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Quinns: It looks like our Top 50 is maintaining its structural integrity, for now. At the first sign of trouble, it is of utmost importance that you all evacuate the website immediately.
I refuse to have any more dead on my hands.
#40: A FEW ACRES OF SNOW
Video review here, at 21:14.
Top Games of 2012 roundup here
Paul: I think, of all the games out there that feature deckbuilding, that gradual collection of cards that represent growing powers and resources and abilities, A Few Acres of Snow does it best. Yes, I might introduce people to the idea with a simpler game, but Acres is the showcase. There you are, fighting a war in North America, trying to gather troops and supplies, but as you gradually expand your command, everything under your control becomes… harder.
The more your army grows, the more cards you add to your deck. The bigger your deck, the harder it is for you to actually tug out the particular cards you need at the moment you need them. How are you going to win that siege if you can’t seem to get your cannon to the front? Where are your elite troops? Why haven’t they turned up yet? Is your fort actually going to hold out long enough for relief to arrive? Why am I asking so many questions. Quintin Smith is on the scene. Quinns, over to you.
Quinns: Like some hibernating mammal, from the very first instance we played A Few Acres of Snow, it made a home in my head and refused to leave.
You’d never guess it from the stoic Native American on the cover, the spartan manual or the odd Canadian names spilling out across its simple board, but this game is magic. Like the best war games, you’re not just fighting your opponent. It’s far more emotional than that. You’re sympathising with them. Yes, they’re the source of all your pain. But they’re also the only person who shares your suffering, of understanding your regret taking all that useless land around Fort Stanwix, because now it’s gumming up your logistics.
Take a look when we’re done, and you’ll see that all the wargames in our Top 50 give players something extra to battle with that isn’t your opponent. A whimsical system that makes you feel like you have something in common with your enemy, making the entire battle bittersweet. That might just be the secret, I think.
The Opener here
Paul: This game has taken quite a drop down the SU&SD charts, hasn’t it? My goodness, we’re capricious people (or the rest of you lot are, anyway), but I suppose that’s only because we’ve had such a strong year in board gaming. That’s not at all a criticism of Mascarade, either, which still manages to claim a place in this top 50 and still remains funny, exciting, baffling and diabolic in equal measure.
Quinns: Blame the arrival of not just one, but two stunning games in 2015 that fill the same space as Mascarade of “5-10 players having a very silly time”. But what could they be... ?
Matt: Mind you, the expansion is great - effectively offering fun new replacements for some of the less dynamic roles, and the opportunity to add some new elements to the game. Cards that add randomisation, accusations, or even one that when revealed instantly kills whoever flips it over creates a hidden role game that’s fairly malleable. The base game is still great, but perhaps lacks the variety needed to keep things fresh.
Paul: In terms of hidden roles and hidden information, I think it still kicks Coup’s arse. Its roles, particularly the peasants, are smarter and produce funnier outcomes. The constant switching of other people’s cards makes everything sillier. Yet, nevertheless, it still rewards players who display candour and bravado and smarts. I like the confusion. I like seeing you all confused. I want to see everyone confused. I want confusion to reign.
Quinns: It’s the winter of 2010, and I’m in a pub in Hammersmith with some friends. We have warm drinks in front of us, a roaring fire behind us and Condottiere on the table. We’re laughing over well-thumbed cards and nudging tiny wooden cubes around the game’s crap fold-out map of Italy. But the game doesn’t overpower the moment- as we draw cards or consider our moves, there’s gentle chat. There’s friendship. There’s true happiness.
It’s one of my most enduring gaming memories. Before Paul and I had started Shut Up & Sit Down, back when my board game collection couldn’t fill a single shelf, I used to carry Condottiere everywhere. And you know what? This single, slim box was more than enough.
Nostalgia aside, I love Condottiere for many of the same reasons I love Skull and Welcome to the Dungeon. It’s a game of hubris and humans, where so much of the joy is in watching your friend stay in a dangerous round when they should have folded. While it’s a more complicated game, all of its rules are in service of drawing out this moment of tension. Of letting players threaten certain cards, or withdraw, or utterly change the game.
For all the card games SU&SD recommends, Condottiere offers the most cardplay. Its players will drop unexpected cards, or cover a card with another card, or pick one back up in a satisfying little dance. It’s a game that at once reminds you where “Take that!” style card games originated, and why they’re rubbish compared to this.
