My favourite board games 2020: Follow-up stats post

After each of my ‘Top board games‘ posts I like to take a look at some stats around them. Looking at previous years’ lists, what I’ve been playing, designers I favour etc. Hey, some people (like me) like this kind of thing. Normal service will be resumed next post, promise!

Climbers and fallers

This year, the top 15 picked themselves straight away – it was just a case of putting them in order. And, as it turned out, it was the same top 15 as last year.

Four did climb into the lower section of the Top 20, but none from outside last year’s Top 50. Yup – no ‘new entries’ in the Top 20 at all. Ingenious was the only game to break into the Top 10 for the first time. The top four was identical to last year, but Ticket to Ride fell from the Top 5 for the first time.

Gnomopolis, Kingdom Builder and Macao are in the Top 20 for the first time, with Macao an ever-present in my top 50. The biggest faller was Through the Ages, dropping right out of my 50 and being sold to boot. I still have the app, but am just too frustrated with the board game to keep it. Merchant of Venus also dropped a long way. I still enjoy it, but a bit of the gloss has come off in the last few games.

Seven games dropped out of the Top 50 this time. So now 48 have dropped out of the Top 50 since it began (eight per year on average). Despite dropping, 33 of those games are still on my shelves. There were no re-entries this year, but a few came close. I expect a few to be back.

Hangin’ around

There are 16 games in the Top 40 that have been in all my seven yearly lists. Ten of those are in the Top 20, with six in the Top 10. Only Achaeology: The Card Game has been in the Top 50 the entire time without ever making the Top 20. This consistency has helped me catch up on reviews, with all the Top 20 now having one on the site. Only seven of the Top 40 don’t have reviews. This is the first year I’ve owned every game on the list, but it was close. Tumblin’ Dice and Tales of Glory arrived just in time. I’ll aim to have the whole Top 30 reviewed for next year.

In terms of designers, there are 10 different ones in my Top 10 games. Stefan Feld has three games in the Top 20 and one more in the 40. While Reiner Knizia has two in the Top 20. The only other designers who currently have two games in my Top 40 are Mac Gerdts and Dirk Henn.

New entries

I put seven ‘new entries’ into the Top 50. But only Pharaon and Fertility made it into the Top 40. While a few keepers may yet emerge, I really don’t think 2019 was a good year for new games. Of last year’s new entries, four of the six immediately fell back off the list. The survivors were Gnomopolis (while climbed into the Top 20) and Crown of Emara.

This was the second year of Sarah’s Top 10 list and eight of her choices made my Top 50. Welcome To… and Uptown missed out. Good games, but not Top 50 material for me. Five of made my Top 10: Ticket to Ride, Oracle of Delphi, Thurn and Taxis, Azul and Ingenious. Our growing familiarity with these games is fuelling our affection for them. For me, there can’t be a much higher compliment for a board game than that.

Getting them to the table

Liking these games is one thing – but am I actually playing them? Thankfully, largely, yes. I’ve played all but two of my Top 20 games at least 10 times (Caverna (7) and Gnomopolis (9) withstanding). And just 10 of the Top 40 are below 10 plays. But 17 of them have broken the 20-play barrier. The most played games in the last 18 months were Azul (14 plays), Thurn and Taxis (11) and Ticket to Ride (10).

All the Top 20 have hit the table at least once since Jan 2019 and seven have been played at least five times. Only three of the Top 40 have no plays since January 2019: Tumbin’ Dice (which has now!), Twilight Struggle (I only have one playing partner for this) and Navegador (no excuse – must try harder). This play count does include some online plays, but only ‘live’ ones during lock down.

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The best board games of all time (according to me) 2020

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

20: Gnomopolis

(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.

19: Caverna

(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.

16: Macao

(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?

13: Ra

(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.

11: Deus

(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

10: Ingenious

(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.

9: Azul

(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…

8: Terra Mystica

(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.

7: Downfall of Pompeii

(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.

6: Ticket to Ride

(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.

5: Concordia

(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.

4: Terraforming Mars

(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.

3: Thurn and Taxis

(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: Oracle of Delphi

(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. And if you want to support the blog, please click here before buying anything over at Amazon.

