My Top 10 Board Games of 2021
As another year draws to a close, my thoughts turn to the last 52 weeks and the games I played during them. I had more games competing for table time than ever before, and even got to play them with in-person, with real human beings. The games below are the games I enjoyed most in 2021. The year they were released is irrelevant. There simply hasn’t been enough time to play 2021’s big releases, and board games don’t age as quickly as video games. Anything you see below is a game I think is brilliant, and deserving of a space in your collection.
Any of the links in the summaries below will take you to full reviews of each game. So without further ado…
10. Anno 1800 (Kosmos Games, 2020)
If the name seems familiar, it’s because Anno 1800 was first a city-builder video game from Ubisoft. One of my favourite designers – Martin Wallace – is behind the board game version, and he’s done a brilliant job of capturing the feel of the original. The Anno series of games are about taking a small settlement and growing it. Gather resources, convert them into other resources, add roads and housing for the populace, and do your best to keep them happy. There’s usually a little warfare involved, but the reason that I enjoy them so much is watching your village grow and thrive.
Anno 1800 the board game does a remarkable job of capturing nearly everything in the video game. You need to add buildings to generate and convert resources, manage your workers, and even explore new lands. The main board is a market of SO MANY tiles to buy and add to your player board. Honestly, it’s crazy how many there are, so a good insert is the order of the day. But once you’ve sorted your table out, what you’re left with is a game with a ton of ways to play it, a very addictive gameplay loop, and the best cardboard representation of a video game I’ve ever played. Full review to come in 2022.
9. Dominion (Rio Grande Games, 2008)
The grand-daddy of deck-building games, and still my favourite. No other game in my collection has seen the play time that Dominion has, and the brilliance of Donald X. Vaccarino’s design still holds up today. Although the game is supposedly about building your city, with the cards representing buildings and people in it, the setting may as well not be there. What makes Dominion sing is the streamlined Action, Buy, Clean-up (ABC) loop the game employs. I couldn’t care less if I’m playing a Village or a Market card, I’m looking at how many extra actions or coins it gives me on that turn.
The sheer variety of game setups with just the base game box means you can play it over, and over again. If you do get bored, there’s around a hundred expansions too. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there are a lot of them. This year I’ve played my aging copy with real people, and also playing weekly on the excellent implementation at dominion.games. I even got in on the beta testing of the new (and very good) app version of the game. If you’ve never played Dominion, and you’re looking at the 2008 release date, please don’t let it put you off. Deck-builders come and go. Dominion is forever.
8. Anomia (Asmodee, 2010)
I’ve sung the praises of Anomia here plenty of times this year, and I’ll continue to. It’s my favourite party game, and because it’s just a couple of decks of cards, I can (and do) take it everywhere with me. The idea is simple. Flip a card, and if the picture on it matches the picture on the card in front of another player, name an example of the thing written on their card. If you do it first, you win the card. I know that doesn’t very interesting, or much fun, but believe me when I tell you that Anomia will have you laughing and shouting at your friends like no other game does.
There’s an amazing cognitive disconnect that happens when you have to name something. I think it’s something to do with your brain immediately having to switch from matching pictures, to reading and recalling words. Something as simple as naming a bird for example. You could be sat there with a parrot on your shoulder, stroking your pet penguin, bluebirds in the kitchen doing the dishes Disney-style, and you won’t be able to name a single bird. It’s cheap, hilarious, and absolutely brilliant.
7. Lost Ruins of Arnak (Czech Games Edition, 2020)
I’ve not really mentioned Lost Ruins of Arnak here much, and that’s shameful. It was one of the biggest releases last year, and one I picked up as soon as it released. The debutant designers, Min & Elwin, created a fantasy land of ancient mystery and monsters. Players take the roles of archaeologists exploring the lands of Arnak. Researching ancient texts, making expeditions into forgotten lands, and taking on the guardians protecting them. “How?”, you ask. Deck-building and worker-placement!
The deck-building is very light in all honesty, but the way the game plays out is really fun. There’s competition for the various worker spots on the board, and lots of ways to score points, but the game’s mechanisms are nice and simple. The components are really good, and the artwork is incredible. It’s also available on Board Game Arena, and I’ve been playing it asynchronously on there for months. I’m still not tired of it, and it’s going to stay in my collection for a long time, as I think it’s an excellent gateway game.
6. Dune Imperium (Dire Wolf, 2020)
The third of the big ‘Combining deck-building with other things’ game of last year (along with Lost Ruins of Arnak and Viscounts of the West Kingdom), Dune Imperium was destined to be launched alongside the new film. Unfortunately, our friend Covid-19 disrupted the film’s release, but luckily for us, the game came out. It’s a mix of traditional worker-placement with deck-building, vying for favour with the empire and houses of Arrakis. The board is bigger than it needs to be, but the artwork and attention to detail is great throughout.
Unusually for a worker-placement game, there’s a lot of interaction, albeit not direct. As well as taking actions, harvesting water and Spice, and recruiting people and vehicles into your deck of cards, there are battles kicking-off on the lower-right of the board. Players raise their troops, who are cubes, naturally, and compete to see who can dominate the area at the end of the current round, with some hefty bonuses on offer for the victor. There are some neat mechanisms whereby cards and powers can be used right up until the point of conflict, keeping you on your toes. Is there room for all three games in your collection? Absolutely, all three are on my shelves next to me as I write.
5. Ride the Rails (Capstone Games, 2020)
Cube rail games were among my favourite new things in 2020. My first dabblings were with Luzon Rails and Ride the Rails, and I was immediately hooked. Each of them have a subtly different take on the idea of a hex-based railway game, with players competing to lay tracks and invest in the various companies who own them. Ride the Rails is about as a pretty as a board covered in hexes can be, thanks to Punchboard favourite Ian O’Toole in charge of the art. The tiny wooden trains and little wooden passenger tokens are irresistibly cute, it’s a game desperate to be played with.
