Top Twelve Games of 2021, Part One

Hey board gamers, BJ from Board Game Gumbo here, back with the 2021 edition of the Way Too Early Top Games of the year post. ’21 saw us returning — finally — to convention play at BGG Con 2021 and we played over 30 different games there. On the other hand, there have been lots of starts and stops at our Gumbo Game Nights at our FLGS, Anubis, (mostly stops) so our group plays here have been limited. And of course, on that elusive third hand, we dipped our fingers into Twitch Tuesdays, where we play board games live with the Chat Krewe.

All of that is to say that we played almost 200 new-to-us games this year, which is a lot, but we did not play everything we wanted to play. Notable exceptions for us are Ark Nova, Bitoku, MicroMacro Crime City, and Meadow but hopefully we can rectify that soon.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we try to figure out what 2022 will have in store for us, let’s look back at the year that was in board gaming. Already, I am seeing the same old “there were no good board games this year” posts on social media, the same posts we’ve seen every year the last five years. Mainly, these posts seem to support discussions as to why there were fewer good games.

But is that true? Was 2021 an off year? Let’s find out…

12. Cape May

  • Designer: Eric Mosso
  • Publisher: Thunderworks Games

Each year, my wife and I find an engaging euro game that takes about an hour, one where my wife’s face lights up with joy as we near the end of the game. Games like that always end up on my top games of the year list, for obvious reasons. Every single time.

This year, we got to try out Cape May, a city building game that reminds us (in good ways) of our joyous plays of New York 1901 back in 2015-2016. In Cape May, players take on the role of developers of the iconic beachside resort of Cape May, New Jersey over twelve rounds. Designer Eric Mosso managed to combine an interesting economic game with a play-a-card-and-do-stuff mechanic that shines, as we wrote about back in Roux Dat #45.

Plus, the production value (lots of beautiful buildings and a stunningly painted map), the intriguing event deck (each round, something happens for the good or for the poor), and the combolicious bonus cards, power cards and end game scoring add up to something much more than the parts. It’s wonderful at all players counts, and is a gorgeous addition to any collection.

Here are some links to our Cape May content, including a three player appearance from SneauxBunny and The Jay Bell!

Here’s our chat with Tim Virnig, brand manager for publisher Thunderworks Games, all about Cape May before it even came out! That’s right, another Gumbo scoop:

11. Crash Octopus

  • Designer: Naotaka Shimamoto
  • Publisher: itten

From the moment I saw the Kickstarter video, I was hooked. Part crokinole, part Tokyo Highway, and equal parts fun, Crash Octopus is exactly the kind of game I want to play AND own. And it has a name that makes people raise their eyebrows at you when you say it really fast.

In Crash Octopus, up to five intrepid sailing captains brave the octopus infested waters of your table top, and race to capture five or six treasures before the other players. But watch out! The octopi in this game are big and scary and can easily knock you off your plan!

Best thing I can say is that the game takes about 30-40 minutes, yet Jerod and I played it one night for three hours. Crash Octopus is going straight into my game night bag as the perfect game to play at a brewery game night or a family casual game get together.

On Gumbo Live!, we like to chat with game designers, content creators and publishers about their first impression of games that they have played recently or want to play. Here’s the Gumbo krewe chatting with designer Daryl Chow from Origame about Crash Octopus:

10. Crescent City Cargo

  • Designer: Jason Dinger
  • Publisher: Spielworxx

Jason Dinger’s second entry into the Cajun trilogy is Crescent City Cargo, and this one feels as comfy as pecan pie washed down by Abita root beer, for a couple of reasons. First, one hour wonders are my favorite length of game, and our first play took right at that amount. Second, Jason has carefully combined a bunch of cool rondels and some combolicious micro decision turns in one package. Color me intrigued before it even hits the tabletop! Plus, the game is set in the early 20th century wharves and docks of New Orleans, and that’s a setting that speaks to me personally and professionally.

