So here it is – part 2 of my Top 50 board games. This was meant to be the whole Top 20, but I’m already past 1,000 words. And with other gaming commitments this week (namely the arrival of a test copy of Europe Divided, plus a review I need to put live before UK Games Expo) I thought posting this as-is was the best plan.
I’ll do the top 10 in the next few weeks, followed by a nerdy stats post for anyone wanting more info on that kind of thing. But for now I’m just going straight into the games that very nearly made it into my Top 10 games of all time (links on titles go to reviews I’ve written on this site). Drum roll please…
Top 50 board games: 20-11
20. Adios Calavera
(2-3 players, 20 minutes, Martin Schlegel, 2017)
A quite brilliant two-player abstract game, with an expansion that now takes it up to three players (almost equally successfully). Surprisingly it has quite a lot of variety for this kind of game, with each piece having a special ability – but you don’t use them all each game (unless you choose to). The clever bit is that its a race to get your pieces off the board. They cross in the middle of the board, but you play at right-angles to each other. Movement distance is worked out by adding up all pieces in your row, or column, depending where you’re sitting – so every move you make affects both players differently. Simple, elegant and great fun – as well as quick and in a small box.
19. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilisation
(2-4 players, 180 mins, Vlaada Chvatil, 2015)
This is still, for me, the best civ-style game out there. It is at both the long and heavier ends of the gaming scale. And it can be punishing, with the only real catch-up mechanism being other players taking pity and leaving you alone! But if you want to dip into the pool of heavy euro games, this is a great place to start. This second edition improves the smoothness of play from the 2006 original, while the balancing of military tactics was also a welcomed improvement. You still can’t ignore military, so the game is not for the faint of heart – but surely you’d expect nothing less from a civ game? And all this achieved with individual player card tableaus and no central map board.
18. Twilight Struggle
(2 players, 120-180 mins, Gupta & Matthews, 2005)
I don’t like the dice randomness of traditional war games, but love this. While it has randomness (which can still be hugely significant), it works much better for me within this largely card-based system. Ranked the number one war game at Board Game Geek, Twilight Struggle brilliantly represents the push and pull of the Cold War. Cards represent actual events from the end of the Second World War right up to 1989. And as either Russia or the USA, you play cards (and roll a few dice) to swing your influence in each continent in your favour at crucial times. A small downside: as with Though the Ages above, you really need to play with players at your level of experience/ability.
17. Caverna: The Cave Farmers
(2-5* players, 120-180 mins, Uwe Rosenberg, 2013)
Alongside spiritual farm sim predecessor Agricola, this is near the peak of worker placement games – one of my favourite mechanisms. Caverna is the more open and forgiving of the two, moving the bulk of strategic decisions away from the initial card draw of Agricola. This allows players to build a tableau as they like, before picking specialist buildings to power their point-scoring/resource gathering engines. It makes for a worse solo experience, but while I love both games I find this openness more appealing. But both are truly classic games. (* The box says 1-7 players. Personally, I wouldn’t go outside 2-4.)
(2-4 players, 90 mins, Hisashi Hayashi, 2016)
This is one of the euro games that has most impressed me over the past couple of years. It takes worker placement/movement ideas seen in Istanbul but expands them into a meatier, more satisfying experience. And one which genuinely has several paths to victory. The modular board makes the game feel equally enjoyable at each player count while adding variety. It’s another nice puzzle, with your opponents’ strategies directly impacting on your tactics – if not in a fighty way. And the game end can really sneak up on you, meaning a game plan that worked for you last time out may be a disaster next. A little shonky looking, but well worth a punt.
15. Bora Bora
(2-4 players, 90 mins, Stefan Feld, 2013)
Yes, it’s another Feld euro game with a pasted-on theme – this time a random South Pacific island. And yes, it’s from his love-it-or-hate-it point salad period. But this one stands out for me for two reasons. First, the way dice are used for actions is simple yet clever and forces you into some tricky decisions. Second, as the game goes on, you’re also forced to abandon certain ways to score end game points. Both these elements add subtle tensions, which is crucial in a game with little direct interaction. While some are critical of the colour pallet, I personally love the ocean-inspired blues and greens and overall feel of the artwork.
(2-5 players, 90 mins, Mac Gerdts, 2013)
Mac Gerdts. The king of rondel games, one of my favourite mechanisms. But he left the rondel behind to make a card action-based euro. Heresy! So, no one was more surprised to find it becoming my favourite of his games. The key was, it kept his other trademarks: namely snappy, simple actions and a tight framework in which efficiency is the key to success. While the Roman theme is pretty much pasted on it works well, while the simple but stylish components complicate the game’s mechanical elegance. It has only been enhanced by subsequent expansions and remains one of the best euro games on the market.
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Reiner Knizia, 2004)
Breaking the string of euro games comes is this simple abstract game. But don’t be fooled by its mass market appearance: behind an incredibly simple rule set is a clever, thinky game. As so often with Knizia games, the trick is in the scoring. You’re trying to get high scores in six colours by placing domino-style pieces on the board; but your weakest colour will end up being your final score. It gives the game a terrific tipping point, where you go from point accumulation to desperately defending or trying to bolster your weakest colour. Spotting the time is right is the key to a brilliant game.
12. Downfall of Pompeii
(2-4 players, 45 mins, Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, 2004)
There are some terrific family games out there. And for me this is one of the best. Why? You get to throw your friend’s game pieces into a volcano. Sold! The game has two distinct phases: first, you populate the Roman city with citizens (trying to place as many as possible in the safest looking buildings). Then, the lava begins to flow (by placing tiles on the board) and you try and get your people to he exits. It’s take-that done right – as in you’re all forced to do it, so it doesn’t feel like you’re picking on people. At two players its a great tactical battle, while three makes it more random and four just gets silly – but is still tremendous fun.
11. Codenames & Codenames Duet
(4-8/2 players, 60 mins, Vlaada Chvatil, 2015/2017)
Several contenders to its crown have appeared in recent years. But for me, Codenames is still the best pound-for-pound word game out there. And to think it’s from the same designer as Through the Ages – the chunkiest game on my list! There are now versions to suit any audience, but between the standard 4-8 player team version and the brilliant two-player ‘Duet’ edition it has all bases covered. The basic premise is finding a single word that ties several other words (in a 5×5 grid) together. The twist: only some of the words are for your team, and only the two team clue-givers know which ones. A fantastic family game.