My Top 40 board games of all time 2021: From 40-21

A full year of lockdown is (hopefully) coming to a close. But despite a lack of opportunities to play at the table, I’ve managed my usual levels of gaming. Much of it has been online, but those games have often be live. And with many of my favourite available on platforms such as BGA, Yucata and Boite a Jeux (noted below), I feel my 8th annual ‘best board games list’ has had the requisite level of scrutiny.

Links below go to my reviews of the games elsewhere on this site – and the one not yet reviewed will be soon. If you do intend to look into any purchases, please support this site by following this link to Board Game Prices. It’s a great comparison site for board games, which links through to a long list of online retailers. Also note these games are just in two sets of 10, listed alphabetically. I really can’t see anyone worrying about which game was 37th versus which was 36th.

I should also note that I’ve played close to 1,500 different board games over the years. And owned close to 500. There are also about 150 games on my shelves – and it’s not easy to stay on them. So even the games at the edge of my Top 40 have beaten back a lot of competition to figure on my list at all.

My 31st-40th favourite board games

  • 6 Nimmt
    (Released in 1994, 4-10 players, 20-40 mins)
    Online: BGA
    The sixth straight year on the list for this small box filler card game. Simple rules, agonising game play and it plays great at 5-8-ish players. So is perfect for finishing nights off at a con or game club night. Some say there’s too much luck. But I tend to see the best players winning again and again over time.
  • Basari: Das Kartenspiel
    (2014, 3-5 players, 30 mins)
    Basari is one of the least played games on the list, but has made my Top list five times. The lack of plays is down to it being a little niche. This is a filler game, best at 3-4 players, which needs a certain type of player. It’s about reading opponents, bartering, and spotting the right opportunities at the right time.
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4 players, 30 mins)
    This has been on all eight of my lists without ever breaking the Top 20. And it’s my ‘most played’ game in this post (at 43 plays). Because it quietly, perfectly fits a niche. Portable, great with 2-4, simple rules. A set collection card game, so you can teach it to anyone. But with fun interaction and a risky push-your-luck element that help it stand out from the crowd.
  • Gnomopolis
    (2018, 2-4, 30-60 mins)
    A bit of a drop this year, but I still like Gnomopolis a lot. An oversized box and cutesy artwork hide a simplified Race for the Galaxy-style engine building race. Here you’re bag building, grabbing points while building a card tableau. But it may be a little too simple. So I’m hoping for a step-up from the coming expansion.
  • Kingdomino
    (2016, 2-4, 45 mins)
    Online: BGA
    A game seemingly destined to stay at this level for me, with this being its fourth straight year in the 31-40 bracket. It’s basically dominoes meets simple tile-laying. But it works beautifully. And I’m not tiring of it at all, despite 25+ plays. With new/non-gamers it’s always a hit. While the 7×7 grid two-player variant nicely notches things up a few bars.
  • NEW! Lift Off
    (2019, 2-4, 1-2 hours)
    Online: BGA
    The only new entry in this section and one I’ve only played a little so far, having received a review copy recently. But it has already won me over big time. Two levels of light card drafting (think Notre Dame) meet engine building, creating a wonderfully tight little game. While the 50s/Fallout-style artwork takes it to the next level visually.
  • Navegador
    (2010, 2-5, 90 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    Navegador has slowly dropped down my rankings, but I still love it. It’s a Mac Gerdts rondel euro, with a smart economic element tied to a race for scoring opportunities. Unfortunately it’s probably at its best with four and I rarely play it that way. But a great game nonetheless.
  • The Rose King
    (1992, 2, 30 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    For me, one of the jewels in the Kosmos two-player line. And another eight-year ever-present on my list. It’s a classic abstract but with an element of luck, as a card deck (to limit your movement options) mixes things up. Stopping the dull ‘learn the best strategy’ problem chess et al have.
  • Snowdonia
    (2012, 1-5, 90 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    After five years in my top 20, Snowdonia has spend the last three teetering around the drop. But it always hang in there, despite all the new shiny games. Because it’s a clever and original worker placement game that really does play differently each time. And that’s before you add in the copious mini expansions.
  • Tumblin’ Dice
    (2004, 2-4, 45 mins)
    Basically dice darts. Which is as stupid as it sounds. But so much fun. Flick dice along a wooden board, with the sections you land on multiplying the dice number depending on their difficulty to reach. so you can go for high scores. Or just knock your opponents pieces off the board to make them mad.

