return to when other games are out there doing the same thing – but better.
I will give a shout out to the components from the Kickstarter edition. They are amazing! And my 3 year old son loves the slap bracelet.
Overall Rank: 5
Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
I struggle a lot with social deduction games.
I have a horrible time reading people. So your nightmare situation is the one where you, and your evil twin are standing in front of me shouting “They’re evil.” Because, I’ll just shoot the both of you and be done with it.
This is why I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a social deduction game, not only am I terrible at reading people. I have trouble lying, and get flustered when someone calls me dishonest. Which is what a lot of these games boil down to. Two people claiming they’re good, with little to no proof to back their claim.
While Crossfire is no exception to this, it has a few features that make me enjoy it more than your average social deduction game:
- Everyone is provided with the same amount of information.
- It’s short, with rounds lasting 3 minutes.
- There’s novelty bringing out your finger guns.
- Both teams have something to do.
To dig into a couple of those points, at the start of the game you get to see your role and your neighbour’s before they’re shuffled and re-distributed. This gives you some tangible evidence to begin your assumptions. Also known as a life saver for those of us logically inclined.
The short round time is nothing new, but it does save the game from becoming the argument of two people standing opposite ends of the aisle yelling ‘I’m the good guy’. Which is great, because we’ve had more than enough of that over the last four years.
Otherwise, it boils down a lot mechanics that you’ve seen in other social deduction games into a slim package. As an added bonus, you don’t have to close your eyes for a period at the start – which makes playing this in the lunch room a heck of a lot less awkward.
Overall Rank: 4
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Publisher: Leder Games
While I received Root in 2018, I didn’t get to play it until 2020. Part of that is me being lazy, but a bigger part is me being terrified of the teach.
Root is a game where each player has their own set of mechanics. For instance, the Cats play your standard build, move, attack on the board. The Birds have to be programmed, each round you have to fulfil the same move set, and each round you can build on to this move set. Instead of playing an army, the Raccoon is singular, and you slip through the battlefield trading items with other players. Lastly, you have the Mice, who even though I’ve played them 3 times, I’m still not really sure what they do.
As game owner, it is my solemn duty to learn the rules of the game before everyone sits at the table. And considering that you have to learn 5 different rule sets – it’s a big ask.
But it’s actually not that bad.
While there are a lot of rules when looking at the whole, each individual faction is quite simple, and a lot of what players need to know is on the boards in front of them. So, I’m not really sure why I was so apprehensive.
Regardless, I am so glad I got over that.
Turns out I love Root.
It holds my favourite gaming highlight of 2020. Which I’ll talk about later, but before that let me tell you why I love Root and it’s forced emergent narrative.
For instance, the way the Cats are built, they’re always going to come out strong, and it requires the whole forest to keep them in check. The Birds on the other hand start weak, require help to get going, but when they do they steam roll over everything. Then the Raccoons are trying to judge who’s going to pick a side to help, all the while helping themselves to every point they can get their dirty little hands on. And finally the Mice, who I still have no idea what they do.
Because these factions are built in this way, it creates a story for the game. The Cats start off as the villains, and at the beginning of the game the plot revolves around working together to thwart their efforts. But as the game progresses and the point leader changes – so does the villain of the story. Will it be you who rises to the top? Or will you find yourself at the beck and call of another villain. It’s this story that is incredibly engaging to play through.
Mechanically, the game is quite simple. Each faction has two to three simple ways of scoring points, but figuring out the quickest way to get those points in a complex environment is the crux of the game.
With one exception – and this leads back to my highlight mentioned earlier. Dominance Cards. These cards allow you throw away the goal of getting to 30 points first, and instead bet the table that you’ll own three areas by the start of your next turn.
Back to my highlight of the year. The Cats domination of the forest was beginning to wane, but they were still really strong – and then they put down a Dominance card. The whole shape of the game changed from trying to hinder all the players enough for me to get ahead. To holy crap we need to skin that Cat! It took the Bird player and I everything we had, and an edge of your seat dice roll to stop him. It was a magical experience, and one I won’t forget in a while.
Brilliant game, and one I’ve done a complete 180 on. Instead of being afraid to get it to the table, I want to get it to the table every chance I get.
Overall Rank: 3
#2 Empyreal Spells & Steam
Designer: Trey Chambers
Publisher: Lvl99 Games
Empyreal is a game that’s had me stumped for the last 6 months. I’ve sat down to write a review about this game several times, but every time I’ve given up. Because it’s a roundel game. Until I read reviews about Empyreal I thought Roundel was the old guy who worked at the library. I didn’t want to put that evil on you guys.
So without using the word roundel. Here is my brief review of Empyreal Spells & Steam.
Empyreal is a train game that breaks the formula and goes for fun and fantastic instead of a realistic economic simulation. You’ll have trains using portal-like mechanics to join their railway across the country, while you attempt to deliver as many goods as you can.
It has a great mix of strategy, tactile decisions and theme.
Every 2-5 moves you’ll have to make a delivery. To make a delivery a success you need to be thinking about where you’re placing your trains. As what hexes your trains are on, determines if there are goods to deliver.
