The first bite is with the eye. How a game looks shouldn’t matter as much as the gameplay, for sure, and numerous impeccably designed miniatures won’t save a bad, poorly play-tested game. The opposite is also true, though. Great games can be let down by shoddy production. Cheap components suffer wear and tear more quickly. Thin card gets blown and knocked about at the slightest sigh of defeatism.
Beyond these physical problems, unattractive games can be that bit harder to get to the table – compare the gorgeous Black Angel to its dowdy grandparent Troyes. I prefer the latter, but the former is going to get played more. While good mechanisms are essential, a game with that WOW! factor can provide the milkshake that brings all the boys (and girls) to the yard in the first place. With that in mind, here’s some games that I think match gameplay and component quality perfectly. To borrow the Bake-Off banter; I present my six showstoppers!
Tricky Toffee Pudding
I wanted to begin with a game that shows excellent production doesn’t need a hundreds of thousands of dollars Kickstarter campaign and a box crammed full of individual sculpted plastic minis. Tricky Tides was Kickstarted, but on a much smaller scale. It’s a little box with some high-quality wooden components and an interesting game that pairs trick taking with pick-up-and-deliver on the high seas. Winning tricks gives you first dibs on actions and the card you played to win the trick affects where you can move.
Designer Steven Aramini and illustrator, Naomi Ferrall, have lovingly crafted Tricky Tides with a keen eye for detail. The unique wooden ship meeples and artwork on linen finish cards really evoke the theme of the golden age of high seas trading. The monster standees could have been torn directly from the map used on a Portuguese merchant ship. Neat touches like the dual layered player boards to create recesses for your cargo cubes to nestle snugly into are rare for a game of this size and price. If you need to impress with tactical gameplay and something sweet on the eye on a budget, Tricky Tides is a safe punt.
Cthulhu – Death by Chocolate (May Die)
If budget is not an issue and you want the full-blown decadence of a ton of plastic figurines, may I recommend from the trolley, Cthulhu: Death May Die - Rob Daviau and Eric Lang’s throw everything and the kitchen sink at it take on the Lovecraft universe. There is something almost preposterous in how Death May Die presents itself. The Baddies can swamp the board. They crowd and overspill spaces. Yet the scale and detail of figures coupled with the modular board create an immersive table experience.
It’s a dice-chucking, arms flailing, run and hit, lucky ducky, dungeon crawl. Big, brash and baroque. As worshipper at the cult of Cthulhu, I’ll go on record to say these are my favourite sculpts of the Elder One Gang. The OTT fun and replayability by combining the individual episodes with different Elder Ones means Cthulhu: Death May Die is the sort of game you can gorge and gorge on until you feel sick. Still want more? Season 2 has just hit general release. C’Mon (see what I did there?), what other game allows you to begin play with the sentence: Lizzie Borden, Rasputin and a nun with a shotgun walk into a museum.
Santorini, that sun-drenched island of white towers and blue domes that you know from your friend’s wedding photos. Well, now you too can recreate walking its stone staircases in your own home with the game of the same name.
Santorini is a perfect abstract – easy to learn, more difficult to master. As you and your opponent move and build, move and build you create a unique map and architecture each time you play. Add in the individual powers from the god cards and you have an infinitely replayable experience.
The simple and striking visual of this game is, I’d argue, the main part of its appeal and is pretty much unparalleled when it comes to abstracts. My friend and I almost don’t care who wins and enjoy a sort of meta-game of exploring the different towns different combinations of god cards create. The pieces slot together nicely and match the atmosphere of the real-life island perfectly. I reckon, it’s the closest you can come to a holiday in Greece in a box. Accompany with lemon taters, olives and grilled sardines for full immersion.
Bread and Critter Pudding
Let’s be honest, it was going to show up on this list at some point. If you’ve heard about Everdell, you’ve no doubt heard about the 3-D tree. Questionable functionality aside, the tree is sturdy and makes a bold statement on the table. However, it’s somewhat a shame to me that Everdell has become known as ‘the tree game’ and not as the ‘resources you want to eat game’.
I recently posted a photo of myself playing a solo game of Everdell (good solo mode) and a friend commented that she thought it was food! It’s true, the resource pieces, with their different colours, shapes and textures would not be out of place in a pick-and-mix. The box should come with a warning - DO NOT EAT THE GAME!
Everdell scores production tens across the board. The board is chunky, the meeples are custom cut. It backs this up with a fascinating worker placement, tableau building race for points with oodles of choices and routes to victory. Most of all though it has critters and I’ll play anything with cute critters. I loves ‘em, I do. I want all the critters.
Speaking of which. Q: What’s better than a critter? A: Critter with a steak knife. Set in what feels like an adjacent world to his previous game Mice and Mystics, Jerry Hawthorne’s Aftermath is a post-apocalyptic, adventure book RPG. You and your friends will assume the role of a critter (squeee!) out to build and protect your colony in a world without humans.
I was already a Jerry Hawthorne fan and the top end production here got me really excited. The minis are chunky and, as a non- painter, I’m impressed that they enhanced the basic grey with some shading to bring out detail. The adventure book, which doubles as the board, is glossy and always sits flat on the table thanks to its spiral binding. A minor detail that makes a major difference.
The game utilizes an interesting card system to power actions and the design of these stylised beaten up playing cards is perfect for the theme. Then there’s the fact that everything fits well in the box with individual tuck boxes to save each character’s items and power ups as well as the individual decks that form part of play. This speeds up setup and take down, no end. Aftermath oozes quality and care from the moment you lift off the lid. It’s a real beast of a game.
Grimm Forest Gateaux
Tim Eisner is one of my favourite designers and Grimm Forest is a superb family weight simultaneous selection game, where you are trying to gather resources from the marketplace to build houses quicker than your opponents. Throw into the mix some fairytale allies and bad guys – including a Big Bad Wolf who can blow your house in – and you have the right amount of take-thattery for a friendly, relatively speedy game.
Grimm Forest is not complex or unique in its mechanisms. However, it sets itself above other games of its weight with its gorgeously built world. The player and baddie minis are exquisitely detailed and help bring the already strong theme to life. The houses you assemble provide a nice tactility to play that will help engage younger players. The box says 14+ for age, probably due to the complexity the fable cards can bring. I think you could play with a little younger with support and maybe some simplifications.
The cherry on the top of this delightful cake is the insert trays which hold the components safe and sit cosily in the box as well as doubling as holders for the resources during the game. All in all, this game and the others mentioned here prove that decent production can create an absorbing experience and can lift an enjoyable game to something special. Oh, and critters. Critters always help.