Paul: I remember that pub. It was at the end of my road. It was a good pub.
Quinns: It was a good pub.
Paul: And it was a simpler time, a time before our experience in those Italian wars jaded us forever. Now, we’re old, weary and cynical, men ruined by the harsh realities of life. Still, I could go for another game of Condottiere.
Podcast discussion here
Quinns: In a controversial appearance, we’ve got Spanish-made sci-fi miniatures game Infinity in our top 50! If you’ve got a problem with that, blame the X-Wing Miniatures game for setting a precedent.
Matt: I’ve got a little pink robot man, and he’s brilliant. Did I mention that I had a little pink robot man? A good chunk of my interest in Infinity right now remains about painting my robots gold and pink, but it’s also clearly an excellent game. Anything that demands such an incredible amount of money and space is clearly a very silly game, but if you’re lucky enough to have the means to play it’s a hugely exciting way to spend a sunny afternoon. I smashed through a window! I jumped off a roof! I thought I’d move further than that in all honesty, and now I am almost definitely dead!
Quinns: Eric absolutely nailed his review for us, and not just because it spurred Matt, me and lots of our friends to start collecting Infinity. It’s just like he said- Infinity’s so much fun for the personality packed into every miniature, and it’s so villainously tense because it can and will kill off your favourite soldier, alien or animatronic cat in as much time as it takes to roll a D20.
Matt: That’s a great point! I love painting cool little figures and growing unreasonably attached to them, but Infinity puts a cap on it that stops you from losing all of your marbles. I spent hours as a teenager painting a single Warhammer goblin, then looked at the other 9 of them, and died.
The attachment I have to my Infinity posse wouldn’t be possible if the team wasn’t so small - you aren’t building an army, it’s a bloody STRIKE FORCE. I also can’t help but feel that the aesthetic crossover between this and Destiny has made 2015 the year that I hopelessly fell in love with sci-fi again. Money be damned, I want the cool spacemen.
Quinns: Absolutely. So, to summarise? Infinity is expensive, the rulebook is laughably complicated and building the scenery to play on requires some combination of time, money and imagination, depending on how many placeholder toilet rolls and DVD boxes you’re using.
But the reason it cracked our top 50 isn't simply that Infinity's worth the trouble, ultimately rewarding you with a ludicrous game of soldiers flinging smoke grenades and backflipping off of roofs. The creative side of it has hooked us all, too. Collaborating with my friends to build a snowy town has been one of my most rewarding gaming experiences of the year.
#36: FORBIDDEN STARS
Podcast discussion here
Matt: I’d forgotten how much I like the setting of Warhammer 40k - it’s just a bunch of cool space bastards stuck in endless wars for tenuous reasons. Forbidden Stars perfectly captures the theme of endless obstinate violence, pitting up to four players against each other in a big universe that suddenly isn’t even nearly big enough. But expansion alone isn’t enough - each of the races specifically desire planets that other players own at the start of the game, and from that point onwards it’s just a giant bitty mess. But those bits! Oh my, so many gorgeous tiny ships and tanks and gorgeous artwork everywhere - it’s like sailing towards inevitable doom in a Nutella-smothered yacht.
Quinns: “Mess” is the perfect word. Chaos In the Old World gets all the hype, but every game of it I’ve played has ended with a clinical locker room discussion of what each player did wrong. It’s so obtuse! Meanwhile, Forbidden Stars plays like a pillow fight in a muddy field.
The game starts, and everybody immediately has to invade someone else’s home world. But there’s no time for grudges, because on turn 2 a shift in warp storms means you immediately need to invade someone else. Then by turn 4 you’re punch-drunk and confused as to why all the planets you control are on the opposite side of the table but WHO CARES because you’ve got Titans and (BOOM) oh nope ok they got blown up.
Matt: The shifting warp-walls are superb! You spend a good ten minutes staring DEATH at the person opposite you on the table, battering each other with endless war rhetoric, and then suddenly the walls shift and war isn’t an option. So obviously, you start up another grand war with whoever happens to be closest, putting the previous beef on-hold indefinitely. It completely nails the 40k vibe of intergalactic blood-pressure problems, but it also takes away your ability to effectively play while harbouring a grudge, much like the nonchalance of Cosmic Encounter’s destiny deck that picks the person you’re attacking for you. Because fundamentally, it doesn’t matter - the only constant is WAR.
