My Top 5 Med/Heavy Games: "Djinns in Mechs Deliver Cattle to Upgrade the LSS for Perks"
Joe Weber
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Before you read any further: Did you already figure out which games I'm about to list? I've added some clues in the title (in no particular order), so venture a guess now if you'd like to play along!

Got it?

Ok, read on – and let's see how many you have correct! ?

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1. Board Game: Five Tribes [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:61]
Board Game: Five Tribes
Joe Weber
United States
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Iowa
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Number 5:

How appropriate that this one lands at number five. There is so much to love here! The game plays great at all player counts, with highlights for different reasons at each. At four players, you're competing against the most minds, with the most competition for valuable spaces on the board and therefore the most resistance to what you'll want to do. More competition for player order, Djinns, and (most importantly) that specific action/tile you see which you hope no one else sees… (But they do. You know they do, right?!) At three players, your turn comes faster… but at two players, it comes faster yet – and sometimes twice in a row now that each player gets two turns each round. So, if you have back-to-back turns, it is possible during your first turn to set yourself up for an even bigger second turn.

The core "Mancala" mechanism is such a treat, a pure joy to execute. When you can pull off the "perfect move," scoring tons of points and perhaps chaining a series of actions/bonuses together into a glorious crescendo, it somehow fills you with more of the warm-and-fuzzy feels than any other game I can think of. Moreover, when you hear your opponent(s) groan in dismay as you reach for the exact meeples they had planned to use, it all gets even better.

The randomized setup of tiles, meeples, and Djinns all alow for near-infinite game states (read: high replayability), and that's not even mentioning the vast expansion content/modules available. Six years later, Five Tribes more than holds its own and earns a well-deserved five-spot on this list. Thanks, Bruno!
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2. Board Game: Scythe [Average Rating:8.25 Overall Rank:11] [Average Rating:8.25 Unranked]
Board Game: Scythe
Joe Weber
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Iowa
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Number 4:

This game… Just. Looks. Awesome. The table presence is incredible, with its massive alternate-history 1920s map sprawling out from the central and mysterious Factory and speckled with lakes, rivers, and plenty of different territories to be claimed.

What? Area control isn't really your thing? No fear, my friend – build Mechs to unlock unique abilities for your faction, then increase your Power and collect secret combat cards to boost your attack power. Now what're you waiting for? Send that mechanical army across the land to engage in battle against your opponents to potentially claim their hard-earned resources!

Oh, direct conflict isn't your style? In that case, press on and reap the benefits of the land. Use your workers to gain resources, construct buildings, upgrade your actions, and send your leader into fun(ny) Encounters in which you'll choose your own destiny and rewards. Become a favorite of the people for a bigger score multiplier. Perhaps you'll even add recruits who earn you bonuses for the actions your neighbors take on their turns.

If you haven't noticed, there are so many ways to score points, and therefore so many paths to victory. Scythe uniquely puts "it all" into one game, and does so well – a nearly impossible feat. Moreover, Scythe presents all this gameplay in a stunningly gorgeous world constructed by illustrator Jakub Różalski. Want even more of it? (You will.) Grab the expansions to add Airships (but not the kind you're thinking), alternate victory conditions, more factions, more Encounters, a modular map, and even an eight-game campaign that's jam-packed with unlocks, surprises, and 11 new modules for your future games.

Replayability? Chhyeah. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the insanely-great digital edition available on Steam, which brings the base game (and a bit more) to the PC and Mac for local and online multiplayer, solid AI players, plenty of settings/options, and lots of eye candy you're sure to appreciate. (Ahem. Virtual miniature painting for all pieces… Ahem.) What an excellent way to keep the plays of this great game going strong during, say, a worldwide pandemic.
 
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3. Board Game: Gloomhaven [Average Rating:8.81 Overall Rank:1] [Average Rating:8.81 Unranked]
Board Game: Gloomhaven
Joe Weber
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Number 3:

What can I say about this cooperative, Euro-style, dungeon-crawling, (hyphen-laden) behemoth that hasn't already been said? To quote SNL's Stefon, "It. Has. Everything." I won't spend too much time gushing over the details as to why this ticks so many boxes for me (and many others). Suffice it to say, it's just absolutely brilliant in every single thing it aims to accomplish:

An ever-changing, yet persistent world; unique scenarios that aren't always what you'd expect (or have seen before); collaboration, but with just the appropriate dash of personal goals and self-serving accomplishments to add tension between the party (you are all mercenaries, after all!); a trope-free class system with continual player level-ups, upgrades, and retirement yielding character unlocks to keep things exciting; a fresh take on battling enemies using (upgradeable) card decks instead of dice; an interesting and branching story that lets you choose where you'll go next; and so, so much more. I could go on for hours.

