Note: This written post features only my top 10 Spatial Puzzle games, but the podcast episode includes my picks plus 10 more picks from podcast guest, Ryan Flaherty. If you want twice the Spatial Puzzle gaming goodness via an audio discussion between friends, then check out our meaty episode!
Before one becomes a dentist, or even enters dental school, a prospective dental student in the US must take what is called the Dental Admissions Test. This exam is an absolute beast of a hoop that one must successfully jump through if they wish keep their dental career dream alive. Many folks (including myself) take off several weeks to spend 6-8 hours a day cramming biology, chemistry, mathematics, and more into our brains in preparation for the great spewing. For a couple months or so, this pursuit essentially consumes your life as you cram, take practice exams, and cram some more as though you are trying to pour more knowledge fluid into an already overflowing brain bucket while patching up the leaky holes all over.
Oddly enough, there is one part of this exam that starts to feel like a game. It is a section known as the Perceptual Ability Test, or PAT for short. As the title describes, this section examines your ability to mentally visualize things such as 3D shapes, acute angles, and more. The reason this feels like a game is that rather than solve problems or recall memorized information, you are challenged to rank angles, match keyholes, visualize folds, count cube surfaces, and more. The reason for the PAT is because dentists are constantly using mirrors, x-rays, and models to visualize, shape, and diagnose teeth. Thus, the PAT material is not so much something you can learn or memorize to be prepared. Rather, it requires a spatially minded brain and a whole lot of practice to master the challenging types of questions you’ll encounter. In a sort of sick and twisted way, this PAT practice becomes the “fun” part of your studying routine, and a great way to break up the monotony of the science subjects. Over time, It’s quite satisfying to nail these questions with increasing competence.
Much like the PAT (but in a far more entertaining form), it is also very satisfying to take on spatial puzzles in tabletop games. These puzzles usually take the form of cards and tiles which can be aligned, arranged, and overlapped in an open space of endless possibilities. Typically, these games will punish you for poor spatial arrangements and reward you for clever planning. While some games are pure spacial puzzling, others implement this mental challenge into a larger game packed with many more mechanisms.
We’ve had loads of fun exploring many games that include spatial puzzling in their repertoire. Many titles in t his genre have proven to be deliciously addicting and widely popular. We’ve enjoyed them so much, that it is with great excitement that Bitewing Games here and now reveals our next published game to be… a meaty spatial puzzler. That’s right! We’ve been working hard these past several months to plan and prepare our next game for you. You can find our grand reveal at the end of this post. And in celebration of that reveal, today we’d like to share our Top 10 Spatial Puzzle games. If you, like us, are a fan of many of these games and their puzzly goodness, then our next offering might just be up your alley.
But we’ll save the details for the end. As for now, let’s talk about our favorite, highly recommended spatial puzzle games in no particular order…
Patchwork / New York Zoo
Might as well come clean right up front… there is definitely going to be some cheating involved on this Top 10 list. It will actually consist of 13 games plus more honorable mentions at the end! The reason for this dirty trick is simple: there are far more than 10 excellent spatial puzzle games out there. Plus, some titles share so much in common that it’s too hard to mention one without mentioning the other. Thus, with this first pick, we split the spotlight between Uwe Rosenberg’s Patchwork and New York Zoo.
Those of you who’ve seen my Battle of the Polyominoes article likely predicted that these games would end up here. Polyominoes are to spatial puzzle games as dogs are to house pets. They’re like a gamer’s best friend. There is something about fitting various shapes together on a square grid that we gamers can’t get enough of. This won’t be the only polyomino pick on this list—far from it—so let’s talk about what makes Patchwork and New York Zoo special.
Coming from the same designer, Patchwork and New York Zoo both feature an engaging rondel for tile drafting. The former is all about an economy of spending and earning buttons while managing time to maximize positive points and cover up negative points to beat your single opponent. The latter is instead an economy of breeding… that’s right… breeding animals in their exhibits at the zoo in a race to be the first to cover your board entirely before 1-4 opponents. In both cases, you can enjoy pleasant themes mixed with compelling decisions from the polyomino connoisseur himself. Which one is better is up for debate, but I say you can’t go wrong with either (or both).
