Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 board and card game list. As always, I hope it may inspire someone to take the plunge into this wonderful and revitalised hobby – or that one of the more obscure picks may pique an older gamer’s interests. This is a real mixture – there are loads of games here suitable for families, kids, couples, you name it.
My method for picking the games is a mash up of how much I like them, how much I play them, how great the design is, and who/how many groups they work with. You’ll find games taking from 15 minutes to four hours, from two players to 10, and from free to £50+. But you won’t find any games with minis. Maybe next time…
Two-thirds of the games link to my in-depth reviews of them, so if you want more info 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 – head to the comments below and call me out.
My Top 20 board and card games 2018 (last year’s position in brackets)
- (1) Race for the Galaxy (2007)
Despite just five plays in 2017, Race retains its top spot for the fifth year in a row. Once you get past the learning curve caused by an overindulgence in icons, you’ll find an engine/tableau building card game par excellence. There’s luck in the draw, but for a game lasting 30 minutes that’s fine with me – and this variety means it blows San Juan (which has similar mechanisms) out of the water: especially in terms of replayability. Hugely tactical, clever play can see you benefit from other players’ actions – so while there is little actual interaction, a good player wins by using their opponents.
- (30+) Terraforming Mars (2016)
There used to be a game per year that troubled my Top 10, but it’s been a couple since a real top-level keeper came along – but boy is this a good one. I’d always wanted a longer version of Race for the Galaxy, with a board, and I guess I’m not the only one – because while very different, Terraforming Mars is a two-hour tableau/engine building card game with a board. It has the same massive stack of random cards too, although the longer game time and seeing more cards means it feels less random. And while player interaction is again limited, it makes up for it with fantastic timing and competitive end game mechanisms. A new classic.
- (3) Downfall of Pompeii (2004)
I play a lot of family/lighter games, as many of my friends are less into the heavier side of the hobby than me – but Pompeii is one of those games that appeals to both audiences with aplomb. 2004 was a great year for family releases and I fear it was a little left behind in the Ticket to Ride buzz, but for me it is at least its equal: simple to learn, plays in an hour, and generates brilliant table talk. The clever switch in play style half way through is something I’m amazed we don’t see more of in gaming; you start by populating the city, then run like hell once the volcano starts erupting – sacrificing your opponents to the flames as you.
- (2) Ticket to Ride (2004)
Still an absolute favourite, probably only falling behind Pompeii because I play it a lot more and enjoy it about the same. It’s the game I wish would replace Monopoly in every household, as it is simple to learn and fun to play, but is all over and done in an hour or so. There are also extra boards you can buy that spice things up a little when you get bored (ho ho) of the base game – with my current favourites being Legendary Asia (tight and fast) and Pennsylvania (adds stocks for a little extra depth). There’s also a great app if you want to try it on your phone first.
- (5) Ra (1999)
Ra continues to ride high on my list despite a decreasing number of plays. One person in my most regular group doesn’t like it and the majority of my other gaming is now done two-player, ruling this classic Knizia 3-5 player auction game out for most occasions. However, while writing this, I’ve found a very popular two-player variant – so that’s my next game session sorted out then! And I can see it working fine with two: while it’s a bidding game, you only get one bid each time – it’s more about pushing your luck and evaluating the current value of the pot.
- (6) Terra Mystica (2012)
Very few plays, again, but still an absolute favourite. This euro game is also on the heavier side in terms of complexity, but still plays in less than two hours. It has a pleasing amount of interaction despite not being an aggressive game, while you have many meaningful decisions to make each turn that really can swing your fortunes. While it is a ‘changing stuff into stuff’ game it does it in a way that means you always feel a sense of progression along an arc towards the game’s end. It’s just a really pleasing, if complex, experience.
- (4) Deus (2014)
A lack of plays has seen a small drop for Deus, but the Egypt expansion (which I’ve only played once so far) has given the game a new lease of life. It’s the kind of modular expansion I love, where you can add as many of the elements (essentially a different set of cards for each type of building) as you like to spice things up and add variety. It’s still a great 60-90 minute euro game of finding the best card combos you can in a race for victory points – with the added bonus of two ways to win keeping everyone on their toes.
