SU&SD’s Top 50 Games Ever, 2015! #30 to #21
Video review here
Cyclades: Titans review here
Paul: Things I like: Greece. Things I hate: Grease. Fortunately, Cyclades is all about the former and has absolutely nothing to do with John Travolta racing shiny cars and singing tired songs. It has far more monsters and it has a very efficient, very precise mechanics, trimmed like a lean piece of meat.
You’re a vegetarian? That’s fine! Cyclades is like a perfectly-formed and very crunchy piece of broccoli. It’s firm, it’s classy, it’s cute. It’s one of those games where every move is important, where every coin matters, where every bid on every god can have very significant consequences for the next turn. There’s no treading water in Cyclades, no dawdling or delaying. You tread water and the KRAKEN IS GOING TO COME FOR YOU.
Quinns: Ah, but just as broccoli has that outrageous, inedible stem, Cyclades is kept from greatness by its stupid box. The years have been kind to this game but I loathe its gigantic box more than ever. To this day, it still makes a mockery of my game shelves and has to exist flat against their side like a nasty barnacle.
It’s so weird, because the rest of Cyclades’ design is so clean! It’s incredible how much anger and violence this game offers despite having so few actual fights. Like its Greek gods, it’s all about positioning, scheming, and posturing.
Cyclades was always going to have a slot in our Top 50. That it managed to get as low as #30 is thanks to the cornucopia of the Cyclades: Titans expansion, which came as a nice surprise earlier this year. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again- more board games need team play!
Quinns: Yes, Pictomania. Did you think we were joking when we called it one of our favourite games of 2011? That it was a coincidence we kept mentioning it in 2012, 2013 and 2014? We’re as serious as as a dead chicken found at the bottom of a ravine when we say that this is one of our favourite games ever.
Ignore the rubbish name. Vlaada Chvátil’s Pictomania only masquerades as Pictionary so it can infiltrate more homes. Once it’s inside it starts openly fucking with you. What starts as you drawing a boot while your friend draws a goat rapidly evolves into you trying to draw “Eternity” while trying to guess what your friends are drawing, which will be tricky as they’re trying to draw “Gram”, “Reliability” and “Sociologist”. Mostly Pictomania is just a game of getting your friends stuttering and swearing like angry little engines on a frosty morning.
Paul: I think there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from various comedy drawing/interpretation games, but Pictomania is the best, and the best by far, much like gravity is the best way to keep your feet on the ground and infinitely better than using old gum, glue or an overcomplicated system of levers and pulleys.
Brendan: My favourite moment of Pictomania was trying to draw “Judas Iscariot”. I did a little stick figure with a Roman helmet giving another little stick figure with a beard a bunch of coins. I think I drew a kneeling, praying Jesus on his other side too. I was so proud of how well I had created what, in my mind, was a faithful reproduction of a religion textbook illustration. The scene of Gethsemane as depicted in some school book from my childhood. When the drawing round stopped, everyone around the table looked to my board and said “What?” I looked back at my own drawing and saw, with a stranger’s eyes, complete nonsense.
Quinns: Yeah, that’s what it’s about. Spending 7 seconds drawing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, producing something that looks like Sesame Street on acid, and then one of your friends going OH MY GOD and getting it right anyway. God bless this game.
#28: SPACE ALERT
Review here at 25:01
Paul: Last year, Brendan was asking if anyone found Space Alert nerve-wracking, which is a bit like asking if Alaska is “a bit cold,” or if Jupiter is “a bit too big to fit in your mouth all at once.”
Quinns: It is. I’ve tried.
Paul: This was our first ever real-time board game, wasn’t it? Since then, we’ve played XCOM, Zombie ’15 and Escape: Curse of the Temple, but nothing has quite matched Space Alert for furiously imperfect teamwork, for disasters averted by a moment’s brilliance (or serendipitous confusion), for defeat yanked so violently from the jaws of victory. You can bet that, if Czech Games decide to do another real-time game, I will be very keen to see what that is. If they even need to. They nailed it first time.
Quinns: If any game on this list is due for a new edition, it’s this one. Imagine Space Alert 2nd Edition, with beautiful, clean art design and simplified rules! Then stop imagining and wipe up that drool.
Matt: Lovely weather we’re having today, isn’t it? I mean I guess it probably is, unless we’re underwater or in space. Hello I work here.
Paul: Yes, I agree with you, it’s both entirely appropriate and entirely normal for this place that we’re in to be the way that it is right now. Also, goodness, it’s so quiet today! That’s what I like about it most here.
Quinns: A quiet office party?!
Paul: Yes! I mean quiet because our office is… soundproofed because… we work in… the stealth industry? On a military base! Probably.
Matt: I definitely do. I really like my work. What do you most like about your work, Paul?
Paul: I feel so safe here.
Quinns: Safe on a base?
Paul: OH NO LOOK OUT THE THING THAT IS BAD FOR US IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN AGAIN! OR FOR THE FIRST TIME! This is awful! But also it’s… okay? It’s what we’re here for?
