As you may have noticed, I play a lot of board and card games. I also write a lot about them, design a few and discuss them at boring length with a great number of people. So hopefully a game making into my best board games of all time stands for something. This is my 7th annual list and I’ve tried to streamline it a little. Numbers 21-40 were covered last week, with a nerdy stats post coming later this week (for those who care… just me then). That’ll be it.
I’ve written full reviews for all 20 of these games. You can find them by clicking the title link for each game below. For this reason, I’ll try and get to the essence of why it made it to this list here. Why it stands the test of time and keeps making it off the shelf and on to the table. If you want to find out the game details, please click the links. Drum roll please…
The best board games of all time: Top 20
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Igor Knop & Patrick Matheus, 2018)
Gnomopolis is incredibly cute with lovely components. But more importantly it is right in my mechanisms wheelhouse. Tableau building and worker placement combine beautifully with a light bag-building engine. The game plays fast – under an hour – making every decision vital. And the buildings (cards) you pick up not only create an engine, but also tie into end game scoring in a puzzley and unforgiving way.
(1-7 (I’d say 2-4) players, 120-180 mins, Uwe Rosenberg, 2013)
Rosenberg worker placement games are terrific. The action selection is simple yet cutthroat, putting the complexity in the tableau building. But I only need one in my 50, so its Caverna. Agricola front-loads too many important decisions into the pre-game card draft. Caverna allows you to get going and see how others are playing before starting to pick up buildings to specialise. It’s more forgiving so less tense than Agricola. But not enough to swing my vote.
18: Kingdom Builder
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Donald X Vaccarino, 2011)
Vaccarino’s mind works differently from most. But when it works, wow. Kingdom Builder limits your options in a fascinating way as, each turn, you draw a card and have to play it. The random board and scoring setup gives the game the variety it needs to work. And that one card limitation does the rest. It does mean bad luck can punish you. But it’s short enough for that to be acceptable.
17: Rosenkonig (AKA The Rose King)
(2 players, 30 mins, Dirk Henn, 1992)
While I admire classic abstracts, I prefer mine with a splash of randomness. Which makes The Rose King the pick of the bunch. Play a card, place a stone – simple. But your options are limited by your cards (between 1-5) which are face up, creating great tension. You may want to draw for more options, but you can see if your opponent has a great play. It’s no surprise to me this is still on print almost 30 years after release.
(2-4 players, 90 mins, Stefan Feld, 2009)
From the very first action, Macao is teasing you to push your luck. Go, on – go for that crazy combo of cubes that may be impossible to pull off. If you play conservatively, while a risk-taker gets things going on, you’re in trouble. There are fewer ways to score than in many complex Feld designs. But the cards are so many and varied it still feels like a point salad. And while many don’t like the beige 17th Century artwork, I find it a gorgeous game to look at.
15: Bora Bora
(2-4 players, 90 mins, Stefan Feld, 2013)
Back-to-back Feld designs, with my favourite yet to come. This one really is a point salad, with loads of ways to score points. But while the game seems to be telling you to do everything and everything, it’s usually best to focus on a few things and nail them. And it’s lighter than the mass of bits make it look. The tension comes from a clever dice-as-workers mechanic which rewards low rolls with flexibility and high ones with power moves. But there’s also the importance of turn order and timing your moves.
14: Can’t Stop
(2-4 players, 30 minutes, Sid Sackson, 1980)
The oldest game on the list by far, Can’t Stop is here on merit. It captures the pure joy of pushing your luck with dice via simple probability maths. But also somehow makes a brilliant game of it. It’s a fantastic teaching tool for kids, you can teach it to anyone, but hobby gamers love it too. What better recommendation is there than that?
(2-5 players, 60 minutes, Reiner Knizia, 1999)
I love a good auction. What Ra does better than most is limit everything. Auctions are once around, and your bids are limited to a few set number bidding chips – which are public information. This puts the focus on the relative worth of the lots, made all the better with a tension building push-your-luck element. And scoring is simple, making Ra accessible to all kinds of players.
12: Codenames Duet
(2 players, 60 mins, Vlaada Chvatil, 2017)
The Codenames brand has become synonymous with word games in the past few years. But for me this two-player version is where it shines brightest. It has no real down time, while roles and pressure are equal for both players. Both common complaints with other versions. And importantly it gets over potential issues well. There’s a simple but wide-scaling difficulty system that should suit every level of player. While the fact you can use cards from any of the other sets makes it infinitely replayable.
