Online board game mini reviews: Beyond the Sun, Caravan, City of the Big Shoulders, Happy City & Railroad Ink

Despite plenty of progress with the COVID-19 vaccines, a lot of board gaming is still having to happen online. And luckily, thanks (I expect) to the recent purchase by Asmodee, website Board Game Arena (BGA) is adding new board games by the bucket load. The majority are free to play too, so why not check them out?

All the games below are ones I’ve only played online at BGA, so please take that into consideration when judging my ramblings. If you’ve not used the site before, after a simple signup process you either choose a game and invite friends or join a game with some randoms. There are loads of games and also options for play, such as live (where you may have just a few minutes to make each move) and turn-based (which can be as slack as a single move per few days). The games are also scripted, meaning you can’t cheat or make any rules errors (unlike sites such as Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator).

But all these games are available in ‘real life’ to. So if you take the next step and go for a physical purchase, why not check where to get the best value by clicking through to Board Game Prices? If enough people do so over the next few years, the mahoosive kickbacks I’ll get will probably earn me a Twix. But every little helps.

* All images below are screen grabs from board Game Arena.

Beyond the Sun (2020, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours, ages 12+)

Until a few years back, spreadsheets were just for work. But not any more. I gave a positive review to the rather clever Dawn of Mankind a little while back. Beyond the Sun can be viewed as its much more serious big (box) brother. A longer playing time, more stuff, and a step up in complexity. You’re still using workers to open up higher levels of a technology tree (read: spreadsheet). But here you have the added level of using the technologies you uncover to help you colonise planets for extra benefits (and, of course, victory points).

On the plus side, everything works and comes together nicely. And there’s a surprising amount of passive interaction as you chase to be first to colonise planets and gain extra benefits. But, to coin a phrase, it’s also dry as a witch’s tit. Even during my first game I was struggling to get excited by the play. Everything looks so bland, which certainly doesn’t help. And despite the clear cleverness in the deign, it doesn’t stop there being a relatively small amount of real options. Its much more about doing those things efficiently. So, not for me – but it has been very well received by the ‘serious’ gamer community.

Caravan (2019, 2-4 players, 1 hour, ages 10+)

Near the other end of the scale we have Caravan. This is a family level abstract game with a simple rule set. But once you get going, you start to see the tactical depth on offer is more than initially meets the eye. It’s one of the most Reina Knizia games I’ve played that he didn’t design himself (it’s from Joe Huber). Move camels, transport cubes, score points. Simple. But getting them from A to B isn’t as easy as it sounds. You rarely have enough camels to get a cube to its destination in one move. But once it has started its journey, it becomes vulnerable to thieves (read: the other players).

But don’t be put off if you don’t like interaction. Because once someone steals, they can’t steal again until someone takes from them. As you hand the person you stole from your one thievery token when you take something – a simple system that works brilliantly. Some cubes look worthless early on. But each time the board is restocked, a victory point is placed on those that were ignored. So even the worst options soon change into more tempting ones. If you like route building in your abstract games, Caravan is well worth a look.

City of the Big Shoulders (2019, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours, ages 14+)

Back in the world of heavy euro games we have City of the Big Shoulders. This is an engine building and stock manipulation game , where you choose actions to gain resources and then build/run factories. The goods you produce are then sold off to grow the value of the businesses – unless you decide instead to cram the profits off the top for yourself and tank the company a bit instead. Between rounds you an all buy and sell shares in everyone’s companies, spicing up your decisions significantly. If you like stocks games that run long (a good few hours), then is definitely worth checking out.

I enjoyed my City of the Big Shoulders plays significantly more than those of Beyond the Sun. Sure, it’s boring beige rather than sci-fi spreadsheet looking. But I like running my own little engine and the stock buying/selling made you genuinely think twice about what to do. But sadly the extra hour of play time left me coming to a similar conclusion in the long run. By the end of each game I just felt tired, as if anything it seemed to get less interesting near the end of each play. And it has one of my big board game bugbears: random cards/spaces that do exactly the same thing but have different point/cash values. Who thinks that’s a good idea in a game such as this? A real amateur move in my books.

Happy City (2021, 2-5 players, 30 mins, ages 8+)

And back we flip to family games. Happy City is a cute, colourful and (relatively) simple tableau building game. On a turn you flip over some cards (into a shared market) and then buy one. Buildings variously reward you with income and victory points, or sometimes negatives. While buying enough of different types of building allows you to buy one of the special building on offer (as a bonus action). Once someone has 10 buildings (which doesn’t take long), it’s all over.

Happy City is a nice intro game if you want to teach new players about tableau building, before moving on to more complex games such as Race for the Galaxy. But the options available each turn are very limited and you can be badly hampered by poor luck of the draw. The options of different buildings are also very limited, so we found our interest in the game waned very quickly indeed. But equally it all works and we clearly weren’t the target audience. So as a cute entry level game, especially for kids, I’d comfortable recommend it.

