Top Twelve Games of 2021, Part Two (The Top Six)

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. Yesterday, we looked at games with dice, games with apps, and games with silly octopi. The common theme for the first day might have been that all six were pretty obviously games that would appeal to me. In fact, one of those games (After The Empire) was on my “most anticipated of 2021” list.

What about the top six? Any surprises? After playing over 195 new-to-us games this year, what stood out for us above all the rest?

Let’s find out…

6. Bullet♥︎ 

  • Designer: Joshua Van Laningham
  • Publisher: Level 99 Games

If I were designing a game that would not on first impressions appeal to me as a gamer, Bullet would be it. It’s got real-time elements that are central to the game (as opposed to just being a small part, as in Steam Park). Plus it’s got an anime theme, and I do not know much if anything about that facet of pop culture.

Needless to say, I was pretty hesitant to play it when Carlos brought it over, even though Level 99 Games rarely disappoints in terms of gameplay. But that’s the benefit of being in a great game group with lots of varied tastes. Just like when I first tried blue cheese crumbles on my salad, I sometimes find something that I didn’t know I would enjoy but do.

Bullet scratches a couple of itches that I didn’t see on first glance. I love little puzzle games — games like Sagrada or Project L where we are looking for patterns to emerge from chaos. Bullet’s puzzles come in all different shapes and sizes.

How can I keep my energy up to do more actions? How fast do I want to go through my bag to grab a bonus tile? Do I want to add more cards this round? How can I best use my character’s special abilities? All of these questions spin like mad in my brain in each round but that whooshing feeling is like energy incarnate.

Throw in the diabolical twist of clearing out bullets being fired at you, and then sending those bullets bouncing toward an opponent, and you’ve got a little lagniappe player interactivity that doesn’t feel forced at all. I can’t wait to play some of the expansions.

You can watch me and Jay stumble through a hail of bullets in a head-to-head match right here:

If you want to know more about the game and the gameplay, check out Bradly’s in depth look at the game:

5. Bad Company

  • Designer: Kenneth Minde, Eilif Svensson, Kristian Amundsen Østby
  • Publisher: Aporta Games

So, quick story. We are at BGG Con 2021, and I’m carrying around Cape May looking for a nice enjoyable hour of euro gameplay with my buds. Dave walks over to the table, with me just about to give my quick pitch to Cam and Rob of the Board Boys Podcast, and plops down Bad Company. “We should play this,” he says. Sigh.

But not sigh.

Bad Company turned out to be the most fun I had all convention. (Yes, even more than Unfathomable). Picture Space Base or Machi Koro but with a cool Fast n Furious meets Oceans’ Eleven theme. It’s still a dice engine builder, but this time you are trying to upgrade a gang of thieves from slick ne’er do wells to Danny Ocean clones. The artwork is fantastic and funny at the same time, and the visceral thrill of seeing your bad guy’s getaway car racing through the streets with a police car hot in pursuit is just plain fun.

The game is tough to get in the States right now, but you can purchase it from Aporta Games through the Matagot website. Based on the buzz it is getting since Essen, I’m sure someone is going to pick this up in time for play here next year. I’ve got a copy or two waiting for me in Madrid, just need someone to mule it back to me!

You can hear me and Rob and Cam and Stephen Buonocore review Bad Company right here on episode eleven, season nine of The Board Boys Podcast:

4. Merchant’s Cove

  • Designers: Jonny Pac, Carl Van Ostrand, Drake Villareal
  • Publisher: Final Frontier Games

When Jonny Pac designs or develops a game, I’m going to play it. It might not always make our top ten, but even if it does not, it usually tickles a part of my brain that makes me happy. Merchant’s Cove is essentially a very simple euro worker placement economic engine game, all about trying to entice sailors into buying your special wares as they come into port.

But the hook in Merchant’s Cove is delicious. Every player has a unique faction, not in terms of fantasy archetypes or even bonus special powers. This time, every player plays the game completely differently. The way you play will be familiar — you’ll see a roll and write player, or a push your luck player, or a programming character — but these asymmetrical powers are all going on at the same time.

Does it make the game a little tough, a la Root, to teach? Sure. But since the game concepts are familiar from other games — hey, have you ever played Potion Explosion? That’s what you are going to do in this game — it does not take long to get up to speed.

I’ll admit, one of the best things about the game is exploring all the different factions, and then trying them out against other factions. But since every combination of character makes for a unique gaming experience, we still have plenty of gaming left to explore.

You can see more of what’s inside the box and how it plays from Bradly’s great recap here:

But what you should really do is check out our Lime Vision replay of Merchant’s Cove! The colors in this game really pop out on the game table, especially when you have a neophyte (me) running the Twitch Channel feed.

3. Gutenberg

Designers: Katarzyna Cioch, Wojciech

  • Designers: Katarzyna Cioch, Wojciech Wiśniewski
  • Publisher: Granna

It’s not 100% fool proof, but my cardboard sense typically leads me toward games that I will enjoy. When I was prepping the Essen lists, Gutenberg jumped out at me right away. I love history, I love books, I love the butterfly effect that figuring out how to mass produce knowledge would change the world. Unfortunately, for the 38th year in a row, I was not able to make Essen Spiel but there’s always BGG Con.

Side note: if you are into euro games, one of the hidden benefits to heading to BGG Con is that it is usually the best place to try all the newest Essen releases. The BGG Con team does a great job of putting together a “hot games” room (which is mostly Essen, but some Gen Con releases too) to sample everything.