Quinns: ALMOST CERTAINLY!
Quinns: Imagine, for a moment, that there are infinite parallel universes. If that’s true, then there’s a realm where board games are all as masterfully-crafted as Jaipur.
A tiny box and beautiful cover implore that you take it home. Inside, there’s a hot pink inlay (hot pink!) holding all its components neatly in place. But how to play? Not to worry, friend. Jaipur has the greatest manual I’ve ever seen, replete with illustrations, reminders, examples and advice. Learning to play a card game has never been this easy. And then the game itself… !
Jaipur is a perfect card game. It’s a cool combination of gambling, set-collecting and troubling your opponent, but it never demands very much from you. Like Love Letter, like a pop song, like a bowl of nachos, Jaipur wants nothing more than for you to absent-mindedly enjoy it until you grow old.
Which is why, in my spare time, I’m building a machine to crack into this other parallel universe. I’d say wish me luck, but if I get through then you can all get stuffed because I’m never coming back.
#25: TERRA MYSTICA
Quinns: Wouldn’t. Wait, what?
Paul: So much wood! Like Archipelago, Terra Mystica manages to be a complex game with a lot of ideas and mechanics, without getting too mean, without alienating players. It’s one of the very best eurogames of our time and it sidesteps so many pitfalls that its many peers stumble down into. It has clever systems, like those ever-circling cubes of magic. It has a good amount of player interaction and competition. It has special races with special powers that make me feel special inside It has colour! Good work, Terra Mystica. Good work!
Quinns: I need to put more time into Terra Mystica. My defining memory of it is STILL being curled up in the corner of my friend’s house, frantically trying to learn it before he and his girlfriend were done cooking dinner. It’s not even that the manual’s bad, but like Terra Mystica’s art design, it doesn’t really care about you. It’s busy being Terra Mystica. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!” it shouts, in my dreams. But then it invites you into its house in the woods and its actually very polite and serves you rye bread and dark beer.
I feel like I should have something smart to say, but all I want to state is how weird this game is. The magic bowls! The amount of components! Even its central concept. It’s the least harmonious fantasy world ever, with everyone trying to turn the world into a hellscape that can only support them.
God. Even when I’m making fun of it I just want to play it again. What a pain.
#24: LOVE LETTER
Paul: LOVE LETTER HOW ARE YOU SO SMALL.
Quinns: DON’T SHOUT YOU’LL SCARE IT AWAY.
Paul: HOW, THOUGH. HOW. So tiny and ickle and scuttling behind the sofa where I can’t quite reach it.
Matt: If you shepherd it this way, maybe I can catch it in my Games Bag.
Quinns: TOO LATE it got behind the sideboard again. Now we’ll have to tempt it out with some biscuits and wait all night to see if it even resurfaces.
Paul: I do like how it’s got such simple, simple, simple rules and yet creates just the right amount of space for all sorts of things to happen. There’s a little bit of bluffing, a little bit of deduction, a little bit of deception. It’s one of the most perfect game designs out there, in my humble opinion.
Quinns: AND THERE IT IS.
Paul: QUICK GET IT.
Matt: Guys, I don’t think we should…
Paul: JUST HIT IT.
Quinns: It’s running!
Paul: JUST HIT IT GET THE PADDLE HIT IT I MUST HAVE IT.
Paul: It’s entirely appropriate that Carcassonne is on this list and also that it’s riding high in a position of glory and greatness. What a terrific game. What a real veteran of the industry. What a pillar of the Golden Age of Board Games. What a beautiful, glorious, elegant and noble example of its kind. Old and yet still young. Simple and yet intelligent. Carcassonne is the game we all wanted to be when we grew up. Carcassonne, subtle and sexy, was who we all fancied at school.
There’s no game that I’ve played more. There’s no game that I’ve owned more expansions for. There’s no game that I’ve seen impress more hobby newbies. Base Carcassonne is great, with its fundamental conceit of trying to muscle in or outright steal other people’s roads and cities, but it gets even more devious when you start to introduce expansions that add risk/reward dynamics. Inevitably, play gets crueller, with people laying their tiles in a way that makes your life so much harder, that leaves your meeples forever stranded, that ruins your plan to SCORE BIG. Or maybe you’re playing with four or five players and suddenly it’s a game of jerk negotiation, with favours swapped and promises exchanged.
Who’d have thought so much could come from a game whose base mechanic is just playing a tile and then choosing whether or not to put a meeple on that tile?
#22: LORDS OF VEGAS
Podcast impressions here
Paul: Wait, I want Carcassonne to go here. That’s about laying tiles. Why can’t we have Lords of Carcassonne?
Quinns: We can’t start putting our lab-bred hybrid games on this list. Otherwise we’ll have to tell everyone about Two Night Ultimate Werewolf: Avalon and a Boom. Western society isn’t ready for that game yet.