This colossal, 20-pound game (its physical weight, not its British pricetag) is stuffed so full of content – great content! – that it offers the average player actual years of enjoyment, and that's assuming the plays are hours-long sessions of at least once-a-week frequency. What other game inspires its owners to declare, "I shall clear an entire Kallax cubicle just for you, lest your sheer volume pancake any other precious titles in my collection!" Best of all, I find no bloat in all this content. Each nuance has been so lovingly crafted to remain cohesive and mechanically sound, so that seasoned gamers (and un-seasoned alike) will find plenty to enjoy – even if not typically attracted to "this type of game."

No replayability concerns here! In spite of the fact that you could never see the entire story or unlock all the content on the first go-round, there is still an expansion, a critically-acclaimed prequel, and a Kickstarter-record-holding sequel, all of which introduce many more pounds of the same great stuff. All this content should collectively last you until the end of the 21st century. That should also be enough time for mankind to put an astronaut…
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4. Board Game: On Mars [Average Rating:8.33 Overall Rank:81]
Board Game: On Mars
Joe Weber
United States
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Iowa
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Number 2:

Newcomer to my collection, my Top 5, and (thankfully) my life – it's the latest smash-hit from legendary designer Vital Lacerda and indescribably talented artist Ian O'Toole. I welcome you with open arms, you big, beautiful, table-hogging feast for the eyes! Now get over here and let me embrace you. (Seriously, the box is the size of a small child. You could easily hug it.)

Once again, Vital has done what he does best: blending theme so gosh-darn well with deliciously interesting, thinky, brain-burny gameplay. Many have hailed On Mars as his most complex game yet, but I think it may only be his most difficult to learn. There is a perfect cycle of "production and construction" that, once you've got it down, helps everything in the game make sense, both thematically and mechanically.

My favorite part has to be the balancing act between staying put in your current location (on the planet's surface or in orbit) versus traveling with the shuttle to the opposite location. It feels like some sort of delicate space-dance: Should I remain here and do the valuable actions I really need to do, or travel to those other yummy actions and unlock valuable bonus actions, free up workers, and change up the turn order? I may want to travel on the next turn instead of this one, but if I miss the shuttle it may not come back for several turns, so should I risk it or go now?

The level of light collaboration between players is so clever. You must work together to complete missions, upgrade buildings, research science, level up the Life Support Systems, all to see who did it best. Opportunity Points are a great name for the VPs in On Mars because every aspect of the design feels full of opportunities at any given moment, making every action "the fun action" you'll want to do. Dive into the sandbox and rove the surface collecting goodies, move bots to construct buildings, recruit scientists to unlock special free-to-you actions, collect and fulfill contracts, obtain blueprints for building upgrades that come with a free resource, research technologies (and even use those of your opponents!), and it's all an important part of this complete balanced breakf… -er, of your strategy. Meaning, regardless of your strategy, you'll get to do "the fun stuff" at any given time.

I find the game to be great at any player count, even solo (against a bot named Lacerda!), and it's only a matter of time before On Mars surpasses my current number one game…
 
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5. Board Game: Great Western Trail [Average Rating:8.29 Overall Rank:10]
Board Game: Great Western Trail
Joe Weber
United States
Spencer
Iowa
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Number 1:

I don't know that I can put into words exactly why I love this game so much. It seems to be a collection of mechanisms that just work well together, with a theme that is somehow simultaneously irrelevant and imperative. (I can't imagine this game with a different theme, and I'm not some kind of cowboy-fan or a cow-fanboy.) The theme, the artwork, and the gameplay come together in a way that just makes this one sing.

I thoroughly enjoy the decision-making, right from the start as the variable board is revealed and all the way through to the end. Formulating a strategy that will work based on the board state and adapting that based on what other players do is thoroughly delightful.

There are many paths to victory, and all of them involve (at least to some degree) a little bit of each of the interesting systems in the game. I find the "evolving rondel" of actions to be quite compelling and unique, as players add and upgrade buildings along the trail that contain private actions, public taxes, and gradually slow all players down as they attempt to move toward Kansas City to complete the circuit and restart the rondel.

The expansion gives players even more options and control (including the ability to mitigate some card-drawing luck), and I love it dearly – but for the tightest game with the "cleanest" strategy, it's also hard to beat the base game by itself. Either way, this one has been firmly planted at number one for quite some time, and I would never turn down a play. (Although, to be fair, that is true for every game on this list. )
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6. Board Game: Penny For Your Thoughts [Average Rating:7.00 Unranked]
Board Game: Penny For Your Thoughts
Joe Weber
United States
Spencer
Iowa
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So… What do you think?!

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Did you guess all five games correctly, based on the clues in the title? What do you think of my list? What's missing, out of order, or just plain wrong? Let me know in the comments!
 
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