Supply-chain problems and an ongoing pandemic couldn’t hold back the tabletop world, which tried to reestablish some level of normalcy this year, between the return of major conventions like Gen Con and PAX Unplugged and a more typical release schedule for new titles. If anything, it seems like we had more new games than usual coming out in the second half of 2021, which, if that’s true and not just my perception, is probably why this was the hardest year ever for me to choose which game to rank number one on this list.
There was such a flood of new titles at the end of this year that I haven’t been able to get through everything I wanted to try—the pandemic hasn’t helped matters either—so I’ll mention a few games in my review stack that might have made the cut if I’d had more time to play them: Oath, Dinosaur World, Equinox, Iberian Gauge, Islands in the Mist, Trails, Subastral, and more. I’ll get to them soon, but there are only so many game nights in a year.
One note: I considered any games that were first released in the United States from Dec. 1, 2020, through Nov. 30, 2021. There were some games that just missed this cutoff, like Red Cathedral (released in late November of 2020), that would have made the list otherwise, but I have to cut it off somewhere. All data on player count, age ranges, and play time come from Boardgamegeek.
Duration: 60-90 minutes
A delightfully morbid game, Cryo has all players trying to rescue their workers from a crash-landing on a forbiddingly cold planet before the sun sets, which will kill any workers you haven’t sent to safety. Resources are always in short supply, and you only get to use your actions a handful of times, making this game exceptionally tight and tense. The limited spaces to play cards for their actions will lead you to use them for other purposes, like scrapping them for resources, and forces players to build efficient plans so that they can utilize the actions when that space is open, even repeating it up to three times if you have the inputs. Once you’ve exhausted the supply of Incident tokens, the sun has set, and the game ends. All your workers outside of safety pods or the underground tunnels are lost, and you score whatever’s left. It’s grim, but safety was never guaranteed.
14. Khôra: Rise of an Empire
Duration: 75 minutes
This retheme of a Japanese game from a few years ago called Improvement of the Polis, a civilization-builder that dispenses with the resource-collection aspect of those game and instead has players move up eight different trackers, four on their own boards and four on the common board. Players roll two dice on each turn and assign any of six possible actions to those dice, but you have to pay Culture to use an action with a higher value than the die. The most powerful actions allow you to play Politics cards from your hand or to move up your Development track; it’s hard, if not impossible, to win if you don’t max out the latter. Games play over nine rounds with simultaneous actions, so an hour playing time is quite possible once players get what they’re doing. I enjoy civ-builders but often find them too long or fiddly. This one gets the balance right.
Duration: 20-40 minutes
Trails is the small-box sequel to Parks, taking the same theme and look but simplifying the mechanics and the goals for a shorter and easier-to-teach experience. Players will traverse a single trail of seven tiles, moving back and forth as many times as they can before the sun sets by moving all the way from the last spot on Trail’s End to the very first spot on the Trailhead. You gather three different resources to meet the requirements of Badge cards at either end of the trail, and take photographs as you go for points. Some photos and badges also have bird icons, and the player with the most birds at the end of the game gets a 4 point bonus. The Badges can also give bonus actions or resources, and stacking those intelligently is a big key to the game. It’s Parks Lite, and more accessible to younger players (the box suggests ages 10+, but there’s nothing here a 7- or 8-year-old couldn’t handle), and more portable with the smaller box too.
12. 7 Summits
Duration: 30-40 minutes
Press-your-luck games are one of the most enduring game types-Can’t Stop, a simple dice-rolling game of the type, still has a following after 40 years on the market—but there aren’t a lot of truly novel ones out there. 7 Summits has flown under the radar this year, but I think it’s a worthy entry into the press-your-luck category. The board shows the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents, and each mountain has a four-sided die assigned to it that is rolled in each round. Each player then chooses one die, moves their explorer up that mountain that many spaces, and must decide whether to keep rolling—but to do so, they also roll the Risk die, which might reduce your progress by one or two steps, or drop you all the way to the base of the mountain. There are a lot of goodies you can collect along the way to make your climbs a little easier, but the core of the game is the race to the top of each mountain, with bigger points gains for the player who reaches each summit first.