The simple turns consisting of investing in a company, putting trains on the board, and moving passengers along the tracks are really simple to teach. So much so, there’s no rulebook, just a double-sided rules sheet. It plays out in around an hour, but in that hour there is so much scope for cunning strategy, and each successive play only makes the game better, as players start to learn the ins-and-outs better, and learn where there are opportunities to piggyback someone else’s good work and buy stock in the same companies. Locomotive magic, and I hope to cover the rest of the Iron Rail series next year: Irish Gauge and Iberian Gauge.
4. Too Many Bones (Chip Theory Games, 2017)
Too Many Bones was one of those games that I’d always kept on the edge of my radar. I didn’t like the look of the poker chips moving around a small arena board, I didn’t like the price, but I did like how much people raved about it. Including people who share similar tastes with me. Luckily, earlier in the year Chip Theory sent me a copy to review, and I fell in love with it. It evokes the feeling of playing a Tactical RPG on a computer, but gathered around a table, with a ridiculous number of dice to roll all over the place.
The production values are really high, and I love the neoprene player character mats, with their little cutouts to slot dice into when you learn new abilities. It’s not all just prettiness though, Too Many Bones is a really solid skirmish game, with so much variety available in every game. The monsters you fight, the characters you use, the way you choose to customise them, and work together with your team-mates. It’s extremely satisfying, and one of the few co-op games I genuinely love. I can see myself playing this years from now, which is an honour not too many games have.
3. On Mars (Eagle-Gryphon Games, 2020)
You don’t have to be into board games for too long before you get wind of the combination of publisher Eagle-Gryphon Games, and designer Vital Lacerda. Their partnership is ubiquitous in euro games, with huge boxes of game, lavish presentation and components, and very hefty price tags. While at this year’s UK Games Expo, I sold some games and treated myself to the most-recent of their games – On Mars. It’s a very heavy worker-placement game with a vast array of choices at every step of the way.
The clever use of the planetside and orbit areas, and choosing when to transition between them. The way the resources chain together in a glorious cycle of production, rooted in science. The tiny wooden rockets you put on your double-layered player boards. There’s is so much about this game that I love. It’s a tricky game, and it’s one I won’t get to play too often, just because of the weight of complexity when it comes to choosing what to do. If you’re not scared of a learning game or two though, and if you’re looking for a sci-fi game with a well-integrated setting, you really ought to be looking at On Mars. Its weight and cost, in this instance, more than warrants a place in my collection. It’s a fabulous game.
2. Gandhi (GMT Games, 2019)
The biggest and best surprise I had in 2021 was playing Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, 1917-1947. I’d been taking a little more interest in traditional war games since playing Root, and ended up choosing Gandhi as my foot in the door. To say I was overwhelmed when I went through the box contents for the first time, would be a big understatement. Despite the really nice wooden components, and pretty board, the two thick rulebooks were so daunting. Even when I sat down and tried to read through them, I came away none-the-wiser.
Patience is a virtue, however, or so they say, and my patience was rewarded in a massive way. After understanding that one of the two books in the box is perhaps the single best play-along tutorial I’ve ever encountered, I came to understand why this genre of game gets so much love. It’s a very heavy game, there’s no denying that, but the strategising and the choices on offer in each round are brilliant. The asymmetry between the four factions, the brilliance of the solo automa decks, the different campaigns, the historical accuracy, and the gameplay, are all things of beauty. It’s not tanks rolling across French countryside in the 1940s, but it’s an area-control game of the highest calibre, and I can’t wait to play it again. Even writing this is making me want to set it up for a game, it’s magnificent.
1. Hadrian’s Wall (Garphill Games, 2021)
Hadrian’s Wall has the biggest disparity between presentation and fun that I’ve ever come across in a game. The chunkiest roll-and-write game so far, it’s an absolute masterclass in how to make a satisfying game. The designer, Garphill newcomer Bobby Hill, might not be well-known just yet, but if he keeps making games like this, he soon will be. Two sheets covered in literally hundreds of small boxes are set before you, some cards flipped, and it’s your job to turn your people and resources into the greatest section of fortification in Roman Britain. Although it’s a game for up to six players, it’s ostensibly a solo game, played at the same time as others, which is good news in these masked days we find ourselves in.
The gameplay loop of scribbling out a box, which lets you scribble in another, and then another, is so addictive it could be categorised as a Class-B drug. There’s an inordinate amount of joy that comes from doing it, and it makes me worry for my free time when I become old enough to comfortably visit the local Bingo hall. There are so many options available that you can try different ideas every time you play it. At first it feels like… well, I can’t see how you can possibly get better at this, it’s so random. But then you realise it isn’t random, and you can do better, and you’ll sit there and play game after game after game.
I knew how much I loved the game when I was playing it in the first half of the year, but I wondered if that new-game lustre would fade as the year went on. It hasn’t. I still love it. I still play it. And that’s not just because after release they released a full, FREE, downloadable solo campaign either (although it didn’t hurt). Yes, it looks a bit blergh, yes, it sounds a bit dull. But please, trust me when I tell you how good this game is, then toddle off and buy yourself a copy, and then write to me. “Hey, Adam, I’m so glad I bought Hadrian’s Wall, it’s great, let’s talk about it lots, new best friend“
Have you played all of my top 10 games? Some? None? Is there anything on there you strongly disagree with, and what have I missed? Let me know in the comments below, or let me know on Twitter.