Try researching how many board games are produced each year and you’ll struggle to find a concrete number. The first source anyone naturally turns to is BGG, but for the last few years there have been so many titles in the database that searching by date maxes the results out at 5,000! Now that includes expansions, individual miniatures, promo items, print-and-plays, all sorts of odds and ends and many self-published titles that will never see store shelves. Still, there were 3,092 tabletop games published via Kickstarter alone in 2015 and 2016. And the total number of games published in 2017 from all sources is exactly ridiculously too many.
Yeah, yeah, that’s a subjective and opinionated statement. But not completely. I say “too many” because no one person – not even Tom Vasel or Eric Martin and certainly not the seven of us here at iSlaytheDragon – can keep up with, let alone play, all the games being produced. Even just the number of new, distinct, stand-alone, professionally published designs. Sure, a few of these will rise to the top of the ranks, soon to become the newest classics. Many will retain a credible rotation in the stable of select owners’ collections. Yet the vast majority are forgotten within a year as we play them once and move onto to the latest things, while the old ones collect dust on the shelves. So the same volume of production that creates such wonderful variety and inclusion ironically leads to what I believe is the hobby’s most cumbersome Catch-22: a demand for such wondrous variety that ends up a substantial waste of time, talent, space and treasure – from designer to publisher to consumer – on producing and consuming mediocre and unoriginal games.
So, yes, there’s always something for everyone, which is no mean feat, but often such a micro one. Rather to me this saturation burdens the discovery of singular titles from amongst the tens of thousands now in existence, without having to waste time and money sifting through mountains of the ordinary. And good luck to newcomers to the hobby – the sheer quantity is enough to overwhelm and discourage the heartiest of novices. This vast volume simply makes it difficult to discover designs that offer something substantially unique, be that a mechanism or overall experience.
That’s what I intend to highlight with this Top 10. These are games that remain distinctive in the years I’ve been back in the hobby. Obviously most every game has something different, as they’re all individual creations. Still, many are undoubtedly derivative and offer much the same, in spite of varying presentation or formula. This list doesn’t include those that simply mash familiar elements in new ways, yet still feel rehashed. I’ve also not included titles that blazed new trails like Dominion, 7 Wonders, Puerto Rico or Risk: Legacy that, despite the first of their kind, are now just one of many in particular styles and categories. This also isn’t merely about covering a rarely used theme or setting, although that can play a part. And these aren’t about the best of all time (I’ve already done that Top 10), or even highly rated ones.
I certainly haven’t played thousands of games, nor have I been doing this since the dawn of time. But in my experience these continue to deliver truly unique premises with fewer similarities as other titles often do in what I’ve found to be a severely glutted market.
The Card Game of Oz
1-4 players ● 20-60 minutes ● Game Salute/Orion’s Bell ● Dragon’s Review
Straight outta Oz!
The Card Game of Oz is singularly unique – just like the story from which it draws inspiration. It’s difficult, if even possible, to compare it to any other game, though there are certainly familiar elements generally standard to card games. In that regard, however, I’m talking pretty broad generalizations. For example, there is variable dice-based action allowance. There is also card play to a central space. Those can affect other cards already placed. Some cards get rid of others, while some provide boosts to others. You can make typical combos, manipulate the deck and interact with or attack opponents. These kinds of concepts are similar to a number of thematic card games.
What is truly unique is the storyline mechanic – a row of locations straight out of Oz (and Kansas) that serves as a sort of game board. In one sense, it’s a racetrack on which players run in opposing directions playing characters from their beginning title card along the track to “The End.” More broadly it is the players journeying through the iconic story, scoring points for placing its famous and less-known characters in essential spots along their narrative. In addition to the characters, there are also items and events which can help or impede the actors, as well as the locations themselves. The trick isn’t necessarily to finish quickly. Instead you want to end the game when you have enough denizens at prime locations to ensure you have the most points before flipping that opposite title card to “The End.”