Quinns: Forbidden Stars offers all the silliness you want from a thematic game, with none of the weightlessness that the genre can edge towards. Every play is a gamble, but it’s a serious gamble, with you sliding your orks across the table like so many spiky poker chips. There’s lots at stake, all the time. All aboard the Nutella yacht!
#35: SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM
Matt: My brother’s alternative name for this game has pretty much rewired my lexicon at this point. “What’s In Your Bag, You Bastard?” is a genuinely brilliant family game that thrives on the table for one simple reason - the distribution of power during the game is wholly fair. At the end someone’s won and someone’s lost horribly, but everyone got to be the Sheriff twice. Having loads of cheese is nice, but nothing compares to the distilled sense of power that comes from being given carte blanche to openly interrogate your friends and family. It’s possibly the perfect Christmas game, bringing out unexpected streaks of personality in a way that’s a raucous amount of fun. Watching quiet, passive relatives suddenly go full-Godfather is just an absolute joy.
Paul: Seriously, though, what is in that bag? Is it fun? Is it a lie? Is it just a bag of cocks? DON’T LAUGH, if you laugh I can tell that you’re lying.
I actually try to get people to play a third round of Sheriff, so we all get to be the boss three times and do just a bit more interrogation. The game is great because it’s actually a relatively short affair, but I always want just a little bit more. Just one more chance to lie or to catch a liar. To catch a thief. To catch a criminal.
It’s good to lie. It’s good to lie and get away with it. It’s also good to tell the truth and get the finger pointed at you. That’s perhaps the best thing, to ruin someone’s day simply by being completely honest.
Matt: Oh gosh that’s the best. I know what you mean about wanting more - and I suppose that’s not a bad way of avoiding the dreaded bit at the end where you have to stop the fun while everyone counts up to see who’s won. Pro hosting tip: The official app that helps work out the scoring is really good, and if you’re clever you can enter the majority of the info in the final round while people are still playing! Nobody likes a Charlie Calculator, Charlie. I for one welcome the day when board game boxes watch over us with sentient AI, informing the room of winners and cheaters with a booming voice that shudders the room. “THIS MAN HAS NO CHICKENS IN HIS BAG. THE PENALTY IS DEATH” and then the lasers start.
Quinns: If this were a list ranking feelings rather than games, I might have to push for #1 being “Sneaking a shitload of contraband past the Sheriff.”
It’s so perfect. The fact that the instant he refuses to open your bag, you have to open it up with the whole table watching and slip all those facedown cards under the “Contraband” area of your player mat? And then watch the Sheriff turn to the next player with their nerves completely broken? Perfect. PERFECT.
Video review here
Quinns' Top Games of 2013 here
Let's Play here
Quinns: At number 34, it’s Settlers of Catan re-imagined as a gritty drama!
Matt: I’m still waiting for Settlers of Catan re-imagined as Coronation Street, but Klaus Teuber isn’t answering my calls.
Paul: We’ve squeezed it in! We’ve squeezed Archipelago into a “best games” list and immediately I feel better. I feel like a weight has been lifted. I feel like the Ghost of Christmas Board Games has slapped its thick and rotund hands onto my back and given me a long, firm massage.
Archipelago is one of those games that is complex, but not complicated. I love the growing map, I love the jumping on resources, I love the gradual, growing populations and ever-changing market. But, you know what? For all these moving parts, Archipelago doesn’t become overwhelming. Everything makes sense. This is a design that avoids being obtuse and yet still has so much going on. For that alone, I feel it deserves respect. A long, knowing nod. A shake of the hand. A pat on the shoulder. Maybe a gentle hug. Maybe an intimate, meaningful date on a frosty winter’s evening, just you and me. You and me. What’re you doing next week, Archipelago?
Matt: I’ve only played it once, but this one stayed with me. The distrust, the passive-aggressive negotiations, the requirement that everyone works together whilst also having no interest of ever doing so - it’s a beautiful disaster just waiting to happen. I refused to let anyone sell goods on the international market under the paper-thin guise of protecting the locals, while quietly also making myself very, very rich. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that’s left me feeling so thoroughly evil - but it was quite the experience.
Quinns: Yeah. Lots of games let you play the villain. Very few let you play a goody two-shoes, with everyone’s interests at heart. But Archipelago lets you do that! Its theme is so strong that just a little bit of roleplaying might have me handing out my resources.