Railroad Ink (2018, 1-12 players on BGA (1-6 in the box), 30 mins, ages 8+)

There’s a certain joy to playing a roll-and-write game online. If you do the wrong thing you haven’t ruined your sheet. While players with an art degree can’t slow everything down while showing off their ‘talents’. Railroad Ink has the added bonus of being one of the best examples of the genre out there, too. The rules are simple. Each round, four dice are rolled. All players choose one of them and copy the symbol rolled onto their sheet. This continues until everyone has filled in about two-thirds of their sheet, with the aim of connecting roads and train tracks across the board.

Railroad Ink is the kind of game I’m always happy to play. You just noodle away doing your own thing and hope the right symbols come up when you need to bring your network together near the end of the game. There are a few extra freebies you can add to your sheet to make things work. But generally there’s a lot of luck – and worse, zero interaction. Which means I’ll always reach towards an alternative (That’s Pretty Clever, Dizzle etc) before choosing this one. And online (and with a train theme) I’d choose the much more interactive Steamrollers (over on Yucata) every time. So for me it’s close, but no cigar.

Mariposas board game: A four-sided review

The Mariposas board game is a family/gateway game for two to five players that takes about an hour to play. It’s listed for ages 14+ presumably to cut costs (it’s expensive to get games certified safe for kids). I’d expect brighter gamer kids aged eight plus to be fine.

The game has been lovingly designed around its migrating butterflies theme, but it’s still a largely abstract gateway/advanced family game. Mariposas is all about movement and set collection, with players moving and hatching more butterflies to meet a variety of in- and endgame scoring conditions. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.

This is a big box game with a large board, but in truth not an awful lot of components. five handy plastic containers hold 120+ cardboard tokens. Plus there are 120 small cards, 20 oversized ones, 50 wooden butterfly tokens, a custom dice and a few other wooden/cardboard bits and bobs. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for less than £40. For what you get in the box, this feels pretty good value. But did it need to be this big? That’s another matter entirely.

Teaching Mariposas

The Mariposas board game is played over three seasons lasting four, five and six rounds respectively. On each of your 15 turns you’ll play a movement card, move one/several butterflies, collect flower tokens/bonus cards, and sometimes hatch another butterfly.

The board is an abstract map of North America, from Texas east to the coast and heading north as far as Winnipeg and Quebec. Or, the migration trail for the monarch butterfly. Sixteen are Waystation (city) spaces, with the rest (100 or so) showing one of five flower types. To move, you play one of your two movement cards (drawing a new one to end your turn). While largely similar, examples include moving one butterfly five spaces (so you get one pickup), or three one space each (so less distance but more stuff).

If you land on a flower space, you take a matching flower token (more on those later). City spaces instead give you a bonus card. There are 16 different bonuses, and they’re secret until a player flips one over and takes the reward. The first player to flip each also gets a random bonus flower. But this revealed where a certain item is – potentially crucial, as one way to score is by set collection via these bonus cards.

Butterflies of love

Some spaces also border a ‘hatching icon’. At these you can initially add a ‘level 2’ butterfly on the same space with your starting ‘level 1’. As you progress, you can claim pieces up to ‘level 4’ (everyone starts with 10 butterflies). And after that, evolve them again to make them twice as valuable for scoring purposes. At the end of seasons one and two, the lowest level butterflies are removed from the board. It’s the circle of life and all that.

The main part of the game is in the scoring. Or more accurately, moving to the right places to take advantage of scoring opportunities. You’ve got two strategic options: set collection and ‘getting home’. Set collection involves visiting as many cities as possible to collect cards and bonuses. Getting home means getting upgraded level 4 butterflies back to the start space before the game ends. You can do a bit of both, or lean more towards one or other.

What spices things up are three ‘season’ cards. One is always in play, and they’re slowly revealed (so you can plan a bit) as the game goes in. These largely give points for being, or breeding, (or not) in certain places at the end of/during each season. This helps the theme stay on track, but also gives players tactical headaches as they try to balance these tempting side points with their main goals. Most points wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I had a lot of fun initially exploring the Mariposas board game. The hatching mechanism works nicely and gives you a few decisions, while there are three clear routes for points. The theme is nicely integrated, the artwork pleasant and the rules simple. However, once you’ve explored these things over four or five plays, there’s little to bring a gamer (with no interest in the theme) back to the table. But I’d happily play any time.
  • The thinker: There’s nothing here for me. The strategies available are incredibly basic and clear from game one. Movement cards seem to make little to no difference, as you can always get what you want – you may just have to wait a turn. The way the board slowly reveals itself gives a nice tactical element. But that’s not enough to hold my interest.
  • The trasher: I can’t think of many titles that have less interaction than the Mariposas board game. However, it has its moments tactically. The revealing of location cards can be of key importance if one of more players are looking for sets. So you may need to leave butterflies in strategic places just in case something useful is revealed. But that’s not enough for me.
  • The dabbler: Loved it! It’s gorgeous to look at. And the rulebook has an interesting page of information about monarch butterflies, so there’s a small educational element. The rules are simple to pick up and as its wholly non-aggressive you can play with movement cards open to help teach younger players what to do. It’s the perfect length to hold the attention too, especially with the two scoring rounds that interrupt the game at regular intervals. And the slight variation from the seasonal score cards adds a little wrinkle to each play. A really good family game – but on the ‘once a month or so’ pile, rather than the ‘once a day/week’ one.

