There are plenty of board games out there, and unfortunately, no time to play them all. We’ve all got to make tough choices in this world, and narrowing this list down to ten was definitely one of mine. In any case, here’s a list of my top ten board games. This list is surely bound to change as I experience more and more games (in fact, I can think of two that might just usurp two entries on here once I get to play them a bit more), so I’ll keep it updated as things change.
In any case, I hope that if you’re reading this, you’ll get something out of this list. Perhaps there are games on here that you haven’t yet tried out? Also, keep in mind that this is simply a list of my favorite games, not a list of “the top ten best games ever.” These are simply the ones that I personally enjoy, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, I hope that understanding my game taste will allow you to understand my frame of reference a bit more. Now, let’s get on with it:
10 – Risk
Yes, Risk sits at #10 on my list. Before you lose complete faith in my credibility, let me explain. Risk is, of course, a cause of much contention over tabletop gamers. Most people in the hobby have written it off years ago, as well as the other mass-market games that you’ll find on Wal-Mart’s shelves, like Life and Monopoly. The simple fact is that Risk has aged; its mechanics feel outdated and have been replaced in modern games with systems that are more elegant, calculated, and player-friendly. Indeed, Risk is stuffed with luck, ridiculously imbalanced, and easily facilitates bullying and quick player elimination. Did I mention that it’s stupidly long and provides no checks or balances for outrageous swings?
Despite all of these things, Risk still holds a special place in my heart.
Remember when you were a kid, and Mortal Kombat was the most amazing movie ever? Remember when your favorite N64 game had the best graphics of all time? Remember when the first iPhone came out? If you look at all of these things NOW, they are horribly dated. Mortal Kombat’s a joke, N64 games are ugly as sin, and the original iPhone has been outclassed a thousand times over. Yet, if we remember these things how they WERE, we’re filled with pleasant memories. That’s Risk for me.
Even though the game is admittedly flawed, I can honestly say that many of my best gaming memories of all time came from Risk. See, before I got into modern games, we played Risk. I had the 40th anniversary edition, with that shiny box and cool metal pieces. Every week for a good year or so in high school, we’d get together as a group and play. Things got intense. Alliances were forged in hushed voices behind closed doors in our “negotiation hallway.” Treaties were broken with ire and vengeance. Manipulation happened all across the board; nobody knew who was pulling whose strings. Miraculous victories occurred from near-dead players who were down to one last unit. We played this game so seriously that I once reduced my crush to tears when I invaded Europe.
After all those years of playing, one thing I concluded about Risk is that while its mechanics are bad, it can provide some of the best social gaming there is. This, obviously, depends on your taste and how your group is, but we were a bunch of masochists. We loved the chaos, and the enmity, and the betrayals. We lived for it, and despite all the wonderful games I have now, I can’t help but miss the days when we would play Risk together. Even though I’ve moved on from Risk, I’m still, to this day, searching for a game that provides the same “feel” as Risk, albeit with good mechanics. I have come close, but have found no true replacements. Until I do, Risk might just sit on this list.
9 – Catan: Cities and Knights
Catan gets a bad rap among tabletop gamers. Look, I get it. You’ve moved on, the mechanics are dated, blah blah. You aren’t wrong, but in this writer’s opinion, there’s a reason why Catan has consistently retained its place as the “gateway game” after all these years. Even if you’re sick of how lucky it can be, or of how dry it feels, it’s still very charming in its own way, and STILL feels like a new world to anybody who’s used to the typical American mass market hits. Even as the opinion of Catan wanes among seasoned players, the game’s fanbase continues to grow by the day.
Now, Catan was my next step up from Risk, before I became a diehard obsessed gamer. In fact, my family played Catan LONG before anyone knew what Catan was. For more than a decade, it had a place in family events, and even through our Risk years, members of my family habitually played it, though I always sat out because it was “too boring.”
I eventually gave Catan an earnest chance, and found out that I loved it! However, it wasn’t until I played Cities and Knights that I was hooked. Remember how I said Catan gets a bad rap? It does, and for a lot of reasons–the game is too dependent on lucky dice rolls, there’s a lot of downtime, the starting placements can make or break your game, and the game beats losers while they’re down. What a lot of gamers DON’T know is that Cities and Knights corrects many of these problems (not all of them), and turns Catan into a legitimately viable game that’s capable of competing with other modern games.
