Physical games are one of those ubiquitous mediums that permeate all cultures. Many of us grew up and still play with the standard 52 deck of cards or dominoes. Some might have had Mahjong or Go. A lot of kids spent time in Chess clubs. And many people are familiar with the commercial family games: Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, etc. But the world of board games is bigger and more diverse than it was thirty years ago. I got into the hobby six years ago and as I spend more and more of my free time playing board games, I’m compelled to write about what might now be my current favorite pastime.
I want to present my favorite games to give you a sense of what I like to play before I dive into reviewing and writing about board games at large. Unlike most hobbies, board games have a much higher barrier to entry because they’re expensive and require a group of willing participants. This means I haven’t played a lot of major board games and my tastes have largely been informed by two groups of people: my immediate family and my regular board-gaming group which has its own biases and preferences.
Unlike a lot of other hobbies where individual tastes can be more easily curated and formed, I have to recognize that some of the reasons why I love these games is because they bring out the most fun for the group. If you want a sense of what I have played as well as all kinds of other data, feel free to add me on the premier social platform for board gaming fans: BoardGameGeek.
13. Sheriff of Nottingham
Lying is a bad thing to do in most social situations. However, within the social contract of playing a game where part of the rules is that lying is allowed, lying is one of my most relished pastimes. In Sheriff of Nottingham players take turns as the titular sheriff who is tasked with gatekeeping the market and deciding if a merchant is or isn’t lying about the contents of the bag they are bringing to market. Merchants run the risk of being fined for illegal and undeclared goods but the sheriff will have to pay a fee for hassling any honest merchant.
Sheriff of Nottingham excels as a lying game because you can mitigate getting caught in a lie with straight up bribery. Once caught in the lie you always have a little wiggle room and try to guesstimate if it’s worth a few more coins to get those goods through or to just take the loss. It’s a game of constant dialogue and a lot of table talk which makes it one of my favorite deception style games.
12. Great Western Trail
A big chunk of the board game medium is the Eurogame: a style of game design in which players tend to be doing their own thing in isolation without a lot of player interaction. I tend to not like games with minimal player interaction. However, Great Western Trail is the exception to the rule: a game in which you build your own personal deck of cows and take them to market to try to make a profit and score lots of delightful points.
Many Eurogames become a bit too abstract for me as I feel like I’m looking at some number puzzle or low variance machine I need to tweak to get the optimal solution. Here, the game is focused enough that you’re never paralized by the number of choices but you’re usually led along into a number of obvious strategies. Get expensive cows, build lots of buildings, collect lots of tokens or maybe build the best train network. You’ll probably have to do a few very well instead of going all in on one strategy, which keeps the game fresh and exciting to me as I still have a lot to milk out of this game (cow pun intended).
11. The Metagame
Among serious board-gamers, the party game is something to be scoffed at, a casual game for the masses with no place for strategy or skill. The board-gamer must prove their worth by playing a game that works their mental capacity and shows their ability to outthink and outwit others. The party game is crass, childish and crude, to which I reply board games are at their best when they make everyone around the table have a good time and enjoy how the game engages them.
The Metagame is a stack of cards that span every type of imaginable bit of culture and another stack of prompt cards that often have blanks for the players to fill in themselves. There are at least seven ways to play out of the box but I use it as a version of Apples to Apples and I’ve yet to have a game of this bomb. It’s a blast to play. It’s enough for a game to be fun and to make people laugh sometimes and this one does that consistently every time.
What if someone turned the Alien franchise into a board game? While there are a great number of licensed Alien games, and a number more on the way, Nemesis captures the experience of the films as you play the scrappy crew trying to survive an alien terror that has infested a drifting ship. You’re supposed to work together as a team except in a twist much like the franchise each player has a hidden agenda some of which might go against the goal of the group.
Personal objectives are common in board games, but none are quite as evocative and vivid as the ones in this game. For instance, in my first game my personal objective was to make sure another player didn’t survive the game. The player in question was the scientist, the player with the weakest weapon in the game and who was represented as a wheelchair-bound man. According to the rules of Nemesis, you can’t directly fight other players, but I didn’t need to in order to accomplish my goal. I only needed to wait for the perfect opportunity.
