Welcome to my fourth annual Top 50 games list. As always, I hope this list may inspire some non-gamers to take the plunge and order yourself something – and perhaps more experienced gamers may see something that peaks their interest (or makes them angry enough to post a comment!). About half the games on the list are suitable for new gamers and/or families, so there’s really no excuse not to enrich your gaming shelve with some modern classics and chuck Monopoly in the bin!
More than half of the game are linked to reviews I’ve done of them elsewhere on the site, so if you want more details on those simply click through. And if a game isn’t reviewed but you’d like some more information – or if your favourite game isn’t on the list and you demand to know why – simply drop me a line or ask questions in the comments below. I really am interested in what you think, so any feedback is much appreciated – and I’m always happy for game recommendations, if you think ‘Why on earth isn’t X on this list?
My Top 20 board and card games 2017 (last year’s position in brackets)
- (1) Race for the Galaxy (2007)
Despite another year of falling plays for this one, it’s still my favourite game. It has a high barrier to entry due to the cards appearing terribly complicated thanks to a baffling array of symbols; but if you take the time to learn it, it is one of the richest card games you’ll ever play. Better still it can be over in 30 minutes, while combining race and engine building elements – strange bed fellows on the surface, but ones that marry beautifully here. And while it’s light on interaction, a good player will absolutely rely on knowledge of what others may do next to gain an advantage.
- (2) Ticket to Ride (2004)
I’ve played a lot of board and card games with my new girlfriend (who isn’t a gamer) in 2017 – but the one she requests almost every time we see each other is Ticket to Ride. A steady flow of new maps helps keep it fresh, but I’m still happy to play the basic original version whenever I’m asked – and it’s probably my favourite phone app too. If you like to sit down with the family and play a game, you should absolutely have this on your book shelves at home. It hasn’t sold millions of copies worldwide by accident, despite being from a relatively small publisher.
- (3) Downfall of Pompeii (2004)
I feel a little sorry for Pompeii, as it came out in the same year as Ticket to Ride which was such a huge success: in another year, this may well have shone almost as brightly. It’s another family/gateway level game and while it isn’t quite as elegant, it realises the theme really well (its great around the table as you throw each other’s citizens into the volcano…) and cleverly pivots half way through from being a placement game to a ‘run for your lives!’ game. Another game that’s been a hit with every group of non-gamers I’ve even taught it to – and most gamers too.
- (4) Deus (2014)
In a similar way to Race for the Galaxy, Deus is an engine building card game where you need to be aware of what everyone is up to – and that plays pretty fast (under an hour). It has the added factor of a board to worry about, but the really clever aspect is the way the cards play off of each other as you start to build up your tableau. It’s a fabulous game that i didn’t play enough in past 12 months – and it took making this list to remind me just how highly I regard it. Who fancies a game?
- (9) Ra (1999)
I love bidding as a game mechanism, but find a surprisingly small amount of bidding games I really like. Ra is very much the exception that proves the rule: a game with few rules and components where bidding and push-your-luck collide. The Egyptian theme is totally pasted on, but makes for nice graphic design and components – while a typically clever Reina Knizia scoring system means you can take several paths to victory despite it being a very simple game to play and teach.
- (7) Terra Mystica (2012)
A one place climb for this wonderful and complex euro game, despite me only playing it once since my last top 50. Just thinking about this game gives me a warm glow: I love the style and pasted on fantasy theme despite itself, and for me it has just the right amount of moving parts that I don’t get lost in it all. The decision space does expand as the game moves forward, but never becomes unmanageable – while you can take big risks that may or may not pay off over time. It’s a long game with a lot going on, but I feel a real sense of awe at the design after each play.
- (NEW) Oracle of Delphi (2016)
This is the highest new entry for this year and one of only three 2016 games to make the list – and I put off playing it for three months after getting it as I was worried I wouldn’t like it. Instead it has become my current favourite Stefan Feld design: a great mix of pick-up-and-deliver and euro mechanisms on a modular board that really does make every play different – and a race feel that gives it a different flavour to your average Feld point salad game. While it probably isn’t great for beginners, I’ve had surprisingly little trouble explaining it to less experienced gamers too.
- (5) Concordia (2013) Despite a lack of plays, hence the small drop in position, I still think this is Mac Gerdts’ best design so far (and he sets a high bar). Games always feel different and there is just enough competition for spots and cards to make it feel competitive, while not being nasty enough to fall anywhere near ‘take that’ territory. A selection of maps and expansions keep things fresh too, helping this to stay an evergreen in my top 10 for another year.
