I don’t consider myself some sort’ve savant on Board Game history. That mantle probably goes to Tom Vassal over at The Dice Tower. The man annually ranks his Top 100 games of all time (and even goes as far as to order his top 200). I like games, but I’m fairly new to the hobby – I’ll admit that. I haven’t played more than 100 games; I own less than that and even then I only regularly play a couple of them weekly. That being said, I like lists. Who doesn’t? I also like to rank things because it helps me sort out my justification for liking one thing over another. I’m only going to go as far as ranking my top 10 games of all time, because I don’t have the knowledge or confidence in my experiences to go beyond that.
The way I compiled the list is pretty simple. Again, borrowing from Tom Vassal, I wrote down every game that I own on a piece of paper and stacked them in a single pile. I then took the top two games and between them separated the one I enjoy playing more/have a more fond memory of. I continued to do this with every subsequent pair of games until I had a stack of “preferred” games, and then with this stack, I repeated the process – over and over until I ended up with just one game left. This ended up being my number one. I then collected all of the pieces of paper again, and went through a second time, resulting in my number two. So on and so forth.
When deciding between which games I preferred, there were a few things I kept in mind. First and foremost, how much fun do I have playing the game – that much is obvious. Secondly, first impressions of the game: did I love it immediately, or did it have to grow on me? And lastly, how replayable is the game? If it isn’t replayable, is the time investment worth the limited playtime? But that’s enough delaying. Without further ado, let’s get to the list.
The only party game on my list (spoilers), Time’s Up: Title Recall is a superb and frantic game of memory, pop culture trivia, and charades. Normally, any one of those things on their own wouldn’t have made it close to my Top 10. But Time’s Up combines them into a flawless and hilarious experience. A number of cards is randomly shuffled together at the start of the game to comprise the core deck, and each turn, a pair of players gets 30 seconds to guess what’s on a card: with one person giving the clues, and the other doing the guessing. The first round the clue giver can do or say anything he or she wants, save for saying the name on the card. Each round, things get progressively more difficult, as first the ability to say more than a single word is taken away; in the final round, players may no longer speak at all, and must act it out. The same set of cards is reused and reshuffled every round, so the answers never change. The kinds of visual clues that tend to develop over the course of the first two rounds to prepare for the third will leave you in stitches.
#9. Cosmic Encounter
Cosmic Encounter is a game of pure negotiation. Each player is trying to send their UFOs out to settle on alien planets occupied by the other players. To do so, players must engage in either stellar conflict or diplomatic negotiations. It’s a very pure and simple game at heart, as each players get to play attack and negotiate cards during the titular encounters with one another. But where the game really shines is in its alliances. Players are free to offer pacts to other players to aid them in their current engagement, and those players can choose whether to help the attacker or defender – with each side receiving specific benefits in accordance with their decision. Should players choose to negotiate instead of fight, then the two of them alone must come to some sort of agreement within a very limited time span. The beauty is this agreement can be whatever they want it to be: a fair trade (one of my UFOs on your planet, for one of yours on mine). It can be lopsided, it can be a trade of cards – anything you want. The game allows for such a depth of discussion, plotting, and betrayal, to think that it’s been around for nearly 40 years and is still going strong is no surprise at all.
The newest game on my list, I struggled with the decision to include this or not. Not because I don’t like it – the fact that it’s here proves otherwise. But because it’s so new, I have to wonder if it’s a case of “Cult of the New.” It even still has that fresh smell to it. Not to mention that if you know me personally, you’ll know I have a deep and profound obsession with the video game upon which this is based. Despite all that being said, I still adore the card game for what it is: a subtle, clever, quick little game of risk versus reward. The card game seeks to emulate the tension and high risk/high reward offered by its video game counterpart, and does so with a Cutthroat Caverns-style cooperatively-competitive dungeon crawl. Each player is single-handily trying to earn the most points (blood echoes) by dealing the most damage and participating in the kill of each monster, but they cannot possibly do so alone. So they must use their fellow hunters just enough to deal the right amount of damage to the creature, without allowing them the bonus points of a kill. Swooping in with instant attack cards, playing something that might directly damage or possibly even kill another hunter, or using the essential Hunter’s Dream card at the right moment are the keys to victory in this game.
#7. Pandemic Legacy
The first of two games of this ilk that I included that I expect to get some eye rolling at, Pandemic Legacy is a game designed to be beaten. Unlike most traditional board games that have near infinite replay value, Pandemic Legacy has an expiration date – anywhere between 12 and 24 sessions of the game. That’s because Pandemic Legacy strives to tell a story over the course of however many games it takes your group to complete it, one that’s brimming with Hollywood pulp and cinematic flair. It takes the core concepts from its older brother Pandemic, a game adored by many, and combines them with permanent consequences like tearing up old cards as newer ones replace them, or adding stickers to the board to signify a change. This is a game that needs to be experienced blind, and because of it, I don’t think I could ever go back and play regular Pandemic again without feeling a little empty inside. It would be like watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy without the extended versions.
#6. 7 Wonders
7 Wonders is an eloquent and diverse strategy game of civilization-building and commerce. Though it wasn’t the first to feature card drafting, it certainly popularized the mechanic, allowing players to customize their hand at the start of the game by choosing a single card from a randomly dealt hand and passing that hand to the next player, repeating the process. This gave players a chance to form a strategy to victory before the game has even begun, because once it does, players must attempt to gather resources through construction or trade and build up their empire. With over a half dozen different paths to victory points, various different Wonders to construct (each with an A and B side for varying degrees of difficulty and special bonuses) and excellent scaling between 3 and 7 players, 7 Wonder is a sublime and deep game that I have adored from the very beginning.