My 21st-30th favourite board games

  • Adios Calavera
    (2017, 2-3, 20 mins)
    A permanent fixture here since its 2017 release, Adios is an original and enjoyable abstract. When you throw in great artwork and plenty of variability, it hits a lot of sweet spots. It’s the kind of game that, while I’m playing with people, they’re ordering it online. But sadly I can’t get to all of you, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-5, 60 mins)
    Online: BGA, Yucata
    A tile-laying classic that is a tricky solo puzzle and competitive majorities game combined. Its popularity has led to loads of expansions, adding great twists and loads of replayability. I’ve owned it for years, but can’t see it ever leaving my collection.
  • NEW! Bruxelles 1893
    (2013, 2-4, 1-2 hours)
    Online: Boite a Jeux
    I recently managed to acquire this and am chuffed to bits, having only previously played online. Its a worker placement euro game with a typically boring city theme. But this hides a highly competitive and passively interactive core that makes every decision tricky and vital.
  • Maori
    (2009, 2-4, 60 mins)
    Online: Yucata
    Maori is an ever-present Top 40 game for me. It’s a tile-layer where you each fill your own tableau, moving a shared piece around a shared tile grid to limit your options. The pretty art again hides what can be a vicious game. Especially when played on the harder difficulty levels, that also add replayability.
  • Notre Dame
    (2007, 2-5, 60 mins)
    This is one of the more divisive Stefan Feld designs. So, when you add the fact it has no online version, I don’t get to play it as often as I’d like. But I love its mix of card drafting and action selection. And the tension created by never quite having everything you need to do what you want to do.
  • Orbital
    (2018, 2-4, 60 mins)
    Another slightly obscure title I make no apologies for bigging-up whenever I can. You each create a space station with tiles, trying to match things up to score points. But an incredibly tight economy in the tile buying makes for some super tricky buying decisions, on top of the puzzley positioning.
  • Pharaon
    (2019, 2-4, 60 mins)
    This is a pretty dry and abstract worker placement game, with lovely Egyptian style visuals. I’m not usually mad keen on ‘turn stuff into other stuff into points’ euros. But a clever worker placement system makes it very competitive. While you can plan for future turns, thanks to a smart rotating board showing you what you’ll need on your next turn.
  • NEW! Remember Our Trip
    (2019, 2-4, 30 mins)
    I seem to mention this in every post recently. But for good reason. Its a short, small box abstract tile drafting/pattern building game. But somehow they’ve made the theme – shared memories – shine through. Add pretty cartoon art to the simple ruleset and you have a thoroughly charming game.
  • Tales of Glory
    (2018, 2-5, 60 mins)
    There are way more tile-laying games in this list than I’d have guessed. And here’s another. The competitive tile drafting definitely works better with more players – as do the majority bonuses. But the game plays fast, is (now) well produced and does a good job of integrating the fantasy theme. And even with less competition, at two players, I enjoy the admittedly light puzzley challenge.
  • That’s Pretty Clever
    (2018, 2-4, 45 mins)
    Online: Steam, Apple, Google
    I do enjoy a good roll-and-write. But (spoiler alert) this is the only one good enough to make the Top 40. Dizzle was close. But the ‘Clever’ series is just a notch above that, and the rest. As you roll dice and mark off boxes, you can cascade bonuses that let you mark off more and more boxes. Which is hugely satisfying when you get it right.

Next time – the Top 20

My next post will be the Top 20. But if you like this kind of post, check out my Top 10s links page for all kinds of board game lists – including my old Top 40 games of all times posts.

Lift Off board game: A four-sided review

The Lift Off board game is a card drafting and engine building euro game for 2-4 players. It takes 1-2 hours to play and is recommended for ages 12+. But 10+ should be fine for gamer kids. Much of the game play follows a simple and familiar format, but there are quite a lot of interlocking parts to juggle in your mind.