While Patchwork and New York Zoo both contain elements of time economics or racing to the finish, neither of them are actual ‘real-time’ games where you are rushing your arrangements and burning your brain into overdrive. But if that’s what you are looking for, Galaxy Trucker has you covered. This wild, wacky game has been around for many years, but it recently received a new coat of paint with some minor tweaks to the formula. Either version is dirt cheap and loads of fun, but you’ll need to have a group who can handle a bit of a rules dump up front.
While this one isn’t as family-friendly as it wants to be thanks to a few too many fiddly rules, it still has a major payoff for those who are fully invested. The game consist of two acts: first, rush to reveal and arrange square tiles into a jumbled mess of a space ship that contains guns, thrusters, energy, shields, storage, and more. The longer you take to arrange and nitpick your ship, the faster the best tiles will be claimed by other players because during this act you are scrambling to build your ships all at the same time and the tiles are first-come-first-serve. The second act sees you laughing, cheering, and moaning as you send your ships on a risky voyage ripe with perilous dangers and delicious rewards. Ship parts and sections get blasted and blown off, and all you can do is just hang on and hope you survive the journey.
Speaking of rushing to grab tiles while cooking your brain, Factory Funner is also split into two phases: the first phase consists of brief real-time drafting, the second consists of crunchy spatial efficiency. The cool thing here is that you are free to use connectors and other helpful tiles to your heart’s content, but each extra piece you use costs a dollar from your score. As you have to add a new machine each round, you can also remove old pipes and tiles to establish new connections between the machine inputs and outputs.
The new version of this game (releasing within the next few months) comes to us from publisher BoardGameTables.com and features zesty new art, a non-real-time drafting variant for those who don’t like to be rushed, and the addition of a sixth player.
Pipeline / Curious Cargo
Since we’re on the subject of pipes, we might as well chat about the ultimate pipey games from designer Ryan Courtney: Pipeline and Curious Cargo. Ryan burst into the board game industry with the critically acclaimed Pipeline, a slick economic brain burner about buying, refining, and selling oil. While worker placement, loans, economics, engine building, and contract fulfillment are all major parts of this design, one of the standout features of this game is the pipe tiles where players must make long, winding connections of pipe of the same color to help refine their oil. Purchasing and arranging these pipes is a compelling part of the challenge, and these different combinations of routes across dozens of domino tiles was something fresh and new in the spatial puzzle genre.
People loved it so much that the creators followed Pipeline up with another domino spatial puzzle game in Curious Cargo. While many expected Curious Cargo to be a pure, simple distillation of the pipe element from Pipeline, in reality Ryan took this follow-up design as a challenge to cram as much complexity into a small box game as possible. What resulted was a title that has perhaps been a little more polarizing in the industry. This head-to-head shipping and receiving game contorts your brain with its even more difficult spatial challenges. It demands much flexibility and adaptation from players as they draw tiles out the bag and must figure out how to best use those frequently less-than-ideal draws. But I stand by my final statement in my review of this title: “Despite the emotional cuts, bruises, and occasional broken bones that this design doles out, I’ve found Curious Cargo to be one heck of a satisfying game.”
Let’s step away from the brain burning puzzles for a moment to talk about a few lighter options. Azul mixes tile drafting with just a hint of spacial puzzling. The sequence and location tiles added to your board is the core element of scoring, and it’s a challenge that comes into conflict with the dwindling drafting options of each round. It’s just as important to be able to predict what tiles others will claim as it is to smartly plan your own moves.
Azul is one that ranks highly among our favorite 2-player games and 10 games everyone should try. While there are now four versions of Azul out in the wild, I’m sticking with my guns and declaring that the original is the best. At least that’s how things will remain until Azul: Queen’s Garden makes its way to the US for me to properly scrutinize it.
