Top 100 boardgames.

This is now the ninth iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 100 titles, up twenty this time from last 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 think I’ll probably hold the list at an even 100 going forward as it’s a monster to update each year.

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; if I have a full review posted here or on Paste magazine’s site, the link to that will follow immediately. I’ve linked to app reviews where appropriate too. I’ve got many of these games in my aStore on amazon as well, unless they’re totally out of print.

I’ve added a few titles at the end that I own but haven’t played, or have not played 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.

I’ve put 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, which I believe violates one of the Ten Commandments.

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My latest game review for Paste covers the must-own reissue of Tigris and Euphrates, Reiner Knizia’s best game, now back in print in a beautiful new edition. You can get it buy it from amazon for about $45 (or about £39).

The 2013 boardgame Bruges is one of the more successful titles in the new subgenre that I think was at least launched by the success of Agricola – games where you can deploy cards from a very large deck in certain combinations to maximize your abilities to do more things and/or score more points. Each individual card gives you some special ability – one-time, once per round, or throughout the game – and most cards then give you an incentive to acquire certain other cards or types of cards. In Bruges, you don’t have to know the deck that well to play it effectively, and you don’t have the gating factor of Agricola or Le Havre where you must feed your family every round or lose points, so it’s lightweight relative to many games in the genre. It’s also long enough for you to build something and have a real strategy that plays out before the final round, unlike Elysium, which combines card-stacking with set collection in a game that is over before you can get anything going. So it’s good, but not groundbreaking – a solid implementation of a popular mechanic, yet nothing particularly novel.

In Bruges, players are local merchants or nobles who are trying to do a couple of not entirely connected things to score points. Each player has two five-segment canals to try to build over the course of the game, scoring three points for a canal that has three completed segments and earning a statue worth two to seven points for a canal that is fully completed. Players also can buy their way up the reputation track, which is worth one to twelve points at game-end depending on the player’s progress. And, most central to the game, players build houses in front of them, each of which can then hold a “recruited” artisan – a card whose powers are then available to the player. Each house is worth a point at game-end; each artisan is worth 1-4 points at game-end. There are also bonuses of four points available to any player who ends a round leading the other players in canal segments completed, number of artisans recruited, or reputation points. Once you earn one of those bonuses, it’s yours for the rest of the game even if some other player passes you. It’s a little weird.

Bruges has three types of payment for all of this stuff. Cards come in five colors, and to build a canal segment, you must discard a card in that space’s color and pay from one to five guilders (coins). To build a house, you lay a card face-down and discard one of the little worker meeples in that card’s color. (You start the game with five meeples, one per color, and can acquire more as the game goes on.) To recruit an artisan, you pay the cost in guilders on that card – multiples of three from zero to twelve. You can also discard a card on your turn to acquire two workers of that color, to gain one to six guilders (depending on the result of the rolls of the five colored dice for that round), or to discard a Threat token – more on that in a moment. Your hand will have five cards in it to start each round, during which you’ll play four of them. When the supply of cards, which is tailored to the number of players, runs out, that’s the final round.

The Threat tokens take the place of the “feeding your family” aspect of Agricola. Those five colored dice are rolled each round. Any die showing five or six delivers a Threat token in that color to every player; get three Threat tokens and you suffer some sort of penalty, such as losing a house or canal token, losing points, or losing a recruited artisan. These penalties are nuisances but in the grand scheme of things not a huge detriment, but discarding a card to remove a Threat token in that color also gets you one victory point, which is the only justification I’ve found for using a card to do this.

Bruges plays two to four and works well with any number, although I think you can get a little further with your strategies if you have more players. You can also vary the number of cards in the start decks to let the game play out longer, which I recommend because the deeper you go into the game the more fun it is to see your plans play out. But the game doesn’t offer that many chances for interaction, other than a few cards in the Underworld category that let you steal from an opponent or stick everyone else with a Threat token. You’re primarily building on your own, making Bruges closer to a solitaire game you play with friends. It’s a good-looking game and fairly simple to learn; I just see more complexity in the scoring than it needs, with no real connection between the different scoring paths.

Agricola iOS app.

Agricola is among the top-rated board games on Boardgamegeek’s rankings, and one of the best-reviewed board games ever released, a complex strategy game with very little luck or randomness involved that requires players to make a ton of difficult decisions. I like the game, but I’ve never rated it as highly on my own rankings because of its extreme complexity: The decisions and tradeoffs are so tight, the game straddles the line between play and work. A successful game brings as much relief (that you didn’t screw it up) as pleasure (which is the point of games, no?), and it can take two hours to play a four-person game, more if you don’t really know what you’re doing. The design of the game is brilliant – it is so balanced, and the idea of forcing players to choose among a host of imperfect options, accepting that they can never check all the boxes, is pretty unusual even with all of the games on the market. But good grief is it frustrating to play, even when you’re doing it right.

