Baxter's Top 10 Strategy Games

Hey hey folks! Welcome back to my humble (and very well hidden) den! This week I'm sharing with you my picks for my top 10 strategy games.  This list is my biggest yet, with some fantastic games covering a range of themes and play styles. It was also a particularly difficult list for me to settle on, but in the end I think you'll be pleased, if not a little surprised with my favourites.  So, without further delay, let's take a look!

 

10. Betrayal at House on the Hill

Horror board games have a difficult job at times.  Creating a sense of terror, doom or dread can be a subjective enough task in a novel or on the screen, but when you’re facing a group of friends around a table, the experience is reminiscent of telling spooky stories around a campfire.  It’s either going to succeed in instilling the desired fear in the audience, or not.  Betrayal at House on the Hill is one of those experiences where you actually feel a part of the story, not just an outside observer.  A co-operative strategy game where players are tasked with exploring what can only be described as the most haunted of houses, Betrayal at House on the Hill revels in the slow burn as characters slowly uncover more of the story and are gradually split up, in the style of any great 80’s slasher flick. 

This alone would be enough to qualify the game as a bonafide horror-fest, but then the mid game turn-around happens and the entire game changes, whether for the better or worse depends on your perspective.  At some point during the game, one of the players is going to end up switching sides, and when that happens, it will be nothing but bad news for the remaining players.  Whatever dark forces inhabit the house have turned your friend against you and by this time in the story they’ve likely gained enough equipment and knowledge to make them a genuine threat when combined with the already existing paranormal entities roaming the halls. The tension felt by players as the inevitable twist comes is palpable.  Knowing one of you will be the traitor, but having no idea who or exactly when means you’re always second guessing whether to give another player a hand in the early game in case that aid gives them just what they need to secure victory in the second half. Terror at its best!

 

9. Terraforming Mars

We all knew this was going to appear on this list.  Terraforming Mars is a safe bet when it comes to choosing great strategy games, we’ll ignore the usual complaints about the look of the game and instead focus on it’s strengths, of which there are many. In Terraforming Mars players are overseeing privatised corporations funded by the World Government in an effort to make our neighbouring tomato habitable.  At its core, Terraforming Mars is a hand management and drafting game using tile placement and resource management to build your economy and help you improve three global parameters, temperature, oxygen and ocean. When the levels reach ratings that support life the mission is deemed a success and players assess their final scores to see who Marsed the best! 

Ultimately, it’s the game’s engine, not Big Red, that becomes the star of the show. The actual terraforming aspects of the game quickly take a backseat to the cards in your hand and the cubes on your player board.  Figuring out the right combination of resources, actions and cards to play to get the desired outcome takes on an almost Rain Man-esque quality as you begin to see the emergent patterns and paths to victory as the game unfolds. If you love challenging economy driven games, then you’ll find plenty to entice you in Terraforming Mars, doubly so if you enjoy single player experiences, as the game offers up a compelling solo mode if you have trouble gathering your fellow corporations together on game night.  So get researching fellow eco-corporates, Mars awaits!

 

8. Honey Buzz

People love honey, it’s nature’s superfood! Used for a wide range of applications from spreading it on bread to spreading it on toast, the woodland animals just can’t get enough of this golden goo! The bees however have grown weary of every peckish animal stealing their hard fraught honey supplies for themselves.  The bees' solution? Go into business and sell the honey to the ravenous critters. In Honey Buzz, you play a hive of bees going about the tasks of expanding your hive, collecting nectar and pollen and creating up to four different types of honey to sell and fulfil orders. What appeals about honey buzz most to me is the way the mechanisms in the game fit the theme.  As the hive grows, players can take the actions on all the surrounding spaces when a new cell is formed, resulting in higher production, more worker bees or further income to name a few.  When collecting pollen the foragers dart around a field of flowers gaining one of the four different types of nectar or pollen.

In the advanced version of the game, the tiles in this flower field are turned upside down and the collection process takes on a memory game-style of tile flipping, which represents how bees are able to remember and return to specific places and tell other bees where to find pollen.  This is a great little addition to the game and one that embraces its theme so well. There is also a stock market economy system in play where the value of honey and pollen reduces whenever a player cashes in that type of resource. Not only does the game provide a fun strategic experience, it’s also one of the most eye-catching games I’ve played recently.  The honey pieces are squishy! SQUISHY! If that doesn’t convince you then nothing else will.  If you’ve been avoiding Honey Buzz because you think it’s just a cutesy kids game, then don’t it’s actually a cutesy adult game and I have no hesitation recommending this one to any gamer who enjoys a challenge.

 

7. Dinosaur Island

When it comes to dinosaurs, the Jurassic Park franchise has probably done more for their popularity in recent years than almost any other property.  A product of its time, the depiction of dinosaurs in those films has become the default standard for all other screen appearances, even knowing full well now that the velociraptors were far too big, T-Rex’s eyesight wasn’t based on movement and none of the dinos sported a single feather between them! But who cares? Dinosaur Island doesn’t! This thunder lizard based worker placement game suffers from whiplash after the ridiculous nod it provides to Jurassic Park. Everything about this production oozes with mid-ninties dino nostalgia from the day-glow/pastel colour palette to the totally-not-John-Hammond looking guy on the cover of the box. 

