Today is my 35th birthday. What better time to reflect on all the great games I’ve played over the course of my life?
I’ve been writing about games now for nine or so years, and I’ve been playing them my whole life. My tastes have changed a lot over the years, but what hasn’t is the thing I value most: time spent with other people around a table, whether that’s talking, sharing a meal, or yes, playing a game. Here are my 35 favorites. (And if you want to compare, here is my top ten from 2015. And on our podcast, I discussed my top 7 in depth.)
Note: There are Amazon affiliate links to each of the in-print games on this list if you would like to buy the game and support this website.
#35: Witch’s Brew
My review / Times played: 10
Witch’s Brew was released in 2008, and it still feels fresh. Each round, players choose five cards from a possible twelve and play them out. It’s kind of like a trick-taking game in that whenever a specific card is played, everyone who chose that card has to play it, but there’s a risk-reward associated with it: you can claim the lesser reward for no risk, or you can claim the big reward, but if anyone who plays after you claims the big reward, you get nothing. This was later reworked as Broom Service and Broom Service: The Card Game, and those other games are decent. But Witch’s Brew is the ideal match between the weight of the game and the misfires that inevitably happen. This is good with four and exceptional with five. (Unfortunately, it is also out of print.)
Times Played: 10
When I first got into board gaming as a hobby, I recognized the red poppel of the Spiel des Jahres as a reliable guide, yet I still put off getting Alhambra. It looked a little boring, and the walls seemed like they might complicate the rules beyond what I was looking for. Well, I’ll admit I was wrong about this one. I got this a few years ago after trying the app, and I love it. Yes, there’s some luck in when tiles become available, but so much of the game is preparing for the right opportunities so you can strike at the right time. Alhambra is still a very good game. I got the Big Box in a math trade, thinking, “I’m going to need those expansions.” I still haven’t used any of them.
Wolfie’s review / Times played: 8
I keep moving Deus down the list just because I haven’t played it. (My copy has been on permanent loan to a friend who plays it more frequently than I would.) It’s a shame, because I think this one is great. I know that we now have a Race for the Galaxy board game, but before New Frontiers came along, this one felt like Race for the Galaxy: The Board Game to me: not a lot of direct player interaction, a constantly moving card economy of discarding and building, and fun combos that activate several times over the course of the game. I should see if my friend wants to bring this to game night soon. I miss it.
#32: Carpe Diem
My review / Times played: 7
I had ignored this one because of its bland look, but I finally picked it up because of its nomination for the Kennerspiel des Jahres. Carpe Diem is a tile-laying game of keeping your options open and, yes, seizing the day. It has all the hallmarks of a Stefan Feld game–although it is much less point salady than his most popular games–including grueling trade-offs, combo moves, and harsh penalties. Yet it manages to achieve the feel of a Stefan Feld game in a fraction of the time. A three-player game, once players know it, usually finishes in 30-45 minutes, and a four-player game easily fits within an hour without teaching. This has become a great game-night closer if we still have some brain power left. But be warned: it can be pretty cutthroat.
#31: Crown of Emara
Times played: 3
I love games with little rules overhead that nevertheless offer a good deal to think about, and that description fits Crown of Emara perfectly. You have a deck of nine cards that you’ll play through twice, and in each round, you’ll play three cards (representing actions) on one of three movement spaces, which moves your piece one, two, or three spaces around one of the game’s two rondels, triggering another action. You’re trying to best plan your moves to accomplish your goals. Yet while there is no direct conflict, there is a lot of interaction here, as when another player gets somewhere before you, it can disrupt your plans. The look of this one is clean, the gameplay is fresh and interesting, and it still manages to play quickly. This one is a gem that I look forward to exploring further.
Times played: 4
Navegador is the quintessential rondel game, the Platonic ideal of the mechanism. Each space on the rondel is necessary, but sometimes you want to skip ahead to keep in front of another player. But when you skip, you feel it. Navegador is beautiful, interactive, and clever, with one of the most novel accessible market systems I’ve seen. (If you’ve played Clans of Caledonia, you can thank Navegador for doing it first.) I’m not sure why this one doesn’t come out often–it’s lacking some X factor–but I still love it and pull it out occasionally.
