I love games! Throughout my life, I have embraced and played a ton of games. But playing Magic back in 1994 changed how I played games, and it changed how I saw them. It really affected my gaming makeup. It's rare that a game reinvents itself on an annual basis as much as Magic does. There are countless ways to play Magic, too! There are Emperor, Cube, Momir Vig, Standard, Commander, Two-Headed Giant, Pauper, Vintage, and so many more. And someone is always seeing a new way to play the game!
This game has changed gaming. From introducing the collectible mechanic to gaming to altering players' expectations for gaming, its impact is undeniable.
In fact, Magic is one of those games that transcends gaming. It is a tool for social interaction. It’s the way people meet friends and hang out. People have met their spouses through Magic. They've stood at weddings or in delivery rooms alongside folks they've met through Magic. Magic is more than a game.
And yet, despite that, Magic is just my third-favorite game of all time, and that's it. Just third . . .
Would you believe that?
So, what are my Top 10 Games of All Time (not including video games, just traditional games)?
I thought it would be awesome to take a look at my Top 10 list and see where and how Magic ranks alongside the best of the best.
Now, before I begin, here’s a quick note: I am a very energetic person by nature. I love stuff! And frankly, I've never met an exclamation point I didn't like. Down below, I am going to list my favorite games of all time—in my entire thirty-seven years of living. From Candy Land to chess, everything is considered. These are the best of the best. So, you can imagine just how much I want to use the exclamation point on virtually every sentence. I just want to prepare you.)
10 – Ticket to Ride
Sometimes, a game is so simple and innovative that it works majestically. With all of about four rules to it, this board game is the opposite of something like Axis & Allies. Ticket to Ride is fun, simple, flavorful, and strategic. I'm not that much of a fan of the nouveau board game explosion that is heralded by games such as Settlers of Catan (overrated) and friends. But this is one that rises to the top with its sheer audacity, simplicity, and fun!
9 – Heroscape
There was a time when Wizards of the Coast was publishing three games in my Top 10 list. Originally created by Milton Bradley, Heroscape was designed by the people who did HeroQuest (a game that would make my Next 10 list, from 11–20). Designed in part to be a crossover game to teach younger (or newer) people the basics of war-gaming, the game was a perfect mix of value, aesthetics, simple rules, and a lot of fun. What made Heroscape stand out was the unique play; characters were pulled from various points in time and around the universe to fight on a distant planet. So, you had groups from Earth (like Roman soldiers, Vikings, U.S. Marines, or samurai) fighting against robots (called Soulborg) and orcs, dragons, and more. You had futuristic spies and tech along with primitive stuff. It gave the game a great feel. But what this game was really known for was the unique terrain. The high-quality terrain snapped together like Legos and created a hex grid that you could build for yourself. The mechanics perfectly suited the game.
A lot of fans claim that the Wizards period of the game killed it. They rebranded Heroscape as a Dungeons & Dragons supplement, and they repainted old figures from previous sets, renamed them, and gave them different stats. Sets tended to be light on terrain, and it wasn’t the good deal that you had from the Milton Bradley days. From a distance, Wizards seems to have mishandled the game. (But, to be fair, we don't know what happened behind the scenes. Hasbro may have forced their hand by telling them to cut production costs by any means necessary or perhaps they were ready to cancel the game anyway and sent it to Wizards to see if they could revive it. Who knows?) For years, we saw new terrain and new figures, and the game was fleshed out amazingly. I still adore Heroscape!
8 – Capture the Flag
I once thought about writing a book about how to play capture the flag, with all of the variants, and the strategy and such that is employed. This is best described as a field game that requires you to capture the other team's flag and return it without being caught and imprisoned. There are a ton of variants and rules that come into play as well. (How do you capture? How do you release prisoners? Can you guard the jail or the flag? How close can jail be to the flag? Do you have a neutral zone?) You'll usually haggle those before you begin playing. CTF is so impactful that you find it as a default way of playing paintball or in online gaming. It's a ubiquitous part of our society in many ways. But there is just something fun about grabbing some folks and playing CTF in your backyard or nearby park!
