Board game Top 10: The best set collection games

Set collection is a classic and one of the most commonly utilised game mechanisms.  Thousands of games use in one version or another, from classic card (Rummy, Poker) and dice (Yahtzee, Poker Dice) games through to complex euro games.

Their origin dates back to Mahjong in the 18th or 19th Century. By the end of the 19th Century it had translated to card games, arriving in the west as Rummy; and growing and morphing incredibly since then.

As games have become more complex, so have their designers’ usage of set collection. Where once it was the core of games, now it often sits alongside other mechanisms as a means to facilitate a more complex structure. But however it is utilised, you can guarantee hundreds of new games will incorporate it every year.

I could’ve done a simple Top 10 below, but I didn’t think that would do such a venerable mechanism justice. So instead I’ve broken things down into four sections (card, family, euro and ‘other’ games), before doing my actual Top 10 taken from all those below. Yeah, I do like to go on a bit… but hopefully this will be more useful to different types of gamers (such as those just coming into the hobby).

(Note: Any links in the text are to in-depth game reviews elsewhere on this site)

My Top 5 set collection card games

Here’s five cheap and accessible simple card games (in no particular order) that are a great first step for someone who enjoys a simple set collection game. They’re all easy on theme and light on rules, so should be suitable for just about anyone.

  • Red7
    (2014, 2-4 player, 5-30 mins)
    An incredibly clever little game that messes with your brain for he first few plays, but once you ‘get’ it becomes addictive. The idea is to be winning by the end of your turn – and if you’re not, you’re out. You do this by playing one or two cards from your hand in front of you, either to obtain the current win condition or to change the condition so you are winning (or both). Each card has a number and a colour, with the colour dictating the win condition. A hand can take five minutes, so play as long as you like.
  • Battle Line (AKA Schotten Totten)
    (2000, 2 players, 30 mins)
    This classic Reina Knizia design sees two players pitched against each other, competing to win the majority of nine battles (five total, or three adjacent). Players play cards to these ‘battles’ and win them with a slight variation on brag hands (largely runs and sets) – but you can win a battle early if you can prove your opponent can’t possibly win it (as any card they’d need has already been played). This, plus some interesting action cards, elevate it beyond the typical luck/gambling games such as poker, without making it complex to learn.
  • Coloretto
    (2003, 2-5 players, 30 mins)
    This simple game has a great drafting mechanic: add a card to a row (one row per player) or take a row – so take a single card, or risk waiting for up to three. The twist: you only score in three of the seven colours, so the longer you wait the more chance your opponents have to make card sets useless to you. You can teach it in five minutes and there’s lots of luck, but it has been in print for 15 years for good reason.
  • Lost Cities
    (1999, 2 players, 30 minutes)
    This is another two-player only Knizia classic, but it plays incredibly differently to Battle Line (above). Here you’re trying to score points in 1-5 colours (your choice), but you can only lay cards of each colour in sequential order – starting with bonus cards that will multiply that score. The twist is you each colour you decide to start begins at -20 points, so you need to score at least 21 to get anything (numbers are just 1-10) – and those bonuses double your negatives if you screw up. Both players usually end up feeling the game hates them – but in a good way, honest!
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4 players, 30 mins)
    Archaeology brings a big dose of push-your-luck to the set collection card game, thanks to a clever hand management element. The basics are simple: collect sets of cards and lay them in front of you for points. However, the more of a set you get the more it is worth, so you want to keep cards in your hand – but there is the constant threat of ‘storm’ cards that force all players to discard half of their hand cards. There’s also ‘thief’ cards to add more interaction (without overdoing it), while the 2016 reprint (The New Expedition) added a little more card variety.

My Top 5 set collection family games

For many (particularly in the US and UK), family board games have been limited to Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo for decades. Thankfully, since the 1990s, there has been a growing number of games that have fixed the issues these dated titles have: here are five of the best ones that include set collection.