Duration: 45-90 minutes
Genotype takes Mendelian genetics and turns it into a surprisingly fun worker-placement and set collection game, one that could also help introduce younger players to the core concepts that underlie it. (There’s also a booklet included in the game that goes into more detail on the science.) Players collect pea plant cards and use their worker tokens to collect dice representing different combinations of genes across four traits (rather than the seven Mendel examined), trying to complete as many cards as possible by matching the genes shown on them. You can also mess with the gene pool, so that it’s easier to get the genes you need—or harder for your opponents; hire assistants who’ll make completing your plants easier; secure bonuses for plants with specific traits; and more. And the board looks fantastic. It’s hard to make a science-themed game that’s true to its source and still enjoyable to play, but Genotype pulls it off.
10. Super Mega Lucky Box
Duration: 20 minutes
If you smushed Silver & Gold from 2019 together with Bingo you’d get Super Mega Lucky Box, the oddly-named, childish-looking game that is actually simple, elegant, and extremely fun. It’s a flip-and-write game, where players get multiple cards with 3×3 grids with different numbers in their squares, and then cross off numbers as players flip cards from the main deck. When you complete a row or a column, you get a bonus, such as lightning bolts that let you alter a card’s value and cross off a different space. You get the most points for finishing cards, the earlier in the game the better, and can also get points for collecting stars and for gathering moon tokens, all from finishing rows or columns, but the player with the fewest moon tokens loses points at the end of the game. There’s some light strategy in deciding what grids to finish first, but it’s very quick and fast-moving, and good for any player old enough to know their numbers.
9. Mercado de Lisboa
Duration: 30-45 minutes
Designer Vital Lacerda is known among heavy gamers for his long, complex games like Lisboa, CO2, and On Mars, all of which can run two hours or more and have high “weight” (or complexity) scores on Boardgamegeek. These are games for someone, but they’re not for me—I just don’t care for games of that length, even if I enjoy the underlying mechanics. That all makes Mercado de Lisboa, a lighter spinoff of Lisboa, such a pleasant surprise: It takes just a few minutes to learn, and turns can be very quick, but the limited space on the board can make it extremely competitive and tense as it fills up. Players have just four simple options on each turn: Place a market stand from their hand on the 5×5 grid, paying to do so; placing a restaurant tile from their hand, gaining one coin; drawing a customer tile from the board and placing it at the end of any row or column on the board, granting coins to all players with stands in that row/column that match that customer tile’s desired items; or punt and take a coin. Players do this until there are only four spaces left on the grid, or only four entrances left for customer tiles. There’s also a solo campaign mode that limits how you can score and challenges you to reach some aggressive thresholds to “win” each game. I admire Lacerda’s ability to craft long, heavy, complex games that fans of that style consistently adore, but I’m even more impressed by his ability to downshift and create something so accessible that any family could play it too.
8. Seven Bridges
Duration: 15-90 minutes
Another roll-and-write game, Seven Bridges is based on the famous math problem, the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, eventually proven to be unsolvable by Leonhard Euhler. Players roll and draft dice that show different shapes of roads, then draw those shapes on their personal maps of Königsberg, which include the city’s famous seven bridges, as well as various monuments, trees, and opportunities to score additional points. Players go through six rounds, each getting to roll once and draft dice on other players’ turns, and then score points for their largest loop, the bridges they’ve crossed, monuments they’ve passed, endpoints on the edges of the map they’ve reached, trees they’ve passed, and bonuses they’ve achieved during the game. You don’t get enough dice to do everything, so you’ll end up making difficult choices from early on in the game. The first print run sold out quickly, with no firm plans for a second printing, but let’s keep the pressure on to get more copies of this wonderful game out in the wild. (The initial release was in December 2020, so it sneaks under the wire for this list.)
7. Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write
Duration: 30-45 minutes
Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write, a spinoff of the 2017 game Dinosaur Island, is the most complex roll-and-write game I’ve ever played, topping La Granja: No Siesta, and I mean this as a compliment. It combines multiple elements common to other roll-and-write games, including dice-drafting, checking off resources on your personal scoresheet to spend later, drawing polyomino shapes on your sheets, and moving along tracks to gain bonuses, all into one game. You actually get two scoresheets of your own to keep track of everything, including the grid where you’ll draw the various polyomino-shaped features, including dinosaur enclosures, you build as the game progresses; your excitement and threat tracks; and all the resources you gather to breed dinosaurs, build buildings, hire specialists, and more. Players draft dice, take the resources shown, and then place them on the shared Action board to take the associated actions. You can take an action that’s blocked, but you’ll have to increase your threat level to do so, and if you don’t have enough security (a different resource) to cover your threats, your death toll will rise and you may have to destroy a building or lose a specialist. It plays out over six turns of dice-drafting, with a Tour phase after every two turns that lets you trace a path through your park for points and more bonuses. It’s a giant puzzle that seems infinitely replayable, and yet does so in a much shorter time than the original game offered.
6. Juicy Fruits
Duration: 20-50 minutes
The first big entry in Capstone Games’ new line of family games, Juicy Fruits is exactly the right level for adults who want to play games with their kids that will satisfy everyone without leaving any younger players behind. Players in Juicy Fruits move tokens around their personal island boards to collect fruits, then use those fruits to launch ships on the beaches of their islands, gaining points and also freeing space for future moves. You can also use those fruits to buy better tokens, gain additional upgrades, buy permanent buildings (for more points), or make smoothies for points. The game moves quickly, and ends once a certain number of advanced buildings or tokens are taken, with two-player games running under a half an hour. The game also has an advanced mode that adds an achievements track, giving players additional fruits or bonuses as they progress, but I think the basic mode is fine by itself. It’s fun, and very appealing to look at, with plenty of replay value through all the different tokens and buildings the game offers.
5. Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
Duration: 45-60 minutes
A few entries on this list are slimmed-down versions of longer, more complex games, which I interpret as an acknowledgement that there are audiences for both styles: The folks who want the $60+, two-hour, crunchy tabletop experience are out there, but they’re also a niche within a niche, existing alongside a substantial market for games below that price point that play in an hour or less and might allow less experienced gamers to play. The original Terraforming Mars was one of the best and most lauded new games of the last decade, but the two-hour playing time and substantial number of components did pose a barrier to entry. Ares Expedition takes that experience and distills it to a one-hour playing time, stripping out some complexity without touching the mechanics and theme at the core of the original. Players are still trying to terraform the red planet while building the most profitable corporations as they do so, playing cards from their hands that increase their income, heat or plant production, or provide other ongoing benefits. The game continues until the planet is terraformed, based on the tracks that measure the oxygen and temperature levels and the shared ocean board, which is far smaller than that of the original. Ares Expedition may appeal to more players than the first Terraforming Mars game, but I could see it also encouraging new players to move up to the original game as they realize just how great this concept is.
Duration: 30-45 minutes
A spiritual sequel of sorts to Flatout/AEG’s 2020 game Calico, Cascadia seems so simple to play but gets you by forcing you to make choices between different ways to score. Players will build out their own spaces by drawing hex tiles, which each show one or more of five habitat types, along with animal tokens, of which there are also five types, each of which scores differently. You can only place an animal token on a hex tile with the matching symbol, although that doesn’t have to be the one you just drew. Not only does each animal score differently, but the game comes with four different scoring methods for each animal; you can choose a set to calibrate your level of difficulty, or just select them randomly. Some animals want to be clustered, some want to be on their own, and some don’t really know what they want—but who among us does? Turns are quick, but you’re often forced to choose between two or more different scoring opportunities, and with only 20 turns per player, an early choice can have a huge effect on final scoring. Cascadia also has a strong solo mode with a campaign included for solo or competitive play.
