A Top 20 of sorts - Zerbique's solo picks (Part One)
Every year, I have the hardest time compiling my Top 20. I just don’t feel like ranking games. They fit different purposes, and therefore, ranking games feel like ranking these purposes. For instance, I think large-scope games with an immersive setting (basically, any good adventure game whose board takes most of your table) are the pinnacle of board gaming; but I play these only once or twice a year. Conversely, there are some small easy-going abstract games that I can play on a daily basis. As a result, I value them immensely, but I always regard them as “inferior”, even though, in a sense, they clearly aren’t. It’s more difficult to provide a meaningful play experience in twenty minutes than in two hours because you have less leeway for different things to happen in the course of the game.
So, since I wanted to celebrate the Top 200 period on Solitaire Times with a Top 20 of my own, but didn’t want to rank purposes, I picked ten restricted categories, and for each, I picked the game that I consider to be the champion of this category. I also mention one runner-up, and one game that I look forward to and that might dethrone the current title holder, but which I haven’t had the occasion to try yet. And if you want to see my official Top 20, it’s already on BGG. There is considerable overlap with the games listed here, but it’s not a 100% match either.
Top Fantasy adventure game I haven’t time to play
Let's begin with the most important: big, immersive, heavily involving Fantasy adventure games. This is the genre I believe I like the most, that I am the most prone to back on KS, and that I would always play if given the opportunity. But let's face it: these are monsters that can embark you on a quest for a whole day, they usually require a heavy set of rules, they sprawl over the entirety of your family table, and they take half an hour for set-up alone. In other words, they just don't get played. But they are not in any way less alluring for that - on the contrary.
Picture from BGG
Winner: Zerywia! Granted, my experience with Zerywia has been limited to playing through the tutorial - this is kind of the point of this category. But I spent some considerable time on it if only to read through the atrocious rule book. Sometimes it does a very good job of explaining a specific gaming situation (e.g. combat), but it just lacks an overall structure and it won't guide you with your first steps into the world of Zerywia. Such a shame!
So, why does it deserve this high ranking? The artwork, the Slavic flavor, the atmosphere, are pretty unique, and this does a lot already. When I see this game, I just want to play it. As for the play itself, I rather enjoyed the narrative blurbs on the card (not too long, but thematic enough to give you a sense of adventure), the brutal fights (you only roll the dice once), the saga quest that gives you purpose. I'm still very much intrigued and I have boiled with the eagerness to revisit this world ever since. Preferably with an updated rulebook though.
Runner-up: Hexplore It. Hexplore It is wonderful. It offers a very big RPG-ish sandbox game in a reasonably sized box, yet full of contents. It distills the genre to its essentials, components-wise, but it offers lots of opportunities: you can buy different stuff in different cities, face meteorological conditions, go on side quests, explore the uncharted parts of the map, etc. This game is the anti-thesis to the tendency to offer one giant mini for every enemy you encounter and one deck full of story bits for every arc of the scenario. Hexplore It is not about the story, it's all about the system. And this provides a great canvass for your own story to unfold.
Glimpse of the future: Euthia. Euthia does look a bit clunky solo-wise, but the rules are lean and the mechanics seem rather efficient. However, while Hexplore It leans towards minimalism, Euthia doesn't hesitate to offer literal hundreds of tiles to give you a plentiful variety of loot items. The game is so big it took me two hours to depunch it all. Now I'm a bit intimidated to put it on the table, even though I already read the rules.
Top Fantasy Adventure game for those who haven’t time to play
The first category was all about the dream, the dim mirage of fun glittering among the sands of the horizon. But if, like me, you just don't have the time to go on a real adventure... which games can give you a proper fix? So, the games in this second category are light, short, and certainly not nearly as rich as the previous ones, but since in my life, gaming is limited and heavily constrained, I'm just very glad that they exist.
Picture from BGG
Winner: Pauper's Ladder. Pauper's Ladder plays in 45 minutes but lets you feel you have played for two hours. This is in no way a criticism - that's only because it packs a full-fledged adventure into a much smaller format. The rules are extremely simple: you move around, discover cards, stuff happens, sometimes you roll a dice or draw your " combat" cards when you encounter a foe. You can upgrade your character by crafting new skills with Elf ears and zombie dust, hunt for monsters, get some good loot, go on quests (which can be easy or impossible to the point of silly, like when you need to find the fabled underground river, which you have one chance in 50 or so to encounter during the game)... Finding the way to slay a mighty dragon is also especially rewarding. Add to this that the game is cheaper than most, holds in a small box (Elder Sign size), always remains accessible from the publisher, and offers an impressive amount of cards, and you've got a well-deserved winner.
Runner-up: Call for Adventure. This game capitalizes on a clever premise. What if players, when they want an adventure game, mostly want an adventure, and don't care much about the game? Call for Adventure therefore a series of story prompts so that you can weave your own personal epic, lavishly illustrated with beautiful and evocative Fantasy art. Just so it remains exciting and unpredictable, acquiring the cards requires "throwing the runes", with a sparkle of engine building as more cards get you more runes. It's very simple, but perfect for a game late in the night, when you are tired but still direly in need to go adventuring.
Glimpse of the future: Adventure of D. This game doesn't appeal to me at all from the visual side of things. But it offers a shortish yet mechanically intricate adventure game from a mere pack of cards - I am bound to give it a try at some point.
Top brain-burning game
I love jigsaw puzzles. Trying to discern patterns, sorting out the pieces into categories of my own to set up a big move later on, as some parts of the overall scheme suddenly become clear... Naturally, I like games that provide the same sort of tickle to the brain, with the same kind of spatial visualization that gradually emerges as patterns unfold. These are games that are cognitively demanding, but usually just as much rewarding.