My review / Times played: 36
What I wrote earlier this year is still true: “Innovation is usually a game I play in winter. There’s someone at work who loves the game, but he usually walks home for lunch…unless there’s too much snow on the ground. Innovation, even sans expansions, is continually fresh, offering new discoveries. It’s Carl Chudyk at his (almost) best.” I stand by this. The only problem is that, because the learning curve is steep (not rules, mind you, but experience), it’s hard to bring new players in. There are a few people at work who still know and like this, but it’s getting harder and harder to find worthy (or any) opponents.
#28: Shards of Infinity
My review (app) / Times played: 5 (physical)/countless (app)
When I first played Shards of Infinity, I recognized it as something special. Unfortunately, my opponents with an appetite for deck-building games has dwindled. I’m so excited that this was released as an app, because I’ve been afforded the opportunity to really see what this game has to offer, and it has become my go-to app. Shards of Infinity is fast and clever, and it takes what I like about Star Realms and Ascension and improves upon it in every way by offering more compelling choices and interesting innovations. I wish I could play this more face-to-face, but again, the app is terrific, and that’s not nothing.
#27: The Exit Series
My review / Exit games played: 10
This stands in for the entire Exit series. This is still my favorite escape room series, but it has fallen a little in my estimation after the last batch of these. The Mysterious Museum and Sunken Treasure were way too easy, and the Sinister Mansion was a little too hard. Still, my wife and I buy these as they release, and we relish the opportunity to play them. I have the newest three (Catacombs, Roller Coaster, and House of Riddles) waiting for us–we’ll see where Exit lands next year.
Times played: 7
Trajan is still, in my estimation, the best of Stefan Feld’s games, and that is beginning to mean something to me. Trajan was the first of his games that I considered essential, and I have since realized that I’ve become a fan of his design sensibility…at least when the central mode of action selection is as interesting as Trajan’s. Despite offering no direct way to meddle with other players, Trajan nevertheless forces players to get in each other’s way through imposing harsh penalties to avoid and inviting players to capitalize on strong opportunities as they find them. This is one that, despite my group being willing to play back to back, I just can’t play twice in a row. It’s a bit taxing for me. But I love it.
#25: Blue Lagoon
Times played: 4
I don’t know why I ignored Blue Lagoon when it was first released–I love Reiner Knizia! I think it was because of the comparison to Through the Desert (how could any game unseat that one in my affections?) and the cash-grab of the Moana tie-in. I was foolish. Blue Lagoon combines the route-building of Through the Desert with the two-act structure of Amun-Re, and the result is outstanding. Turns are brisk (place one piece), and players are pulled in several different directions. Indeed, this feels a little less focused than Knizia’s designs typically are, but it works very well here because each decision is agonizing. Do I block Matt? Do I advance my own ends? We’ve both been sitting next to this resource for several turns: how much longer can I wait to claim it? The board reset after the first half will take you by surprise your first game (or your fourth or fifth), but it is absolutely brilliant. This one is likely to be higher on the next list once I play it more.
Times played: 14
Medici is still an excellent auction game. I just don’t get to play it as much anymore now that most of the people who loved it have moved away. The brilliant combination of push-your-luck with once-around auctions and limited space to hold your wares is so, so good. It is my go-to game with six people, and it reliably plays in an hour, even with teaching. I wish this got played more than it does.
#23: 7 Wonders
My review / Times played: 66
7 Wonders remains one of those rare games that is consistently good, fairly easy to teach, and can satisfy a large group. Yet it has fallen into this weird space of “always avaialable” games that, while good, no longer get people excited. “We could always play 7 Wonders,” is the thought, and then we never do. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one experienced a renaissance any day, because once you start playing it in earnest, it’s easy to keep the momentum going. That’s how I got to the first 66 plays, and that might get me to the next 66 in due course.