  • Ticket to Ride
    (2004, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I’m sure regular visitors to this site are sick of me talking-up Ticket to Ride, but the fact it has sold millions of copies and is still beloved of thousands of ‘serious’ gamers tells you all you need to know: this is a modern classic and a brilliant gateway into the wider world of modern gaming. The set collection couldn’t be simpler: getting sets of coloured (not numbered) cards to be able to lay your trains on routes on the board. But you’re doing so to complete route cards in your hand your opponents can’t see – and there are limited routes to claim to get from city to city.
  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-6 players, 60 minutes)
    Here you’ll find two types of set collection. First, you need to collect sets of four types of currency with which to buy building tiles to create your Alhambra (palace). But these buildings are also coloured; and having the largest set of a colour earns you points. Add to this a fascinating puzzle of how you put your palace tiles together and you have a cleverly thinky game which is at the same time accessible, as all of the elements are in their own way simple to grasp.
  • Ra
    (1999, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
    Knizia’s third game on the list (he does love a twist on a classic mechanism), Ra is largely an auction game in terms of in-play mechanisms – but the scoring is all about set collection. Players jostle and bid for tiles to add to their tableau throughout the game, most of which score in sets either during or at the end of the game. Everything works simply, making it simple to learn, but it’s the interaction between players and in particular knowing when to call ‘ra’ (to start an auction) that really makes the game sing.
  • Azul
    (2017, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
    In case you were thinking I’d been in a deep sleep since the early 2000s, here’s a properly ‘new’ title that has managed to find a fantastic original take on the concept of set collection. Players take it in turns to take a particular colour of tile from one of the sets available, placing the other coloured tiles from that set into the middle of the table (making a leftovers set, which you can also take from). The tiles you take must be added to your player board on one of five lines (which have 1-5 spaces in them), and each line can only contain a single colour. This can lead to massive nastiness as options diminish, but it’s an awful lot of fun.
  • Blueprints
    (2013, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
    This one flew a little under the radar, but has been a big hit with most people I’ve played with. Players take it in turns to draft dice which they put behind their screen to build up their blueprint. You can follow the pattern on this blueprint to gain points, or ignore it and go your own way – instead focusing on anything from taking lots of one colour (or number) of dice, a run of numbers, or clever ways to stack them on your blueprint to score extra points. The fun comes in trying to guess the motives of your opponents and scupper them, while also trying to fulfil your own plans: and laughing together as you all fail miserably to do either.

My Top 5 set collection euro games

This was difficult to narrow down to five, so if you’re looking in this category and want more suggestions try Castles of Burgundy (a fiddly tile-laying Feld design where everything scores points), Endeavor (sail the seas, collect tokens, control areas) and El Gaucho (collect cows to score points, with a simple gateway euro twist).

  • Terraforming Mars
    (2016, 1-5 players, 120-180 mins)
    This sprawling euro game blends almost every mechanism you can think of, but collecting cards in sets that synergise – and sets of resources to spend to terraform the planet – are two of the keys to success. This has been one of the real breakout hits of recent years and for good reason: a massive stack of unique cards make each game feel different as you each build your own tableau/engine, but the simple core of collecting drives the experience and makes the basics very easy to learn.
  • Thurn and Taxis
    (2006, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
    This could just as easily have been popped into the family section, but I feel it has a little more going on than the likes of Ticket to Ride – although it is very much powered by a simple set collection concept. You draw town cards to build routes across the map; but must add a card to your route every turn before deciding whether to lay that route on the board, adding both a push-your-luck and tactical scoring element to decisions. The game is criticised by numpties for being a bit beige, but those with the basic intelligence to see past this will find a clever and engaging game that’s way more than the sum of its parts.
  • Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
    (2012, 2-4 players, 120 mins)
    While most obviously a worker placement game, the winner will most likely be the player who most successfully collects sets of resources with which to buy scoring and bonus tiles. But the worker placement element really makes the game stand out, as the game’s turning worker cogs make it both visually and mechanically unique. And it should be noted this is a punishing game of minimal gains that is not for the weak of heart!
  • Saint Petersburg
    (2004, 2-4 players, 60 minutes)
    This classic euro game enjoyed a timely revival with a 10th anniversary second edition in 2014, but seems to have sunk without a trace once again – but needs to make it onto this list (it is still readily available second-hand and can be played online at sites such as Yucata.de). Players collect sets of nobles, craftsmen and aristocrats to gain either money (to buy more cards), points or both; and it is mastering how to walk the tightrope between balancing the two that makes the game sing. Again, some are put off by the oldy-worly artwork that is, admittedly, dry as a witch’s tit: but trust me, the gameplay comfortably overcomes it.
  • Finca
    (2009, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
    Unfortunately Finca shares many traits with Saint Petersburgh: a classic and well-loved German euro game from publisher Hans Im Gluck that fell out of print. However, a successful 2018 Kickstarter should see it back in the shops (at least for a while) later this year (and again, you can play it on Yucata if you want to give it a go). What makes the game stand out is its central rondel that each player’s pieces move around in a mancala-type fashion. But you’re doing this to collect sets of fruit which are in turn used to deliver sets for victory points. I’ve only played online, but am looking forward to it being back in print.

