My Top 40 board games of all time 2020: From 40-21

Welcome to my 7th annual ‘top board games’ list. Today’s post will cover the lower half of the list, with the top games listed here. But please remember I’ve played more than 1,000 different games, have owned around 400, and currently own about 150. So, all these games have beaten back a lot of competition to make it into my Top 40.

My usual 50 was cut to reflect my shrinking game collection and to keep these posts a little shorter (and due to nostalgia for Top of the Pops). Plus, it always seemed the 41-50 section took longest to work out: a bit silly, as they’re the lowliest titles (I’ve listed 41-50 one last time for the sake of my own nerdy stats). Also, I’ve not agonised on giving these games a specific number, instead batching them alphabetically in groups of 10.

All game links go to full reviews where I’ve written them. But if you want to support the blog, please click through from here if you happen to be purchasing anything from Amazon.

Just missing out (numbers 41-50)

  • La Cour Des Miracles: Fast playing and interactive action selection game (above).
  • Doppelt so Clever: Thinky roll-and-write.
  • Junk Art: Balancing dexterity game with loads of variety.
  • Just One: Super simple and fun family/party word game.
  • Manhattan Project: Thematic worker placement with some unique elements.
  • Maori: Subtle, colourful and thinky tile-layer.
  • Patchwork: Fast playing and gorgeous Tetris-style puzzle game.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon: Free push-your-luck dice game (download here).
  • Targi: Fast and interactive two-player set collection/worker placement game.
  • Yspahan: Classic sub-hour euro with dice used for action selection.

Numbers 31-40

  • 6 Nimmt/X Nimmt
    (1994/2016, 4-10/2-4 players, 20-40 mins). Despite its advancing years, 6 Nimmt is still one of the best traditional card games out there. It covers up to 10 players, plays in about 30 minutes, and comes in a small box. And you can teach it in five minutes.
  • Adios Calavera
    (2017, 2-3, 20 mins). One of my favourite two-player abstract games. It has simple rules, but also plenty of variety if you want to switch things up. It’s fast and interactive in a traditional way. But the quirky art and clever movement make it stand out.
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4, 30 mins). This is a great go-to small box card game to introduce to newer gamers. It has traditional set collection rules and an accessible theme. But just enough extra bells and whistles to show what modern hobby games bring to the party.
  • NEW! Fertility
    (2018, 2-4, 45 mins). Sadly falling below the radar on its release, Fertility (pictured above) has become one of my favourite tile-laying games. What it lacks in interaction it makes up for in puzzley point salad scoring and clever resource collection.
  • Kingdomino
    (2016, 2-4, 45 mins). A great take on dominoes. Bright, colourful, fast, simple and accessible. It’s fair to say this absolutely nails all the gateway game criteria. The importance of turn order makes it tactical, while the area scoring adds the strategy.
  • Navegador
    (2010, 2-5, 90 mins). My favourite of the Mac Gerdts rondel games. It’s a gorgeous German style euro game (pictured above) with snappy turns but deep game play. Every decision feels agonising, as you want to do so much all the time.
  • Snowdonia
    (2012, 1-5, 90 mins). Snowdonia’s clever weather system makes it one of the most unpredictable euro game of them all. But the challenge that brings also makes it one of the best, as you roll with the punches and change your strategy on the fly.
  • Thebes
    (2007, 2-4, 60 mins). A fun and thematic family game. Some baulk at the level of luck on show as you pick points tokens from the dig site bags. But for me the fun of playing easily outweighs this, while the underlying mechanisms are little found elsewhere.
  • Tzolk’in
    (2012, 2-4, 90 mins). Don’t let the gorgeous components fool you. This is a complex and unforgiving euro game packed with clever mechanisms and tough decisions. A game you need regular plays to master, bur that rewards that perseverance.
  • Yokohama
    (2016, 2-4, 90 mins). Yokohama makes a great mid-weight euro game from the interesting central mechanism of (the rather tedious) Istanbul. There’s a bit more to think about. And even the route-building aspect feels fresher and tighter here.

