I'm a music geek. I've been album-of-the-year lists since 1987. My lovely wife Noreen and I are also board gamers and she suggested back in 2014 that I take inspiration from the Dice Tower reviewer's top games of all time lists and make a favorite albums of all time list, which I did.
Earlier in 2020, she suggested I finally do what the Dice Tower folks did and do a favorite games list of all time, and this is it. I've split my favorites into lists of large and small games, mainly because it felt a little like comparing apples to oranges as I started paring down the list. In general, what I've called "small games" are generally fairly quick to play and generally come in small packages. Your mileage may vary.
I tend to prefer games on a little smaller scale in general, although are some definite exceptions below. I'm usually not crazy about "stabby" games - ones with players attacking each other a lot (see "take that" in the terminology section below). There are a ton of games I'm really fond of that didn't make this list, but you've got to cut off the list somewhere, right? And don't get hung up on the specific order. I've flipped the order around quite a bit, and I would probably keep doing it if I didn't cut myself off and just publish it! Basically, if you like some of the games on my list, consider trying some of the others. Maybe our tastes line up.
Given the situation we all find ourselves in as I'm writing this in the spring of 2020, I'll point out which games can be played with friends in other locations. I'm an iOS user, so I'll call out where there are apps for iOS. Android may have some of the same, but you'll need to look. There are two free online sites, Board Game Arena and Yucata, that will let you play several of these games as well. Both simply require setting up an account and are free for most game play. However, both can be overloaded given the extra demand, and that may be an option to save for later. Try it, but don't be too disappointed if you can't get in.
For each game, I include a link to the game's entry on BoardGameGeek (the definitive board gaming website), along with their listed player count and playing time, along with any comments I may have on that info.
Enjoy the lists and wash your hands.
If you're a veteran board gamer, you can totally skip this section and go straight to the reviews. If you're new or somewhat new, here's the definitions for some of the terms that I used in the reviews. It seemed simpler to just define them up front.
- Adventure Game:
Adventure games are immersive games that create a storyline for the players to follow. The players will be exploring, having encounters, battling monsters, and solving puzzles along the way.
- Area Control:
In area control games players get points by controlling regions of the board, usually by having a piece on that square. Generally, area control games have a lot of conflict between players so that they can take over regions of the board that they control. In general, I'm not a big fan, but there's an exception in the list.
- Base Games and Expansions:
Many games have expansions available that enhance or expand that game. "Base game" is the term used to describe the original game. Expansions are purchased separately, and most require the base game to play. Some expansions can be very small and inexpensive, and some can feel like you're purchasing a whole new complete game.
- Catch-up Mechanism:
Rules designed to give an advantage to players who are behind in the score to help them catch back up to the leader.
- Co-operative Game:
A co-operative game (usually just called a "co-op") is a game in which all the players are on the same "team", and the game mechanics add challenges for the players to overcome. Generally in a co-op, the players all win together or the "game" wins and everyone loses.
- Deck Builder:
A game in which each player has a starting deck of cards and uses those cards to buy more cards, thus enhancing their deck. In most deck builders, players deal themselves a hand from their deck, play cards from that hand, then discard everything and draw a new hand.
- Dice Chucker:
A game in which each player rolls a lot of dice and rolls 'em often.
In games that use drafting, a set of cards (or tiles or dice) are dealt to each player. The player chooses one to keep and then passes the rest to the next player. The strategy involves balancing your needs against what you're passing on to your neighbor. Are you better off taking the best card for yourself, or taking one that's not great for you but would score an opponent a ton of points?
- Engine Builder:
In an engine builder, players will have the ability to acquire benefits that can be used over several turns. The idea is to set them up so that they work well together, so engine builders tend to require a little more planning and strategy instead of pure luck.
- Legacy Game:
A Legacy Game is a board game equivalent to how campaign video games work. The games are generally set up as "campaign" games, where you'll play a specific set of scenarios in order, with the results of each scenario affecting the next one. With some legacy games, you'll even alter the physical game by adding stickers or tearing up cards. They can be a lot of fun, but many are done once you play all the scenarios. There's not usually a way to start from scratch short of buying a new copy of the game.
- Pick Up and Deliver:
Pick up and deliver games work pretty much the way you'd expect. The players move around a board to gather items and then move to different locations to deliver them.
- Push Your Luck:
There are games in which a move continues as long as a player wants, with some event that will end the turn with some negative result. The idea is to get as much as you can out of your turn before the turn goes wrong.
- Resource Collection:
In resource collection games, players try to gather tokens representing different resources that than then be spent to score points or add some other benefit.
- Roll and Write:
These are games in which each player has their own scoresheet and mark off different parts of their scoresheet based on a community dice roll. There is frequently no player limit with roll and writes, so they can be great for a large group.
- Route Building:
These are games in which players are attempting to create routes between different locations on the board. It's a commonly used mechanism for train-themed games.
- Take That:
Also referred to as "player interaction", this is a mechanism where players attack each other. You'll be taking away items from your opponent, or adding penalties, or dealing damage points. There are exceptions, but I frequently find this mechanism frustrating and tend to avoid them.
- Worker Placement:
In worker placement games, there is usually a board with a number of locations that give the player an ability or bonus for using it. Generally, only one worker can be assigned to one space, and players will take turns assigning worker pieces to those locations to get the benefit and block opponents from using that space.