Other great set collection games

I had several other games I didn’t want to leave out, so here they are…

  • Forbidden Desert/Forbidden Island/ Pandemic
    (2008-2013, 2-4 players, 30-60 mins)
    I’m not mad keen on co-operative games, where players win collectively rather than individually, but they’re hugely popular – and set collection is often a key part of the mechanics. Easily the most popular series (and for good reason) are these three games from designer Matt Leacock – with Pandemic having seen its own slew of newer versions. But across them all, the premise is the same: collect sets of cards to stop disasters happening, while at the same time holding back the triggers which will set off those disasters. Forbidden Island is probably the easiest starting point, with children as young as eight usually able to take part.
  • Onirim
    (2010, 1 player, 30 mins)
    Another area I rarely talk about is solo gaming – another rich area for set collection games. Onirim is a great example, being a small box fast playing card game that pits a single player against the game (there is a co-op two-player version, but I wouldn’t bother). You need to collect and play three cards of the same type in a row to obtain door cards, but you’re constantly coming up against nightmares that force you to burn cards from the deck, reducing your chance of success. The game has a unique and strangely compelling art style and universe and has become one of the most popular solo games on the market. (Note: Both Terraforming Mars (above) and Ex Libris (below) have good solo variants.)
  • Sushi Go!
    (2013, 2-5 players, 15-30 mins)
    to make it three in a row, another area I’m a bit crap on is children’s games – but Sushi go has been a huge hit in both the family and children’s games markets. Its card drafting taken to its most basic level, as you draft cards to make sets that score points in various ways. It’s super simple and a great way to teach kids or new gamers the various ways more complex games reward you with points, while playing fast – and the super cute artwork is a big help too.
  • Monopoly Deal
    (2008, 2-5 players, 15-30 minutes)
    It’s hard to believe I’m listing a Monopoly game here, but here it is. I like this because it distils what made Monopoly a potentially great game (set collection, luck, plus loads of take that and screwage) while reducing it into a game that takes a fraction of the time – and is set up with the simple shuffle of the card deck. It is also easily available and less than £10, so it can be a great way to help your non-gamer friends save themselves from playing its dreadful big brother. Trust me, they’ll thank you and who knows – maybe they’ll come back to you for some recommendations for other games…
  • Ex Libris
    (2017, 1-4 players, 60 mins)
    I’ve only played this one once, so didn’t feel it had enough to muscle onto one of the earlier lists – but its little original twists made it impossible to leave out. From the beautifully realised fantasy library theme to the gorgeous artwork, it’s a joy to look at. But the gameplay is clever too: you’re collecting sets of books to score points, but the cards you’re adding to your shelves have several books on each (so you may be getting colours you don’t want too) – but worse, you have to order them alphabetically by book title. This puzzley element really makes it shine, while a small worker placement/special powers element also ensures replayability – but it always remains simple to teach.

My actual Top 10 set collection games…

I may order these differently in a different list, but here I’m putting the most stock into their set collection elements and how much they make the game greater than its other parts.

  1. Thurn and Taxis: The combination of route building and set collection in real terms is magnificent, while the game is the perfect length (an hour) and has multiple routes to victory in what is a very tight package.
  2. Archaeology – The Card Game: This would be a rather ‘meh’ set collection game if you took out those sandstorms, but the tension they add transform it into a brilliant push-your-luck card game in a small box.
  3. Azul: This may be new game hotness speaking, but my few plays of this to date have shown a depth of both strategy and tactics that re rare in any game – and especially a set collection abstract one. Mean and clever, but simple and elegant.
  4. Alhambra: This sits higher than it might on the list by mixing two types of set collection in one game, each of which could make its own game. The currency collection is ingenious; and the tile laying and scoring equally so.
  5. Coloretto: Everything here is about the set collection – and this simple core makes the choice of whether to take cards or add one to a set all the more delicious. There’s no distractions here, just tough decisions in a simple rule set.
  6. Finca: Mancalas and rondels make any game better in my eyes, so to combine the two is to play directly into my heart. There’s enough to think about there, so a good game designer leaves the rest simple – and set collection ticks that box.
  7. Ticket to Ride: The king of family games, the king of gateway games, and a great set collection game – but not the best. Here it’s a very simple means to a brilliant end for a game that hinges on blocking and secret route building.
  8. Ra: Much as with Ticket to Ride, the real game here is the wonderful auction system and its push-your-luck elements – wit the set collection being the best way to tie those together with an effective scoring system.
  9. Monopoly Deal: Every time I play – win or lose – this makes me laugh. Sure, it’s more likely to be luck than good play that decides the outcome. But in a short filler you can teach anyone, play and pack up all in 30 minutes, who cares?
  10. Blueprints: Dice drafting is a great mechanism, hidden tableaus create great table dynamics, and multiple ways to score the sets you’re creating add extra intrigue. Packaged and themed differently, this could’ve been a huge hit.

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