The scientist player ventured away from the rest of the group and ended up alone. An alien popped up and he planned to run away on his turn. I used a remote tool to lock him in a room with the alien. He unloaded his flimsy pistol and then was left with no option but to punch the alien until it finally killed him. I could imagine in my mind the sight of a large alien looming over the wheelchair bound scientist as he flailed and screamed to no avail.
Great board games can evoke emergent stories that are not pre-planned by the designer. Nemesis gives enough texture and mechanics to let the players run wild with its toolset and come out of it with some memorable stories and crazy moments. It’s another facet of board games I adore that comes out in the best designed games.
Board games are almost always social experiences but there is a breed of games made with the one person in mind: solo games. There are a number of them out there and I’ve got a lot of exploring to do, but so far Onirim ranks as my favorite as it’s an elegant game that is a brisk play and easy to set up and play again. It’s hard to play only one game as each time you play you get the sense you could play a little bit better or simply enjoy the act of doing it all again.
You play with a deck of cards and nothing else There are four colors and eight doors, two of each color. You need to unlock eight doors by playing either three colors of the same kind in a row or having a corresponding key card when the door card is revealed. The twist is that there are nightmares that ask you to either remove cards from the game, the deck, or give up a precious key.
There’s slightly more to it than that, but that’s about 90% of the game. The thing is you quickly learn that the game becomes much more strategic and thinky the more you play it. It’s a game that can be over in 10 minutes and you’ll find yourself thinking about moments where you could have played better or made another choice.
And even with a clever core game, the box has even more to offer as there is a set of seven expansions I haven’t even dipped my toes into. And for those who want to try it, there is a two player mode although most fans of the game agree it plays best as a solo experience.
8. Race for the Galaxy
What if you could build a productive, efficient space kingdom made out of advanced technologies and sprawling multiple planets but with a hand of cards? That’s Race for the Galaxy in a nutshell. What takes many board games a massive board, tons of components and a long runtime, Race for the Galaxy does with a little over 100 cards and some victory point tokens.
You’ve got a hand of cards of which there are two types: planets and technologies. Planets often produce goods and technologies generally give you some bonus for doing an action. You’re playing these out in front of you to build a way to score the most points possible. You’re balancing making strong tech, settling lucrative planets, selling your goods, and finding the high cost technology cards that will help you score a ton of victory points.
Each turn you select one of five possible actions and each player reveals the card they selected. Every player gets to do each action revealed but each player also gets a bonus for the card action they played. This is where I tend to stink at the game because I’m not good at predicting what other actions people will play and how it will benefit me to piggyback off their actions.
I’ve played this game quite a few times and almost every time it’s been two or three games in a row because for as heavy as it is, each time you want to play it again and try to do even better or see what new engine you can build with the different cards you’ll get. It’s constantly fresh as you’re never going to get the same order of cards twice, making for a game where you have to try to do long-term planning but be flexible enough to pivot to something else when your plan isn’t working.
I love the idea of Poker. Not the actual mechanics of the game, but the social bluffing and playing probabilities. Pretending you’ve got the big hand when you’ve got nothing and then taking it all when your opponent folds must be a great feeling. But the downtime of Poker and the fact I get tired after about 15 minutes of play means I prefer the much more dynamic and colorful Coup.
In a game of Coup, you play two hidden roles in an attempt to assassinate all of your opponents. Each of the hidden roles you have gives you a different power. On your turn you can get money or use a character power. You can also spend 7 money at any point to kill any other character at the table. One role lets you get money more readily, another lets you assassinate people for a cheaper amount of money, another protects you from being assassinated, another lets you steal from other players and the final one lets you trade for another character. Last player standing wins.
The twist comes is that at any point you can pretend to possess any role to do any action. And other players can pretend to be another role to block that action. It’s rare you play a game where someone isn’t bluffing, it’s figuring out who and when that makes the game difficult to master. And when you play enough with a group, you start to figure out people’s psychology and try to play mind games which makes it even more fun. I’ve yet to play a game of Coup that wasn’t tense from beginning to end. And it ends so quickly that you’ve got plenty of time to play other games or, as what almost always happens, play even more games of Coup!
6. War of the Ring
I know a lot of people consider War of the Ring to be The Lord of the Rings in a box, but whereas Nemesis does a great job at capturing the themes and feelings of the Alien franchise, War of the Ring is an evolved version of Risk that uses the plot and world The Lord of the Rings to justify big battles and an interesting hidden movement game. The Lord of the Rings is an intimate story that takes place within the context of larger conflicts, War of the Ring is about as sprawling and large as board games can get.
