It’s almost April, which means that I’m properly late to the party in revealing my favorite board games of 2021! Why wait so long? Because I’ve been holding out for a few last-minute games to make their way to our table, particularly if my hunch tells me that they have a shot at my Top 15 Board Games of the year. I’ve also spent the past few months revisiting many of these new releases with third or fourth or sixteenth plays to discern exactly how they compare against each other.
I’m not the type who shies away from including reimplemented designs on my list, but this year I decided that reimplementations must feature gameplay changes to qualify for my Top 15. This includes anything from slight balancing tweaks to additional content, but those also tend to come with a new coat of paint (in theme and/or art style).
Ultimately, my list is a celebration of excellence in game design, illustration, and publishing. The board games that made my Top 15 earned their place by bringing innovation, excellence, and (most importantly) enjoyment to our table and the industry. 2021 was a killer year for tabletop gaming; let’s explore 15 reasons why…
Cryo is a well-oiled machine of a worker placement sci-fi game. What it lacks in exciting new ideas, it more than makes up for in slim, trim, focused gameplay. Each mechanism is tightly interconnected to the overall objective of scavenging the catastrophic wreckage of your space ship and rescuing your colony’s faction on a cold, threatening planet.
Using only 8 unique cards and a small assortment of tile options, Cryo provides a wealth of strategic possibilities for customizing your engineering platform as you race for the most points. Much like the experience of gliding down fresh powder with your well-worn skis on a snow-day, the smooth system that Cryo provides is endlessly satisfying to glide through, despite its familiarity.
14. MicroMacro: Crime City — Full House
This list contains a couple of standalone sequels to excellent original designs—sequels which merited their way onto my Top 15 through sheer enjoyment factor. But these sequels certainly would have been even higher on my list if I hadn’t already played their predecessors dozens of times. At any rate, MicroMacro: Crime City — Full House is the first such sequel.
While Full House features a little more nuance to its criminal cases and visual trickery, it doesn’t really bother to shake up the formula established in the original game. Yet, that’s perfectly fine in this case. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Full House simply offers more of what we’ve come to love in this cooperative Where’s Waldo murder mystery bonanza: kills and thrills. I maintain that MicroMacro is one of the best 2-player cooperative games money can buy, especially for couples.
13. So Clover
I was initially dubious at the announcement of yet another word game where the objective is to get players to guess some words using another word as a clue (see also Codenames, Decrypto, Just One, and a gazillion others). Yet, as Cryo’s reliable worker placement system and MicroMacro’s proven search-and-solve formula have shown, just because you’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it can’t delight you.
The important thing here is that So Clover manages to stand out from its crowded (and seemingly perfected) genre by engaging everyone for every second of its lighting fast 30-minutes with a novel production featuring donut cards and dry-erase clovers. It wastes no time getting straight to the beating heart of what makes word games fun, and it uniquely does not require a large group of players to provide maximum enjoyment.
12. The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
And here is that other commendable sequel I was hinting at. Do you like yourself a tense card game? A clean cooperative design? A solid trick taking challenge? The Crew: Mission Deep Sea might just be one of the very best games IN ALL THREE GENRES, ever.
I’ve found that with the cooperative genre in general, the key to my heart is through limited communication, low upkeep requirements, tense challenges, and meaningful variety. The Crew effortlessly checks all of these boxes and keeps me unabashedly addicted to its gameplay loop from one hand to the next. That’s why I’ve played 111 rounds of The Crew (between The Quest for Planet Nine and Mission Deep Sea), and I still have no intention of stopping.
11. Kabuto Sumo
Speaking of games that I’ve played a ton of, Kabuto Sumo has proven to be another perfect 2-player game for my wife and I. Having backed the Kickstarter campaign, we were among the first to receive and play it, and it was an instant hit at our table. Thus, I’ve been frequently surprised to hear so many polarizing opinions on this one as the months have gone on.
Some folks, like us, are having a blast with this gorgeous little game of beetle wrestling and disc pushing. Others have merely shrugged their shoulders and wondered what all the fuss is about. Certain people have even come away claiming that there is nothing here in terms of meaningful decisions or strategic momentum. I’d like to formally invite you naysayers into my home where we will show you the true ways of the Kabuto. You must learn to wax on and wax off before you can master the art of the Sumo.