Key observations

For me, production seems to be a recurring issue for AEG games right now. They always get a lot right, but the overall package often falls short. In the Mariposas board game the theme is integrated well and the rulebook has some nice extra info. But why aren’t the flowers named? And if you’re not worried about naming them, why then make some of them hard to distinguish? “Can you pass me a pink one? No, not that pink one…”

Then there’s size. The board is massive, making the game hard to set up so everyone can reach things. There’s a lot of dead space, both on the main board and in the box. Which, like recent AEG release Inner Compass, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Why not reduce it from full to medium sized, and take a few quid off the price tag/shelf load? Especially as the game has crossover appeal to a wider audience – thanks to both the theme and the success of designer Elizabeth Hargrave’s recent success with Wingspan. Bigger isn’t always better, especially when it pushes the price – and expectations – up.

Gameplay

Mariposas detractors point to a lack of agency and depth of strategy. This isn’t necessarily a valid criticism, as many games lack these traits. But the question seems to be, then: what do you do? The game very much lacks direct competition, so it isn’t a game where the rules get out of the way in order to let you duke it out. Nor does it have elements such as push your luck, as the elements of randomisation are mild in that respect. So no, it is not for everyone. I’d describe it is a pleasant, enjoyable experience. And I don’t see it’s claiming to be anything more. Unlike Wingspan, which took some great mechanisms from great games and made a tedious one out of them (other opinions are available!).

More worrying is that a low player count does weakens one of the game’s two strategies. You’ll either be trying to collect card sets or get butterflies home. With just two players, it is harder to flip as many cards, or as quickly – so the collection strategy is clearly weakened. I’ve found that fixes itself with three players (and feels perfect at four). But why not print a smaller map on the flip side of the board for two players? It’s a genuine problem, as if you take away one of two options to score points you’re not left with much after a few plays. The question then is, are these ‘gamer’ problems? And the answer is probably yes. I can still see families – especially ones in tune with nature – getting a real kick out of Mariposas.

Conclusion: The Mariposas board game

I really looked forward to getting Mariposas. I liked the look, the interesting/different theme and the sound of the race and collection elements. And my first three or four plays bore out that interest and everyone I played with enjoyed the experience. However, in post play discussion, none of the gamers added it to their wish list or could see themselves requesting it later. While equally they’d all be up for another game some time.

But is this a problem for the current ‘one and done’ gamer? Generally, the trend is to briefly explore a game before discarding it for the next shiny new release. So if, over five or six plays, the buyer has enjoyed it – haven’t the designer and publisher given the customer what they wanted? Especially as here, thanks to a strong theme, the game is sure to find a solid family niche of players who will love keeping it on their shelves.

So the Mariposas board game won’t be staying in my collection. It’s a good family/gateway release that I have no problem recommending (and for 3+ players, potentially long term). But its lack of strategic depth isn’t replaced by enough (competition, interaction, push-your-luck etc) to keep this gamer bringing it back to the table.

  • Thanks to AEG (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of the game for review.
  • Follow this link for 200+ more of my board game reviews.

Post ‘best board games’ list nerdy stats musings post

Earlier in the week I posted my 8th annual ‘Best board games of all time‘ list. It includes board and card games, short and long, going all the way back to the 80s. Please check that list for links to full reviews of all games listed below (plus links for online play).

This is an accompanying post looking at some of the stats around that post. Things such as number of new entries, times played, fallers and climbers etc. It won’t be for everyone! But it’s only once a year, so please forgive me. Normal service will be resumed next week.

If you like what I do here, please bookmark this link to Board Game Prices if you’re looking to purchase new games. Anything you buy will give me a small kickback, which will hopefully help pay for my annual hosting charges. You won’t pay anything extra though, so don’t worry. And it’s a genuinely useful site for comparing board game prices.

Hanging around, or not…

Just 11 games have been in my Top 40 since the beginning (eight years). Three (Race for the Galaxy, Terra Mystica and Ticked to Ride) have been ever-present in the Top 10. While four more (Concordia, Can’t Stop, Downfall of Pompeii and Ra) are Top 20 stalwarts. At the other end, Archaeology: The Card Game has been on all eight lists but never in the Top 20. Showing a filler game can hang around near the top too.