Dead Man's Draw
Dead Man's Draw is a push your luck card game in which players are collecting sets of cards of one of 10 different suits, each in 6 denominations. On a player's turn, they reveal cards from the deck and take the action corresponding to the suit they just revealed. At any point, the player can either take all the cards revealed, or keep revealing cards. However, if they reveal a second card of the same suit, their turn is over and they get nothing. Some of the suits have the player take cards from an opponent's collection, so there is some "take that" in this game. However, the game is so light and cards come and go so fast that it's never bothered me. The lead in the game changes many times over the course of the game, so it never really feels like you've got a safe lead or are out of the game.
There's also a version of Dead Man's Draw called Captain Carcass. As I understand it the games are identical, just with different style artwork.
Playing Time: 10-15 mins
Can't Stop is a push your luck dice game in which players roll four dice to move their markers to the top of the board. The board is a series of columns numbered from 2 to 12. The 7 column is the longest, and the 2 and 12 are the shortest. Players split the four dice into two sets of two and the totals of each set are the columns in which they move their markers. On one move, a player can only have three "active" columns, so if the roll doesn't advance an active column, all the progress is lost and the turn is over. It's a really simple game, and the push your luck element really makes the game fun.
There is also a small expansion for Can't Stop called Rollin' Down the Highway. The expansion includes a series of chips that are randomized and placed face down on each space on the board. When a player finishes their move, they reveal the tiles under their markers and deal with the action on each. The expansion adds a little randomness and some fun complexity to the game. If you like the base game, but wish there was a little more to it, definitely try this expansion.
You can play the base game online on Board Game Arena or Yucata. This is also one you can play over the phone if both homes have a copy of the game. It works out very well. Both homes just need to keep the board up to date.
Playing Time: 30 mins
Istanbul: The Dice Game
Istanbul: The Dice Game is a greatly simplied version of Istanbul, in which players are merchants making trades in order to collect rubies. In the dice game, the players using dice to gain the resources they need to exchange for the rubies. Each roll can generate resources, get cash, or draw cards (which are generally very helpful). The fun in this one comes from figuring out how to spend the dice you've rolled. Should you bank resources for the future, or spend them now to get something that will help sooner? The game immediately ends when one player has collected the required number of rubies, so there's also a race feel to it.
While there is no app for Istanbul: The Dice Game, you can play this over the phone if both homes have a copy of the game. You just need to have one home manage the card deck, and both should keep score. It works really well.
Playing Time: 20-40 mins
11 nimmt! (German for "11 Takes!") is a card game using a deck of 100 cards numbered from 1-100 with one or more bull head icons on them. Each player is dealt 10 cards and on each turn they can discard one more cards to a pile on the table. However, the cards they discard must all be within 10 points of the top card. For instance, if the top card of a stack is 42, a player could discard any cards in their hand between 43 and 52 and put them on that stack. If there are no legal places to discard, the player takes a pile of cards into their hand and take two cards from the top of the deck to start two new piles. The goal of each hand is to be the first player to discard all of their cards. Every other player counts the bull head icons on their cards, and that count is their score. Lowest score wins. The game has a nice catch-up mechanism built into it. Each time a player picks up a stack of 3 or more cards, they also take a special card which allows them to play on two stacks on one turn. And if things go really sour, they can get another card and play to three stacks on one turn, and so on. It's surprising how fast you can go from a fistful of cards to being right back in contention. It's fun to try to build a big multicard play, especially if you can do it to end the game.
Playing Time: 30 mins
In Splendor, the players are merchants collecting and trading gems, but the theme is irrelevant. Splendor is a very simple, quick resource collection game. On a turn, the players either take chips from the bank, spend chips to buy cards from the display, or reserve a card from the display to buy later. The cards give victory points and also add to your buying power so you can buy more and more expensive cards as the game progresses. I find it a lot of fun trying to chain moves together - trying to get the right card on one turn that will let me buy a better card later and so on. It also has the feel of a race since the game ends when one player hits 15 points, so you can see your opponents total and try to plan for a last big play to save the game.
There is an expansion for Splendor called Cities of Splendor that add several modules that can be added to the game. They're fun, but the base game is really good as is. The expansion is nice if you play a lot and want to mix things up a bit.
There is an app for Splendor for iOS. It's got a really nice user interface, but I remember having some problems with online multiplayer keeping its connection and haven't pulled it up in a while.
Playing Time: 30 mins
Skyjo is a fun little card game in which each player is dealt 12 cards that are arranged facedown into a 4×3 tableau. The cards have values ranging from -2 to 12. Each turn, a player will either take the top card of the deck and replace a card in their tableau, or they'll simply reveal a card. Additionally, if all three cards in one column have the same value, they are all discarded. The goal is to get as low a score as you can. The first player who first reveals all of their cards must have the lowest score, otherwise their score is doubled. It's a lot of fun guessing whether or not to make a swap. Should you swap out an unknown card for a 6, or skip the 6 and hope the facedown card is already lower? The game moves really quickly, and it's really easy to learn.
Playing Time: 15-45 mins
Oaxaca: Crafts Of A Culture
In Oaxaca: Crafts Of A Culture, the players are artists creating new crafts and doing it through efficient use of dice and cards. The players roll dice and use the icons on the dice to acquire craft cards and to build them. Once done, those crafts give points and the abilily to manipulate future dice rolls. The game is a very quick but "thinky" engine builder. It seems very simple at first glance, but as you play, you'll quickly start deciding between different strategies to give you the best results and realizing there's more here than meets the eye. I really enjoy trying to build an efficient engine and using it to help me on subsequent turns.