#22: Lost Cities
My review / Times played: 45
Lost Cities hasn’t been on any of my previous lists, but really, that’s more prejudice than anything. “These short games–they’re just trifles. Only the Main Events are worthy of being on the list.” I’ve tried to be more intentional this time around, now that I have a longer list, to honor those games that truly do bring me joy, and this one does, possibly because I play it exclusively with my wife, and it’s one we both like. Lost Cities does indeed seem like a trifle–play a card, draw a card–but the decisions are excruciating as you try to hew your way through untrodden paths, uncertain of the future. Knizia is a genius, and that genius is on full display here.
Times played: 3
Why…can’t…I…get…Imperial…played? Oh yeah, I know: it’s too economic for people who like a war game, and it’s too confrontational for those who like economic games. It’s opaque, it’s strange, it’s long…and it’s utterly brilliant. Mac Gerdts combines a rondel with a stocks game, yet this stocks game plays out in the human drama of statesmanship. I wish I got to play this more.
#20: A Feast for Odin
Times played: 4
Yes, I’m late to the party on A Feast for Odin. I passed it by thinking it looked too overwrought (seriously–does anyone actually edit Uwe Rosenberg anymore???), but I decided to test my prejudice with knowledge at a local con this year. And…I loved it. It combines resource conversion with polyominoes. A guy in my group calls this “poor man’s Agricola” (pedantic warning ahead: actually, this is more expensive)–for me, I enjoy this more than the staid farming classic. Thankfully, it’s great as a solitaire game, so I still get to play it even if my group is less enthusiastic about it than I am.
Times played: 2
Brass keeps moving steadily down the list as my memory of the last play continues to fade. But ah! what a game this is. No man is an island. In this game, everyone is a cog in the grinding wheel of profit, and all the players need each other to reach their own ends. But you don’t want to help the other players too much or you might be the worse for it. The rules have some edge cases here, and player aids are necessary (I have the old Eagle printing), but man, I love this. I haven’t tried Birmingham yet (to head off that question), but I can’t get my group to play this, so I don’t think I’ll be picking it up anytime soon. I hope to play this again soon. Maybe I can guilt my group into playing it for my birthday?
#18: Just One
My review / Times played: 35
Just One is simply fantastic. It’s cooperative, it’s simple, it’s clever. I’ve played this with gamers and non-gamers, and almost everyone has fallen in love with this. My review details my feelings about this, but I think this is one of the best party games ever made (but not quite the best–more on that to come).
#17: The Mind
My review / Times played: 41
I told you: I’m honoring some smaller games. But putting The Mind on the list is no concession. I rate this game a 10. There are few games that generate the positive vibes this one does, and it’s simple and portable to boot. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea–“Can’t I just count in my head?” “Can we play something with strategy now?”–but man, this game is special.
#16: Power Grid
Times played: 8
Playing Power Grid is like revisiting an old friend. It doesn’t matter how long it has been since I’ve played it; because it was one of the first longer strategy games I played, its rules (despite their occasional fiddliness) are practically second nature. I still love this one, but I’ve had smaller game nights of late, and I usually reserve this one for when we have a bigger group. Perhaps I should change this prejudice.
Something that greatly enhances Power Grid? Card money. I use bird bucks.
#15: El Grande
My review / Times played: 13
El Grande has dropped out of my top ten for the first time…well, since I started keeping a top 10. I still think it’s a phenomenal game, but in my last play, it seemed to show its age a little. My enjoyment could have been diminished by the company that played (it’s always a danger to expose one of your favorites to strangers at a con), but while I will always have a fondness for this one, it’s not quite the rabid love that it once was.
#14: The 7th Continent
My review / Hours played: ~35
I usually don’t get sucked into Kickstarter hype, and I almost avoided The 7th Continent altogether (such was the breathless enthusiasm that accompanied each mention of it), but I thought the story looked intriguing, the secondhand copy I bought was sold at cost, and I was certain I could recoup that cost if I hated the game. Well, around 30 hours in, there is currently no danger of the game being sold. I play The 7th Continent solitaire exclusively, and I don’t know that I’ve ever played a tabletop game that is so immersive. The sense of discovery is real (and, as I talk about in my review, it continues from curse to curse, even for stuff you’ve already seen), and the hand/deck management decisions in the game work well to simulate a dwindling life force. I don’t know if this is a game I’ll play much once I finish all the curses, but there’s a lot of life left in this one with just the content I already have. I’m eager to explore more of what this has to offer.