As far as dexterity games go, the disc-pushing of Kabuto Sumo is certainly more peaceful and nuanced than that of flicking discs or stacking blocks. Yet if you’re willing to invest in that nuance and get lost in the weeds of predictive physics—where wood pieces of various shapes, weights, and sizes collide with one another as you try to direct and control this gentle chaos on a raised platform—then and only then will you uncover the alluring magic of Kabuto Sumo.
10. Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
Trick taking games have long explored and experimented with various incentives for both winning and losing tricks. Few have gone as far as Brian Boru in grafting the clean mechanism of trick taking onto an entire board game and asking the question: What if both winning and losing a trick had unique, impactful consequences in an area majority game?
Brian Boru is a resounding success in its experimental combination of mechanisms. Hand management remains impactful as players must decide which cards to draft, when to play them, and how to use them to gain the upper hand in this gorgeous depiction of old Irish culture. This one is ripe with ripple-effect decisions thanks to its strategic flexibility and potent player interaction.
9. Mille Fiori
Thus begins the Reiner Knizia hot streak. What do I mean by that? Well, Knizia had one 2020 release (My City) that made my top 15 games that year with a second game (Schotten Totten 2) later earning a place among my ‘keepers.’ Not that my list actually means anything, but I’d call that a killer year for any designer.
Enter 2021… in terms of hot streaks, this year might rank among his very best in his 30 years of published games. Mille Fiori is my first reason why.
There is something so undeniably joyous about the ramp up in tension, points, and combos that Mille Fiori provides from start to finish. Yet where many point salad designs fail to have teeth within the competition, Mille Fiori is a real biter. Both the drafting of cards and claiming of board spaces are deliciously interactive in this glass game of ornate opportunism.
8. The Siege of Runedar
I tend to not click with big box cooperative games unless they are focused, streamlined, and high-pressured. Of course, keeping a design focused, streamlined, and high-pressured is Knizia’s specialty, thus The Siege of Runedar has been a good fit for our table.
What I love about this cooperative, deck-building, fortress defense game is that it strains and stretches you and your companions across several different wants and needs. You want to acquire a stronger weapon, but you need to stop the approaching orcs. You want to dig your way to victory by removing rubble, but you need to address the newly arrived catapult. The “wants” can help you in the long run, but the “needs” will lead to failure if neglected for too long.
This type of tough trade-off is common in solid cooperative games, but Reiner takes things a step further through interesting deck management decisions. And the icing on the cake is an ambitious production by Ludonova that brings the experience to life with raised walls and towers.
7. Whale Riders
Perhaps the only thing more breezy and joyous than Reiner Knizia’s Whale Riders is actually riding whales in real life. Either way, you’re in for a great time when whales are involved. Whale Riders makes for an excellent filler game in a gorgeous package. Nothing here is necessarily new or innovative, but the quick pace and tense tempo of this action efficiency game is what makes for a fresh experience.
I’m still amazed that I’ve been able to teach and play this game in under 25 minutes, considering the large box and plentiful tiles and cards. At such a short playtime for 2-6 players, Whale Riders is both highly flexible and endlessly approachable, making it easy to squeeze into any type of game night. The various different play styles it offers—from meandering along the coast for cheap goods to rushing to the pile of pearls at the end—have all proven to be viable strategies. There is something to be said for good, clean game design that pays no mind to trending gimmicks or excess bells and whistles.
It was a tough toss-up to rank all these great Knizias against each other, but I ultimately found that Equinox just barely won out on my list by being the most deliciously cutthroat of the bunch. Equinox gives me feelings similar to Reiner’s best card games including Lost Cities and Schotten Totten in that often I don’t want to play any of the cards in my hand—somehow each card feels like a golden opportunity waiting to be unleashed if I can just manage to hold onto them a bit longer.
Thanks to the poignant creature betting and elimination, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this tense hand-management game at every player count. Equinox also features a couple key improvements over its predecessor, Colossal Arena. One improvement being the two additional creatures that bring the total creature count up to fourteen and the setup combinations beyond three-thousand. The other key improvement is found on the cards themselves, where Equinox uses clear graphic design to denote a creature’s ability rather than small, pesky text.
Where most betting games fall back on the convenient racing formula, Equinox stands out by honing in on interactive card-play and devastating creature elimination.
