This is now the sixth iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 50 titles, up ten once again from the previous year’s list. 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.
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, where there’s something of a bias toward more complex games, which is fine but doesn’t line up perfectly with my own tastes.
I’ve expanded the list to include several games I have only played via iOS app implementations, rather than physical copies. 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. I’ve linked to app reviews where appropriate too. I’ve got most of these games in my aStore on amazon and am gradually adding the rest.
I’ve added a list of titles at the end that I have played at least once but not enough to offer a review of them or rank them. Many of those will appear on a future list once I get to play them more.
Finally, as with last year’s list, you’ll find a complexity grade to the end of each review, low/medium/high, to make it easier for you to jump around and see what games might appeal to you. I don’t think there’s better or worse complexity, just different levels for different kinds of players. My wife prefers medium; I’m somewhere between medium and high. This isn’t like ordering a filet and asking for it well done.
50. Tikal: Full review. Strongly balanced game of board exploration, but the length of time between any single player’s turns, especially with three or four players, is a real drawback. Players compete to control temples and acquire treasures while building out a board representing a Central American jungle; control of those temples can change from turn to turn, and each player’s ten “actions” presents an enormous list of potential decisions to position his/her pieces for maximum points in each of the scoring rounds. That makes it interesting to play, but also leads to the long gaps between turns. Plays two to seven, but doesn’t play well with two. The app implementation helps a little, but it’s still a pretty slow game overall. Complexity: Medium.
49. Hacienda. I’ve only played the app version (review), but it’s a solid tile-placement game with a strange scoring twist – the game comprises two phases, and the score from the short first phase is doubled and added to the score from the second phase for the final tally. Players compete to form chains of tiles on a board with various terrain hexes, racking up points for connecting to markets, creating larger herds of animals, and placing hacienda tokens on large chains. Through the Desert does this theme one better but Hacienda has more variable play as well as a huge set of user-generated maps available online. Complexity: Medium.
48. Hey, That’s My Fish! The rare kids’ boardgame (just $12!) that is still a fun play for adults, where players compete to score points by placing and moving their penguins across a board of hexagonal ice tiles … but the hitch is that the tile you leave then drops into the ocean, so the board changes as you go and you can even trap an opponent’s penguin if you plan it right. The app version, the only way I’ve played this game, includes some great animations, and you can unlock a number of alternate boards via achievements, most of which are low-hanging fruit. This and Blokus are the two best games specifically aimed at younger players that we’ve tried. Complexity: Low.
47. Maori: A light two- to four-player game, relatively high in the luck department for this list, with more opportunities to screw your opponent in a two player game, whereas with four players you’re focusing more on your own strategy and less on others’. In the game, players compete to fill out their own boards of 16 spaces by drawing island tiles from a central 4×4 grid, where the available selections depend on the movement of a boat token that travels around that grid’s perimeter. Players must form completed islands to receive points, and lose points for open spaces. Currently out of print, but amazon has plenty of new copies through marketplace sellers. Complexity: Low.
46. Oregon. I need to play this some more, but it does have promise as a 2-4 player game that actually works with two players. Each player competes to place meeples and buildings on a rectangular grid by playing cards that match the row and/or column in which he’s placing the pieces. Points increase when players form larger groups of farmers on adjacent squares, place buildings next to farmers already on the board, or accumulate coal and gold tokens by building mines. It’s pretty simple and quick to play, but not that deep strategically. Complexity: Low.
45. Race For The Galaxy: Full review. I’ve played this game a few more times using a freeware version I found online with very strong AI players, but that’s only served to underscore for me how much this game resembles work. It’s a deck-based game where players must know the cards in the deck well to be able to execute a strategy, and are more or less told by their initial card what strategy they must pursue. I don’t game to add to my stress levels, but this game requires such intensity of purpose that, despite a good theme and precisely designed mechanics, it feels like a responsibility rather than like fun. Android: Netrunner, a top ten overall game on BGG, suffers from a similar problem – you have to know the game intimately before you can play it well. Complexity: High.
44. Asara. Full review. Light strategy game that feels to us like a simpler, cleaner implementation of Alhambra’s theme and even some of its mechanics, without the elegance of the best family-strategy games like Stone Age or Small World. Players compete to build towers in five different colors, earning points for building the tallest ones or building the most, while dealing with a moderate element of randomness in acquiring tower parts. It’s also among the best-looking games we own, if that’s your thing. Complexity: Low.