Back to Gutenberg. There are a three things that stood out for me right away. First, the board is laid out — Smartphone Inc style — that essentially teaches you the game and helps you organize each round. Love that. Second, the gear building mechanic is so deliciously puzzly that it fires all the right areas of my brain. Tickled, flummoxed, bewildered, and sometimes clever — that’s all the shades of fun that course through my neurons, if that’s a thing.

Third, the action bidding mechanic rules, and I’m using ‘rules’ as a verb not a noun here, and it’s the perfect way to create tension in every round. I love the sidelong glances at other player’s game areas, the meta way that each round develops, and the groans that arise anytime someone overbids or underbids.

I have thoughts on whether the player powers are balanced, but after a couple plays at BGG Con, I can’t say that I really know. It’s impossible to get Gutenberg in the States right now, but I’m hearing rumors of a release here sometime soon.

It was my featured lagniappe game on a recent Board Game Breakfast on the Dice Tower, which you can watch here:

2. Magnate: The First City

  • Designer: James Naylor
  • Publisher: Naylor Games

What a weird title. Designer James Naylor does a good job explaining the title on a recent Five Games For Doomsday but still, everytime I see that title, I think, “weird.”

You know what’s not weird? My love for Magnate….err…Magnate: The First city.

I frankly forgot about the game when the publisher reached out to me a few months ago. We had corresponded way back during the Kickstarter, and then a million-and-three games came out. When the big box arrived, I remember thinking…yeah you know…”weird.”

And then Jerod and I opened it up, went through the amazingly well done tutorial — seriously, you don’t even need to read the rulebook to learn how to play your first game — and then played it again and again. (We’ve played it at all player counts except the full one, so there’s still more for us to explore.)

Why do I like Magnate so much? The designer took a tried-and-true formula — building and economic games, the progeny of the stodgy old Monopoly — and twisted it like a Rubik’s Cube. What if the city was booming so much, that you could make money left and right with wheelbarrow’s full of it being dumped on your head by the final round and everyone heading to the pub and drink’s on me…

And then everything comes crashing down.

There’s a different story built into every game. We’ve experienced the highs of a geaux-geaux real estate market and the lows of getting out at the wrong time. “Geaux for the steak, son, not the sizzle, and don’t try to lap up the gravy.” We’ve experienced a slow build up with everyone getting out just at the right time, with the cleverest of the clever eeking out a win.

I guarantee there are more stories like these waiting for you to tell. Yep, this came close to my game of the year, oh so close. If you want a more indepth look, check out our piece here: Magnate: The First City Review

1. Sleeping Gods

  • Designer: Ryan Laukat
  • Publisher: Red Raven Games

Before I discuss Sleeping Gods, I should warn you that I paid full price for a Red Raven Games t-shirt at Gen Con 2017. So, yes, I am a big fan of Laukat’s previous work, although not every single game hits the perfect notes for me. I was a big full backer of Near & Far, which previously was in my top twelve games of all time.

But make way top twelve, there’s a new captain on this boat. And that captain is the Captain Sofi Odessa. I mention her right off the bat, because this is not a game that is all about dice and clay, bricks and coins. Sleeping Gods is a story based game that gets in your head. Once you start a campaign, your co-workers will see you red-eyed and zombified at work. Your lumbar spine will softly scream that it cannot endure another six hour session without respite. But, your heart will sing everytime you turn the page of that map and see new places to explore.

I’m probably getting a head of myself, because as good as this game is, as many plaudits that it has received, I still feel that not a lot of people know a lot about this game. Sleeping Gods is a video game come to life in cardboard, but an original idea not anything you’ve seen on Steam or any other IP. When I say “video game”, I mean that you can turn the thing on (open the box and set it up — or do like us and leave it up for weeks at a time) and play as much as you want, and then turn it off to play later.

I cannot recall another game that operates like this. There’s no start or finish to most of the game sessions until you reach the very end of the campaign. We’ve played 2 1/3 campaigns, and for us, they are running about 15-18 hours a piece. I guess each “game” would consist of an encounter with a part on the map, a lovely book of maps that detail all of the places you will send your ship and its fearless crew. I guess each game could be considered all of the actions you take to interact with honorable and unsavory characters alike, explore islands and caves and mountains, grab treasure and see what it does, and then rest back in port upgrading your characters and outfitting your ship along the way.

But who cares if there’s no real structure? Unlike Super Mario 2, you can always save your game’s progress and come right back to it the next game night. (Which will probably 12 hours later if you are like us.) Sleeping Gods is Ryan Laukat and his team’s magnum opus, and a towering achievement in board games. I’ve got about 40 hours into the game, and even six months later, I’m still thinking about the interactions we had and the endings to the campaigns. I’m ready to give another campaign a geaux.

Not convinced? Well, then you tough little nut, read our full review here spotlighting the single greatest card In any board game ever, or better yet, take a crack at Bradly’s inside look at this positively gorgeous production here:

So that’s our two part series on the top games that we played that were released in 2021. I know you, dear reader. You have opinions. You think I’m full of malarkey. Well, come on, then, let’s have it! Hit us up on Twitter or Facebook or leave a comment right here, and I’ll be sure to have a snarky comeback or three.

I also want to thank the publishers and designers who trusted us to cover their games. Yes, here’s the usual disclaimer, some of the games in our top twelve were provided gratis by the publishers, but we get way more games than we can fit in the top twelve. And I hope by now publishers know that we will be fair in our reviews.

I don’t say it enough, but thank you for joining me on this roller coaster ride of cardboard each year. 2021 was surprisingly the best year for readership we have ever had in the Gumbo. I’ve enjoyed visiting with all of you on the social medias or at cons, and I humbly thank you for your support and time. Let’s say goodbye to 2021 in style!

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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