September 24, 2022

Nikopol Game

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Best board games and tabletop RPGs of 2021

It’s been another strange year for fans of tabletop games. Just as COVID restrictions were relaxed in many communities, the global supply chain broke down. Games that were highly anticipated in January simply failed to show up with backers or on store shelves by the end of the year. But that’s not to say it’s been slim pickings — not by a long shot.

In-person gaming did pick up a bit this year. Smaller board games that might otherwise have been overlooked got a boost, with higher-profile titles pushed back into 2022. The result was a decent flow of customers for local game stores, many of which have managed to bounce back after months of being locked down. Even the convention circuit is springing back to life in safer ways, with events like PAX Unplugged requiring proof of vaccination and masking at all times.

Digital distribution was also a big part of 2021. Independent creators of tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) ended up in the best position, with platforms like itch.io and DriveThruRPG letting them reach their audience in decent numbers. Platforms like Tabletop Simulator, Board Game Arena, and other online services continued to allow fans to get together. Meanwhile, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Foundry VTT facilitated the important work of keeping campaigns rolling into the new year.

But unlike the majority of modern video games, board games and tabletop RPGs have unusually long lives. I found myself dusting off old favorites to share them with the family for the very first time. Your dusty hallway closet can make room for some real treasures, too — especially if you take the time to curate it once in a while. That’s why Polygon asked more than 20 writers, designers, presenters, actors, and personalities from around the world of tabletop gaming to tell us which games helped to make their year a little brighter. Here’s what we found.


Author (Gaunt’s Ghosts, the Eisenhorn trilogy) and co-writer of Warhammer 40,000: Darktide

Image: Fatshark

Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve probably spent more time this last year re-reading favorite RPG supplements — Traveller, Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu etc — rather than playing anything tabletop. But I have become a fan of CMON’s Cthulhu: Death May Die for that quick horror fix. Easy to play, fast to set up, and with amazing production quality, especially the minis. It’s great way to capture that Cthulhu vibe when you don’t have the time or opportunity for a major, complex RPG campaign. I should play more things generally, but I know what I’m like — if I played more, I’d never get any writing done.


Cthulhu: Death May Die

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 1-5 players, age 14+

• Playtime: 90-120 minutes

• Game type: Dungeon crawler

• Category: Cooperative game, horror game

• Similar games: Gloomhaven


Game designer, current project Critical Care

Kabuto Sumo is the game that absolutely knocked me on my ass this year. I missed the Kickstarter like a dork. Then before I knew it I was being stared down by a tower of Kabuto Sumo games at Origins Game Fair and made sure I snapped up a copy. I left that convention one delightfully gorgeous and seriously fun game richer.

Kabuto Sumo is about sumo wrestling beetles and plays something like that coin pushing game we were all obsessed with at the arcade but weren’t allowed to play because it’s not a sound financial investment. Pushing well crafted wooden shapes around to try to knock your opponent off a cardboard platform makes for a great game on it’s own, but you also get to pick your beetle wrestler (I use Sisyphus the Dung Beetle — sometimes just for the poop jokes), which comes with a special wooden piece to push around and a unique ability or two. Ultimately, this means if you’re very petty you can find a way to collect your opponent’s unique item and knock them off the board with it. My friend was beyond furious that I would do such a thing and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.


Kabuto Sumo

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 2-4 players

• Playtime: 15 minutes

• Game type: Dexterity game

• Category: Competitive game

• Similar games: Animal Upon Animal


Akar Bharadvaj

Designer of Zenobia Award first-place winner, Tyranny of Blood

I enjoy games that model conflict across different domains. War games tend to focus on the battlefield, but war occurs elsewhere simultaneously: within religious texts, the marketplace, the classroom, the factory floor, and on the treaty negotiation table.

Versailles 1919 models the last of these. Britain, France, Italy, and the United States carve up the Central Powers after World War I, potentially ushering in an era of freedom and self-determination… or one of German humiliation and imperial abuse. You decide on issues that affect millions abroad — who may violently resist — while maintaining your place as a global power and assuaging domestic pressures.

