For those that read my intro to Living Card Games, you know that I’ve slung a card or two in my life. I could be wrong in my assessment here, but I’ve never considered those kinds of card games to truly be board games. I’ve always felt like they’re different hobbies. To me, a board game is a game that you can bring to any group of people, teach it, play it, and then maybe play again one day. LCGs and CCGs are games where you need to find other players of the game, and you’ll keep playing again forever.
For that reason, I’ve left LCGs and CCGs out of this particular top ten list. It just felt like comparing apples and oranges to me. If I were to make that comparison, however, Android: Netrunner would likely be in my top five. Game of Thrones and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn may have made the top ten.
On with the list!
10) Cosmic Encounter
I had never heard of this game before Fantasy Flight rereleased the 1977 Eon classic, but I fell in love with it on the spot as soon as I got around to playing it.
On the surface, Cosmic Encounter seems like a very basic game of area control. The first player to control ships on five different foreign systems is the winner. Combat is simple and deterministic—whoever has the most ships in the battle is the winner.
But Cosmic Encounter is a game of practically infinite twists, resulting in absolutely bombastic gameplay. Simultaneously-chosen action cards lend not only a random aspect to combat, but also give players a means by which to negotiate and even betray one another at critical moments. Best of all, the base game comes with fifty different alien species, and the variable player powers are both widely diverse and incredibly fun.
I truly believe that Cosmic Encounter is a game that any group of 3-5 players can enjoy, and I’ve never played a game that wasn’t filled with both laughter and tension alike.
9) Twilight Imperium: Third Edition
This one’s not for everybody. A true gamer’s game, a full session of Twilight Imperium takes up a massive table, several hours, and every last one of your brain cells.
I’ve been trying to think of a good way to describe the game, and I keep coming back to the same sentence: Twilight Imperium is the quintessential heavyweight strategy game of our generation. Yes, it’s long. It’s ridiculously complex. It’s difficult to learn, and difficult to teach. There are rules passages that are blatantly extraneous. Even so, it is one of the deepest and most awe-inspiring experiences you’ll ever have at a game table.
Twilight Imperium takes the 4X genre—explore, expand, exploit, exterminate—to its farthest extent, then marries it to a wide decision matrix more common in Euro games. Drafting, action point allotment, resource management, modular board building, negotiations, commodity trading, variable player powers, variable game phases…this game boast an absurd amount of mechanics crammed into one box. And, somehow, it works.
8) Battlestar Galactica
Heavily themed after the television series of the same name, Battlestar Galactica is a cooperative game where a scant fleet of human ships flee extermination at the hands of the Cylons—a species of synthetic beings recently liberated from slavery. Players must manage their resources, defend the fleet, and handle a series of crises as they come.
The twist? One of you is a Cylon, secretly sabotaging the fleet from within.
My personal favorite cooperative game involving a secret traitor, Battlestar Galactica always delivers. It runs fairly smoothly—although there are some bumps here and there—but its main strength isn’t in its mechanics. Battlestar is an immersive social game with high stakes, and it creates an ecosystem of paranoia without sacrificing any of the fun.
If you want to know more, check out my comparison between Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, another hidden traitor game.
How did I only end up with one Kickstarter game on my list?
Keyflower is a game of colonial settlement where players compete to have the most overall efficient and highest-scoring town at the end of the four seasons. Different colored meeples are used as different types of currency in bidding, and as workers for different types of jobs.
The thing I like best about Keyflower is how its mechanics all work together in beautiful harmony. Nearly every aspect of the game has multiple purposes, providing a thought-provoking depth that surpasses other similar games. There’s a lot going on in this little box, and every turn is packed with fun and meaningful decisions that keep me coming back. It’s interactive, it’s deep, and it’s delightful.
Coup is, hands down, my favorite filler game. It packs the most punch in the least time out of any game I own, and that fact alone goes a long way.
Each player leads a faction in a dystopian court, holding influence with various characters, and will be eliminated if they lose their influence. The last player standing is the winner. Influence over different characters allows a player to take different actions—collecting more coins, assassinating other players’ characters, stealing coins, etc.
The twist is that all cards are face down, and there’s no way to be sure a player is telling the truth unless they are challenged…but exposing oneself with that kind of challenge carries its own risks.
Coup is a great tactical game that I never get tired of. I’ve force-fed it to multiple game groups, and I’ve never heard a single complaint. At less than $10, it has the best bang/buck ratio of any game on my shelf.
