The wheel of time ever turns, and so it must come to pass that we revisit the very best board games of 2021. With more plays under my belt and more distance from their hype-infused releases, I’m now ready to look back on all the 2021 releases that I played. For those who don’t know, this has become a yearly tradition, and you can still go back and peruse my reflection of 2019 and 2020 releases. You can also compare the list below to my Top 15 Games of 2021 which was posted back in March (spoilers: most of those remained Lovers).
With over 50 games to cover, I’ll simply be offering my brief thoughts on each game as I categorize them into Lovers, Keepers, Dumpers, Flingers, and Seekers.
The must owns, can’t get enough ofs, top 50 games of all time candidates, going through withdrawals if I wait too long to play it again type of games.
- Radlands – If you can find in on my Holiday Board Game Gift Guide, then it’s likely to be a Lover. That’s true for Radlands, which I maintain is the best 2-player release of 2021. This is a dueling game that exudes confidence from its balanced deck of awesome abilities to its stunning presentation.
- Equinox – While many of us wish that the cards of Equinox were smaller and more easily manageable, it is still an undeniably phenomenal card game. Those who appreciate tight hand management (akin to classics like Lost Cities or Arboretum), juicy shared incentives (similar to Dogs of War or cube rails games), and moments of savagery (reminiscent of The Estates or Renature) will find much to love in this betting game.
- Kabuto Sumo – This one has proven to be more polarizing than expected, which is surprising given its light-hearted gameplay and gorgeous illustrations. I suppose that not everyone enjoys the challenge of predictive physics and disc pushing. But after thoroughly enjoying 16 plays of it since its release, I think it’s safe to say that our household loves a rousing round of insect wrestling.
- Oath – Oath has proven its longevity over the course of a dozen plays. And I’ve had so much fun with this one that it landed the #1 spot on my updated Top 50 Games of All Time list. Just because it’s the best game for me doesn’t mean it’s the best game for everyone. This is one heavy, wacky, wonky design that isn’t worth the trouble unless you have a consistent group to regularly gather for it.
- So Clover – After dropping 3 polarizing games in a row (Equinox’s production, Kabuto Sumo’s unique dexterity experience, and Oath’s restrictive group requirements), perhaps it’s time I behave myself and toss out a widely acclaimed title. While it only plays up to 6, So Clover is unquestionably the best party game of 2021. I’d happily play this any time.
- Mille Fiori – While I’ve heard many folks praise Reiner Knizia’s 2021 release Witchstone, and even rank it among their very favorite games of the year, I remain firmly on Team Mille Fiori. For my money, this is the better point salad, Euro style, big-box Knizia by a country mile. And word on the street is that it’s soon getting an expansion.
- Kemet: Blood & Sand– Of course Kemet is a lover. That’s why it landed a spot on our 2022 Holiday Board Game Gift Guide. Kemet is still the gold standard for troops on a map games thanks to its aggressive style and buffet of powers.
- Siege of Runedar – I’m 5 plays into Siege of Runedar and still hungry to give it another go. That’s more than I can say for most cooperative games that hit our table. This one remains unique, challenging, and just plain fun. Reiner Knizia hasn’t missed with his deck building designs yet.
- Whale Riders – Whale Riders has already been through some turbulent times — having never seen an official retail release due to the unfortunate conclusion of the Grail Games / Reiner Knizia / Vincent Dutrait dynasty. But that still doesn’t take away from the fact that this is an enjoyably snappy little game. Between the gorgeous presentation and breezy gameplay, this one still makes for a refreshing filler.
- Ankh: Gods of Egypt – 2021 graced us with not one but two epic Egyptian troops on a map games. Ankh is a triumph of a design that shows designer Eric Lang putting all his experience to good use. Powers, minis, and events galore are polished to near perfection within this elegant system of tense competition.
- Pipeline: Emerging Markets – Pipeline: Emerging Markets remains the best expansion of 2021 that I’ve played, and one that I’ll happily integrate into every session of Pipeline. All the variety to be found here is guaranteed to keep you on your toes throughout this economic brain burner.
- The Crew: Mission Deep Sea – The only thing better than playing and enjoying one of the greatest card games of all time is discovering that its sequel is even stronger. The Crew: Mission Deep Sea takes the juicy core of trick taking and transforms it into a playground of challenging possibilities.