The game is very much in the German euro tradition. As in the theme is totally pasted onto a very mechanical rules set relying on good choices rather than story or luck. But the 1950s/Fallout style artwork has been drawn to perfection. So you’ll be drafting cards to attain the equipment and skills you need to launch a series of rockets into space. And, of course, score victory points.

In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find a main board, four mini player boards, 100+ cards (both standard and mini), 45 wooden rocket pieces and a bunch of cardboard tokens. At the time of writing, you can pick the game up for around £40 from several retailers via comparison site Board Game Prices. Its actually cheaper in some cases to get it sent from mainland Europe, even with shipping at £10+. Well done to those who voted for brexit… But even at an inflated price, I think you get pretty good value here. Lift Off may be a little over-produced, but it looks great on the table.

Lift Off board game main board area

Teaching the Lift Off board game

Anyone familiar with card drafting will be on familiar ground with Lift Off. And even if not, it is a very simple concept (choose one card, then pass the rest to the next player). Players start with a level 1 lab, some money, a basic cardboard rocket, 11 wooden rockets and a small player board board. Three wooden rockets mark your income, cost to launch a rocket, and how much weight your rockets can carry on your player board. You’ll also draft some end game scoring cards, leaving each player with three ways to score end game points.

Each of the game’s eight rounds is split into a card drafting round and a launch phase. The draft is for three ‘specialist’ cards, two of which you’ll play to variously gain points/cash/one-off launch benefits, resources, or improvements. Next players draw mission cards (in levels 1-4), before (usually) launching one or more of these missions into space.

As you’d probably guess, it’s the launch part that’s the tricky bit. You start the game ready to launch level 1 missions. But of course the higher level ones are more lucrative. Every mission needs a cash payment and sufficient weight capacity, with higher level missions needing more weight. And yes, increasing your rockets weight capacity also increases the cost of each launch. Plus, you need to invest in your lab to do higher level missions (not cheap). As well as needing increasingly high levels of resources.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: What makes the Lift Off board game sing is the puzzle. You need to match your capabilities with your end game scoring cards, balancing short term gains with longer term benefits. Despite a relatively small number of scoring options, it does feel that each player is moving in a different direction. Despite the fact you all end up in roughly the same place within the same confines. Which needs to be the case to make the drafting meaningful.
  • The thinker: I’ve enjoyed my plays of Lift Off. The small card decks mean there’s less luck than you’d imagine. While the game ups the anti at half way, bringing in higher level missions and resetting the card decks. So you soon become familiar with what’s available. Play well, and you should be able to complete your goals. But the chances are a better player will complete them a little better than an average one.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed this one, as I enjoy competitive card play. But don’t expect much hate drafting. There are a few cards you may want to keep from a particular player. But its not often that hobbling an opponent is better value than helping yourself – except with two players, of course. Then, some judicious card counting can go a long way to scuppering a risky plan. But even then, a good play will find a work around. Not an overly interactive game, then. But one I enjoyed none the less.
  • The dabbler: My first play was a bit of a disaster. It’s the kind of game I need to play through once to really get it. Especially as it’s hard to remember all the things you need to launch a rocket. And no, there’s not a handy dandy player aid. Surprising, as there are quite a few superfluous bits in the box instead. But it looks lovely on the table. The artwork really makes it pop and the theme works well, despite it being a pretty abstract game. Since that first play I’m definitely enjoying it more. But I’m never going to ask for it as my choice on game night.

Key observations

While Lift Off has largely garnered positive reviews, it certainly has its detractors. The game’s mechanisms are clean, but not everyone finds them elegant. While some also say the game plays too long or is over complex. I’ve found the game is very snappy and simple with anyone who has played before. But it does need a play to get used to. And some don’t seem to get past that first slow play. A help card, specifically for what you need to launch a mission, would’ve been super useful for this.