Numbers 21-30

  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-5, 60 mins). A simple combination of well implemented mechanisms makes Alhambra a real gateway winner. Clever yet simple tile laying and set collection, plus fiercely competitive majority scoring. Plus loads of expansions for extra replayability.
  • Basari: The Card Game
    (2014, 3-5, 30 mins). A wonderfully simple and interactive card game where you try to read and then haggle with your opponents. The full board game (Basari) is just as fun, but the small box version loses nothing while being smaller and cheaper.
  • Crown of Emara
    (2018, 1-4, 90 mins). While a recent release, Crown of Emara shines with all the best traits of classic German euro games. Every decision feels tense and vital, as you agonise over what to do within a seemingly tight decision space.
  • For Sale
    (1997, 3-6, 30 mins). Every gamer should own a copy of For Sale. The cute art, simple rules and fast play – all in a small box – make it a great filler game for any occasion. But it’s clever and interesting enough to appeal to ‘proper’ gamers too.
  • Notre Dame
    (2007, 2-5, 60 mins). While drafting may seem a small part of this fast-playing euro game, it makes for some tough decisions. And there’s a tough balancing act throughout, as you fight off potential negatives while trying to amass points.
  • NEW! Pharaon
    (2019, 2-4, 60 mins). Pharaon is the only 2019 new release to my Top 40 this year. It looks great on the table and has a nice fresh take on action selection and set collection. But also simple to teach, fast to play and deep enough to hold the attention.
  • Pizza Box Football
    (2005, 2, 90 mins). This may well be a rather primitive dice-chucking sports simulation. But it does a great job of giving the feeling of coach versus coach, as you make your play calls and move up and down the field. Still my favourite sports board game.
  • Tales of Glory
    (2018, 2-5, 60 mins). An interesting take on tile-laying, while doing a good job of incorporating its fantasy theme. Create your character’s ‘tale’ by building up your tableau, symbol matching and strengthening your stats to pick up better tiles.
  • Tumblin’ Dice
    (2004, 2-4, 45 mins). Darts with dice – so less dangerous, more random, but just as fun. A lovely wooden dexterity game which can play up to six with a few extra sets if dice (or more as teams). Flick your dice to take out opponents and score most points.
  • Twilight Struggle
    (2005, 2, 2-3 hours). One of the all-time great war games. Both the main mechanism (card playing, rather than dice rolling) and the cold war theme elevate it for me. But it still has that war game feeling of luck being tempered by clever build up play.

Wondering what made the Top 20? Wonder no more…

Kingdom Builder board game: A four-sided review

The Kingdom Builder board game is a light, fast playing euro game. It was originally released in 2011 and designed by Donald X Vaccarino (of Dominion fame). It’s for 2-4 players, lasts less than an hour and should be fine for players aged eight and up.

And yes, you can play this one in isolation. It’s online at Brettspielwelt (which I’m not keen on), where you can play in real time. But there are also official Apple and Android apps.

In terms of game play, you’ll be using cards to claim areas of the board to score points. While it has an area majority look and feel, there is no battling: areas you claim are yours. And forget theme. This is a purely abstract game made pleasantly pretty by its nicely drawn medieval artwork. In the box you’ll find eight modular game boards, 164 wooden pieces, 37 cardboard chits and 35 standard sized cards. Everything is standard German euro quality, with clear iconography and nice if unspectacular artwork.

Teaching the Kingdom Builder board game

Mechanically, this may be one of the simplest ‘teaching’ sections I’ve ever written. At Board Game Geek Kingdom Builder rates 2.07 (out of five) for complexity. Scrabble rates 2.10. The actual rules fill two sides of A4, which includes copious pictorial examples. But as with so many simple games, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to master. And better still, it is a lot more varied than many games of its ilk.

Start by laying four of the eight game boards together randomly in a rectangle. Each game board has two or four unique location tiles that are now placed on them. You then draw (and lay face up) three of the game’s 10 scoring cards. Each player takes 40 wooden pieces (settlements) in their colour and draws a card from the terrain deck. You’re ready to go.