#5. The Resistance: Avalon
The original Resistance was an instant hit with my gaming group. I’ll never forget the moment when one of our players – who had just met my girlfriend for the very first time that night – shouted “Bitch!” in the middle of the game because of all of the deception. Avalon takes the formula of Resistance and adds a few small wrinkles to it – particularly, and most enjoyably, the Merlin role. While the spies (or in this case, Minions of Mordred) know who they are, Merlin also knows their identities, but the Minions do not know Merlin. It is Merlin’s job to help the Loyal Servants win, but must remain inconspicuous with their knowledge, because one of the Minions is an Assassin, and should the Minions lose, the Assassin gets one guess as to who Merlin is. If they are correct, they win the game. This small addition adds another level of mistrust into a game already brimming with deceit.
#4. Small World
Days of Wonder is a premier publisher in the board game world, and (almost) everything they put out turns to gold. But among them all, Small World still reigns supreme. Its seamless blend of simplicity, variety, and depth is a testament to Days of Wonders’ design philosophy. Small World is an area control game with variable race powers, light combat, and tons of strategy. Every race has unique abilities, and every race can also have a secondary utility added onto them from an assortment of various powers. Every game, the combination of race plus secondary powers is randomized, resulting in a staggering amount of unique factions and near limitless replay value. The game also has a brilliant self-balancing mechanism whereby players have a limited selection of races to choose from, arranged in a column. When choosing a race farther down on the column, they must place 1 gold (equivalent to 1 victory point at the end of the game) on every race they skipped over, leaving some of the less desirable races much more lucrative in a few rounds with a stack of coins on it. The game also scales flawlessly, whether you’re playing with just 2 or all 5.
#3. T.I.M.E. Stories
The second of two games on the list that have limited replay value, T.I.M.E. Stories is a game that I simply adored the first time I played it. The reason why it’s higher on the list than Pandemic Legacy is because of the nature of the mystery. Pandemic Legacy is a fairly linear experience with a few variables, and while T.I.M.E. Stories isn’t quite the board game equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure or DND Campaign, it seeks to imitate that with much more structure and focus. Your progress through each story is left up to you, but ultimately there is still only one true, final path to success. Thus far, there have been four stories – the one included with the base game, and three separate expansions. T.I.M.E. Stories is a game that I hesitate to talk much more about because, just like Pandemic Legacy, most of the enjoyment comes from the narrative experience. The core concepts of the game remain a constant with each new module, but little twists and additions to that formula help keep each new story feeling fresh, different, and exciting.
#2. Blood Rage
Blood Rage is a more fierce, complex, and visceral evolution to Small World, so it’s no surprise that I love both – but this one just slightly more. Gorgeous miniatures, card drafting, area control, variable powers, and multiple paths to victory brew together in a delectable stew fit for the gods. Blood Rage is arguably Eric Lang’s most lauded game (it’s his highest ranked game on Boardgamegeek.com, at number 16), and deservedly so. The viking theme fits so well with the destructive nature of the game, and the idea that players can earn glory (victory points) by dying is not only appropriate to that theme, but is a brilliant way to encourage many different types of gamers to fight over territories, especially those that tend to stay away from conflict-driven games. And if you’re absolutely against battle whatsoever, playing passive quest cards is another way to win. That each one of the many different paths to victory is viable is a testament to not only Eric Lang’s vision, but the excellence that comes from modern board game design.
When I first had the idea to create a Top 10, I didn’t know what my number 1 would be. Genuinely, any one of my Top 5 would have been fit for the role if I were asked under pressure. But when the time came, and I worked through the process I mentioned earlier, the final pairing of games came down to Blood Rage and Battlestar Galactica. And when I saw Battlestar Galactica make it all the way to the end, I said to myself, “Of course.” Fitting, then, that both games ended up in those exact positions – first and second. At the end of the day, Battlestar Galactica is the one game above all else that I would drop everything I’m currently doing (within reason) to play. And if that doesn’t earn it the top spot, nothing will.
My fondness for the show possibly plays a huge part in my appreciation of the game, much like with Bloodborne. But while Bloodborne does a satisfactory job of capturing the video game’s tense combat and unnerving suspense, the card game lacks significant atmosphere – one of the hallmarks of the video game. Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, is quite literally the TV show in a box. This is the epitome of a perfectly designed adaptation of an existing property, and by all accounts, the best board game based on a TV show. Every single element of the game feels like you’re a part of the show: from the political intrigue, to the tense combat, to the harrowing suspense and inevitable betrayal. All of it is so rich with theme and flavor, you can almost taste it. Every single character feels utterly unique and so perfectly adapted from their TV show counterpart. Every turn is wrought with mistrust and agony, and occasionally a sliver of hope
Moments are born out of this game that will be talked about for years: from someone playing Saul Tigh and using his “Declare Martial Law” ability to revoke the President’s title and give it to the Admiral, to one player sending a suspected Cylon to the brig, to the Chief making a repair just in time. Every single moment of this game is just that – a moment, defined by the actions of each individual player. This isn’t a game of turns or rounds or points. It’s a game of consequences. Of nail-biting suspense. Of resounding rejoice or deep despair.
The first time I played this game, the humans lost a crushing defeat to the Cylons. After sitting there for a moment, in awe of the game, and contemplating the decisions I had made earlier (I was on the losing team, and I may have placed my trust in the wrong person), I proclaimed aloud to my group: “That was the most fun I’ve ever had losing.” To this day, it still holds true.