Three previous ever-presents dropping out of the Top 40 completely this year. Pizza Box Football, Thebes and Twilight Struggle. I still love all three and I can’t see them leaving my collection. They just don’t get played as much as they used to, so made way for current favourites. Twilight Struggle in particular may be back, if I get into playing it more regularly. It’s just quite an investment and needs a certain type of gamer.

The biggest drop off the list came from Codenames Duet. Which dropped right out of the 40 after five straight years in the Top 20. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a brilliant game. But it fell off a cliff for Sarah and me after we got stuck on a tough setting. You’d think we could just go back to a simpler version, but somehow we can’t seem to right now. I expect it’ll be back. And we’ve played it nearly 40 times, so I’d still highly recommend it.

Designers and publishers

With four games on my Top 40 list, Stefan Feld is clearly my favourite designer. But it has been a while since one of his games blew me away. Reina Knizia, Dirk Henn and Mac Gerdts all have two on the list. So those four guys have a quarter of my favourites between them. Thank you chaps!

The rest of the list is a who’s who of great designers, alongside a good bunch of lesser-known talent. Similarly there is a huge array of game publishers, from right across Europe and further afield. It’s a truly global hobby and it’s always exciting to get cool little games from Japan, South America and elsewhere.

That said, my list is certainly ‘white male’ biased. But I promise you, this is in no way deliberate. When I research games, I look at the rulebook – not really the publisher, designer etc. Hence why no 2020 Feld games arrived at mine this year. They just didn’t look that interesting. But an Elizabeth Hargrave design will be one of the next (spoiler alert – positively) reviewed games on the blog, despite me not liking her previous game (Wingspan) at all. So if you’re a designer of colour, for example, and think I’d like your game – please get in contact. There are so many games, I simply can’t research everything.

The Covid effect: online gaming

An impressive 23 of my Top 40 board games are now available online. Either via their own apps/Steam or on board game websites Board Game Arena, Yucata or Boite a Jeux. It has been a real lifesaver to be able to keep playing with people outside my bubble, all around the world, during the pandemic. And even as things start to open up again, I hope to continue to do so. It has been a real reminder that some of my favourite people are purely separated from me by distance. Why not spend more time with them, even if it’s ‘virtual’?

In terms of recording online plays (which I do at Board Game Geek), I only include games I play ‘live’. So that’s in real time, while chatting over Messenger, WhatsApp etc. So if I talk about having ‘more plays online’ those are turn-based games that may take weeks to play, often just checking my email and taking a turn per day. I really enjoy playing this way. It’s nice to start the day taking a few board game turns with a good cup of coffee!

Climbers, fallers and new entries

Online play certainly affected the new entries for the year. Both Bruxelles 1893 and Lift Off were games I fell in love with online this year having missed their ‘real life’ releases. While Lost Ruins of Arnak was first introduced to me via publisher CGE’s online board game event. The last new entry for 2021, Remember Our Trip, came the old-fashioned way (via review). While Orbital re-entered the list after a few great plays with Sarah.

Of these, only Arnak troubled the Top 20 (at number 17). Every game above it had been in the Top 20 the year before. While only Targi (from 40+) and Fertility (from 30+) broke into the 20 from below that level in 2020. I find it interesting that, other than these, Azul is the only game holding its own that has been on the list less than five years. It supports the notion that, with so many games to choose from, recent games are struggling for a foothold in collections. While the designs themselves may also reflect an expectation of limited plays, making their games have less longevity.

The biggest fallers were The Rose King and Gnomopolis. Both of which fell from the top 20 to just above the drop line. I think this is more of a natural position for The Rose King, which is an abstract I love to play and is another that will always be in the collection. But without an expansion, I’m not sure Gnomopolis will make it into next year’s list. It’s cute and fun. But doesn’t have quite enough variety to sustain a Top 40 spot without some help.

Getting these games to the table

The games I’ve played most (plays since January 2020) are Ticked to Ride (25 plays) and Can’t Stop (20), with Race for the Galaxy, Oracle of Delphi and Thurn & Taxis also getting 10 plays or more. So that’s four of my top seven in double figures – pretty good.

Every game in my Top 40 got at least one play in that time, with most of those with the lowest plays not having a digital implementation. Some, such as Basari and Ra, really need to be face-to-face to get the atmosphere going. But I’m baffled the likes of Caverna, Bora Bora and Notre Dame aren’t on any of the digital platforms.

Outside the list, my most played games were Welcome To (nine plays since Jan 2020), Coloretto (7), Yspahan (7) and Stone Age (6). While I don’t own Coloretto and Stone Age (all those plays were online), all four games would definitely be in my top 100. I expect I’ll pick Coloretto up next time I’m in Germany. While I’ve been pondering rebuying Stone Age for a long time now. Especially as the Winter Edition adds a little bit more variety.