At the other end of the scale, some describe it as being on rails or having obvious choices. Or criticise the Lift Off board game for being repetitive. Sure, you do the same thing eight times in a row. But for me there is definitely a narrative arc as you move through the game. I’d guess that it feeling repetitive may actually be down to slow play. This can often give a game a feeling of repetitiveness, simply because it is dragging on. As for simple choices, I don’t agree at all. You can get to any game position in multiple ways. And multiple factors can feed into why you make a specific decision.

Luck, longevity and value

Its easy to argue £10 could’ve been taken off the price with some frugal component choices and a smaller box size. I won’t dispute this. And normally advocate for such choices myself. But in this case, when looking at the game on the table, I think it was worth it. But millage will vary. For example, there is a cardboard space station you can build as you play. Its purely arbitrary and, in another game, could really annoy me. But I dig it here.

Finally, there’s the question of luck. This being a card game, with eight rounds, I’d dismiss any criticism aimed at the specialist and mission cards. Plan well, do risky things early, and you’ll always reach your goals. But the end game cards you draft at the start of the game can be problematic. Some simply gel better together than others. But while this may give a player an advantage, I don’t see it as a big enough barrier to put me off playing the game.

I do worry about longevity. so far, after around five plays, I am still eager to play it more any time I get the opportunity. But the lack of variety – while important to the game’s mechanics – could be a problem down the line. will I still have this level of enthusiasm after 10 plays? 20? However, I’ve played many games with practically endless variety that have become boring during the first play. So Lift Off is doing OK so far!

Conclusion: Lift Off board game

Lift Off has been one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had gaming for quite some time. It passed me by at Essen on release and hadn’t raised its head since. But a chance invite to an online play later and I was hooked. For me, the game has interesting decisions and a lovely aesthetic. And once the first problematic play is behind you, it plays fast and smooth. So if you enjoy light card drafting in your euro games, it’s definitely worth a look.

Books wot I red: The Long Earth, K-PAX III & The Machine Stops

It has been just over six months since my last books post. So no, not even a pandemic forcing me to stay at home has really increased my capacity to sit down and read a book. I’m at about a book every two months during lockdown.

I had high hopes for the first two books. But only a short story, of the three, stood up to the test. That said, I now have two almost guaranteed winners lined up. So see you for the next post in a few months (yeah, right…).

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

I’d heard good things about this. So when I saw it in a Waterstones 2-for-1 offer I picked it up. I very much enjoyed reading Discworld books when I was younger. And had heard Baxter was one of the best in his field (but I’m not really into sci-fi books). I was intrigued to see what this partnership could produce. But even several weeks after completing reading the first instalment, I can’t make my mind up about it.

The premise is fascinating. Thousands of parallel Earths, all of which most people are able to ‘step’ between. But (seemingly) only our Earth has evolved human life. The discovery of which (in roughly the present day) leads to a second land grab and partial desertion of our earth. Many of those who can’t step are understandable aggrieved about it. While issues of ownership, nationhood etc of these new earths is clearly problematic. As is crime. Being able to step into almost anywhere has its advantages for those up to no good…

Much of The Long Earth centres around three main characters: two 20-somethings (one male, one female) and a hugely intelligent computer/being in a robot body. And its here I start to lose faith. I usually fall straight into step with Pratchett characters. But with the exception of male protagonist Joshua I didn’t here. The others felt cliched, rushed and generally weak. And the book was very oddly paced.

The rambling sections exploring the concepts/problems of ‘the long earth’ were fascinating. While the main story was pretty compelling. But they really didn’t mesh together well for me at all. And worse, this is book one of five. And it was clearly planned as such, as this one ends (spoiler alert) in a wholly unsatisfying ‘end of episode’ whimper. Book two is on my shelf. But do I want to read four more to get to a conclusion? Doubtful. I expect my time on the long earth is at an end.

K-PAX III: The Worlds of prot by Gene Brewer

To cleanse the pallet, I returned to the last in a series I’d thoroughly enjoyed to date: K-PAX. Another present day sci-fi idea. But one I knew the author had absolutely nailed in the first two volumes. Essentially, a guy arrives in a psychiatric institution claiming he comes from another planet. Is he mad? Or is he actually from another planet?