Caveat: I have only played Crescent City Cargo one time, albeit at a full play count, as the game is being passed around the Krewe, but I am ready for some more plays. Finding another copy to get to the table shouldn’t be too rough since there are a lot of backers here in town — heck, the Krewe from I Heart Board Games plays it online all the time as you can see from this video with the gang from Southern Board Game Fest:

The bottom line for Crescent City Cargo is that if you like quick turns but deep-thinking strategy in your euro games, second line your way to Crescent City Cargo pronto and make some groceries — or check out our thoughts on a recent game play in Roux Dat #36 first.

Here’s a chat with Jason Dinger and Stephen Buonocore all about the game:

9. Cubitos

  • Designer: John D. Claire
  • Publisher: AEG

I thought Cubitos had a chance to end up in the top three games this year. We played this rolling dice, racing cubes, and building up an engine game so much in the winter shoulder season between late December 2020 and January 2021.

So what happened? It’s easy to explain, but harder to justify. After playing all of the scenario based races in the box, we moved on to some other games (and bought a house at the same time), and just haven’t been able to get Cubitos back to the table much. That’s why I am knocking Cubitos down a few pegs on the list, not that we do not love the game, just that it hasn’t really forced its way back onto the game topper.

Are we done with Cubitos? I hope not, because with the right group (my family, mainly), this is a tight game with lots of tension. I need to dig around to see if there are any fan-made bonus race scenarios; maybe that will breathe some new life into the box.

We unboxed Cubitos for our live streaming audience right here:

8. After The Empire

  • Designer: Evan Halbert, Ryan Mauk
  • Publisher: Grey Fox Games

If we were ranking this just solely on which games created the most cinematic fun, After The Empire would certainly be in the top three experiences we’ve had over the last few years. (I know, I know, Kickstarter previews with rule sets and components still in development shouldn’t count. But this is my list, and all that experience is baked in already!)

Every game we played started as a euro type game of economic resources to a cinematic game about doing as much as you can to fend off the invading hordes (and in my case, not doing so well with the strategy).

There’s a lot of love about After The Empire, starting with the wonder of watching your little castle geaux from cardboard to big, beautiful stone walls that are truly a joy to behold as you can see from our unboxing:

And every moment that came complete with turrets armed like porcupines was another moment in gaming paradise. I really need to stream this one time on our Twitch Tuesday channel, but if you really want to see me play poorly, watch our play through with I Heart Board Games, live on Twitch (with prototype components and earlier rules). Or better yet, watch fellow Punchboard Media members Jesse and Melissa play the real game here:

You can catch a great chat with Jeremy Howard of Man v Meeple all about After The Empire, right here:

7. Destinies

  • Designers: Michał Gołębiowski, Filip Miłuński
  • Publisher: Lucky Duck Games

Destinies was a blast to play, especially during the worst of the southern Delta variant surge. We did not get out of the house much to game, and having a storyline to race through with my son and his girlfriend (both very experienced gamers) was a godsend. We practically raced through almost all of the scenarios in the first week of getting the review copy!

So what is Destinies?

Destinies is the latest attempt at Lucky Duck Games to meld the computer and the cardboard into a greater experience. Players take on the role of murky strangers, set out on quests to…well the rest is full of spoilers.

Trust me when I say that we really dug the storyline. I personally loved trying to piece together the backstory and the motivation of each character in each challenge. If not for our top spot, this game would have probably ranked higher. It’s an unfair comparison, of course, because Destinies has it all: an engaging storyline with well written plot points, plus the tension of knowing that your decision at any time really could make a difference in your game.

Bradly dove into all of the components and gameplay right here:

So that’s part one of our annual series on the top games released of the year. Check back tomorrow for part two, counting down the best games from six to one!

Did we miss one of your favorites? Let me know what games we missed out on or should have played from 2021, or even an older game that you recently discovered! I have a few ideas for one more blog post to finish out the year.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

Board Game Gumbo is a proud member of Punchboard Media

Gumbo Live! Tuesdays at 8:30 PM CST / 9:30 PM EST hosted by Board Game Gumbo

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