Most – and least – played (of all time)

As this is an ‘all time’ list, the proof in the pudding is total games played for each game. Five of the 40 I’ve played (at the table) more than 50 times – two (Ticket to Ride and Race for the Galaxy) more than 100. I’ve played half the games (21) 20 times or more, and three quarters (29) at least 10 times.

Terra Mystica is the least played in my Top five with 19 plays, with Oracle of Delphi on 24. But I’ve played both multiple times online too. Trust me, they get a good work out here!

Caverna is the only ‘old’ game in my Top 20 with less than 10 plays (8). I love it, but it’s a real investment it time to set up, play and teach. The only other two with less are Fertility (8) and Arnak (6), which have only been around for a year or so. Lower down the list, both Bruxelles and Lift Off are new to my collection (less than five plays each) but I’ve played them a lot online too. Every other game has a minimum of five ‘real life’ plays.

Game style breakdown

About half of the 40 are what I would call ‘euro games’. with the rest consisting of family and abstract games, including a few roll-and-writes. Of the euros, the mechanisms that show up time and again are worker placement, tile-laying and set collection/order fulfilment.

I was actually surprised just how many had tile placement as a key component – both euro and family games. While only a couple had a race element, despite that being something I love in a game. I think it is just hard to do well in a complex game. Maybe that needs to be my next design challenge.

Tumblin’ Dice is the only dexterity game on the list (the excellent Junk Art fell off the list, largely thanks to Covid). While there are no party games or word games, now that Codenames has also gone. Does that make me a miserable git? Very probably. But I do enjoy quite a lot of daft games. I just don’t feel the need to own them. Also, since Merchant of Venus dropped off the list, there are no ‘ameritrash’ games either. Again, I do like some of them. But they’re so expensive now for what you actually get in terms of a game. I’ll leave those purchases to others. They seem to do OK without me!

Best board games 2021: My Top 20 games of all time

Welcome to my best board games 2021 list. This isn’t a list of the best games to come out this year. Frankly, those lists tend to be ridiculous at this stage. Its too soon in the year. Instead this is my favourite games of all time, as of May 2021. Some were released as recently as 2019/2020. But this list is largely about standing the test of time.

This post follows on from my last, which covered my favourite games numbered 40-21. And it will be followed in a few days by a nerdy stats post, looking at things such as play numbers, what went in and out of the list etc. I do posts like this every May. If you want some historical context, head to my Top 10 lists page for posts going right back to 2013.

All the links below go to full board game reviews elsewhere on this website. If you want to purchase any of these games, please support the site by starting your search by clicking this link to comparison site Board Game Prices. And if any are available to play free online, I’ll list the sites/sites below the game title (either BGA, Yucata and Boite a Jeux).

Best board games 2021: 20-11

20: Ingenious
(Released in 2004, for 2-4 players, lasting 40-60 mins – designed by Reina Knizia)
Ingenious is the game that started my collection when I got back into the hobby in 2008. Its a largely tactical tile-laying game that takes five minutes to teach. But it has a glorious tipping point about half way where you go from accumulating points to protecting your position and winning the game. Ingenious indeed.

19: Fertility
(2018, 2-4 players, 40-60 mins – Cyrille Leroy)
More tile-laying, but with added resource collection to trigger scoring. What I especially like is the tight shared board, where you have to be incredibly careful not to give away great opportunities. While you’re also trying to maximise your own board to score points in a variety of ways. A great mix of tactical/strategic and competitive/heads-down all at once.

18: Targi
(2012, 2 players, 60 mins – Andreas Steiger)
Online: BGA & Yucata
A small box worker placement game for two-players. A tight action grid and resource list mean you’re always competing hard for spaces. But there’s enough variety to make every game feel different. And to allow for different strategies. When you add in the 2016 expansion pack, this has become my highest rated two player-only game.

17: Lost Ruins of Arnak
(2020, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours – Min & Elwen)
Online: BGA
The ‘highest new entry’ for 2021. And I do worry that, without an expansion, it may run out of steam before next year’s best board games list. But right now, I’m really enjoying it. Light deck-building meets worker placement and set collection. Taking risks can lead to big rewards, or you can take it slow and steady. Plus it has great components and smooth rules.

16: Macao
(2009, 2-4 players, 90-120 mins – Stefan Feld)
Online: Yucata
My first proper euro game purchase, back in 2010. Which may keep it artificially high on the list. But I do still love it. Roll dice and collect cubes to collect specialists and fulfil orders. Sure, even the slightest risk can be thwarted by bad luck with the dice. But there’s something hugely satisfying about it when everything comes together.

From 15-11

15: Ra
(1999, 2-5 players, 60 mins – Reina Knizia)
Knizia is one of only two designers to have two games in my Top 20 (after Ingenious). But this is as high as he goes – although Ra has been as high as number two in my list in the past. It’s a brilliant bidding game, a genre I’m not mad keen on. Bu this adds push your luck, an Egyptian theme and set collection. Making every decision meaningful and interactive.