Matt: Roleplaying is the right word, really - so much of the game revolves around rules that you won’t find anywhere in the manual. Trying to win while maintaining the PR that you’re mostly looking out for The Greater Good™ is delightfully fuzzy. So much of it comes down to smiles and spin and praying that the growing resentment around the table doesn’t mutate into anything that might cause you grief. But of course you can also just be genuinely nice, even if this concept remains alien to me. Last time we played I was an exotic fruit baron, while Paul just made a load of churches. Churches! Can you imagine? What a pious pom-pom that Paul chap is.
#33: ARCTIC SCAVENGERS
Quinns: How could we release our Top 50 games without a dedicated deck-building game? In case you’ve been sleeping under a copy of Twilight Imperium for the last six years, this is the esteemed genre, conceived by Dominion in 2008, where players each grow their own personal, unpredictable deck of cards for the duration of the game.
Let me tell you, this was a close-run thing. Dominion’s still good. Trains is even better. And Star Realms is as quick as sparkly as Trains is sedate and... train-y.
But it’s Arctic Scavengers’ wealth of ideas that makes it THE deck-building game for us. The central junkyard deck is a great idea. The contested resource you fight for at the end of each turn is a great idea. The buildings are a great idea, as are the tribal leaders, as are the gangs. Any one of these could power a deck-building game by itself. To have them all in one place feels like luxury.
If I’m honest, on any given night I’m more likely to want to play Trains. But I’m aware that most people aren’t like me, and didn’t spend their sixth birthday being driven around the motorways outside London, waiting for a glimpse of commuter trains. So Arctic Scavengers it is. Besides, the new box containing the base game, first AND second expansions is a fantastic value proposition.
#32: EL GRANDE
Quinns: Time for some Real Talk. Shut Up & Sit Down is the best job I’ve ever had, but I fantasise about leaving it. Because it’s a job where I have to play everything, I get exposed to games like El Grande (easily the most aptly-named game on this list) and then can’t give them the time they deserve.
This 1995 game of area control set in historical Spain can lay claim to every adjective SU&SD is fond of. It’s simple, silly, pacy, personal, tactical and tactile. On top of that, the new editions have lots of expansions right there in the box for your to try out, though I’ve never gotten to them. There are just such incredible possibilities for cunning in the base game. If there’s a problem with El Grande, it’s that you can sit planning your next move for whole minutes. If there’s a compliment to be paid to the game, it’s that nobody will mind.
Imagine it! One day I could just up and vanish, and retreat secretly to a sunny shore on the Mediterranean. I could eek out my days sat outside on a patio with a short glass of vino tinto, meeting people for El Grande twice a week. I could make money doing personal board game reviews for the locals!
Paul: You’d find a new board game within five minutes OR you’d open up a real-world version of that little El Grande castle and find that someone else had dropped in more cubes than you and already taken over that sunny shore, was already doing reviews for the locals. Who was it? It was Matt! Oh no!
Quinns: You’re not invited to this fantasy! Get out! OUT!
#31: CUTTHROAT CAVERNS
Video review here
Quinns: I like cut throats and I cannot lie!
You other brothers can’t deny!
That when you got no shame and you’re in last place!
And a wereboar’s in your face!
You get... uh, treacherous.
It’s no secret that SU&SD favourite Cosmic Encounter will be placing somewhere on this list, with its incredible selling point of re-mixing itself and surprising you every time you play it. Two years on, what’s become clear since we published our Cutthroat Caverns review is how wildly different it can be, too.
I’ve enjoyed side-splitting sagas with its written adventures. I’ve had sharp, painful games where a table of competitive players obliterate one another and never even make it out of the dungeon. I’ve had games where relics and events create taxing puzzles. I’ve seen it become a gentle co-op game, where players end up not caring about winning. I’ve seen a single rivalry define a game, to the delight of everyone else. And I’ve seen my girlfriend cry with laughter after shoving me into an explosive gas bag because she didn’t realise it would outright kill me.
Cutthroat Caverns isn’t the most reliable game in our list. Your friends need a playful attitude going in, a touch of luck is required when drawing monsters for your dungeon, and the rules can be a little fiddly. Instead, Cutthroat Caverns is a true adventure. Not always easy, but unquestionably worth it.
Our top 50 continues tomorrow, as we plunge into the terrible twenties...