Playing Time: 20-40 mins
Qwixx is a simple roll-and-write game in which players roll a set of colored dice and choose which values to use on a scorecard. Two of the colors have increasing numbers and two have decreasing, and players can only add values to their card that are to the right of previously used numbers: so, for the increasing colors, a player can only add a number that's larger than the last one added. It's a very simple game, but it's a lot of fun. It's got a little of the flavor of a push your luck game, and that's what makes it fun. Do you play conservatively and aim for big points, or do you play as many numbers as you can to make the game end quickly?
There is an app for Qwixx for iOS that will let you play against an AI, and also provides a digital scoresheet if you don't want to use a physical one.
Playing Time: 15 mins
Note: The game worked fine with 6 players as well. You just need enough scorepads for everyone.
Welcome To… is a twist on roll-and-write games, using a deck of cards instead of dice. Each turn three pairs of cards will be revealed and the players will use them to mark up the neighborhood on their sheet. Each pair has a number that is used to mark a house as built and a symbol indicating some kind of other benefit like building a fence or a pool that will help score more points. It's easy to learn and play but hard to do really well. I enjoy how the game gets tougher and tougher as it goes on. The first few decisions are really easy to make but they have longer-term consequences, so you don't want to paint yourself into a corner.
There are small expansions for Welcome To… that are basically made up of new sheets with subtle twists to the rules. They're interesting, but they're not better than the original. There's also a brand new sequel called Welcome To New Las Vegas that I haven't tried.
There is an app for Welcome To… for iOS that will replace the scorepad for one player, but you can't play the game with it. This game works really well over video chat. As long as everyone has a score card, you only need to manage the cards at one house.
Playing Time: 25 mins
Note: No, the game doesn't suddenly get unplayable with 101 players, wise guy. There's really no upper limit.
Kings Cribbage is a mashup of two games. It's basically Scrabble but instead of using letter tiles to make words, players use tiles that reprsent cards to make cribbage hands. And like in Scrabble, all the interlinked hands created must also be valid cribbage hands. To be "valid", the hands have to be between 2 and 5 tiles, and each of the tiles must contribute to the scoring of the hand, so a play of J-J-J-5-8 would not be valid because the 8 doesn't score. J-J-5-8-8 would be valid. Instead of suits, there are light and dark tiles, so a play of 5 tiles of all one shade becomes a flush.
This game is fun in general, but it's especially satisfying when you can drop one or two tiles into a small slot and score a big play. If you're a cribbage fan, this is worth checking out. Cribbage scoring is explained very well in the manual, so even if you've never played the card game, you should be able to pick this up quickly.
Playing Time: 30 mins
Tsuro, subtitled "The Game Of The Path", is a very interesting tile laying game in which players creating a path for their piece to follow, and potentially creating new paths that the other players must follow. The object is very simple: Stay on the board and knock the other players off. It's a lot of fun trying to figure out which tiles will keep you out of trouble. You can try to keep away from the other pieces on the board and let everyone else knock each other off, or you can go on offense and knock them off yourself. Technically, this is a "take that" game, but the game is so quick that it's really not a problem.
Two expansions have come out for Tsuro. The first, Tsuro Of The Seas, adds a dragon mechanic that can cause your ship to get knocked out without leaving the board. For my taste, it added complexity but didn't improve the game much. Tsuro: Phoenix Rising is far better. It's more complex than the original, but the changes are worth it. If you're a fan of the original and want more, go with Phoenix Rising. It's not as quick as the original - I'd put it as a "large" game - but it's a lot of fun.
There is an excellent iOS app for Tsuro that will let you play online multiplayer using a Facebook login for each player.
Playing Time: 15 mins
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival
In Lanterns: The Harvest Festival players are decorating a palace lake with floating lanterns. The players draw tiles and add them to the display to get resource cards that will later be cashed in for points. An nice twist is that each play will gives cards to all the players, so everyone's involved on every turn. I don't think I've seen anyone really run away with a game, so you'll be engaged right up to the end. I really enjoy trying to plan out what moves I can make to optimize what resources I'm going to get, knowing that some others will come from other players.
There's one expansion for Lanterns, called Lanterns: The Emperor's Gifts that adds a few twists to the game, but nothing radical. It's worth checking out.
There is an excellent app for Lanterns that will let you play online multiplayer. It's one of the best ones out there. The game runs very well, but the extra detail in the presentation really makes it. You'll see koi fish swimming in the lake and the lanterns bobbing very slightly. The game even plays mood music in the background that makes it feel a little like you're hanging out at a spa. Very relaxing.
Playing Time: 30 mins
Port Royal is an excellent push your luck card game that frequently involves the other players in each turn. On a turn, players reveal cards that contain either a ship that can be looted for money, or a crew or item card that can be purchased to give points and benefits. Players reveal as many cards as they like, but if you revealing two ships with the same color ends the turn ends immediately. Otherwise, the player can acquire a card and each other player can acquire one as well. The push your luck aspect of this is really the best part of the game. On many turns, you'll have a specific goal in mind. If the cards you reveal don't meet that goal right away, you'll have to start deciding whether to take what you're given or push for that original goal.
The expansion for Port Royal adds in some nice twists and changes to the game that add a really nice change of pace to the base game. I'm not sure if I'd say the expansion is better than the base, but it's worth checking out.
You can play Port Royal online on Yucata.
Playing Time: 20-50 mins
Race For The Galaxy
Race For The Galaxy is a card game in which players are building an empire of planets and developments using cards to represent the locations built, the money to pay for them, and the resources they produce. The game is an engine builder in which players are either trying to build up a system of generating and selling resources or a military that can simply conquer lots of high-value worlds. On each turn, players will secretly choose one of seven possible actions. Once all actions are selected, they are revealed all at once. Then each player will have the chance to take each of the selected actions with a perk for the player who selected a specific action. Part of the strategy is trying to anticipate what actions the other players will pick and take advantage of those actions as well.