#13: Pulsar 2849
Wolfie’s review / Times played: 3
Pulsar 2849 looked overwhelming when I first saw it advertised, so I didn’t really give it another thought. But when a fellow iSlaytheDragon writer played it at Gen Con and raved about it, I decided it would be worth it to pay attention. The game looks much more complicated than it is. Pulsar 2849 could be described as a point salad: everything you do scores you points in the moment. But there are also a good deal of end-game points handed out based on how well you complete certain objectives. Players have to balance choosing better dice (yes, the 6s are better than 1s) with diminishing their position in player initiative and engineering tracks. The trade-offs are compelling and the gameplay is interesting. I played this around the same time as I received my Coimbra preorder, and after playing Pulsar, I didn’t really have much interest in playing Coimbra again. This was the first game I played by Vladimir Suchy. Which brings me to…
#12: Underwater Cities
My review / Times played: 11
Again, I ignored Underwater Cities when it was first released, but I took notice of it after loving Pulsar 2849 so much. Rio Grande Games offered me a review copy, so I thought I’d see if it measured up to Pulsar. Oh man, did it. I will say, though, that Underwater Cities, in some ways, feels like the kind of game that was designed for me. The rules are fairly straightforward (explaining the game doesn’t take very long), but there are lots of combo and hand management opportunities that emerge as you play. There are grueling choices, and the worker placement is brutal, making player interaction important (even though other players can’t challenge your gains). I like Terraforming Mars, but for me, Underwater Cities is a compelling reason never to play it again.
#11: Winner’s Circle
My review / Times played: 15
Bluffing, betting, playing the odds: some of my favorite things in a short racing game, elevated by Knizia’s brilliant flourishes (anyone can move any horse, but each horse has to move before any of them can move again). Winner’s Circle truly is a gem of a game, although I do think some hacks are necessary to bring out its full potential. I think the blind-bidding “variant” is essential, and I also think the game is better when you play two races instead of three. Few games get players as emotionally invested in the outcome as this one, and that is all to the good.
My review / Times played: 97
Werewords is, in my opinion, the best party game out there. It combines mild secret roles/social deduction with a word game that makes fools of us all. As the mayor, you go into a round thinking, I know what that is, but often your knowledge of a subject crumples under the barrage of unending questions. There was the time someone chose Conan the Barbarian, realizing he didn’t really know much about him, or my crash-and-burn handling of “cross-country skiing.” The underlying 20 Questions game works, but it’s hardly the point. Werewords is a catalyst for funny discussions, offering a window into how each person at the table thinks, and there’s a good game there to boot. (I have the deluxe version now, and I bought the hefty, Splendor-style tokens, but I still haven’t used the fancy roles. The game is great as it was first released.)
My review / Times played: 22
This is a weird one, and I’m still not sure how anyone came up with it. It’s just such a Frankenstein’s monster of mechanisms. It’s a beast to teach but surprisingly easy to play once you enter its flow. The mixture here of card drafting, tableau building, and area control plus the visual appeal of city building make this one a great experience each time. I just wouldn’t expect to walk in as an expert. It takes some practice to play well.
#8: Gaia Project
My review / Times played: 12
Gaia Project has almost fully replaced Terra Mystica for me. Someone in my group prefers Terra Mystica, so I still play it, but each time, I’m reminded why I prefer Gaia Project: the power circle (with power entering as well as leaving) is more interesting; the technology board, combining favor tiles and shipping/terraforming, is more intuitive; and the terra-/gaiaforming is more dynamic. This one is a bit more of a beast to teach, and I think the fantasy races give players more purchase on its world than the space races do, but I love this one. It gets especially great once everyone knows what they’re doing (which, admittedly, takes 3-5 games). But the learning curve is worth it.
