Europe Divided: Walking a euro/war game design tightrope

Blending elements across genres is an interesting route to take when searching for originality. But it can be difficult to get the balance right. I thought I’d talk a little about what David Thompson and I ended up with in Europe Divided; our upcoming post-Cold War euro/war game, which is currently on Kickstarter.

David is a fan of both war and euro games. With Europe Divided, he brought me on board a way down the design line. He knew I was big into euro games, so hoped I could give a little insight from a non-war game perspective. Check out the design diary for the full skinny; I just want to talk about the process of blending two genres into a cohesive whole. And which will hopefully keep fans of both genres happy!

What makes a war game

History, theme and simulation are words you’ll come across a lot in the war game field. In general a degree of historical accuracy is a must, which brings the theme with it. And simulation is similarly common, with anything from a squad battle to dogfight to complete battle or even way being recreated to varying levels of detail.

This naturally creates asymmetry, as war gamers tend to enjoy pitting themselves against relatively accurate historical scenarios with clear objectives. So you may find to ‘win’, a player needs to hold a position for X turns. They wouldn’t go on to win in the traditional sense, but that’s not the point. By holding on for this long, they equalled or did better than the real-life forces from history.

What makes a euro game

The euro gamer is a different beast. They’re looking for balanced play (although asymmetry is welcomed), and multiple paths to victory (rather than a set scenario). For this reason, themes tend to be ‘pasted on’, with players trying to solve the puzzle the game confronts them with on even terms. And they often prefer indirect conflict (such as denial/blocking of actions or areas) with no player elimination.

For this reason, euro players tend to much prefer input, rather than output, randomness; while many war gamers seem happy with both. Input randomness is where a random event happens, them players work out the best way to deal with it via set game mechanisms. Output randomness is where players set themselves up to do something; and then whether they succeed is determined randomly.

Europe Divided: For the war gamer…

for the average war gamer, I think (and hope) Europe Divided ticks most of the preferred boxes. David has been working as a Department of Defence Analyst throughout most of the period the game is set: 1992 to the present day. All the cards in the game are based on actual events and include historical flavour text. Players are simulating the ebb and flow of political influence and troop movements throughout the period, meaning the game is full of theme and has the feel of a political simulation.

There’s also asymmetry, with an eye on historic simulation. The EU/NATO player starts cash rich, but juggling a lot of countries (a large starting deck of cards) – many of which aren’t members of both organisations. So some cards can’t be used for certain actions (you can’t use the Sweden card to do a NATO action, for example) – while some countries are weak, clogging up your hand. On the flip side, Russia has less income and a poorer starting position – but its cards represent parts of the nation’s machine (the president, oil industry, media etc). It has a smaller deck of well-balanced cards, that refreshes rapidly – meaning it is more likely to be able to act quickly to achieve its goals.

…and the euro player

But fans of euro games will be pleased to hear both players have the same goal (the most victory points); which is achieved in the same way: making historical events happen at the right time, and by maintaining dominance over Eastern European countries at key points in the timeline. At the end of around half the 20 turns in a game, events (chosen by the players) will be checked – and points awarded to the relevant player if the conditions have been met. For example, the Russia player will score a point for ‘Cyberwarfare Waged on Estonia’ if – when checked – they have more influence in The Baltics than their opponent.

We worked hard to make the two sides feel different to play, while keeping a balance between the them overall. The EU/NATO player starts out strong but will often start to struggle as they try to keep so many plates spinning; while the Russia player can stabilise their poor starting position and come on strong later in the game. It’s all part of that puzzle euro players love: is it better to maximise your points, or deny points to your opponent? Do you spend big and try to overwhelm with military strength; or flood the board with influence to prepare for later conflicts?

And don’t be put off by all those dice! Their used to mark influence, not roll for attacks. The only real luck in the game is in the card draw (which usually works out in a balanced way by the end), while there’s no actual combat. Units placed will simply cancel each other out in locations. Sure, it’s conflict – but as a euro fan it feels like the kind of conflict I’m used to (abstracted and predictable). Finally, raising influence to complete goals will end up giving you the card for that country. This deck-building element will be familiar – but here, these cards tend to weaken your deck rather than enhance it; giving more weight to the decisions you take.