It may be the only game I’ve played where you sit around a table making difficult strategy decisions, playing others who also sat around a table making difficult strategy decisions. This meta-narrative lends the experience a dark humor; one imagines Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George pushing cubes and dealing cards, squeezing victory points out of the newly drawn Iraq-Syria border without considering the violent consequences for the locals in 1919, much less in 2021.

Such is the irony of imperial power. Peace can be as bloody and disruptive as war. You can single-handedly determine a future for the people of Banat, without knowing where Banat even is. You can sit in a Hall of Mirrors for six months without reflecting on your own imperial excesses. Versailles 1919 lets you remake that series of decisions that birthed the last century, for better or for worse.


Versailles 1919

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 1-4 players, age 13+

• Playtime: 60-120 minutes

• Game type: Historical strategy game

• Category: Competitive game, negotiation, simulation, solitaire game

• Similar games: Churchill


Video goblin at Shut Up & Sit Down

Tom Brewster in his review of Oath.

Image: Shut Up & Sit Down/YouTube

Oh goodness, it’s just too mean. No Thanks! is maybe the perfect festive game because it lets you sow exactly the right amount of dissent and spite without sprawling itself over multiple sluggish hours — it’s fast, easy, and painful. Players are essentially taking part in round-robin auctions of how much they don’t want a card — with the winner (loser?) of said auction taking the card, and that many points with it. But in this game, points are real bad — the player with the most of them losing the game — and to make matters worse, those tokens you’re frittering away for the privilege of saying “No Thanks!” to a nasty high card actually give you negative points if you hold onto them until the end.

But listen; there are about three more rules in the entire game — making it superbly easy to teach, immediately fun and short enough to crank it up again once everyone knows what they’re doing. But what’s really in this box is potential — a game where the rules are so simple but the implications of them dawn on every player organically. At its very worst? It’s delightful. At its best? It’ll foster a love of that “click” moment present in only the best boardgames — having your giftee sheepishly ask, “Have you got anything more like that?”


YouTube personality and voice-over actor

During quarantine times, I foolishly collected a stockpile of legacy games, unable to do nothing but stare at them sadly and wish I could see my friends again. Now that I’m able to have regular game nights again, my friends and I have been devouring Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated. I know nothing about the Acquisitions Incorporated property, but Clank! and Clank! In Space! have been regular fixtures on my game shelf. And as a legacy game, this one’s truly fantastic.

Retaining the deck-building gameplay that allows you to move through the board and collect artifacts and rewards, Clank! Legacy introduces quests and objectives that you and your fellow adventurers can fulfill and as a result unlock new content that you read from a big Book of Secrets that adds new lore and more importantly, new, fun mechanics and rewards. It takes a game that was all about cutthroat racing and turns it into a really engaging semi-cooperative game.

With my group, we’re adamant about unlocking as many of the secrets as efficiently as possible, so we will strategize and formulate game plans to ensure we get those goodies. At the same time, the game still has that satisfaction of grabbing juicy cards and items that allow you to show off some spectacular plays. I have not laughed as hard and enjoyed a group experience this much in a long time, so if you’re a fan of Clank! and/or legacy games, this one’s good shit.


Co-designer of Descent: Legends of the Dark

A Mending by Shing Yin Khor is a game about taking a trip to see a friend that you haven’t seen in some time. It’s also a game about creating a unique work of art, and the creative collaboration between game designer and player. In the stressful and often lonely years of COVID, A Mending is a gentle reassurance that relationships and creativity still carry on.

A Mending plays over an illustrated map that’s broken into a grid. As you play, you permanently embellish the map by sewing or drawing on it. I play on the game’s cloth map using my novice needlecraft knowledge, horde of rummage sale buttons, and discount embroidery floss, but the game also comes with two paper maps. As you play, you explore who your character is, your relationship to your long-separated friend, and the events of your journey. Games are an art, and A Mending gives you the visual manifestation: each play through is an expression of creativity that adds to your map, turning it into a singular, displayable work of art. One you can share when you next take the journey to see your friends in real life.


A Mending

Prices taken at time of publishing.