- (8) Concordia (2013)
Did someone say one to two-hour euro game? There must be an echo in here… Clearly my genre of choice, this is one of my favourite examples of them: snappy turns, loads of important and meaningful decisions, and a great mix of tactics and strategy. Again the expansions that have come out have mixed things up nicely, adding different boards and a few extra rules you can throw in if you want a little bit more complexity. It also works brilliantly across all player counts, making it a great all-rounder to have on any gaming shelf.
- (12) Can’t Stop (1980)
Another slow creep up the table despite all the odds, Can’t Stop is here to prove you don’t have to be young and cool to make this list. Now pushing 40, this classic Sid Sackson push-your-luck dice game is still a hoot every time I play it – whether it’s with experienced or novice gamers of any age. It’s amazing how fun Sid managed to make what is basically a maths puzzle – just don’t tell the kids they’re learning something! It plays in under an hour (and has a few variations that can speed it up) and is great two to four players (I bought extra pieces to add a fifth player – and you can go more).
- (9) Through the Ages (2006)
While the recent app released for this is brilliant, it just went to give me another platform on which to be useless at this wonderfully complex civilisation building card game. Even with just two players you’ll be looking at two to three hours of brain burning – so add more players at your peril. But more players means more targets for your evil plans, so you loses nothing except hours in the day. The game’s biggest triumph is giving you that feeling of conflict, of scale and of progression through time without the need of a board.
- (16) Thurn and Taxis (2006)
While Pompeii and Ticket to Ride have been my perennial family board game hits, others have come and gone. The likes of Carcassonne, New York 1901 and Survive had their moments but ultimately fell away – but with each play, I feel Thurn and Taxis is here to stay. Sure, it’s beige and boring to look at with a theme would send all but the most hardened Victorian era German postal service fan to sleep… but the game itself is an excellent mix of route building and card collection.
- (15) Ingenious (2004)
I’ve now played 50 games of Ingenious, seeing it join a pretty exclusive club – and Sarah enjoyed it too, meaning it should good more plays in the coming months. It’s a classic Knizia abstract game with a clever scoring system that ensures that, somewhere after half way, play changes from simple score accumulation to either defending or breaking out from your board position. It was one of my first games when getting into the hobby and I’ve never looked back.
- (19) Notre Dame (2007)
This now classic euro game continues to climb, I think largely due to its short game time and ease of teaching – while still containing the essence of a great Stefan Feld game. For me, this is card drafting done right: a hugely important component of the game that offers tough choices and restrictions – but that then gets out of the way and lets the other mechanisms take over. And at its heart there’s a mean optimisation engine ready to crash your plans at every misstep.
- (7) Oracle of Delphi (2016)
Quite a drop for this fantastic Feld euro game, but only because the new game shine came off a little in the face of so many new games – meaning it has had precious few plays since last time. It’s games like this that have made me curb my ambitions for this year’s Essen – I’ve played so may mediocre games this year, while titles such as this sit unplayed. While it has a typical Feld ‘point salad’ feel, here it’s funnelled into a race against time that focuses the mind beautifully.
- (20) Codenames & Codenames Duet (2015/2017)
Codenames is a game of finding associations between words set out in 25-word grid – but while you’re trying to get your team to guess some of the words, others need to be avoided. Codenames was slipping out of my Top 20 – but Codenames Duet gave it a new lease of life. It’s a game Sarah and me have played a lot, largely because it’s just so different to other games. We’re both into language, so get a real kick out of it – and there’s nowhere to hide in a two player game!
- (11) Bora Bora (2013)
After a Feld-free Top 10, Bora Bora becomes the third of his designs to make my Top 20. There’s not much to say about a game that has become a ‘once a year’ one for me that I really enjoy. Loads of ways to score points; a clever and original worker placement mechanism (this time with dice); and the liberal sprinkling of luck and passive interaction. Some find the colours a little gaudy and of course the theme is pasted on, but I still prefer it to many of his more fashionable titles.