My Top 40 board games of all time 2020: From 40-21

Welcome to my 7th annual ‘top board games’ list. Today’s post will cover the lower half of the list, with the top games listed here. But please remember I’ve played more than 1,000 different games, have owned around 400, and currently own about 150. So, all these games have beaten back a lot of competition to make it into my Top 40.

My usual 50 was cut to reflect my shrinking game collection and to keep these posts a little shorter (and due to nostalgia for Top of the Pops). Plus, it always seemed the 41-50 section took longest to work out: a bit silly, as they’re the lowliest titles (I’ve listed 41-50 one last time for the sake of my own nerdy stats). Also, I’ve not agonised on giving these games a specific number, instead batching them alphabetically in groups of 10.

All game links go to full reviews where I’ve written them. But if you want to support the blog, please click through from here if you happen to be purchasing anything from Amazon.

Just missing out (numbers 41-50)

  • La Cour Des Miracles: Fast playing and interactive action selection game (above).
  • Doppelt so Clever: Thinky roll-and-write.
  • Junk Art: Balancing dexterity game with loads of variety.
  • Just One: Super simple and fun family/party word game.
  • Manhattan Project: Thematic worker placement with some unique elements.
  • Maori: Subtle, colourful and thinky tile-layer.
  • Patchwork: Fast playing and gorgeous Tetris-style puzzle game.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon: Free push-your-luck dice game (download here).
  • Targi: Fast and interactive two-player set collection/worker placement game.
  • Yspahan: Classic sub-hour euro with dice used for action selection.

Numbers 31-40

  • 6 Nimmt/X Nimmt
    (1994/2016, 4-10/2-4 players, 20-40 mins). Despite its advancing years, 6 Nimmt is still one of the best traditional card games out there. It covers up to 10 players, plays in about 30 minutes, and comes in a small box. And you can teach it in five minutes.
  • Adios Calavera
    (2017, 2-3, 20 mins). One of my favourite two-player abstract games. It has simple rules, but also plenty of variety if you want to switch things up. It’s fast and interactive in a traditional way. But the quirky art and clever movement make it stand out.
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4, 30 mins). This is a great go-to small box card game to introduce to newer gamers. It has traditional set collection rules and an accessible theme. But just enough extra bells and whistles to show what modern hobby games bring to the party.
  • NEW! Fertility
    (2018, 2-4, 45 mins). Sadly falling below the radar on its release, Fertility (pictured above) has become one of my favourite tile-laying games. What it lacks in interaction it makes up for in puzzley point salad scoring and clever resource collection.
  • Kingdomino
    (2016, 2-4, 45 mins). A great take on dominoes. Bright, colourful, fast, simple and accessible. It’s fair to say this absolutely nails all the gateway game criteria. The importance of turn order makes it tactical, while the area scoring adds the strategy.
  • Navegador
    (2010, 2-5, 90 mins). My favourite of the Mac Gerdts rondel games. It’s a gorgeous German style euro game (pictured above) with snappy turns but deep game play. Every decision feels agonising, as you want to do so much all the time.
  • Snowdonia
    (2012, 1-5, 90 mins). Snowdonia’s clever weather system makes it one of the most unpredictable euro game of them all. But the challenge that brings also makes it one of the best, as you roll with the punches and change your strategy on the fly.
  • Thebes
    (2007, 2-4, 60 mins). A fun and thematic family game. Some baulk at the level of luck on show as you pick points tokens from the dig site bags. But for me the fun of playing easily outweighs this, while the underlying mechanisms are little found elsewhere.
  • Tzolk’in
    (2012, 2-4, 90 mins). Don’t let the gorgeous components fool you. This is a complex and unforgiving euro game packed with clever mechanisms and tough decisions. A game you need regular plays to master, bur that rewards that perseverance.
  • Yokohama
    (2016, 2-4, 90 mins). Yokohama makes a great mid-weight euro game from the interesting central mechanism of (the rather tedious) Istanbul. There’s a bit more to think about. And even the route-building aspect feels fresher and tighter here.