On a turn, a player shows their terrain card and places their first settlement on the board on a hex matching this terrain type. They place a total of three settlements, all on the same terrain type, with later ones having to be adjacent to any they’ve already placed (if possible). If not, they can’t start a new settlement elsewhere (on the correct terrain type, or course). Once done, if any new settlements are adjacent to spaces that still contain location tiles, you take that tile (you can only have one of each type – so four max). Then draw a new card.

Location, location, location

On later turns, these location tiles either let you place extra settlements, or move settlements you’ve already played. So, in theory, with four extra action tiles (very unlikely), you could be laying seven settlements per round. As the game ends at the end of a round where a player places their last settlement, extra placements can be a real advantage. But then, moving settlements can be equally advantageous. It all depends on the scoring cards.

The three scoring cards give players most of their points. And all players score for all three cards. But they can be contradictory. The Hermit gives you a point for each separate settlement – encouraging you to separate as much as possible. But the Citizens card gives you a point for each two settlements connected in one large settlement. The Paddock location lets you move a settlement two spaces, and that space can be non-adjacent – great for scoring on the Hermit. But the Oracle location lets you place an extra settlement on your current terrain type – great for finishing and scoring for Citizens. Oh, what to do…

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Sure, a series of bad card draws in Kingdom Builder can screw you. But in my experience, as with all good sub-hour games, good players miraculously seem to be way ‘luckier’ than bad ones. Also, I don’t tend to like the aggression of most area majority games. But I love the idea in theory. For me, this beautifully ‘euros’ the idea of area influence into a package I appreciate. It’s thinky, but you can mess with each other’s plans to a degree. And the potential placement restrictions make most of your moves incredibly important.
  • The thinker: There’s a subtlety here that many fail to grasp. A bad initial placement can literally ruin your chances from the start, which leads to a few ‘one and done’ experiences for players. For me, that’s a shame. Your first turn has to be your longest, as you assess which location tiles work best with the scoring tiles – and how the hell you’re going to get them to work together with your opening terrain card. Touch as few other types of terrain as you can, or be heavily restricted on later turns. But might getting a certain location tile be worth it? For me, it’s a brilliant ‘super filler’.
  • The trasher: I can take or leave Kingdom Builder. I’d rather play a more aggressive area placement game, but the mix of strategy and tactics here is well judged. That said, the game is much better for me at four players. The board is so much tighter, and the fight for those location tiles can be fierce from the start. With two, both players can pretty much do what they like and get what they like. You can always house rule and use less location tiles. And man, don’t get me started on the ‘theme’. Although at least it isn’t birdies or bunny wabbits…
  • The dabbler: Wow, this game really is simple. Which makes it all the more frustrating when you then lose your first game by a million points! But it only takes a few plays to work out the strategy basics. While there isn’t much of a theme the game pieces are nice and colourful, so it looks good on the table. And the boards are nice and chunky. I don’t find this is a game I choose often. But every time I play it, I’m reminded of how much I enjoy it. I really do like a game where we don’t need a rules refresher each time we get it to the table!

Key observations

There are some poisonous reviews of the Kingdom Builder board game. But it still rates a seven out of 10 overall. And sits just outside the Board Game Geek top 500 ranked games. So I’ll skip the people who rate it poorly because it is ‘light’ (uh huh), ‘doesn’t include war’ (oookay), is about placing cubes (erm…) or because it is soulless because it has no theme (wow, that guy again). Why? Because they’re playing a game they were never going to like.

I’ll also skip past the people who think it is OK to rate a game a ‘1’ out of 10 because they’ve been upset by the publisher. Fine, I get it – Queen Games has upset a lot of players over the years and many have legit beefs with them. Write angry letters, take them to task on social media, protest outside their offices. But giving a game a low ranking does a disservice to the thousands who try to use BGG as a source for information on how good a game is. With so many games out there, it’s hard not to boil your research down by an initial look at the game’s overall rank. This kind of attitude gives some great games a bad rap.