Paul: You’re right. The Bestial Lust phase alone-
Quinns: Also, Carcassonne doesn’t let you goad your friends into visiting your casino to lose five million dollars at the craps table. Carcassonne’s a classic, inspired design. But Lords of Vegas is so much more SU&SD, isn’t it? Like Carcassonne it skirts perfection with this fantastic area control game with lots of risk/reward, except Lords of Vegas then keeps building, onward and upward. More jokes! More risk! More reward! The end result is like any other Las Vegas casino. Seductive, impressive and cheerily unfair.
Brendan: I like the way the banknotes aren’t in wimpy Monopoly denominations of tens, twenties or fifties, but in MILLIONS. And that they each have a different member of the Rat Pack on them instead of George Bush or whoever. This, folks, is how you do ‘play money’. It is just one of the tricks Lords of Vegas uses to make every player feel like a rich jerk. The way you have to finagle your way into owning as many neighbouring lots as possible (partly through luck, partly through shady deals with others) so you can make your gargantuan Ubercasino, really makes this game feel like it is exactly what is projected inside every property baron’s ego. Could only be improved by chomping on a big cigar while you roll the dice.
Matt: I adore the way that casinos go in and out of style, too. Watching one player make a killing on Western-themed casinos while another invests every penny they’ve got into Sci-fi just fits the gold-rush tone of the overall game perfectly. You can spend the whole game investing heavily into “the next big thing” only to find that the fad never happens, or you can suddenly become vastly wealthy when your long-term gamble finally pays off. Being a loser in Lords of Vegas is weirdly entertaining, simply because you get to act out that well-worn movie trope of the washed-up businessman who made a bad investment. Honestly, Sci-fi casinos are gonna be huge! It’ll happen, you’ll see. Can you lend me five million?
OOH, and I also love the way that you can make the extra dosh you need to finish off a purchase by playing craps at someone else’s casino. How many times in your life does the average person get to experience what it feels like to be blessed with the unfair odds of the house?
#21: TWILIGHT IMPERIUM
Review here at 03:32
Let’s Play here
Paul: Terrific. Madness. Too big. Yet somehow not too complicated. Too long, yet not really too long because it keeps you invested the entire time. If it’s somehow still not big or long enough for you, you can biggen and lengthen it by adding in whatever expansion stuff you want, some of which adds brilliant politics and gives you even more reason to hate your friends. It should be stodgy and turgid, but somehow it isn’t. It’s surely (still) one of the best games out there and definitely a contender for the best game outright.
Quinns: No, it’s not #1 on our list, but in terms of scale Twilight Imperium remains board gaming’s grand momma. Its fat potato. Its hot, uh, chiquita.
When we first reviewed it we stated that it brought a warring galaxy to life on your dinner table. When we did our Let’s Play a year later, we proved it. And you know what? The years have been kind of this game. It’s still the definitive smorgasboard of politics, economy, war, roleplaying and surprise. No other publisher has been mad enough to take a shot at the crown. 2011’s Eclipse took a pop at Twilight Imperium by offering the same thing, but quicker and more sleek. Which was fun, but ultimately less memorable. Eclipse offers a wargame. Twilight Imperium offers something that could have been plucked out of a history book. A tale of warring cultures, bruised egos, devastating surprises and mistakes that kill millions.
God, I love it. It breaks my heart that we haven’t been able to play it more. Let’s do that second Let’s Play soon, eh?
Pip: I would be totally down for that. I really loved the Let’s Play we did, although I felt like I only started to understand what the hell was going on towards the end. It was so hard to get an idea for the wider implications of what I was doing. It’s the sort of game where you need to play a heap before you get that nailed down, except the games take all day so finding the time to practice or get those few starter games in while balancing a full time job… not so easy. Or maybe that’s just me. Rob seemed to get Twilight Imperium straight away, but then that’s Rob for you. Taking over galaxies and menacing everyone in a very polite and nice and EFFICIENT way so you don’t notice you’re getting screwed over. Especially when Tom and Brendan are squabbling on your left side, Quinns is being a sex mermaid to the right, and just over the table you’re keeping an eye on Paul trying to work out if he’s carrying out a masterful bluff or whether he literally has nothing for you to be scared of.
Paul: What is a sex merm-
Brendan: Squabbling is definitely the description of what I do in Twimp. I love the pseudo-diplomatic reasoning you have to concoct for why you are expanding to a certain place on the board, why you want a certain planet, or why you need to build a dozen dreadnaughts. In the end, nobody trusts anyone else. But when you say “I’m not going to attack” to the person on your right and then “I’m not going to attack you either” to the person on your left within the same sixty seconds, that mistrust reaches Cold War levels of paranoia. Ultimately, someone has got to blink first.
Pip: Tom didn’t blink that entire game. Although that might have been the painkillers he was on at the time.
Our Top 50 continues tomorrow, as we wade into the troubling teens…
SU&SD’s Top 50 for 2015