5. Ark Nova
A Feast for Odin has occupied a comfortable niche in my collection for the past few years by being a sprawling sandbox game perfect for long, cozy game nights with my wife. When I started to learn about Ark Nova, I wondered if this hot new game could manage to scratch a similar itch. After only one play, and continuing on through several more, I’ve been delighted to find that Ark Nova does exactly that. This is especially impressive when considering the fact that my wife loathes most games that are heavy-weight in their complexity.
I don’t believe Ark Nova has one secret ingredient that makes it a success at our table. Rather, I find that this epic zoo-builder is more than the sum of its parts. Thanks to a brilliantly interconnected system of action selection, tableau building, tile placement, economic juggling, and hand management—all of which provide lovely thematic touches—Ark Nova keeps us fully engaged from start to finish. It’s competitive Zoo Tycoon brought to our tabletop, and rarely is this board gaming hobby much more exciting than that.
4. Kemet: Blood & Sand
Kemet has long been a favorite of many area control connoisseurs since its initial release now one decade ago. I was quite tempted to jump into the design and see what the fuss was all about, but I instead decided to wait until the release of its evolved version: Kemet: Blood & Sand. The wait was worth it, my friends.
Kemet: Blood & Sand is essentially Kemet 2.0, with many changes and improvements brought to the system including a redesigned map, balanced powers, upgraded components, and fine-tuned gameplay. The joy of Kemet remains the hyper-aggressive gameplay mixed with a buffet of powers and creatures. No two plays of this game have ever felt alike as each player cobbles together a terrifyingly unique army. The ever-present challenge is to discover and exploit your opponents’ weaknesses while avoiding their strengths. The cherry on top is a tight combat system that is full of strategy and surprises.
3. Ankh: Gods of Egypt
2021 was a great year for Egyptian area control, apparently, because Ankh manages to be just as compelling as Kemet: Blood & Sand, if not more so. Ankh brings so many brilliant concepts to the table that it’s hard to know where to start. The action selection tracks are a fascinating feature that can strongly influence one’s tactics, particularly when an action reaches the end of its track thereby ending a player’s turn and triggering the next event. The conflicts present exciting opportunities for scoring points, building monuments, weakening opponents, and replenishing your hand. And the experience follows a dynamic arc where the two weakest players eventually combine into one insanely strong faction as everyone races to the end of the point track.
While Kemet kicks the doors open with an immediately impressive array of strategic opportunities, Ankh has been more sly and subtle with a streamlined system that grows on you from one play to the next. Each session has revealed new challenges to overcome and new strategies to explore, making it an alluring experience that rewards repeat plays. I haven’t tried Eric Lang’s other games, but I would be surprised and impressed if any of them were better than Ankh.
While I’ve tried a good number of popular dueling games over the years including Dice Throne, Unmatched, Blue Moon Legends, Funkoverse, Riftforce, and Summoner Wars, I’ve never been majorly impressed with the genre. Something about the overly tactical “I slap you, you slap me” nature of these games never fully satisfied compared to other 2-player games and genres. But with Radlands, I’ve finally found an addicting and satisfying dueler.
Not only does Radlands raise the bar with a stunning art style and production, but it also hits the sweet spot of being blazingly streamlined yet surprisingly deep. The water economy is balanced on a knife’s edge, as are the huge variety of card abilities.
The flexibility allowed in the gameplay is perhaps Radland’s strongest feature… You can aim to hit hard and fast and hope to knock your opponent out before they have time to retaliate against your weak defenses, or you can carefully play the long game and slowly undermine your enemy while keeping your camps well protected and repaired. You can invest in new characters and store a little extra water for a later big turn, or you can junk your cards and blow your water for instant gratification from powerful but fleeting effects. Thanks to a brilliant system of action timing and event triggering, you almost always have time to anticipate and prepare for your opponent’s next maneuver.
Rather than leaning on cheap tricks and random surprises, Radlands confidently plants its feet on more strategic soil without losing any of the drama and fun of overpowered abilities and asymmetric dueling.
1. Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
In an industry that cranks out thousands of new releases per year that makes hobbyists feel like they’re drinking from a firehose of recycled mechanisms and themes, it is rare to come across a game that brings true innovation to the table. Yet when those rare gems emerge, and when one can manage to assemble the right group to properly embrace the experience, these games are transcendent.