On to sensible points. Yes, some of the scoring cards do seem under/over powered. But this rewards repeat plays. I see some cards are major, some minor. If two of the scoring cards are major, and one minor – but the minor one works well with a major? I have my strategy. I think levelling this as a criticism shows a lack of thought into how the game works. It’s the same as those who say the game is 100% luck. You had a bad play of a short game. Don’t let the big box fool you – this is a short filler-style game that rewards back-to-back plays.

The elephant in the room

Some claim ‘drawing/playing a single card limits the decision space’. Sure – in one way. And one most aren’t used to. This common Kingdom Builder reaction shows how many players struggle outside their comfort zone. Yes, in round one, you must play your one card – in one of at least six areas. This decision will be affected by how many other terrain types those spaces link to (limiting later decisions). Which location tiles they’re near (giving unique long-term bonuses). Where other players have placed (can you expand as you want to?) And what’s nearby (will rivers/mountains stop your progress – and if so, is that good or bad?).

Many complaints come from players placing badly on initial placement in their one play. I get it – a bad first play often puts me off a game. In Kingdom Builder, your first three settlements played could see you touching three of the five terrain types. From then on, if you draw one of those, you must expand this initial area. So, thanks to this ‘luck’, you have a 60% chance of having to extend from your starting spot. Which may force you to connect to another terrain types. Now 80% of the cards are against you and its all the game/luck’s fault.

If you instead connect to no/one other terrain type, your chance of expanding elsewhere (and opening up the whole board) is 80/60%. And a commonly used house rule lets you mulligan your second card draw if it matches your first. Suddenly the ‘luck’ is more on your side and you have a whole board of opportunities and options to consider. Go figure… But yes, the game has its fair share of randomness – that I cannot deny.

Expansions

While I don’t want to go into detail here, I think it’s worth mentioning there have been several big box expansions for Kingdom Builder. Each adds extra landscape boards (with their own unique location bonuses) and new scoring cards. Each also has a theme (mechanical, as well as pasted on lol) that takes the game in a slightly different direction without changing the core. I’ll try to get to review them individually in future. But suffice it to say, this adds plenty of extra replay value once you’ve got a bunch of plays under your belt.

Conclusion: The Kingdom Builder board game

People can get a bit feisty when talking about Kingdom Builder. Like most popular games it divides opinion, but I find this one gets the hearts racing a little more than most. My first play I remember very clearly. I sat down with two good gaming friends and was absolutely destroyed. Did I think, well that was random stupid nonsense with no choices. No. I thought, how did they manage to do so much better than I did? We played again, I did a bit better, and I was hooked. It’s an absolute keeper for me. And I’d recommend any fans of short abstract games with light rules, but an interesting decision space, to give it a go.

How to start a board game collection

It’s a classic question: How to start a board game collection. I started my collecting phase around 2007. I started as a total newbie, with friends who were the same. So I rabidly consumed all the information I could. I read, I played and I purchased like my life depended on it – and made plenty of mistakes. So if you’re about to embark on the same journey, this guide is for you.

At it’s peak, my collection reached around 250 games (not including expansions, promos etc). My shelves were full. The top of the shelves were full. There was a bit of a pile on the floor. Before going to buy more shelves – the obvious answer – I had a good, hard look at mys(h)elf – ho ho. Enough was enough.

I’ve since cut back to around 150 games: a number I’m happy with (and, I expect, another blog post topic). But during this last decade-plus I’ve learned a thing or two about honing a collection into something you can be happy with. Of course, everyone’s taste is different – but hopefully this will set you off in the right direction.

Who are you going to play board games with?

As gaming groups form, you tend to find people fall naturally into categories. If you’re reading this you’re likely to be in the ‘buyer/teacher’ category – but with this comes great responsibility. You want to keep your group going, but you also want to buy and play the games you like. And so the tightrope walk between personal and group taste begins.

You should quickly start to ascertain which styles, lengths, themes and complexities of game suit your group. Do people like to play in a big group, or split into smaller ones? Do they like to play one game for the whole session, or a few each evening? If these are too varied, you can selfishly drop a few of the outliers you don’t care for as much. It’s your money after all and it’s not as if others won’t buy the occasional game. They key is to play to the majority, or the key regulars – whichever strike you as most important.