Winner: Bullet. If I had to pick one favorite, it would be this one. Bullet is incredibly satisfying. The rules are extremely straightforward, the components are minimal, and yet, it features an incredible amount of variety, addicting gameplay, and a sense of tension that keeps you involved till the very end. It also provides a formidable sense of control amid the chaos and the randomness - to the point that defeats never feel unfair, no matter how challenging the game may be, and you can always blame your own poor decisions. The picture above shows my victory against "The Ghost in the Machine", one of the most memorable moments in my whole solo gaming life. The game stayed on the edge between victory and defeat until the very last bullet draw. When it didn't kill me and I realized I had won, it was simply exhilarating!
Runner-up: Tasty Humans. I don't know why Tasty Humans isn't more popular out there. It's a very fun game, with clever mechanics and fun components, and one that is excellent to play solo. You "swallow" (=draft) adventurers who come in the form of a small polyominoic shape with different colored parts. Then each part independently falls down at the bottom of your stomach. Every three adventurers gulped whole, you also draft a "leader" which also goes to your stomach. A leader is actually an additional scoring condition. So, as the game goes on, you collect more and more scoring conditions... But most of these also depend on the scoring tile location, so the complexity of the puzzle slowly builds up from round to round. It feels very satisfying, and the game even offers solo achievements that are both challenging and fun. In my view, this title is the archetype of a hidden gem.
Glimpse of the future: Betwixt and Between. This game is as pretty as it is intriguing. You play as an adventurer in some fairy-filled mystical wood, and encounter creatures that grant you magic crystals that you use to form patterns on a grid to activate potent magic spells - and ultimately win the game. Let's see if all this adds up to an actually engaging gaming experience.
Top tile-laying game
Why a tile-laying category? Well, that's easy: because I enjoy tile-laying games! This is one of my actual surprises in the hobby - it always felt like a rather dull category to me, but as it turned out, I enjoy most of these games. Arranging tiles one by one, fulfilling overlapping and conflicting scoring conditions, slowly building a spatial structure, all these features in the end explain why I enjoy these games, and what I am looking for when I pick one from this category.
Winner: Sagani. I'm always a bit surprised to consistently find Sagani in my Top 20 rankings. I just wouldn't expect it, because it's simplistic, luck-driven, and the art tends to annoy me. But I keep coming back to it, and I always, always enjoy playing it, no matter how poorly I lose. There is something particularly relaxing in laying these tiles one after the other, meeting the requirements to finally flip the tile, waiting for the right color to show up. Dropping the wooden tokens on the tile as you lay it even feels like meditating with a rosary. On top of this, there is complete freedom in how you arrange the tiles, making it the least constrained of the "Habitats" series, and the fittest to forget all about the external world and spend a moment of deep immersion into a world of shapes and patterns.
Runner-up: Cascadia. Cascadia has been quite a rising star this year, both in the solo Top 200 and in the overall BGG ranking. It even got featured in my Uncle Scrooge quarterly magazine, making it the most mainstream game of this whole post. And truth be told, it's still unopened, in shrink, from the KS campaign. I did play it digitally a lot though, and since I own the game, I guess it counts. It's just very well done, even though there is nothing new or particularly striking about it. It strikes the right balance between planning/thinking about your moves and a relaxing experience without too much overhead. I guess it owes its success to this very rare feat.
Glimpse of the future: Mists over Carcassonne. I have never played Carcassonne (except the Junior version with my son), but this first officially solo title of the series got me on board. I was waiting to write this post to open it, and hopefully, next year it will be featured in the actual ranking.
Top dice game
As a rule, I love dice games, and I believe dice to be one of the most appealing and formidable game components ever. But sometimes, I really want a dice game, that is, a game that focuses on the dice, and don't care for much else. I don't want resources to purchase better dice, or dice that serve as random input to serve an unrelated puzzle: just give me the dice, and some clever mechanics to enjoy them as much and as fully as possible.
Picture from BGG
Winner: Proving Grounds. Proving Grounds is a bad game - but it's a great, awesome dice game. Actually, this game features my absolute favorite re-roll mechanics in all games I know. And there is nothing to distract you from this in the box, so expect to roll dice, again, and again, for nearly forty minutes. Space Biff had described the game as "numbing", and I tend to agree, except I am so fond of the basic dice mechanics that I don't mind. It's easy: you face six foes. After you roll, all dice got assigned to the enemy matching each die number. They strike you if they got one, and only one, die assigned you them. But here is the thing: for a full minute, you can re-roll as much as you want, except you can only roll groups of die sharing the same value (those that don't hurt you!). It's simple, it's brilliant, and it's supremely fun. I just love it.
Runner-up: Tulpenfieber. While the lavish production value of Proving Grounds, its charismatic leading character, and its overall fun theme, elevate this simple dice game to an endearing title, Tulpenfieber is marred by a theme that is both boring and non-sensical, and components that lean heavily to the ugly side. It's a shame, really, because the basics of the gameplay make up for a very smart and engaging dice game, which uses the Yahtzee re-roll mechanics in a fun spatial puzzling to get more dice and achieve better dice combinations. A pure dice game that could have easily been much more alluring with the right tweak in art and theme. Still, from a pure design-based point of view, I like this little Uwe game.
Glimpse of the future: Dice Conquest. I don't know much about this game (except that it's on its way), but it seems to be all about rolling dice to slay monsters. You roll dice, decide which ones to spend, and when you pick up one, you can try to re-roll it before using it. Even though the dice-rolling mechanics don't look too wonderful, I like that there are so many different dice in it.