Playdek just released its long-promised Agricola iOS app earlier this week, and as adaptations go, it’s just about perfect. The app runs smoothly, without a single crash through a half-dozen games so far. Rules and requirements are easy to access within the game. The graphics are superb, very clear and very bright, easy to stare at for the 10-15 minutes it takes to play a solo game against AI players. And the AI players are solid competition, even the “easy” opponents, at least for a novice player like me.

I’d only played the physical game twice, so I came to this app as a near-rookie, only understanding the basic concept of the game and the part of the mechanics that resurfaced in the later game Le Havre. In Agricola, each player is trying to build a farmstead, beginning the game with a husband and wife, each of whom can handle a work assignment every round. Tasks on the farm include collecting resources, plowing fields, sowing plants, rearing animals, and building additions. The point is to maximize your scoring opportunities while ensuring that you can feed your family at the game’s five Harvests, which occur more frequently as the game progresses. The catch is that you can lose points in any area where you don’t accomplish something – leaving any farm area undeveloped, failing to rear any of the three animal types, etc. And getting enough food each harvest is no easy task; it would be ideal to get a steady food supply going, but that’s hard to do early in the game, and by the time the game is nearly over, the harvests are happening faster and you’re also trying to max out your scoring.

One way the game reduces the potential for frustration is by giving players a slew of choices for work assignments, adding another choice in each of the fourteen rounds of the game, so that players can vary strategies and won’t often find themselves blocked from all of the moves they need. (Most work assignments appear on only two spaces on the board, and some appear on only one.) Another is with Minor Improvements, which appear in the full game but not the shorter “family game,” a quicker, simpler version that only includes Major Improvements. Improvements offer players ways to gain extra resources or convert resources to more food. Players can also choose Occupations, which function much like Minor Improvements and can also provide point bonuses or spend less on future construction. (Hardcore players of the physical game may be interested to know that the app only includes the E deck so far, but other decks will be available as future in-app purchases.) Understanding what Improvements and Occupations can do for you allows you to tailor slightly more focused strategies – fun, but also again skating dangerously close to ‘work.’

The town.

Playdek’s biggest challenge beyond crafting the AI players had to be the interface itself, as Agricola takes up a lot of space when played on a table. There’s a central board with the ‘town,’ containing all of the work assignments, which gets larger as you include more players. Each player has his own farmstead, with up to a dozen or so squares, as well as his own resource piles and room for Improvements and Occupations. And there should be central piles of those cards as well. The app does a solid job of including all of those views without sacrificing too much information. The player can switch from town to farm view with one click. A bar at the bottom of the screen shows his/her current resource levels, including a food counter that shows how much he’ll need to feed his family this round. The player can find out what an assignment space or a card does by double-clicking on it, and there’s an option to include the labels on all assignment spaces if you want. When you drag one of your workers to a space, it’s grey if you can’t place your worker on it (because you don’t meet the resource or space requirements), and beige if it’s available. After two games, I was familiar enough with the town to know where everything was without having to keep all of the labels visible.

A player farm.

I’ve only found tiny flaws in the app version so far, nothing that seriously interfered with gameplay but, when the big stuff is all done right, these are the little things that stand out. The AI players seem to hang on basic decisions for five to ten seconds at times, and sometimes it becomes unclear what the app is waiting for (as in, is it my turn?). The tutorial is a little sparse and seems to be written for players who’ve tried the physical game at least once. The default animation and gameplay speeds were too slow for me, but turning them up in the options panel solved that problem. It might be easier if a greyed-out assignment space also explained why you can’t place a worker there. It also took me a few games to figure out that if you acquire more animals than you can house in fenced-in pastures or with stables, you can cook the extra beasts immediately if you have a fireplace or oven. They’re all minor issues – considering how many boardgame apps have crashed on me, the fact that one this complex played six games without such a hitch puts it in the best-of-breed category.

The two most comparable games in app form are Caylus, not as complex but with a similarly long view; and Le Havre, which takes many of the best features of Caylus and Agricola in what might be the most complex game I’ve ever seen. Caylus and Agricola both have bright, sharp graphics, while Le Havre’s are dimmer and less attractive. Le Havre gets everything on to one screen, while the other two force you to jump around or scroll more for the sake of larger images and clearer text. Caylus has the easiest AIs for me to beat, which means Agricola will probably have far more staying power for me – if it doesn’t turn out to be too frustrating when I’m playing the stronger computer opponents. It’s absolutely worth the $6.99 price tag, especially for a game that usually retails in physical form around $50, but with the caveat that the learning curve for this game is steeper than what fans of games like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne might expect.

Le Havre boardgame & app.