Here’s where Board Game Geek (BGG) becomes invaluable. It is a beast of a website, but it is in a field of one when it comes to researching board games. If a game goes down well, a look at its page on BGG will give up all kinds of useful info. The ‘fans also like’ section is great for new ideas, while it will also list the game’s ‘mechanisms’. You can click the words here (set collection, worker placement etc) to go to a list of games that use the same base idea. From there you can get a list of top games in that category. And that’s just the tip of the BBG iceberg. It can feel overwhelming at first, but trust me – it’s worth the time.

Second opinions

Using Board Game Geek to narrow down your choices is a great place to start. But the collective nature of its content can also be its greatest weakness. The ‘general public’ is a fickle thing, and averages can be deceiving. The majority of its users are American, for example, which sways opinions towards games more available there. I’ve also had a growing feeling users rate games very quickly, and rarely go back to amend those ratings. This has been particularly problematic with new games that look shiny but have little depth.

Look for regular users and reviewers you can trust, on BGG and elsewhere. Absorb a spread of videos, podcasts and written reviews (including, of course, mine!). Look at games you know first, to build a sense of which reviewers have tastes similar to your own. Build a pool of people to turn to for opinions. But consistency is as important as them being kindred spirits. I don’t share Tom Vasel’s overall opinion on games. But I trust his consistency, adapting my takeaways accordingly. So his opinion is still valuable to him.

As well as websites and reviewers, look out for ways to try before you buy. Online sites such as Yucata, Boit a Jeux and Board Game Arena are great. While most popular games now have apps, often at a fraction of the price of the physical equivalent. It’s not the same, of course. But will give you a good feel for how the game works. Also, look for other gaming groups in your area – as well as gaming stores that have game night,s or even better board game cafes. A good bit of research can really pay dividends.

How to start a board game collection: The classics versus…

Classics are classics for a reason. Some did something first, or did it the most smoothly or accessibly. Others nailed synergistic aspects of the hobby perfectly: such as time-to-fun ratio for a genre or mechanism. Others just sell by the shelf-load, so must be doing something right. For all these reasons, they’re a great place to start.

Even if they’re not always still the ‘best’, classic games are great introductions to what might be future favourite mechanisms or genres. Even if the classic doesn’t grab you, it may whet your appetite for more/similar of the same. Carcassonne – tile-laying. Catan – trade and negotiation. Stone Age – worker placement. Pandemic – co-operative games. Ticket to Ride – route building and set collection. These are must-tries, if not must-owns.

And don’t think ‘classic’ has to mean old. I’d argue Azul, released in 2017, can already be considered a classic abstract game. In its short time on the shelf it has sold thousands of copies and won copious awards. The same can be said for titles such as Terraforming Mars (2016 – sci-fi tableau building) and Gloomhaven (2017 – D&D style adventuring). Even after just a few years, they just feel like they’re here to stay.

…the new hotness

While trying/buying oldies but goodies is the soundest platform to build from, you also want to feel as if you’re part of your new hobby’s vanguard. It’s practically impossible to ignore new releases, especially if everyone is talking about them. But with literally thousands of new board games released each year, it’s incredibly hard to spot the outstanding ones.

A classic gamer pitfall is Kickstarter, which is fraught with investment danger. You’re backing a product upfront with no guarantee the game will ever release. And when you’re starting out, its harder to know the publishers/people you can trust. Remember: the skill set required to make a brilliantly convincing Kickstarter campaign is completely different than that of designing and developing a board game. Unless your research shows something of a sure thing – a re-release/follow up by a known publisher, for example – it’s best to avoid. The few great Kiskstarter games always become available later anyway.

On a positive note, if you’re following a group of reviewers/podcasters you trust you’ll see patterns. If half the people you listen to are raving about a game that’s on the way, the odds of it being a winner improve. Although they’re just as susceptible to hype as you are, if the hive mind starts to focus on one title there’s usually a better chance it’ll make the grade.

