My top 50 board and card games

Race for the GalaxyWhen I started this back in October 2011, I wanted to write about travel, games and music; but over time one of these three has risen to the top.

In terms of both how much I want to write, and how popular the posts are, board games is the clear winner. So as I’ve now reached 100 blog posts, it seems well past the time to list my current favourite board and card games.

I’ve done the first 20 in order, then grouped the rest in chunks of 10. I could easily make this a top 100, or more; the games in the bottom bracket here are still some of the best I’ve played (out of hundreds). Down beyond the top 20 things change almost daily – so I’ll certainly be revisiting this list, you lucky people…

My Top 20 board and card games

  1. Race for the Galaxy (2007) An easy choice, and almost 250 plays proves it. Its a quick (30-minute) tableau building card game which really is a race for points. Every game plays differently, while a rash of expansions let you mix things up even more. The iconography is hard to get to grips with, but once you do there’s an endlessly rewarding game underneath. An absolute tactical masterpiece.
  2. Ra (1999) In almost every round you have an agonising decision to make; do you start the auction or continue to sweeten the pot? Then once the auction begins, what to bid? It’s so simple, but I haven’t played a better game that so perfectly forces players to bluff and psyche out their opponents. Ra is a simple game mechanically, but so much more is played in the mind – and the one-hour playtime is perfect.
  3. Terra Mystica (2012) Finally, a deep civ-building brain burner for non-combat oriented board gamers. The board and bits are as elegant as the game’s mechanisms, while variable set up and a raft of player powers guarantees oodles of replayability. This is a game I totally lose myself in and I can never believe a few hours have past when we get to the end. A euro gaming classic already.
  4. ticket_to_ride_boxTicket to Ride (2004) My go-to gateway game of choice; not only because it has a great new gamer conversion rate but also because I still find it fun after 100+ plays. It’s not big or clever, but nor does every game need to be. You can play with a few beers, while the inoffensive theme and familiar mechanisms (set collection, route building) make it highly accessible. The best gaming evangelism tool around.
  5. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) Some say gimmick, I say nonsense: the clever cog mechanism makes what would be a tedious, fiddly affair into a perfectly streamlined worker placement game. It’s tricky as hell, and always seems to end before you’ve quite got things going, but therein lies the challenge. And it’s gorgeous too, with a great theme and fantastic production values.
  6. The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) This was a close contender for best gateway game, especially as it has a fantastically fun ‘take-that’ mechanism built in and a great theme. Crazily chaotic with four, fun with three and surprisingly tactical with two, I’m always happy to get this to the table; what’s not to like about sacrificing your friend’s citizens to the volcano with dramatic howls and shrieks?
  7. Concordia (2013) This was my favourite game of last year by a distance; short snappy turns, lots of decisions to make and you’re involved throughout; in each other’s faces constantly, while keeping it non-confrontational. Exploration and hand management blend beautifully with resource management and deck building to show that there’s more to Mac Gerdts than the rondel.
  8. Copycat (2012) Easily the least likely title on the list, Copycat is one of only two games in my top 20 outside the BGG top 500. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but most people I’ve played with have been charmed by its combination of deck-building and worker placement. It takes some of the tight board tension of Agricola and the card track of Through the Ages, while distilling Dominion to its core.
  9. Through the Ages (2006) Easily the longest playing game in my top 10, a full game of Through the Ages is totally draining; and completely brilliant. It’s remarkable how designer Vlaada Chvatil has managed to make a totally convincing civ building game without a map – or even a board to speak of. But it works beautifully, as the ebb and flow takes you on an amazing journey every time.
  10. Merchant of Venus (1988) This may be the elder statesman of the top 20, but for me no game has come close to taking its sci-fi exploration and pick-up-and-deliver crown in 25 years of trying. Every game is different, with new route plotting puzzles to solve as the various races are revealed; while the luck of the dice throws in the perfect level of chaos if you’re willing to leave your trip in the lap of the gods.
  11. downfall_of_pompeii_boxNotre Dame (2007) While no designer has more games on my shelves, or on this list, Stefan Feld just failed to crack the top 10 (I’m sure he’ll be distraught). This was my first and is still my favourite, cleverly mixing action card drafting with worker placement and making almost every decision an agonising one. Simple to learn, quick to play, but packed with both tactical and strategic dilemmas.
  12. Ingenious (2004) This was one of the gems that got me back into the hobby and is still my favourite abstract game. A simple tile-laying game is taken to the next level with a simple yet clever scoring mechanism; your lowest score across six colours counts. This makes for a fascinating game of ‘where’s the tipping point?’ every time, as you try and pick the perfect time to flip from scoring to blocking.
  13. The Manhattan Project (2012) What could’ve been ‘just another euro’ initially shines thanks to a brilliant theme and art direction (both rules and components); but there’s a unique blend of mechanisms too. Not only can you really screw with people, but the unusual end game condition of first past the post really ratchets up the tension towards the end – which is perfect for a game about building ‘the bomb’.
  14. Snowdonia (2012) Another beauty from 2012, the ‘year of the euro’ for me. An original take on the train game theme sees you battling the game itself for points, let alone your opponents. Then there’s the damned weather, and that lazy worker in the pub – and should I bother buying a train? A great worker placement game that, despite playing differently every time, still never seems to go the way you want it to!
  15. Rosenkönig (1997) It’s old, it’s abstract and it’s ranked worse than 700th on BGG – but I love it. A tight two-player game that gives a clever spin to area majority, introducing card driven placement to a classic format. This means you can’t learn strategies, you can only react with tactics – a pleasant change for this style of game. The best thing to come out of the hours I’ve spent playing games at Yucata.de.
  16. Twilight Struggle (2005) This is the only game in my top 20 that I don’t own; something that will hopefully be rectified on my birthday (hint hint). I’ve only played twice, but have been blown away while feeling totally out of my depth. Simple card play and area majority influence are easy concepts; but the depth and theme on every card makes it fascinating. This will only go up on this list with more plays.
  17. Merchant of VenusCan’t Stop (1980) This is the first of several push-your-luck dice games on the list, with the old Sid Sackson classic still being my favourite of its kind. It really strikes at the essence of the genre; it’s a race against time, with all the odds out there in front of you to try and defy – and your friends there to screw over as you overtake them and claim each number as your own.
  18. Thebes (2007) There’s a mass of contradictions here: the theme is perfectly met, as in it’s a total luck fest whether you’ll find anything. And it seems no matter how much you may perfectly plan your moves, you can be scuppered by luck – so why is it still so much fun? Simple – because shouting “dirt dirt dirt!” as your opponents try and pull treasures from a bag is fun; and it has a very satisfying turn track mechanic.
  19. Stone Age (2008) While many now deride this worker placement euro game, I still love it. Sure, the luck of the dice seems a little out of place and the huge swingy scores aren’t in keeping with the genre. But I love the theme, love the stinky dice cup, love the tactical blocking – and yes, I love the dice. I much prefer it two-player, where the tactics really shine, but I’m always happy to play with any number.
  20. Pizza Box Football (2005) Some of my fondest childhood memories are of making up pen-and-paper football leagues and rolling dice to get results; primitive, but brilliant. This is a step up from that, but deep down it’s just a bunch of dice and guesswork and over excitement. Say what you want, but it just feels right; few games can absorb me like this one, and tell as many stories. There was this time…