It will surprise no one to hear that Robert/prot (the patient/alien?) returns in the third book. But from the outset it’s clear this will be his last visit – and that we’ll finally find out the truth. No matter how the book was to read, I was going to read it to find out.

Unfortunately, the only good thing to say about K-PAX III (beyond the big reveal) was that it was short. It read like a cash-in – a lazy rehash of previous plot lines. But there were no arcs, no interesting new cases, no moving along of old plot lines. If the first book had read like this, I would’ve given up after a few chapters. so, to conclude, I’d still thoroughly recommend the original book – it’s one of the best things I’ve read. And K-PAX II is a pretty solid follow up. But if you do get that far, don’t get too excited about the final instalment.

The Machine Stops & The Celestial Omnibus by EM Forster

Sarah had just read this, and thought I’d like it. And as it was just two short stories, who was I to argue? I’m not big on the classics, and hadn’t read any of his novels. But I was aware of his reputation as being a master of writing about human interaction. And of not shying away from difficult or controversial topics. Both stories were written in the first quarter of the 20th Century.

The Machine Stops is an incredible short story, when you consider it was first published (in book form) in 1928. It portrays a dystopian future where man has been forced underground after spoiling the earth’s natural resources. And where we have since become overly reliant on an all-powerful machine; to the point where it is worshiped as a god. But it seems, unbeknownst to most underground, some exiles (thought dead) have begun to live on the surface again. Could it be these people who restore humanity to something like its former self? This fear of the over reliance of people on technology, and how it makes them become insular, makes for a fascinating read.

This edition also includes even shorter story, The Celestial Omnibus (from 1911). It was an OK read, but is a far more obvious comment on how literature shouldn’t be taken for granted as something that should simply be enjoyed, rather than just intellectualised. But it reinforces the theme of The Machine Stops – that what makes life so special is human connection, often through the simplest of things. Something many of us have been starkly reminded of as we’ve been stuck in isolation through the COVID-19 lockdowns.

What’s next on the list?

The two new entries from last time ended up being the next two books I read, so didn’t hang around long. I picked up a lovely HG Wells hardback in a charity shop, so wanted to add that to the list. While picking up Bryant & May novels (when I remember) has become par for the course. so, along with a non-fiction and a couple of fantasy-ish novels, I think the list has a nice balance to it at the moment.

  1. Book of Dust #1 by Philip Pullman. Fourth time on the list. Picked this up because the first three books in the universe were brilliant – and the new (actually rather excellent) TV series reignited my interest in this world.
  2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Third time on the list. I heard loads of good things about this, and found it in a charity shop cheap as chips, so finger’s crossed it will live up to the hype.
  3. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Second time on the list. Having removed a Knizia game theory/history book from this list, it’s time to add another to the list. This time from game design’s other biggest legend (in my mind) – Sid Sackson.
  4. Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The next Bryant & May novel in the series for me. Nuff said.
  5. The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. New entry! What did one of the true masters of sci-fi predict for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929?

A long weekend board game binge: 18 games in 3 days

The Bruxelles 1897 board game box

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in the UK, some semblance of normality is being restored. So of course, one of the first things I needed back in my life was a complete board game weekend binge.

Cons are still a while off though. We’re hopeful of our winter event happening, and there’s still a chance Essen will happen in October. But they’re a way off at best. So what better substitute than a visit from LoBsterCon co-conspirator Alex for an organiser meeting/serious gaming session?

Of the 18 games, Alex brought/taught seven and the other 11 were off my shelves. And of those, Alex only knew one of them on arrival (Welcome To). So between us, that was 17 teaches in less than 36 hours of actual game time. And at the end of it all, neither of us had fallen asleep mid-teach (but it was close…), or threatened to kill each other/ourselves. From my side of the table, it went something like this.

(Links below go to detailed reviews of the games played elsewhere on this website. If any of these games interest you, I’d recommend you clicking through to Board Game Prices – comfortably the best European comparison site I’ve found for board games.)