The Card Game of Oz may likely only appeal to fans of literature and/or Frank Baum’s imaginative world specifically. Indeed the flavor text is lifted straight from the book (not the Judy Garland movie) so that you can nearly rewrite The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by appropriately organizing all of the cards without losing much detail. Unfortunately it’s a bit difficult to obtain. But if you can, I recommend giving this one a try for it’s singular experience. Because as players navigate the land of Oz influencing each others’ paths, you’ll discover a uniquely rich and endlessly rewarding time over the cardboard rainbow.
2-4 players ● 30-45 minutes ● UltraPro/PieceKeeper Games ● Dragon’s Review
These colors do run!
There aren’t many partner/team designs in board gaming. Indeed that’s one advantage that traditional card games have over the hobby. Flag Dash excels best, and provides a really fun experience, with four players working together in teams of two. Because it doesn’t just have team play. It flourishes with it.
As its name suggests, Flag Dash mimics the playground sport Capture the Flag on the tabletop…and surprisingly well. The base mechanic is programmed movement via cards, which in itself is nothing new, although this design includes a double programming element. Players each control an individual athlete and share ownership of a third teammate, the blocker. Through simultaneous, secret card selection players maneuver their own pawns or their side’s blocker, capture flags and activate special abilities. Do you employ the bull rush, lone wolf or cautious defense? The tactic is up to you! You’ll also place a token on your action card which determines when your move is activated. You can earn boosts by waiting later, but could also get caught with your pants down!
As difficult as it is to replicate extreme activities on the tabletop Flag Dash successfully boasts its inspiration’s élan. From the opening stand-off the action takes on a life of its own, often spinning chaotically as programmed movement designs are wont to do. The difference here is that teamwork is integral. Without tipping off your opponents, you and your teammate must figure out the best way to strategize and coordinate. You won’t need to map out every move by the watch. But staying on the same page is key to avoid working at cross purposes or leaving an area undefended. Just as in the real sport, you’ll cooperate in a grand plan, but will undoubtedly need to adjust to developments before discovering your brilliant plan was actually a very bad idea. Come for the fun, but stay for the resourceful experience.
2-5 players ● 15-45 minutes ● Cool Mini or Not/Sweet Games
The pity of war.
Moving away from team play to pure cooperative, The Grizzled presents an unparalleled experience in both it’s theme and genre. It is about war, but it is not a wargame. Its rules are decidedly light and abstract, but the gameplay is emotionally draining and thought provoking. The design’s driving force is the surety of comradeship, but ultimately it reflects the demoralized despair millions suffered in one of history’s most destructive conflicts. And you’ll rarely win.
Yet each game continues to burn a flickering flame of hope. Players take to the trenches as a squad of French soldiers sludging through the mud and the blood and the poppycock. There are missions, but no ground to take. There are boosts, but no logistics to plan. To be sure, there are victories, but never any medals. And even with each passing success the odds usually continue to stack against you. Your goal is survival. No matter the mission. No matter the strategy planned by the generals back at the chateau while drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches. You just want to make it to the armistice through a series of missions in which you play cards to the table without encountering too many of the same threats or personal traumas. To survive you must all deplete your hands and the trial deck before the morale deck runs out, or before any one soldier succumbs to the shell shock.
Mechanically there is nothing particularly standout with The Grizzled. The basic card play does feel a bit different, but not extraordinary. Rather the thematic experience delivers its true uniqueness. It’s simple, but terribly brutal, just like the repetitive efforts of “going over the top.” It captures the essence of brothers-in-arms and the dejection of World War I. That war, the world, its politics, even the homefront and definitely the old men running it are all absent. None of that is your concern. Just you and your comrades and making it another day. There are a few ways you can cheer on your unit or offer support to a mate. Otherwise it’s a game of silent solidarity as you face death together amidst the slimmest of hope, because the horrors are unspeakable. Here the theme is the game, and why it’s all so unique. It’s a design, like profound literature, that allows us to ponder a broader world beyond the medium in which it speaks. The grippingly thematic episode creates a rare game about war in which you actually care about the abstract elements fighting it and, by some small extension, those who have served and continue to serve in the real deal. And maybe why that continues to be a reality.