War of the Ring is massive. The game comes in a big, heavy box and it takes about an hour to set up and another 3-4 hours to play. The rule book is about as long as the chapter The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. It takes up a lot of table space and features lots of minis and tarot size cards with big chunky dice to roll each round. The thing is an absolute beast and I love it.
What makes War of the Ring so compelling is that it is not designed to be an even experience. The forces of evil have massive armies that can roll through the forces of good. Meanwhile, the handful of armies the forces of good do have are scattered to the four corners of Middle Earth. Compounding this imbalance is that none of the various good races will move until they feel like going to war. What war game has a mechanic where you have to convince your own armies to go to war? This one.
But the forces of good have a secret way to win. Like the books, all that truly needs to happen to defeat Sauron is to cast the titular ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The problem is getting there will require taking risks and getting doom that can kill characters that protect the fellowship as well as could possibly break off and become very useful leaders for fighting battles. You probably are going to want Gandalf and Aragorn to run off and lead some armies at some point but good luck doing that if half the fellowship is caught by Ringwraiths!
The final cherry on top is the astonishing art of John Howe. He drew the concept art for the Jackson films but Howe’s art here is more in the vein of his original illustrations of the book and don’t draw from the films at all. I think this is more of an experience for wargamers than Lord of the Rings fans but I think there’s enough production and love put into this that most Lord of the Rings fans will at least enjoy going through the components and cards.
5. Century: Golem Edition
Speaking of great looking board games, Century: Golem Edition takes one of the most common and bland themes a board game can have (trading in the Orient in Century: Spice Road) and elevates it to one of the most aesthetically pleasing board games on the market. I’ve had so many strangers stop and look at this game because it looks like nothing else and people are instantly fascinated.
The game renders a mystical world in which gems are used to power up magical golems. Each card is expressive and dynamic looking, telling a small story that reinforces the action that is being done with each card. Add in the fact that you play with actual plastic crystals that have a unique shape to them and it’s an evocative and tactical experience making it the most sensory game in my collection.
Century: Golem Edition limits your turn to one of four actions: buy a card, play a card, pick up played cards, or buy a victory point card with gems. The skill of the game is in chaining together the right cards to make the patterns of gems you need to get the victory point cards you require in order to not waste time or have to pick up your hand too many times. It’s easy to teach and pick up, but playing well requires some thought.
Even then, I’ve played games where new players absolutely trounced me and it has gone over well with every group I’ve played with. There’s little downtime between turns so people don’t get bored and usually within a few turns everyone gets how it all works and starts planning on what they want to get. If you’re new to the hobby, I think this is one of the easiest recommendations I can make.
4. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
The best games often have a high replay value. Classics like Chess and Go have lasted centuries because there are so many possibilities within such a simple set of rules that people dedicate their lives to the game and still have room for improvement. But what if you could only play through a game once?
That’s what Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 asks. It adapts the fantastic co-op game Pandemic into a campaign with a board state that evolves between sessions and characters that can be upgraded or scarred based on your performance. Suddenly giving up a city to an outbreak is a much bigger deal as that city becomes marked as infected for the rest of the game. Sometimes failure means tearing up a useful card meaning you have fewer tools for the rest of the campaign.
And the consequences of your actions create a story. After finishing the game it’s fun to read other groups’ experience playing through the game as some had easier or harder times or had a different part of the map get infected. I’ve already expressed a love for games that create stories and this one tells a fantastic and unique story that takes place over a fictitious year.
It is also a great bonding experience for your board game group. It took something we were all familiar with and felt like we had a good grasp of and then we realized one simple choice could lead to a chain of events that would change how we played the rest of the campaign. It’s so mind-blowing it’s popularized a whole lineup of legacy games that are still going strong to this day.
Inis (pronounced inish) is my favorite area control game. You play Celtic clans competing to see who will be named the Brynn, leader of all the clans. Most area control games are about wiping out your opponents, but it’s entirely possible to win Inis by exploring more of the map, coexisting with other players, and avoiding combat. There are multiple paths to victory meaning that there is rarely a straggler left behind as you usually are close to completing one victory condition when other players get closer to their own victory condition.