14: Downfall of Pompeii
(2004, 2-4 players, 45-60 mins – Klaus-Jurgen Wrede)
Online: Yucata
Once my number three, Pompeii is still one of my favourite family games. It is essentially two games in one, pivoting from tactical placement to tile laying and a movement/race game at halfway. And it mercilessly mean, but in a way that still brings any player along for the ride. Simply great fun. And still very high in my ratings, despite countless plays.

13: Can’t Stop
(1980, 2-4 players, 30 mins – Sid Sackson)
Online: BGA
So, three games in a row that are at least 18 year’s-old and have been in the Top 20 in all my eight annual Top 40s. New games shmoo-games. Can’t Stop is basic probability, turned into a push-your-luck dice game. The rules are incredibly simple. But you’ll struggle to find a gamer that doesn’t love it. A fitting tribute to one of the hobby’s great designers (RIP).

12: Azul
(2017, 2-4 players, 45 mins – Michael Kiesling)
Azul is my highest ranked board game of the last five years. Its a gorgeous abstract with light rules and tactile Bakelite pieces. But behind its pretty façade lies a tactically viscous set collection gem. It has quickly established itself as one of the biggest hits in the hobby and rightly so. A modern day must-have in any collection.

11: Kingdom Builder
(2011, 2-4 players, 45 mins – Donald X Vaccarino)
Online: BGA
Kingdom Builder has pogoed around, in and out of my Top 40 over the years. Fitting for what has proven to be quite the Marmite game. But this is its highest ever placing here. Again, simplicity is the byword. It turns a couple of game conventions on their heads, hence splitting opinion. But adapt and you’ll find a clever and varied tactical placement game.

Best board games 2021: The Top 10

10: Concordia
(2013, 2-5 players, 90 mins – Mac Gerdts)
Online: BaJ
Gerdts’ second game on the list is another Top 20 ever-present and a game I never get bored of playing. It comprises everything I love in a euro game, from light deck-building through resource management to non-direct interaction. But despite being thinky and tough to play well, the rules are clear and elegant while the turns are short and snappy. Plus, a series of smart expansions really help replayability.

9: Deus
(2014, 2-4 players, 90 mins – Sebastien Dujardin)
Online: BaJ
While generally well regarded, I’m surprised Deus didn’t get the plaudits it deserved. This clever euro does something original with a card tableau, which is refreshing. You play cards in five colours, but each you lay of the same colour triggers ones you laid before. Throw in a race feel, board position jostling and some screwage, and you have a real winner.

8: Caverna
(2013, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours – Uwe Rosenberg)
Spoiler alert: You’re not going to find Agricola higher on my list. While I do enjoy it, I prefer the openness Caverna brings to Rosenberg’s worker placement style. Rather than front-loading the decisions via card draft, here you can make decisions on the fly as you build up your tableau. Sure, it’s less tense. But for me the experience is more satisfying.

7: Bora Bora
(2013, 2-4 players, 90 mins – Stefan Feld)
I’m not sure what was in the German water in 2013, but this is the third German euro from that year in my Top 10. This is another oft overlooked design, which is strange. Feld is a popular designer, it’s bright and colourful, and has a clever and interactive dice mechanism for action selection. It’s one of his heavier games, but for me clearly one of his best.

6: Ticket to Ride
(2004, 2-5 players, 60 mins – Alan Moon)
Online: Steam, app stores (Google/Apple)
This classic family game has been an ever-present in my top 10 (top six, in fact). At nearly 200 real-life plays it is comfortably my second most played game. And I introduce it to at least one or two new gamers every year. Collect cards, use them to build routes, and hopefully get in the way of your opponents. Add in expansions, and you’ll be playing forever.

The Top 5

5: Terra Mystica
(2012, 2-5 players, 2-3 hours – Drogemuller & Ostertag)
Online: BGA, Yucata
Terra Mystica is the most complex game on my list. But it’s testament to its quality that it doesn’t feel like it. It has a civ feel, as you manage your economy and build your territory. But the fantasy theme works, binding the various currencies into a coherent whole. It’s deep, strategic and original, while also tactical, smooth and familiar. Another Top 10 ever-present.

4: Thurn and Taxis
(2006, 2-4 players, 60 mins – Karen & Andreas Seyfarth)
Online: BGA, Yucata
It’s not easy taking the ‘top family game’ crown from Ticket to Ride. But Thurn and Taxis did it on my list three years ago and hasn’t looked back. I still recommend TtR above it. But Thurn has the edge for me personally. It has the same route building/set collection vibe. But there’s just a bit more to it in every department for a gamer. Except it’s a bit more beige…

3: Terraforming Mars
(2016, 1-5 players, 2-3 hours – Jacob Fryxelius)
Online: Steam, app stores (Google/Apple)
Terraforming Mars is nerdy sci-fi gamer nirvana. But it’s also a fantastic tableau building euro any gamer can appreciate. On the surface, it can look like a mess of cards and tiles straight from a teenager’s notepad. But somehow it all comes together perfectly. The tight economy forces tough decisions and the card combos can be hugely satisfying.

