Jonathan Hicks’s Top 10 Games of All Time – Part 1

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Arena: The Contest

I compile a list of my Top 30 games of all time for the Boardgame Opinions channel every year. I play a lot of new games and I find that there are enough changes each year to be worth recompiling the list.

This year more than most. There were a lot of new games to my list. Not only that, but a lot of them made it to the Top 10! You might argue that I’m jumping on the “cult of the new” bandwagon, but I think games (particularly adventure games) are getting better and better.

I don’t think Euros are improving that much, but because adventure games are my favourite genre, it means I’m seeing more changes in my Top 30 than many of my more Euro-centric friends.

Now you can obviously watch us discussing the list on the channel, but the written word is sometimes more accessible than video (eg. while at work!), so I thought it would be worth talking through the Top 10 at least on the blog. Let’s dive in…

10. Rising Sun

Rising Sun

I really enjoy solid dudes-on-a-map games, particularly if they have a strong theme. The Japanese mythology is unusual and the fantastic miniatures really bring the theme home for me. Rising Sun is unusual for a few reasons though: it’s more of a Euro-Ameritrash hybrid.

It’s not about destroying your opponents; it’s “most points wins”. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of combat in the game, but you need to be very strategic with your attacks. There’s a set-collection element for winning a battle in each region, so you have no interest in repeatedly beating on your neighbours. Once you’ve won in a location, you have a strong incentive to move on and attack someone else, which prevents people getting picked on and makes the game very fluid and changing.

Combat has a unique hidden coin allocation system, which allows for some surprising outcomes. You can spend money on ronin to help swing the battle or spend it on earning victory points when you lose. You can actually earn a lot of points by strategically losing the right battles in the right way at the right time.

Rising Sun solves many of the problems of previous dudes-on-a-map games and provides a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

9. Arena: The Contest

Arena: The Contest

This was a Kickstarter that arrived late last year. It comes with two distinct modes: co-op dungeon crawl and pvp team tactical-skirmish. Each player takes a fantasy character (wizards, barbarians, etc.) and either works with the other players to complete missions (co-op) or tries to destroy the other team while running around an arena full of obstacles (pvp).

I haven’t even played the team v. team mode (although I’m keen to try it). Arena’s position on this list is based purely on its strength as a dungeon crawl. I’ve played a lot of dungeon crawls over the years, so what does Arena do that elevates it above the rest?

The campaign is fantastic. There is a lot of theme: the writing, background story and prologue/epilogue to each mission is really well done and does a great job of immersing you in the world. There is a lot of variety in the missions (it’s not just run in and kill the bad guys) along with choose-your-own-adventure-style choices.

Your decisions affect the result of the missions, how much XP you get, which NPC characters live and die, and even which mission you will do next. There’s also a small, but significant, puzzle-solving element. You can gain more XP or other advantages in battle by successfully solving the puzzles you find, which are like mini escape-the-room challenges.

Combined with loads of miniatures, fantastic table presence and a ton of heroes to choose from, Arena: The Contest is one of the best dungeon-crawl packages I’ve ever seen!

8. Lords of Hellas

Lords of Hellas

This has met with mixed response, so it’s not for everyone, but it’s my favourite dudes-on-a-map game right now. It has an unusual techno-Greek theme, great miniatures and if you get the Kickstarter version with the extra terrain pieces, it looks amazing on the table.

It has the usual aspects that I love about dudes-on-a-map games: conquering regions to gain resources that allow you to recruit more troops and expand even more. The stand-out feature of Lords of Hellas for me though, is the four different win conditions.

Two of the win conditions are fairly standard: conquering a recognised block of territories all together or conquering a certain number of specific territories spread across the map. While your armies march around though, you also have a hero that ignores the armies (for the most part) and goes off on quests to kill monsters. If you kill enough monsters, you can win that way.

There’s a neat timing mechanism that causes giant statues to be gradually built across the map. If one of these is completed, whoever holds the territory with the statue at the end of the round wins. It’s a nice way of preventing games from running on too long.

Deciding how to focus your efforts, while paying attention to what everyone else is doing provides a varied experience that always seems to result in a tense climax. I love it!

7. The 7th Continent

The 7th Continent

This should need no introduction by now. It is the exploration game par excellence from Kickstarter that was such a hit a couple of years ago. It has been in my Top 10 ever since it arrived. The theme has you wandering a mythical 7th continent trying to lift a curse that has been plaguing your dreams.

The map is made up of cards, which you gradually reveal as you explore and each card has several actions on from hunting for food to praying at mysterious idols. Mystery is very much the focus of the game: at the start you have no idea what to do or how to lift the curse. You explore and gradually learn more about the continent and reveal the mysteries it holds.

There’s a very clever action-deck system which requires you to draw cards off a deck (expending energy) to complete tasks. The more cards you draw, the more likely you are to pass, but if the deck runs out (your energy reserves are depleted), you could die very easily and lose the game. Deciding how many cards to draw for important tasks is always tense.

There’s a nice crafting system as well, which allows you to gradually make tools that make completing certain tasks easier. After a while though, the tools wear out and have to be thrown away, so you’re constantly trying to craft new ones.

The campaign is huge, very thematic and you constantly feel like you’re in a survival movie, desparately hanging on to your life, and your sanity. If exploration is your thing, it doesn’t get better than this.

6. Blood on the Clocktower

Blood on the Clocktower

Technically, this hasn’t been released yet. Kickstarter copies should be delivered in late summer 2020. However, regular games are held at The Dice Cup (my local boardgame cafe) using a demo copy so I’ve actually played it a few times now. It’s a social-deduction game in the vein of Werewolf.

It has villagers and villains trying to kill each other over successive days and nights while trying to hide their true identities, but it fixes all the problems with the original Werewolf: in particular, player elimination and a lack of interesting roles (being a bog-standard villager was never that interesting).

Everyone gets a role with a useful ability or important information about the group and after you’ve been killed (which is very likely), you still get to take part in discussions and can potentially win. A couple of the roles mess with people’s abilities as well, so you never quite know if the information you have is correct.

It’s an epic (two hours-ish) experience of suspicion, hope, mistrust, secret discussions and a great deal of fun that no other game comes close to replicating. If you like longer social-deduction games, this is the pièce de résistance.

Have you had a chance to play any of these? What do you think?
Join me next week for the Top 5!

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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