I never would have guessed that Race For The Galaxy would end up being such a favorite since I had such a bad experience with it to start. The problem I had was that people teaching me the game would focus on the mechanics of the game instead of the intent. Once you understand what you're trying to do, the game starts to make more sense. It's also difficult to pick up just from reading the rule book. You'd likely be better off learning from someone who already knows how to play and teaches it starting with the intent. It's not a particularly complex game, but its notoriously complicated iconography makes for a longer learning curve than you'd expect. Once you truly "get" Race, the iconography suddenly seems very simple and it becomes a very interesting and very fast game. If you're trying to figure it out and get frustrated, understand that it's not just you, and it'll be worth it in the end.
There are a number of expansion sets for Race and most are pretty good. A few of the later ones begin to move the game away from its basics, and I don't care for those as much. All of the expansions add extra cards in general, and that's always welcome. They also tweak the rules a bit.
- "The Gathering Storm" adds goal tiles, which I really enjoyed at first, but they eventually become a bit of a distraction. They're an interesting change-of-pace, but I'd use them sparingly.
- "Rebel vs. Imperium" adds the ability to take over other players worlds, which I haven't tried. Seemed like it was introducing player interaction into a game that really didn't need it. You can choose to include or ignore this aspect of the game, so picking it up will at least give you more cards.
- "The Brink Of War" adds a new currency, "prestige", which ends up being very interesting. The prestige is worth points by itself, but you can also spend prestige once a game to get an enhanced ability on an action. Really like this one.
If memory serves, the expansions build on each other, so I think you need to buy them in order.
There is an excellent app for Race For The Galaxy for iOS that allows online multiplayer. The app is nice because it manages and explains all the icons. I'm not sure if it would be a good way to learn the game, but it's a great way to play. The three expansions I mention above are all available, and you can enable or disable aspects of the game. If I'm looking to play Race, I'll usually suggest the app before getting out the cards because the app does a really nice job keeping track of the rules and bonuses and such. If you play with the app, you get spoiled by having it keeping track of everything. Additionally, Race is available on Board Game Arena.
Playing Time: 30-60 mins
Note: The 2-player version is excellent. It adds a slight twist that really enhances the game. And that 30-60 minute estimate seems high to me. 20-30 mins feels more right to me.
In Love Letter, players are competing to get their love letter to the Princess by getting people in the castle to relay the letter. It's a very small game: there are only sixteen cards, and each player only starts with one. The active player draws a second card and plays one of the two and takes whatever action is dictated by the card. For the most part, the goal is trying to deduce the other players' cards and use that information to knock them out of the round. It's fast, simple, clever, and addicting.
There are a number of themed versions of Love Letter, as well as 6-player and 8-player variants that add more cards and add more rules. I haven't tried the 6-player, and I've heard it's very good. The 8-player was very disappointing, and the Lovecraft-themed version I'd played wasn't as good as the original game. It added several changes that just overcomplicated the game. I'm curious about the 6-player, but it'll take a lot for it to beat out the base game for me.
There is a excellent app for Love Letter for iOS that allows online multiplayer. Additionally, it's available on Board Game Arena, although that requires a Premium account, which isn't free. Cost is roughly $5/month or $30/year.
Playing Time: 20 mins
Small World is an area control game in which each player controls one of many races and try to conquer as much territory as you can before that race fades and a new one is started up. The board is too small to accommodate all the races at once an thus forces the players to attack each other. As I mentioned at the top, I'm usually not fond of "take that" games where you need to attack your opponents. But in Small World it's nowhere near as frustrating as it can be in other games because you know you'll use several races over the course of the game.
There are several expansions to Small World. Some just add more races that can be folded into the base game. There's also Small World: Underground that adds a bunch of new races and new game boards. I like it as well as the base game. There's also a 6-player board available as an expansion, and it works pretty well.
There is an excellent app for Small World for iOS that allows online multiplayer. It's also available on Board Game Arena.
Playing Time: 40-80 mins
Five Tribes is a very clever twist on the standard worker placement game. In Five Tribes, the board is pre-populated by workers of five different types. Players get resources and benefits by strategically removing them from the board. The player picks up all the workers on one square and drop them off one at a time on adjacent squares a little like the old game Mancala. The benefit is gained based on the final square used, so it can take a little planning out to get everything to work out to the best advantage. It's a really interesting idea, and it's a lot of fun trying to find a good play. Because everyone's play will change the board, you can't really plan too far in advance - your play may vanish.
There are a few small expansions for the game. The Artisans of Naqala adds a sixth tribe along with some extra cards to beef up the base game. It's a nice expansion, but I haven't played it in a while so I can't tell you whether I'd consider it "essential". There's also an expansion called Whims of the Sultan that expands Five Tribes to a five player game. Haven't tried that one at all yet.
Playing Time: 40-80 mins
Ex Libris is a worker placement game in which the players are librarians shelving books in a fantasy library. The books are represented by deck of cards that has the spines of a couple of books on each, and the players need to put them in their library in alphabetical order. Once a card is placed it generally can't be moved, so the key to the game is proper planning. The workers allow the players to draw and exchange book cards, and will occasionally allow rearranging part of the library which can be key. There are bonuses for collections of different types of books, so while maintaining alphabetical order is a must, collecting the right types of books can be a big payoff. I really enjoy trying to plan out how I want to arrange my shelves and I really enjoy reading the spines of the books on the cards. Clearly, the creators of the game had a lot of fun with that. The titles are generally clever and occasionally really funny.
