Recently, the ‘Dragon has featured a couple articles highlighting two of our team’s personal Top 10 Board Games of All Time. But there’s just one problem: both FarmerLenny’s and UpliftAndrew’s lists have too many dry and tidy games full of work and puzzle-solving. So to bring a little order to our fire-breathing force, I present an ensemble jarringly different. Perhaps this will start a trend to which all of our writers will contribute in due time? #gauntletthrown
Now all ribbing aside, let me make it clear that I would happily play any game at any time with my two efficiency-loving associates. Yet, there’s no shame in admitting that my gaming tastes run largely in a different direction. It’s what makes our hobby so dynamic. I will try any game once (generally speaking), but I do typically prefer designs that create narrative, action, conflict and make even a bit of a mess. I can handle clunky, sloppy and fiddly – even long afternoon gaming sessions, though I rarely enjoy such luxury these days.
Now I haven’t gamed since the dawn of time – nor even my entire life. And there are numerous staples I haven’t played. For context, my background in gaming began with sprawling dudes-on-a-map and hex-and-counter war games in my junior and senior high school days. Then I neglected the cardboard hobby through college and soon after, though traditional card games were always a staple. About five years ago, I got back into board games as a means to spend quality time with my family. Indeed my “game group” has primarily always been my kids and other foster children in and out of our care. Because they are all young, we usually gravitate towards heavily thematic games with cool chrome and plenty of interaction. They would take one look at Power Grid, yawn and quickly pass. And since we’re also quite busy, we like to keep things in the 90 minutes or less range. Though we’re known to get through much longer affairs over the course of several evenings with the game “saved” on our dining room table – very much to my wife’s frustration.
So these are my Top 10 Board Games of All Time. Which means that I would never turn down a chance to play them, in fact actively seek to get them to the table and that particularly fit the style that my kids and I really enjoy together – though admittedly I may like them better than the kids!
So before I begin, I’ll cheat like every other Top 10 lister and slip in my “honorable mentions” – aka I Don’t Want to Limit Myself to Just 10 List. I know, right.
Kemet. I have not played this enough to crack my Top 10, though I suspect it will and replace one very much in its same vein. You’ll probably deduce which one that is from below.
Citadels. Still a time-honored favorite. However, one of my picks below employs the role-selection idea with more purpose, though admittedly Citadels’ purity can be more interesting.
Smash Up. So mind-boggling. So innovative. So much variety. So messy. This geeky homage is a pure delight, but I haven’t yet been able to scratch the surface of its infinite depth.
Warrior Knights. War, politics, diplomacy, economy. A behemoth, but a joy if you have the time, patience and inclination…and gaming friends with the same. It is decidedly more esoteric so is rarely played.
Stone Age. Go-to worker placement game and eternally accessible. However, it does have less replay value and can be a bit longish for what it is. A classic nonetheless.
And, so having said that, I present the real list…
3-5 players ● 90-120 minutes ● Dust Games/Fantasy Flight
Tanks a lot, Leonardo!
Magnifico may look like another Risk clone, but it has so many twists that it essentially turns the genre on its head – to the point of deploying tanks in Renaissance Europe! Indeed for any war gamer experienced with Axis & Allies style monstrosities, this alternate history tilt takes some getting used to – and may eventually prove too quirky for most. You definitely can’t play it with the standard mindset because this is the most unique “dudes-on-a-map” game I’ve ever played.
This underrated title bridges the stereotypical gulf between so-called Ameritrash games – those with thematic drive, lots of interaction, fiddly rules and unpredictable outcomes – and their not-so-distant Euro cousins – those supposedly more elegantly designed to have broader appeal, minimize conflict, reduce time and reign in luck. It does this by taking elements of both and mashing them together. You still have amazing plastic units marching across a map and colliding in dice-fest battles. You even have tanks and planes based on DaVinci’s designs mowing down ranks of pikemen. However, the victory point system and action allowance mechanic encourages attacking and streamlines play. You bid on project cards for really powerful units and upgrades. You have to pay to wage war and you can even acquire artwork – the original Renaissance Man’s Mona Lisa and presumably her cousins Mildred, Ingrid and Bertha, et al.
This colorful, excellently produced game may still take a couple hours to finish, but rarely feels like it. Packed with action, Magnifico has surprisingly little downtime. Alas, it’s a little too unconventional for my boys, so I rarely get to play it. Thankfully Steam offers a computer version – which may be the only way to enjoy it as it’s out of print and not easily found.
#9. SMALL WORLD
2-5 players ● 60-90 minutes ● Days of Wonder ● Dragon’s Review
Indeed it is one, after all!
This simplest of war games is simply a refreshing breeze to play. The premise is you control a race of fantasy peoples carving out your own Lebensraum – at the expense of others, of course. And thanks to the titular land’s diminutive size, you’ll butt up against other people a lot. Two elements make Small World really shine: a whimsical setting and predictable combat resolution.