Duration: 45 minutes
Nidavellir is another bidding game, combining its own novel bidding mechanic with a familiar pair of set-collection rules that force you to consider diversity and depth when acquiring cards from the market. Those cards come in five colors, each of which scores differently, with three of those colors becoming more valuable as you collect more in each set. You also get to select a bonus “hero” card every time you complete a set of cards in all five colors, with those cards potentially worth big bonuses or giving you powerful new actions. (I am in the camp that believes the Uline hero card is actually too powerful, and I prefer to play without it.) You have five coins for bidding, and will use three each turn to bid on cards at the three “pubs” in the game. If you use your 0 coin to bid, you get to take your two unused coins and combine them, replacing the higher-valued coin with a new coin worth the sum of the two, so you will often want to punt on one pub to get a better coin for future rounds. There are eight rounds in two phases, with bonuses given after the first phase to the player with the most cards in each color. It works with two players, although the bidding system is most fun when you have three or more. (Nidavellir came out in Europe last year but didn’t reach the U.S. until this spring, making it eligible for this list.)f
Duration: 30-60 minutes
Furnace is one of the most elegant engine-building games I’ve ever played, right up there with Gizmos, with both games sharing quite a bit in mechanical similarities. In Furnace, players bid on cards from a central display using their four identical bidding tokens, but the catch is that losing bidders get “compensation” in the form of extra resources or bonus actions, so you often want to lose out on a card because you’d rather have the compensation than the card itself. After each of the four bidding rounds, players simultaneously execute all actions on the cards they own, in order, converting resources into other resources and eventually into money. You can also upgrade some of your cards, turning them over to unlock additional actions. The resource-upgrade system is similar to that of Century Spice Road, where every trade leaves you better off, as long as you have a card to cash in. There’s a lot of thinking involved, but game play moves very quickly once everyone understands how the engine part works. It is best with three or four players, with a dummy variant for two players that doesn’t fully utilize the power of the game’s bidding mechanic.
Duration: 30 minutes
I know art isn’t everything in board games, but you will not find many better-looking games than Canvas, which makes sense since art is also the game’s theme. Players draw cards from the rolling market and insert them into clear sleeves to create paintings that show multiple “elements” to match that game’s scoring rules, with five possible elements for every painting, and up to three cards allowed per sleeve. You can take the first element card for free, or can select one further up the line by spending “inspiration” tokens, placing them on the cards you skip, making them more attractive to other players. Every player gets to go until they’ve completed three cards, at which point you score the ribbons you’ve gathered for the five elements, four of which vary by game, with the fifth (silver) always worth two points. The rules also include a solo mode and an optional two-player mode that uses a dummy player to cycle through more element cards; there’s also a guide to the scoring options that lets you calibrate it to your skill level or desired level of competitiveness. Did I mention it looks amazing? Even the box is gorgeous. In what turned out to be a tremendous year for new games, with five titles here that I think had a real argument to end up first on this list, Canvas takes the prize for the best new game of 2021.
Best reissue of the year: Great Western Trail, Second Edition
Great Western Trail was one of the best games of the last decade, but fell out of print a year or two ago. And if we’re being totally candid here, the artwork in the original game was … problematic. Eggertspiele spruced this one up with a brand-new edition this year, featuring better art (no more cultural appropriation of Native American imagery, and this time, not every face in the game is that of a white man), a more functional two-layer board with recessed spaces, an official solo mode that really works, and a mini-expansion in the game of cow cards that grow in value the longer you keep them in your hand. The game itself is still the same—this is a heavy game of hand management, where you try to gather the best cow cards you can to deliver to the end of the trail on the board, while also hiring more workers, building new buildings to go with the neutral ones on the board already and afford more actions to players, and advance your train along the board’s outer track. It’s the best complex game out there, in my opinion, and now it comes in the kind of package it deserves to have.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.