As reviewers, we spend countless hours playing and discussing games, continually evaluating and reevaluating for our coveted “Best of Year” lists. While these lists do serve as both a time capsule and cross-section of gaming trends, board gaming isn’t necessarily time sensitive. A game developed in 1995 can be just as fun and relevant as a game designed in 2021.
More and more games are being produced each year and the truth is there are only so many hours in the day. As much as we try to share as many games with the public as possible, it’s just not realistic to play everything (although we can still have aspirations). I do often get the opportunity to play fantastic games from years past and many would have easily made my Top 10 if they had met the criteria. So I thought I’d break all the rules and provide a Top 10 “New to Me” game list for 2021.
1. Great Western Trail
Eggertspiele | Designed by Alexander Pfister
2-4 Players | 75-150 Minutes
Typically, taking a herd of cattle from Texas to Kansas City would be its own challenge. In Great Western Trail it takes on a new competitive nature. Bring in the most lucrative herd of cattle as you avoid the hazards of the trail. You also can hire workers to help you get the more choice cattle, send your cattle further on the train and build establishments along the trail to help you out. Great Western Trail provides a theme that really resonates with me along with a number of great mechanics to keep you throughly engaged. It is a bit more heavy, but once you’ve made one trip to Kansas City, you’ll have the game down. Overall, Great Western Trail is truly a great board gaming experience.
Cranio Creations | Designed by Tommaso Battista & Simone Luciani
1-4 Players | 60-120 Minutes
In this heavy, euro-style game you’re working to build the most efficient and effective hydroelectric system. There are so many challenging and satisfying elements to Barrage. On one hand, you’ll need to carefully plan to “spend” your workers to develop the necessary equipment to build your next dam along the river. The game has a cool construction wheel that ties up your workers representing the time it takes to build a new piece of equipment. As the water cascades down you’ll be able to harness this water. But other players can get in on the mix and build their own dams upstream potentially diverting the water for their own benefit. This is definitely a more serious game that requires a lot of planning and thought, but one that it well worth the effort.
3. Grand Austria Hotel
Lookout Games | Designed by Virginio Gigli & Simone Luciani
2-4 Players | 60-120 Minutes
In this dice-drafting, light-themed euro, players will serve as the head of their own hotel looking to woo patrons by serving them in the cafe and providing the perfect room for them to stay for the night. There are multiple ways to score such as drawing the most prestigious patrons, filling the beneficial room patterns with guests or earn rewards on the emperor track. Everything is beneficial while neglecting one scoring opportunity could cost you the game. The theme here is delightful and the gameplay, while challenging and different each time flows effortlessly. I highly recommend Grand Austria Hotel for gamers looking to get deeper into the hobby.
4. Clans of Caledonia
Karma Games | Designed by Juma Al-JouJou
1-4 Players | 30-120 Minutes
Yes, another euro-game on my list… perhaps you’re seeing a trend? Clans of Caledonia has players taking on the role of Scottish clans, each with different abilities, looking to colonize 19th century Scotland. While this is a mid to heavy style game, the theme is terrifically charming. Players work to expand their clan by dispatching workers, producing goods, and visiting the market. There are 2 things that really make Clans a treat: The first being the market. As players buy and sell goods the market fluctuates. Carefully planning your workers visits to the market can give you a wonderful advantage. Secondly, the end game scoring is brilliant. One of the many avenues to score involves players managing their trade exports during the game. Brining in off-shore exports will provide points, but over-saturating the market will earn you less. This requires a careful balance as well as keeping a watchful eye on your opponents actions. Clans of Caledonia is a high recommendation from me!