7 – Blood Bowl
I picked up some Warhammer stuff (fantasy and 40k), and I even have an Empire army complete with a Steam Tank for when I want to push metal—instead of rolling dice or flipping cards. But I'm often a bit disappointed by just how long it takes to play a game. I don't want to spend eight hours playing a single game. There is no game ever made in which I want to wait for a thirty-minute turn. And that makes Blood Bowl really strong. It plays quickly, you can have a turnover on any roll of the die, and you'll be playing shortly.
Plus, how much fun it is to play football with undead, goblins, and dark elves? It's awesome! You have dwarf teams and more. My favorite is the Necromantic team with the nasty werewolf unit. This game marries a crazy concept to a simplified rules set (and again, that elegance makes the game better—a theme of many games in my Top 10). Although it's not as though anyone would call BB a simple game, but compared to Warhammer it is. Blood Bowl gives you to the ability to change your team over time as you gain skills points, and you have to deal with injuries, buy cheerleaders, or buy new players for your team to replace those that died on the pitch. It's bloody fun!
6 – Rolemaster
Rolemaster's presence on my Top 10 list contrasts with one of the major themes. Simplicity makes the game. Elegance trumps complexity, and it makes for a higher-quality product. Get ready for two products from the same company, back to back, that will belie that argument! Rolemaster is a fantasy RPG so complex that every single weapon has its own attack chart. There are twenty types of armor—and each weapon is compared against each armor type when you roll. There are numerous critical charts for each way of dealing damage. You don't learn individual spells, but entire lists of spells, because that's how many spells there are. You are given scores in dozens of abilities. It's a highly intricate RPG. So, what makes it work?
It makes sense. In real life, there is a difference between a scimitar and a battle axe. You can't just roll a random number between 1 and 8. In real life, some weapons can more easily damage certain armor types, such as plate, chain, or ring. Melee weapons often developed to counter commonly-worn armor. This is best expressed in Rolemaster. Similarly, I just don't have six scores and then roll against them anytime I want to do something. In real life, my ability to sneak around without being seen or without making noise isn't a factor of my dexterity, but my training, luck, environment, and more. Rolemaster works.
If flavor matters, there has never been a CCG before or sense as flavorful as Iron Crown Enterprises's Middle-Earth CCG from way back in 1995. After Magic came out, a lot of companies churned out some really bad CCGs to take advantage of the market. From Spellfire to Doctor Who Collectible Card Game, a lot of those early games were very, very poor. Just three really stood out to me: Illuminati, Legend of the Five Rings, and this. The Middle-Earth CCG, like everything ICE touched, was tremendously complex. But every single mechanic was created to portray the flavor of Middle Earth. You would travel to various places, free and dark, and then try to rally people to your side, recruit allies, find magic items, and, most importantly, fight against the darkness. There were several ways to win, and you played one of the five wizards trying to secure victory. You had to deal with corruption, deal with rings, and more. The game had a massive amount of complexity, but it was all in the name of bringing the sheer flavor of Middle Earth to card stock, and it played uniquely as a result.
There's something very sad when a game stops being supported. Sure, I can still play a game like Middle-Earth or Heroscape. But who does? People have moved on, and there is a nostalgic sense of corporate loss that I cannot properly define. Words elude me. But there is this palpable aspect of me that is forever anchored in my past because I cannot play these games again. Imagine if tomorrow it was announced that Magic was closing its doors. Obviously, people would still play a few years later. But what would your life look like fifteen years from now? It's a dead, unsupported game. If Magic is a huge part of who you are, what happens post-Magic? That's how I feel when I reflect on games like Middle-Earth and Heroscape. I never played enough. And now? Now I never will . . .
4 – HeroClix
If you have known me for any amount of time, you know that I love HeroClix. I even wrote 'Clix articles for Scrye magazine and their own website. Love it! I have been a HC envoy, tournament aficionado, and, in fact, I've been to more HC tournaments in the last three years than I have to Magic in the last decade. Did you know that I was once a finalist for a job with WizKids for their HeroClix line?
