Welcome to my third annual listing of my top 50 board and card games. While it’s not an original idea I do enjoy doing it, and seeing as everyone else has one why shouldn’t I? The format remains the same (top 20 in order, then three sets of 10), although my personal circumstances have changed quite a bit since last May.
Since separating from my other half (and regular gaming partner) last August my gaming patterns have altered dramatically, seeing certain games we used to play regularly drop down the pecking order (I wanted to mention it here, save repeating myself throughout). I still love most of these games; they’re just not getting played right now. So if a game has no explanation of why it has dropped down a few pegs, you’ll know why.
As well as this affecting my overall plays, I’ve also had a lot more games in to review. These have had to take priority on a lot of occasions, so a big “thank you” needs to go to my regular gaming buddies for putting up with a lot of new games (and hackneyed rules explanations) over the past six months especially. You know who you are!
- (1) Race for the Galaxy
While my plays of this have once again dwindled, in no small part to another very disappointing expansion (the first one none of our group bought), I still consider this to be my favourite game. Every decision is tough, it has masses of variety, it can be as swingy as hell but it plays fast enough for that to not be an issue. A masterpiece. (2007)
- (3) Ticket to Ride
While it has its detractors in the board game community, this has remained my go-to gateway game – and a large part of this is down to how much I still enjoy playing it. While I’m a little done with some of the maps, the fact Days of Wonder continues to freshen it up so successfully pays testament to just how robust the base game mechanics are (I’ve very much enjoyed the Asia and Pennsylvania maps recently). There are a couple of other strong gateway game contenders later on the list, but as much as I like them they didn’t come close to Ticket to Ride in the end. (2004)
- (7) The Downfall of Pompeii
Speaking of gateway games, this is one that gamers do tend to like – and it’s one I still can’t get enough of. The theme is hilariously bad taste but never seems to upset anyone (mention slavery you’re in trouble – but throwing people to a lava-ry death is fine, it seems), while the two halves of the game gel brilliantly. There’s a ton of luck but enough so that it always feels as if it balances itself out, while the sub-hour play time is ideal for this style of light board game. (2004)
- (5) Deus
My game of 2014 has held its own here despite no expansion (one is apparently incoming), a drop-off in plays (although I’ve been playing online) and the fact I am getting progressively worse at it! You’d think familiarity would help? Not for me, it would seem, but then I don’t really care: much as with Race for the Galaxy, this is a game I simply enjoying playing and the outcome rarely troubles me one way or the other. I look forward to the expansion, but even if it sucks this will remain a favourite for a good while yet. (2014)
- (19) Concordia
My game of 2013 is back into the top 10 after the recent Salsa expansion really breathed new life into Concordia for me. While some prefer the purity of the original I welcomed the new elements with open arms – but I’d still be happy to play without them. Just having a few options, from the new maps to the extra tiles and resource, is really helping a great game stay fresh. The way you build your score by taking the action cards, whilst also expanding across the board, is wonderfully fluid – while the actions are short and snappy in typical Gerdts fashion. (2013)
- (11) Through the Ages
While I’m absolutely sure I’ll never be any good at this game, the new edition is a genuine improvement on a classic and has renewed my faith in a game I love. The streamlining of mechanisms has in no way damaged the gameplay – in fact quite the opposite – while the new art and components add some welcome if unnecessary polish. It’s rare I’ll entertain the idea of three-plus hour marathon, and rarer still I like games that have this much game space opening up (this may be the only ‘heavy’ euro on my list), but I love this game. Proof that you absolutely do not need a board to create a brilliant ‘civ’ game. (2006)
- (2) Terra Mystica
Another long game, Terra Mystica hasn’t hit the table as much as I’d have liked in the past year which is a real shame. Unlike Through the Ages it really isn’t at its best two-player and with three-plus it plays long – especially with rules explanations to contend with and the unique race powers. But a lack of play hasn’t dulled my senses in terms of how much I love Terra Mystica when I do get to play it. Meaty but still middle weight, but packed with interesting decisions and subtle but interesting conflict, it’s still a real gem. (2012)
- (20+) Merchant of Venus
Each time I play this sci-fi pick-up-and-deliver classic I’m more tempted to invest in a posh copy – but I’m still happy enough with my shabby original to hold off. And the fact the battered box, crappy thin cardboard pieces and warped board in no way keep this from the table pays testament to just how great it is. A combination of the core mechanisms here with the spirit and licence of Firefly would be something close to the perfect game for me – which makes the PoS game that was put out with that licence even more depressing! But while I’ve still got this 80s classic to fall back on, I can keep pretending to be Mal while playing a good game. (1988)
- (4) Ra
