Brian’s 21 Favourite Games of 2021

Hey everyone!  I wasn’t intending to write another blog entry until after I returned to work in the new year, but here I am on holiday, playing games and reflecting on the year that’s been and I couldn’t help thinking about the board game experiences I’ve had these past 12 months and how my taste in games has gradually evolved since joining Game Kings.  So here is a fast and loose list of my 21 favourite game experiences from 2021.  One caveat, these aren’t necessarily games that were released in 2021, in fact, most of them have been around for a while now, but in many cases I only finally managed to get them to the table this year, or they finally clicked for me in a way they hadn’t previously. I’m not ranking them as that’s like making me choose between my children, so an alphabetical list it is!  Anyway, enough of my inane ramblings… onward!

 

Age of War

This small box dice rolling game from FFG proves that good things really do come in small packages.  The concept is simple, players roll seven dice in an attempt to fulfil the requirements to capture strategically pivotal castles around feudal Japan.  Players can roll as often as they like until all their dice are spent or they capture a stronghold.  Once you’ve begun working towards a particular location your choice is locked in for that round.  This was one of the first games our daughter, who is our youngest player, was able to really grasp.  The look of joy on her face when she secured her first unassisted win was worth more than any of the games on our shelves.  I saw her gain confidence, and understanding of sportsmanship and patience and found her strategising her next move, all while enjoying time together as a family. Age of War couldn’t be easier to learn and there’s enough decision making involved for the game not to rely solely on random dice rolling.  The fact that you can try to capture an opponent’s castle adds an extra layer of depth to this great little game!

 

Clank! Legacy

A significant portion of early 2021 was dedicated to my group playing Clank! Legacy.  Basing itself on Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Incorporated D&D adventures, this follow-on to the Clank series is, in my opinion, the best of the series. It’s difficult to talk too much about the experience without touching on spoilers, so focusing instead on the experience, it was the second Legacy game my group had played through to completion, the first being Charterstone, which while an incredibly enjoyable game, did begin to get a bit much by the last couple of sessions.  Clank! Legacy felt just the right length to tell its story and leave the players feeling satisfied with the experience and at the end of the campaign you have your own unique copy of Clank to enjoy at any time. The humour is on point and there are some great new twists on traditional Clank mechanisms which elevate this game above its peers. Clank! Legacy is most certainly responsible for creating some great gaming memories!

 

Descent Legends of the Dark

Perhaps one of the most controversial games to be released in 2021, Descent Legends of the Dark copped a lot of flak for its somewhat heavy reliance on its essential app.  So it was that I watched with not a small amount of satisfaction as the pre release rating of 6.1 on BoardGameGeek slowly raised day after day following the actual release of the game finally reaching its peek at a solid 8.0, proving what many had suspected, that the pre release moans and groans were from a vocal minority of discontents that had seen the app and the admittedly lackluster gameplay videos from FFG and decided before even playing that it was a sub par game.  However, having played quite a fair share of the campaign I can say with confidence that Descent Legends of the Dark is a worthy successor to the Descent franchise.  Seeing my characters level up, upgrading their weapons and watching their stories play out as I progressed through the campaign was a rewarding interactive story experience. The models are exquisitely well detailed and feature unique designs that break away from the stale norms of the fantasy genre. Striking a perfect blend of traditional board gaming and modern technology in order to serve the story and provide fast and efficient gameplay, Descent Legends of the Dark has won over many of its former critics and now stands tall as a game to be enjoyed on its own terms. 

 

Dune Imperium

Of all the games to have been released in 2021, I think Dune Imperium would have to be one of my favourite titles.  It’s just so very, very good! Many have grumbled about the lackluster graphic design or components, but to me, the game looks great!  Based on the newest film offering by Denis Villeneuve, Dune Imperium perfectly captures the essence of its theme. Mining spice, making and breaking alliances with the likes of the Fremen or the Bene Gesserit and engaging in combat while managing the deck building and worker placement elements provides a fantastic game play experience.  While not a perfect game, I found it to be far better than I expected, everything comes together in a complete package that feels well developed and play tested.  Whether you’re a fan of of the franchise or not, I highly recommend Dune Imperium for anyone looking for a deeply rewarding strategy game.