Playing Time: 45 mins
Alhambra is a tile laying game in which players are trying to build the best and most elaborate complex of buildings. On each turn a player will either take money in one of four currencies, buy and place a tile, or use their reserve to stash a tile for future use. An interesting twist is that if a tile is purchased for exact change, the player gets an extra action. This can force a decision between buying that "perfect" tile or buying something not quite as good for exact change. The game can get challenging because some tiles have walls on them and the walls need to line up correctly. You can occasionally get stuck trying to get a specific tile that will work in your configuration, which can be a little frustrating. Despite that, I enjoy trying to get the right tiles to build out my Alhambra just the way I want it. It's very satisfying when you can get everything to line up the way you like.
There's also a card game version that keeps most of the same basic mechanics. However, instead of buying and fitting tiles together, you're simply collecting cards. The result is a game that moves much faster with less frustration.
There is a very good app for Alhambra for iOS. Haven't tried it in online multiplayer mode, but it looks like it's supported.
Playing Time: 45-60 mins
Cable Car uses a path mechanism that is similar to Tsuro, but is more complex overall. Instead of managing just one piece, players have a number of cable car lines that start at the edge of the board. Tiles are played to extend each route to connect to the center of the board or back to the edge. Points are awarded based on how long the route is with a bonus for connecting to the center. What makes the game fun is that the tiles extend your path but also add paths on the board that may help or hinder your opponents. It's a very tactical game - it's hard to plan very far ahead because every other player's move is very likely to affect yours.
The game also comes with extra rules to include investing in different routes, but I haven't tried it. I find the standard game addictive and it seems the extra changes would needlessly complicate an excellent game. If you're a fan of Tsuro, you should check this out.
Playing Time: 45 mins
There is a good app for Metro for iOS (Metro was an earlier version of Cable Car). Haven't tried it in online multiplayer mode, but it looks like it's supported.
Favor Of The Pharoah
Favor Of The Pharoah is a dice chucker in which players use their dice results to buy tiles. These tiles will allow them get more dice or manipulate their dice rolls which in turn will let them buy better tiles and so on. I like rolling dice and I really enjoy puzzling out which manipulations will let me get the most out of my roll. At different points you'll need to decide whether to risk missing out on a decent tile in order to get a much better one. The game comes with a bunch of tiles, so you can change the set up each game and keep it fresh.
To Court The King (a predecessor of Favor Of The Pharoah) is on Yucata. I like Favor much better because of the variety of tiles, but this is better than nothing it you want a way to try it out and see if you like the concept. There is also a randomizer app for iOS to help you mix up the starting tiles.
Playing Time: 45 mins
Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep has a Dungeons & Dragons theme, but it's definitely not a standard Dungeons & Dragons game of exploring and battling monsters. Lords of Waterdeep is a worker placement game in which players collect the correct resources in order to complete quests and occasionally play cards to get extra benefits or hinder their opponents. This is probably my favorite worker placement game. I'm not a D&D player, but the theme has no effect on game play. I enjoy trying to figure out the specific moves and their order will let me get what resources I need before I get boxed out. There can be a little "take that" in the game, but it's not enough to ruin the game for me.
There is an expansion for Waterdeep that contains two modules and adds support for a 6th player. I've played with 6, and it actually works quite well. One of the two modules adds some extra player interaction, but you can skip that if it's not your thing.
There is an excellent iOS app for Lords of Waterdeep that will let you play online multiplayer.
Playing Time: 60-120 mins
On The Underground
On The Underground is a route building game that has players competing to control key portions of the routes on the London Underground while a neutral passenger piece moves around the board. Players try to claim segments of routes that the passenger will use in order to score points. It's got a bit of the feel of Ticket To Ride but with a different strategy since you're trying to get aligned with the passenger, and that strategy is what I enjoy most about the game. As the passenger moves around the map, your strategy needs to adapt.
Note: There's a new version with an updated map and a Berlin map included as well, but haven't tried that yet.
Playing Time: 60 mins
Dominon is maybe the most celebrated deck builder, and it's a classic. In Dominion players start with a basic deck of cards, deal themselves a hand, and play them to buy action, money or victory point cards in order to improve their deck. When action cards are played, they may also grant different different bonuses like extra spending power, more actions, extra cards, etc. The key is to buy cards that will work well with each other. As a result, Dominion can be a bit of an engine builder, although the randomness of drawing the cards can make it tricky to pull off. Dominion has a ton of expansions that can add in a bunch of new mechanics, but they all integrate very easily into the base game. If you get hooked and start buying expansions, you may actually find the base game a little too straightforward and miss those twists. However, start with the base game to get the feel of the game. It's a lot of fun to build your deck up and see if you can pull cards that work well together. There are some cards that add a "take that" mechanic, but if that's not your thing, it's easy to just not use those cards.
The latest expansion, Menagerie, is the 13th for the game so this is game that you can really invest in. You can mix cards from the different sets into one game, although I find using one set alone tends to be a better game because it lets you focus on the twists in that particular expansion. Note that you can play an expansion as a standalone you'll need to use the money and victory cards from the base game. My favorite of the expansions is Prosperity which adds some big money cards which can add some fun options. The only expansion that didn't work for me was Alchemy, which added a new currency to the game. It's an interesting idea, but it just didn't work that well for me.
