Which board game to buy? Comparing two ‘Top 100’ lists

A 'top 10 games' image for my which board games to buy article

When you first start in this hobby, you soon realise the huge range of choice – so which board game to buy? Like many, I first turned to the Board Game Geek Top 100 list. But I lost my faith in those rankings several years ago.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the website. It’s just the game rankings I no longer trust. There are simply too many games high on the list I really didn’t think deserve to be there, where years earlier it did largely ring true. There had been games I didn’t like, sure. But I understood why they were popular. But in recent years that has really started to change, in my opinion, for the worse.

Previously, I’d actively seek out games in the top 100 I hadn’t played. I’d sometimes regret it, but usually because it wasn’t my thing. But largely I found some great games. Many of which are in my collection to this day. But now, it’s rare to find a new gem in the same list. Most games that have arrived in the upper echelons in the past few years feel like flashy looking parodies of better games from the past. Or games which seem to have a high rating purely because there’s a metric ton of stuff in the box.

Why has the BGG top 100 list faltered?

The main reasons I think this has happened are:

  • Ratings creep: In recent years there seems to be a trend of rating games higher, generally. This is noticeable particularly in re-releases of old games, which tend to get quite a big bump in numbers for a new edition. Partly this comes down to these re-releases having shinier components. But should the fact a game looks pretty give it a whole point (or more) bump on a 1-10 scale? Not for me.
  • Kickstarter: Around the same time, the board game Kickstarter boom began. This has seem a lot of unscrupulous tactics used by publishers in manipulating BGG stats. Many games have been pumped up by one-and-done accounts rating games highly. And many of these games have seen massed high ratings before the game has been published. Sometimes by backers hoping to increase interest to unlock stretch goals.
  • New gamers: This same period has also seen a massive rise of new players joining the hobby. Brilliant, yes. But it has also meant thousands of new gamers playing new titles and rating them incredibly highly, when they haven’t got much to rate their experiences against. BGG’s rankings also bias towards games with more rankings – giving an unfair bump to recently released, heavily purchased games.
  • The cult of the new: So many new games, so many new publishers – and such a great resale market. Where game collectors were once a rare and strange breed, it is now far more common for people to buy a game, play it a few times, and move it on. This means people are rating games often on first impressions and moving them on before even considering things such as replay value. And/or, they don’t come back and change their rating later when they tire of the game.
Gloomhaven box image - top of the BGG top 100 list in July 2020, so on many people's 'which board game to buy' list

So, which board game to buy? Alternative lists

In February 2020, friend and fellow board gamer/blogger Martin (qwertymartin on BGG) came up with an alternative way to rank games via BGG’s stats. This list was based on play data from thousands of BGG users to work out game popularity over time. In this way, he hypothesised, you form a list of games many people are actually playing, rather than ones they just whack a high rating on. Surely a better measure of what gamers should check out?

He had two criteria for a game to be included. It had to be published at least five years ago (to demonstrate longevity); and be in the Top 100 games played by unique users in at least five different years. This skewed the results towards the amount of people playing games, rather than total plays. Firstly, because obsessives can radically bugger up this kind of result and secondly, because that is another way the system can be cheated.

Of course, completely removing the hotness from the past five years is daft in terms of players looking for new games. It’s only natural to want to explore games hot off the presses and I do it as much as the next gamer. But I think you need to do a bit of both. And in truth, as most gamers gain experience, their collections start to lean much heavier towards those older classic titles. Because, a lot of the time, they’re simply better games.

BGG’s cult of the new…

I looked at Martin’s list from February, comparing it the standard BGG Top 100 list from July 2020. There are some interesting parallels and differences. If you take out titles from 2016-2020 from the BGG Top 100 you remove 40 games – including a frankly ridiculous seven of the current top 10. Then take out the 15 (?!) 2015 releases, and you’ve accounted for more than half of the ‘best ever’ board games. Imagine looking looking at a ‘best bands of all time’ list and finding seven from the last five years?! You’d think the world had gone mad.

Looking more into the numbers, only three of the BGG top 100 games are from before the year 2000. The mid to late 90s saw an amazing renaissance in board and card games, many of which are best sellers still in print today. Worse, only 15 games on the currently list are from 2000-2009 – and only two of those (Twilight Struggle and Brass) are in the top 20. I doubt you’d find anyone who could justify these numbers in real terms.