It could be easy to overlook this one as just a silly tongue-in-cheek jab at the franchise, but dig just beneath the surface and you’ll find an incredibly satisfying joyride of worker placement, dice drafting, DNA researching, and theme park building.  The game is played over a series of round split into phases, with each phase involving a different mechanic. Phase 1 involves placing scientists and drafting DNA dice in preparation for creating your dinos.  Phase 2 is where you can purchase rides, restaurants, upgrade your facilities or hire specialised staff for your park.  Phase 3 is where you manage the DNA you’ve researched or purchased, as well as your security, park upgrades and threat level (how likely it is that not all the guests will remain uneaten) and spend your DNA to grow new dinosaurs, and Phase 4 is where you have visitors come to your park to spend their hard earned cash and hope to leave alive.  I’m proud to say this is one of the most frequently played strategy games on my shelf over recent years and one I continually go back to time and again. The fun interweaving systems, quirky, familiar theme and well crafted and colourful components all result in me playing with a smile on my face each and every time!

 

6. Rising Sun

Feudal Japan has been the backdrop for a vast number of TV shows, books, movies, video games and manga. So too does it make a frequent appearance in the realm of board games.  Mix in a little ancient Japanese mythology and monsters and you have Rising Sun, a lavishly produced game of area control and action management set in the age of the samurai and the second in Eric M. Lang’s trilogy of mythic conflict strategy games, with the first entry, Blood Rage being based on norse mythology, and the upcoming Ankh: Gods of Egypt centred around Egyptian mythology.  Rising Sun provides players with the opportunity to carve out a piece of the Japanese islands for themselves in this miniature heavy affair. Plan your actions, employ the aid of the Kami, the old gods of Japan, or perhaps the demonic Oni will serve you better? Muster your ronin and set your forces against your opponents, or forge alliances for mutual gain. 

One of the many aspects of Rising Sun that appeals to me is the uncertainty of combat, you’re never quite sure where the next battle will take place come each round, so do you play it safe and prepare to consolidate your forces at the expense of expanding your holdings or do you tempt fate and take some other course of action that may result in glory? This trepidation emulates being the commander on a field of battle, weighing the consequences of your decisions before committing to a course of action.  Beyond being one of the most gorgeous looking games on this list, Rising Sun is dripping with theme, everything from the beautiful watercolour map of ancient Japan upon which the action takes place, to the asymmetric Samurai clans, and their daimyo leaders, you can tell this was a well researched labour of love for Lang and CMON who published the game.  The game isn’t overly complex either with a forgiving learning curve and enough flexibility in the later game to recover from any start-of-game regrets. If you’ve never played Rising Sun before, I highly recommend getting a group together and giving it a try! 

 

5. A Feast for Odin

Uwe Rosenberg makes approximately 97,000 engaging, well respected and widely played games.  While titles such as Agricola and Caverna: The Cave Farmers get most of the attention, A Feast for Odin is perhaps one of his largest and most ambitious strategy games to date. Players take up the mantle of community of Vikings and go about doing all manner of Vikingy things, such as building, collecting resources, farming, exploring and other normal day to day activities.  Rather than focusing on the usual, raid and plunder tropes we’ve come to expect from the Viking genre, Rosenberg takes a more down to earth approach, depicting a side of life we seldom associate with these ancient Scandinavians.  A Feast for Odin flips the scoring mechanism on its head, each player starts with a players board with a grid depicting negative 80 points. 

Utilising the game’s resource gathering and action selection, players purchase tiles in the style of polyomino (those Tetris shaped) pieces and place them in their grid, as they do so, they cover more of these negative points.  The winner is the player with the lowest negative score, or a positive score if you can get there by the end of the game.  There’s a lot going on in this here and the box contains a massive amount of tiles and tokens, seeing everything laid out on the table could be overwhelming for many players, but once you understand the systems, everything falls into place. Managing your resources and purchasing tiles is almost as satisfying as covering the spaces on your board. The game is steeped in theme too, so if you have an interest in the culture, that’s just another layer of joy you’ll gain from your experience.  

 

4. Twilight Imperium (4th Edition)

Oh boy, here we go! What can I say about Twilight Imperium that hasn’t already been covered at length by some of the best names in the industry?  This sprawling, epic, miniatures heavy game of galactic dominance and political posturing has been a classic since it’s first edition released in 1997! Now on its 4th and arguably its most refined edition Twilight Imperium is still holding its own against many younger and more accessible contenders for the strategy title such as Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy.  Featuring all 17 races found from the previous editions of the game, the strategic possibilities are at a cosmic scale! Famous for taking several hours to play at a full player count, gamers have come to use Twilight Imperium as the yardstick with which to compare their other gameplay experiences.