There was an app for Dominon for iOS, but it's been replaced by a website: Dominion Online. Playing with the base game is free. However, playing with some expansions requires at least one player to have a monthly, non-recurring, subscription of roughly $2 or $4. The price level controls how many expansions will be available to you. However, if both homes have a physical copy of the game, it works very well over the phone. Both homes just need to make sure they pull cards for the ones purchased so that everyone can see when decks are nearly empty.
Playing Time: 30 mins
Additional Note: If you have the base game and you buy an extra set of base cards, you can support up to 6 players.
Ascension: Deckbuilding Game
Ascension is a deckbuilder in which players gather cards that either let them purchase more cards for their deck or defeat monsters for points and/or other benefits. Where games like Dominion provide a set of cards to purchase, Ascension has a single deck with a much bigger variety of cards to choose from, although generally only six will be available at any one time. I like deckbuilders in general, and in Ascension I like the wide variety of cards that may be available for purchase. With some of the expansions, the game can turn into a bit of an engine builder.
Ascension has a ton of expansions. Most of them add a few twists to the base mechanics, but they're very easy to learn. In general, if you like the base game, you'll probably like the expansions as well. Additionally, the basic model of the game has been adapted into other games with concepts as varied as the NHL Power Play Team-Building Card Game and three Lord Of The Rings deckbuilders. If you like Ascension and those themes, you'll probably like the games as well.
There is an excellent app for Ascension on both iOS and Android (and yes, you can play across platforms). The base game is free, and most of the expansions are available as well and are pretty reasonably priced. If you're playing one of the more complex expansions where one card can trigger bonuses on another card, you'll get very spoiled by using the app as it keeps track of all of that for you. Noreen and I play with the app exclusively now.
Playing Time: 30 mins
In Sagrada, players are competing to build the best stained glass windows. This is done by drafting dice and placing them inside a grid representing the window. The twist is that no two orthagonally adjacent dice can have the same number or the same color. Additionally, each grid has unique placement rules that put additional limits on moves. There are public and private goals to give an incentive to make plays in a certain way as well. This one appeals to me as a clever logic puzzle. It's easy to place dice at first and it's also easy to paint yourself into a corner and have no legal plays. You need to be thinking ahead as you make plays to have everything pan out the way you want at the end.
There is an expansion for Sagrada that adds the components to let you scale the game up to 6 players, and it works very well. The expansion adds a few other twists that are nice additions without radically changing the game.
There is an iOS app for Sagrada. It's pricier than the average app, but it's really well done. It looks terrific, and makes everything very easy to manage. It does allow multi-user play.
Players: 1-4 (1-6 with the expansion)
Playing Time: 30-45 mins
Century is a series of three games: Spice Road, A New World, and Eastern Wonders. I'm reviewing all three here, but I've played Spice Road much more than the other two and that's the game that landed the series on my list.
Spice Road is a simple, fast-moving game that blends resource collection and engine building. The players are gathering spices and trading them for other spices in order to satisfy orders. Each player has a hand of cards that allow one action (i.e., trade two turmeric for one saffron and one cardamom). Used correctly, the cards can create an engine where cheaper spices can be swapped easily for a good mix of the more expensive spices. However, each card can only be played once until a turn is taken to bring them all back into the player's hand. The game has a really nice blend of speed and complexity. Turns don't take very long, but there are interesting choices to make along the way. And if you can get an engine going it's just that much more fun.
A New World integrates the trading mechanism into a worker placement game. The cards are replaced by a board with hexes, and players move to different locations on the board to gather and trade resources. Eastern Wonders keep the hexes, but adds the ability to have different layout shapes, a more complex player board to manage your resources, and bonus tiles that can be gained along the way. Each edition is a little more complex than the one before it. I enjoy these two, but Spice Road is the one I find really addictive.
All three games are standalone games that play really well, and the rules that explain how to merge two or all three games into one giant game. Full disclosure: While I think that's a really clever concept, I haven't actually tried it yet.
For those not enthused with the spice theme, there are also "Golem" editions of Spice Road and Eastern Wonders in which you're travelling the "golem road" to trade crystals instead of spices. As I understand it, the games are the same - but I haven't played them, so I can't guarantee that.
Playing Time: 30-45 mins
In 7 Wonders, players collect cards representing resources, buildings, trade deals, and military might to build their city and possibly their Wonder of The Ancient World. 7 Wonders was the first game I'd played that used drafting, and that mechanic is the heart of the game. All players draft a card and play them simultaneously. As a result, the game moves very quickly until there is a really tough decision between what to keep and what to discard. Those decisions are what makes this game fun. Additionally, 7 Wonders allows for a number of different strategies that are very capable of winning the game, if you get the cards you need. That's also part of the fun: figuring out which strategy you want to use. There are many different ways to win the game.
There are a few expansions for 7 Wonders, but none of them are essential. Leaders adds an extra drafting round for leader cards, and it's an OK addition. Cities adds "take that" mechanics that I don't care for, so I've skipped that one. Babel adds two different modules, but I haven't played them enough to judge. The base game is excellent as is. Not sure any of the expansions are really needed, but they're certainly interesting enough to consider.
There is an app for 7 Wonders on iOS, and I would have highly recommended it at one time. They added a timer for online multiplayer which really isn't needed. This change pretty much ruined the app for me. 7 Wonders is available on Board Game Arena as well.
Playing Time: 30 mins
Note: Instructions for a 2-player variant is also included, but I didn't care for it. Personally, I'd stick with 3 players or more.