Actress and improviser, Things Get Dicey and Watch It Played

My top game of 2020 was the co-op trick-taking game The Crew: Quest for Planet Nine and in 2021 they came out with a follow up that is somehow even better! The Crew: Mission Deep Sea streamlined and simplified some of the rules in Quest for Planet Nine making the game even more approachable than it already was, and also making it one of my favorite games I’ve played this year.

I grew up playing Spades and that gave me a real love for trick-taking games. The Crew is fully cooperative — you are a team working together to win tricks, but every round each player is assigned specific tasks they have to complete. These tasks might be something like “win the most pink cards” or “win a trick using a card with value one.” To win the round, everyone must succeed in their tasks. But here’s the kicker — you aren’t allowed to talk about what cards you have in your hand! That can make creating the exact scenario you need to complete your task a bit … tricky (pun fully intended).

Sometimes the rounds are really difficult to win and you repeat them over and over … but that moment when the cards align and you sync up mentally as a team and finally play everything just right to complete that task you’ve been failing repeatedly — well, nothing beats that feeling of communal triumph. The Crew has given me some of my favorite, exuberant gaming moments with my friends and honestly, helped me stay connected to them through the distancing of the pandemic. And yes, you can play it digitally on platforms like Board Game Arena!


The Crew: Mission Deep Sea

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 2-5 players, ages 10+

• Playtime: 20 minutes

• Game Type: Card

• Category: Co-op, trick-taking

• Similar Games: Tichu, Decrypto


Hunter Donaldson and Matt Martens

Space Cats Peace Turtles podcast

Red ships on the board for a game of Twilight Imperium.

Photo: Space Cats Peace Turtles

We’d played a lot of Twilight Imperium, and we’d grown used to the kinds of stories it could tell. Then, November of 2020 brought us it’s first (and seemingly only) expansion, Twilight Imperium: Prophecy of Kings. It’s a pricey addition to a pricey game, but it’s a drastic shift to the stories players have come to know and love.

The main changes add tons of flavor to the early game (i.e. the first 3-4 hours), but what they add certainly takes away something players loved about base game’s conclusions. Exploration, the unlocking of powerful abilities, more money, and faster ships: all of these things result in more interaction between players. But when it comes time to crown a winner, plans can be upended and chance can dictate fate to such an extent that the most reliable path to victory is less about the tactics you’ve chosen and more about the allies you’ve made along the way.

Much like true conquest, you must work with your combatants as often as against them. Now, the stories we tell are rich with exploits and betrayals, alongside the debate about whether or not the winner actually deserves their crown.


Creative director, head of publishing at Possum Creek Games, creator of Wanderhome

Under Hollow Hills is the sort of game that changes you. It has a certain way about it, this circus game of faeries beneath the hollow hills, the same sort of nameless touch that is carried on autumn winds or perched behind ruins at the edge of town. It is faerie-kind, bewitching and beautiful.

Every time I play it, Under Hollow Hills teaches me something new. One day it is about summer and winter, how I am when I am warm and how I am when my heart grows cold, how my gender changes with the seasons. Another session teaches me vulnerability, how the Nightmare Horse in all his power looks so gentle and tender in my hands when he asks for me to hold him. Under Hollow Hills is a game about how we treat each other when times are good and how we treat each other when times are bad — between its gorgeous prose, fascinating imaginative characters, countless treasures, and natural flowing play style, Under Hollow Hills is the future of tabletop role-playing games, a unique and impossible treasure.


Artist at Leder Games, publisher of Root and Oath

Honestly one of my favorite gaming experiences this year was teaching some of my extended family how to play Skull on a week long camping trip. I learned how to play Skull online and I’ve only ever played it with face cards and pony beads to keep track of points. I played probably 30 times over the course of week by lantern light and under collapsible awnings when it rained. By Friday some of my younger cousins were playing Skull without me and it was pretty common to walk up to a full table of people playing it, nowhere to sit!

I think it’s probably my favorite bluffing game because it’s so distilled — just pure bluffing. It also scales really well with lots of people, so it’s perfect for families and even my kids because you can play without fully understanding the rules and learn as you go.