Longer term you’re then thinking of how to upgrade your engine. Do you need more mana to pull off more funky moves before you need to rest? Or do you need more spell cars? Which gives you more options to play each run through of your actions. Or do you need a specialist? Who will give you that extra oomph. Whoever can combine these factors together with their own character powers and abilities the best will take the W.
Even though each of these factors are powerful, it’s the specialists who are the secret sauce that elevate this game above other similar train games. These specialists all break the game in a unique and satisfying manner tying into the fantasy theme. Additionally, because they’re so powerful, they change your best strategy each game. Meaning that you have to react to how the game is setup, and can’t rely on preformed strategies.
But powerful as they are, they never seem unbalanced. Of the many games that I’ve played it always comes down to a handful of points separating first and second place.
Another important factor of Empyreal Spells & Steam is tempo.
Turns move fast, but you’re actively conscious about how close everyone is to delivering – and players get to choose how fast they can go through all of their actions. If they get somewhere before you, they most likely will steal your goods, or snag a specialist you had your eye on. Everything in this game feels like a race, providing a constant state of low stakes tension throughout.
This focus on tempo provides a whole swagger of strategies to think about. Do you go fast and collect the minimum amount of goods, or do you stack up and collect as many as possible. Do you power up one action, or do you power up your whole set of actions. What strategies you end up sticking with really depends on the flow of the game. Which to me, is a sign of a great game.
Now even though I love this game, Empyreal Spells & Steam doesn’t get a free pass. The board gets waaaaay too cluttered towards the end of the game. There’s too much visual information to take in that you can get lost in it all. I feel like this could of been helped with some cleaner graphic design on the tiles.
Secondly, even though this game is straight forward and easy to understand. What makes it difficult is that it’s icons on icons on icons. I have yet to play a game where I haven’t had to make quick reference to the rule book to help me out. Which makes the game a bit overbearing to new players as well. Fortunately, most of the icons are the same or similar and it’s only the specialists that really require the rulebook reference.
I had a blast with Empyreal Spells & Steam in 2020. It was my most played game by a long margin. And it wasn’t until a late entry in December that it was pipped for my best game of 2020.
Overall Rank: 2
#1 Dune Imperium
Designer: Paul Dennen
Let me begin by quoting Owen Wilson:
This game is phenomenal.
I’ll start off by saying I’m not a Dune fan. In fact I still internally debate the pronunciation of Bene Gesserit (Is it Be-en Jess-er-it or is it Benny Guh-sserit?). I haven’t read the books, but I do have fond memories of the RTS game which came out in 1992.
That’s my long way of telling you, that theme had 0 impact on me. Dune Imperium won my heart through mechanics alone.
Dune Imperium is disarmingly easy to learn and to play, but you’re constantly having to make decisions and trade-offs. It constantly challenges you to make the right decision, and engages you from start to finish.
It’s the loving baby of a solid worker placement game and a wildly powerful deck building game.
Each round you draw five cards and have 2 workers to play with. Each turn you play 1 card and that card tells you which worker action spaces you can use. More advanced cards also have a bonus activated when played as well.
The tormented beauty of it is that you can only play 2-3 cards a round. Once you’re out of workers, you have to reveal the rest of your hand; and use the reveal bonus most cards have. This can be an influence to buy new cards, combat power to add to the conflict, or some other extremely powerful ability.
You can already see how much is involved, and the tension between wanting to play a card for a power or action, and wanting to keep the card for the reveal power.
But it gets better.
Moving on to the board, there are four factions and each with 2 super strong worker placement actions each. Performing these moves you up their faction track which will allot you points the higher you go. The rest of the spaces are some combination of diplomacy, trade or resource generation. But outside of the faction spaces, what we really care about is if these spaces will allow us into the conflict.
This conflict happens after everyone has had a reveal turn. Anyone who’s sent their brave cubes into the battle has a chance to win a juicy reward. This reward was revealed at the start of the round, which gives you enough time to figure out if you want it (usually you do), and if so, how can you get it.
At the end of each conflict, all cubes who were sent off to fight are sent off the board as casualties. It’s quite hard to get new cubes into the fight, so you really have to determine if joining the conflict is worth it, and how much you want to invest in winning the reward.
Again, another series of awesome decisions that need to be made.
But it gets better.
Paul Dennen has done an awesome job in creating these cards – as they’re incredibly powerful. Which means, similarly to the Empyreal Spells & Steam, you can have these massive turns where you’ll be blowing people away with your genius (and spice melange). While at the same time, your strategy is entirely dependent on what cards are on offer – in the market or in combat.
This allows different strategies to be formed and used each game. And while you may think this causes the game to be too random, having half your action be dedicated to picking a non-changing worker placement spot really balances it out.
I don’t really have much more to say about Dune Imperium. It’s a fantastic game, and easily my favourite of 2020 that I’ve played so far.
Overall Rank: 1
That’s it for this post, I hope you enjoyed my ramblings! Let me know if you enjoyed it. But more importantly – did I get it right? How would you rank these 5 games? Let me know your thoughts, and ranking in the comments below!