2: Oracle of Delphi
(2016, 2-4 players, 90 mins – Stefan Feld)
Online: Yucata
Its unusual for a game to go straight into my Top 10. But Delphi did it five years ago and has been at my number two spot now for three. In some ways it is a typical Stefan Feld euro. A simple but clever dice-powered action selection mechanism, some point salad, and a dollop of luck. But this time it’s a race and it works beautifully. An underappreciated gem.

Best board games 2021: And the winner is…

1: Race for the Galaxy
(2007, 2-4 players, 60 mins – Tom Lehmann)
Online: BGA, Steam, app stores (Google/Apple)
When I started this list back in 2014, Race for the Galaxy had already been my favourite game for two years. And despite nearly 300 plays on the table, plus many more online, nothing has changed. It manages to pack a genuinely thinky and satisfying tableau building game into 30 minutes. Sure, there’s luck of the draw. But if you get bad luck, just go again. You only need to shuffle a deck of cards.

Sure, Race for the Galaxy does have a bit of a learning cliff for new players. The iconography can be baffling at first, despite the game’s relatively simple rule set. But once you get to grips with it, you realise it does need to be the way it is. And suddenly, like seeing the matrix, it all comes together. Expansions have added a ton of replayability over the years too. But the base game alone is a true gem. Will it ever be beaten?

Check out last week’s post for numbers 21-40 in my ‘Best board games 2021’ list. While my next post will be a nerdy stats post about this year’s and previous lists. After which, normal review service will be resumed (Mariposas and Mandala Stones reviews coming soon).

My Top 40 board games of all time 2021: From 40-21

A full year of lockdown is (hopefully) coming to a close. But despite a lack of opportunities to play at the table, I’ve managed my usual levels of gaming. Much of it has been online, but those games have often be live. And with many of my favourite available on platforms such as BGA, Yucata and Boite a Jeux (noted below), I feel my 8th annual ‘best board games list’ has had the requisite level of scrutiny.

Links below go to my reviews of the games elsewhere on this site – and the one not yet reviewed will be soon. If you do intend to look into any purchases, please support this site by following this link to Board Game Prices. It’s a great comparison site for board games, which links through to a long list of online retailers. Also note these games are just in two sets of 10, listed alphabetically. I really can’t see anyone worrying about which game was 37th versus which was 36th.

I should also note that I’ve played close to 1,500 different board games over the years. And owned close to 500. There are also about 150 games on my shelves – and it’s not easy to stay on them. So even the games at the edge of my Top 40 have beaten back a lot of competition to figure on my list at all.

My 31st-40th favourite board games

  • 6 Nimmt
    (Released in 1994, 4-10 players, 20-40 mins)
    Online: BGA
    The sixth straight year on the list for this small box filler card game. Simple rules, agonising game play and it plays great at 5-8-ish players. So is perfect for finishing nights off at a con or game club night. Some say there’s too much luck. But I tend to see the best players winning again and again over time.
  • Basari: Das Kartenspiel
    (2014, 3-5 players, 30 mins)
    Basari is one of the least played games on the list, but has made my Top list five times. The lack of plays is down to it being a little niche. This is a filler game, best at 3-4 players, which needs a certain type of player. It’s about reading opponents, bartering, and spotting the right opportunities at the right time.
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4 players, 30 mins)
    This has been on all eight of my lists without ever breaking the Top 20. And it’s my ‘most played’ game in this post (at 43 plays). Because it quietly, perfectly fits a niche. Portable, great with 2-4, simple rules. A set collection card game, so you can teach it to anyone. But with fun interaction and a risky push-your-luck element that help it stand out from the crowd.
  • Gnomopolis
    (2018, 2-4, 30-60 mins)
    A bit of a drop this year, but I still like Gnomopolis a lot. An oversized box and cutesy artwork hide a simplified Race for the Galaxy-style engine building race. Here you’re bag building, grabbing points while building a card tableau. But it may be a little too simple. So I’m hoping for a step-up from the coming expansion.
  • Kingdomino
    (2016, 2-4, 45 mins)
    Online: BGA
    A game seemingly destined to stay at this level for me, with this being its fourth straight year in the 31-40 bracket. It’s basically dominoes meets simple tile-laying. But it works beautifully. And I’m not tiring of it at all, despite 25+ plays. With new/non-gamers it’s always a hit. While the 7×7 grid two-player variant nicely notches things up a few bars.
  • NEW! Lift Off
    (2019, 2-4, 1-2 hours)
    Online: BGA
    The only new entry in this section and one I’ve only played a little so far, having received a review copy recently. But it has already won me over big time. Two levels of light card drafting (think Notre Dame) meet engine building, creating a wonderfully tight little game. While the 50s/Fallout-style artwork takes it to the next level visually.
  • Navegador
    (2010, 2-5, 90 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    Navegador has slowly dropped down my rankings, but I still love it. It’s a Mac Gerdts rondel euro, with a smart economic element tied to a race for scoring opportunities. Unfortunately it’s probably at its best with four and I rarely play it that way. But a great game nonetheless.
  • The Rose King
    (1992, 2, 30 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    For me, one of the jewels in the Kosmos two-player line. And another eight-year ever-present on my list. It’s a classic abstract but with an element of luck, as a card deck (to limit your movement options) mixes things up. Stopping the dull ‘learn the best strategy’ problem chess et al have.
  • Snowdonia
    (2012, 1-5, 90 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    After five years in my top 20, Snowdonia has spend the last three teetering around the drop. But it always hang in there, despite all the new shiny games. Because it’s a clever and original worker placement game that really does play differently each time. And that’s before you add in the copious mini expansions.
  • Tumblin’ Dice
    (2004, 2-4, 45 mins)
    Basically dice darts. Which is as stupid as it sounds. But so much fun. Flick dice along a wooden board, with the sections you land on multiplying the dice number depending on their difficulty to reach. so you can go for high scores. Or just knock your opponents pieces off the board to make them mad.