Acquire is a very old economic game that has players playing tiles that represent hotels. If the hotel tile is adjacent to one or more other tiles they form a hotel chain and begin selling stock, or simply expand an existing chain. The object is to make the most money by buying into the right companies and strategically cashing in on the mergers that happen when two chains connect.
Acquire was the first "hobby board game" I played, although I don't think that was a term at the time. It was originally part of 3M's line of "bookshelf" games from the 60's and early 70's that were more advanced than games like Monopoly, and a forerunner of the modern hobby games. It was so different from anything else I'd played at that point and it immediately hooked me. As a kid, it felt very grown up playing Acquire. I really enjoy trying to plan out which hotels to invest in, and trying to figure out if and when I should make a merger. It's rewarding when a particular play pays off in either control of a massive chain, or in a big payday.
Playing Time: 90 mins
Ticket To Ride
Ticket To Ride is one the most well-known hobby board games, and it's one of the best. Ticket To Ride has players collecting cards in order to claim train routes on a map of the US. The goal is to connect city pairs on their objective cards. The game moves very quickly because each player only takes on action on their turn, and generally those actions don't take very long. While Ticket To Ride may be the perfect introduction to hobby games for someone new, it also holds up really well over many plays for experienced players. What I've always liked about Ticket To Ride is the mix of plotting out the best routes to get to your goal, working out an alternate plan when someone beats you to a particular route, and that the game really moves along quickly.
There are quite a few expansions for Ticket To Ride. Some are standalone games and some are simply updated maps and cards that you'd use with the base game. All of the expansions add some twists to the base mechanisms, but they're generally very easy to learn. Personally, I enjoy all of them. I find the extra twists keep the game fresh. They do make the game a little more complex though, and there's definitely something to be said for the elegance of the base game. There is also a 10th Anniversary edition of the base game. It includes a bigger board, bigger trains, and bigger cards so everything is a little easier to read. It's a beautiful set.
There is an excellent app for Ticket To Ride on iOS and it supports online multiplayer.
Playing Time: 30-60 mins
The Quacks of Quedlinburg
In The Quacks of Quedlinburg, players are quack doctors making a potion. Each player has a bag of chips representing ingredients. They pull one at a time and add it to their potion track. Adding more chips increases the value of the pot, but if a player adds too much of the starter white chips their potion will explode. The potion will score points and give the user money to spend to buy more chips for their bag. Each purchased chip grants some kind of special benefit, so the strategy lies in a mix of selecting chips that work well together and in how well each player pushes their luck. The game also has a nice catch-up mechanism built in. Each of the players that are not in the lead will get a head start in their potion, and that head start is based on how far the leader is ahead. I've seen players make up a ton of ground in the middle of a game, and being a little behind early can end up being an advantage.
There's one main expansion for Quacks called The Herb Witches. If you like the base game, you should absolutely add the expansion. It adds some more options for the chips and mixes in a few other twists that you can add as you like.
In general, my favorites on this list are games my wife and I have had for a while. Quacks is the big exception. We got it relatively recently and have found it absolutely addicting. There's a ton of replayability because the special benefits of the chips vary from game to game. The game really moves - there's not a lot of downtime, and the catch-up mechanism really helps.
While there is no app for Quacks, this is one you can definitely play over the phone if both homes have a copy of the game. You just need to have one home manage the card deck, and both should keep score.
Playing Time: 45 mins
Given that I'm writing this in the Spring of 2020, this entry is either the most appropriate one or in incredibly bad taste. Pandemic is a co-operative game in which four diseases are spreading over across the globe. The players collect cards and take actions to remove disease cubes from the board and find cures. If the team can cure all four diseases before the deck runs out, the players win. Pandemic is a very puzzly game. The core of the game comes down to the players trying to figure out the optimum way to get the right cards to the right player at the right time. It can be tough to win, but it's not as tough as other co-ops.
I really enjoy the collaborative puzzle solving at the heart of this game. You'll very frequently be in situations where taking the right actions in just the right order is the only way to win, and you definitely want several people working together to sort out the best plan.
There are several expansions for the base game. They add new characters and cards, add an optional fifth disease, and a mechanic to include one player as a bio-terrorist working against the rest of the players. I'm usually not fond of co-ops with one bad guy against everyone else, so I haven't tried that mechanism.
Pandemic has spun off several sequel games, including:
- Pandemic: The Cure, which is a co-op dice game that's a lot lighter than the base game, It's fun.
- Pandemic: Contagion turns the concept on it's head. It's a competitive game in which players compete to have the worst disease before their opponents. Perhaps that's in bad taste right now, but the game is fun.
- Thematic spin-offs like Pandemic: Chthulhu and Pandemic: Iberia that set the base game in new locations. Haven't tried any of those yet, so I've got no insight for you.
Pandemic has also spawned two legacy versions (Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 and 2) that expand dramatically on the base game. They are fascinating twists, but they can be really tough, especially Season 2. If you're a fan of the base game, consider at least Season 1 of the legacy version. Season 2's a little brutal, so if losing a lot is going to take the fun out it for you, skip it.
There is an app for Pandemic on iOS, but it does not support online multiplayer. You play with multiple characters, but control them all yourself. Be aware: the first time you play, there are big hint boxes that cover a bunch of the board and are pretty annoying. The second time through, those are gone, but the user interface is still not great. The informational parts cover up so much of the board that I seem to end up focusing on one small part of the board and missing the big picture. And the player discussion is a big part of this one. The game's not quite the same without it.
Playing Time: 45 mins
Note: That time estimate seems low to me. I find the base game takes longer than 45 minutes, and the Legacy versions commonly run 1-2 hours.