Numbers 21-30

  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-5, 60 mins). A simple combination of well implemented mechanisms makes Alhambra a real gateway winner. Clever yet simple tile laying and set collection, plus fiercely competitive majority scoring. Plus loads of expansions for extra replayability.
  • Basari: The Card Game
    (2014, 3-5, 30 mins). A wonderfully simple and interactive card game where you try to read and then haggle with your opponents. The full board game (Basari) is just as fun, but the small box version loses nothing while being smaller and cheaper.
  • Crown of Emara
    (2018, 1-4, 90 mins). While a recent release, Crown of Emara shines with all the best traits of classic German euro games. Every decision feels tense and vital, as you agonise over what to do within a seemingly tight decision space.
  • For Sale
    (1997, 3-6, 30 mins). Every gamer should own a copy of For Sale. The cute art, simple rules and fast play – all in a small box – make it a great filler game for any occasion. But it’s clever and interesting enough to appeal to ‘proper’ gamers too.
  • Notre Dame
    (2007, 2-5, 60 mins). While drafting may seem a small part of this fast-playing euro game, it makes for some tough decisions. And there’s a tough balancing act throughout, as you fight off potential negatives while trying to amass points.
  • NEW! Pharaon
    (2019, 2-4, 60 mins). Pharaon is the only 2019 new release to my Top 40 this year. It looks great on the table and has a nice fresh take on action selection and set collection. But also simple to teach, fast to play and deep enough to hold the attention.
  • Pizza Box Football
    (2005, 2, 90 mins). This may well be a rather primitive dice-chucking sports simulation. But it does a great job of giving the feeling of coach versus coach, as you make your play calls and move up and down the field. Still my favourite sports board game.
  • Tales of Glory
    (2018, 2-5, 60 mins). An interesting take on tile-laying, while doing a good job of incorporating its fantasy theme. Create your character’s ‘tale’ by building up your tableau, symbol matching and strengthening your stats to pick up better tiles.
  • Tumblin’ Dice
    (2004, 2-4, 45 mins). Darts with dice – so less dangerous, more random, but just as fun. A lovely wooden dexterity game which can play up to six with a few extra sets if dice (or more as teams). Flick your dice to take out opponents and score most points.
  • Twilight Struggle
    (2005, 2, 2-3 hours). One of the all-time great war games. Both the main mechanism (card playing, rather than dice rolling) and the cold war theme elevate it for me. But it still has that war game feeling of luck being tempered by clever build up play.

Wondering what made the Top 20? Wonder no more…

Kingdom Builder board game: A four-sided review

The Kingdom Builder board game is a light, fast playing euro game. It was originally released in 2011 and designed by Donald X Vaccarino (of Dominion fame). It’s for 2-4 players, lasts less than an hour and should be fine for players aged eight and up.

And yes, you can play this one in isolation. It’s online at Brettspielwelt (which I’m not keen on), where you can play in real time. But there are also official Apple and Android apps.

In terms of game play, you’ll be using cards to claim areas of the board to score points. While it has an area majority look and feel, there is no battling: areas you claim are yours. And forget theme. This is a purely abstract game made pleasantly pretty by its nicely drawn medieval artwork. In the box you’ll find eight modular game boards, 164 wooden pieces, 37 cardboard chits and 35 standard sized cards. Everything is standard German euro quality, with clear iconography and nice if unspectacular artwork.

Teaching the Kingdom Builder board game

Mechanically, this may be one of the simplest ‘teaching’ sections I’ve ever written. At Board Game Geek Kingdom Builder rates 2.07 (out of five) for complexity. Scrabble rates 2.10. The actual rules fill two sides of A4, which includes copious pictorial examples. But as with so many simple games, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to master. And better still, it is a lot more varied than many games of its ilk.

Start by laying four of the eight game boards together randomly in a rectangle. Each game board has two or four unique location tiles that are now placed on them. You then draw (and lay face up) three of the game’s 10 scoring cards. Each player takes 40 wooden pieces (settlements) in their colour and draws a card from the terrain deck. You’re ready to go.

On a turn, a player shows their terrain card and places their first settlement on the board on a hex matching this terrain type. They place a total of three settlements, all on the same terrain type, with later ones having to be adjacent to any they’ve already placed (if possible). If not, they can’t start a new settlement elsewhere (on the correct terrain type, or course). Once done, if any new settlements are adjacent to spaces that still contain location tiles, you take that tile (you can only have one of each type – so four max). Then draw a new card.

