UPDATE: I’ve set up an aStore link on amazon.com where you can find all of these games plus others I’ve since recommended in one place.
This is the third iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, expanded from the original ten as our own collection has increased over the past year. It’s not intended to be a critic’s list or an analytical take on the games; it’s about 80% based on how much we enjoy the games, with everything else – packaging and design, simplicity of rules, and in one case, the game’s importance within its niche – making up the rest. We are not hardcore gamers; I don’t mind a complex game, but I prefer games that offer more with less – there is an elegance in simple rules or mechanics that lead to a fun, competitive game. Don’t expect this to line up with the rankings at BoardGameGeek.
The list includes 21 titles rather than 20 because I filled out most of the list, realized I never slotted in Power Grid, and didn’t feel like junking Zooloretto once I’d written it up. I own every game on this list except Diplomacy, and with one exception (Agricola) have played every game on here many times. As always, clicking on the game title takes you to amazon.com; if I have a full review posted on the site, the link to that will follow immediately.
21. Zooloretto: Full review. A fun game, but a bit of a trifle compared to the others further up this list. You’re a zookeeper trying to fill his zoo’s three enclosures (expandable to four) with animals that arrive each turn on trucks available to all players, but each enclosure can only hold one type of animal at a time. There’s a cost to switching animals around, and there’s a penalty for picking up animals you can’t house, with points coming for filling an enclosure or filling all spots but one. I’m a little surprised this won the Spiel des Jahres, as it lacks the elegance of most winners of that award, and the two-player variant rules included in the game don’t work at all. I have played a simplified version of the game with my daughter, who loves the animal tokens and the well-drawn zoo boards. It’s a good starter game in the German-style genre, but not the best.
20. Babel. One of the first games we purchased – on a trip to Vienna in 2003 – its star has dimmed over time as we’ve found better games in the genre. It’s a two-person game where each player is trying to build towers with cards representing five different civilizations, but each civilization has a special skill or power, including the power to knock down an opponent’s tower or make one of his groups of cards “wander off.” Those powerful attacks make the game much longer, and you can go a while without making much progress, which ultimately made the game a little frustrating for us.
19. Catan (card game): We had this before we got the board game, and while it’s a lot more complex than the original Settlers, the basic goal is the same: Build up your principality to reach twelve victory points. But there’s a lot more up and down in the game, with disaster cards to supplement the robber by destroying resources or decommissioning your knight cards. We found it would often take longer to play this with two people than it would to play Settlers with three, especially once we picked up the card game’s expansion set. This game has been superseded by the new Rivals for Catan, a copy of which is en route to me as I write. EDIT: Rivals of Catan review is now up.
18. Metro. Almost comically simple, but highly replayable. Players compete to build the longest subway lines on a grid that represents the city of Paris. There are different types of tiles, some of which include straight tracks, while others include all manner of twists. You can extend your own tracks on your turn, or you can use a tile to screw someone else. The game ends when all tiles are played; the player with the longest total track lengths across all of his lines wins. The ability to play on (and prematurely end) someone else’s line is a major criticism of the game, although you can kind of do the same thing in Carcassonne and nobody complains about that. If it’s an issue for you, just play with a house rule that you must play on your own lines unless such a move is impossible.
17. Wise and Otherwise. I thought I should have one party game on the list, and this would beat out Taboo for me. Wise and Otherwise is one of the family of games where one player holds the “right” answer and every other player tries to make up a fake answer good enough to fool someone else; instead of dictionary definitions, Wise and Otherwise gives you the first half of a proverb and asks you to complete the second half. It plays up when you’re with friends and can start working inside jokes into your fake answers.
16. Acquire. Monopoly for grown-ups. Build hotel chains up from scratch, gain a majority of the shares, merge them, and try to outearn all your opponents. The game hinges heavily on its one random element – the draw of tiles from the pool each turn – but the decisions on buying stock in existing chains and how to sell them after a merger give the player far more control over his fate than he’d have in Monopoly. There’s a two-player variant that works OK, but it’s best with at least three people. The game looks a lot nicer now; I have a copy from the mid-1980s that still has the 1960s artwork and color scheme.