Board game binge day 1: Saturday

  • The Romans: There’s something slightly shonky about The Romans, but in a good way. There’s plenty of luck, but it tends to hit all players equally due to some clever mechanisms. Overall it is refreshingly original euro and beautifully integrates the theme. Great fun.
  • Basari – The Card Game: Sarah popped over to say hi, so I took this rare three-player opportunity to dust down and teach Basari. Both of them loved it. It’s so simple, with lots of interaction via negotiations. It just ebbs and flows so well.
  • Remember Our Trip: Sarah hung around for this too, the first time we’d played with three. And it was just as fun, with Alex also being a convert. Simple to teach and fast to play, but every decision feels as if it has meaning. What more do you want from a light-ish filler?
  • Paris – The City of Lights: The first of Alex’s games was a smart little two-player gem. I’m pretty terrible at spatial puzzles and so it proved here. But it was fun enough that I want to play more and improve. And very interactive, with enough variety to keep things interesting.
  • Gnomopolis: The first partial fail of the weekend. Alex didn’t engage at all and it fell a bit flat. But after 10+ plays for me, I still enjoy its ‘Race for the Galaxy-lite’ feel. And I’m hoping the upcoming expansion adds a little extra zing to the experience.
  • Kompromat: I’m still waiting for my review copy of this, and am now officially looking forward to it. It’s basically a two-player version of Blackjack with bells on, where you bluff your way through several hands at once to collect points and special power cards.
  • Adios Calavera: Another teach of this and another convert. Despite the fact the play ended in an unfortunate stalemate, which can happen on occasion. Still one of my favourite two-player abstracts, from the original mechanisms to the Day of the Dead artwork.

Day 2: Sunday

The Bora Bora board game box
  • Praga Caput Regni: I blow hot and cold on Suchy euros and this did a bit of both. It was the right length (unlike the tedious Underwater Cities) and the action selection mechanisms were great. But it really needs a two-player overhaul, as it was simply too solitaire.
  • Bora Bora: Alex has become quite the Feld fan of late, so it was nice to introduce him to one you sadly can’t find online. Like all his best games, it has just the right amount of choice/paths to follow. Along with some clever mechanisms and agonising decisions.
  • Era – Medieval Age: Wow. This game made me genuinely angry. A massive box of planet destroying plastic and for what? A half-arsed roll-and-write that ‘reworks’ a 10-year-old small box game that was better first time around? Utterly offensive drivel on every level. Basically landfill.
  • Dizzle: Oh look, a proper roll-and-write. In a tiny box with just a few components. And, frankly, more fun. We only played level 1 but it was enough to get Alex ordering a copy. Sadly overlooked, probably due to the success of the ‘Clever’ series. Speaking of which…
  • Clever Cubed: This third version of the award-winning series (That’s Pretty Clever etc) is basically more of the same. Roll dice, mark off boxes, trigger combos and bonuses. As good as the other two, but did we really need a third version of basically the same game?
  • Tales of Glory: Another teach from me. I worried it may go down the same path as Gnomopolis, but Alex got into this one. It is better with more players, to up the competition for tiles. But it is always a fun little tile-laying puzzler with a charming look and feel.
  • Bruxelles 1897: This proved to be an excellent distillation of euro Bruxelles 1893 into a card game. But as much as I enjoyed the play, it left me wanting to play the original. This nailed the interaction side. But I did miss the extra depth and subtlety of the board game.
  • Kupferkessel Co: As Alex enjoys Maori, I introduced him to this lighter tile grid game, also from Günter Burkhardt. He was worried about the memory element – as was I first time (really not my thing). But it has just the right amount to still be fun for us old folk!
  • Welcome To: The one game we both knew, although Alex had only played online thanks to COVID. I love how the card deck reduces the randomness compared to a roll-and write. And this has just the right amount of complexity to keep me coming back for more plays.

Board game binge day 3: Monday

The De Vulgari Eloquentia board game box
  • De Vulgari Eloquentia: I simply haven’t played this enough since picking it up a few years ago. And this was a great play. Like The Romans, it’s a euro game heavy on theme but with a few big luck elements. You can avoid them and play safe, but where’s the fun in that?
  • Lowlands: This Rosenberg-ish euro had passed me by and it didn’t leave much of an impression. It’s OK, but a little one-dimensional. It has a nice element of co-operation, and played fast. But I’d rather play an actual Rosenberg game (such as Caverna) every time.