HeroClix works. MageKnight was the first major collectible miniatures game, also made by WizKids. It married the fun combination of the collectible side of CCGs with miniatures. I can still remember buying in hardcore when it was released, along with a lot of fellow Magic players. I played it extensively, but the rules were still too complex—with rulers instead of maps and group movement and such. Then, they took the concept of MageKnight and simplified it in many ways. Gone were group movement and firing and rulers and more. HeroClix was more elegant. It was leagues better. Super heroes like Spider Man and Batman will fight for your cause—your brand of justice. And I embraced it. I still play and love HeroClix to this day. It's a strong game that is growing better.
No one is surprised to see D&D on my list. In fifth grade, I was introduced to D&D via the Basic Rules from the 1983 Frank Mentzer version, and we played the In Search of Adventure super module. From there, we moved to the Expert and Companion sets. I then picked up the 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Handbook by David Cook, and I was amazed at what I saw! All of those spells! I loved playing wizards at the time, and look at all of these new spells! I bought it forthwith—I spent one month's allowance to buy it. It was worth it. From there, I picked up the DM Handbook and some other books on the cheap. I combined 1st Edition books with the fun 2nd Edition stuff. We played for hours in elementary school and junior high. In ninth grade, that all changed with my number-one game below, and my senior year in high school really should be entitled "Enter Magic." But high school was really just a four-year hiatus, and soon enough, I was playing with two groups in college. I was picking up books that are among my favorite from the era, and I enjoyed the crap out of D&D.
I picked up the rules books for 3rd Edition and was extremely disappointed with how homogenized they had made the game—how antiseptic it had become. So, I kept picking up modules and books from 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and the Basic D&D. I still play, and I have more than one hundred fifty modules, and I have hundreds of supplements that I have collected all of my life. And I still have that Player's Handbook, those D&D books from Expert, Basic, and Companion (and later Master and Immortal rules, too). I have all of those books. And now, instead of spending an entire month's income on a single book, I just spend two to three hours’ worth. In the past month alone, I've picked up and read nine modules and three rules books. I could write twice as many articles for D&D as I have for Magic. (But no one will pay me . . . ) It's one of the defining pastimes of my life.
And yet, D&D is not number one . . .
So, what is? What is the most distinctive game I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering?
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1 – BattleTech
There are so many reasons BattleTech is my favorite game of all time. I've read more than seventy-five novels, most of the main rules books, and a lot more. The universe is my favorite sci-fi universe because it feels very realistic. We don't have intelligent alien races, psychic powers subbing in for magical ones, or major leaps in scientific knowledge from where we are today. It also does not make crazy assumptions about humans from a sociological standpoint. In the thirty-first century, we'll still be killing each other. We'll still think we are better than our forefathers, which enables that. We'll still voluntarily divide ourselves onto colony planets by ethnicity. For example, Irish folks have a colony planet (New Caledonia). The USA and Russia planets were blasted early on in wars, and others stepped in, so now we have star empires that feel Scandinavian, Japanese, Chinese, German, or English.
The universe makes sense: gritty, realistic, and bloody. And yet, there are still heroes, still paladins, still people who are the best of humanity.
And the game? Awesome! Love the war game! Love the ability to have big, giant, battle-suit-robot-tank things that smash other things to pieces fighting battles. I know, it's an American version of anime, and these concepts existed long before, and I own the first season of Ultraman from Japan, and they copied some designs from RoboTech—yadda, yadda, yadda. Something about the mechanics, the maps, the worlds, the aesthetics, the flavor, and the very character of BattleTech works. Here's to BattleTech!
Man, that was a tremendous blast of fun to write and review. Talking about this stuff can be hard because I want to try to do these ten games justice on the page. But I feel trapped by the majesty of the playing experience. How can that feeling be expressed with mere symbols?
I hope that my sheer joy playing these games has dripped across the print, just as it has for me as a player.
So, which games here have you played? What is your Top 10? Is Magic in it? Let's talk about it!
See you next week,
P.S. Did you know that I write for a BattleTech news blog? Yup yup!