- Ark Nova – Ark Nova was unquestionably the best heavy Euro of 2021. Designer Mathias Wigge managed to weave together a tapestry of engaging mechanisms to create a meaty, satisfying zoo builder. I look forward to trying the newly released zoo boards as well as the upcoming expansion. The jury’s still out on best zoo game of the 2020s, seeing how our own Zoo Vadis is coming in hot next year 😜.
The solid games that have survived many purges over the past year. I would be sad to see them go, but I don’t need to bring them to the table constantly either.
- Into the Blue – Into the Blue is where Yahtzee meets area control — sort of like King of Tokyo but purified and condensed down to a more palatable length. It’s not my favorite Knizia Dice game, but it’s absolutely a worthwhile one.
- Bristol 1350 – Bristol is quite the fun little romp of racing carts and avoiding the plague. Folks who enjoy social deduction, a pinch of strategy, and a sprinkling of chaos will find much to love here. But between you and me, I’ve already tried the next game in the Dark Cities line (coming to crowdfunding in January) and it’s shaping up to be my favorite of the bunch.
- Whale Riders: The Card Game – Whale Riders: TCG is an amusing little Knizia card game of shared incentives. In fact, it might just be the simplest shared incentive game of all time. That interaction and simplicity is what makes it interesting for me, but I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t Knizia’s strongest card game in his ludography, let alone from 2021.
- Cryo – I’ve really been hungering for another play of Cryo, especially after trying the comparably dull and generic Manhattan Project: Energy Empire from the same design team. For my tastes, Cryo is much tighter, much prettier, and much more unique. Where Cryo was a hit with my regular Euro group, I’ll no doubt have the chance to play it yet again before too long.
- LAMA Dice – I keep saying it, but I’m not sure anybody believes me: LAMA Dice is substantially better than LAMA. If a game is going to be simple, dumb fun, at least let it be a lively experience. LAMA Dice is a dramatic and funny filler with enough clever Knizian twists to be one that I’d happily break out to start or end or break up any game night.
- Brian Boru: High King of Ireland – Lots of great trick takers have been released in recent years, but perhaps none is as ambitious as Brian Boru. Who knew that an entire board game of area control and Irish jockeying could be grafted onto a trick taker? Peer Sylvester knew, and he nailed it.
- Heckmeck am Karteneck – Perhaps it isn’t as strategic as The Crew or revelatory as Scout or unique as Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition, but Heckmeck am Karteneck is as solid as any card game out there. Take the lively auctions of For Sale, pour in the charm of Pickomino, and blend it with the game of chicken hand management of Taj Mahal, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for fun in Heckmeck am Karteneck.
- MicroMacro: Crime City — Full House – We’ve definitely slowed down on our plays of MicroMacro since we first dove into the original game, but it’s still a pleasure to crack open a new case in this system of Where’s Waldo meets murder mystery. I still think it’s one of the best cooperative couples games out there, and it’ll remain a keeper for as long as we have new investigations to undertake.
- Art Robbery – Reiner Knizia had a pretty great year in terms of his simple card and dice games. Art Robbery supports this trend, even if it doesn’t light the gaming world on fire. This is what the undeservingly popular take-that game Cover Your Assets wishes it could be: fast, clever, and actually fun.
- No Mercy – Dr. Knizia is just as good at providing dumb, simple fun as he is at conjuring brilliant works of art. No Mercy definitely fits on the dumb, simple fun end of the spectrum, and it sits about as far on that end as any game ever has. The title, No Mercy, doesn’t even make all that much sense for what you are doing in the game. But who cares, anyway? This one is a 10-minute guts and glory luck-fest. For how unobtrusive the game is, I’ll happily keep it around for the occasional romp.
Some made me question my life decisions, others simply made me wish I was playing something else. None are welcome back at my table. So long and good riddance. May you find a better home.
- Juicy Fruits – Juicy Fruits took unfortunate inspiration from the similarly named chewing gum brand in being the most dull and flavorless game of 2021 that I played. I suppose you can’t fault it for being true to its title.
- Red Rising – I’ve rarely seen as much thematic dissonance between game design and inspiration as what I witnessed with Red Rising. And the bland, messy design certainly didn’t provide any damage control. If you want a true Red Rising gameplay experience, I’d wager you’re better off trying something like Oath. And if you just need a glimmer of hope for a brighter day, then Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest (from the same publisher) should restore your faith in humanity.
- Sleeping Gods – I like the idea and love the look of Sleeping Gods — an epic solo/cooperative adventure game featuring lush environments and juicy narratives. But if I’m being perfectly honest, I find an actual fantasy novel or action-adventure video game provides infinitely more thrills and satisfaction with none of the board game baggage. Two excellent places to start: The Way of Kings (book) and God of War (video game).