43. Alhambra: Full review. After playing it a few more times, I do like it more than I did the first time around, but the method used to acquire money is an awful mechanic that really screws the game up (for me) with more than two players. One of the cooler-looking games in our collection. Complexity: Medium.
42. 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. Complexity: Low.
41. Acquire. Monopoly for grown-ups, and one of the oldest games on the list. 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. Complexity: Low.
40. The Battle for Hill 218. A simple-not-that-simple two-player card game with a high degree of blowing-stuff-up-ness. Two players compete to take control of the hill of the game’s title by placing cards representing different military units that have specific attack and defense skills – some merely attacking an adjacent card, some able to attack deep behind enemy lines. Currently out of print, but the publisher told me they will be reprinting, perhaps with help via a Kickstarter effort. I’ve played and liked the iOS app version. Complexity: Medium-low.
39. Lords of Waterdeep. I just reviewed the app version of this game, and it apparently hews very closely to the physical version. Despite the grafted-on Dungeons and Dragons theme, it’s just a worker-placement game where players compete across eight rounds to acquire scarce resources, build buildings worth victory points, and occasionally sabotage other players. Agricola has similar mechanics and constraints, but its greater complexity makes for a more interesting game; Lords is better if you don’t want to spend an hour and a half playing one session. Complexity: Medium.
38. 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. I get that saying this is a better game than Race for the Galaxy (they were developed in tandem before RftG split off) is anathema to most serious boardgamers, but the fact that you can pick this game up so much more easily is a major advantage in my mind, more than enough to balance out the significant loss of complexity; after two or three plays, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to at least compete. The app version is very strong, with competent AI players and superb graphics. Complexity: Low.
37. Yspahan. Full review. I should love this moderate-strategy game that combines worker-placement, building, and trading/shipping into one fairly quick-moving game, but the need to choose and play a tight strategy from the start detracts a little from the fun value. Players compete to place goods in clusters of buildings called souks on the brightly colored game board, with completed souks worth points at the end of each of the game’s three “weeks.” Players also earn points and privileges by building up to six special buildings, and can accumulate points quickly by sending goods to the caravan – or can ship other players’ goods from souks to the caravan to screw them up. Requires at least three players. Complexity: Medium.
36. 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 in 2010, 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. I haven’t played this in a few years, unfortunately, although that’s no one’s fault but my own. Complexity: Medium.
35. 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. I’ve moved this up a few spots this year after some replays, as it’s one of the best pure two-player games out there. It’s also among my favorite themes, maybe because it makes me think of the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disneyworld. Complexity: Low.
34. Le Havre. Full review, including app. It’s a great game, one of the most complex I’ve tried, based on Agricola and Caylus (both further up this list), but my God, the setup is a bear if you’re playing the physical game, and a full game can take a few hours. I do like the game a lot on an intellectual level, but I can fully understand anyone who looks at the size and scope and says “no way.” The app version, on the other hand, removes the biggest obstacle to the game and the AI players are solid, even able to execute some niche strategies that require knowledge of the special buildings in the deck. That said, multiple plays of this (in the app version) against the two games that inspired it have shifted my opinion, to where now Le Havre seems to trade enjoyment for complexity, not an exchange I’m usually willing to make. If you think Caylus is for kids and Agricola too airy, Le Havre is the game for you. Complexity: High.
33. Flash Point: Fire Rescue Full review. A new cooperative boardgame that borrows very heavily from Pandemic but shifts to a new setting – a burning building with victims to be rescued – and includes different constraints and tools for fighting the common foe. I think Pandemic does this better, not just because Matt Leacock invented this subgenre but because the play itself, especially the way the foe (viruses) spreads across the board, so Flash Point is better if you love Pandemic and want more of the same but on a different board. Complexity: Medium.
32. Navegador. Full review. I love this game’s theme and better implementation of the explore-build-trade combination than Yspahan has, but it doesn’t work well at all with two players and really needs at least four to create enough competition on the board to make it more than just a few players playing solitaire at the same table. Players begin in Portugal with two ships apiece and have to sail to South America, around Africa, and eventually to Japan, opening up new areas, establishing colonies, building factories and shipyards, and buying and selling goods from their colonies according to fluctuating market prices. With enough players, it’s tightly competitive without feeling work-like, and the replayability comes from the interactions among players, since the game has only a miniscule amount of randomness. If you tend to game with four or five players, this would probably rank higher for you than it does for me, but I slid it down about ten spots this year because we usually play with two or three. Complexity: Medium.