Europe Divided on Kickstarter

If Europe Divided sounds like it might be of interest, please check the game out now on Kickstarter (the campaign runs until June 26). Publisher Phalanx has done a fantastic job in terms of components and development, so I’m super excited ab out the final product. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them here.

Top 10 board games of all time 2019 (part 3 of the Top 50)

So here they are – my current Top 10 board games. After my 50-21 list, and the follow up 20-11, we’ve arrived at the big guns: Three Spiel des Jahres winners, 12 different designers, spanning four decades, with games lasting from 30 minutes to three hours. And for everyone from families to the dedicated hardcore gamers.

Links from the titles go direct to a full-length review elsewhere on my blog, if you want more details. And they should all be available from your local (or online) game store (such as Meeples’ Corner). I’ll follow up in the next couple of weeks with a geeky stats post, but for now here’s the Top 10. And no, I didn’t ‘forget’ your favourite game…

My Top 10 board games

10. Deus
(2-4 players, 90 minutes, Sebastien Dujardin, 2014)

Deus hits all the right euro buttons for me. It plays in 90 minutes You must pay close attention to your opponents, but without too much direct conflict. It’s a card game where hand management is key, but with luck cleverly mitigated. And it has card combos coming out the wazoo in a unique way (recently less cleverly, but more commercially viably, borrowed by Wingspan). There are multiple paths to victory, while the game can end in several different ways. While it can also end much quicker than you anticipate if you’re not paying attention. An expansion also gave it a new lease of life, making it a strong Top 10 contender.

9. Can’t Stop
(2-4 players, 30 minutes, Sid Sackson, 1980)

Can’t Stop is comfortably the oldest game on my list and from one of the hobby’s most revered designers (may he rest in peace). At heart it’s a simple probability-based push-your-luck dice exercise. But in practice it is so much more. It’s a game you can use to teach your children about maths – but equally you can play as a filler with any group of gamers. A new player can work out the rules by the time it is there turn, while it creates genuine stand-up moments of ‘ooohing’ and laughter. Will you risk rolling for the win and losing all your progress – or play it safe, knowing someone else may storm past to victory? Aah, the simple pleasures of games.

8. Terra Mystica
(2-5 players, 120-180 minutes, Drogemuller & Ostertag, 2012)

I’ve been told I’m going to love newer version Gaia Project. But for now, Terra Mystica is still a solid Top 10 game for me. My favourite heavier euro, the raft of asymmetric player races give it huge replayability. The action selection and board placement elements are standard but offer just enough interaction. While the upgrading of buildings and manipulation of magic for extra actions are a constantly enjoyable puzzle. While there’s a lot going on, the decision space doesn’t expand beyond what I can cope with. So pasted on fantasy theme aside, it’s one of the most satisfying kingdom building engine games out there.

7. Ra
(2-5 players, 60 minutes, Reiner Knizia, 1999)

For me, Ra is the king of auction games. The rules are extremely simple, as is the bidding: once around, bidding with a single bidding chip (each has a different value, so there an no draws). You can make small, safe gains or go for a bigger jackpot – game show style – where you risk getting nothing. And it is all bound up with a simple, elegant but brilliant scoring system. Which you’d expect from the master of such things, Reiner Knizia. The theme is meaningless but gives the components a nice style. It’s simple enough anyone can play, but it’s not about mastering it – it’s about working out what your friends are going to do. And how far you can push them, and your luck.

6. Azul
(2-4 players, 45 minutes, Michael Kiesling, 2017)

The newest game here, Azul already has a list of awards so long it’s embarrassing. And it thoroughly deserves them too. This beautifully produced abstract family game doesn’t really do anything new. But somehow, it’s so satisfying that it doesn’t need to. Would it have been such a hit if it hadn’t been so tactile and gorgeous? Who knows? But the game play sings too: choose tiles to create sets and score points – but just as importantly, be sure not to be left sets you can’t use. Like all great family games, the rules get out the way fast – but after a few plays, a second level of strategy and tactics begins to reveal itself. Recommended for all.

5. Ticket to Ride
(2-6 players, 60 minutes, Alan Moon, 2004)

This has fallen out of favour with many ‘gamers’, who often flick their nose at it. But for me, pound for pound, it is the best gateway game on the market. And it’s still my go-to game to introduce new people to the hobby. Simple card set collection is bolted onto a beautifully drawn route building train map. The theme is thin, but it works. And while the original map is probably the worst, the mass of expansions keeps the game fresh by taking it in lots of directions. Interaction comes via blocking, which is often accidental; which means even the best player can come unstuck against a rookie with some bad luck. And at around an hour, it’s just the right length for the family market.