- (6) Through the Ages (2006) A similar lack of plays sees this classic drop too, largely due to a lack of viable opponents: it’s very long, very thinky, and the few people I do know that play it do so regularly – meaning I comfortably lose every game I play! But that doesn’t stop it being a brilliant example of how you can work a genre with a clever twist in a way that shouldn’t work: here, a ‘civ’ style game using a card system but no map. It has been done again since, but never nearly as well: I just wish I had more time, and more willing opponents.
- (8) Merchant of Venus (1988) Still, for me, the ultimate ‘pick up and deliver’ game – in a field that is admittedly light on top quality contenders. The light-handed take on the sci-fi theme works beautifully, scaling for long/short games is right on the nose, and the movement and route discovery mechanisms have rarely been equalled in the 30-odd years since its original release. I’d still love to have a fancy recent-print version, but the game is good enough that I’m more than happy to keep playing my battered, slightly shonky original.
- (18) Bora Bora (2013) A climb for the second Stefan Feld euro game on my list – largely because I haven’t played for ages and really miss it. I think it was a little overlooked on release as just another Feld point salad game, never quite getting the acclaim 2011’s Trajan managed, but personally I still prefer it. It’s vibrantly colourful – which I like, but puts some off; while the theme is completely pasted on – but for me still works well enough and is different enough from the norm to keep me happy. A really good step up into medium/heavyweight euro games.
- (15) Can’t Stop (1980) After a solid run of six heavier euro games, Can’t Stop brings the list firmly back into family game territory. It is a very simple yet fiendishly clever push-your-luck dice-chucker that has worked with every group I’ve played it with – and is even stealth-educational, really helping basic arithmetic skills. The game works really well from two to four players, and you can simply buy a few extra components to take it up to five or even six players (although it starts to be a bit long between turns). A game I think every home should have.
- (20+) Navegador (2010) A good run of plays in 2016 has seen my number two Gerdts game make up a few places on Concordia. While it lacks the variety of that game, it makes up for it with really forcing you to pay attention to what everyone else is doing if you want to succeed – while again not really feeling like an aggressive game. As with all Gerdts games you can expect snappy turns and a game length that’s spot on for the heaviness (less than two hours); while for me the rondel mechanism he is most famous for has never worked better than it does here.
- (16) Snowdonia (2012) Another clever euro game, this time utilising another of my favourite mechanisms: worker placement/action selection. But what makes Snowdonia stand out is the great mix of a new mechanism (the weather) working beautifully with the theme (building a railway in Wales), alongside the fact the game plays itself as you go along which acts a bit like a random game end timer in an often spectacularly annoying yet wonderful way. The weather/timer combo makes every game feel very different despite a very tight core, which is great game design.
- (11) Ingenious (2004) How do you take a simple coloured dominoes abstract game and make it an instant classic? Let Reiner Knizia design it, adding one of his ‘ingenious’ scoring methods into the mix. This game couldn’t be much easier to teach – it has a single sheet rulebook – but the more you play, the more you start to appreciate how difficult it is to spot the point you need to change tactics from point scoring to point denying of others. A common charity shop find, as it was a mass market title, this is always worth picking up if you see it.
- (NEW) Thurn and Taxis (2006) I’d enjoyed exploring this family/gateway game online so bought a physical copy – and am now loving it even more. It got a bit of an undeserved backlash when it won the SdJ, largely I think because of its incredibly beige nature at a time when this kind of dry, German theme was being a tad overused. But it seems to be getting something of a second wind in the face of endlessly poor zombie and ‘theme’ games, with most people I introduce it to enjoying it. Once experienced this can be a pretty cutthroat race to complete your routes, with just enough variety to make it easy to teach but strongly replayable.
- (20) Caverna (2013) One of the heavier games on my list, Rosenberg’s Caverna keeps all the bits I love about Agricola and removes the bits I hated: its as if he read my mind. As with other heavier games on the list I’m not getting to play it as often as I’d like, but whenever I do – win or lose – I marvel at home it all comes together so beautifully. I’ll still happily play Agricola, but I don’t like the way the initial card draw gives you such a huge strategic mountain to climb before you even take a turn; while making feeding so arduous simply isn’t ‘fun’. Both problems are solved beautifully here, making for a far more fun, yet still brain-burny, experience.
- (20+) Yspahan (2006) While I can see why Zooloretto won the 2007 SdJ, my vote would’ve gone to fellow nominee Yspahan. It’s another game that can look on first glance like ‘just another euro’ but is in fact much more of a family level game – and has enough dice throwing, engine building, decision making and interaction in about an hour to keep most gamers happy. I guess it looks a little dry by modern gaming standards; which unfortunately wasn’t helped by using pastel colours rather than shades of beige for a lot of the pieces. And the desert theme is totally pasted on too, of course. But seriously – give this one a chance.