Awaken Realms | Designed by Adam Kwapinski
1-5 Players | 90-180 Minutes
If you’re a fan of the Alien movie series, you’re going to love Nemesis. This highly-thematic game pits a crew aboard a spacecraft waking up from cryo sleep. Disoriented, things immediately go downhill as the corps of a crew mate is discovered. In the game, each player has secret goals that may or may not benefit other members of the crew. Of course your fellow crew may be the least of your worries as noise quickly draws the attention of the intruders (which are big beastly aliens). Everything is working against you in Nemesis and that’s what makes it so intense and consuming. You’ll find yourself racing against time to meet your own objectives, planning your escape in the evacuation pods or climbing back into the cryo-chamber before the ship blasts into the hyperspace… that is, if you can survive the terrifying aliens and one another.
6. The Gallerist
Eagle-Gryphon Games | Designed by Vital Lacerda
1-4 Players | 60-150 Minutes
You’re the head of an art gallery in this heavy euro from famed designer Vital Lacerda. While there are many opportunities, your goal is to discover new artists, market them and eventually sell their work earning your fortune. Along the way you’ll need to hire assistants as well as efficiently plan your actions before your competition gets in the way. These heavy games seem daunting, but once you’ve learned the mechanics, the fun of the experience can take over. As an art director, I love the theme as well as promoting the artists you have in your gallery. The Gallerist was huge win for me.
Kayenta Games | Designed by Dan Hallagan
1-4 Players | 30-90 Minutes
It’s Victorian England and your once renowned family is working to re-establish their name amongst the social elites. Players will be seeking to upgrade their estate with the help of their house servants as well as invite the most affluent guests to parties. Play your cards right and you just might earn the courtship your family has been seeking. This is indie-gaming at it’s best! Obsession is so immersive – you feel like you’re truly apart of the story that is unfolding before you. The gameplay isn’t terribly difficult to learn, but the challenge is real. Successfully building and executing a combination with one your homes newly renovated rooms is a thrill.
Indie Boards and Cards | Designed by Haig Tahte
3-5 Players | 45-60 Minutes
This party-style bidding game has players attempting to “buy” classical Roman senators. In Senators, players take turns bidding and weighing the value of resources which they can in-turn spend, earning money and more importantly purchasing the votes of the senate. There is so much gamesmanship at play here that seems to always evoke boisterous conversation and laughter. I throughly enjoy the different choices you have on your turn including extorting your fellow players. Whether it involved blind bidding, actions or flat out holding your opponents resources for ransom – Senators delivered for me!
9. Five Tribes
Days of Wonders | Designed by Bruno Cathala
2-4 Players | 40-80 Minutes
Five Tribes expertly executes a mancala mechanic that is so smooth and equally brilliant that you can’t help but love this game. The setting is ancient Arabia and your goal is to manipulate the games tiles by moving workers their specific number of spaces, creating pairs, removing them from the play area and earning rewards. When the workers are gone, the game ends. While it’s often easy to execute a simple move, playing defensively is where the thought comes in. You never want to leave your opponent open for an easy score. In addition, you must always be planning for your next action. Five Tribes brings a fun turn order bidding system that can really shift the landscape of the game. Going first is often times critical. Each type of worker does something different that may or may not feed into your goals. I can easily see why many gamers consider this a modern classic.
Rio Grande Games | Designed by Mac Gerdts
2-5 Players | 100 Minutes
Concordia has been around for nearly a decade and one that truly stood up to the hype. Widely considered one of the best euro games available, Concordia is a fairly simple game. With each turn, you’re essentially playing a card and doing what it says. But each also turn also carries with it a rich and heavy planning system where you seek to maximize each action. Players are traveling the ancient Roman road across Europe, building a trade network. As traffic increases, cost to establish new routes do as well. Earn points at the end by building unique sets of card combinations and establish trade routes. This is a think-y euro that’s really satisfying yet is really assessable.
Czech Games Edition | Designed by Vladimir Suchy
2-5 Players | 45-75 Minutes
La Boite de Jeu | Designed by Gregory Oliver
2-4 Players | 40-110 Minutes
Spielcraft Games | Designed by Alex Wolf
2 Players | 60-90 Minutes