- Family Inc – Family Inc is nearly the same game as No Mercy, which I’ve already categorized as a keeper. So why did this alternate version of a dumb, simple fun game end up here? Because the size of this box is offensively huge. It irks me just so whenever I see it swallowing up so much space and carrying so much air… that disgusting mass of cardboard girth. I am offended, my bookshelf is offended, and we won’t stand for this.
- Imperial Steam – Imperial Steam epitomizes nearly everything I hate about modern Euro game design: hollow player interaction, fruitless complexity, excessive mechanisms, piles of components, and obnoxiously endless rules — all in the name of appearing grandiose and replayable. Give me the good old days where the challenge of board gaming was to outwit opponents rather than to pull a million levers in the most efficient sequence.
Do you like to dabble? I dabble from time to time. These games were amusing to try. Didn’t love em. Didn’t hate em. And sure, I’d play them again… given the right mood and circumstance.
- Furnace – It’s been nearly a year since I played Furnace twice, and I haven’t thought about it at all since then. That’s never a good sign, even for a game that I enjoy. Yet it still clung on within my collection until this week when I finally sold it. I think I’m hungry to explore the interesting auction mechanism further… but the other half of the game (cube-pushing and resource conversion) didn’t exactly ignite my enthusiasm to get it back to the table over other options.
- Coffee Traders – After still only managing to play Coffee Traders once, ever, it seems that the writing is on the wall. This one is simply too large, complicated, and long for its own good. Games this demanding on space, time, and energy need to be the absolute best in their genre (like Eclipse Second Dawn) or worthy of my Top 10 (like Oath) to merit the trouble of getting it to the table. While Coffee Traders was enjoyable to play, it clearly doesn’t justify its bloat — particularly when plenty of other Euros on my shelf scratch the same itch in a fraction of the time and shelf space.
- Fort: Cats & Dogs Expansion – Leder Games gave us a charming little expansion for a game that I unfortunately lost my interest for. Similar to Coffee Traders, this one just proved to be too much trouble for its payoff. But for those who remain Fort fans, the Cats & Dogs Expansion is a no-brainer.
- Hibachi – I have a lot of respect for Hibachi. It blends a poker chip tossing dexterity competition with secret bidding in a theme where chefs are racing to complete enough meals first. What’s not to like? While this game did fall victim to my culling urges, it’s one that I’d happily play again if given the chance.
- Kemet: Blood and Sand — Book of the Dead Expansion – The idea of a new power tile type in Kemet is certainly exciting, but if I’m being honest, I’m not likely to reach for this expansion next time I play Kemet. The main issue is that this power tile color doesn’t integrate as seamlessly as all the other colors — it requires an extra board and set of rules. On top of that, our play group hasn’t even figured out a winning strategy for these wonky emerald tiles. We simply don’t play Kemet frequently enough to make this one worth the trouble.
- Railroad Ink Challenge – Railroad Ink Challenge is, in my opinion, the best version of Railroad Ink yet. But Horrible Guild has been milking this roll & write cow for much too long. I realized this when the prospect of getting through the watermelon sized box of Kickstarter expansions felt more like a chore than an adventure. Like any low interaction game or jug of milk, this one has a limited shelf life.
- Riftforce – Riftforce sadly didn’t click for me, but I can at least understand why folks love it. Riftforce does a lot of things really well — hand management, card combos, and more. But a design will always be less than the sum of its parts if it lacks a dynamic game arc. Maybe I’m more sensitive to this than most, but I’ll always come away underwhelmed if the opening, middle, and closing act of the game feel the same.
- Rorschach – Rorschach suffers the same fate as many other games in this genre — it’s novel and amusing for a play or two, but the novelty quickly wears off. Before long, our group gravitates back to more compelling options like Decrypto, Codenames, Wavelength, or So Clover.
- Summoner Wars 2nd Edition – Summoner Wars 2nd Edition is a pretty great game! But I only ever play 2-player games with my wife, and if she doesn’t like it then it’s dead in the water. She’s not a fan of dice-chucking battles, and she’s definitely not a fan of text-heavy battlefields.
- Tutankhamun – Tutankhamun is a solid Knizia design of river traversal and majority set collection, but it comes with enough caveats that I was ok with giving it up from my collection. Those caveats include that it’s not as good at lower player counts, the god tile powers are underwhelming, the graphic design could have been cleaner, and the pace is much slower than comparable titles like Whale Riders.