Granted, if it’s between Cities and Knights and any other modern eurogame, most people are likely to choose the latter, but all I’m trying to say is that, if you think Catan is non-salvageable, you’re wrong. Cities and Knights is pretty great, and fixes so many of Catan’s problems. There are a myriad of additional ways to get points, allowing for a more flexible strategy if you get screwed out your original plan. It adds commodities which allows for greater flexibility in trading, and has a host of special new development cards that can enhance your training, mitigate the luck of dice rolls, or be extra aggressive.
Cities and Knights isn’t perfect, and to be totally honest, I’m kind of over it at this point, as it was the only game I played for years, up until discovering modern games. While I’ll still play it, I’m typically more inclined to play one of my newer games. That being said, I can’t deny that Cities and Knights has given me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, and really makes Catan worth playing. I myself have become a snob about Catan at this point–the game is an absolute bore in its vanilla form. But with Cities and Knights attached? Sure, it’s welcome to the table.
8 – Galaxy Trucker
Galaxy Trucker is the newest addition to this list, but one that’s likely to stay for awhile. Galaxy Trucker is a wild game of simultaneous, chaotic gameplay. The objective, in fact, is basically to take chaos and organize it into something discernible, namely a ship. This ship is sent out into the wild frontier of space to ship and collect various goods, just like, y’know, a trucker. The caveat? Space isn’t exactly safe, and you’re not exactly rich. Your ship might be held together by duct-tape and glue, and it’s anyone’s answer as to whether or not it will survive the trip.
Here’s the thing about Galaxy Trucker–it feels so unique. Most games pick and choose elements from other successful games, and then add their own secret sauce to become their own thing. With most games, you’ll most likely be able to find something that at least resembles it. You want to play something like Tzolkin? Play Agricola. Want to play something similar to Imperial Assault? How about one of the other 500 tactical miniatures games on the market? This isn’t a bad thing, but if you play a lot of games, you’ll get used to seeing a lot of familiar mechanics, re-used or recycled or reinvigorated depending on the game.
Not with Galaxy Trucker.
I might be wrong, but I couldn’t think of a single game that resembles this one. Maybe there’s one out there and I just haven’t played it, who knows. If there IS, I’d love to hear about it, so post it in the comments if you’ve got something in mind. That being said, Galaxy Trucker feels super fresh, and because of its unrelenting originality, it quickly found a spot in my top ten.
The most attractive thing about Galaxy Trucker to me is that it subverts the normal structure of a game, and does away with turns. The game is played simultaneously–everyone builds their ship together, and everyone spectates the ensuing flight together. There’s no time to waste away on your phone, or to go up and get food while you’re waiting for someone to take their turn. It’s all action, baby.
Additionally, I appreciate that Trucker can evoke a sense of chaos and craziness, while still being satisfying to play from a strategic standpoint. There are undoubtedly good choices that have to be made when you build, and if not, your ship will get ripped apart. Oh, and that’s the other great thing about this game–losing is fun. It might even be more fun than winning, because there’s nothing like the wild ride of seeing your ship get blasted apart ten times over, and barely returning home as a tiny, one-piece husk of what it used to be. Win or lose, Galaxy Trucker is a great time, and commands an identity of its own.
7 – Tzolkin
Sometimes I feel like I have a love/hate relationship with Tzolkin. Tzolkin, you’re such a great game, but must you be so hard? If ever there were a game for masochists, this would be it, and it’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
Have you ever watched someone play a maddeningly hard video game? Watch someone’s face as they do it–they certainly don’t look happy. More often than not, in fact, they might look angry or annoyed or frustrated. I’ve played my fair share of near-impossible games, and like the Cyborg Ninja once said to Solid Snake, I say in my mind with clenched teeth, “hurt me more.” The look of frustration on a dedicated gamer’s face isn’t a negative thing, despite what it looks like. It’s a face of determination, a face of wanting something bad, and going through the wringer to feel the sweet, sweet satisfaction that your victory will bring.
That’s kind of how I feel when I play Tzolkin. I mean, I may be overstating its difficulty a little bit, but Tzolkin is a game that demands your attention, and doesn’t give you any handouts. There is nothing that will get you through this game save for raw skill, and the feeling of doing legitimately well in a Tzolkin game is the kind of succulent satisfaction that only challenges and hard work can bring.