How to start a board game collection: Don’t panic

In conclusion, try to take plenty of time over your purchases and think about your groups first, researching as much as you can. Try to move through time lengths, complexity levels and genres to build a varied collection covering all your different scenarios. And be wary of short term hype versus the proven classics.

Yes, you’re going to make mistakes and pick up some stinkers – or great games your groups simply don’t get on with. Luckily, unlike many hobbies, there’s a great secondary market for board and card games. BGG has great trade and sales markets, while there are plenty of groups on Facebook and the like too. And that’s before looking into more advanced methods of swapping games, such as maths trades and selling at conventions.

If you’ve got any questions, especially if you think there’s things I can add to this guide, please let me know in the comments below. And if you want to support the blog and happen to be popping over to Amazon to get that collection going, please do so via this link.

Macao board game: A four-sided review

The Macao board game is a complex euro game designed by Stefan Feld, first released in 2009. It’s for 2-4 players and takes around two hours to play. The suggested age range of 12+ is probably about right as there’s a lot going on.

I’ve decided to cover this old classic for a few reasons. It’s the highest rated game in my Top 50 (spoiler alert!) that I haven’t reviewed. And it featured in my recent Top 10 games on Yucata – so it’s currently playable online. Great for all those of us who are self-isolating.

Macao is an interesting game in terms of feel and mechanics. There are a lot of classic euro tropes. You are collecting resources (wooden cubes) to pay for people and buildings (cards). These (hopefully!) form into an engine to produce more resources, but also victory points. But as with some other Feld designs, the real driving forces revolve around the level of risk you want to take. And how you deal with the luck – or lack of – that roles your way.

The ‘theme’ is a classic example of the German ‘pasted on’ period of the 90s/2000s. Miserable looking man on cover, beige board, 17th Century trading city etc. In terms of game play, the topic doesn’t make sense either – so if theme is important for you, prepare for the worst. And then get over it, because the game play is worth it. Alongside the beige board you’ll find four beige player boards, 120 small beige cards, 118 cardboard bits, 314 wooden pieces and six dice. The component quality, art and price are all standard.

Teaching the Macao board game

Macao is quite easy to teach along with, as players don’t have any hidden information. For example, at the start of each of the 12 rounds players choose a card from a display. This allows you to talk through what each one does before decisions are made. The chosen card is added to the player’s board to be paid for (and benefited from) later. But ultimately they will give players flexibility, extra resources, and/or a way to gain victory points.

Next, someone rolls a set of six different coloured dice. These represent resources and each player will choose two of the dice (you can pick any two, including those chosen by other players). You take as many resources in that colour as the dice number rolled (1-6). But you get them sooner the lower the number. So, if you take one resource of a colour, you’ll get it that turn. But if you want six of a colour, you’re not going to get them for five more turns.

The card you choose at the start of each round will need 1-4 resources to claim from your player board, in 1-4 colours. The better the card, the harder the combo: a great card may need four different resources. No problem, you may think. But you’re not allowed to carry resources over from round to round. You need all those colours to arrive in the same round – so you may never see the right resources fall into the right slots. Worse still, your board only has space for five cards – so you have to keep completing them or face a pretty harsh points penalty for any you have to discard.

Herding cats

If you’re lucky, you can mitigate things over time. Some cards allow you to take a cube of your choice each round, for example. So, do you go for easy cards to build, that won’t do you much good? Or go for the big risks, hoping for the reward of great card actions? It makes for really tricky decisions each round, while also giving players a nice mix of really quick and really massively productive rounds. If you have no pressing issues, why not take two sixes – and see at least 12 cubes arrive in five turns’ time?

Spending your cubes isn’t just about paying for cards. That would be too easy. You can also spend them on buying goods (to place on your ship); moving said ship to various ports to deliver said goods; and moving along a track that determines turn order. Which can be super useful, as it gives you first pick of the cards each round. In classic euro style, you’ll want to do all these things all the time while rarely having enough cubes to do half of it.