…versus qwertymartin’s filler games of old

On the flip side, Martin’s list has its own problems. Half the games would be considered ‘fillers’ – games you can squeeze in at any opportunity to kill a bit of time. These are often picks of convenience, or lowest common denominators. What can we quickly pick off the shelf that no one will really hate? And if they’re not keen, it only lasts 20 minutes. Some of these are truly great games worthy of the list – but there is some rubbish here too.

Maybe 20% of the games on Martin’s list are made since 2010 – and almost all of those are light family games. While I understand the rules for his list, they seem a little too balanced towards older, shorter games. Two of his games were actually outside the current BGG top 1,000 (Saboteur and Bang). While the likes of Roborally, Tikal, Descent, Guillotine and Roll Through the Ages are showing their age. These games have better alternatives now.

Some recent games are clearly instant classics and should be on any list: Azul, Codenames, Terraforming Mars. And in future, they will make his list. If you do want a list of what’s currently being played to death by users, you can find those too with a little bit of BGG Fu (thanks Martin for the link).

But what Martin’s list has that BGG’s doesn’t are the genuinely massive games of our hobby: Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride. The older classics: Can’t Stop, Acquire, Perudo. And the lighter games that really do deserve recognition as much as any minis or euro game: For Sale, 6 Nimmt, No Thanks. As well as party games such as Dixit and Apples to Apples.

The consensus

Believe it or not, despite these huge disparities, a healthy 26 games did make it onto both lists. I think it says a lot that I have played all of these games (all well before doing this post). And I own (or have owned) half of them. There’s only one I’d refuse to play (can you guess?) and a few more I’d probably veto. But this is a genuinely great list of titles if youre trying to decide which board game to buy (links go to my full reviews):

Twilight Struggle board game box - which came top of the combined 'which board game to buy' list
  1. 29 – Twilight Struggle 9-20
  2. 30 – Puerto Rico 25-5
  3. 43 – Agricola 29-14
  4. 43 – Power Grid 36-7
  5. 51 – Castles Burgundy 14-37
  6. 63 – Race for the Galaxy 51-12
  7. 76 – 7 Wonders 50-26
  8. 90 – Terra Mystica 15-75
  9. 93 – Concordia 17-76
  10. 94 – Caylus 61-33
  11. 100 – Tzolkā€™in 39-61
  12. 101 – El Grande 63-38
  13. 102 – Dominion 87-15
  14. 104 – Pandemic 88-16
  15. 107 – Lords Waterdeep 58-49
  16. 107 – Through the Ages 40-67
  17. 114 – Le Havre 45-69
  18. 117 – Stone Age 100-17
  19. 119 – Battlestar Galactica 73-46
  20. 121 – Robinson Crusoe 47-74
  21. 122 – Tigris and Euphrates 83-39
  22. 124 – Orleans 26-98
  23. 136 – Five Tribes 57-79
  24. 164 – Dominion: Intrigue 70-94
  25. 176 – Patchwork 77-99
  26. 181 – Roll for the Galaxy 81-100

(Ranked by totalling each game’s position on both lists)

Which board game to buy: Conclusion

There are several things that I think skew people’s game rating in unhelpful ways. Some of which I’m also guilty of. If it’s really pretty, really clever, or really ‘deep’ – you’ll see those games go up as few points. While if it’s basic, short and small – down a few points you go. And of course anything that takes risks (politically, mechanically etc) is also likely to see more big negatives from the haters. But equally you can’t just go on plays, as it throws up too many average family filler games. So what to do?

If I had to pick one list to recommend to a new gamer, I’d go with Martin’s list – with one big caveat. There are, of course, loads of great games from the past five years. The problem is finding them. For me the most sensible thing to do is start with the classics, find you and your group’s range, then research further. Look for new games in the same categories, by the same publishers/designers, or played by reviewers/BGG users/bloggers whose tastes you start to respect. That should lead you to a great board game collection.

* Like for more lists to help decide which board game to buy? Check out all my board game Top 10s here – as well as my own Top 40 games of all time 2020.

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