Location, location, location

On later turns, these location tiles either let you place extra settlements, or move settlements you’ve already played. So, in theory, with four extra action tiles (very unlikely), you could be laying seven settlements per round. As the game ends at the end of a round where a player places their last settlement, extra placements can be a real advantage. But then, moving settlements can be equally advantageous. It all depends on the scoring cards.

The three scoring cards give players most of their points. And all players score for all three cards. But they can be contradictory. The Hermit gives you a point for each separate settlement – encouraging you to separate as much as possible. But the Citizens card gives you a point for each two settlements connected in one large settlement. The Paddock location lets you move a settlement two spaces, and that space can be non-adjacent – great for scoring on the Hermit. But the Oracle location lets you place an extra settlement on your current terrain type – great for finishing and scoring for Citizens. Oh, what to do…

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Sure, a series of bad card draws in Kingdom Builder can screw you. But in my experience, as with all good sub-hour games, good players miraculously seem to be way ‘luckier’ than bad ones. Also, I don’t tend to like the aggression of most area majority games. But I love the idea in theory. For me, this beautifully ‘euros’ the idea of area influence into a package I appreciate. It’s thinky, but you can mess with each other’s plans to a degree. And the potential placement restrictions make most of your moves incredibly important.
  • The thinker: There’s a subtlety here that many fail to grasp. A bad initial placement can literally ruin your chances from the start, which leads to a few ‘one and done’ experiences for players. For me, that’s a shame. Your first turn has to be your longest, as you assess which location tiles work best with the scoring tiles – and how the hell you’re going to get them to work together with your opening terrain card. Touch as few other types of terrain as you can, or be heavily restricted on later turns. But might getting a certain location tile be worth it? For me, it’s a brilliant ‘super filler’.
  • The trasher: I can take or leave Kingdom Builder. I’d rather play a more aggressive area placement game, but the mix of strategy and tactics here is well judged. That said, the game is much better for me at four players. The board is so much tighter, and the fight for those location tiles can be fierce from the start. With two, both players can pretty much do what they like and get what they like. You can always house rule and use less location tiles. And man, don’t get me started on the ‘theme’. Although at least it isn’t birdies or bunny wabbits…
  • The dabbler: Wow, this game really is simple. Which makes it all the more frustrating when you then lose your first game by a million points! But it only takes a few plays to work out the strategy basics. While there isn’t much of a theme the game pieces are nice and colourful, so it looks good on the table. And the boards are nice and chunky. I don’t find this is a game I choose often. But every time I play it, I’m reminded of how much I enjoy it. I really do like a game where we don’t need a rules refresher each time we get it to the table!

Key observations

There are some poisonous reviews of the Kingdom Builder board game. But it still rates a seven out of 10 overall. And sits just outside the Board Game Geek top 500 ranked games. So I’ll skip the people who rate it poorly because it is ‘light’ (uh huh), ‘doesn’t include war’ (oookay), is about placing cubes (erm…) or because it is soulless because it has no theme (wow, that guy again). Why? Because they’re playing a game they were never going to like.

I’ll also skip past the people who think it is OK to rate a game a ‘1’ out of 10 because they’ve been upset by the publisher. Fine, I get it – Queen Games has upset a lot of players over the years and many have legit beefs with them. Write angry letters, take them to task on social media, protest outside their offices. But giving a game a low ranking does a disservice to the thousands who try to use BGG as a source for information on how good a game is. With so many games out there, it’s hard not to boil your research down by an initial look at the game’s overall rank. This kind of attitude gives some great games a bad rap.

On to sensible points. Yes, some of the scoring cards do seem under/over powered. But this rewards repeat plays. I see some cards are major, some minor. If two of the scoring cards are major, and one minor – but the minor one works well with a major? I have my strategy. I think levelling this as a criticism shows a lack of thought into how the game works. It’s the same as those who say the game is 100% luck. You had a bad play of a short game. Don’t let the big box fool you – this is a short filler-style game that rewards back-to-back plays.