5) Roll for the Galaxy
I have to admit, I was never much of a fan of Race for the Galaxy. I think part of my problem was that I didn’t play it frequently enough. I’d play a game, take some time off, play it again whenever a friend brought it out…but too much time elapsed between sessions for me to remember any of the iconography. It became frustrating, having to reference everything each game, and my opinion of Race likely suffered because of it.
Then, enter Roll for the Galaxy. It took everything I liked about Race, made it dramatically more accessible, and added some fun new elements. The theme, like its parent game’s, is a tad thin—players lead their civilizations to the stars, settling new worlds and developing new technologies, and the player with the highest-scoring tableau at the end is the winner. However, there’s something viscerally appealing about Roll. Every turn is fun and exciting. I can’t wait to see what faces my dice will show, and there’s so much enjoyment for me in solving the little puzzle you make for yourself each turn.
It’s still not the easiest game to teach, but it’s absolutely worth it. This game leapt into my top ten in just the last year, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.
4) A Game of Thrones: The Board Game
A spiritual successor to Diplomacy with a widely-loved theme, and mechanics that aren’t specifically designed to destroy friendships? I’m in.
In Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Players take up the banners of one of the great houses of Westeros and maneuver across multiple theaters of conflict, vying to be the first faction to control the winning number of castles.
It’s widely understood that Game of Thrones is a bit broken. Certain factions have an unfair advantage, and the game does not scale terribly well with lower player counts. However, between expansions and fan-made house rules, this is mitigated surprisingly well. The base rules are fine for your first few sessions, but after that you may wish to tap into the internet’s hive mind to find that better balance.
Game of Thrones has something going for it that not a lot of other games in its class have—intrigue. Orders are assigned to all armies simultaneously through the use of face-down discs. They’re revealed at the same time, and then resolved one at a time in turn order. This simple model creates an amazing level of tension that I just don’t find in a lot of other games. Half of the fun is putting a plan in place, then flying casual while you wait for it to unfold so you can take your enemies by surprise. Social elements, like bluffing and misdirection, play a big part. It keeps me on the edge of my seat, and I love any game that can do that.
The second newest entry to my list, Kemet blew me away the first time I played it. I knew I loved it right away, but the more I’ve played, the more fond I’ve become of it.
Set in ancient Egypt, players control factions and are racing to curry the most favor with their gods. The first player to reach eight (or ten in a longer game) victory points is the winner, and there are several ways to score these points during the game.
At a glance, Kemet looks like a simple war game with some interesting minis. Once you get going, however, you quickly realize you’re playing a Euro game, where all the usual ingredients in victory point soup are cleverly disguised as combat and resource management.
Matagot gives us a beautifully streamlined game in Kemet. Every aspect is stripped to its barest function, then fleshed out with simplicity and flavor.
I just can’t get enough of this game.
An oldie but a goodie, Citadels will always have a special place in my heart. It was one of my gateway games, and I formed a lot of great memories playing it with friends and family alike. I’ve worn two copies of this game out entirely just from hard play.
Each player is a leader in a medieval city, looking to build the best and highest-scoring district at the end of the game. While it’s overall just a simple resource management and tableau-building game, the game really shines through its character cards. Every round begins with a role draft, where characters are selected to grant special abilities and determine turn sequence. These characters often interact with one another, so the ability to make inferences and guess who will choose which character can generate a significant advantage.
Citadels brings a lot of things I love about gaming together in one box. Bluffing, drafting, social deduction, and a race of resource management are all things I eat right up and ask for more. For a game as short as it is, with such a low price tag and a small footprint, I have trouble understanding why every gamer doesn’t own this one already.
Wait, is Dixit seriously number one on the same top ten that includes Twilight Imperium?
Dixit has its haters. I’ve heard that it gets repetitive and that it has no theme. I’ve heard it called an abstract game and a party game. I’ve seen it dismissed and called unbalanced.
To me, Dixit isn’t really like other games. There’s very little strategy, and there’s very little meat to it. You won’t interact much with the other players, and there are no “wow” moments where a big risk pays off. Dixit is a creative exercise, meant to make the players dream, and it does just that. Beautifully.
Playing Dixit doesn’t light a fire of competition in me, or satisfy my hunger for crunchy mechanics and immersive gameplay. Playing Dixit just makes me happy, plain and simple. At the end of every game of Dixit, I’d be glad to play another game—seeing the same cards is just an excuse to force yourself to be even more creative.
Dixit is my number one, my desert-island-game. I’ve given away copies of this game like a missionary seeking converts. I can’t say enough good things about it.
– Power Grid
Thanks so much for reading! Slag on my choices to your hearts’ content in the comments below.