Part of this is because of Tzolkin’s truly elegant mechanics. I honestly can’t think of a single element of luck in this game, except for maybe the starting player tokens, which dictate the amount of resources you start with, and even that’s a stretch. The game is so tightly designed that every strategy is viable, and even the smallest mistake can set you back. As such, it’s a game that demands your attention, and one that continually invites you to return so you can patch up your mistakes from last game and streamline your strategy.
Ultimately, I don’t feel at ease when I play Tzolkin, I feel challenged. It’s not an enjoyable feeling per se, but it’s a fulfilling one. It’s also not the type of feeling I want to play every time I play a game, but when I’m in the mood for it, Tzolkin scratches that itch with aplomb.
6 – Eclipse
Ah, Eclipse, the game that tries to do everything. Wait, did I say tries? It DOES do everything. Eclipse is a massive 4x game that has you building an empire, gathering resources, building ships, developing technology, exploring space, waging war, and forging alliances to become the ultimate power in the galaxy. Okay, so it doesn’t do EVERYTHING, but it comes pretty dang close.
Eclipse came fairly early on into my board game obsession. I was starting to get hooked with classics such as 7 Wonders, Castles of Burgundy, Tzolkin, and so on. When I saw Eclipse, I made passing jokes to my girlfriend (now wife) about how we should get THAT game, the one that contained 200+ components in the box, the one that made all other games around it look like child’s play. I was joking, but as time passed on, Eclipse slowly seduced me. I started to crave something big and complicated and deep, and Eclipse looked like the answer. I finally bought it, feeling like Eclipse would be the first dive into truly “complex” games.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that Eclipse isn’t even that complicated! The game is BIG, but it’s remarkably simple in its fundamentals, and for all the stuff it has you doing, it condenses it all into a miraculous two to four hour playtime (depending on the amount of players). In making the game, the designers sought to catch all of the epicness and grandeur of a 4x title, and condense it into a game that offered the same sense of scale, but with easy, streamlined gameplay and a manageable playtime. Despite its “simplicity,” there are about 230,489,710,312 different strategies you could pursue, which makes me sad that I get so many new games; I haven’t even scratched the surface with Eclipse.
I’ve taken some issues with Eclipse–it feels like there’s an unfortunate amount of unnecessary luck, and the game often can’t decide whether it wants you to be aggressive or defensive, but despite some of its flaws, it succeeds remarkably at catching the lightning of 4x games in a bottle, and offering an experience that’s deceptively straightforward.
5 – 7 Wonders
Although Catan and Risk were preparatory in getting me into board games, 7 Wonders is what kicked off my addiction. My wife and cousin and I, bored at our cousin’s house, opened up his closet to see if there was anything worthwhile. There it was, a game called “7 Wonders.” I had heard about it, sort of. I had seen it in various board game shops. It was probably good. “Let’s give it a try,” I said. I popped open the rulebook and sat and read it for a while (the game belonged to my cousin’s roommate), and then we all played once I had it down.
We proceeded to play all night, and then again the night after that.
Man, Seven Wonders just HOOKED me, and after that day, I realized that there had to be more of this. Like a desperate junkie desperate for his next hit, I began to search for new gaming experiences, and here I am now, owning and maintaining a board game journalism website and looking at a closet that’s so full of games I don’t even know where to begin.
But let’s get back to 7 Wonders.
7 Wonders isn’t necessarily the best game in the world. Like, it’s possible that any other good modern game might have hooked me, but that being said, there’s still a reason we stayed up all night–7 Wonders is great. It has turned into one of the great classics of the last several years, and it’s likely to stick around for a while. It’s gotten expansions, and even a separate two player version of the game that’s just as fun in its own right.
7 Wonders is incredibly replayable, which is one thing I admire about it. It doesn’t take long to play 7 Wonders, which CAN’T be said about most of the games on this list. Furthermore, 7 Wonders offers a satisfying amount of strategy, and requires both strategic and tactical prowess to win. It’s not aggressive, allowing everyone to feel at home, and it supports a large amount of players, meaning this can be a go-to option for big groups. 7 Wonders is just awesome, and it’ll always have a spot in my collection.