Enhanced by vibrant and infectious illustrations, the fantasy theme appeals even to non-geeks, though there are numerous homages to that subculture. You start the game as a particular race (humans, trolls, elves, amazons, etc.) with a unique characteristic (flying, berserk, stout, merchant, etc.). Every game these pairings are randomized – often to humorous effect. Your civilization is only so large, however, and will eventually dwindle through attrition while spreading about the world. In which case, you’ll send them in decline and select a new pairing for further conquest. Combat is simple math. If you have more army tokens than there are defending tokens in a territory, you capture it. Regions are worth a point and maybe more according to your race and its characteristic.
Small World is a wonderful game. It can be a little fiddly and can be a chore to pack away when done, but it’s been successful with my kids and nephews. For a war game with conflict front-and-center, this is one accessible, smooth and delightful design that plays fast and proves that sea-faring dwarves can actually be a thing.
#8. CUBA: THE SPLENDID LITTLE WAR
2 players ● 60-120 minutes ● Victory Point Games ● Dragon’s Review
You’ll be Havana good time!
Another obscure title covering an even more obscure subject, this small footprint war game is stewed and simmered in theme. Cuba: The Splendid Little War covers the third and final Cuban Insurrection that, despite its subtitled quote from an American politician, actually begins before U.S. intervention. From a company with a background on the hex-and-counter highway, this one goes off-road with a linear map suitable to the narrow island, area majority, variable resource point activation and distinctive card play.
The recruitment and combat mechanics are appropriate for the conflict and account for a lot of historical narrative without bogging players down in minutiae. It does include the ominous combat results table and die rolls, but both are relatively straight-forward and abstracted. That said, there is also plenty of chrome, minor rules and other details as is common in the genre. All of it generally and admirably accounts for the nature of guerilla warfare, colonial counter-insurgency, economic swings, public sentiment and real events that impacted the struggle. Both sides even have unique abilities they may perform, accurately reflecting their operations during the war. Each faction has their own strategies and tough choices. In fact, the Cuban/U.S. player must ensure the insurrectionaries achieve their goals before the Americans do their own, or else the game is a draw even if they kick the Spaniards out together!
This socio-political-economic-military tilt plays pretty fast – usually less than a couple hours. Though it does have a bit of a learning curve, it’s a distinctive contribution to the genre. Variable and malleable, Cuba: The Splendid Little War manages to stay true to history while creating a new play experience every session, proving that war games aren’t just dry and dusty week-long simulations only for stodgy old men playing armchair general while bending over old maps and stoking their pipes.
2-5 players ● 60-75 minutes ● Matagot
Release the Kraken!
Cyclades isn’t so much about the real Aegean Sea islands from which it take its name, but rather the Greek culture and mythology endemic to them. This is another design that smoothly blends Ameritrash and Euro game elements creating a game experience that feels rather distinctive. And looks amazingly stylish.
While certainly a war game with “dudes-on-a-map,” Cyclades also allows you to achieve victory through an abstracted civ-building. Indeed victory is determined by owning two cities, which are acquired by collecting four different building types…or conquering one. Through a cut-throat auction mechanic, players bid to secure a god’s favor, which allows them various actions like buying units and moving them to invade, constructing buildings, collecting philosophers and priests, and earning income. Since you only have one deity’s favor per round, you only have a few options each turn. That’s where purchasing mythological creatures can expand your opportunities, providing huge swings and boosts.
The psychological war waged in the gods auction is the meat of the game and this grows in intensity as the game crescendos to its conclusion. In essence, you are competing for both turn order and role selection by trying to out-bid the other players. And that can be brutal. Going too low leaves you outbid for the actions you need. Bidding too high leaves you short on resources to do much. Beyond that stage game play can really revolve and hinge on those powerful beasts as alternatives to moves that your immortal patron might not otherwise allow. Cyclades can take some warming up to, as it’s extremely taught – one mistake can send you to the underworld fast. But with first-rate production values, meaty tension and unique play it has all the makings for epic gaming.
#6. STAR WARS: THE CARD GAME
2 players ● 45-60 minutes ● Fantasy Flight ● Dragon’s Review
The ultimate card game in the universe!
I’m typically not big on systems that honestly rely on expansions for rewarding game play, but Fantasy Flight’s living card game Star Wars: The Card Game is one of my few exceptions. This is my least played title on this least, but boy do I wish it weren’t! Despite some incongruous match-ups like Princess Leia taking on star destroyers, this brilliant design really exudes a cinematic narrative struggle between Empire and rebels, light and dark sides of the force, with its smaller skirmishes abstracting everything from behind the scenes espionage to light saber duels to grand fleet engagements. You just may need to fill in some thematic holes.