3-6 players ● 45-75 minutes ● Funforge/Fantasy Flight Games
The tugs and pulls of gaming…
Not to switch gears too suddenly, but Isla Dorada is a cooperatively competitive design with few similarities on the market. Not to mention the polar opposite in thematic tone to The Grizzled. Indeed it looks caricatured and can be rather tumultuous as players work towards contrasting goals but move, and here’s its distinctiveness, one pawn!
The premise is your expedition has crash landed on Isla Dorada. While waiting for rescue, you might as well steal off with some riches! To that end everyone has their own map where ‘X’ marks the spot, but other locations bring curses down upon you. However, there’s this little delicate matter: the party doesn’t want to split up! Each round then, players bid path cards to determine where the expedition travels and along which trails. Victory goes to the team member who finnagels the party to the locations on their individual maps…and avoiding the ones that inflict curses.
Isla Dorada may not be a spectacular or deeply strategic game, but it is an engagingly singular experience. Designer Faidutti employed a similar competitive-but-with-communal-pawn mechanic in Silk Road, and with a more sophisticated setting. The amount of luck and chaos is noticeable. The bidding element is right in a gamer’s wheelhouse, but there are many ways to interfere with opponents. You can steal their cards, block a desired route, prevent a certain bid and other spiteful tactics. Players also receive random destiny cards for extra points if they can complete specific tasks by game’s end. As is often the case with such bonuses, some are way better or easier than others. Yet it all adds up – the bantering, the bidding, the slight-of-hand, the tug-of-war, the unsuspecting twists – to a social brouhaha that is as unusual as it is dynamic.
4-6 players ● 30-60 minutes ● Gorilla Games
If catching a grappling hook in the eye ain’t funny, I don’t know what is!?
There’s nothing cooperative about this older little gem – although you might cobble a temporary alliance. Ever so temporary. At its heart Lifeboat is a social deduction game…back when Mafia/Werewolf was about all that anyone knew of the genre. What sets it apart, and why it still stands out as distinctive, is that it’s a free-for-all in where you’re also concerned with exactly two other people, and no more. It’s an engaging and oft complicated web of interaction that you’ll likely not find in anything else.
The plot is that you are survivors of a sunken, Titanic-like ocean liner adrift in a lifeboat. Your first goal is to just survive until land is sited. That simple matter, however, will be complicated by everyone’s ulterior motives. Goal number two is to acquire as many provisions as you can to earn extra points. Your third objective is to help your secret love survive with you. Finally, you strive to make sure your hated rival doesn’t. Character roles are assigned randomly, as are everyone’s secret loves and enemies. Turns consist of one action. You can row closer to land, use a provision card, attempt to mug someone to steal one of theirs, try to switch places in the boat (certain seats have advantages) or pass. Survivors closest to the bow get first selection of provisions like weapons, survival items and goods for points. If last, you get to pick the navigation card played at the end of each turn which usually spells doom for one or more of the characters. If you attempt to mug or switch seats with someone and they don’t play along nicely, a fight ensues. While each character has a set strength value, others are allowed to join in the fisticuffs on one side or the other. Plus you can play weapons to add to your strength. But so can your target, and so can your allies, and so can your target’s allies. Boat-wide brawls are not uncommon.
Make no mistake. Lifeboat is vicious. It’s one of those games where you need to be careful about which friends and family members you play it with, as confrontation in the game could linger on well afterwards. The familiar social deduction skeleton skinned with its random web of independent objectives creates a torrid and swirling microcosm of human nature thrown into desperate affairs. And to agitate an already volatile mix, one or more players may actually love and hate the same person. Or more comically, love or hate themselves…or both! There is backstabbing, pleading, bullying and player elimination in this chaotically floundering vessel. You may disembark from it a little frazzled, but definitely appreciating its originality.
2-4 players ● 60-90 minutes ● Victory Point Games ● Dragon’s Review
There’s some Ameritrash in my Euro!