31. Goa: A New Expedition. Goa had been out of print for at least five years, but there was enough of a clamor for a reprint that Z-Man Games reissued it entirely, with a small expansion included. It’s similar to two other games higher on the list, Bora Bora and Castles of Burgundy, in that players work off both a central board and individual player cards, taking resources from the central space and using them to advance tokens or development in their own play area. In Goa, the central board has a 5×5 area of tiles for players to acquire via a convoluted auction process, but after that the process is more straightforward: You’re a Portuguese spice merchant, using spices, ships, and colonists to try to build plantations and settle colonies while also increasing your production power across five separate categories on your Progress card. It offers a lot of decisions despite using just three core resources, and once you know the rules game play moves much faster. The artwork could use some help; my wife says the drawing of the merchant/colonist “looks like he wants to oppress me.” Complexity: Medium.
30. Tobago. Full review. Solid family-strategy game with a kid-friendly theme of island exploration, hidden treasures, and puzzle-solving, without a lot of depth but high replay value through a variable board. Players place clue cards in columns that seek to narrow the possible locations of four treasures on the island, with each player placing a card earning a shot at the coins in that treasure – but a small chance the treasure, like the frogurt, will be cursed. The deductive element might be the game’s best attribute. The theme is similar to that of Relic Runners but the game plays more smoothly. Complexity: Low.
29. Scotland Yard. App review. One of the few old-school games on the board, and one I’ve only played in app form. One player plays the criminal mastermind (I don’t know if he’s really a mastermind, but doesn’t he have to be for the narrative to work?) trying to escape the other players, playing detectives, by using London’s transportation network of cabs, buses, the Tube, and occasionally a boat along the Thames. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up but there’s nothing on here a clever six- or seven-year-old couldn’t handle if playing alongside an adult, and like Tobago has a strong deductive-reasoning component that makes it a little bit educational as well as fun. Complexity: Low.
28. 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. I’d love to see this turned into an app, although the real-time auction process would make async multi-player a tough sell. Disclaimer: My wife doesn’t like this game because she says the board and cards look “depressing.” Complexity: High (or medium-high).
27. Elder Sign. Full review. Another cooperative game, this one set in the Cthulhu realm of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, Elder Sign takes a different tack on teamwork by emphasizing individual actions within the larger rubric of coordinating actions to reach a common goal. Players represent detectives seeking to rid a haunted mansion of its evil spirits, room by room, earning certain rewards while incurring risks to their health and sanity, all to take out the big foozle before he returns to life and threatens to devour them all. Player actions take place via dice rolls, but players can use their unique skills as well as various cards to alter rolled dice or reroll them entirely to try to achieve the results necessary to clear a room. There’s still a heavy luck component and you’ll probably swear at some point that Cthulhu himself has possessed the dice, but that just makes killing your supernatural enemy all the more satisfying. Complexity: Medium-low.
26. Glen More: Full review. Build your Scottish settlement, grow wheat, make whiskey. Sure, you can do other stuff, like acquire special tiles (including Loch Ness!) or acquire the most chieftains or earn victory points by trading other resources, but really, whiskey, people. The tile selection mechanic is the biggest selling point, as players move on a track around the edge of the central board and may choose to skip one or more future turns by jumping further back to acquire a better tile. It’s been in and out of print a few times already, and is probably the game on this list that gets the least press relative to its quality and fun factor. Complexity: Medium.
25. Lost Cities: Full review. This was the best two-person game we’d 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. We’ve since moved on to some more complex two-player games, but for simplicity (without becoming dumb) this one is hard to top. 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. You can knock out a game in 15 minutes or less, so it’s one to play multiple times in a sitting. The iOS app is very slick and plays really quickly – a great one for killing a minute while you’re waiting in line. Complexity: Low.
24.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). Unfortunately, the corn-and-ship strategy is really tough to beat, reducing the game’s replay value for me. There’s a solid iOS app as well, improved after some major upgrades. Complexity: High.
23. Vikings: Full review. Currently out of print, and unavailable through that link (which I’m including anyway because used copies may appear there in the future). A very clever tile placement game in which players place island and ship tiles in their areas and then place vikings of six different colors on those tiles to maximize their points. Some vikings score points directly, but can’t score unless a black “warrior” viking is placed above them. Grey “boatsman” vikings are necessary to move vikings you’ve stored on to unused tiles. And if you don’t have enough blue “fisherman” vikings, you lose points at the end of the game for failing to feed everyone. Tile selection comes from a rondel that moves as tiles come off the board, with each space on the rondel assigning a monetary value to the tiles; tiles become cheaper as the number remaining decreases. You’re going to end up short somewhere, so deciding early where you’ll punt is key. I’m sad to see it still out of print. Complexity: Medium.