The game is built around drafting and playing cards. Cards help you recruit more clans, start fights, move to other regions, explore new regions or throw parties. Yes, that’s right, there’s a card that lets you throw parties! Drafting cards means you are limited in what you can do each turn and so is every other player. Sometimes you pick a card more because the person next to you will be at an advantage if they have it. Sometimes you’ll find yourself shifting your strategy for a turn based on what you end up with at the end of the drafting round.
Combat in this game also plays differently in this game. Cards in your hand can be discarded to mitigate damage during a fight which means that sometimes you want to hold back a card or two in case someone decides to fight you. And at any point if all the parties involved decide to end the fight, it ends. It results in these great moments where everyone has to agree when they’ve had enough. One stubborn player might end up wiping out another person’s armies at the expense of their own, meaning the game can swing back into the favor of a wary bystander not involved in the fight.
It’s also the prettiest game I own. It takes the art of Jim Fitzpatrick who rendered major Celtic folklore characters and moments and puts them into the art of the game. You can lose yourself looking at the cards in your hand. The cards are tarot sized making the art even more prominent and eye-popping.
2. Cosmic Encounter
Good game design usually dictates that you make your game balanced. Cosmic Encounter does not care one iota about being balanced. What it does care about is being entertaining and memorable. The objective is to invade other player’s planets until you have five colonies. You play combat cards and add modifiers to see who wins a battle, and allies can be had for both attacker and defender for different rewards.
The twist is that each player is an alien faction that breaks the rules of the game that seems unfair because it absolutely is unfair. Some are absurdly strong in combat, others get to circumvent crucial rules, another alien race might have an entirely unique way to win the game outside the main game, and there are also a handful of gag races that are hard to win with but hilarious to play.
Cosmic Encounter is designed to create wacky, hilarious moments and it consistently succeeds. In one game my brother played a faction that had an alternative win condition of having all their ships in the warp (basically the graveyard). Each time he played he would send as many ships as possible and try to lose every battle. He got down to only having a few ships. Then I played a one-time use card that sent all the ships from the warp back to each players’ home planets. Everyone howled with laughter as I set my brother back from winning the game.
However, the nature of this as a multiplayer game with negotiation and table-talk means that you can team up against unfairly advantaged players and mitigate some of the imbalances. There’s a rule that allows you to share victory which means I’ve played a handful of games that have morphed into team battles after a couple of rounds. Cosmic Encounter is absurd fun that I think works in both family settings and in more serious groups. There is strategy to it, but also enough mind-bending wackiness that you’re best laid plans will be usurped to hilarious ends.
1. Android: Netrunner
My favorite game is a melancholic experience for me because I got deep into the game right around the time Fantasy Flight lost the Netrunner license. By the time I knew I loved the game, most of the meaty expansions were selling at exorbitant prices on ebay but I still cobbled together enough of a collection to make some fun decks and every time I play it I fall in love with it a little bit more.
Android: Netrunner is a two-player asymmetrical living card game set in a sci-fi dystopian world where one player is the hacker and the other player is the corporation. The hacker is trying to break into the servers of the corporation and steal the agendas the corporation is trying to advance. The first one to get seven points of agendas wins. The rules and order of procedure is filled with heavy lore specific terminology and it’s a lot to keep track of, but once you get into the groove it’s the most thought-provoking and tense gaming experience I’ve had.
The beauty of the game’s design is in the asymmetry. One player is the corporation who plays cards face down, trying to hide firewalls, agendas, and resources until the moment they prove useful. This side is all about bluffs, misdirections, distractions, and having enough resources to keep everything safe. The hacker is trying to get into these servers but doesn’t know what might be in each one. Any given server could be a valuable asset, a point-earning agenda, or a deadly trap. Your job is to poke and jab away, trying to find a weakness in the corporation’s defense and exploit it in order to find those hidden agendas.
Playing either side offers a different way of strategizing and managing your resources and gives you a deeper appreciation for the game. It also makes the replay value extremely high as you can get an entirely new game experience by simply swapping sides. I feel as if I’m visually sweating as the corp, watching a hacker deliberate on which server to run and as the runner I always feel like I’m one wrong action away from getting burned for my hubris and greed. There’s no other card game like it and there may not ever be again. It’s weird to fall in love with something while it’s dying. It’s stranger still to hold it up as the pinnacle of the medium.
© James Blake Ewing 2020