Carcassonne / Isle of Skye
If you’re looking to go even more classic and simple than Azul, then perhaps Carcassonne is the best candidate. The procedure is dead simple: play the one tile in your hand anywhere into the growing arrangement of tiles and add a meeple on top of it if you’d like. With the tiles, you’ll be accomplishing tasks as simple as growing, connecting, or enclosing fields, roads, or cities. But the most important aspect is deciding when and where to add your meeples. You see, these meeples are like investments in unfinished landscape features; the person with the most meeples in a feature when it becomes fully enclosed gets the big payout in points. Things get extra spicy when opponents attempt to outcompete each other in the same region or when they try to sabotage the completion of a road or city.
Yet I can’t help but mention here another square tile game with an interesting twist. In Isle of Skye, there is no shared, central region of growing tiles for players to add to like in Carcassonne. Rather, you’ll be building up your own personal area as you’re pulled this way and that by the changing scoring criteria. Each round, you’ll also be pulling 3 tiles out of the bag and deciding how to price them to either entice or deter your opponents. Money is important here because you’ll desperately need it to be able to buy the best tile from a single opponent of your choice. Plus, you’ll be using your own money to price your tiles, and if nobody bites, then you just bought them yourself for the price you set.
If you’re looking for a straightforward game that lets players dip their toes in the spatial puzzle waters by aligning and arranging matching features on square tiles, then you can’t go wrong with Carcassonne or Isle of Skye.
A Feast for Odin
For those of you who prefer your games sprawling and meaty, let’s now dive back into the deep end of spatial puzzle designs. A Feast for Odin is a game that features a worker placement game board with over 60 possible spaces, hundreds of tiny polyomino tiles organized across several trays, and large player boards with supplemental island boards for you to arrange these many tiles over the course of a 2-3 hour playtime. This is one big box game that will make you wish your table was at least… three times its size.
Yet, A Feast for Odin is one of the most satisfying Euros in existence thanks to Uwe Rosenberg’s steady design hand. You’ll be hunting, raiding, farming, whaling, trading, and more to acquire viking goods that come in many shapes and sizes. You’ll have to arrange these polyomino goods wisely in order to increase your income, surround and gain bonuses, and cover up negative points. All the while, you’ll be feeding your vikings as they grow increasingly hungry throughout their many pursuits. It’s a feast of game that is indeed worthy of Odin’s name.
Isle of Cats
If you want to wrap your braintacles around one of the hottest polyomino games of the recent years, then Isle of Cats might just be what the doctor ordered. You’ll be rescuing cats from the evil Lord Vesh by cramming them onto your boat board. If that doesn’t already sound zesty enough for you, then consider that the other core mechanism of this game is card drafting similar to 7 Wonders or Sushi Go.
This game also has an easier, more family friendly mode for those who need it. But either way, you’ll be playing a game that is currently ranked in the top 100 games on BGG and the BGG top 10 family games. Need I say more?
Those of you who are primarily solo or cooperative gamers, worry not, we haven’t forgotten about you! Sprawlopolis is arguably the best wallet game that money can buy, and it is meant to be played solo or together. It still blows my mind what the creators were able to pull off with only 18 cards: The backs of these cards each have a unique scoring objective. Your game will feature a random combination of 3 scoring objectives, and you’ll be using the remaining 15 card faces to arrange and layer a city of cards to try and achieve the scoring requirements.
You’ll lose points for each unique road, so it’s wise to try and connect them together to minimize damage. Meanwhile, you’ll be trying to overlap and connect matching districts in all directions according to the tricky objectives of each individual play. If the 3 objective cards are easy, then you’ll need a higher score to win. This crunchy minimalist game comes highly acclaimed by many critics, and at such a low price you have no reason not to try it.
Although this list was arranged in no particular order, we are going to end things off with my personal favorite spatial puzzle game. While most of these games see players drafting or selecting tiles or cards to arrange in optimal orientations, My City makes its players fall victim to a bingo style draft. A central deck with one card for each tile is shuffled at the start of the game. Each round, the top card is revealed and players must decide where to place this building tile onto their city board.