- (14) Snowdonia (2012)
While my plays of Snowdonia are diminishing, my enjoyment of those plays is not. It’s a wonderfully tight worker placement euro game with one of the cleverest mechanisms you’ll find in terms of moving the game along – and surprising the players at the same time. The theme is both original and well realised, while the whimsical artwork also adds to the charm. You can build a strategy, but when the weather does what it feel like you’d better have your tactical brain ready!
- (17) Caverna (2013)
Another member of the ‘once a year’ euro club, Caverna is now comfortably my favourite long Uwe Rosenberg game. Most of his games end up having two big of a decision space for me to enjoy in the latter stages, where Agricola and Caverna focus you on a plan which helps narrow that as you laser in ate game. And of the two I prefer Caverna, as I’m less keen on Agricola’s pre-game card draws that shapes things too much before you’ve even begun.
- (NEW) Azul (2017)
This is the lowest ‘highest new entry’ since I started the Top 50 and it is more out of caution than anything else. If anything I’m more confident of Azul staying around than many of those I’ve placed higher in previous years, but just how high I’m not too sure. It’s a beautiful, simple, elegant abstract game that plays in 30 minutes and is great from two to four players: right in my wheel house. The only reason I don’t own it already is because I’m waiting for the improved third edition.
- (30+) Maori (2009)
I didn’t introduce this to Sarah until August, but I’ve played it 10 times since (nine with her) – hence its clamber back up the chart. It’s a relatively cheap, relatively small box tile placement game with lovely, simple artwork and gameplay – but that has some really tough, really nasty elements once you get the hang of it! Despite a small number of components games play really differently, and quickly, giving it loads of replayability – with some great variants to ramp up the complexity.
- NEW Adios Calavera (2017) The first of two new two-player abstract games in this section, but both ooze personality. This one revels in its pasted on ‘day of the dead’ theme, but it’s the clever design that makes it shine. Chess in race form, one player goes north-south and the other east-west – crossing in the middle to cause havoc.
- Archaeology: The Card Game (2007) Despite having failed to pick up the improved 2016 reprint, I’m still really enjoying my original version of this clever little push-your-luck romp. It’s a simple set collection card game with just the right amount of twists and turns and it’s also super accessible to non-gamers.
- Macao (2009) I’ve played this at least once every year since picking it up in 2010 and I’m still loving it – although I still never feel in control, or have any idea who is going to win. This dice-driven euro game really shouldn’t work, and the luck can be brutal, but it somehow has enough charm for me to forgive it. A Feld classic.
- Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from the Top 10 this time, but I can’t see it dropping any further until a better pick-up-and-deliver game comes along. I still love the game, but it’s a little fiddly – which is made worse by my shonky old charity shop original. Please, gaming gods, give me a Firefly themed reprint!
- Navegador (2010) A little dryness and player count problems saw Navegador drop out of my Top 20 this time, but on its day with the right two or (preferably) four players this is still one of the best euro game experiences on the market. I just love games with quick, snappy turns but where every decision counts.
- NEW Patchwork (2014) I was reintroduced to this two-player abstract earlier this year and quickly fell in love – as did Sarah – so it is now at the top of my wish list. The gorgeous quilt-style artwork is so inviting, masking what is actually a thinky and cutthroat Tetris-style puzzle game.
- 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 to play are eight regular six-sided dice and a pen and paper to play. Go go go!
- Twilight Struggle (2005) The cold war in a box, with a clever mix of war game and euro-style card game to drive it along. It ramps up the tension and intrigue to match the game’s setting, while throwing in all the history a good war game needs, and is rightly considered one of the best games of all time by both euro and war game fans.