From the 80s to the 90s and to Ra, which has dropped a ways due to the break-up of my old regular Tuesday night group – and the fact a guy who joined the subsequent group that rose from its ashes really doesn’t like this one. I’ve gone from playing 20+ games of Ra per year to none in four months, which is a massive shame as I still love it. The auction mechanism is genius, while the push-your-luck element really does make for a different game every time – as well as some proper stand-up moments. Still my favourite Knizia game – but only just. (1999)
- (9) Copycat
I still don’t understand why this game isn’t more popular as for me it marries great elements from some classic games to make a fun, fast euro game. Mixing Agricola’s action selection, Through the Ages’ card buying and Dominion’s deck building works surprisingly well and while it could probably do with an expansion to add a bit of variety, I still feel there’s enough here to make it fun over semi-regular plays. While Power Grid is probably Friese’s ‘better’ design in many respects, I think Copycat gets the mood, length and decision space just right. (2012)
- (20+) Ingenious
This is another game that has moved back up the list after a drop in 2015, this time due to the Android app keeping me company on a lot of long journeys – and giving Knizia two games in my top 20. The AI is pretty terrible but it’s a timely reminder of just what a great game this is – particularly how clever the scoring method ties into creating a really interesting tipping point in the game where you need to shift from accumulating to blocking (or escaping being blocked). Purely abstract, but that actually makes it a good gateway game too – especially for people who might look at the likes of Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne as ‘nerdy’ due to their themes. (2004)
- (13) Pizza Box Football
What can I tell you? I have a soft spot for American football, I like rolling dice and I’m a sucker for a well realised sports simulation. There’s buckets of luck in Pizza Box Football and it couldn’t be much more abstract (no players, team names etc – although you can get the latter), but the important thing is that it really does capture the ebb and flow of an NFL game. Luckily another local gamer is a proper fan (and indeed player – hi Chris!) of the sport so I have a new partner in crime when I feel the occasional need for dice-based gridiron. (2005)
- (NEW) Codenames
Vlaada Chvatil becomes the second designer to have two games on the list, but alongside Through the Ages they couldn’t be more different – which says a lot about his rather unique design pedigree. This brilliant word/deduction game is also the only party-style game on my list – while also being the highest entry for a 2015 release. It wasn’t my game of the year by much, but the fact a game in a genre I wouldn’t normally care about has had such an impact on me sealed the deal. If you have a group of friends who like word games of any sort, get this. Simple. It’s easy to learn, great to play in teams and has tons of replay value – and there’s a picture-based expansion on the horizon too. (2015)
- (10) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
It’s not you Tzolk’in, it’s me. I still love you. I love you colour, your cogs, your fiendish action selection system and all your other mid-weight euro stylings. But every time I play you it’s as if I’ve never played you before. I return to being the blithering first-time player bound for 40 points, spending every turn seemingly just getting back to square one. It’s not that I mind losing, it’s just FRUSTRATING as hell. If I played you once a month I think I’d be fine, but I just can’t see that happening. So for now you’re just going to have to keep slipping slowly down he list until I can retire and plays games all day, every day. Then we can be together once more in something approaching a mutually enjoyable relationship. (2012)
- (18) Can’t Stop
The fact the late, great Sid Sackson designed this game in 1980 tells you all you need to know about his design talents. Years ahead of its time and arguably still undefeated to this day in terms of push-your-luck dice games, Can’t Stop is pure genius. Simple enough to teach anyone, fast to play and with moans, groans and cheers guaranteed, you simply have to take your hat off to the man. If you have friends you think might like games, but want to start them on something very light, this is my go-to game. (1980)
- (12) Snowdonia
Another brilliant euro which has been kept near the top of my list thanks to a string of imaginative expansions. The base game itself is brilliant, with the idea of it playing itself keeping you constantly on your toes (the game itself will complete sections every now and again, forcing you towards the end game at a rate that may or may not suit your plans!). I just wish I could get it to the table more often and re-energise my own expansion plans for the game. I just need to shake off some emotional baggage which is, of course, easier said than done. (2012)
- (NEW) The Bloody Inn
After my first few plays of The Bloody Inn I thought it was a shoe-in to be my game of 2015 – but the brilliance of Codenames and some slightly ‘meh’ reactions from some gaming buddies have taken a little of the shine off it. I’m still very keen on the game and love the delicious challenge of both very limited actions, cards with multiple uses and a super tight economy – as well as the superb integration of theme and art. But there is a bit of a lack of variety in the cards and it takes a little too long to get any kind of engine going. For now this is one of my favourites, but whether it goes up or even out of my top 50 in the next year is anyone’s guess. (2015)
- (15) Bora Bora