22. Morels. Full review for Paste. A 2012 release, Morels is an easy-to-learn two-player card game with plenty of decision-making and a small amount of interaction with your opponent as you try to complete and “cook” sets of various mushroom types to earn points. The artwork is impressive and the game is very balanced, reminiscent of Lost Cities but with an extra tick of difficulty because of the use of an open, rolling display of cards from which players can choose. Complexity: Low.
21. Bora Bora. One of two 2013 releases on my list, Bora Bora is one of the best-looking games we own and plays like a more complex version of the Castles of Burgundy. Two to four players compete to occupy territories on a central board of five islands, then using resources they acquire there to build on their individual player cards … but that’s just one of many ways to gain points in this game, where you can also hire natives to perform tasks or earn shells or status points, and you can trade in shells for jewelry worth points at game-end, and you can get bonuses for collecting certain combinations of cards, natives, or resources. It’s almost too much – you have so many options the game can slow down if players start overthinking it – but if you like Castles of Burgundy this is a good follow-up purchase. Complexity: Medium.
20. 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. Back in print this year and quite reasonable at about $27. Complexity: Low.
19. Through the Desert. Full app review. Another Knizia game, this one on a large board of hexes where players place camels in chains, attempting to cordon off entire areas they can claim or to connect to specific hexes worth extra points, all while potentially blocking their opponents from building longer or more valuable chains in the same colors. Very simple to learn and to set up, and like most Knizia games, it’s balanced and the mechanics work beautifully. Out of print at the moment, although I picked up a new copy back in 2011 for $10 on amazon. I’d grab the app while we wait for the physical version to come back around. Complexity: Low.
18. 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, but fans have crafted their own remakes, like this one from a Boardgamegeek user. 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. The publishers still sell the expansions, adding up to 30 more cases for you to solve, through this site. Complexity: Low.
17. Agricola: I gained a new appreciation for this game thanks to the incredible iOS app version developed by Playdek, which made the game’s complexity less daunting and its internal sophistication more evident. It’s 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, and require some knowledge of the game to play it effectively. My wife felt this game felt way too much like work; I enjoyed it more than that, but it is undeniably complex and you can easily spend the whole game freaking out about finding enough food, which about a billion or so people on the planet refer to as “life.” Complexity: High.
16. Ingenious Full app review. A new addition to the list, although I only own the app rather than the physical game. It’s another Reiner Knizia title, a two-person abstract strategy game that involves tile placement but where the final scoring compares each player’s lowest score across the six tile colors, rather than his/her highest. That alters gameplay substantially, often making the ideal play seem counterintuitive, and also requires each player to keep a more careful eye on what the other guy is doing. My daughter loves this game as well. Complexity: Low.
15. Battle Line: Full review. Among the best two-player games we’ve found, designed by Reiner Knizia, who is also behind half the other games on this list. Each player tries to build formations on his/her side of the nine flags that stand in a line between him and his opponent; formations include three cards, and the various formation types resemble poker hands, with a straight flush of 10-9-8 in one color as the best formation available. Control three adjacent flags, or any five of the nine, and you win. But ten tactics cards allow you to bend the rules, by stealing a card your opponent has played, raising the bar for a specific flag from three cards to four, or playing one of two wild cards that can stand in for any card you can’t draw. There’s a fair amount of randomness involved, but playing nine formations at once with a seven-card hand allows you to diversify your risk. The iOS app is among the best as well. Complexity: Low.
14. Samurai: Full iOS app review, which is identical to the board game. I bought the physical game after a few months of playing the app, and aside from a slightly dated design and look to the pieces and the board, it’s a great game – simple to learn, complex to play, works very well with two players, plays very differently with three or four as the board expands. Players compete to place their tiles on a map of Japan, divided into hexes, with the goal of controlling the hexes that contain buddha, farmer, or soldier tokens. Each player has hex tiles in his color, in various strengths, that exert control over the tokens they show; samurai tokens that affect all three token types; boats that sit off the shore and affect all token types; and special tokens that allow the reuse of an already-placed tile or allow the player to switch two tokens on the board. Trying to figure out where your opponent might screw you depending on what move you make is half the fun. Very high replayability too. Appears to be out of print at the moment. Complexity: Medium/low.