(2-4 players, 90 minutes, Sebastien Dujardin, 2014)
Deus feels play-tested to perfection. At first look it’s all about card combos. These chain cleverly, and repeatedly. But there’s loads of cards, making that difficult. But you can mitigate bad draws, thanks to a generous discard system. But then there’s the other players. The game ends in one of two ways, which can creep up fast. So do you play for a fast and messy win, or sexy combos?
The best board games of all time: Top 10
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Reiner Knizia, 2004)
Another simple abstract game anyone can learn in five minutes, but that has a great random element keeping it tactical. It also has a great pivot, from scoring as many points as possible to closing down the board. Getting this right, or spotting opponents doing it, is key. This was the first game in my ‘new’ collection and still gets regular plays.
(2-4 players, 45 minutes, Michael Kiesling, 2017)
With thousands of games out there, it’s rare for one this simple to come along and feel this fresh. Sure, the gorgeous tactile components help. But the real joy comes from the mix of personal puzzle and take-that tile taking. Azul is simple enough to teach most people. But man, it can be harsh. At first accidentally but as you get better, totally deliberately…
(2-5 players, 120-180 minutes, Drogemuller & Ostertag, 2012)
I don’t get many opportunities to play longer games. But when I do, this hits the table more often than not. So much goes into making each game a challenge. The player count, mix of player races, starting positions and round bonuses all play a big part. There’s a nice mix of shared and personal action selection spots keeping you on your toes. While the board can shrink fast, changing your plans as each player expands their territory.
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, 2004)
As already mentioned, I like a game that pivots half way. Pompeii does that with bells on. Both halves of the game are simple enough to make it accessible. You begin by using cards to populate a board representing Pompeii. Then use tiles to fill it with lava while trying to escape. Macabre and mean, but an awful lot of fun too. The game also scales weirdly, which I actually appreciate. With two it’s strategic, with four totally unpredictable and daft, and with three somewhere in between.
(2-6 players, 60 minutes, Alan Moon, 2004)
Ticket to Ride cleverly combines set collection and route building; two simple, classic mechanisms. Here they create a game full of tension, where keeping your routes secret as long as possible can be key. But getting them onto the board is also crucial, as lines soon become scarce. But even collecting cards can potentially give away your intentions.
(2-5 players, 90 mins, Mac Gerdts, 2013)
Mac Gerdts games always feel elegant. But don’t let the quick actions and fast pace fool you. Behind them are deep strategic games, with Concordia being the best of them. While its deck-building element is small, it is also crucial to success – as the cards multiply the various ways to score. Money and resources are always tight, while the timing of your moves is often crucial. Do you expand your empire, or stock up for a better turn? That one action per round creates the agony, as you always have so much you want to do.
(1-5 players, 120-180 minutes, Jacob Fryxelius, 2016)
When you look at what’s in the box, it’s hard to see how this works. A huge deck of cards doing a myriad of things, plus an area control element, with players working kind of cooperatively but in a competitive game. It must’ve been a real labour of love. But totally worth it. To play it’s a great juggling act of finances vs progress, gauging your competition both tactically and strategically.
(2-4 players, 60 minutes, Karen & Andreas Seyfarth, 2006)
Yes, it’s another family game with set collection and route building. But this is a totally different animal to Ticket to Ride. The routes themselves aren’t directly competitive, but the scoring bonuses are. Completing routes is more of a personal puzzle, often with a push your luck element. But the group tension moves to how long the game will last, with two routes to victory offering different strategies. It’s always a challenge, always ebbs and flows, and is never predictable.
(2-4 players, 90 minutes, Stefan Feld, 2016)
The Stefan Feld traits gang is all here. Dice for actions, pick up and deliver, inventory management, point salad. But what makes Delphi stand out is turning it into a race game. Everyone has to chow down on the same 12-course point salad. But there are are only so many ingredients, spread around a modular board. So what will you go for first and what opportunities does that leave your opponents? This seems to make every game close with an exciting ending, while keeping all the usual Feld traits intact.
No 1 in the best board games of all time: Race for the Galaxy
(2-4 players, 30-60 minutes, Tom Lehmann, 2007)
So, for the seventh year, Race tops my best board games of all time list. But this was the year it came closest to falling. And is the year I’ve played it least. But when it comes down to it, it’s ratio of fun to length is still second to none. Building a great card engine is hugely satisfying. But doing so with your opponents’ unwitting help even more so. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it’s the best feeling in gaming. And if it doesn’t happen, well you shuffle and go again. Big question is – can it survive another year…?
So there you have it – my 20 best board games of all time (as of May 2020). Disagree? Of course you do. Feel free to let me know what I’ve missed in the comments below.