After 12 rounds you’ll add your points from cards with end-game scoring to those received during the game for delivered goods (and some card abilities). But you’ll lose points for any cards you’ve failed to pay for. And yes, you have to take a card every round – including the last one. Add it all up, and someone other than me 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: My favourite Stefan Feld designs tend to be the agonising ones which can mess with you via luck. Macao, Notre Dame and Oracle of Delphi all do this beautifully, with bad luck on risky moves often losing you the game. I understand this kind of euro game isn’t for everyone. But for me this perfectly walks the line between cleverness and risk taking. I don’t often win, as I’m usually too cautious. But I enjoy it every time.
  • The thinker: Randomness is fine with me, as long as you can find ways to mitigate it. Here, you may find a way – but you may not. Also, the almost 100-strong card deck feels way too random. Why, like many other games, isn’t it tiered? It’s easy to get cards in the early rounds that are pretty useless, and others in the last round that would’ve been great for a long-term engine. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
  • The trasher: While Macao has zero confrontation, watching your opponents is key. Turn order can be huge, so you need to have that in mind. And delivering goods first can be a big point swing – especially if you have cards which double the value. The three goods for a town are worth 5-3-2 points respectively – so sneaking in first is equal to both the other two. In a game where 100 is a big score, all these points matter.
  • The dabbler: I was a bit worried going in, but once you get going it’s surprisingly straightforward. The turn structure is pointed on your player board. And while there feels like a lot of choices, they’re all broken down into bite-sized chunks. Choose one card; choose two dice; spend your cubes across three options. Sure, you can try to build a complex engine. But doing simple things efficiently can also win you the game.

Key observations

Luck is a big complaint from the haters, mostly around the resource cube mechanism. It’s true – this mechanism is very tactical and unforgiving. But that doesn’t make it bad, per se. It just means you can never be sure of anything or ensure massive long-term strategic plans. That means Macao will appeal to some and not others, so it’s a criticism you should take seriously. Know your groups and act accordingly.

The theme and look of the game are also savaged. Sure, neither are original and the components are your old school standard cubes and discs. Personally, I find the game pretty charming to look at, in a beige way. But again, if this is going to be a game breaker for you or your group, it’s worth considering.

I don’t but that the game has no interaction. Sure, it’s not direct. But grabbing turn order at the right time, or taking a big ship move to deliver goods ahead of an opponent, can be game changers. Even taking a certain town area before another player can see a big point swing. You have to be aware what everyone else is doing, 24/7. For me, that’s interaction.

Conclusion: The Macao board game

Macao is not for everyone. In fact, it is the quintessential Marmite euro game. Stefan Feld is Marmite; euro games with a lot of luck and tactics are Marmite; point salad games are Marmite; cards-with-words games are Marmite. That’s a lot of Marmite. And what can I say? I LOVE Marmite.

Play board games online for free: Top 10 games on Boite a Jeux

Boite a Jeux is my second favourite online board game playing website. It falls slightly behind Yucata because it has a smaller selection of games (and games I’m interested in). That said, it does include some of my absolute favourites. It’s another fantastic website on which to play some classic hobby board game for free.

Account creation is, once again, incredibly simple – sign up with your email address and a few basic details for a free account. Starting a game is as simple as, well, clicking ‘start a new game’. Drop down menus then let you pick your poison, number of players and any variants. Then simply add guest names (if you want to play with friends who have made accounts) and away you go. There are no downloads – it all works in your internet browser.

You don’t need to start your own game though – and it’s often best not to. Instead, try going to the ‘invitations’ list. You’ll probably find people waiting for more players in the game you want to play – especially with the more popular titles. There’s also the option to jump into a game that someone else has quit from, to make up the numbers. This can be good fun, picking up the random challenge of a situation a stranger has left you in.

The online playing experience

As with Yucata, this is a turn-based platform. There is no time limit to your turns and you’ll often have to refresh the screen to see that it’s your turn. This can be annoying if playing with strangers, who you have no control over. But it does mean you can play over a week if you want to.