15. Jambo. Full review. A two-player card game where the deck is virtually everything, meaning that there’s a high element of chance based on what cards you draw; if you don’t draw enough of the cards that allow you to sell and purchase wares, it’ll be hard for you to win. Each player is an African merchant dealing in six goods and must try to buy and sell them enough times to go from 20 gold at the game’s start to 60 or more at the end. We played this wrong a few times, then played it the right way and found it a little slow, as the deck includes a lot of cards of dubious value.
14. Diplomacy. Risk for grown-ups, with absolutely zero random chance – it’s all about negotiating. I wrote about the history of Diplomacy (and seven other games) for mental_floss last week, concluding with: “One of a handful of games (with Risk) in both the GAMES Magazine and Origin Awards Halls of Fame, Diplomacy is an excellent choice if you enjoy knife fights with your friends and holding grudges that last well beyond the final move.” I think that sums it up perfectly.
13. San Juan: Full review. The card game version of Puerto Rico, but far, far simpler, and very portable. I like this as a light game that lets you play a half-dozen times in an evening, but all it really shares with Puerto Rico is a theme and the concept of players taking different roles in each turn. It plays well with two players but also works with three or four.
12. Agricola: The most complex game we’ve tried, with the steepest learning curve. Very well made aside from the square animal pegs, which we replaced (at the suggestion of one of you) with actual animal-shaped pieces I bought via amazon. You’re a farmer trying to raise enough food to feed your family, but also trying to grow your family so you have more help on the farm. The core game play isn’t that complex, but huge decks of cards offering bonuses, shortcuts, or special skills make the game much more involved. It was out of print this summer but appears to be back. (Credit to my wife for finding one of the few remaining new copies out there for my birthday, ordering it from a site based in England.)
11. Power Grid: Full review. This might be the Acquire for the German-style set, as the best business- or economics-oriented game I’ve found. Each player tries to build a power grid on the board, bidding on plants at auction, placing stations in cities, and buying resources to fire them. Those resources become scarce and the game’s structure puts limits on expansion in the first two “phases.” It’s not a simple game to learn and a few rules are less than intuitive, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a game that does a better job of turning resource constraints into something fun. Disclaimer: My wife doesn’t like this game because she says the board and cards look “depressing.”
10. Puerto Rico: Full review. It’s grown on me, especially since I got to try it out a few times online via Tropic Euro, although I’ve had friends and readers tell me it can become monotonous after a lot of games. You’re attempting to populate and build your own island, bringing in colonists, raising plantations, developing your town, and shipping goods back to the mother country. Very low luck factor, and just the right amount of screw-your-neighbor (while helping yourself, the ultimate defense).
9. Orient Express: An outstanding game that’s long out of print; I’m lucky enough to still have the copy my father bought for me in the 1980s. It takes those logic puzzles where you try to figure out which of five people held which job and lived on which street and had what for breakfast and turns them into a murder mystery board game with a fixed time limit. When the Orient Express reaches its destination, the game ends, so you need to move fast and follow the clues.
8. Stone Age: Full review. Really a tremendous game, with lots of real-time decision-making but simple mechanics and goals that first-time players always seem to pick up quickly. It’s also very hard to hide your strategy, so newbies can learn through mimicry – thus forcing veteran players to change it up on the fly. Each player is trying to build a small stone-age civilization by expanding his population and gathering resources to construct buildings worth varying amounts of points, but must always ensure that he feeds all his people on each turn.
7. Small World: Full review. I think the D&D-style theme does this game a disservice – that’s all just artwork and titles, but the game itself requires some tough real-time decisions. Each player uses his chosen race to take over as many game spaces as possible, but the board is small and your supply of units runs short quickly, forcing you to consider putting your race into “decline” and choosing a new one. But when you choose a new one is affected by what you stand to lose by doing so, how well-defended your current civilization’s position is, and when your opponents are likely to go into decline.