- Sheepy Time – I’ve been meaning to revisit Sheepy Time since my first play of it, but it keeps losing out to other game night options. If my collection was smaller, then it would certainly be easier to get to the table. But the 4-player board game genre is as crowded as they come. I can easily see myself eventually pulling it back off the shelf and having a blast when I finally do.
- Super-Skill Pinball: Ramp it Up – Super Skill Pinball suffered a similar fate to Railroad Ink and Fort in that the game was better than ever but my exhaustion for it became stronger than ever. Ramp it Up is a fantastic sequel to this faithful roll & write adaptation of pinball; the only problem is that I’ve burned out on roll and writes. And after 12 plays, the experience started to feel the same regardless of which table we tried.
- Mind MGMT – I’d like to give Mind MGMT a second chance, considering how solid of a design it is and how popular it has been with others. The opposing teams are playing two very different styles of game — one of crafty hidden movement and the other of investigation and deduction. I’m keen to explore the psychic agent role of tracking down the slippery Recruiter. Being the Recruiter who sneaks around the map just didn’t do it for me, despite multiple attempts.
- Meadow – Meadow boasts one of the best productions of any game on this list thanks to its vivid art of wildlife and nature. The gameplay even captures that peaceful outdoor vibe with a relaxing experience of tableau building and card drafting. But I’d be lying if I said it was more refreshing than actually being outside and enjoying the authentic sights, sounds, and smells. In truth, I love board gaming because of the lively competition and human interaction it provides, and Meadow features very little of those elements.
- That Time You Killed Me – I’ve only played That Time You Killed Me once, it was a recent acquisition, so here it remains until I can explore it further. At the very least, I’m intrigued to see where this time-traveling abstract game goes next with its cool premise.
- Azul: Queen’s Garden – Azul: Queen’s Garden sits in a weird place of being a better version of Calico yet a worse version of Azul. Sadly, Azul has lost much of its bite in the sequels which sacrifice interaction for complexity, but Queen’s Garden at least fully embraces that complexity rather than half-heartedly straddling it (like Summer Pavilion and Stained Glass). I’ve still only played it once, but I enjoyed that play, and I’m happy to try it again.
- Savannah Park – Speaking of Calico-like games, Savannah Park is an interesting mash-up of Calico spatial puzzling and Tiny Towns bingo calling — and it might even be the best of those three games. It was certainly better than I was expecting. One should never discount the dream-team design duo, Kramer & Kiesling.
- Witchstone – The best part of Witchstone is the hexagonal domino spatial puzzle that it steals from Ingenious. But everything else amounts to a toothless point salad that feels as un-Knizia as I’ve ever seen. In many ways, it represents the growing plague of Euros that prioritize dopamine-inducing bonuses and smorgasbord mini games over tight design and tense interaction. There’s nothing wrong with the primary designer, Martino Chiacchiera, catering to this fanbase, as long as he doesn’t poison Reiner’s design style 😆.
I’m still open to trying out these leftovers. I’ve heard good things about them here and there. Of course, I’ve now had over a year to find and play them, so I’m obviously not that desperate. Although some are much harder to track down or get to the table than others…
- Undaunted: Reinforcements – Undaunted: Reinforcements still sits on my shelf untouched — waiting to be visited after we finish the scenarios of Undaunted: North Africa. Yet now I find myself just wanting to play the brand new Undaunted: Stalingrad instead, which I hear is the best of the bunch. It’s a hard life, being a slow-playing Undaunted fan 😆.
- High Score – I’ve yet to play a Knizia dice game that wasn’t enjoyable. Even the borderline broken ones, like Zombie Mania, are still good fun 😆. So High Score has been on my list, although it’s hard to imagine this one beating out the somewhat similar (and newer) Gang of Dice which might just be the perfect Knizia dice game.
- Crash Octopus – What could be more fun than flicking, scooping, and stacking up treasures in an angry giant octopus’s swimming pool? I’m actually not sure; I haven’t played Crash Octopus yet. But it certainly sounds like a riot.
- Don’t Get Got: SUSD Edition – Here lies the ultimate shelf of shame game. Don’t Get Got seems like the perfect game for me and my buddies… back when we were in high school or college and constantly hanging out together. Now that I’m a social hermit with kids I have no idea when I’ll ever get the chance to play this large group game of harmless pranks and hilarious hijinks.
