Rob: Everyone has a soft spot for certain types of games. I’m not talking just genres or mechanics, either. It’s quite common for people to gravitate towards things like small boxes, faster or longer play times, minis, and so on. I have a few favorites of my own, of course, but today I want to focus on cards.
I love card games. Not games that use cards as one of many mechanics, but rather games where the cards are their heart and soul (spoiler alert: despite this introduction there will be no Yu-Gi-Oh! I repeat, there will be no Yu-Gi-Oh!). This means games like Machi Koro, which is more about rolling dice, and Death Angel, which basically just uses cards in place of minis, aren’t eligible. Sorry.
First, let’s take a look at the honorable mentions. These are all games that I enjoy quite a bit, and still play quite often, but they just didn’t manage to make it on the list.
[Publisher: AdMagic Inc, Designers: Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, Max Temkin, Eliot Weinstein]
Think what you want about me (I really am horrible), but I enjoy playing Cards Against Humanity with my group of nerds. We’ve put together some really great sets over the years, from “fasten your seat belts and prepare for swooping” to the downfall of humanity beginning with “the mere concept of Applebee’s.” However, even with practically every expansion available we’ve managed to run out of new card combinations almost completely. Nowadays it’s still good for an occasional chuckle but it doesn’t take long before I’m ready to move on to something else.
[Publisher: NSB Games Inc, Designer: Daniel Auxier]
The only reason I know Hull Breach exists is because of PAX East 2014. It’s a game about space station defense and ship-to-ship combat, complete with infantry that can board and even take control of opposing vessels, and actual war veterans collaborated on the design – and nobody knows it exists. It’s also a bit rules-heavy thanks to the multitude of special abilities that can be too complicated to remember if you don’t play constantly, which doesn’t make convincing someone who’s never heard of it to play any easier.
[Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group, Designers: Dave Williams, Mark Wootton]
I adore the concept and theme of Doomtown. It’s like area control, engine building, and poker all rolled into one and set in a kind of sci-fi/fantasy-ish Old West. Color me sold, right? It’s also fun and strategic, and allows players to customize their own personal decks in a similar fashion to NetRunner. This one’s also a bit rules-heavy and awkward to learn, but once you get past that initial bump it’s a fantastic time.
[Publisher: Z-Man Games, Designer: Shadi Torbey]
It hurt not to put Sylvion on the official list, but it just got edged-out. I absolutely adore it despite the bone-crushing difficulty (it’s even tougher with two players instead of one), though. As I’ve said in my review, it’s a little reminiscent of Plants vs Zombies with its lane defense but it also requires a lot of strategy, planning, and budgeting (yes, budgeting). If this list went up to 9 it would totally be on there.
Okay, no more stalling for time. This here is the official list – my top 8 choices for my favorite card games. Keep in mind I haven’t played every game in existence, so if you don’t see it on here there’s a chance I simply haven’t spent any time with it yet. And, of course, if a game isn’t on this list that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means I like these other games even more.
8 – Arboretum
[Publisher: Z-Man Games, Designer: Dan Cassar]
Arboretum is pretty new, but it shot up my list pretty quickly because it’s, well, great. On the surface it looks like players are just putting down cards with numbers on them, but there’s so much strategy to this game! Not only do you have to try and create combos by creating chains of cards with incrementally higher numbers (i.e. 1 > 2 > 5 > 6 > 7 and so on), but you have to be mindful of the colors you use and of the cards that are still in your hand at the end of the game (because they determine who can score what color). On top of that, all players can draw cards from the deck or each others’ discard piles, so you also have to be careful with what you throw away. Goodness I love this game.
7 – Friday
[Publisher: Rio Grande Games, Designer: Friedemann Friese]
The first time I played Friday was something of a mess. To be fair though, I was still somewhat new to the whole “board games” thing so some of the rules didn’t click right away. It won me over almost as soon as I figured it out. This game is all about risk/reward, planning ahead, and chaining special abilities together (once you acquire cards that have them). Your deck becomes more formidable as Robinson begins to learn how to survive, but it can also get a little weaker as he gets older. And the challenges become more difficult as time passes, which will force you to choose between risking an early victory when you barely have any decent cards or waiting until it comes around again and is significantly tougher. I’ve only beaten it twice, but I’ve enjoyed every single attempt.
