By Crystal Dunkerton
This past year I have had the privilege of running board game nights once a week! I would not call myself an “avid board gamer” Yes, I like to play board games and have quite a collection but I am not the type of person to watch for the latest releases or to trawl the depths of the internet to find a review. Neither am I the type to go to Youtube and watch other people playing board games, I would rather play myself. Because of my job I’ve had to keep an eye on new releases, occasionally look up a review, and yes, even watched the occasional Youtube video to find clarification of rules. And because of my job I have been exposed to a lot of different and new board games! So, without further ado…. the best board games that I played for the first time in 2021 are as follows: Tyrants of the Underdark, Splendor, Wingspan, and Villainous.
At the store we sometimes get in demo copies of board games. It’s then my job to learn them so that I can teach it to players at the store (and hopefully sell copies!) Tyrants of the Underdark was one such game. I was a little tentative at first because of how thematic it is. The box is very obvious. “Tyrants of the Underdark.” At first glance the game seemed to be riding the coattails of a very successful setting, and would perhaps sacrifice quality game mechanics for “sell-ability”. I personally love R.A. Salvatore’s “Hunters Blades” trilogy of novels and so, being very familiar with the setting of the game I can tell you that I was right about it being extremely thematic, but that did not affect the quality of the game play at all. The game combines two concepts: Deck building and Zone Control flawlessly, while still making the player feel like a Matron Mother, deploying her minions to solidify her influence over the Underdark… all in service to Lolth, of course! The theming, timing, and mechanics of this game give it a solid spot within the best board games that I played in 2021.
Splendor, I’m sure at this point many of you are rolling your eyes, “But that game is so old, how have you not played it before?!?!?!” Ok, yes. You’re right. How have I not played it before?!?!?! To be fair, it’s only been out since 2014, so I should get some slack for that. But it is seriously a really good game! In the base game every player is a merchant who is buying and selling gems in order to build their trade empire. The merchant will take gems from the stockpile and use them to buy cards. Each card can be worth points, and getting the right combination of cards will qualify the player to earn bonus objectives. When a certain number of points is reached, the game is over. It is a refreshingly simple concept for a game, but still riveting. Splendor is simple enough that I can play it with my young son, but hard to master. And, new versions of the game keep it interesting with new bonus objectives and end game goals.
If you love worker placement, and you love birds then Wingspan is the game for you! Many players over the course of the year have told me how good of a game it was and that the store should get in more copies! But, with the pandemic tying up shipping lines, getting some things in stock has been nearly impossible. So, imagine my surprise when I was gifted a copy of Wingspan for Christmas! Of course, all the people hyping Wingspan were correct. It’s a fabulous game. So let’s get down to why: First of all, the game is just beautiful. The art is all painted in a Victorian era style that is realistic. Pair that with linen finish cards, wooden dice and the cutest birdhouse dice roller… the entire set-up for the game is quite impressive. So, mechanics. Wingspan is a mix of worker placement and engine building. Each player is in control of 3 habitats, wetland, forest, and field. They must then play birds into each of these habitats in order to improve them. The better the habitat is, the more effective of a turn a player can have. Each bird card is extremely well designed - from activated abilities, to habitats, to nest type, to preferred food, to…yes, even wingspan, each bird is scientifically accurate and integral to building your best habitat. The best part of the game is that you never know who is going to win. One player might be dominating the group objectives, but a player who has played higher cost birds, or tucked more cards, or laid more eggs might be the winner. You never know until *all* the points are tallied. Despite only having had the game for 6 days of 2021 Wingspan still solidly earns its place among the best games I played last year.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post… I have played a lot of board games (and not just in 2021) Villainous was honestly a huge surprise to me. I had never heard of it before so I didn’t understand why my players were so excited about it. Well, I learned when I played. I feel like Villainous has its own complete niche. You can’t really peg it as a deck builder, or a card game, or worker placement, even though it has all of those mechanics in it. Villainous is a Disney game. Each player plays a Villain from the Disney movies, and with expansions there are a lot to choose from. Each Villain has its own board and deck that are completely unique to that villain. No two are exactly alike. And each villain has their own win condition! “That sounds like chaos!” you say, and I say, “Yes, you would think so, but it’s not!” Each player begins their turn by drawing up to 4 cards, then they move their “Villain” to a different location on their board. Every location has different actions that you can take. You can draw cards, play cards, or do something to stop another villain from reaching their goal before you can reach yours. The game is over when a Villain reaches their goal! With so many Villains to choose from each game is extremely different, and you might think you have everything in order to win and then somebody plays a card that ruins it all for you and back to square one, Foiled again!