If you are searching for the definitive best of 2021 boardgame guide, look further. This isn’t it. This is my list of the best and most notable games that I personally played in 2021. It is most assuredly incomplete, date inaccurate, but I hope it can provide you with some insights on a few great experiences. One thing that I can say about 2021 is that I finally played EVERY game in my collection. Whether you call it the “Shelf of Shame” or “Shelf of Opportunity” or something else to help justify dust collecting on unopened games, I managed to play everything I actually own. It wasn't a conscious decision to play them all until I looked at my collection toward the end of the year and realized there were only one or two that I had not played yet. This not only lead me to have played a bunch of new (to me) games in 2021 but also lead me to send many of those to the great secondary market in the sky.
Best Two-Player Experience- Cthulhu Wars Duel
Inexpensive and tweaked for a great two-player event. I never thought that I would use those words to associate with anything under the “Cthulhu Wars” umbrella. You can find my review here. (No, I don't know if Sandy Petersen has said any silly shit on social media recently and I don't want to run a background check on every publisher/designer when I write a review. If that impacts what games you play/buy, you'll have to do the due diligence yourself.)
Game of the Year- Dune: Imperium
One day, perhaps one YEAR, my game of the year will actually be published during that actual year. Dune: Imperium was “released” in 2020. Whatever, I didn't see it in stores and did not pick it up until 2021. It is easily my most played game of the 2021 and was in competition for Cthulhu Wars Duel for best Two-Player experience with the App (or card deck) playing a decent “Blocker of stuff you want to do.” (I just dislike having to spend my brain space remembering to do all the AI stuff when I'd rather to just be focusing on what I'm planning/doing.) I love that it supports multiple play styles with “Getting tons of cards” standing up to “Trying to win the battle every round.” (Sure, I would like a few more options to shed cards to make the Hand Management a bit more influential). I'll play it at any player count but my smile just gets wider the more players you add.
Best Expansion- Dune Imperium: Rise of Ix
Oh, if a game from 2020 being awarded my game of the year didn't set you off, my awarding the same game's expansion of the year when it wasn't released until 2022 is NOT going to sit well. The Rise of Ix expansion revealed to me that I was subconsciously following certain paths and strategies in Dune: Imperium that I wasn't even aware of. It isn't a “This changes everything” expansion but it is a “This enhances and expands everything” release. You are bound to hear plenty of “I don't want to play without this expansion” talk (which I agree with) and even “I would put this in when teaching the game!” (which I don't know that I agree with). The expansion is such a seismic shift in options and tactics that it takes some gear-grinding from veteran players to switch to the new, wonderful options. If you enjoyed Dune Imperium, I can not recommend this expansion enough. And, yes, it addresses the lack of card shedding in the original game with new options for those leaders that thrive on a lean, synergy deck.
Comeback of the Year: Root
Yes, I know the Cole-train had moved on to Oath in 2021 but after bouncing off of Root my first couple of plays, it set it hooks (roots?) into me. It's one of those rare games that I find my mind drifting to at odd times.
“What do you want for lunch?”
“I want to try a Charismatic leader for the Eyrie, put tons of not-bird cards into Recruit, get every bird on the board and go into turmoil early. Just to see what happens.”
I'm still not sure how I feel about 2021 as a strong/weak year for game releases. What I do know is that I have added a half-dozen games to my “Keep Forever” list. I hope this gives you an idea of what type of games that I dig and, maybe, direct you toward games that you might enjoy.