 

Fort

As far as deck builders go, there are some fairly standard themes, most of which tend to revolve around fantasy or science fiction settings.  So when Fort appeared on the scene, it was notable for taking a very different direction.  In Fort, players are kids playing with their friends represented by different cards arranged into suits.  Each suit focuses on a different tactic, for example, the water gun is a great way to trash unwanted cards, where the skateboard suit is perfect for gathering more toys to use as resources.  The concept of kids building a fort by committing toys and pizza to the cause, and choosing which friends they’ll play with and which ones will be relegated to the yard only to become easy pickings for a rival’s group makes for some tight decision making.  You won’t be able to do all the things you want to do on your turn, so making hard decisions becomes an integral part of the game. I’ve had a great time playing this with our son and, as such, I never hesitate to recommend this to anyone who wants to get their family members into gaming.  Fort is a solid experience and one that looks to be taken a step further by the recent Cats & Dogs Expansion.

 

Gloomhaven

I’d had a rough start with Gloomhaven.  Having originally purchased it during it’s second Kickstarter, it ended up sitting unplayed on my shelf for almost 2 years before I finally dared to face the legendary beast.  I guess I wasn’t ready.  I enjoyed the opening scenario, even though I failed, which didn’t bother me at all as I’m happy to lose a game and learn from my mistakes.  But something about Gloomhaven just didn’t gel with me this first time around.  I ended up selling my copy.  But this year I decided I wanted to take it out for another spin.  My gaming experiences over the past year or two had resulted in me wanting to find a real challenge in a big box game, and they don’t come much bigger than Gloomhaven.  So, off I went again and this time, it just worked.  I still failed the first scenario, twice! But I’ve become completely hooked this time. I can’t wait to progress my characters through to retirement, unlocking new scenarios and characters as I gradually explore this epic RPG in a box.

 

Honey Buzz

One of the finest and most beautifully produced games I had the pleasure of playing in 2021, Honey Buzz surprised everyone I played it with.  This economic euro style game follows rival hives of bees building their honey empire, fulfilling orders and affecting the pollen stock market as players collect four different types of nectar to create the highly sought after breakfast spread! Honey Buzz is a great example of a game incorporating a simple theme and elevating it to the point of perfection. Increasing your worker count, adding cells to your hive and completing orders to score points is a pleasure to behold thanks to the colourful palette of spring tones and the soft, squishy honey pieces that are just too much fun to play with.  My only regret is that I didn’t get it to the table more often last year, perhaps this is something I can correct in 2022.

 

Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth

When I first learned of Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth, I passed on it thinking it would be little more than a licensed cash grab based on a popular franchise.  To my chagrin, I soon discovered it was a well measured game of exploration, heroics and narrative driven adventure that embraced Tolkien’s beloved world and approached it with care and reverence for the source material. I can’t claim to be a Tolkien aficionado, I’ve read the book only once and I’ve greatly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s take on the story immeasurably, but even so, many of the characters and places referred to in the game are unfamiliar to me.  I’m aware a few characters are original creations of the game’s designers, but even so, I’m finding myself open to learning more about the world of Middle Earth and how these characters fit into the world.  The card based skill and combat system is one of the biggest draw cards for me (pun absolutely intended).  Having a choice between keeping a card for its powerful ability, or playing it for a more immediate gain provides welcome options that many other exploration/dungeon crawlers could learn from.  I’m finding myself with the urge to dive back into the world of Middle Earth just writing this entry!

 

Machi Koro Legacy

A pleasant surprise, Machi Koro Legacy was a game I was delighted to enjoy with my wife who is still just dabbling in the board game hobby.  Not only did she enjoy it, but insisted we play it each night until we completed the 10 session campaign.  Opening the sealed boxes to reveal new twists and turns in the game and adding components or cards was a real draw card.  Not only were we enjoying a fresh new game experience together, but it was her first introduction to the world of legacy games. Building our modest towns, gathering cards and creating a powerful game engine was a ton of fun, while the lighthearted nature of Machi Koro Legacy allowed us to sit back and enjoy the experience at our own pace.

 

Mage Knight

What. A. Beast! Mage Knight has a well deserved reputation for being one of the finest solo board game experiences ever created. More than just your run of the mill dungeon crawler, Mage Knight sees players recruiting retainers, sieging strongholds, dungeon delving, and, in the multiplayer version, even battling other mage knights. Using elements of deck building and hex map based exploration, Mage Knight combines euro style mechanics with a miniature based adventure game resulting in an experience that transcends its base elements. There’s something strangely comforting about setting out on an adventure in Mage Knight, it really does have an old school feel to it, but the gameplay, while complex, is crunchy and fulsome in a way that many modern games shy away from out of fear of alienating their audience. In this sense I feel it has a spiritual successor in Gloomhaven, as it shares many of the same themes, a card based, heavy fantasy adventure game, with a moderate to high level of complexity that’s not afraid to punish players for poor decision making. If you’re a fan of deep fantasy adventure games and haven’t yet had the pleasure of playing Mage Knight, then you owe it to yourself to try it out sometime, you may have yet to play your favourite game.