And with that, Alex was gone – and the board game binge was over. It was so nice to properly dedicate a few days to games for the first time in ages. And it was nicely competitive throughout, ending 9-8 on wins (plus the Adios Calavera draw). I enjoyed six of the seven games Alex taught and look forward to picking up at least two of them – and playing a couple of the others a bit more too. Now, can we have our board game conventions back please?

Board game box size: Why it matters

While unimportant to some, board game box size can be crucial. Whether it’s practicality, price or another consideration, it can actually make or break a game. Both in terms of sales and reputation. But with each game, you’ll find people on both sides of the argument. So what’s all the fuss about?

Too big?

Oversized boxes can look brilliant. And they take up more store shelf space, giving browsers more chance to pick them from a crowd. Many games simply need them due to the components simply fitting in them. From Agricola or Terra Mystica, to Junk Art or Tumblin’ Dice, you couldn’t squeeze much more in. And shrinking their components would clearly be detrimental to the play experience. So no arguments there. But other games rattle around in a big box for no reason. Or upscale relatively basic components to give the impression of being more than they are. There are many examples. But the ones on my mind recently have been Abyss (2014), Lift Off (2018) and Isle of Cats (2019).

Abyss and Lift Off both look brilliant on the table. And are well designed, fun games. But at £40-50 (roughly, via Board Game Prices) its hard to argue they offer good value. Because, essentially, both are relatively straightforward card games with pasted-on themes. Either could probably have been released in a box half the size for around half the price. Isle of Cats is arguably a worse offender. Again, the box is nice and the components look great on the table. But they don’t even take up half the box size. And no attempt was made to even bother putting in an insert. So again, at around £40, it’s hard to recommend.

And in each case, it also needs to be remembered not everyone has unlimited space. Many players operate a one-in, one-out policy sue to shelf space. Or perhaps because their partner/family feel they need to put a physical cap on their hobby. So while many of the most vocal in the hobby tend to have game garages or rooms, the much larger majority have a shelf or corner. It’s a very real practical problem.

Board game box size: Too small?

This can give players a disappointing experience, because they were expecting something more. So make a small game, right? Cheap price point plus no storage issues. As long as you get your game out there under people’s noses, they’ll buy. And it should get played more, because you pop it in your pocket for a trip, fill in a suitcase gap etc. And most people shop online now anyway. But again, it isn’t quite that simple.

Firstly, you usually give up some wow appeal – which can badly affect word-of-mouth as well as great first impressions from seeing a game in play. And its harder for many players to take a game as seriously if it’s in a small box. Small box means filler to most – although it doesn’t have to. Great euro games such as 1906 San Fransisco have proved you can squeeze a quality game into a small package. But its not where you look on your shelves for your main game of the evening, is it?

Not being taken seriously as a ‘proper’ game (thanks to your small box size) also clearly affects Board Game Geek (BGG) ratings. Which I’d suggest is a key factor in many buying decisions within the hobby. BGG gives guidelines on how to rate (out of 10), which clearly suggest basing the rating on enjoyment and how good the game is. But the fact some of the game’s most played titles (Can’t Stop, 6 Nimmt! etc) can’t break the Top 500 games shows a clear user ranking bias towards showy components and complexity.

Boxing clever

Ultimately, if a game doesn’t have an obvious box size, publishers are taking a big risk in going either way. I was astounded at how little game their was in the box for Abyss, for example. Despite it being a good game. And similarly with the criminally overrated Splendor (which I find tedious). But the oversized box in both cases has helped them become big hits. Isle of Cats, too, has made a strong impression on the hobby market in terms of ratings.

Should it matter that you’re not getting value in terms of game, when you are in terms of components? That is an individual customer decision. And one that seems to be moving inexorably towards the pretty over the practical. When I came into the hobby 10 years ago, a £40 price tag had you wincing in pain. Now, spaffing £100 on an undefined lump of Kickstarter gamble seems par for the course. Who’d be a publisher…?