The elephant in the room

Some claim ‘drawing/playing a single card limits the decision space’. Sure – in one way. And one most aren’t used to. This common Kingdom Builder reaction shows how many players struggle outside their comfort zone. Yes, in round one, you must play your one card – in one of at least six areas. This decision will be affected by how many other terrain types those spaces link to (limiting later decisions). Which location tiles they’re near (giving unique long-term bonuses). Where other players have placed (can you expand as you want to?) And what’s nearby (will rivers/mountains stop your progress – and if so, is that good or bad?).

Many complaints come from players placing badly on initial placement in their one play. I get it – a bad first play often puts me off a game. In Kingdom Builder, your first three settlements played could see you touching three of the five terrain types. From then on, if you draw one of those, you must expand this initial area. So, thanks to this ‘luck’, you have a 60% chance of having to extend from your starting spot. Which may force you to connect to another terrain types. Now 80% of the cards are against you and its all the game/luck’s fault.

If you instead connect to no/one other terrain type, your chance of expanding elsewhere (and opening up the whole board) is 80/60%. And a commonly used house rule lets you mulligan your second card draw if it matches your first. Suddenly the ‘luck’ is more on your side and you have a whole board of opportunities and options to consider. Go figure… But yes, the game has its fair share of randomness – that I cannot deny.

Expansions

While I don’t want to go into detail here, I think it’s worth mentioning there have been several big box expansions for Kingdom Builder. Each adds extra landscape boards (with their own unique location bonuses) and new scoring cards. Each also has a theme (mechanical, as well as pasted on lol) that takes the game in a slightly different direction without changing the core. I’ll try to get to review them individually in future. But suffice it to say, this adds plenty of extra replay value once you’ve got a bunch of plays under your belt.

Conclusion: The Kingdom Builder board game

People can get a bit feisty when talking about Kingdom Builder. Like most popular games it divides opinion, but I find this one gets the hearts racing a little more than most. My first play I remember very clearly. I sat down with two good gaming friends and was absolutely destroyed. Did I think, well that was random stupid nonsense with no choices. No. I thought, how did they manage to do so much better than I did? We played again, I did a bit better, and I was hooked. It’s an absolute keeper for me. And I’d recommend any fans of short abstract games with light rules, but an interesting decision space, to give it a go.

How to start a board game collection

It’s a classic question: How to start a board game collection. I started my collecting phase around 2007. I started as a total newbie, with friends who were the same. So I rabidly consumed all the information I could. I read, I played and I purchased like my life depended on it – and made plenty of mistakes. So if you’re about to embark on the same journey, this guide is for you.

At it’s peak, my collection reached around 250 games (not including expansions, promos etc). My shelves were full. The top of the shelves were full. There was a bit of a pile on the floor. Before going to buy more shelves – the obvious answer – I had a good, hard look at mys(h)elf – ho ho. Enough was enough.

I’ve since cut back to around 150 games: a number I’m happy with (and, I expect, another blog post topic). But during this last decade-plus I’ve learned a thing or two about honing a collection into something you can be happy with. Of course, everyone’s taste is different – but hopefully this will set you off in the right direction.

Who are you going to play board games with?

As gaming groups form, you tend to find people fall naturally into categories. If you’re reading this you’re likely to be in the ‘buyer/teacher’ category – but with this comes great responsibility. You want to keep your group going, but you also want to buy and play the games you like. And so the tightrope walk between personal and group taste begins.

You should quickly start to ascertain which styles, lengths, themes and complexities of game suit your group. Do people like to play in a big group, or split into smaller ones? Do they like to play one game for the whole session, or a few each evening? If these are too varied, you can selfishly drop a few of the outliers you don’t care for as much. It’s your money after all and it’s not as if others won’t buy the occasional game. They key is to play to the majority, or the key regulars – whichever strike you as most important.

Here’s where Board Game Geek (BGG) becomes invaluable. It is a beast of a website, but it is in a field of one when it comes to researching board games. If a game goes down well, a look at its page on BGG will give up all kinds of useful info. The ‘fans also like’ section is great for new ideas, while it will also list the game’s ‘mechanisms’. You can click the words here (set collection, worker placement etc) to go to a list of games that use the same base idea. From there you can get a list of top games in that category. And that’s just the tip of the BBG iceberg. It can feel overwhelming at first, but trust me – it’s worth the time.