Hybrid designs blending elements of modern German style games (streamlined rules, shorter play, little luck, less confrontation) and American ones (plenty or rules chrome, broader narrative, frequent interaction and more complex, fiddly play) are nothing new nor distinctive. On top of that, Skagway is a worker placement title, which you can’t throw a rock at a game shelf without hitting one these days. What keeps this little known game booming instead of busting is the end game narrative created from start to finish, which will develop differently just about every session.
Skagway was a boomtown during the Yukon gold rush. But while you’ll certainly be mining, the primary objective is to actually gain influence in town through developing it and generally running things. Each turn players alternate assigning their two workers to a number of spots around the settlement, mining and selling gold, buying property, working the railroad, hiring temporary hands and running for sheriff. There are three buildings anyone can buy as the Church/Gambling Hall, Restaurant/Saloon and Hotel/Brothel which each skews the town as “good” or “bad.” Then there are prestige buildings which players can acquire. After the standard worker placement phase, all of the individual workers have a “personality” which sends them to a preferred building for the night, paying their owners for the business. If a preferred building isn’t in play, the worker winds up in the street where they can rob the bank, duel or wind up in jail or boot hill for a turn.
The double worker activation is certainly different as is the worker personalities, but Skagway’s individuality emerges from the thematic narrative of controlling and/or muscling in on the boomtown’s development. Most unique of all, there is no concrete victory condition. The buildings you own at the end of the game are worth points based on the town’s final status, of which there are six possible outcomes. That state is determined by aggregating the number of times players bought the three communal “good/bad” buildings, cross-referenced with how many total prestige buildings exist. Grabbing points isn’t as clear cut as in most other games because you have to judge and/or manipulate the town’s progress. And that makes Skagway a unique experience not only in the genre, but in the hobby.
2-5 players ● 2-15 minutes ● Iello ● Dragon’s Review
The ultimate tongue twister!
There’s not a lot to say about Sticky Chameleons, and I’m sure including it in this list risks much of my street cred, if indeed I have any. It’s a dexterity game and a silly one, at that. To be sure, there are hundreds of dexterity games, and silly ones, too. But this romp is pure genius in its simplicity and innovation. Employing the previously impractical kids toys, sticky fingers, players will launch them like tongues to grab the juiciest bug tokens from amongst a swarm of them on the table. The sticky tongues will get dirty and twisted, there’s little actual skill involved, insects will fly everywhere requiring frequent tidying and the whole exercise is utterly frivolous. And it’s a blast. You won’t play it frequently, nor time after time. But everyone will appreciate this unique dexterity game that eschews the usual stacking, flicking, and flipping all too common to the variety.
They Who Were 8
2-4 players ● 15-30 minutes ● Passport Game Studios/LudiCreations ● Dragon’s Review
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra…
Many board games have some literary quality. They are created by an author following technical form or structure. Some may tell a story, even expressing and eliciting emotive responses. They Who Were 8 attempts to capture such an erudite spirit. It doesn’t quite hammer home the literary nail, but nonetheless manages a unique and fresh experience. This time thanks to a peculiar mechanic.
Players are bards recounting epic tales of mythical gods. The design is even based on the designer’s poetry, which doesn’t inform play to the extent it may have originally intended. Rather players resolve action cards to bring glory (positive points) and infamy (negative points) to the various gods in play. You have two deities which pair with one from either of your neighbors. Your goal is to amass the highest aggregate glory in a pair including one of your patrons, but ensure that yours has the lowest score among the two. Cards allow you to spread and move glory and infamy and each god provides a special boost.