4. Terraforming Mars
(1-5 players, 120-180 minutes, Jacob Fryxelius, 2016)

It’s hard to fathom how Terraforming Mars works at all. Its ridiculous stack of cards gives an infeasible number of combos, while the layers of competing engine currencies surely can’t be properly balanced. Can they? But somehow it all hangs together. The theme works too, as you compete to raise the red planet’s temperature while creating water and atmosphere. Needing to do all three to end the game gives a lovely ebb and flow, and you must keep eyes on your opponents (in an otherwise largely multiplayer solitaire game). Essentially it’s a longer version of a game higher on the list, but different enough to warrant being this high up on its own merits.

3. Thurn and Taxis
(2-4 players, 60 minutes, Karen & Andreas Seyfarth, 2006)

While Ticket to Ride holds my gateway game crown, Thurn and Taxis has risen to become my favourite family game. It’s a little beige and dry to win new fans to the genre. But has just enough extra depth in decisions to keep gamers on side; while having simple enough rules to teach newcomers. As with TtR you’re building routes (this time postal ones in renaissance Germany. Fun…). And there’s still a healthy slice of luck, which is fine in a one-hour game. Plus you have that mix of trying for a quick victory, versus going for big, but riskily slower points. And the twist? Trying to continue building a long route when you know you’ll lose the whole thing if the right cards don’t turn up. In a game with tight scoring, those extra few points for building a longer route can make all the difference.

2. Oracle of Delphi
(2-4 players, 90 minutes, Stefan Feld, 2016)

I surprised myself putting this so high on the list, but I love it. I’ve been a fan of Stefan Feld’s designs for many years, but for me they tend to stall on interaction: some go too far (Bruges), some not far enough (most of them lol). Delphi takes his usual euro efficiency tropes and puts them into a race format, which has a subtle yet brilliant effect on interaction. You all have to do the same things – but with the same, dwindling supply of resources. While the Greek god theme is pretty much pasted on it gives the game vibrancy and colour, as you race around the board trying to complete your tasks. And again, while you can be screwed by luck its short enough not to worry about it (especially the eight-task short version).

1. Race for the Galaxy
(2-4 players, 30-60 minutes, Tom Lehmann, 2007)

In a decision that will shock no one, Race for the Galaxy is still top of the pile. It has been since I started this in 2014 and, nearing 300 plays, has almost twice the table time of anything else. Race is a fast-playing space-themed card game where you build an engine/tableau of planets and technology in a race to score points. You’re at the mercy of random card draws and have to pay for most cards you want to add with others from your hand – creating deliciously tough choices. There are multiple routes to victory and several ways for the game to end, but it lacks a little in interaction. And its myriad card symbols make for a tough initial learning curve. But more than any other game, the time spent learning it is totally worth the effort. While I don’t play as much as I used to, I always enjoy my plays. And despite loving all the games in my Top 50, putting this at number one was the easiest choice of them all when putting everything in order.

The Romans board game: A four-sided game review

The Romans board game is the latest release from the legendary Ragnar Brothers, a distinctly British design studio that has been putting out games for more than 25 years.

This is a worker placement euro with some interesting twists and ideas, but you’re in for the long haul. It’ll take 1-4 experienced gamers around 2-4 hours to play.

In the box you’ll find four very large player boards (18×12 inches), a long cloth central ‘board’, around 30 oversized cards, more than 100 wooden cubes/pieces, a tree’s worth of cardboard chits and three dice. The cloth array is a full three feet in length, which annoyingly didn’t quite fit width-wise on my gaming table. It’s quite the table hog, but with a bit of faff we got a four-player game squeezed on. And at less than £40 it represents good value for money.

