Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Making a top list of anything is nearly impossible for someone as indecisive as me. I’m one of those people who, after trying a game for the first time, will exclaim “This is my new favourite game!” and click ‘Add to Cart.’ As such, my top games list is an ever-changing ecosystem of themes and mechanisms – none which ever seem to gain any footing above the rest. You may then ask: ‘Mike, how did these following 3 games make it on this list?’
When I think back at my years of boardgaming history, I simply remember big and exciting moments. I could sit here and wax lyrical about my favourite mechanisms and designers and components (and those are all valid metrics!) but what really makes a game pop to me is if it creates memorable moments. These are the games that create a legacy in my group, ones where upon seeing the box, people will reminisce of a previous play session. If a game starts with “Hey, remember when…”, I know it has solidly imprinted itself as a group favourite.
So while I’ve enjoyed every single game I’ve ever played, these three have stood out to me the most, and I won’t tire of them anytime soon! Onto the list!
Number 1: Gloomhaven
Yes, the number one ranked boardgame of all time on BoardGameGeek is also on my list of top games. How daring of me.
I was given this giant hunk of a game for my birthday by friends who, back then, weren’t fully committed to the hobby yet. They thought, “Mike’s the boardgame guy, he’ll like this big boardgame thing!” We didn’t know it would make such a splash. It took a long time examining the rulebook, even longer explaining those concepts to my friends, and even longer playing out the first couple of intro scenarios, but at the end of all that, we knew we had a lasting hit on our hands.
For those who don’t know, Gloomhaven is a card-driven dungeon-crawling campaign. There is an ever-growing world to be discovered and a plethora of characters, items, and abilities to be unlocked. The gargantuan box offers almost 100 scenarios, of which after almost three years, we’ve only seen about 70% of. We had never tackled a campaign game before; Gloomhaven was a perfect introduction. And there’s truly something for every member of my group. The human calculator is busy working out optimal battle strategies, the enthusiastic gamer is building his character for maximum damage, and the role player is...being a sneaky scoundrel off somewhere in another room. And me, I’m just watching my group have a great time!
Despite not seeing each other for an in-person session of this game in over a year, it is definitely still at the forefront of our minds. The digital version of the game has been successful in quenching our thirst for now. But we’re avidly looking forward to finishing the main storyline, and an unopened expansion box, Forgotten Circles, will quickly hit the table soon after. And with the sequel, Frosthaven, looming in the future, there’s absolutely no chance this game disappears anytime soon.
Number 2: Spirit Island
Second on the list we’ve got Spirit Island. I’ve cheated and lumped Spirit Island in with its two follow-up expansions: Branch & Claw and Jagged Earth, but make no mistake, base Spirit Island is still one of the most cohesive cooperative experiences I’ve ever played.
Spirit Island flips the whole colonization trope on its head; instead of the players acting as adventurers discovering a new land, players are instead ancient guardians of the titular island fighting back against a never-ending onslaught of invading explorers. Every turn, ugly hordes of plastic carnage spill onto the board and threaten to ravage the land, and it’s up to the powerful spirits to protect their land.
The spirits in this game are the real star of the show. Each character has completely different powers and playstyles that mesh so well with their themes and art. Because everyone is so different, often you’ll be playing to each other’s strengths and discovering insane combos not possible with a different combination of spirits. Throughout the game, you also get to pick up new powers from a massive deck, so there’s almost no playing the same game twice.
The power progression in this game is so satisfying. At the beginning of the game, your spirit doesn’t have access to many powers, and probably can’t even affect the island outside a small radius.But at the end of the game, you could be hurling black holes and drowning parts of the land in tsunamis with the snap of a finger. Getting a win always feels hard-fought and earned, and it’s a great feeling to share with the group.
I’ve always loved cooperative games, but many can end up falling victim to an alpha gamer: someone who just knows what to do better than anyone else. Technically, this is possible in Spirit Island; there’s no hidden information and players are free to discuss what they plan to do on their turn, but there’s just so much. There’s no way you could feasibly keep tabs on every variable in the game, and you just have to trust your team. And I LOVE that!
Spirit Island is a game that I’ve honestly felt myself get better and better at, and there’s still so much I haven’t explored. I went from losing almost every game to winning most of them, but that’s not to say I’ve got it all solved. Each game is almost a different challenge, and it’s made me a more adaptive and thoughtful gamer!
Number 3: Cosmic Encounter
If Spirit Island is the paragon of teamwork and trust, then my number 3 pick is the champion of betrayal and backstabbing! Cosmic Encounter may seem like the odd one out here, but it actually perfectly encapsulates my criteria for a great game experience. Out of the three games I’ve listed, Cosmic Encounter feels most like an event; it’s often a night of outbursts and shenanigans that leaves a lasting impression on the table.
In Cosmic Encounter, you’re given a special game-breaking alien power, a handful of cards, and a command to venture out and occupy your opponent’s planets. With high attack cards, you can brute force your way through, but more often than not you’ll be asking for help from other players, who might do what you want...for a price. Instead of playing the game, you’re playing the other players. You’ll need them to win, but you can’t put any trust into them.
Admittedly, Cosmic Encounter is a tough sell. It’s not the latest and greatest brain-burner boardgame filled with intricate mechanisms. The powers are wildly imbalanced; some even completely change how the game is played, and that might throw people off. But it’s more of a social experience, as most of the game is played above the table through negotiations, alliances, backstabs, and betrayals. At the end of the day, most turns boil down to ‘higher card wins,’ which can feel unsatisfying if you’ve had a stroke of bad luck. But this is one of those games where I don’t mind losing at all! It’s fun to see what kind of zany powers people are bringing to the table and how sneaky I can be to try to claw myself to the top.
This is a game that gives back exactly how much you put into it. If you go into it fully ready to embrace the silliness, there will never be a dull game of Cosmic Encounter.
And that’s it! My top 3 summed up with all of my enthusiasm. I’ve played these games for years and I’ll be playing them for many more to come!
Big thanks to Jim for letting me pour out my enthusiasm here! I hope you enjoyed reading, and if you did, you can find more of my ramblings on Instagram @meeple.mike! Cheers!