The board game Le Havre is one of the best complex strategy games I’ve tried, although the emphasis is on complex, involving a lengthy setup, more pieces than I can remember in any other game (mostly tiles representing resources that need to be sorted into piles), and a lot of long-range planning with great potential for other players to inadvertently trip you up. It’s very balanced, nearly luck-free, and rewards patience and attention. But the time to set it up and the time to play it are both major obstacles unless you’re quite hardcore about your boardgaming – and you don’t have to get up early the next morning.

All of that makes it a perfect game for adaptation into electronic form, and Le Havre, released on Wednesday night by Codito, is excellent, playing easily with plenty of instructions and offering sufficient challenges from the AI opponents to allow for many repeat plays.

In Le Havre, a game by the designer of Agricola and heavily inspired by Caylus, players compete to acquire the most total value in buildings and ships while filling growing requirements to feed workers each turn, a balancing act that is far more difficult than it sounds because of the competition for scarce resources and the limited number of ways to obtain food, a problem exacerbated in games of more than two players. On each turn, a player may choose to take resources from any of the seven available stocks; to take the available supply of money (francs); to build one of three buildings visible on the stacks of building cards; or to use a building that is already built, even if it was built by another player. A player may also buy certain buildings outright in addition to that main action.

Each player has to have enough food or francs on hand at the end of every round to feed his workers, and the rounds are short – seven moves in total, so in each round of a four-player game, one player will get only a single move. Yet to acquire points from resources, players have to first acquire the right mix of resources, sometimes converting them to other kinds of resources, sometimes acquiring energy sources as well, and then build the building or the ship in question. It takes patience, and requires a lot of quick decisions about when to move for the short term (food) and when to move for the long (points).

There are multiple ways to win Le Havre, one of the key features in a game that is this complex (and my main criticism of Puerto Rico). Shipbuilding is the best way to beat the AI players in my experience with the app, but there are several different paths to high point totals through buildings, including several buildings that stack up point bonuses depending on what else you’ve already built. There are also several different paths to ensuring a regular food supply, and ships can provide a fixed quantity of food on each turn once they’re built. When a player can’t feed his workers, he can take out a loan – annoying, but sometimes the right strategic move, and sometimes the path to digging a hole you can’t quite escape.

Game play within the app is very straightforward, and one of the benefits of an app version is the fact that you are protected from rules mistakes, which, given the complexity of Le Havre, is a significant advantage. Each card replicates the graphics from the physical game, including symbols that indicate the card’s price in resources, fee to use if it’s not yours, value in points, and resources or gains from usage. Clicking on the question mark in the upper right once the card is expanded gets the full text explaining the card and all of its costs and benefits. Learning the lay of the board took me two or three games, but all of the critical information is either visible or is a click away. The game also gives players the ability to undo a move while the turn is in progress, and confirms the ‘end turn’ request as well (an option that can be turned off). There’s a solid tutorial, although it is no substitute for playing the game a few times against easy AI opponents.

Those AIs are good enough to continue to challenge me, a relative rookie in Le Havre, because they offer multiple levels of difficulty. I do find them a little predictable, and they often race out to early points leads because they plan more for the short term than the long; the first two settings are like training wheels, but in a 4- or 5-player game against all AI opponents, the hardest AI setting is a good enough challenge to allow for repeated gameplay. The app now offers turn-based online multiplayer through GameCenter, which I haven’t tried yet.

My criticisms of the app are minor – the graphics could be brighter, and the font isn’t as clear as it could be, so some of the text is tough to read without expanding it from the background. The hint feature, suggesting the next move to make, can be a little too focused on the short term, although the point of the hints is to help you learn the game, not help you beat the AI players that are running on the same software. I ran into some very minor graphics glitches that should be addressed in the first update. Also, the music made my wife want to strangle me after about two minutes, so I muted it for my own safety.

If you like Agricola and/or Caylus, I strongly recommend Le Havre. It is as elegant an adaptation as I can imagine for a game with this many elements. I’m also impressed by how Codito’s boardgame apps improve each time out – the leap from Puerto Rico, another complex game with a lot of elements, to Le Havre is outstanding – showing an internal commitment to improving the player experience (and, I presume, increasing revenues). That said, if you aren’t a fan of boardgames with a lot of rules or a relatively steep learning curve, you might find this game frustrating, particularly the physical game given all its pieces. (It took me the better part of an hour to break apart and sort all of the little cardboard resource tiles.) It’s very fair to jump off the boardgame bandwagon before Le Havre or Agricola – but at least the app lets you try it out for $5 first.

Recent ESPN content, if you made it this far: My quick reaction to this year’s Futures Game rosters; an early look at Mike Trout’s MVP case; this week’s Klawchat; and some fun podcasts from Thursday with Dave Schoenfield and from Wednesday with Chris Sprow.