- NEW Yokohama (2016) This Okazu Brand release totally passed me by in 2016, but luckily a TMG reprint lead many to it – and subsequently to me via friends Keef and Clare this year. It’s a really thinky point salad euro with a touch of Istanbul’s movement mechanic, but there is so much game here. I’ve ordered a copy.
- Yspahan (2006) A very short drop in places, but only really due to a lack of play opportunities. with its slick euro style and simple dice selection mechanism, it would probably be all the rage if released today – but sadly it now seems largely overlooked and has slipped quietly out of print. But a great game nonetheless.
- Copycat (2012) Another drop for Copycat, this time after my last few plays have fallen a little flat. I still enjoy the game a lot but it always felt as if it would need an expansion, but its lack of popularity meant it never came. It can also run a little long; but I still really enjoy its mix of Dominion and Agricola mechanisms.
- Entdecker (1996) I’ve neglected this tile-layer a bit over the past year, but the memory of some super fun if swingy and daft games have seen it hold its position. As a tile-laying game it lacks a little finesse, but for me it makes up for that with the story it tells. And it’s just about short enough to get away with it too.
- NEW Kingdomino (2016) The simplest ideas are often the best, and Kingdomino nailed it: take the classic idea of dominoes and take it up just a notch with area majority scoring, making it appeal to gamers while not scaring off casual players. A well-deserved Spiel de Jahres award followed, as did as Top 50 spot from me.
- Manhattan Project (2012) After nearly dropping off the list last time, Manhattan Project has managed to move back up despite not getting a play since my last list. Last year it was a victim of too many euros – but now several of those have fallen out of favour – so up this classic gores again. I just need to play it some more!
- Pizza Box Football (2005) If you want a dice-chucking NFL game this still reigns supreme, despite feeling even older mechanically than its 13-year age suggests. Rolling dice and checking tables shouldn’t be this much fun, but there you go. A slight drop in position, but still a must for American footy/spreadsheet fans.
- The Rose King (1997) A hold for Rosenkonig, still one of the best two-player small box abstract games around. I need to bring this one home (it has been at work for ages for lunchtime plays that rarely happen now), as I’m intrigued to see what Sarah thinks after how much she has enjoyed Adios Calavera.
- 6 Nimmt & X Nimmt (1994/2016) A slight drop for this great pair of light, quick and clever card games. My enjoyment of them hasn’t waned – they’ve just been eclipsed a little by a few new shiny games. But if I want an easy to teach card game for anywhere up to 10 players, I still know where to turn.
- Thebes (2007) I’d definitely describe this one as a guilty pleasure – and it actually went up a section this year. Crazy randomness abounds in this light family board game and it’s anyone’s guess whether the best player will win – but it is fun enough for me not to really care, while having a really clever turn mechanisms.
- Tumblin’ Dice (2004) I still haven’t managed to get hold of this brilliant dice dexterity game, but it’s only a matter of time. Flick dice down a wooden board – sounds a bit rubbish, but is totally compelling and one play is never enough. I just wish a big publisher would pick it up and then stick with it.
- Tzolk’in (2012) Another year and another drop for this brilliant yet frustrating euro game. It’s clever and thinky with a brilliant cog mechanism, but I just find it frustrating that no matter how much I play I don’t feel I get any better at it – and the first half of the game can feel like you’re treading water. But I still love it lol.
- Africana (2012) Another solid hold this year for Africana, largely because it has become one of Sarah’s favourites (we’ve had six plays since the last top 50). It’s a pick-up-and-deliver family game that plays in an hour that has just enough extra juice to keep more serious gamers engaged too.
- RE Alhambra (2003) This one has snuck back onto the list, more due to others falling a little out of favour than any other reason. It’s a set collection and tile placement game that I’ll always enjoy, as it has a clever majorities scoring system and loads of replayability through its many expansions.
- Brass (2007) Another year with no plays of this classic – but I still can’t bring myself to drop it from the 50! Despite a dry theme it has a brilliant balance of tactics and strategy, but the long play time and high complexity make it a pretty hard sell to the gaming groups I’m close to right now.