4 – Castles of Burgundy
If Tzolkin is the game I feel to be challenged, Castles of Burgundy is the one I play to relax. Castles is similar to Tzolkin in some ways–it feels very euro in nature, is an action-selection game, and requires your best skill to pull of a victory. The difference between these two games (for the purposes of this article, anyway) is that Tzolkin punishes you for your mistakes, and Castles forgives you.
Yes, it is entirely plausible to make a long series of terrible choices in Castles of Burgundy, and the game won’t make you suffer for it. You’ll still continue along, business as usual, and you’ll still collect a giant heaping batch of points, no matter WHAT you do. If you lose, you likely won’t lose by a landslide, and you may even finish the game believing that you didn’t make any mistakes at all. That’s not to say that you can easily win if you make tons of mistakes; on the contrary, only the wisest players end up with the victory. Notwithstanding, you’re not going to suffer in Castles if you’re not a tactical genius, and that’s one thing that makes the game an overall peaceful experience for me.
That’s not all, though. Castles uses a unique tile-placement mechanic, wherein each tile gives you some kind of special benefit. You can score points depending on which tiles you played, and also where you play them. Filling certain regions of the board give more points than others, and sometimes you can stack things up to get multiple actions at once. Because of all these weird little combos you can pull off, and the fact that you’ll score a bunch of points no matter what, Castles, to me, feels like a fun little puzzle. You don’t stress out when you build a puzzle; you put yourself at ease and let your powers of deduction and problem-solving take over. Playing Castles of Burgundy is just a pleasant experience, because it doesn’t stress me out, but still allows me to challenge myself to find the best combination of what to play.
The other thing that Castles scores major points for is its excellent scaling. Castles is an amazing two-player game, but works just as well with three or four players. Being someone that moves around a lot and doesn’t always have a steady flow of willing gamers to come over, I appreciate that Castles is an easy game to bust out and play with the wife, or any other willing players. Castles of Burgundy does so much stuff right, and it’s no wonder it’s so venerated among gamers.
3 – Libertalia
Libertalia…now here’s a game that is, in my opinion, vastly underrated. Libertalia is a veritable gem, and even though I picked it up on impulse from an Amazon sale knowing nothing about it, I knew right when I played it that I had something special on my hands.
I like to call Libertalia “pirate poker,” because that’s basically what it feels like. Libertalia is a perfect information bluffing/reading game, where you’ve got to play the right mindgames to get ahead. The concept is simple–you each play a pirate face-down in the middle, and the highest ranking pirate wins; the thing is, you all have the same pirates, so you know what everybody’s hand is. Furthermore, each pirate has its own special ability, and even the lowest ranking pirates can be the most favorable card to play if their ability ends up coming in handy. Finally, the “booty” (aka, the treasure you collect each round based on your pirate’s ranking) can be good AND bad, so it’s almost never as easy as “play the highest pirate to win.” You’ve got to carefully analyze the booty on board, and exactly which pirates to play to fall in line where you want; you want to ruin the other players while maximizing your own odds, and throughout all this, you’ve all got the same hands, so you know that anything you can do, your opponent can too.
Honestly, I haven’t even begun to describe how deep Libertalia gets. It’s such a remarkably simple game that deceives with its simplicity; it has remarkable depth, and most importantly, that depth requires you to be able to read your opponents to win, something I love in board games. Everyone’s constantly trying to play each other, just like dirty pirates would.
Ah, and did I mention how thematically excellent the game is? Libertalia is stunningly well produced, and captures the pirate theme perfectly in its own little chest. The artwork is fantastic and the overall aesthetics pay tribute to its theme. The best part? You feel like a pirate when you play Libertalia. It’s all about maximizing your gain while screwing everyone else over, and only the most scurvy player can pull it off. If you’re reading this list and you haven’t let checked out Libertalia, I highly suggest you do so. It’s a criminally underrated gem.
2 – Kemet
Kemet might be the most well-designed game I’ve ever played.
I’m not kidding–this game is an absolute masterpiece. I still haven’t even played it nearly as much as I would like to, and yet, every time it hits the table, I legitimately struggle trying to find flaws with its design. It takes some of the hardest design hurtles I’ve seen in modern games, and clears them all without a thought. Forcing direct conflict without making it imbalanced, highly personal, or forcing elimination? Check. A combat system that is deterministic, has no dice, and still feels flexible and variable? Check. A huge myriad of purchasable special abilities, and yet not one broken strategy to be found? Check. Cramming all of this into two hours of less and still making it feel satisfying? Check. Kemet does all of these things and more, and when they all work together, I can’t help but feel that the game unbelievably well-designed, and that other designers should be taking notes.