The cartoony artwork isn’t going to suit everyone, but I like it. It invoked Asterix, which is always a good thing. But don’t let the cartoon style fool you – there’s some proper history going on in terms of locations, names and game flow. You’ll be playing through Roman history as the empire rose and fell. Just how hard each player falls is going to be down to how well they play, with a little ‘help’ from those damned dice…

Teaching The Romans board game

The basics of The Romans are relatively straightforward: place workers (‘senators’), complete tasks, earn victory points. But it’s the way you expand your empires, and especially combat, where the game starts to tread a path of its own. A game lasts five rounds (‘eras’) which are separated into two main phases: Roman expansion and the enemy’s response. Players use senators to take actions, then send generals to war; before the game gets to have a go at biting you in the ass.

Players start with four senators, one each of rank 1-4. Better senators can potentially do actions more effectively. There’s an action space on your player board you can use as much as you like (which basically generates cash). The rest you compete for on the main board (cloth mat). While each player can use each action area once per era, the quality of senator used impacts how effectively. If a ‘4’ spot is taken, you can only take a lesser version of that action – even if you have a level 4 senator to use.

There are five action spaces initially, plus a new one opens each era. The basic ones gain you troops, resources and buildings; and allow you to ‘level up’ your senators or use the powers of the gods (more on those later). Later actions are randomly drawn, but either give better options for standard actions or ways to earn victory points (plus new senators, expanding your options in later rounds). Your final choice is to flip a senator over, making him a general, and send him off to war…

If you wish for peace, prepare for war

Each player board has a similar, yet subtly different map of the areas conquered by the Romans. In what The Ragnars describe as ‘quantum game design’, each player has their own game board depicting the same period of time happening in slightly parallel universes. But you don’t need to worry about that science nonsense. The important thing is it’s a very clever system and it works surprisingly well.

Each round a random dice roll tells each player which region they will score bonus points for if they carry out actions there (either defeating it, or bolstering it if already conquered). In addition there are three regions at the edges of the board that give end-game victory point tiles if defeated – with the player defeating each of the regions first getting the largest choice of bonus tiles.

All players start with a garrison in Latium, in the centre of their board’s Italy – but have another 20 regions to potentially conquer. You can place a general and some troops in any region adjacent to one you control and use as many senators as generals as you like (as long as you have the troops to go with them). Once everyone has used all their senators, it’s time to do head off to battle.

At the start of the game, players seed all their regions with face-down tokens depicting the poor put-upon locals. Simultaneously, players now flip the token for an area they’re invading and work out the strengths of the two forces. The better the senator turned general, the more attack bonus you receive – while each legion adds a point too. So you can overload battles if you don’t want to worry too much about lady luck.

One roll to rule them all

One of the game’s refreshing mechanisms is one player now roles two dice, one for the Romans and one for the locals – and that one dice roll affects all players’ battles at once. So if I had a 2-1 starting advantage and you a 2-1 disadvantage, and the role was two threes, I would win my battle – but you would lose. My troops would leave a garrison behind and move to the next battle (Risk style) – flipping the next token in the next region. You would lose a legion, but if you had any remaining would try again. Again, the dice would be rolled – and again the roll would affect each of our battles.

Different regions will give different players the potential for victory points, resources or both. But no matter how far your forces spread, the game now gets its turn to hit back. Enemy attacks work in the same way, spreading across your board to undo your hard work with the same ‘one-roll-fits-all’ battle mechanism. Here’s where buildings you got in the action phase can payoff, with cities, forts and walls bolstering defences. After five rounds of this (and the usual adding up of in-game and end-game victory points) the player with the most points can laud it over the other Caesars.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: There’s a lot to The Romans. Fleets help troops cross the map but can be sunk in storms. Controlling Italy lets you call on gods, doing strong actions with weak senators and earning big rewards. You can tax regions, causing unrest – which lets enemy attacks sweep through your defences if you get unlucky. It’s fiddly, and luck can hose you. But despite the layers the rules do their best to get out of the way, making for a smooth (if Ameritrashy) euro experience.
  • The thinker: Turn order is dictated by victory points and affects two parts of each era: choosing a general and an enemy. A poor general means weak armies or low funds, while an enemy hitting you from the wrong place can be devastating. Having the lowest victory points can be a big advantage as you pick first. So, as in Power Grid, surging ahead late after being just a little behind is the way to go. This adds more depth to in-game decisions meaning that, while more tactical than strategic, I enjoyed it immensely.
  • The trasher: While there isn’t direct interaction in The Romans, there’s enough to keep me interested. The order you take actions can have an impact, so assessing what other need is part of planning. It’s the same choosing which enemy to face. If I can leave an enemy for you who’ll head straight to your capital and potentially cost you big points, that’s going to happen! And I love the battle system: one roll, the same consequences for all. Simple and effective. In a game that is a little solitaire, it brings you all together.
  • The dabbler: I took one look and backed away. The cartoony art is OK, but the font makes things hard to read and some of the cardboard chits are super small and fiddly. And three hours? No thanks! It was the right decision: the rules explanation was at least 30 minutes long. Not for the faint of heart…