- Cascadia – It sounds like the general consensus is that Cascadia is the favorite of the Flatout Games puzzly drafting trio. It did win the Spiel Des Jahres, after all. So I’d be happy to try it sometime, but I won’t be going out of my way for it. The main deterrent for me is that Cascadia doesn’t cater to any of my favorite aspects of this hobby. Actually, it’s summed up very well by Martin G on Board Game Geek (he and I have very similar tastes).
- Cubitos – Cubitos, a push-your-luck racing game, certainly sounds like it’s right up my alley. My only hesitation is that I’ve never found a John D. Clair or AEG game that knocked my socks off. Well, that was true at least until I tried Ready Set Bet which is actually a banger of a party game. Even still, Cubitos seems destined to be a game that I only ever play once or twice if purchased, so I’d rather not purchase it.
- Land vs Sea – I’ve been trying my hand at several Carcassonne spin-offs recently including Forbidden City and Carcassonne: The Castle, so I’m certainly not opposed to playing Land vs Sea. Although at this point, I’m pretty convinced that nothing is going to beat Carcassonne: The Castle (stay tuned for my full thoughts on that one).
- Ten – I’ve heard some folks say Ten is more convoluted than it needs to be, but I’m still interested in trying this push-your-luck auction game from the creators of Point Salad.
- Turncoats – My copy of Turncoats has finally arrived (and blessedly right before the Shut Up and Sit Down tidal wave of orders undoubtedly occurred). Of all the seekers on my list, this Pax Pamir / The King is Dead spinoff is my most anticipated game.
Coming To Kickstarter In January…
Two wildly clever games of trading and negotiation — Zoo Vadis and Gussy Gorillas. The Kickstarter pre-launch page is now live! Be sure to visit the page and click to be notified the moment it launches. Thanks for supporting Bitewing Games in our quest to create and share classy board games that bite!
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games with a bite.
This Post Has 6 Comments
I’m sure you Kyle’s thoughts on land vs sea. In all fairness, I haven’t tried any of the carcassone spin-offs, just the base game BUT we are loving land vs sea for its simplicity. We’ve introduced it to several non-gamers and it’s one of our kids favorites to play. The oldest two can play it correctly (although we do leave out some of the more advanced rules) and I will take any game that I can play with my kids that isn’t trouble or uno 🤣
Nice! That’s always a huge win to have an actually interesting game that the kids also enjoy 😆.
In your SEEKERS group, I have played: Undaunted Reinforcements, Crash Octopus, Cascadia, TEN, and Land and Sea.
Undaunted: I love the system, so bought the “expansion.” I will definitely be keeping it as a) it provides a box for storing Normandy and North Africa, as well as the extra Reinforcement pieces. My only problem with it is finding someone to play it with. Most of my gaming friends are NOT military history buffs. But, I still love the system and on those rare occasions when I can play it, am thankful for having Reinforcements and the various scenarios to try.
Crash Octopus. Played twice. IMO, it is fun, but since I prefer heavier games, I would not consider owning it, and would only play it if others suggested it after playing something heavier. TEN
CASCADIA – A keeper. One of the most played games in our gaming group. Definitely my favorite of the Flatout games. Both my family (mostly non-gamers) and my gaming group agree on this one.
TEN – I really enjoy this one. Yes, it’s lighter, but has just enough thinking and decision-making to keep my interest. Big Bonus: My family will play it! So, this one is a regular around our family group. My gamer friends also enjoy it, so it gets played a good bit. Would NEVER sell this one.
LAND & SEA. A big disappointment for me. Have played it three times and, though there are some good elements to it, it comes across as “just another game.” Okay, I suppose, but not something that makes me say, “Wow, that was a great game!” Still, can be okay on occasion, but with so many, many better games, it will probably not get played by our group again.
This was fun to read through, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Sounds like I’m on to some winners 🙌.
I’m surprised you didn’t enjoy Imperial Steam, given your high rank of Brass and general enjoyment of Barrage — two games I’d compare it to. I found there to be good yet subtle interaction in the routes you take and the effective race to Trieste. It most definitely is a game about programing your turns with efficiency, but unless someone leaves me alone on the map, I’ve got to account for the other players and the stock values of each city. I found the rules to be fine and it’s generally been an easier teach with the bulk of it being: “You can do one of these dozen actions … here’s what each does … and try not to run out of money :)” Come to think of it, it also reminds me of Pipeline, where you have to start small — get at least one small contract delivered early to generate some cash and get going.
That’s fair! I can see the similarities to Brass, Barrage, and Pipeline. For me, those games were just cleaner in general, and my tolerance for excessive components/mechanisms/rules is low. But that’s just me.