Ah, the nineties. Or, to me, my twenties. The decade that introduced many of us to the internet, mobile phones, rave and grunge. But what were the best 1990s board games? The one’s that many of us old timers are still playing regularly today?
There are a few big games I should mention that didn’t make my list. These are all great games and well worthy of this list. But they’re just not my type of game. Tigris and Euphrates (aggressive abstract), Catan (euro negotiation), Magic/Netrunner (collectable card games), I’m the Boss (silly negotiation) and Tichu (card shedding) all fall into this category. The last is El Grande – which is my kind of game, but I’ve just never picked up a copy or played it much. I think largely because it needs at least three players.
Links below go to my full reviews of these games elsewhere on this website. and you can scroll to the bottom of the post for online play options. Most of the games are also still in print. If you’re thinking if investing, please use this link to Board Game Prices to get started. It’s a great comparison linking out to a range of great independent retailers.
The best 1990s board games
Ra (1999, 2-5 players, 60 mins, ages 10+, Reina Knizia)
This is comfortably my favourite auction game. And after more than 50 plays it is showing no signs of getting old. What makes it stand out is that you’re making a single bid, with a numbered tile. But there’s a ‘push your luck’ element to when you do so. Scoring tiles are slowly added to the pot, which will have different values to each player, creating some delicious tensions as the game progresses.
Manhattan (1994, 2-4 players, 60 mins, ages 8+, Andreas Seyfarth)
Famed for its incredibly ugly board, Manhattan comfortably rises above the terrible 80s-style artwork. This cutthroat area majority abstract game won the Spiel de Jahres (German game of the Year) in 1994 – and deservedly so. Cards limit where you can place your pieces, while you can score in three different ways. It makes for a clever balancing act where talking your opponents into believing you can be ignored can have as much influence as tile placement.
PitchCar (1995, 2-8 players, 30+ mins, ages 5+, Jean du Poël)
This is the only game here I don’t own. And that’s purely down to cost, not my enjoyment level. Imagine Scalextric, but with flicking discs for cars, and you’re on the right track (ho ho). Add track sections without barriers, jumps and even loops (with expansion packs) and you can probably imagine why this is one of the best ‘end of evening’ con game around.
Entdecker (1996, 2-4 players, 60 mins, ages 10+, Klaus Teuber)
This game certainly isn’t perfect. But if you’re playing with the alternative rules and at least three players, it’s still one of my favourite tile-laying games. It has the luck elements a sea exploration game needs for its theme. But there’s enough strategy and tactics in the majority battles to easily make up for it. And its just different yet simple enough to stand out.
Small box games
The Rose King (1992, 2 players, 30 mins, Dirk Henn)
This is one of my favourite two-player-only abstracts. It has the feel of a classic such as Go, but introduces a random element in that piece movement is limited by cards. However you can see each other’s cards, so are always aware of your opponent’s options.
Basari (1998, 3-4 players, 30 mins, Reinhard Staupe)
With the right crowd, this little negotiation game is an absolute blast. Players simultaneously choose one of three actions, all of which affect each player slightly differently. If you’re the only one to pic it, you do it. If you all choose the same one, no one does anything. But if two of you pick it, you negotiate/bid to see who gets the spoils, and who the action. Listed under small box because the only available version is the smaller, later released card version.
For Sale (1997, 3-6 players, 30 mins, Stefan Dorra)
A two-round auction game where you first bid for properties (English auction), before selling those properties for end game cash/points (single shot blind auction). It’s a great end-of-night closer game and – along with my next pick – the one out of my picks you still see most often on gaming tables today.
6 Nimmt! (1994, 4-10 players, 45 mins, Wolfgang Kramer)
a game for every collection, 6 Nimmt! is the classic hand management/simultaneous card play game out there. At its best with 5-6 players, it gets a little too chaotic (but still fun) with more. And while it can seem super random, with 5-6 players you’ll tend to notice the better players tend to win. The later 2-4 player version (X Nimmt!) is also excellent.
Kahuna (1998, 2 players, 45 mins, Günter Cornett)
Another simple, elegant two-player abstract where a card deck restricts your options. This time, the cards are largely secret. But a small deck with limited options means you have a good idea of what’s coming. It’s area control, with a clever cascading mechanism which can see your best laid plans collapse with a single clever move.
Lost Cities (1999, 2 players, 30 minutes, Reina Knizia)
This is a clever two-player push-your-luck card game. You’re trying to score points by playing sequentially numbered cards in the same colour to your side of the board. But you only score a number if it rises above 20 – otherwise you’ll get negative points. With shared coloured discard piles you can both draw from, it soon becomes a battle of wills where you both think the card deck hates you.
The best 1990s board games: near misses
Several of the GIPF series games came out in the 1990s, and are well worth checking out if you like two-player abstract games. But my favourites came along a bit later, in the 2000s. Schotten Totten/Battle Line (another two-player Knizia design) would’ve been my number 11 – a great game, and in my collection, but it didn’t quite make the list.
I also noticed I almost had a game from each year. If I was to do at least one for each year, I’d add Games Workshop classic Space Crusade (1990), Tichu (1991) and mind-bending trick taker Sticheln (1993).
Many of these games can be played free online at the following sites:
- Yucata: El Grande, Kahuna, The Rose King
- Board Game Arena: 6 Nimmt!, For Sale, Lost Cities, Manhattan
Enjoy the list? Check out all kinds of ‘best of’ selections over at my Top 10s list page.