I’m as surprised as anyone that my first Stefan Feld design is this low down, but while I really like a lot of his games I’ve yet to play one that totally won me over. Bora Bora comes very close, mixing an intriguing dice action selection mechanic with some juicy point salad-style scoring mechanics: his typical mix of tactical and strategic efficiency. While it’s still very abstract I do like the integration of them here – sure, it could be anything but the colour pallet and Pacific island motifs make a pleasant change from the browns of medieval Europe. (2013)
- (20+) Rosenkonig
A small climb for this great little two-player abstract game that’s getting an English language re-release this year as The Rose King. I love how it adds a random card element to a tight Chess-like abstract game, taking away the ability to master the game and forcing you to think on your feet – packing lots of tactical play into a really satisfying sub-hour experience. It has helped that I’ve found a willing player in my office, so we can have the occasional lunchtime game – and he’s good too! (1997)
- (NEW) Caverna
While I respect Rosenberg as a designer and enjoy playing Agricola and Le Havre, this is the only one of his games that made my list – and the only one I own. If I had a gaming other half I’d invest in Fields of Arle as I’ve very much enjoyed my two plays of it, so that may be for a list in another year – but for now I’m sticking with Caverna. While other (perfectly valid) opinions are available, I feel Caverna loses nothing by easing up on Agricola’s feeding restrictions, losing the cards and making the bonuses a level playing field rather than a draft or random draw. If it were a little less setup/carrying/teaching intensive it would probably be even higher up the list. (2013)
- RE Blueprints (2013) This dropped out last year due to lack of plays, but a few plays this year have confirmed how much I like it. A smart use of dice in a small package.
- NEW Divinare (2012) A fiendish card game. It’s hard to make smart, important decisions when you’re only playing with half the information you need. And the beautiful components make it an easy sell to new players too.
- NEW Mombasa (2015) My favourite medium euro of the year didn’t quite make the Top 20, but it was close – and it may well edge higher over time. I sold Endeavor after one play of this as it’s in the same ball park – and so far I have no regrets.
- Manhattan Project (2012) This is a great game, but the fact I haven’t reached for it since July made it impossible to justify in its old Top 10 slot. I’m unsure why but I tend to win this one a lot, which puts my regular group off a bit. Rare!
- Navegador (2010) This is another that has fallen from the Top 10, while Concordia went back the other way. I still really like it, but it lacks a bit of the simplicity of his other games due to the rather obtuse commodities market. Can also feel linear.
- Notre Dame (2007) Notre Dame is a brilliant game, but is another that hasn’t hit the table in almost a year. I’m hoping it’s a temporary blip, as the drafting and action selection – and short play time – still make it a favourite of mine.
- The Boss (2010) It took just one play of The Boss back in February to let it hold its place here. It’s one of those game designs you’re simply jealous of – low on components, clever and really original, while even managing to hold the theme.
- NEW 6 nimmt (1994) I have no idea why I’ve overlooked this for my top 50 in the past. The filler all others should look up to, this is one of a select few games I simply can’t see ever leaving my collection. And anyone can play – up to 10 players.
- Twilight Struggle (2005) My inability to nail down a regular partner for this (still very much on my ‘to do’ list) is the only reason it has dropped down the rankings. Love the theme, the gameplay, the board, everything. Fantastic area influence game.
- Yspahan (2006) I’ve recently played two games of Grand Austria Hotel – which simply served to remind me how awesome Yspahan is, 10 years on. The same dice mechanic is employed in a smoother, more interactive, shorter and more fun way.
- Acquire (1963) Unplayed for more than a year. But still brilliant, so just a small drop of a section. Hard to imagine this ever dropping out of the 50, but I do need to make more of an effort to play it.
- Brass (2007) Like Acquire, this is hanging around purely on the weight of how good I know it is. I’m stuck between people who don’t know it and real experts, neither of which is a place I want to be with Brass.
- CV (2013) While I don’t feel I need to play this more than a few times a year, every time I do I get lost in the art, the theme and the daft fun of it all. It needs the right group, but if you get that there aren’t many better light dice games. An easy hold.
- Decathlon (2003) I rather fear for Decathlon, as I think I’ve only ever played it with one person. We’ll see how that goes over time.
- Endeavor (2009) My enjoyment of Mombasa – and the fact I could sell it for £50 – meant I waved goodbye to Endeavor. Maybe if it gets a reprint and Mombasa doesn’t stand the test of time, this will return but for now its ship has sailed (ho ho).
- NEW For Sale (1997) As with 6 Nimmt, there are no real excuses for why this little card/bidding game wasn’t previously in my Top 50. Fast, fun, handles six players well and always garners some laughs and groans. Great artwork too.
- NEW Keyflower (2012) Despite being crap at it, Keyflower appeals to me immensely. With more than three players I find it opens up too much late-on for me to cope with, but I love the meeple mechanism and the engines/interaction.