- Divinare (2012) I doubt this will ever leave the list, as it’s a unique, beautiful and incredibly clever game design. The mix of guess/deduction work and light screwage make for a fun experience every time, despite every player always feeling they’re doing terribly and that the game hates them!
- The Dwarves (2012) While I still always enjoy my plays of this clever fantasy co-operative game, it has dropped a little way down the rankings this year. I’m above 10 plays of it now and even with expansions it isn’t the most varied game in the world, so it’s stock is starting to fall – but it is still my go-to co-op game.
- El Gaucho (2014) This has fallen a little due to lack of plays. I really need to introduce it to Sarah, as it certainly has some elements she may like: great artwork, a small rules overhead, set collection, and a one hour-ish play time. If she likes it, it may well rise again – or fall off the list next time around.
- For Sale (1997) This is the third game in a row that has dropped back into this section from the one above since last year. But this cute, light and quick card and bidding game is still one of my favourite fillers, so will always have a place in my collection. And it’s great right up to six players.
- NEW Ilos (2017) The last new release on my list is a sub-hour tile-laying and card/action selection game with a simple yet thought provoking market scoring system. It’s another rearranging of the design toolbox, but it does it elegantly in a stylish package that really sings.
- RE Kingdom Builder (2011) This has been off of the list since 2015, but a couple of plays last year reminded me just how good (and unique) a game it is. I also have more expansions to try out now, which raises my enthusiasm levels again, while its simplicity and short play time make it highly accessible.
- NEW Love Letter (2012) Despite being mentioned on loads of my blog posts, in everything from top 10s to best gaming experiences in several years, this is the first time in the 50. Fast and pocket-sized, anyone can play – and you can play anywhere. It’s a real Swiss army knife of a filler game that deserves a place here.
Out of the 50
This game that fell furthest in the list was Acquire (from the 20-30 section); while Ulm was the only one of last year’s new release entries to fall straight back out of the Top 50. I still like both, but other games are consistently chosen ahead of them.
It’s a similar story for The Boss, CV, Ancient Terrible Things, Blueprints, The Castles of Burgundy and Pickomino: all probably in my next 20 favourite games. The only one that has really fallen from grace is The Bloody Inn, which dropped a long way last year and further this. I’d like to try the expansion, but don’t have enough faith in it to pull the trigger. It’s simply too inconsistent an experience.
I’ve noticed that each year I pick a higher number of definites for the 50, with then a larger number of games scrapping for the minor positions. I quite easily picked 30+ I was confident of, then had to pick 20 more to join them from a very close gaggle of around 40 games I really like. There was the option to drop down to a 30 or 40, but I do like consistency. Or of course I could go up to a top 75. Or even a top 100…
As for other new releases from 2017/18, I’ve now played all the games I was given to review and with the possible exception of Agra, I can’t see any of them troubling the list. But you can guarantee at least one gem has slipped under my radar and I’m hoping to try a few more of the hot recent games over the next month or two, including Gloomhaven and Spirit Island.
Final thoughts and old Top 50 links
There were nine new entries this year, but just three of them were new releases – and of those Ilos was the only Essen pick I brought home: I was sent Adios Calavera before the show, while I managed to miss Azul until its third printing.
Looking back over the past five years’ releases it is a familiar tale: there are 11 games in my Top 50 released between 2013-2016, and three of those only arrived on the list this time around.
However, if you add in 2012’s nine entries on the list it means there are 20 games from the past five years – so along with this year’s releases, practically half the list. I still love a lot of games from the past, but it’s hard to argue with those that say, generally, board games have taken massive leaps forward over the past few years.
My final observation was a slightly embarrassing one: How many games are still in my Top 50 that I haven’t played since the last time I compiled this list? The sad truth is it was eight of them before I started this post, although none of those are in the Top 20 games. I’ve since knocked four of those off but still, it’s pretty ridiculous and another reason to curb my new release intake – especially seeing as I seem to lack the ability to spot a winner from the reams of Essen releases!