What’s so great about the Star Wars LCG is that it forces you to allocate your cards to three arenas: combat, edge battles and force struggle. Combat is relatively familiar as your cards provide means to assault enemy objectives and units, while defending your own. But the edge battle creates auxiliary uses for these cards to give you initiative and a leg up in the main battle. Meanwhile cards devoted to the force struggle can boost your cause overall, but limit their use in individual fights.
All of this is crammed into a play environment fast ticking on the Death Star dial, which gives the game a palpable beating life as both sides race to complete their objectives. Brimming with fantastic artwork that thrusts you into its setting, this experience is off the charts. And I haven’t even mentioned the one-of-kind pod deck building mechanic which streamlines deck construction, makes it a bit more accessible to new players and is vastly more interesting than the traditional card-by-card deck building of every other title in the genre. Indeed, the force is really strong with this one.
#5. 7 WONDERS
3-7 players ● 30 minutes ● Repos Productions ● Dragon’s Review
Building Rome in half an hour!
I’m not very good at recording my gaming sessions, but if I was 7 Wonders would undoubtedly be our most played game. It has proven a success with almost everyone I introduce it to regardless of age, gender or gaming experience. And while much has been said about its 30-minute play time no matter the player count, I feel that aspect can’t be overstated. It makes 7 Wonders a classic of all time and, in my opinion, a must in every serious gamer’s collection.
Admittedly, this one also has a modest learning curve. As you may have noticed pretty much every game in my Top 10 has – so that’s not a problem for me. With 7 Wonders, it only takes a couple games (which are always quick) to master the rules. From there it’s a matter of good decision-making and not a little good fortune to craft your civilization’s budding tableau. Thankfully the variety of cards and the drafting mechanism allow for numerous victory avenues to traverse and lots of combinations with which to experiment.
The base game is exceptionally accommodating. It’s not too hard, nor too easy – just the right sort of casually strategic experience accessible to a broad demographic. You’re free to concentrate on your own development without fear of adverse interaction from your neighbors. At the same time, your relationship with them is symbiotic, your and their progress intertwined. So awareness of your surroundings goes a long way towards success. Slick, variable and the most scalable game I’ve ever played, 7 Wonders is the perfect choice for so many different circumstances that its versatility alone is one of the seven wonders of the hobby.
#4. MARVEL DICE MASTERS
2 players ● 30-45 minutes ● WizKids ● Dragon’s Review
With a great intellectual property comes great responsibility!
There’s been enough good-natured “debating” on the ‘Dragon that many may already know my admiration for this title. Marvel Dice Masters is only one intellectual property the system utilizes. Incidentally it’s also the only one I will invest in. The others are great, of course, but who has the time or money to play and collect them all? I happen to choose Marvel, because that’s what I’m a fan of, though you may prefer another.
Enjoying Dice Masters requires accepting two things. One, there are thematic oddities. Still, pairing incongruous characters or having Captain America lead a team of villains is just as fun to experiment with as any other of the limitless combinations. Two, you will need to buy booster packs as the starter sets just don’t cut it. However, they are comparatively inexpensive; and a couple dozen packs up to an entire gravity feed box will give you more than enough to experiment with and satisfy until your heart’s content.
Yet the game goes beyond contentment. Underneath its theme, and realizing a lifelong dream to pit your favorite heroes and villains against each other, is a fantastic and evolving system. The rules truly are simple and straight-forward (though additional sets can add complexity), yet there are dozens of strategies to pursue. It’s quick, exciting and action-packed. The artwork and vibrant colors immerse you in the comic book world. Best of all, you don’t need to be a completionist to enjoy the game casually, nor even competitively. That’s because super-rares aren’t the be-all-end-all game changers they often are in other collectable games. And so many cards powerfully interact with others that even lowly commons can prove critical to victory. Dice Masters is the perfect collectible game on a working budget, ideal for casual fans of the various IP’s and amenable to either light thematic-loving gamers or heavy strategists that like to max out combos. That makes it a superhero in my book.
#3. CLASH OF CULTURES
2-4 players ● 120-240 minutes ● Z-Man Games
Civilization? Pfff! I wouldn’t stoop so low!
Dating back to high school, I’ve logged so many countless hours on Sid Meier’s various Civilization games that I’d probably be ashamed to know the actual number. And I would have never thought a board game could capture the true epic experience of civ-building. There are just too many details and too much data – not to mention math – that a computer is eminently better suited for the genre. Until I played Clash of Cultures. Spanning only a few human epochs, this more compact design has a streamlined structure which translates into vast playability. The pace is quick and actions are surprisingly smooth. Relatively speaking, of course. There are still many rules and details. And despite a fixed number of rounds, the game exacts more than the average time commitment of its players. However, the design is so slick you’ll be amazed at the seeming ease with which it immerses you.