- Macao (2009) With prices for Macao now also over £50 I’ve been tempted to sell this too, but it was one of my first medium euros and holds a special place in my heart. I still love it too – but if the price goes up much more, that love will be tested!
- Maori (2009) A lack of plays has seen Maori fall a section, but in reality it’s only a few places. I still love how nasty it is, especially as it looks so innocent. And if I wanted to demonstrate a tile-laying game this would still be the one I’d reach for.
- NEW New York 1901 (2015) A flurry of plays in January ensured this a place on my list. I’ve not played since, so we’ll have to see if it gets a second wind later in the year. I’m expecting it will, as family games are likely to feature heavily for me.
- Archaeology: TCG (2007) There was quite a big drop for Archaeology and it only just hung in the 50. It’s another with history and baggage for me, but a recent play confirmed I’ll be hanging on to it for a good while yet. A smart push-your-luck game.
- NEW Africana (2012) I fell in love with Africana back in September and immediately bought it – then played it too much before leaving it on the shelf post Essen. It’s another smart family game, but I’m getting a little overloaded with those now. Clearly need more gaming days!
- Alhambra (2003) The second Dirk Henn game on my list isn’t serving quite as well, largely due to most people I play with not being too keen on it. But in spite of the annoying money/building colour clashes I still love a game of Alhambra – especially with some of the expansions thrown in.
- Ancient Terrible Things (2014) Much like CV, an annual play or so of this gorgeous push-your-luck dice game is enough to keep it hanging in the top 50. If equipment was easier to buy I think it might get more plays, as it seems too hard to get cash.
- Castles of Burgundy (2011) A massive drop for Castles of Burgundy, right out of the Top 10. I still play online and I still really like the game, so can see this being a temporary blip. It could probably have done with at least one less way to score.
- NEW The Dwarves (2012) This is the only co-operative game in the 50 – a rise from none last year. A few others actually came close, but this is still my favourite. The dice and simple decisions mean the alpha player issue isn’t a problem.
- El Gaucho (2014) A game this Top 50 list has reminded me I haven’t played in more than year. Which is nuts, as its great fun. Loads of dice, funny art, cows and some mean play. What’s not to like? I may sneak it into my 33×3 challenge…
- NEW The King is Dead (as King of Siam 2007) This remake of King of Siam is beautiful, while keeping all the abstract fun of the original. It needs four to really shine but is always fun and packs so much tactical play into the short play time.
- Pickomino (2005) This would’ve dropped out of the top 50 if it hadn’t been for grabbing the expansion to review at Essen. It freshened the game up for me, adding a little more thought to an already fun push-your-luck dice game.
- Thebes (2007) A recent play of this reminded why I like it so much – plenty of random fun, a great turn order mechanic and a few tactical decisions. Very light, but tends to go down a storm with the right crowd.
Out of the 50
- Port Royal and Kingdom Builder fell from the Top 30. I still like both games, but the shine has gone a little. I have the original Port Royal, so can’t benefit from the tweaked rules and expansion, which doesn’t help. While an expansion for Kingdom Builder might help – but none of my friends have really fallen in love with the game.
- Manhattan, Manila, Oltre Mare and Power Grid fell from the Top 40. Again, I’m still a fan of all of these and they could all end up as re-entries in the coming years. A recent play of Power Grid was fun, while my failure to buy Manhattan is certainly holding it back!
- Nefertiti, Puerto Rico, Stone Age, Tikal and Uruk fell from the top 50. I sold Stone Age, Tikal is just a little too long while Uruk has started to get a little samey (and the reprint was a big disappointment). I still like Puerto Rico but rarely reach for it, while Nefertiti may get a reprieve – but it needs a champion in the local area. Basari and Johari also fell from the top 50 and probably won’t be back. Both solid games, but I have no friends locally who care for them at all.
Top 50 potential
Roll for the Galaxy fell very flat for me (way too heads-down), while I haven’t played Amun Re again and certainly can’t justify buying it.
As for recent acquisitions that didn’t quite make the cut, the daft co-op fun of Zombie Tower 3D, old SdJ winner Thurn und Taxis, deck-buildy area control game Mythotopia and fantasy stocks game Shafausa are all vying for table time.
Year stats and links
And to round things off – some pointless stats FTW!
- Best years
2012 won out with nine games published then being in my Top 50, followed by 2007 (six games) and 2013 (five). There are four 2012 euros in the Top 20 alone.
- Worst years
There were no games in my Top 50 published in 2008 and only four from 2015. 2008 was actually quite a strong year, boasting games I very much enjoy (and that have been on my previous top 50s) including Le Havre, Dominion, Stone Age, Dixit, Uruk and Nefertiti. There was nothing from the 1970s – nothing even close, in fact!