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Ingenious board game 03Acquire (1963) The oldest game on the list and the second from the late great Sid Sackson. The definitive accessible economic/stocks game.
  • Basari (1998) An odd mix of simultaneous action selection, set collection, racing and negotiating; but somehow it works in this quick, fun little game.
  • Brass (2007) One of the heaviest brain burners on my list, this economic hand management/route-builder fascinates me. A heady mix of strategy and tactics.
  • The Castles of Burgundy (2011) A great tableau building game with a clever use of dice. Lots of decisions to make, but way less complex than it at first appears.
  • Endeavor (2009) I love how this clever area control/tableau building game gives you the feeling you’re exploring, despite being very abstracted.
  • Händler der Karibik (AKA Port Royal) (2013) A fabulous little 30-minute push-your-luck card game that sets up and packs down in two minutes.
  • Macao (2009) There’s so much going on in Macao I really don’t know where to start. Roll dice, draft cards, deliver goods, control areas, manage resources etc etc…
  • The Boss (2010) A small, cheap and quick card game which beautifully blends bluff and deduction. Agonising, but wholly satisfying too.
  • Tikal (1999) Area control and action point allocation as you explore the jungle. A game that’s clever, fun and beautifully illustrated.
  • Uruk (2008) The game that proves you can distil the essence of civ building into a small box card game that only lasts an hour.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • pickomino_boxBruges (2013) The classic Feld point salad meets chaotic tactical tableau building; and somehow he makes it work. A fun, quirky and random experience every time.
  • Hamburgum (2007) While this is the simplest of Mac Gerdts’ rondel games, there are still plenty of agonising decisions to be made in each quick round.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) A very divisive game, but I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp. It turns area majority on its head in a fascinating way.
  • Le Havre (2008) A fascinating ‘turn X into Y’ manufacturing game which nicely ramps up the decision space turn-by-turn.
  • Manila (2005) This is a very light bidding/racing game with some really clever ideas and a bunch of randomness; but not too much for its length.
  • Maori (2009) A seemingly simple tile-laying game that has something to offer for all ages and abilities; play simple, nasty, tactical, or strategic – or a mix of them all.
  • Nefertiti (2008) A bidding game, yes, but it feels like worker placement. And set collection. A unique and clever mix of common mechanisms.
  • Pickomino (2005) Pure push your luck ‘take that’ dice-based silliness. One of Zoe’s favourites, so automatically one of mine too.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) More push your luck, more dice, and another Zoe favourite; this time with a little more going on tactically.
  • Rialto (2013) The fifth and final Feld game on the list. Really interesting drafting/auction mechanisms blend beautifully with area control.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) An endlessly expandable tile-laying city builder with clever use of different currencies and area majority scoring.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) For a long time this was my go-to quick push-your-luck card game; but deposed by Händler der Karibik (above).
  • Arkham Horror (2005) A crazy, bloated, over-long co-op game where you spend your time going mad. But really great fun once a year or so.
  • Blueprints (2013) A clever puzzley deduction/dice game that everybody likes but nobody loves. A great filler for all-comers.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) If you’re enjoying adult beverages and want a very adult-themed and politically incorrect party game, look no further.
  • CV (2013) Takes the Yahtzee dice mechanism and makes a properly fun push-your-luck game that tells a great story every time. Light and accessible.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This classic ‘take-that’ board game is still a lot of fun today, although if I could only have one I’d choose Pompeii (above).
  • Power Grid (2004) This bidding/route building classic has a unique theme which initially seems dry, but inside the box lies a lovely, if tricksy, game.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) I love the combination of empire building and action selection here, which Race for the Galaxy (above) ‘borrowed’ and, for me, improved on.
  • Revolution! (2009) It’s stupid, chaotic, random and a little long, but I always enjoy this blind bidding/area majority game.

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