13. Caylus. Full app review. Another game I’ve only played in its app version, Caylus is the best of the breed of highly-complex games that also includes Agricola and Le Havre, with slightly simpler rules and fewer pieces, yet the same lack of randomness and relatively deep strategy. I’ve also found the game is more resilient to early miscues than other complex strategy games, as long as you don’t screw up too badly. In Caylus, players compete for resources used to construct new buildings along one public road and used to construct parts of the main castle where players can earn points and special privileges like extra points or resources. If another player uses a building you constructed, you get a point or a resource, and in most cases only one player can build a specific building type, while each castle level has a finite number of blocks to be built. There are also high point value statues and monuments that I think are essential to winning the game, but you have to balance the need to build those against adding to the castle and earning valuable privileges. Even playing the app a dozen or more times I’ve never felt it becoming monotonous, and the app’s graphics are probably the best I’ve seen alongside those of Agricola’s. Complexity: High.
12. 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. The iPad app just got a huge upgrade this past summer too. Complexity: Medium.
11. Tigris and Euphrates: Review of the iOS app. The magnum opus from Herr Knizia, a two- to four-player board game where players fight for territory on a grid that includes the two rivers of the game’s title, but where the winning player is the one whose worst score (of four) is the best. Players gain points for placing tiles in each of four colors, for having their “leaders” adjacent to monuments in those colors, and for winning conflicts with other players. Each player gets points in those four colors, but the idea is to play a balanced strategy because of that highest low score rule. The rules are a little long, but the game play is very straightforward, and the number of decisions is large but manageable. I’ve never played the physical game; the current version (sold through that amazon link) includes some minor expansions I haven’t tried. Complexity: Medium.
10. The Settlers of Catan: We don’t pull this game out as much as we did a few years ago, and I’ve still got it in the top ten largely because of its value as an introduction to Eurogames, one of the best “gateway games” on the market. Without this game, we don’t have the explosion in boardgames we’ve had in the last fifteen years. We don’t have Ticket to Ride showing up in Target, a whole wall of German-style games in Barnes & Noble, or the Cones of Dunshire on network television. Only four games on this list predate Settlers, from an era where Monopoly was considered the ne plus ultra of boardgames and you couldn’t complain about how long and awful it was because you had no basis for comparison. The history of boardgames comprises two eras: Before Catan, and After Catan. We are fortunate to be in 18 A.C.
As for the game itself, in Catan three or four players compete on a variable board of hexes to acquire different resource types, build roads and cities, and reach twelve victory points before any other player. Resources are parceled out in part according to rolls of the dice, and you can lose resources if the Robber shows up on a roll of seven and you’re not prepared for it. The Seafarers expansion balances out the core game’s low value on the wool resource, but also makes the game take about 50% longer to play. It was, and is, a great starting point if you’ve never played anything on this list, and is also one of the few games here that has some traction outside of the boardgamer culture, although that’s improving as well. There’s a brand-new expansion called Explorers and Pirates that introduces new scenarios and “missions” that add new ways to gain victory points. I haven’t picked that up, as we’ve just got lots of other games we prefer after playing this one so often over the years. Complexity: Low.
9. Pandemic: Full review. We haven’t tried many cooperative games, but this one sets a very high bar. Two to four players work together to stop global outbreaks of four diseases that spread in ways that are only partly predictable, and the balance between searching for the cures to those diseases and the need to stop individual outbreaks before they spill over and end the game creates tremendous tension that usually lasts until the very end of the event deck at the heart of the game. I haven’t tried the On The Brink expansion, but several people (including my sister and her husband) rave about what it brings to the base game. The iOS app is superb as well although it doesn’t offer online multiplayer. If you’re looking for a cooperative game you can play with kids, try Forbidden Island, from the same developer but much easier to learn and to win. Complexity: Medium.
8. 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 you play only includes 10 means it offers unparalleled replayability even before you add an expansion set. We own Dominion Seaside (which is outstanding) and Dominion: Alchemy (which I find a little weird), plus a standalone expansion further up this list. I can also vouch for this as appropriate for a young player – my daughter (age 6) understands the base game well enough to play it without me deliberately throwing the game to keep it competitive. Complexity: Low.