Oath flips the conventions of tabletop storytelling by turning the players from the audience into the story tellers. This game is not about recreating or reliving history, it is about writing it. It’s not about discovering tactical paths or uncovering strategic ripple effects, it’s about paving paths and creating ripple effects. It’s not about deciding the best player at today’s table, it’s about determining who will rule the next generation and how that kingdom will evolve or decay over time.
Oath demands much from its participants—namely a regular group of players who are willing to embrace both the highs and the lows of the experience—yet it gives even more in return. I never know what my next play of Oath is going to become… a joint quest to overpower and overthrow the tyrannical Chancellor, a covert operation to undermine the empire as a traitorous citizen, a ruler’s mad scramble to put out the fires started by pesky exiles, a struggle for territory or favor or secrets or relics… the possibilities are seemingly endless. In a game where the decisions of one play carry over into the next in an endless transformation of land, peoples, and power, I doubt I’ll ever grow tired of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile.
Oath also wins my vote for Best Art and Best Production for having delightful art by Kyle Ferrin and excellent components (including top-tier rulebooks) from the team at Leder Games.
Art Robbery is another delightful Knizia design that ended up just outside my Top 15. It’s not the deepest card game out there, but Art Robbery does hit the spot in terms of quick simplicity and clever thievery.
I really enjoyed my first play of Coffee Traders. But that’s the problem, I haven’t managed to play it since. Unfortunately, this one requires a very specific type of group and a huge chunk of time to get to the table. Due to its sprawling, complex nature, Coffee Traders possesses far too many barriers to entry to have seen enough plays or earn itself a spot in my Top 15.
Royal Visit instantly became a household favorite among our 2-player collection when we tried this new reskin last year. And what a reskin it is! While the original game was amusingly themed after some drunk folks in Times Square, this new one feels more fitting for the tug-of-war mechanisms of attracting the king and his court to your chateau. The production is colorful, blocky, and serene. But most importantly, the gameplay has aged like a fine wine. This one would absolutely be in my Top 15 Games of 2021 if any part of the design was new.
Best Games I Didn’t Love
I still hope to revisit Mind MGMT eventually. Perhaps with a few months time or a different group of players it’ll finally click for us and become a hit as it has with so many others. Whether or not that happens, I still admire and respect this hidden-movement deduction game for the interesting tricks and clever twists that it has up its sleeve.
As I shared in my 1st impressions post, Riftforce does everything right save for committing one critical error in my book. I’m referring to the flat game arc where the start, middle, and end of the game all feel roughly the same. But even so, Riftforce packs a heck of a punch as a 2-player dueling game with neat asymmetry and tasty combos.
Worst Games I Adored
My goodness, whose idea was it to make this game box so offensively large? This is one of the few times where I’m actually considering defiling the box and cutting it down to a proper size or replacing it entirely with more sensible packaging. The gameplay of Family Inc. isn’t the most revelatory either, but Knizia knows how to make even the dumbest of concepts amusing. This experience boils down to “flip a random tile and hope for the best,” yet it still manages to entertain a jaded gamer like myself.
I also get a kick out of Knizia’s other “dumb fun” game, L.A.M.A. Dice, and this one even comes in a properly small box! I almost feel bad putting this one under the “worst game I adored” category, because I actually think it’s a very smart design appropriately wrapped in a silly package. Most hobby gamers would likely shrug at it, but for us it is a blast of a filler game.
Pipeline: Emerging Markets
Emerging Markets is the perfect expansion for Pipeline in that it brings impactful market variety to the experience. It’s a great one to jump into after a few plays of the base game, as it will keep you from getting too comfortable with a specific strategy. For being an expansion that I would never play Pipeline without, Emerging Markets takes that cake as my top expansion of 2021.
Best New To Me Game
Yellow & Yangtze
I thought this would be a much harder decision, but once I realized that Yellow & Yangtze was a “new to me” game last year, my choice couldn’t have been easier. While this list is already littered with far too many Knizias (I’m fully aware ;), I’m not about to leave off one of the very best designs in his massive ludography. Yellow & Yangtze is a triumph of a strategy game that I will never get enough of. Now who’s going to pick up the rights to this one and give us the expansion?
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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 Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. 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.