Second opinions

Using Board Game Geek to narrow down your choices is a great place to start. But the collective nature of its content can also be its greatest weakness. The ‘general public’ is a fickle thing, and averages can be deceiving. The majority of its users are American, for example, which sways opinions towards games more available there. I’ve also had a growing feeling users rate games very quickly, and rarely go back to amend those ratings. This has been particularly problematic with new games that look shiny but have little depth.

Look for regular users and reviewers you can trust, on BGG and elsewhere. Absorb a spread of videos, podcasts and written reviews (including, of course, mine!). Look at games you know first, to build a sense of which reviewers have tastes similar to your own. Build a pool of people to turn to for opinions. But consistency is as important as them being kindred spirits. I don’t share Tom Vasel’s overall opinion on games. But I trust his consistency, adapting my takeaways accordingly. So his opinion is still valuable to him.

As well as websites and reviewers, look out for ways to try before you buy. Online sites such as Yucata, Boit a Jeux and Board Game Arena are great. While most popular games now have apps, often at a fraction of the price of the physical equivalent. It’s not the same, of course. But will give you a good feel for how the game works. Also, look for other gaming groups in your area – as well as gaming stores that have game night,s or even better board game cafes. A good bit of research can really pay dividends.

How to start a board game collection: The classics versus…

Classics are classics for a reason. Some did something first, or did it the most smoothly or accessibly. Others nailed synergistic aspects of the hobby perfectly: such as time-to-fun ratio for a genre or mechanism. Others just sell by the shelf-load, so must be doing something right. For all these reasons, they’re a great place to start.

Even if they’re not always still the ‘best’, classic games are great introductions to what might be future favourite mechanisms or genres. Even if the classic doesn’t grab you, it may whet your appetite for more/similar of the same. Carcassonne – tile-laying. Catan – trade and negotiation. Stone Age – worker placement. Pandemic – co-operative games. Ticket to Ride – route building and set collection. These are must-tries, if not must-owns.

And don’t think ‘classic’ has to mean old. I’d argue Azul, released in 2017, can already be considered a classic abstract game. In its short time on the shelf it has sold thousands of copies and won copious awards. The same can be said for titles such as Terraforming Mars (2016 – sci-fi tableau building) and Gloomhaven (2017 – D&D style adventuring). Even after just a few years, they just feel like they’re here to stay.

…the new hotness

While trying/buying oldies but goodies is the soundest platform to build from, you also want to feel as if you’re part of your new hobby’s vanguard. It’s practically impossible to ignore new releases, especially if everyone is talking about them. But with literally thousands of new board games released each year, it’s incredibly hard to spot the outstanding ones.

A classic gamer pitfall is Kickstarter, which is fraught with investment danger. You’re backing a product upfront with no guarantee the game will ever release. And when you’re starting out, its harder to know the publishers/people you can trust. Remember: the skill set required to make a brilliantly convincing Kickstarter campaign is completely different than that of designing and developing a board game. Unless your research shows something of a sure thing – a re-release/follow up by a known publisher, for example – it’s best to avoid. The few great Kiskstarter games always become available later anyway.

On a positive note, if you’re following a group of reviewers/podcasters you trust you’ll see patterns. If half the people you listen to are raving about a game that’s on the way, the odds of it being a winner improve. Although they’re just as susceptible to hype as you are, if the hive mind starts to focus on one title there’s usually a better chance it’ll make the grade.

How to start a board game collection: Don’t panic

In conclusion, try to take plenty of time over your purchases and think about your groups first, researching as much as you can. Try to move through time lengths, complexity levels and genres to build a varied collection covering all your different scenarios. And be wary of short term hype versus the proven classics.

Yes, you’re going to make mistakes and pick up some stinkers – or great games your groups simply don’t get on with. Luckily, unlike many hobbies, there’s a great secondary market for board and card games. BGG has great trade and sales markets, while there are plenty of groups on Facebook and the like too. And that’s before looking into more advanced methods of swapping games, such as maths trades and selling at conventions.

If you’ve got any questions, especially if you think there’s things I can add to this guide, please let me know in the comments below. And if you want to support the blog and happen to be popping over to Amazon to get that collection going, please do so via this link.