#7: The Quacks of Quedlinburg
My review / Times played: 16
The Quacks of Quedlinburg just keeps getting better. There are real risk-and-reward decisions, and the components (chips and bags versus cards) help to complete the experience. This is even better with the Herb Witches expansion (my review of that), and it’s a game I’m never not willing to play. I encased my ingredients in coin capsules, which adds to the allure of the game.
#6: Race for the Galaxy
My review of New Frontiers / Times played: 55
Race for the Galaxy–in all its iterations–is a wonderful system. I love Race, Jump Drive, New Frontiers, and Roll for the Galaxy. But Race remains my favorite. Unfortunately, it’s also the least welcoming to new players, so I get my Race fix primarily via the app or by playing New Frontiers (a not exactly unwelcome idea). Race combines grueling hand management with huge combo potential, but the game really opens up once you know the cards in the deck–not perfectly, mind you, but it helps if you know the kinds of combos that are available. I used to think this was just okay; now I think it’s one of the finest games ever made. I wish I had more face-to-face opponents.
#5: Isle of Skye
My review / Times played: 19
Isle of Skye, with its combination of scoring opportunities, price-setting, and landscape building, is one of the most satisfying experiences on the tabletop. You get the joy of building your clan land just so, of outpricing your opponents, or of buying their prized tile from under them. There are so many considerations and points of interaction, and it consistently plays in 45 minutes or so (even with new players, even with a full five). Isle of Skye is one of those rare games that shows you a game doesn’t have to be epic to be truly special.
My review / Times played: 29
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year about Ra, which is still apt: “Ra is the pinnacle of auction games, and almost the pinnacle of games. It marries two flavors that usually don’t go together–press your luck and strategic auctions–and the result is a game that is not only clever but fun.” Alas! I don’t play this as often as I used to because it’s best played on equal footing and it’s hard to get new players up to speed. But this game is great. Knizia’s finest–and that’s saying something.
My review / Times played: 154 (logged)
Can’t top what I’ve already said (especially in my review): “Dominion is by far–by FAR–my most played game, in terms of both logged plays and unlogged plays. (I started logging AFTER my obsessive phase.) I usually praise games that are replayable because of the players; Dominion is replayable because of the variety, especially after over ten expansions. And here’s the thing: most of the expansions are good. Even after the arc of planned expansions was completed, Donald X. Vaccarino has released even better ones. Empires is the best yet, Adventures is great if you play frequently, and even Renaissance is a great support expansion for others. Dominion is still the best deck builder and a game I am always willing to play. Most of the people I used to play with I don’t see much anymore, though, so I don’t get to play face-to-face much. But maybe this will be the year for a renaissance!” (It wasn’t the year for a renaissance, unfortunately. But maybe next year!)
My review / Times played: 16
Concordia just keeps getting better. Even on the same map, new strategies are necessary because of the way the cards come out or the way another player has pushed the strategy in this game. While the basic rules are very simple, the gameplay is never rote: you have to pay attention to what each of the players is doing, and because the game involves so much positive interaction, you have to be careful that your actions don’t unduly benefit someone else. This is a phenomenal game, and even the expansions are nice. I don’t always use salt, but it certainly unsettles settled strategies. Same with the forum. The team game from Venus is wonderful (with knowledgeable players), and even the new competitive game cards work well. I’m just so continually impressed by this one.
#1: Glory to Rome
My review / Times played: 56
Yep, Glory to Rome is still my favorite. There’s just nothing like it. Yes, I’m a sucker for role selection games anyway, but the combination of role selection, hand management, ridiculous combos, and deep (and occasionally brutal) player interaction work together in such a way that makes this not only strategically interesting but also great fun. I’ve never seen the game play the same way twice, and this despite having no expansion. (Carl Chudyk’s rare and puzzling gift.) I wish this were more readily available. For now, I treasure my black box and earnestly wait for a reprint.