Lasting a mere six rounds players receive nine alternating actions each turn. These might include moving troops to explore and conquer. You can found a new city or activate one to collect resources, build units or increase its size. You can manage a settlement’s people, discover a new advance or attempt to culturally influence a neighboring empire. The whole affair glides along a well-oiled action point allowance mechanic that seamlessly incorporates all of the high points one expects in a civilization 4X game. It also effortlessly integrates other favorite elements such as barbarians, historic events and wonders of the world. All of this is so synergetic that even when performing individual actions it’s always while envisioning the bigger picture.
The production is also top notch. From city components you piece together as your settlements grow to an ingenious scientific advancement board with cut-outs to slot cubes into so that nothing gets disheveled or knocked loose, Clash of Cultures exhibits your progress in a fun and satisfying way. Get past the learning curve and set aside the time for this one. It’s an exceedingly playable and extremely accessible civ-builder that would make Sid Meier proud.
#2. MERCHANTS & MARAUDERS
2-4 players ● 120-180 minutes ● Z-Man Games ● Dragon’s Review
Booty jokes optional. Just kidding, they’re required!
That’s right. Christian Marcussen has designed all of two games and they’re both in my Top 5! While I certainly don’t endorse piracy, it happens to be one of my favorite board game themes. Merchants & Marauders may not be the best pirate game ever (I don’t know, I haven’t played them all), but it nonetheless creates a tremendous sandbox of adventure.
Assuming the role of a unique captain with a specific nationality and ability you start out with a weak ship, a little gold and no reputation plying the Caribbean in search of glory and fortune. M&M truly shines in providing a blank role playing canvas that the players paint with their every action. Using a smoothly integrated action point allowance mechanic you’ll sail the sea visiting ports, trading, undertaking adventures, upgrading your ship and crew, and dueling in both cannon broadsides and sword fights alike. Sure, it’s all necessarily abstracted for the most part with flavor text and “big picture” dice rolls. Combat resolution varies upon the type of conflict in which you are engaged – but it’s quite different than what you’re likely used to and its complexion always feels appropriate to the situation. In any event, all of the design’s activities allow you to create individual character and narrative embellishment – from choosing your role as merchantman or pirate to undertaking missions that define your career.
Not only do you interact with the game’s crafted world, but it engages with you and takes on a life of its own. The design wonderfully creates an effective artificial intelligence – for lack of a better term. Pirate ships and colonial naval vessels cross the waters engaging with appropriate foes. Events set influential moments in motion that influences play. Fat mercantile targets randomly appear for plundering. And a simple supply-and-demand model keeps one’s economic options ever-changing. It can be a little clunky and fiddly, but everlastingly charming. Simply put, Merchants & Marauders is some of the most fun you’ll ever have while sitting on your booty.
#1. MISSION: RED PLANET
2-6 players ● 60-75 minutes ● Fantasy Flight ● Dragon’s Review
All steamed up!
Steampunk is by far my favorite artistic, literary and aesthetic genre. Unfortunately there aren’t very many good board games incorporating the theme. Mission: Red Planet excels more as a game design, but admirably represents its subject matter, as well. Why does it reside number one on this list? Oh, let me count the ways.
Bruno Faidutti is my favorite designer. His games are largely thematically unique, interactively mischievous, randomly quirky and either distinctive or downright innovative. He’s a master with role selection, my favorite mechanic and a popular one with my young gamers. M:RP’s use of the mechanism is deliciously spiteful and involves some strategic tension as the number of times you play specific roles are limited. Its other major element, area majority, also really opens the board and creates challenges in manipulating spaces to your advantage with little see-saw battles, balancing your commitments or increasing resources in one place at the expense of another. It is also action-packed with little downtime. Role selection is simultaneous and resolved quickly. And since anyone can blow up your plans – literally – all players remain engaged at all times. Lastly, a session rarely lasts over 60 minutes, making it just the right amount of time to have a blast.
Components-wise, the new Fantasy Flight second edition pays homage to steampunk with functional bits that are also aesthetically pleasing. The Mars board is round and fits together like a puzzle. Same with the launch pad that is customized to player count so that it’s always the right size. The gear-styled turn tracker is just as useful and visually appealing. And I haven’t even mentioned the cute and superbly sculpted astronaut meeples. Mission : Red Planet can be cantankerous, so it won’t be for everyone. However, as long as one can handle the conflict, mitigated by its quirky theme, this is easy to teach and a breeze to play. With its chaotic and contentious game play, this one really rewards adventurous moves. Which makes it just the right fir for its unusual genre.
Feel free to applaud all my choices with glowing praise…or shoot me down if you think I’m wrong. And if you want to hear from the rest of our team make sure to start bugging them on Twitter. Let them know that my games are too trashy and my list a hot mess.