6. Thurn and Taxis: Full review. I admit to a particularly soft spot for this game, as I love games with very simple rules that require quick thinking with a moderate amount of foresight. (I don’t care for chess, which I know is considered the intellectual’s game, because I look three or four moves ahead and see nothing but chaos.) Thurn und Taxis players try to construct routes across a map of Germany, using them to place mail stations and to try to occupy entire regions, earning points for doing so, and for constructing longer and longer routes. Just don’t do what I did and play it against an operations consultant, lest you get your clock cleaned. At $24 this is one of the best values on the list, along with Carcassonne and Lost Cities.
5. Lost Cities: Full review. The best two-person game we’ve found, from the prolific designer Reiner Knizia, and the most portable game as well, since it can be played with nothing but the game cards. The deck comprises 12 cards in each of five colors, including cards numbered 2 through 10 and three “investment” cards to double, triple, or quadruple the profit or loss the player earns in that color. Players take turns drawing from the deck but may only place cards in increasing order, so if you draw a green 5 after you played the 6, tough luck. Games are short but we can play many times in a sitting without a hint of boredom.
4. Dominion: Full review. The definitive deck-building game, with no actual board. Dominion’s base set – there are four major expansions out there, including the potential standalone Dominion: Intrigue game – includes money cards, action cards, and victory points cards. Each player begins with seven money cards and three victory cards and, shuffling and drawing five cards from his own deck each turn, must add cards to his deck to allow him to have the most victory points when the last six-point victory card is purchased. I don’t think we have a multi-player game with a smaller learning curve, and the fact that the original set alone comes with 25 action cards but each game only includes 10 means it offers unparalleled replayability even before you add an expansion set. I did play this with some hardcore boardgamers – the host owned Caylus, which should say it all to those of you familiar with that behemoth – who found it a little lightweight, but they were probably just bitter that I won. (I kid.) (Somewhat.)
3. Ticket to Ride. Full review. Actually a series of games, all working on the same theme: You receive certain routes across the map on the game board – U.S. or Europe, mostly – and have to collect enough train cards in the correct colors to complete those routes. But other players may have overlapping routes and the tracks can only accommodate so many trains. Like Dominion, it’s very simple to pick up, so while it’s not my favorite game to play, it’s my favorite game to bring or bring out when we’re with people who want to try a new game but either haven’t tried anything in the genre or aren’t up for a late night. I do recommend the 1910 expansion to anyone who gets the base Ticket to Ride game, as it has larger, easier-to-shuffle cards and offers more routes for greater replayability.
2. Carcassonne. Full review. This game keeps growing on me, from the ease of learning to the tremendous replayability (I know I use that word a lot here, but it does matter) to the portability (you can put all the tiles and meeples in a small bag and stuff it in a suitcase) to the great iPod app. You build the board as you go: Each player draws a tile at random and must place it adjacent to at least one tile already laid in a way that lines up any roads or cities on the new tile with the edges of the existing ones. You get points for starting cities, completing cities, extending roads, or by claiming farmlands adjacent to completing cities. It’s great with two players, and it’s great with four players. You can play independently, or you can play a little offense and try to stymie an opponent. The theme makes sense. The tiles are well-done in a vaguely amateurish way – appealing for their lack of polish. And there’s a host of expansions if you want to add a twist or two. We own the Traders and Builders expansion, which I like mostly for the Builder, an extra token that allows you to take an extra turn when you add on to whatever the Builder is working on, meaning you never have to waste a turn when you draw a plain road tile if you sit your Builder on a road.
1. The Settlers of Catan: The grand-daddy of German-style games, not so much in age but in impact. I’m not saying it’s my favorite game, but it is among my favorites for its simple, easy-to-grasp rules and a good balance of luck and strategy that keeps it accessible for novice players or players who just don’t want heavy strategy in their gaming. I am saying, however, that the game’s influence means some other game is going to have to blow me away before I take this out of the #1 spot. We own the Seafarers expansion, which solves one problem – wool is by far the least valuable resource in the base game, but it’s needed to build boats in Seafarers – and creates another: the game becomes much, much longer. But the base game was a revelation when it hit the market and when we first played it, one that continues to reshape the game market a few players at a time. If some play it and move past it to more complex games like Puerto Rico or even more elegant ones like Dominion, then Settlers still deserves credit as the ultimate gateway game, one that can still be played and enjoyed even by people who, like me, had to buy a new bookshelf just to accommodate their growing collection.