Skull

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 3-6 players, age 10+

• Playtime: 15-45 minutes

• Game type: Bluffing game

• Category: Card game

• Similar games: Sheriff of Nottingham


Tabletop editor, Polygon

Image: Avalon Hill/Hasbro

It’s been a long while since I contributed to a crowdfunding campaign, but when the reboot of HeroQuest was announced in 2020, I was all in. The dungeon crawling board game was a big part of my childhood, and I still enjoy playing that original copy with my daughters to this day.

I can’t express to you the joy that I felt as my 8-year-old reached deep into the big brown box of goodies that arrived along with my top-tier pledge. “There’s girls in here, dad! I can play your favorite board game with someone who looks like me!” And so we did … a lot.

Deena the elf and Lucy the wizard have been traipsing through the grimdark halls alongside my Bill the barbarian and Foskor the dwarf. Behind the game master’s screen? My oldest daughter, playing the mighty Zargon. We’ve rescued Sir Ragnar, fought a deadly gargoyle, and more. Thanks to the three all-new campaigns that came bundled with my early pledge, there are many more adventures yet to come.


HeroQuest Game System (2021)

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 2-5 players, age 14+

• Playtime: 60 minutes

• Game type: Light role-playing game

• Category: Dungeon crawler, cooperative game, campaign game, miniatures game, game mastered game

• Similar games: Descent: Legends of the Dark

Co-founder of Polygon, co-creator of The Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother, and Me

As a board game fan in a pandemic who also has access to young children (they are mine, not on loan or employed or anything) I’m constantly looking for accessible games for kids that are still enjoyable for me, a discerning adult. I found a stellar one of those in Beasts of Balance. It’s a digital/physical game hybrid where you create a (literally) balanced ecosystem. The game comes with a small white pedestal on which you must balance RFID-enabled animal figurines. Once the animals are placed on the stand, they appear on a Bluetooth-linked phone or tablet screen. Each animal has a different point value, depending on how hard it is to make a part of your balancing act.

It goes deeper, though, by letting you crossbreed to create valuable new species or migrating animals between habitats (turn your octopus into a land-dwelling “Rocktopus”!). Also, if one of your animals becomes too valuable, the other animals will begin to lose value as they approach extinction, so a numerical balance must be struck as well as a physical one.

It’s a completely accessible stacking game for younger kids that only gets more rewarding as they understand more mechanics. My wife and I even snuck in a few rounds trying to find clever, satisfying ways for animals to balance off each other. We’ve only had the game for a week and we’re already eyeing some of the gorgeous looking expansion packs.


Beasts of Balance

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 1-5 players, age 7+

• Playtime: 15-30 minutes

• Game type: Dexterity game

• Category: Cooperative game, stacking game

• Similar games: Animal Upon Animal, Osmo


Designer of Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, and The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls

Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games is a hardcore throwback to old school Dungeons & Dragons. It shines bright when put next to the 5e campaigns I’ve run the past few years. The rules are harsh and realistic but still open and fun, and their modules are hands down some of the most creative and inspiring I’ve seen. One of the coolest parts is nearly all campaigns start with a “meat grinder” funnel where everyone starts with three to four level zero common folk who go through a hellish mini campaign where only a few survive. This is what gives your character backstory and life by being one of those few, driven to turn into a hero from your experience.

I’m currently running a campaign for a sister system called Mutant Crawl Classics that’s very gonzo, 70’s, psychedelic, post-apocalyptic insanity. I could go on for days describing what the players have gone through, but let’s just say they spent last session making a skateboard and collecting eyelashes from giant boneless disembodied head blobs shortly after popping a boil filled with fetal scorpion/human hybrids and getting some sweet radioactive tramp stamps!

Goodman Games is amazing, and I highly recommend them.