Key observations

The Romans board game is great for solo play. Very little changes from the multi player game, with ‘the enemy’ (a dummy player) scoring points in a quick and easy process. As well as trying to get your high score, even just beating the enemy can prove tricky depending on your dice rolls. Otherwise, it plays well at all player counts with only table space and game length being potential issues.

The art style isn’t going to win everyone over. While font choices and size of the main cloth board (plus player boards) are also potential barriers to entry. Players will need to get on board, which is going to rely on the enthusiasm of others (me included!) to get people to the table. Hopefully it will have enough fans to spread the word.

You’re either going to love the luck factor in The Romans, or you’re going to hate it. Old school war game elements such as rolling dice to alter battles are pretty crude but having the one roll affect everyone cleverly sidesteps the issues. It’s up to you if you want to load up on the attacking side, moving the luck factor out of the equation. However defensively you’re very limited, as you can only get to a maximum of four defensive strength in any region. But again, that applies to everyone.

Similarly, the fiddliness is going to annoy some and enthuse others. But with a target audience of thematic, war and long euro gamers I can’t see it being a problem. But player aids, as always, would’ve been a very handy addition. Can’t we pass some sort of gaming law that they’re put into every game?

Conclusion: The Romans board game

I’m not usually a fan of Ameritrash factors in games, where the luck of the dice happens after you’ve made the thinky decisions. Nor am I usually a fan of long games or swayed by theme over form. But despite all that, The Romans totally won me over and will be staying in my collection. No, it won’t be played on a weekly basis. But with certain friends, and especially at cons, I can see this being a long-standing favourite.

For 150+ more like this, visit my board game reviews page.

* I would like to thank The Ragnar Brothers for providing a copy of the game for review.

Top 50 board games of all time 2019 (part 2: 20-11)

So here it is – part 2 of my Top 50 board games. This was meant to be the whole Top 20, but I’m already past 1,000 words. And with other gaming commitments this week (namely the arrival of a test copy of Europe Divided, plus a review I need to put live before UK Games Expo) I thought posting this as-is was the best plan.

I’ll do the top 10 in the next few weeks, followed by a nerdy stats post for anyone wanting more info on that kind of thing. But for now I’m just going straight into the games that very nearly made it into my Top 10 games of all time (links on titles go to reviews I’ve written on this site). Drum roll please…

Top 50 board games: 20-11

20. Adios Calavera
(2-3 players, 20 minutes, Martin Schlegel, 2017)

A quite brilliant two-player abstract game, with an expansion that now takes it up to three players (almost equally successfully). Surprisingly it has quite a lot of variety for this kind of game, with each piece having a special ability – but you don’t use them all each game (unless you choose to). The clever bit is that its a race to get your pieces off the board. They cross in the middle of the board, but you play at right-angles to each other. Movement distance is worked out by adding up all pieces in your row, or column, depending where you’re sitting – so every move you make affects both players differently. Simple, elegant and great fun – as well as quick and in a small box.

19. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilisation
(2-4 players, 180 mins, Vlaada Chvatil, 2015)

This is still, for me, the best civ-style game out there. It is at both the long and heavier ends of the gaming scale. And it can be punishing, with the only real catch-up mechanism being other players taking pity and leaving you alone! But if you want to dip into the pool of heavy euro games, this is a great place to start. This second edition improves the smoothness of play from the 2006 original, while the balancing of military tactics was also a welcomed improvement. You still can’t ignore military, so the game is not for the faint of heart – but surely you’d expect nothing less from a civ game? And all this achieved with individual player card tableaus and no central map board.