But the real draw of Twilight Imperium is in its fascinating factions and the interplay between players as they gradually begin to expand out beyond their home worlds and begin to encounter other species.  Players could form fragile alliances, opting for diplomacy over aggression, or perhaps they prefer a more militaristic approach, doubling down on their war engine and seeking dominance by way of their weaponised armadas. Whatever style you choose, your original intent at the beginning of the game could change dramatically as events unfold and other factions begin to cross paths.  This may be a beast of a game, but a game doesn’t endure for over 20 years and come back in multiple editions unless it’s something truly special.  Twilight Imperium certainly qualifies.

 

3. Wingspan

While Stonemaier Games has proven to be somewhat inconsistent when it comes to the reception of some of their recent titles; I’m looking at you Tapestry, Wingspan has been almost universally lauded by critics and gamers alike and with good reason.  Wingspan delivers a brilliant, beautiful production, featuring components normally reserved for deluxe versions of other games, artwork reminiscent of the watercolour imagery found in bird watching guide books, and a game system tailored to the task of collecting birds and combining their unique abilities into a powerful card-driven engine.

The core game features birds from North America and each of the 170 cards features a different bird with its own stats and special ability. Add to this the two well received European and Oceania expansions, featuring birds from those regions and you end up with a total of 346 individual cards to expand your aviary. Despite this wealth of content, the game doesn’t succumb to expansion bloat the way many other games do, apart from a few minor tweaks or additional rules, the game remains mostly the same experience even when combining all three boxes. Adding birds to a habitat, and watching your player board gradually fill with a variety of feathery, often delicious looking wing-bros, then triggering the actions in a cascade of food tokens, cards and eggs feels like you’re achieving something special every round. It was a real struggle for me not to place Wingspan at the number 1 spot on this list, because it’s just that good!

 

2. Root

As a woodland creature myself, I can tell you, Root hits things pretty close to the mark when it comes to the eternal power struggles between the different factions of the forest; it can get really awkward at family reunions!  I myself was once a proud vagabond of sorts, then I took an arrow to the knee and here I am.  Root is a strategy game that sees players take on the role of one of four warring factions of cuddly and not so cuddly critters and battle for supremacy of the woods.  Whether you choose to play the powerful Marqise de Cat, with her army of fierce battle-kitties, or the imperious Eyrie whose avian rulers frequently fall into decline unless they achieve their goals.  Then there’s the rebellious Woodland Alliance, resourceful underdogs (or undermice as the case may be) who rely on infiltration and guerrilla tactics, and finally, standing alone against all these forces is the mysterious Vagabond, who adventurers where and when he likes, exploring ruins and profiting from all sides of the conflict.

One of the greatest challenges of Root is its own complexity.  The four factions play completely differently from one another, to the point where in a four player game you’re practically teaching four different versions of the game.  Once you get past the initial learning process however, Root becomes a highly strategic tactical interplay between these conflicting sides. The varied factions allow players to experiment with different play styles and find their preferred way to experience the game. The winning player is the first person to gain 30 points or if they achieve Dominance they win the game instantly. While it may look cute and cuddly on the surface, Root is the board game equivalent of a pinata, cute on the outside, and full of surprises! 

 

1. Scythe

By far one of the most popular games on this list and one of my favourite games of all time, Scythe is a jack of all trades, being a little worker placement, a little area control, a little war game and a little resource management. Despite qualifying for several of my Top 10’s so far, strategy is the one I’ve been saving it for. Taking place in an alternative post WWI Eastern Europe, Scythe features artwork by Jakub Różalski depicting hulking steam powered mechs against the agricultural backdrop of desperate post-war civilian life.  Farmers till their fields, while giant war machines engage in battle at the edge of a nearby forest and this industrial imagery features on encounter cards, and player and faction boards, telling a story as players struggle for control of essential territories which produce the resources needed to fuel their conquest.

With several paths to victory and enough randomly determined set up and victory conditions, Scythe has a high level of replayability even with the base game.  Add to this the three primary expansions, and other add ons like the large game board, the modular game board, the realistic resources, the metal coins, the play mat and the extra encounter cards, all of which fit snugly into the legendary box and you have yourself one heck of a good time!  I’ve introduced Scythe to friends who have seldom played board games and they’ve been hooked, not realising board games can be so thematic, exciting and strategic.

The upgrade system is particularly good, a certain satisfaction being gained from the simple act of moving a wooden cube from one space, revealing an added benefit, and placing it on another space, making that action cheaper. Asymmetric faction abilities and fixed starting points paired with a randomly assigned player board provide a great balance of the familiar and the unknown. Even the mysterious Factory in the centre of the board can become either a focal point of conflict or completely ignored with some players making a beeline for it straight away while others sit back and marshal their forces. This variability of play is one of Scythes many strengths and a major reason why it’s popularity has remained so consistently strong since its release.

 

Thanks for reading all that! Well done for making it through! Or did you just skip to the bottom to see number 1?  In either case, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the list and what your own picks are for your top 10 strategy games.  As always, feel free to leave a comment below and until next week, play lots and stay safe.

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