 

Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition

Mansions of Madness is a game that I knew I would love, but never managed to get to the table the first time I owned it. Fast forward a couple of years after I sold it on and I found myself drawn back to the ominous mansion adorning the cover.  I bought back in  and this time I doubled, nay, tripled down by snatching up every expansion I could get my hands on.  I’ve never been more pleased than when I found myself diving in with both feet and finding Mansions of Madness to be every bit as narrative driven and immersive as I’d heard.  Not only that, but it proved to be a big hit with my regular gaming group as well, we played several scenarios, with mixed levels of success, but always with a collective smile on our faces as our intrepid investigators found themselves on the brink of madness or death time and again!  This one will be a keeper in my collection from now on. 

 

Marvel Champions

If you’re looking for a solid cooperative deck building game that can also be played solo, then Marvel Champions is a great pick, especially if you have even a passing interest in the superhero genre. Already well supported with several boxed and blister pack expansions under its belt, Marvel Champions feels like a game that is yet to peak.  There are still dozens of high profile heroes and villains yet to be released, so if you’re concerned as to the longevity of the game then fear not. Marvel Champions is a forgiving deck builder with a moderate level of complexity.  Nothing too scary that would put off younger or less experienced gamers, but deep enough that gaming veterans can find a great challenge. The artwork is about what you’d expect, straight from the pages of the comics, but with enough care given to ensure the card art tells the story of each card’s function. Flipping back and forth between your hero or their alter ego makes for some tough decision making; do you stay in the fight and hope to take out Ultron, or do you concentrate on thwarting their scheme? Both are valid approaches and at times you’ll need to do one when you would rather do the other due to the way the game ramps up the difficulty as it progresses. At this point this is a game I’ve collected far more than I’ve played, but I’m not even mad, I’m just looking forward to more!

 

Mystic Vale

I fell into Mystic Vale hard! I collected everything I could for this amazing card crafting deck builder, including scoring a few promos!  The satisfaction of creating entirely new cards and piecing together a powerful engine of my own design in the midst of gameplay was an enormously rewarding experience.  The art work, graphic design and innovative approach to using card sleeves as an essential game component created a fascinating blend resulting in a unique deck building game that stands apart from the competition.  I’m not sure if Mystic Vale has further releases coming or if they’ll work on an entirely different game using a similar mechanic, either way, I’ll be there, wallet in hand ready to add to the collection.

 

Nemesis

Yeah, I know, I’ve talked about this one soooo much!  This will be the last time I mention it this month, I promise!  Nemesis found new life for me in 2021 as I introduced it to a new group of players and I dare say managed to influence a few personalities in the wider game community to take a chance on this deeply thematic semi cooperative sci-fi horror game. Sharing my love Nemesis with others served to reinvigorate my own interest and I found myself revisiting the dark corridors of the ill-fated Nemesis time and again.  The emergent narrative that results from a tense group play through is equally as compelling as a solo experience. Where the mistrust of your crew mates is replaced by an eerie sense of isolation as I struggled to complete my objective and escape alive.  More often than not I failed, but I had a glorious time doing so! 

 

Potion Explosion

Potion Explosion is a game my son put us on to, in fact, since he played it at Board Games By The Bay in 2020, he’s been begging to get it, so we surprised him with it this Christmas and I have to say, the real surprise was how much we all enjoyed playing it as a family!  Potion Explosion is practically a swipe and match app game brought to life.  Players collect coloured marbles from a dispenser and use them to create wondrous potions in a humorous Hogwartian style game.  The satisfaction of causing a series of explosions when the same colour marbles collide is more fun than it has any right to be and finding that you’ve managed to complete another potion, bringing you closer to a passing grade for your potions class, is a great touch! What makes this experience even more rewarding is that players can “drink” the potions by inverting them and gaining a one time ability to aid them, while still retaining the points they’ve earned.  A magical game for kids and adults alike and one of our defining Christmas memories from the year! 

 

Rolling Realms

Prior to Rolling Realms, my experiences with roll & write games had been limited to say the least. In fact I’d really only played Welcome To… (thanks for introducing me, Poppy!) and I enjoyed it well enough that I was keen to try others.  While I’d had my eye on Railroad Ink and Cartographers for a while it was Rolling Realms that ended up being the next one I managed to get my hands on and I loved it!  Having been a big fan of many of Stonemaier Games’ titles, venturing through a veritable best of list of their games condensed into a slick roll and write format was a blast!  The game is simple enough to pick up, but involves a sufficient amount of strategy so as not to become a cake walk after a couple of play throughs. Rolling Realms plays fast and I found myself playing a couple of games in a row trying to best my previous score.  Equally enjoyable as a solo or multiplayer experience, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to any fellow gamer who was looking to dip their toes into a lightweight title with a fun and varied theme.