18. Twilight Struggle
(2 players, 120-180 mins, Gupta & Matthews, 2005)

I don’t like the dice randomness of traditional war games, but love this. While it has randomness (which can still be hugely significant), it works much better for me within this largely card-based system. Ranked the number one war game at Board Game Geek, Twilight Struggle brilliantly represents the push and pull of the Cold War. Cards represent actual events from the end of the Second World War right up to 1989. And as either Russia or the USA, you play cards (and roll a few dice) to swing your influence in each continent in your favour at crucial times. A small downside: as with Though the Ages above, you really need to play with players at your level of experience/ability.

17. Caverna: The Cave Farmers
(2-5* players, 120-180 mins, Uwe Rosenberg, 2013)

Alongside spiritual farm sim predecessor Agricola, this is near the peak of worker placement games – one of my favourite mechanisms. Caverna is the more open and forgiving of the two, moving the bulk of strategic decisions away from the initial card draw of Agricola. This allows players to build a tableau as they like, before picking specialist buildings to power their point-scoring/resource gathering engines. It makes for a worse solo experience, but while I love both games I find this openness more appealing. But both are truly classic games. (* The box says 1-7 players. Personally, I wouldn’t go outside 2-4.)

16. Yokohama
(2-4 players, 90 mins, Hisashi Hayashi, 2016)

This is one of the euro games that has most impressed me over the past couple of years. It takes worker placement/movement ideas seen in Istanbul but expands them into a meatier, more satisfying experience. And one which genuinely has several paths to victory. The modular board makes the game feel equally enjoyable at each player count while adding variety. It’s another nice puzzle, with your opponents’ strategies directly impacting on your tactics – if not in a fighty way. And the game end can really sneak up on you, meaning a game plan that worked for you last time out may be a disaster next. A little shonky looking, but well worth a punt.

15. Bora Bora
(2-4 players, 90 mins, Stefan Feld, 2013)

Yes, it’s another Feld euro game with a pasted-on theme – this time a random South Pacific island. And yes, it’s from his love-it-or-hate-it point salad period. But this one stands out for me for two reasons. First, the way dice are used for actions is simple yet clever and forces you into some tricky decisions. Second, as the game goes on, you’re also forced to abandon certain ways to score end game points. Both these elements add subtle tensions, which is crucial in a game with little direct interaction. While some are critical of the colour pallet, I personally love the ocean-inspired blues and greens and overall feel of the artwork.

14. Concordia
(2-5 players, 90 mins, Mac Gerdts, 2013)

Mac Gerdts. The king of rondel games, one of my favourite mechanisms. But he left the rondel behind to make a card action-based euro. Heresy! So, no one was more surprised to find it becoming my favourite of his games. The key was, it kept his other trademarks: namely snappy, simple actions and a tight framework in which efficiency is the key to success. While the Roman theme is pretty much pasted on it works well, while the simple but stylish components complicate the game’s mechanical elegance. It has only been enhanced by subsequent expansions and remains one of the best euro games on the market.

13. Ingenious
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Reiner Knizia, 2004)

Breaking the string of euro games comes is this simple abstract game. But don’t be fooled by its mass market appearance: behind an incredibly simple rule set is a clever, thinky game. As so often with Knizia games, the trick is in the scoring. You’re trying to get high scores in six colours by placing domino-style pieces on the board; but your weakest colour will end up being your final score. It gives the game a terrific tipping point, where you go from point accumulation to desperately defending or trying to bolster your weakest colour. Spotting the time is right is the key to a brilliant game.

12. Downfall of Pompeii
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, 2004)

There are some terrific family games out there. And for me this is one of the best. Why? You get to throw your friend’s game pieces into a volcano. Sold! The game has two distinct phases: first, you populate the Roman city with citizens (trying to place as many as possible in the safest looking buildings). Then, the lava begins to flow (by placing tiles on the board) and you try and get your people to he exits. It’s take-that done right – as in you’re all forced to do it, so it doesn’t feel like you’re picking on people. At two players its a great tactical battle, while three makes it more random and four just gets silly – but is still tremendous fun.

11. Codenames & Codenames Duet
(4-8/2 players, 60 mins, Vlaada Chvatil, 2015/2017)

Several contenders to its crown have appeared in recent years. But for me, Codenames is still the best pound-for-pound word game out there. And to think it’s from the same designer as Through the Ages – the chunkiest game on my list! There are now versions to suit any audience, but between the standard 4-8 player team version and the brilliant two-player ‘Duet’ edition it has all bases covered. The basic premise is finding a single word that ties several other words (in a 5×5 grid) together. The twist: only some of the words are for your team, and only the two team clue-givers know which ones. A fantastic family game.

