A king of the hill game that feels like alien Backgammon (but not Martian Backgammon, that’s another thing). A bit too zero sum with 2p and a bit too crabs-in-a-bucket for 3 and 4p, and it’s completely outclassed by a game further up on this list, and yet there’s something about it that appeals to me enough that I can’t put it any lower than this. Maneuvering around at weird angles, baiting win attempts to counter them and take the game, the improvement of the dice curve via roll-two-pick-one. These are good ideas executed with no waste whatsoever. It’s a bit simple, but sometimes that’s what you want.
15: Petri Dish
Petri Dish is one of the strangest games in the arcade. The lower player counts are no fun at all, and at high counts it’s entirely possible that a player could be eliminated without even getting a turn. It’s one of the swingier lighting dice games with some actions just being straight up better than others. Nasty, brutish, and short. And you know what? It works.
Despite Looney’s explicit warning that playing with more than 5p can lead to hurt feelings that’s exactly where I think this game is strongest. PD feels almost like a battle royale if you play with 6p or more, with everyone scrambling for some kind of foothold or just trying to not die. Hasty unenforceable negotiation will break out as weakened players plead their cases, only to roll a ton of infects next turn and consume the player that spared them. It’s a damn mess, but a funny one that’s hard to get mad at. I’m generally a fan of the lightning dice games, and while this isn’t the strongest of those, it’s unique in its ability to entertain a crowd.
14: Zark City
80% of Zark City is really good. The building of the board, its quick yet deliberate pace, and the deterministic combat are as simple as they are clever and snappy. Unfortunately the game suffers from its tension fizzling out like a deflating balloon by endgame as players spread out or fly off, build the last piece of a power block in an unassailable location, and gloat as the rest of the table takes turns confirming that they cannot, in fact, do anything about it. It’s possible for the game to be all conflict all the time as everyone scrambles for the same block and when that happens it’s a knock-down-drag-out brawl, but that’s unlikely as it’ll just come down to who draws the most face cards and any given player could opt to run off and build their own win condition. This is a shame because the game really does have a wonderful arc up until that point and I can definitely recommend it if you don’t think an anticlimactic ending will hamper your enjoyment. I intend to try Zarcana and Gnostica in the future to see if they fix the issues, because there’s a game in here I really like that just needs a little help.
13: Color Wheel
An enjoyable solo/co-op puzzle, only if a relatively easy one. Turning the chaotic fractal pattern into an orderly one is always satisfying. It’s most fun when chasing high scores, in particular the timer variant where you’re just trying to make speed records and not tracking how many moves you take. The only weakness here isn’t with the game itself, it’s that setup and teardown takes about as long as the actual playtime. I definitely do recommend that you play this otherwise it wouldn’t be this high on the list, but maybe fit in a couple rounds in one sit-down when you do. Added bonus: it’s one of the best looking games in a box full of attractive games. Very photogenic if that’s something you’re into.
12: Lunar Invaders
In a box full of abstract games, Lunar Invaders offers something completely unique: the nope token. Yes I know it’s officially called the malfunction token, but nah. Nope token. So it is said, so it shall be.
LI’s hook is that each player starts with a stash of spendable tokens that allow them to counter or steer opponent’s moves in an advantageous manner. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “in-response” attempted in a perfect information abstract before and it’s pretty darn neat! The tension of each play ratchets up nicely as players hem and haw over when to spend tokens, and as they grow familiar with the game on repeat sessions players start making moves to bait token use out of their opponents at opportune times. This added layer to an otherwise straightforward game gives Lunar Invaders a heck of a memorable hook. If you enjoy tactical abstracts and want to try something truly unique, give this one a go.
11: Looney Ludo
You know how I said Pharaoh was outclassed by another game? This is it. Looney Ludo really had to work to win me over. I went in skeptical as the pitch of a Fluxxified Parcheesi wasn’t the most appealing, but it manages to be much greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of moving the goalposts ala Fluxx or taking progress away like Parcheesi, it has players interacting by adjusting the field temporarily. The board is perpetually in, *ahem*, flux, but not to the point where you can’t fix it to your advantage and make permanent progress each turn. It makes good use of the Treehouse die for simple yet massive powers that are easily taught, and the roll-2-pick-1 from Pharaoh is a huge equalizer here in what would otherwise be a very swingy roll and move.
More so than many others in the arcade this game struck me as a slam dunk for families. It’s simple, but there’s room for tactical play and you can definitely get better at it. It makes for a great filler, it’s constantly engaging, and darn it, it just looks cool. Hopping coasters around is cool. Nesting pyramids for the win is cool. Looney Ludo is cool.
10: Pyramid Sham-Bo
We’re in the top 10 now! If you’re already familiar with Pyramid Arcade you might have been wondering why Pyramid-Sham-Bo hadn’t shown up yet. No I didn’t leave it off the list, it’s here and it DESERVES to be. It may just be tournament rock paper scissors, but you know what? Tournament RPS is really fun! If you’ve never played tournament RPS and seen how bizarre the meta becomes as players strengthen and weaken and claim to know other player’s patterns you really should give this a go with a good sized crowd. The scoring twists of pyramids going away when players are eliminated and getting paid for KOs significantly changes how you choose your targets and when. Admittedly it has basically nothing to do with pyramids and as a result feels like a strange inclusion for the arcade but I refuse to complain about a game as entertaining as this is. Pyramid-Sham-Bo is here, and I’m glad for it.
9: Petal Battle
Petal Battle was a real surprise. In a box with so many 2p conflict games I must admit I didn’t expect this to be one of the better ones. On an initial scan of the rules it seems like it would be very zero-sum, similar to 2p Petri Dish. What wasn’t immediately apparent is Petal Battle’s true draw: sequencing.
I’ve never seen bidding and programming meshed together like this before. Players secretly stack a trio to determine how many actions they’ll get for the next three turns, as well as turn order. This uneven turn structure is really intriguing. Do you throw a 3 for your first turn to put your opponent on the back foot knowing that they’ll probably get to go first? Maybe go for speed and end the round with a flurry of actions? Or do you try to get into their head and predict their bid, then yank first play by locking in first? All of these are equally valid and make no mistake, there’s a very real game happening on the board itself. Another solid tactical abstract that does a lot with a little.
Another lightning dice game on the list and it’s a doozy. Sandships is a compelling mix of area control, combat, and logistics. Your pieces transform between spires and ships, but canals on the board divide the map and force your ships to land in order to embark from another dock. Since you need to control 3 cities without giving up your starting one in order to win, it becomes a game of balance: not only do you have to consider where you commit forces, but you’re essentially only able to attack by spending your life points. Choosing when to go for a dead city and when to strike an opponent’s HQ for a cheeky elimination is all kinds of cool. The entire game is balanced on a razor’s edge, yet it does it without any output randomness. Moreso than any other lightning dice game wilds/effective wilds are really easy to generate, so you’ll almost always be able to do at least most of what you want. With 4 players you’re going to have to eliminate someone before winning is possible and that may rub some folks the wrong way, but I strongly recommend giving this a go regardless. It’s fiendishly clever.
*Sandships isn’t technically part of the arcade, but it was given away as a holiday gift and is currently being sold as a promo. I’m including it in this ranking as it’s essentially an expansion. It’s also very good.