There’s a text area for in-game messages, but you’re much better off using Skype or similar of you want to chat while playing live. During the game you can access the official rules, look at stats and rating of players and refresh the board (including mid-turn, as long as you haven’t seen anything you can’t take back – like a flipped card). Making notes is a premium feature (which seems odd as you can just use something like Notepad anyway). As are extra bonuses such as no limit on the number of simultaneous games you have going.

Five of my picks I own and were in my last top 50 games, so are simply firm favourites. Three more should probably be in my collection and are all brilliant, top level euro games. There’s also a couple of family games, a racing game – even a creative game. Two are playable solo, while several go to six or seven players. So there should be something for everyone. Links go to full reviews, where I’ve done them.

Play board games online: My Boite a Jeux Top 10

  1. Concordia (2-5 players). One of my favourite euro games, beautifully implemented here. It has a tiny but hugely significant bit of deck-building added to a great action selection and route building game. Choose from six maps, as well as having the option of adding salt and/or forum tiles.
  2. Deus (2-4 players). Sadly no expansion options, but this is still a solid implementation of the base game. Another of my favourite euros, it ticks a lot of the same boxes as Concordia. Expanding your territory and clever card play will win the day.
  3. Agricola (1-5 players). While I prefer Caverna, this is a great way to play Agricola. You can do huge parts of your turn before committing, letting you explore all the outcomes in this complex euro. It has family, advanced and tournament modes. Plus several draft variants and three card decks (beginner, interactive and complex).
  4. Dixit (4-6 players). It’s great to see different types of game on these sites – and the classic game of imagination, Dixit, works well. The game has a large deck of gorgeous cards, each containing an original piece of abstract art, which players try to interpret. If playing with random people you can choose one of eight languages.
  5. Vanuatu (3-5 players). Boy, is this game mean. It has a lot of standard euro game tropes, but the way action selection works is guaranteed to see some people get screwed over. So it’s probably best played in isolation! In terms of variants, you can choose to play with or without characters.
  6. Alhambra (3-6 players). This classic tile-laying family game is well implemented here, although sadly there are no options for adding any of the expansions. But the base game still sells well more than 15 years after its release and for good reason. It’s a great heads-down puzzle cleverly meshed with a very interactive scoring system.
  7. Fearsome Floors (2-7 players). This is a great option for some tense and competitive but daft fun. This race game sees players trying to escape a monster in a house – while throwing their competitors under the bus. Play standard or advanced rules (with the ‘3 hits’ variant available too).
  8. Trajan (2-4 players). Another top 10, another Stefan Feld-designed euro game. This has a lot of his typical ‘point salad’ traits on show, but stands out thanks to its clever use of the class mancala mechanism for action selection.
  9. Rallyman (1-5 players). There are lots of variants available here for this dice-rolling race game. As well as setting up your own custom track, you can choose to throw in the dirt expansion. As well as opting for a time trail, you can also opt to play the Shakedown variant. And after a race, you can save the data to try the same track.
  10. Tzolk’in (2-4 players). You can play the base game of this classic euro, or throw in the Tribes and Prophecies expansion. There is also an ‘official’ market variant available from designer Daniele Tascini. Experienced fans of the game should check it out, as it’s designed to combat the ‘big resources’ dominant strategy.

There are around 60 games on Boite a Jeux at time of writing, including some more recent titles of note. Well regarded modern euros such as Kanban and Bruxelles 1893 didn’t make my list as I’ve not learnt them, while popular family game Alchemists is also available. As for other euro favourites of mine, Castles of Burgundy and Dungeon Lords (and Pets) just missed out but have great playable versions here.

Finally, if you like two-player abstract games, the Gipf Project is well represented. As well as Gipf itself, you can find online versions of Yinsh, Tzaar and Zertz. And I should probably mention Dungeon Twister, Shazamm, Romans Go Home… Yeah, you get the picture! And, as always, feel free to hit me up for a game. You’ll find me on Boite a Jeux (as in most online places) as ‘hairyarsenal’. Let’s do this!