Voice actor, co-founder of Critical Role

Matt Mercer prepares a map in his workshop for a D&D game on Critical Role

Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

After a friend began gushing over a boutique horror board game called Kingdom Death: Monster last year, my vibrant need for therapy gaming led me to dive in HARD. The extremely dark, unsettling setting of the game and the exploration of its mysteries is a delicious slow burn as you build a society from scraps in a lightless hellscape, hunting nightmarish monsters for resources so you can expand your settlement with innovations, crafting, principles, or better weapons to fight back the darkness. The narrative that is born out of random or chosen events and expedition results (both good and bad) weaves a fascinating tale of survival, tragedy, and perseverance in the face of growing, ancient threats just beyond your lantern light. Heroes you invest in suddenly befall terrible maiming or die, teaching you to embrace change and adaptation while reminding you that the settlement’s survival is what truly matters. And the miniatures/monster sculpts. THE SCULPTS ARE SECOND TO NONE. I. Love. This. Game.

If you can get past/embrace the sexy cheesecake depictions of some of the humans, and you love long-form, rules-heavy board gaming with tactical elements and a dark story, may you tumble into this obsession alongside me.


Freelance writer, Polygon contributor

Admittedly late to the flock on this one, but Wingspan is my board game of the year. You play as a bird enthusiast seeking to attract the best birds to your wildlife preserve. Through growing your preserve, you play bird cards, lay eggs, and gain food to help your habitat thrive. For sure, it’s an engine-builder board game but what you are developing is something organic and quaint, as the end goal is to create a welcoming environment for birds to hunt and roost through scoring the most points.

Even with the competitive aspect, Wingspan is incredibly humble with gorgeous game boards, intricate pieces, and a dice tray in the shape of a birdhouse to encompass the overall theme. Combining the blend of strategic challenge with an alluring backdrop, Wingspan encourages you to play through repeatedly to build the best preserve possible, unlocking various combinations and sequences to get you there. Any board game that comes with quasi-educational intentions wrapped in a charming aesthetic is sure to grab my attention, and Wingspan managed it with tremendous ease. If you enjoy games such as Terraforming Mars or Gizmos, you are bound to love this and come away with some pleasant avian trivia as a bonus.

A white bird hovers against a blue background in the cover art for Wingspan.


| Image: Stonemaier Games

Wingspan

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 1-5 players, age 10+

• Playtime: 40-70 minutes

• Game type: Card game

• Category: Competitive game, card drafting, set collection

• Similar games: Parks


Co-founder, Duncan Rhodes Painting Academy

Photo: Duncan Rhodes

One of my favourite miniature games this year has definitely been The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms by Modiphius Entertainment, a fantastic skirmish-level game with a heavy emphasis on a narrative experience. It allows for normal play against an opponent or solo play against the game itself and this, along with the release of more factions and the Stormcloak Rebellion campaign book over the last few months, has caused me to spend a lot of time painting up new scenery and characters so that I can recreate Skyrim on my tabletop!

The core system is simple with layers added on top that are very clever in their use of elements from the video game series, and anyone who has spent time adventuring in the world of Tamriel will immediately recognize the icons and abilities on the various cards, tokens, and rule books. You can even do the dreaded sneak attack archery which, when timed correctly, can be devastating! If you want to play a wargame with one of its feet planted firmly in role-playing game territory, then this is one to check out.


Film and TV editor, Polygon

In a typical year, I might go to half a dozen gaming conventions and try out two or three dozen new indie tabletop RPGs, often run by their developers at Games on Demand or First Look events. With gaming conventions so scaled down these days, or moved online, I’ve had so much less opportunity to get introduced to new small-press games, and it’s been pretty isolating. Which is why I’ve really enjoyed being invited to play Stonetop, a fresh-off-the-Kickstarter RPG about heroic fantasy adventures in a small town.

From the initial description, I was expecting an extremely low-key hearth game where our characters might be tracking down lost sheep or dealing with the occasional inimical traveling stranger. But the setup for this game is remarkably rich and in depth, the lore and mythology are extensive, and even the description of our characters’ little hometown was packed with memorable story hooks and implied horrors. For something meant to be small-scale and intimate, it certainly has the feel of an epic game, with a tool set designed to encourage player creativity and investment from session zero, and a wide variety of potential arcs built into the world. I was an instant fan.


Stonetop

Prices taken at time of publishing.