Mansions of Madness: Second Edition
Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is an co-operative adventure game which employs a mobile app to run the game. Usually, the theme is exploring a house: finding rooms, examining items, talking to other characters, and having encounters in order to solve mysteries and save the day. As the players explore, the app tells them which rooms they've found, items or persons with which they can interact, what the bad guys are doing, and what's happening in the larger story. The app is required, and I'd recommend running it on an iPad or Android tablet. A scenario is selected in the app, the characters to be used are entered, and the app takes it from there. Noreen and I have cast the iPad app to an Apple TV to make everything easier to see.
What makes the game fun is the surprises along the way. You won't know what you'll find next in the house, what baddies will crop up along the way, and which skills you'll need to test for encounters along the way. And heck, you really won't know the final goal of the game until you're already hip-deep. It makes the game very engaging, and the app running things makes what could be a very complex game much, much simpler. The game generally runs much longer than most of my favorites, and can be very, very difficult to beat. Normally, that would knock it off a list like this for me, but the game is so engaging that it's not a deal-breaker at all.
Mansions of Madness takes place in the same universe as an older game, Arkham Horror, so the characters and some of the game mechanisms will be very familiar to Arkham fans.
The game has several expansions, and they all integrate seamlessly into the base game. They add more scenarios, rooms, locations, monsters, and cards to the game. If you enjoy the base game, there's no reason not to invest in the expansions. Additionally, if you're a Tolkien fan, there's a Lord Of The Rings themed game that uses the same basic mechanics (including the iPad app). It's also excellent.
Note that the first edition of Mansions of Madness did not use the app. Instead, one player would be designated to run the game. The Second Edition allows everyone to play together and it's a far superior experience. Don't bother with the first.
Playing Time: 120-180 mins
Firefly: The Game
Firefly: The Game is a pick up and deliver game at heart, but with a strong theme from the Firefly TV series. Each player assembles a crew made up of characters from the show, and meet with characters from the show to get jobs. Along the way, each player will run a series of tests that have the flavor of the show. They're generally dice rolls, but the right crew and the right equipment can make it a whole lot easier to pass. As ships travel, they'll need to avoid Reaver ships and the Alliance cruiser. Both of them can make the job a lot more difficult. If you're a big fan of the show, and if you're not: what's up with that?, the game is a real treat. I'm heavily biased, but I think the basic game mechanism would be fun even if you're not a fan of the series, but admittedly you'd be missing out on a lot.
Clearly, the theme of the game is a big part of what makes it so much fun for me. The artwork uses stills from the show instead of artist's renderings and that really adds to the flavor of the game. The other really fun part to me are the series of tests you'll need to deal with as you navigate the 'verse or "aim to misbehave". Both consist of drawing a number of cards and using icons on your cards and rolling dice to pass each test as it appears. It's not a push your luck game, but it has a little of the feel as you deal with each one along the way. Each of the tests has the flavor of the series, so you're getting an immersive Firefly feel all along the way.
The game has quite a few expansions. Blue Sun and Kalidasa add more systems to visit and make a big improvement in how the Reavers work. If you enjoy the base game, you definitely want those two expansions. There are also mini expansions that add some cards and some that add more ships. They're nice, but not essential. One expansion to be aware of is Pirates & Bounty Hunters. This one adds quite a bit of player interaction. If you're looking for some "take that" added to the game, this is the one you want. I skipped it.
The only knock on the game (and it's unfortunately a big one) is the playing time. The game comes a number of scenarios to set goals for the players. All but but one make the game run 2-3 hours, which is a little long. It could use some shorter scenarios, or some house rules to shorten it up a bit.
Playing Time: 120-240 mins
Betrayal At House On The Hill
Betrayal At House On The Hill starts as a co-operative game with players exploring a haunted house. They add random rooms to the building as they go and finding objects to collect. At some point in the game, a random scenario is trigged and the "haunt" begins. The game flips and becomes a competitive game in which one player becomes a traitor competing against the rest of the team. The traitor is given a book that shows what their objective is, and the remaining heroes get a separate book with their objective. Once that happens, the game becomes a race to see which team can complete their objectives first. The base game comes with 50 scenarios, so there's a ton of replayability. And while a few scenarios seems really tilted towards the traitor or the heroes, most seem fairly balanced to both sides feel like they've got a chance.
In general, I'm not usually a fan of games that single out one player to compete with everyone else, but Betrayal At House On The Hill is so engaging that it's fun for both sides. During the co-op portion of the game it's fun to discover room and get items, not knowing if they'll be important or not. Once the haunt starts, the game becomes an interesting challenge to see if you can use the items have to complete your objective. And I really like that the heroes don't really know for sure what the traitor is up to and vice versa. When the game ends there's frequently an entertaining discussion about the real goals.
I will confess an extra sentimental attachment to this game that may be biasing my review. Noreen and I started playing different board games before we were married, and she got this game as a gift for me. We were both anxious to try it, but it required a third player. We called a friend, Phil, who we knew was also interested in board games and tried the game out. Over time this led to a monthly board game night with more of our friends (Hi Susan, Vanessa and Mike!). It feels like this game was kind of our intro to "real" hobby games, and so I'll always have a soft spot for it.
There is an expansion for the game called Widow's Walk. There is also a legacy version called Betrayal Legacy as well as a new a new standalone game called Betrayal at Baldur's Gate. I haven't tried any of these yet, so I can't speak to them. But the base game is terrific.
Playing Time: 60 mins