While the victory condition is different – as is the lyrical and dulcat-sounding, but ultimately disconnected, flavor text – what really stands out is the card actions. Almost all of them allow you to affect other players’ deities, not yours. Typically in games we move, activate, build on and strengthen our own individual pieces and components. Yet because most actions do not directly impact your own gods, wielding this design’s two currencies requires thinking contrary to the ways in which we usually approach games. There is a slight learning curve to grasp, and while the rules are not complicated, it can seem awry to parse out. They Who Were 8 is an intriguing minimalist design that proves an exception to the hobby’s general uniformity. It may not emerge an evergreen classic and may not prove your type of game. But I applaud its distinctiveness. While not as cerebral as its poetry portends, its restrictive action resolution and singular scoring make for a standout change of pace.
2 players ● 25-45 minutes ● Stronghold Games ● Dragon’s Review
High stakes poker!
Two-player asymmetrical combat card games aren’t particularly rare, but they’re not exactly prevalent either. Still, that’s not why this small, unassuming design punches above its weight. Vampire Empire remains distinctive by tossing some bluffing and deduction into the mix, along with a clever mechanic that borders on ingenious.
In this occultic tilt, the human player uses a partially unique deck to ferret out the three vampires from a cast of nine, randomly drawn to begin the game. Meanwhile, the undead player knows who the creatures are and tries to seduce the other six before the mortal soul exposes them all. Players can use cards to kill and/or defend townsfolk, either suspects or not. And each faction has specific cards when used for or against vampires. Additionally the immortals may win by occupying the three castle spaces. So Nosferatu has some incentive to divulge information.
The clever bit is called the cellar, a reserve to which you may store cards with little use at the moment to draw back later when it’ll be more helpful. It’s a simple and intuitive element that allows for some flexibility and creativity not present in other games of this style. Then generally, the asymmetry in Vampire Empire works extremely well. Each side has a unique vibe requiring not only a different strategy, but a different train of thought. The vampire must throw the human off the scent and has a bit more leeway for aggressive early play. The human will usually tread cautiously until more sure of deducing who’s who. With enough depth and complexity to engage its players without overwhelming them, this is sleek and sophisticated and one of the more unique two-player titles in the hobby.
Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead
2-5 players ● 2-4 hours ● Game Salute/Zombie State Games ● Dragon’s Review
Some games exist just to beat you down.
This title certainly isn’t included because of its unique setting. Games featuring the shambling undead are run just as amok through the hobby. But this design tackles the hackneyed theme from a distinctive angle with an interesting mix of mechanics both richly chaotic and strategically calculating. Your task as the leader of a world region is to ward off the zombie epidemic through shrewd resource management and unapologetic luck of the dice! Ideally you hope to eradicate the disease and its carriers. But it’s a relentlessly despondent fight against an inexorable wave, so that in practice you just want to be the last continent standing. If that sounds like an odd pairing to you, then that begins to describe the one-of-a-kind Zombie State.
Most zombie games tend to involve characters, miniatures, individual heroics and combat. And they’re localized. You and other players form a small group fighting off waves of undead with weapons and supplies in the defense of some town or place. In Zombie State, the stakes are global and the vulnerable populace numbers in the millions. Events and zombies threaten to overwhelm you, infecting your population and spreading exponentially. When you finally fight back against the onslaught, it feels like shooting a popgun at a hurricane. But you can spend action points to erect barricades, collect resources, research and utilize powerful technology, and build and deploy your miserably insufficient military. Despite your best efforts, though, zombie migration and research is die roll dependent, meaning all of your euro game efficiency can wind up on an Ameritrash heap.
You must come into Zombie State with a different mindset. With other games, your brain is wired toward creating a grand master plan or super efficient engine that will surely and steadily grind out victory. This game will eat that brain. Instead, you can only manage chaos as best as possible, staving off defeat long enough to be the “best loser.” It can be complex and messy, and it requires some investment, but you will definitely experience a unique time in either victory or defeat. But mostly defeat.
So, what are some distinctive titles you’ve played that stand out from the glutted rest?
I also like Isla Dorada, but it’s very much a reworking of Alan Moon’s Elfenland, which in itself was a reworking of Elfenroads. So not as unique as it might seem at first. Still a very good game.
Ginkgopolis is one of the most unique games I’ve played. Carl Chudyk’s Innovation is also still unique.