Game designer, inaugural Diana Jones Emerging Designer winner

I favor tactility and open-ended storytelling in my games, and so it’s no wonder that Shing Yin Khor’s keepsake game A Mending was one of my favorite titles of 2021. The premise is that you have parted from an old friend; when they call for you after many years, you decide to embark on the long journey to reunite with them. Your character’s travels through a quietly fantastical land are guided by a deck of prompt cards, and the game is played by embroidering a map documenting your way. The rulebook is enchanting and succinctly written, providing players with enough information to scaffold their experience but leaving plenty of room for them to create a story wholly their own. At the end, you will have a unique keepsake crafted by your own hand to conjure memories of your quest long after it’s ended.


A Mending

Prices taken at time of publishing.


Charlie Theel

Freelance writer, Polygon contributor

Coming out of isolation there was one game we wanted to play and re-unite over. Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile from Leder Games and designer Cole Wehrle is a mesmerizing and rich tapestry of oral and written history in board game form. Ostensibly it’s a wargame with players vying over control of a kingdom, but that’s really just the surface of Oath.

Amid the changing victory conditions and asymmetric pursuits, you’re really in conflict over the narrative. You’re fighting over the right to rule, but more importantly to control our shared remembrance. A significant element of the experience is in the victor jotting down a few lines in a leather bound tome to commemorate the game, a blurb we can reflect on years from now and reminisce about fallen empires and shattered dreams. In this way the game evolves over time, embracing our friendship and bitterness and leaving us with something more than when we came.


Scott ‘Miniac’ Walter

YouTuber and miniature painter

As someone who is interested in miniature war games, I’m a big fan of crunchy rulesets. I like a board game that you have to schedule time for because it takes so long to finish. Scythe ticks those boxes pretty handily. However, it’s not complicated to make a game that keeps you up until 3:00 am leafing through a rulebook. The real trick is to make the game itself good which Scythe also nails!

The game has lots of replay value in all the different ways you can score points. After finishing our first playthrough, all I wanted to do was play again to test out new strategies. You really feel like you’re growing an empire with all the options available to you. I loved how as you upgraded your budding nation, you removed tokens from one spot on your board that were previously covering up the upgrade you unlocked, to then cover up the cost of an action somewhere else on your board. Not only does this make sense considering what an upgrade does generally, it reuses the game piece, and tracks the ever-changing costs of your action. I’m a huge fan of that kind of clever efficiency.


Scythe

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 1-5 players, age 14+

• Playtime: 90-115 minutes

• Game type: Strategy game

• Category: Competitive, area control, exploration, negotiation, worker placement

• Similar games: Terra Mystica


Senior editor, Waypoint

Affliction: Salem 1692 takes a ton of familiar board and card game mechanics, wedges them all into an elaborate-but-thematically-perfect “screw your neighbor” worker placement game, and ends up being a surprisingly fun and chaotic game about the Salem witch trials. It has become a go-to game for my Masshole friends and I every autumn, a game that we tried out for a laugh four years ago so we could drink and misquote The Crucible and which has now become a genuine favorite.

Affliction is a game about a town going mad with paranoia, jealousy, and fear. The idea is that each player belongs to either the more mercantile Salem Town and the rural Village, and will do their best to protect members of their community while taking down their persecutors in the rival community. Players can recruit historical characters to their board and use their special abilities to carry out special or supercharged actions. However, those same characters are targets for the other community, and the wealthier they are, the more they are worth as an arrest when the game ends as the colonial authorities finally shut down the witch hunt. There are also hidden bonus points in play as each player carries “grievances” with them that make some characters extremely valuable targets for the endgame scoring, getting at this notion of the witch trials as a way to exercise sour neighborly rivalries.

It’s really too chaotic a game for me to ever feel like I have a great handle on it. Deploying governor’s pardons, seizing the first move in the turn order, investing in building accusations against characters or taking the shortcut provided by dubious “spectral evidence” is all fun to mess around with, but it also means that Affliction feels more like a melee than a game of careful strategy.

But you know, that’s part of what makes it a fun alternative to a lot of the more logical, optimization-focused worker placement games I spend time with. It also feels right for the subject matter: this is a community that gets ripped apart by greed and self-righteousness armed with superstition and legalism. The way Affliction turns intricate rules and mechanics to a maelstrom of small-town violence makes it a reliable favorite.