My 21st-30th favourite board games

  • Adios Calavera
    (2017, 2-3, 20 mins)
    A permanent fixture here since its 2017 release, Adios is an original and enjoyable abstract. When you throw in great artwork and plenty of variability, it hits a lot of sweet spots. It’s the kind of game that, while I’m playing with people, they’re ordering it online. But sadly I can’t get to all of you, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-5, 60 mins)
    Online: BGA, Yucata
    A tile-laying classic that is a tricky solo puzzle and competitive majorities game combined. Its popularity has led to loads of expansions, adding great twists and loads of replayability. I’ve owned it for years, but can’t see it ever leaving my collection.
  • NEW! Bruxelles 1893
    (2013, 2-4, 1-2 hours)
    Online: Boite a Jeux
    I recently managed to acquire this and am chuffed to bits, having only previously played online. Its a worker placement euro game with a typically boring city theme. But this hides a highly competitive and passively interactive core that makes every decision tricky and vital.
  • Maori
    (2009, 2-4, 60 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    Maori is an ever-present Top 40 game for me. It’s a tile-layer where you each fill your own tableau, moving a shared piece around a shared tile grid to limit your options. The pretty art again hides what can be a vicious game. Especially when played on the harder difficulty levels, that also add replayability.
  • Notre Dame
    (2007, 2-5, 60 mins)
    This is one of the more divisive Stefan Feld designs. So, when you add the fact it has no online version, I don’t get to play it as often as I’d like. But I love its mix of card drafting and action selection. And the tension created by never quite having everything you need to do what you want to do.
  • Orbital
    (2018, 2-4, 60 mins)
    Another slightly obscure title I make no apologies for bigging-up whenever I can. You each create a space station with tiles, trying to match things up to score points. But an incredibly tight economy in the tile buying makes for some super tricky buying decisions, on top of the puzzley positioning.
  • Pharaon
    (2019, 2-4, 60 mins)
    This is a pretty dry and abstract worker placement game, with lovely Egyptian style visuals. I’m not usually mad keen on ‘turn stuff into other stuff into points’ euros. But a clever worker placement system makes it very competitive. While you can plan for future turns, thanks to a smart rotating board showing you what you’ll need on your next turn.
  • NEW! Remember Our Trip
    (2019, 2-4, 30 mins)
    I seem to mention this in every post recently. But for good reason. Its a short, small box abstract tile drafting/pattern building game. But somehow they’ve made the theme – shared memories – shine through. Add pretty cartoon art to the simple ruleset and you have a thoroughly charming game.
  • Tales of Glory
    (2018, 2-5, 60 mins)
    There are way more tile-laying games in this list than I’d have guessed. And here’s another. The competitive tile drafting definitely works better with more players – as do the majority bonuses. But the game plays fast, is (now) well produced and does a good job of integrating the fantasy theme. And even with less competition, at two players, I enjoy the admittedly light puzzley challenge.
  • That’s Pretty Clever
    (2018, 2-4, 45 mins)
    Online: Steam, Apple, Google
    I do enjoy a good roll-and-write. But (spoiler alert) this is the only one good enough to make the Top 40. Dizzle was close. But the ‘Clever’ series is just a notch above that, and the rest. As you roll dice and mark off boxes, you can cascade bonuses that let you mark off more and more boxes. Which is hugely satisfying when you get it right.

Next time – the Top 20

My next post will be the Top 20. But if you like this kind of post, check out my Top 10s links page for all kinds of board game lists – including my old Top 40 games of all times posts.