Kemet’s ability to take difficult design concepts and make them all work is what puts it so high on my list. Remember how I mentioned that I’ve been looking for a spiritual Risk replacement for a long time? I haven’t played Kemet enough to know if it’s the one, but I can tell you right now that it’s pretty close. I love direct conflict games, because they allow for a social, meta experience to bloom among the players. I love it when players make their decisions with passion and emotion, and I love having to play the other people at my table, not just the game itself. Games get a lot of fun when you not only need to understand the rules to win, but the players themselves. The problem, however, with direct conflict games is that they often encourage bullying, elimination, or try to balance conflict with other peaceful mechanics, ultimately making aggressive players seem “mean” if the other players aren’t on par with them.
Kemet solves all of these problems in grace. Kemet encourages players to be aggressive, and makes defensive strategies non-viable except for in rare occasions, forcing players to go out there and get dirty. It also has no elimination, allowing any player to rise out of nothing and still be able to jump back into the game. It has an ingenious combat system that calls for bluffing and mind-games, yet with no dice or any elements of luck whatsoever. Because each player has specific ways to earn points, it’s not always the best strategy to just target one player, so it’s not always personal. Notwithstanding, the game doesn’t feel overly formulaic and objective-based as to remove a sense of enmity and revenge. As a result, Kemet feels personal and not personal at the same time, in a way that feels good and works.
I still haven’t reviewed Kemet, but I’ll have a lot of good things to say about it when I do. It’s not a perfect game, but I won’t say it’s not close. I still plan to get a lot of mileage out of this one.
1 – Star Wars – Imperial Assault
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that’s kept up with Board Game Resource, as there is a disproportionate amount of Imperial Assault content compared to the rest. It’s not that bad, but I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t given this game some special attention.
Imperial Assault is everything that I love in a game. First of all, it’s Star Wars, and my fandom knows no limits. I mean, I took all online classes last semester just so I wouldn’t chance having a final that would require me to stay out of state away from my family when the Force Awakens came out. I love Star Wars, like, a lot, and there’s no game that is a better homage to the beloved series than Imperial Assault. Imperial Assault, at every moment, feels like Star Wars translated directly onto a tabletop. It captures the sense of fun, danger, and heroism that the movies evoke, and delivers it all through fantastic, fine-tuned game design.
Speaking of the design, there are plenty of reasons why I love this game, other than the fact that it’s so Star Warsy. Imperial Assault is just so perfect for who I am, personally. See, tactical games are my thing. Advance Wars and Fire Emblem are two of my favorite video games ever made, which are turn-based, grid-based tactical games, much like Imperial Assault. Even before I played Imperial Assault, I started designing my own grid tactics game, because I longed so badly to experience that on the tabletop. When I found out about Imperial Assault, it was like Christmas (actually, it quite literally WAS Christmas, because that’s when I got it). It’s Star Wars. It’s grid based. It’s tactical. It’s beautiful. I popped open the rulebook and found that the entire gameplay system catered perfectly to my tastes. It was like an RPG on the tabletop, but one that could be played and concluded in a single session!
What REALLY sold me on Imperial Assault was the value. I had no idea what I was getting into when I first opened that box, but I would eventually find out that Imperial Assault is ENORMOUS. There is so much value contained in that box. You’ve got an entire fleshed out campaign that can be played over 10+ sessions multiple times before it gets stale, AND a thorough two player skirmish mode that could host 1v1 tactical squad battles without the flair and commitment of the campaign. Not only that, but it gives more than enough units to make all kinds of unique squads, unlike other Fantasy Flight Star Wars games, which are characteristically barren in their core set forms. No, Imperial Assault is the game that keeps on giving, and if THAT weren’t enough, its expansionary content will keep it forever young.
I’m not saying Imperial Assault is the best game ever. It’s not, but it is my favorite. The game certainly has things that I can criticize, but I love the package as a whole so much that I just can’t help but smiling every time I play it. My only regret is that I don’t get to play it as much as I would like. If I haven’t gotten tired of Imperial Assault yet, it’s unlikely that I ever will. I guess in that sense, the Force will be with me, always.