- (20+) Notre Dame (2007) The third of my four ‘top 50’ Feld games also makes it into the top 20, but feels very different than the others here. It does that rarest of things – makes a good game from the classic card drafting mechanic – but also comes from an era before the point salad. This is also short for a Feld game, easily playing in an hour, and works well across played numbers. At the same time you still have lots of interesting decisions to make and while there is limited interaction, the drafting means you do have to think about what you’re passing to the next player.
- (13) Codenames (2015) This entry is for the idea, not the specific game – so includes both the word and picture versions. It is also the only party game on my list and despite a lack of plays still manages a place in my top 20. I’m really not a party game fan but if I do have to play one, something in teams is always preferable and something where you have to properly think also hits the spot: and this does both. It also doesn’t rely on you knowing each other (but it may sometimes help a little), covers all age groups, is easy to teach, and works for a good player number range.
- Acquire (1964) Comfortably the oldest game on the list, this classic Sid Sackson design should be mathsy and boring – but as so often, he worked his magic to make a hotel industry stocks and shares game fast, fun and accessible. Fast to teach, plays in an hour and still in print after 50 years for good reason.
- Archaeology: The Card Game (2007) A slight jump for this one, largely due to a very nice reprint that adds a little extra oomph to an already great family push-your-luck card game. Cheap and fast playing, this is a great end-of-evening game that packs a lot of fun and tension into a very compact package.
- Copycat (2012) A small drop out of the Top 20 for this fun and clever parody game from Friedemann Friese, which mixes elements of Through the Ages, Agricola and Dominion into a fun euro game with a pasted on but amusing election theme.
- The Dwarves (2012) A climb for my favourite co-op game, aided by a string of expansion releases. Dice rolling really helps add tension and remove some of the alpha problem, while it has some genuinely clever ideas under the bonnet.
- El Gaucho (2014) Another climber, this time more down to it getting a few plays that reminded me how fun it is. It’s a simple set collection game with a couple of clever rules twists, plus beautiful cartoon artwork and the world’s first ‘dice corral’.
- Pizza Box Football (2005) A slight fall down the rankings for this brilliant gridiron dice fest, which somehow manages to recreate accurate looking NFL scores despite the huge random aspects. A must for American footy/spreadsheet fans.
- 6 Nimmt & X Nimmt (1994) Two great card games, the first great with five or more players and the second with two to four. 6 Nimmt can be taught in five minutes, ‘X’ a little longer, but both games are amongst the best filler card games on the market.
- The Rose King (1997) A slight fall due to lack of plays, but this is still my favourite two-player abstract game – the small luck-of-the-draw element making you think on your feet. The version with wooden pieces is beautiful too (if you can find it).
- Twilight Struggle (2005) Who knew the Cold War could be this much fun? A proper card-driven war game that wonderfully simulates the tension of shifting allegiances across the globe covering 45 years of terrifying recent history.
- Tzolk’in (2012) Another game that has fallen out of the top 20 largely due to a lack of plays. I find this brilliant, yet frustrating – I need to play it more to get vaguely good at it, but fail to find the time: a shame, as it’s a lovely, clever and thinky euro game.
- Ancient Terrible Things (2014) A small bump up for this Cthulhu-themed dice game, more due to other games falling than it rising in my estimations. I love the art style, enjoy the light dice play and always enjoy my plays – a really solid title.
- The Boss (2010) A slight fall for this clever Mafia-themed filler card game, but more due to it being a Marmite game than me losing interest. It can feel counter-intuitive and players struggle to have to give up information while placing bids as they lay cards. Some relish it, others less so…
- CV (2013) While using yahtzee-style dice-rolling to buy cards is hardly unique, even on this list, the brilliantly realised theme (the story of your life) and art keep this on the list – and make it a hit every time, especially with less experienced gamers.
- NEW Entdecker (1996) This made my potential list in 2015, got bought cheap, and now makes the 50 – it’s never too late for an old game! A clever tile-layer with a unique twist that makes up for its super swinginess by being both fast and fun.
- For Sale (1997) A classic family/filler card game – cheap, super simple to teach, plays up to six players in 20 minutes and has lovely artwork. The kind of great little game every household should have a copy of.
- Macao (2009) A really good Stefan Feld euro board game with a clever dice mechanism – but just a little too much luck in it to make it one of my absolute favourites. I always enjoy my plays, but am never sure the best player wins.
- Maori (2009) Another clever tile-laying game, this time with the competitive edge played out in the centre of the table where there’s a grid of tiles. You take one on your turn, but the previous player can affect where you take from. Cunning.
- Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) This is a simple family Yahtzee-style dice game, the rules of which you can download for free from Knizia’s website – all you need are eight regular six-sided dice and a pen and paper to play. It’s fab.
- NEW Terraforming Mars (2016) Top of my wishlist and the first of only two games on this list I don’t own, my one play convinced me this is what I’d hoped: Race for the Galaxy but lasting two hours, with added screwage and a nice board. Awesome.
- NEW Tumblin’ Dice (2004) Kind of like pool meets darts, but with dice (worst description ever), this flicking game is way more fun than it has any right to be. I only have three games on my ‘must buy’ list – Terraforming Mars, Manhattan and this.
- Africana (2012) A hold for this clever pick-up-and-deliver family game, despite some strong competition. It’s a great go-to for those who like Ticket to Ride, as the map of routes and simple rules feel familiar but the gameplay is totally different.
- Bloody Inn (2015) A big drop out of the Top 20. The problem is, after repeat plays, you start to notice some cards are pretty imbalanced. It’s nothing that couldn’t have been fixed with an expansion, but I can’t really see that happening now. Shame.
- Blueprints (2013) I definitely popped this back in too high last year after its re-entry into the Top 50, but what I said about it still stands: a smart use of dice to score points and complete patterns – and in a small, compact package.
- Brass (2007) Brass continues its slide due to lack of plays. It’s considered a classic for good reason and I love the tough decisions as you try to manage your card hand, routes and resources – but it needs players of similar levels and I don’t have them.
- Castles of Burgundy (2011) I’m still enjoying this dice-driven point-salad euro, and am always happy to play, but I’m never sure the best player wins – there are just so many ways to score a very similar amount of points. A bit on the fiddly side though.
- Divinare (2012) I doubt this will ever leave the list, as it’s a unique, beautiful and incredibly clever game design. But the mix of guess/deduction work and screwage don’t work with every group so I don’t get to play as often as I’d like.
- Manhattan Project (2012) This game is purely suffering from ‘too many euros in the Top 50’ syndrome. The bomb-making theme, cool art style and a couple of clever and original mechanisms should keep in on this list for a while to come though.
- Pickomino (2005) Fond memories and a great expansion are keeping this light Yahtzee-style dice filler in the Top 50. My only criticism is it can go a little long, especially with more players, but it’s still a game I regularly recommend.
- Thebes (2007) A third year in the drop zone for this thematic and crazily random family board game. Played with the right crowd it’s always fun and nothing is coming along to replace it – so until something does, I can see it hanging around.
- NEW Ulm (2016) Despite enjoying all my plays of this quick, thinky family/gateway strategy game, I’m being cautious not to put it too high up here (trying to learn my lesson!). But it’s a fun, well produced and highly polished euro game.
Out of the 50
Al the titles that dropped out of the Top 50 this time would be in the next 10 or so entries, so there weren’t any games that fell off a cliff. They were: The King is Dead, Alhambra, New York 1901, Keyflower, Endeavor and Mombasa.
Of those, only New York 1901 and Endeavor are no longer in my collection – the former because it simply has too many other family board games in front of it to justify keeping, the latter because I got a good price for a game I rarely play. Of the rest, Mombasa has the best chance of getting back into the 50: it only really dropped due to lack of plays.
Top 50 potential
From last year’s list, both Entdecker and Thurn and Taxis have climbed well into list – not bad for games more than 20 and 10 years old respectively. But what it tells me that, however many games I’ve played, there will always be hidden gems to discovery in gaming’s back catalogue.
Of games from the last year or so that I own, both Ice Cool (flicking/dexterity) and Eternity (trick-taking) were close to making the list and could get in next time if I turn to them for repeat plays now that they’ve been reviewed.
Lorenzo il Magnifico is an Essen 2016 release I don’t own but very much enjoyed my first play of, and if it happens to find its way into my collection somehow I can very much see it breaking through next time as well. Two games I have picked up cheap, but haven’t played due to review commitments, are Martin Wallace game Mythotopia and fantasy stocks game Shafausa – both of which may also be knocking at the door of the top 50 by next year.
Year stats and old Top 50 links
There were only six new entries this time out (three 2016 releases and three older titles), compared to 13 last year. I think I was deliberately more cautious due to the amount of games that fell straight back out after last year, but I also think there were generally less outstanding games released in genres I really like.
There are also now four unreviewed games in the top 20 – something I really should address. I’m genuinely wanting to reduce my new game review commitment in the coming year, so hopefully if I tell myself to fill in these blanks it will help stem my acquisition disorder! But we’ll see…