Top 50 board games of all time 2019 (part 1: 50-21)

I’ve been posting my Top 50 board games here since 2014. But rather than writing it as one ridiculously long post this time, I’m breaking it into several. There’s a big mix. The majority are light to medium weight euro games. But you’ll also find a good selection of family/gateway games, abstract games, dice games, filler games. There’s even token word and dexterity games (but no miniatures or party games).

These are the games outside my Top 20, but let’s put that in context. I’ve owned more than 300 titles and played more than 800. If you add those I’ve demoed or played online, it’s well over 1,000. So being in the top 50 – the top 5% – is commendable. I list these in batches of 10, then by alphabetical order. Because while I enjoy making the list, spending time deciding between 46th and 47th feels arbitrary. You could make a strong argument this whole thing is. But hey, I’m enjoying myself! So here we go…

(All linked game titles go to full reviews elsewhere on this website. ‘New!’ means new to my list, so can include old games I’ve recently discovered)

Top 50 board games: 41-50

  • 6 Nimmt/X Nimmt
    (1994/2016, 4-10/2-4 players, 20-40 mins) These clever yet simple traditional card games share a berth. You could teach them to your gran, they seem crazily luck-based, but better players win most of the time. A small drop this year, as I’ve not managed to play much.
  • NEW! 1906 San Francisco
    (2018, 2-4, 60 mins) A solid family/light euro game in a box the size of a paperback book. It’s clever, replayable and packs way more game into the box than any of that ‘tiny epic’ nonsense. A great gamer option for trips where you’ll have a good table, but have to pack light.
  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-5, 60 mins) Classic set collection and tile-laying fun, with majority scoring to keep it competitive. A bunch of mini expansions have kept it fresh since its Spiel des Jahres win more than 15 years ago. Good for families who want a next step up in puzzley abstract games.
  • NEW! Balloon Cup
    (2003, 2, 30 mins) An excellent abstract two-player hand management/set collection card game. Simple rules and tactical card play make it accessible, with just enough hidden depth to stay interesting over time. May be easier to find as ugly day-glow reissue, Pinata.
  • Divinare
    (2012, 2-4, 30 mins) Wickedly mind-bending card game of bluff, deduction and hand management. Pass cards, try and remember what you passed, blindly guess what others may have and end up in a muddle. But somehow it is gloriously good fun. Held its place this year.
  • For Sale
    (1997, 3-6, 30 mins) The only title in this section I haven’t played in 18 months, but deserves to hold its place. A fun filler card game that works best at five or six players. Bid for properties in the first half of the game, then blind-bid sell them on in the second. Simple but fun.
  • The Manhattan Project
    (2012, 2-5, 120 mins) Another drop for this worker placement euro game. I love the tension, which nicely matches the theme. And it is still original/quirky enough to stand out versus more recent competition. I just need to get it to the table more often.
  • NEW! Orbital
    (2018, 2-4, 60 mins). This city building tile-layer will be a little too dry and abstract for some. Its myriad scoring paths take it beyond simpler games in the genre, while the tile-buying mechanism is tight and competitive.
  • Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
    (2012, 2-4, 90 mins) This was the game closest to the cut. Without a play since 2017, it’s hard to justify its inclusion – but I put it down to who I play with right now. Note to self: get some new euro gamer friends! A satisfying, puzzley headache of set collection and worker placement.
  • Thebes
    (2007, 2-4, 60 mins) There’s a lot of luck in this family board game, but it perfectly suits the archaeology theme. There are clever mechanisms at play behind the scenes. But it’s all about shouting “dirt dirt dirt!” as your opponents sift through treasure bags fishing for rewards.