6 – San Juan
[Publisher: Ravensberger, Designer: Andreas Seyfarth]
This is a bit of an odd entry because I’ve never physically played San Juan, but I have played the mobile version quite a bit and I fell in love almost immediately. Awkward “just get it done” quality of said mobile port notwithstanding. It’s a fantastic card game that stands out in my mind for two main reasons: everybody can do something on every turn, and the cards are everything. On your turn you get to pick one of several actions to take (so long as nobody else took them earlier in the round), then every other player may take a similar action. For example, when someone takes the Builder action everybody is allowed to construct a building, but the person who specifically chose that role gets a discount on their construction costs. Then there are the cards, that can be used as buildings (all of which can do different things like generate goods or earn points at the end of the game), discarded as a form of currency to actually build those buildings, and can be drawn in trade when players exchange the “goods” their buildings have produces. Deciding what cards to “build” and which ones to sacrifice can be agonizing, but that’s a big part of why I enjoy San Juan so much.
5 – Star Realms
[Publisher: White Wizard Games, Designers: Robert Dougherty, Darwin Kastle]
Ascension is easily one of my favorite deck builders, and it just so happens to be the game that introduced me to the genre, but Star Realms feels like a much more streamlined version that allows for much more interplay between cards – plus it’s got a neat space theme, which I always enjoy. It’s really all about the cards, though. Filling your deck with more powerful ships and space stations and then activating faction bonuses to generate a ton of attack points in a single turn is a fantastic feeling.You can learn the basics and start playing almost immediately, and there are several different game variations to play around with if you get your hands on another deck and some of the expansion cards (solitaire, one-on-one, one-on-several, co-op, versus, etc). The barrier for entry is also ridiculously low, with the base deck (for 2-players) coming in at a mere $15. But it’s not just a great impulse buy; it’s a great game in general.
4 – Fleet
[Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games, Designers: Ben Pinchback, Matt Riddle]
It almost pains me to have Fleet sitting as far away from the number one spot as it is, but then I remind myself of the competition it’s up against and coming in at number four becomes downright respectable. It’s a curious mixture of management (and strategy) with a fishing boat theme, but it works so incredibly well. I particularly like how each card serves multiple functions – as currency used in license auctions or boat launching, as boats, or as captains (because a boat needs a captain). Whether you’re playing solo against the two “AI” captains or competing against three other players for the top spot, it’s tough not to crack a smile when you see almost all of the ships in your fleet (get it?) filled to the brim with their target catch. Gah! I love this game!
3 – Urbion
[Publisher: Z-Man Games, Designer: Shadi Torbey]
It’s currently not all that easy to get ahold of Urbion at the moment, but I hear Z-Man Games is working on a reprint (similar to what they did with Onirim). Once that happens I’d highly recommend getting your hands on it. This is a game that’s extremely easy to learn, comes with two worthwhile expansions in the box, and features just enough randomness and brutal challenge to keep you coming back for more – quite often, in my case. It presents a curious puzzle that you can set up, fail at, and retry very quickly either by yourself or cooperatively with one other player. Wrap all of that in an unconventional but striking art style that depicts a world of dreams and you’ve got one of my all time favorite card games.
2 – Apex
[Publisher: Die-Hard Games, Designer: Herschel Hoffmeyer]
Apex was so close to coming in at number one. It was a stalemate until I forced myself to really dig down and nitpick everything I could. And it only lost out because of the amount of time it takes to set up each game (mostly it’s forming the Hunt Deck), the fact that the rules as written aren’t terribly clear in some rather important places, and it’s not terribly engaging when playing with a group because players don’t really interact with each other. But dinosaurs! Not only dinosaurs but a brutal, strategic game of survival. Events will wreck your plans, predators will get in the way of you finding your next meal, and boss dinos will eff your ess up. But that’s okay because you have several different playable creatures to choose from yourself, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses (and strategies). I seriously can’t get enough of this game and I’m already anxious to get my hands on the expansion that’s due out next year. I get to play as a Megalodon!
[Publisher: Upper Deck Entertainment, Designer: Ben Cichoski, Danny Mandel]
Oh my Glob this game. This game. This game. We’ve already explained in detail why Legendary Encounters is so fantastic, but it bears a cliffs notes repeating. This is one of, if not the, most thematic games I’ve ever played. I’m not talking about just card games but of all the board games I’ve played. And I love a good theme – especially if it happens to be based on the best sci-fi horror film of all time. Cards moving through the complex call to mind the motion tracker, each of the four scenarios and crew cards that come with them actually behave similarly to their respective movies; Alien feels claustrophobic and you never quite have enough fighting power, Aliens tosses a bunch of combat strength your way but also swarms you with xenomorphs, etc. It even has alternate rules for a traitor mechanic and a deck of xenomorph cards that a player can use if they’ve been killed by a chestburster. I cannot overstate just how much I adore this game.