One would surmise, as I once did, that such a system devoid of tile choice or player interaction would be aggressively dull. Not so, dear reader. Instead, this system creates an experience of suspense, risk, and anticipation as you plan and hope that the right tile will come out of the deck before you fill a suitable area in with something less ideal.
A critical aspect of these rules is that you may spend a point to trash a tile rather than be forced to add it to your board. And we haven’t even gotten to the real juicy part of the design: My City is a legacy game where over the course of 24 sessions players will add stickers to their board, gain more tiles, encounter new challenges and objectives, and compete to be the ultimate city builder by tracking points earned during each play. We’ve sung the praises of My City so much that our followers are undoubtedly now bleeding from all orifices and begging us to branch out to other games. But alas, when one makes a Top 10 Spacial Puzzles list, one must listen to their heart and include the masterful My City among the champions.
While there can only be thirteen games among the top 10 (our math is sound, don’t question it), the following are honorable mentions that we wish to list and celebrate so that we can minimize our chances of being flogged by spatial puzzle connoisseurs:
- Blokus – classic, strategic goodness
- Calico / Cascadia – hot new tile drafting and arranging games featuring animals
- Arboretum – a tense cutthroat hand management game with a sprinkling of spatial arrangement
- Railroad Ink – a solid roll & write of connecting highways and railroads
- Barenpark – a favorite polyomino game for many… plus BEARS
- On Tour – a roll & write about scheduling a tour by sequencing your route across the country
- Sagrada – a popular game similar to Azul featuring gorgeous colorful token drafting (dice in this case) and arranging
A Bitewing Games Publication Reveal…
And here we have finally arrived… at the end of all things. Or more accurately, at the end of all things yet published. We are thrilled to finally unveil the next title that Bitewing Games will be publishing via a Kickstarter campaign in Q2 2022. It is indeed a spatial puzzle game, but it is also a love letter to outdoor adventuring. Introducing Trailblazers by designer Ryan Courtney:
Trailblazers are the gutsy folks who pave and brave the trails of the great outdoors. Whether by hiking boots, cycling wheels, or river paddle, these tenacious travelers seek to feed their insatiable appetite for adventure. With a scenic wilderness ever ahead and a freshly charted path upon the heels, one mustn’t forget to eventually find their way back to camp. For there are always new environments to explore, further expeditions to undertake, and more trails to blaze.
In Trailblazers, players compete to earn the most points by building biking, hiking, and kayaking loops from their campsites of the matching trail type. Each round, players are dealt eight trail cards where they’ll draft two cards, arrange those cards in their personal area, and pass their hand to the next player three times. Cards must either be placed adjacent to or overlapping other cards. While players can push their luck by aiming to construct long and elaborate trails, only closed loops that start and end at a matching campsite will score points. Players also compete to fulfill “First To” and “End Game” goal cards. After four rounds, the game ends and the player with the most points from closed loops and goal cards wins.
Compared to the travel edition for 1-4 players, the standard edition of Trailblazers features a second deck of trail & player cards so you can play with up to 8 players. The box also contains two expansions (the Animals expansion and Adventurers expansion) that add another challenging layer of strategy and objectives to the experience.
Trailblazers is the third spacial puzzle domino game by designer Ryan Courtney (the first two being Pipeline and Curious Cargo). While they share a similar puzzly DNA that fans have come to know and love, Trailblazers differs by:
- Featuring simple, highly accessible rules in a 30 minute game for 1-8 players
- Boiling the gameplay down to pure spatial puzzling and card drafting with a dash of push-your-luck route building
- Using durable PVC cards that can easily be shuffled, dealt, drafted, and overlapped (found in the travel edition and deluxe edition)
- Including three challenging solo modes with a high skill-ceiling
Well there you have it! We’re ecstatic to finally get that big news off our chest. But we’re even more excited to launch this Kickstarter project next year! For those of you who want to follow along or even try out the game early on Tabletop Simulator (once it is ready), simply subscribe to the Bitewing Games newsletter and join us for the ride! In the meantime, keep on enjoying those spatial puzzlers!
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. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.