 

Sleeping Gods

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Sleeping Gods at first,  I haven't played any of Ryan Laukat’s previous titles, so I didn’t have any preconceptions of what to expect.  When I picked up a copy and began playing I found it to be a wonderful surprise, one that took me back to the pages of my favourite Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood.  Embarking on an epic solo adventure, as that’s the only way I’ve played it so far, I found it to be as relaxing as it was mesmerising.  Sleeping Gods is more than a board game, it’s an experience.  One that I didn’t imagine I’d have when I first began.  It’s not often that I find myself so drawn into a game, but Sleeping Gods does a masterful job of setting you on your course, allowing you to go anywhere immediately and explore Ryan Laukat’s strange and mysterious world at your own pace.  The rules are streamlined and relatively simple, as everything comes down to following a simple sequence of steps each round.  The real challenge comes from deciding what kind of story yours will be.  Are you a group of plucky, do-gooder adventurers, or are you cold, calculating pirates dead set on getting home no matter the cost?  Or perhaps your path will lay somewhere in between? There’s really only one way to find out isn’t there.

 

Sushi Go

As much as I love my big board games, some of the most fun I’ve had has been with shorter, fast moving ‘filler’ games.  One such game that has kept my family hooked these holidays was Sushi Go. Attempting to complete sets of tempura, or waiting to add the finest nigiri to our wasabi proved to be the perfect fit for us.  It fulfilled my wife’s interest in playing Japanese themed games, and was accessible enough for our kids to join in. The game features cute and quirky art and the cards come with a high quality linen finish and feel great to shuffle and deal during play.  Since a single game is over in about 15 minutes or so, there’s plenty of opportunity to play multiple games in a session which has resulted in Sushi Go becoming one of our most played games recently. 

 

Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon

This dark take on Arthurian legend is rich with deeply compelling narrative, haunting artwork, finely detailed miniatures and a thick adventure story book, Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon is dripping with twists and turns.  Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of this game is that the heroes you play aren’t the A list by any stretch of the imagination.  These are deeply flawed characters who find themselves thrust into the role of heroes after the original chosen adventurers went off in search of the grail and never returned.  I love this twist as it explores a more nuanced approach to heroism.  No squeaky clean Captain America types here.  These are simply regular, damaged people who have chosen to step up and do what has to be done.  Hell, I’d read this as a book to be honest!

 

Transformers Deck-Building Game

I’ve been a massive Transformers fan since the original toy line release in 1984.  The TV show, the game changing movie, and of course the toys themselves always held a certain fascination for me.  But what kept my interest into adulthood was the wealth of lore the setting developed over the years.  For a franchise built to sell toys, they had some great creative minds behind the scenes who clearly knew what it took for this concept to have legs.  The Transformers Deck-Building Game is a great example of how this lore and the incredible roster of characters can be presented to adult audiences in a way that provides that same wondrous sense of childhood play but with modern board game sensibilities. As ever, the test of whether a game’s fundamentals are sound is if you strip the theme away and they still hold up.  That is certainly the case here, yet the game manages to reach a higher level due to the Autobot vs. Decepticon conflict. A great deck building game and I’m pleased to see the OG Transformers making a comeback. 

 

Unmatched

When I first played Unmatched, I had to check the rulebook several times to ensure I was getting it right. I refused to believe a game with such a simple rules set could be such highly addictive fun, I honestly thought I was missing something.  But no, Unmatched is a tightly constrained card based fighting game for 2 or 4 players which provides everything you need to pit your favourite characters and creatures from legend and pop culture against one another in pitched duels to the death. The roster of characters is as brilliant as the game itself, seeing Sinbad going toe to toe with a sword wielding Alice (of Wonderland fame) is thrilling and just a blast to play.  Each character has their own unique deck that perfectly encapsulates their personality and abilities in a way that makes you really feel the essence of the fighter you’re playing. It’s also been a favourite of my son, and as such, Unmatched has provided us with many, many hours of intense battles and forged some precious gaming memories for us both. With further releases on the horizon, Unmatched will find a permanent home in our collection.


Well, that was quite the journey! If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me.  And I’m not just talking about this particular article, but all the blogs that I’ve written throughout 2021.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them and I can’t wait to return to work and crank out even greater content than before!  I hope you all have an amazing New Year and if you’d like to discuss any of the games featured here or perhaps share some of your own great gaming experiences from 2021, please head over to our Game Kings Gamers page on Facebook or let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  For now, I’m going to get back to playing more great games and I wish you all the best!  Thank you.

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