Top 50: 31-40

  • Basari: The Card Game
    (2014, 3-5, 30 mins) Either in board or card game form, this clever, cutthroat little bluffing card game is a real winner with the right crowd. Simultaneous action selection and negotiation-via-bidding sees you vying for the most valuable jewels.
  • NEW! Crown of Emara
    (2018, 1-4, 90 mins) Talk about ticking all my boxes: a double rondel worker placement game powered by action selection via card programming. A mess of mechanisms that somehow works, creating a smart and competitive puzzler.
  • Decathlon
    (2003, 1-4, 45 mins) Reiner Knizia’s take on Yahtzee, influenced by the various events of the Olympic sport. A smart push-your-luck dice game which is not only fun, but free – grab a few basic dice and download the rules for nothing here.
  • Kingdom Builder
    (2011, 2-4, 45 mins) The sign of a great designer: reverse/mess with a traditional concept and make it work. Here, you get one card each round and have to play it – yet it manages to open up a large, fascinating decision space. clever and fun.
  • Kingdomino
    (2016, 2-4, 45 mins) A brilliant family game. Around £20, lovely artwork and simple rules. It introduces gamer concepts (drafting, tile placement, pattern building) via a pretty dominoes system – what more do you want in this field?
  • NEW! Kupferkessel Co
    (2001, 2, 30 mins) A now sadly rare two-player set collection game with a light memory element and some minor screwage. It’s the forerunner to Maori, using a similar tile grid, and should appeal to those who enjoy it. Speaking of which…
  • Maori
    (2009, 2-5, 30 mins) This family tile-layer has fallen out of favour at home, as Sarah has totally flipped on it in terms of enjoyment (rumours of her win rate plummeting are unconfirmed…). A shame, as I still really enjoy playing.
  • Navegador
    (2010, 2-5, 90 mins) This is another game that has fallen down the list, largely because it is clearly best at four players – restricting the times it will get played dramatically. But still a brilliant rondel-based economic euro game.
  • Pizza Box Football
    (2005, 2, 90 mins) While this is a throwback to olden day game design, this stupidly random dice-chucker manages to emulate American football in all the right ways. It’s not big or clever, but is tremendously fun to play.
  • Snowdonia
    (2012, 1-5, 90 mins) A reminder I need to get this to the table. A tight, competitive worker placement game where even the game is against you. The clever weather system sets a variable timer on proceedings, adding an extra tactical dimension.

Top 50: 21-30

  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4, 30 mins) It’s testament to this game’s replayability and longevity that, almost 50 plays in, this small box card game is still a go-to after 10 years in my collection. Set collection, but with a couple of glorious thematic twists.
  • NEW! Gnomopolis
    (2018, 2-4, 60 mins) Sadly overlooked last Essen, this smart little worker placement engine builder owes a lot to games such as Race for the Galaxy and San Juan; but the worker upgrading and housing makes it stand up on its own.
  • Macao
    (2009, 2-4, 120 mins) Feld’s Macao needs a little too much luck to be one of his true classics, but I love it despite its flaws. Big risks can lead to big rewards in this dice-driven euro – but surely that’s thematic in the golden age of shipping exports?
  • Merchant of Venus
    (1988, 1-6, 120+ mins) Much as with Pizza Box Football above, MoV scratches a gamer itch from days gone by: spaceships, dice and trading with crazy alien races. But the game is intelligent too, with a clever route-building mechanism.
  • Notre Dame
    (2007, 2-5, 60 mins) A classic Feld euro game of its decade: underneath the beige, abstractly historic hood is a tight, fast playing card drafting board game packed with interesting and passively interactive decisions.
  • Patchwork
    (2014, 2, 30 mins) I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the spate of polyomino inspired games that have sprung up over the past five years or so, but this one still stands out. It’s pure and simple, gorgeous looking, while having several layers of strategy.
  • Rosenkonig
    (1992, 2, 30 mins) This is a classic one-versus-one area control abstract, but I like it because it adds just enough random to the mix. You can only move as your cards allow, but they’re all public knowledge; keeping strategic thinking to the fore.
  • NEW! Tales of Glory
    (2018, 2-5, 60 mins) The first game on the list I don’t own – but it’s a matter of time. It has a great mix of drafting and tile-laying, adding puzzle elements to a strong mix of strategy and tactics – all in a cute fantasy theme.
  • Tumblin’ Dice
    (2004, 2-4, 45 mins) To the second, and last, game on the Top 50 I don’t own. I have a blast every time I play this darts-meets-dice flicking game – but it’s a bugger to find in the UK, and too heavy to import. One day…
  • Yspahan
    (2006, 2-4, 60 mins) Back in classic euro land, this colourful dice-chucking area control game rounds off this week’s list. Simple rules yet deep decisions, with some player interaction and different paths – all in a short playing time.