7. The Castles Of Burgundy Full review. Castles of Burgundy is the rare game that works well across its range of player numbers, as it scales well from two to four players by altering the resources available on the board to suit the number of people pursuing them. Players compete to fill out their own boards of hexes with different terrain/building types (it’s like zoning) by competiting for tiles on a central board, some of which are hexes while others are goods to be stored and later shipped for bonuses. Dice determine which resources you can acquire, but you can also alter dice rolls by paying coins or using special buildings to change or ignore them. Setup is a little long, mostly because sorting cardboard tiles is annoying, but gameplay is only moderately complex – a little more than Stone Age, not close to Caylus or Agricola – and players get so many turns that it stays loose even though there’s a lot to do over the course of one game. This was our favorite new addition in 2012 and we haven’t tried anything new since then that beats it, especially not for $27. Complexity: Medium (medium-high).
6. Jaipur: Full review. Jaipur is now our go-to two-player game, just as easy to learn but with two shades of additional complexity and a bit less randomness. In Jaipur, the two players compete to acquire collections of goods by building sets of matching cards in their hands, balancing the greater point bonuses from acquiring three to five goods at once against the benefit of taking one or two tokens to prevent the other player from getting the big bonuses. The game moves quickly due to a small number of decisions, like Lost Cities, so you can play two or three full games in an hour. It’s also incredibly portable. Complexity: Low.
5. Dominion: Intrigue. Intrigue can be combined with the base game of Dominion, but unlike other Dominion expansions (of which there are now approximately 82, with a new one released every other week, or so it seems) Intrigue is a complete game right out of the box because it includes the money and point cards. And it’s better than the original game when both are viewed without any expansions because it’s more interactive – Intrigue lives up to its name in the sense that you should spend much of your time either plotting against your neighbors or trying to defend yourself, which makes the “Big Money” strategy in the base game much less effective. The changes make the game longer, but more even, and more fun. Complexity: Medium.
4. 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. The iOS app is strong – they did a nice job reimagining the board for smaller screens, too. Complexity: Medium.
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. We also own the Swiss and Nordic boards, which only play two to three players and involve more blocking than the U.S. and Europe games do, so I don’t recommend them. The iPad app, developed in-house, is among the best available. Complexity: Low.
2. 7 Wonders: Full review. 7 Wonders swept the major boardgame awards (yes, there are such things) in 2011, including the Spiel des Jahres, for good reason – it’s the best new game to come on the scene in a few years, combining complex decisions, fast gameplay, and an unusual mechanic around card selections where each player chooses a card from his hand and then passes the remainder to the next player. Players compete to build out their cities, each of which houses a unique wonder of the ancient world, and must balance their moves among resource production, buildings that add points, military forces, and trading. We saw no dominant strategy, several that worked well, and nothing that was so complex that we couldn’t quickly pick it up after screwing up our first game. The only negative here is the poorly written rules, but after one play it becomes far more intuitive. Plays best with three or more players, but the two-player variant works well. Complexity: Medium.
1. Carcassonne. Full review. The best-of-breed iOS app has only increased my appreciation for Carcassonne, a game I still play regularly by myself, with my wife and daughter, and with friends here or online. It brings ease of learning, tremendous replayability (I know I use that word a lot here, but it does matter), portability (you can put all the tiles and meeples in a small bag and stuff it in a suitcase), and plenty of different strategies and room for differing styles of play. 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. We also have Inns and Cathedrals, which we’ve only used once; it adds some double-or-nothing tiles to roads and cities, a giant meeple that counts as two when fighting for control of a city/road/farm, as well as the added meeples needed to play with a sixth opponent. Complexity: Low/medium-low for the base game, medium with expansions.
A few games we haven’t played enough for me to rank: Friday, a one-player card game I’ve enjoyed but need to play a few more times; Blokus
, an abstract strategy game I’ve only played with my daughter so far, although it seems best suited to four-player play; Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, a two-player spinoff game that felt a little too lightweight; Love Letter, a game involving only a deck of sixteen cards but that plays poorly with fewer than four people; and the highly-rated deckbuilding game Android: Netrunner, which we just could not get the hang of, as it might have the most complex and/or worst-written rules I’ve ever encountered. I’ll also be reviewing the new Days of Wonder title Relic Runners next week for Paste magazine, but didn’t include it here because that hasn’t been published yet.
And, as with last year, my rankings of these games by how they play with just two players:
3. Stone Age
4. Ticket to Ride
6. Small World
7. Battle Line
9. Castles of Burgundy
12. Lost Cities
14. 7 Wonders
15. Through the Desert
16. San Juan
18. Thurn und Taxis
19. Orient Express
20. Tigris and Euphrates
21. Elder Sign
23. Battle for Hill 218