Board games have been the ‘hot new thing’ for about five or six years now. But last year felt like something extra special.
Just down the road from me, board game cafe Draughts opened a new branch in oh-so-trendy Dalston, the ever-popular Loading Bar remained a popular joint, and Eurogamer launched their own board-gaming sister site: Dicebreaker.
It felt like everyone and their sister were playing board games last year, and that’s great! For some people, that’s having a copy of Catan, cracking it out every now and again and laughing at how nerdy you are. And for some of us it’s spending hundreds of pounds on Kickstarter pre-orders for games with thousands of cards and miniatures and having to order custom storage solutions just so you have somewhere to store all this stuff. Both approaches are equally fine and valid.
And while I’ve been a big fan of board games for a long time, last year was when I really went to town on it. And I’m lucky enough that my girlfriend is just as keen to play board games as I am. So here’s more-or-less every game I played in 2019, arranged by category. And some notes about whether they’re any good or not!
Legacy games are still my favourite types of board game. If you’re not familiar with them, the premise is basically: board games where the consequences of each game continue into the next. Risk Legacy, which I’ve previously reviewed and enjoyed for a second time this year, is a great example. It’s the Risk you know and (maybe) love, but at the end of the game you permanently change the world. Cities rise, you scorch the earth, and so on. Legacy games typically feature an ongoing story/campaign and come with secret pouches/envelopes for you to open. I love legacy games.
Pandemic Legacy Season 2
Pandemic Legacy Season 1 is currently the second-highest rated board of all time on BoardGameGeek. And for good reason. It’s Pandemic – the co-operative disease curing game – with added legacy mechanics and a pretty decent campaign. Comparisons with a TV boxset are pretty fair – they’re called Seasons for a reason. And I highly recommend S1 as a good intro to modern board gaming and legacy board games specifically. That said, I enjoyed Season 2 a lot more.
Season 2 is basically the inverse of how Pandemic works. You’re not curing diseases, you’re keeping the world alive – literally, you’re running around the world adding cubes everywhere. But when you start the campaign, almost none of the world is open to you. There’s an emphasis on exploring and revealing hidden parts of the map. And it can be a good 10+ games before you’ve got all the locations available.
Season 2 adds onto everything that made Season 1 great, with fun decisions, surprises, and rock solid gameplay. Get it, put aside a whole weekend for it, and have a blast. It’s great.
Betrayal Legacy is the legacy version of the spooktacular Betrayal at the House on the Hill. BatHotH features one of the most unique gameplay loops around, pivoting from co-operative to competitive board game midway through the game as you start by exploring a haunted house together, before one player dramatically turns on the rest in one of many thrilling scenarios.
I had high hopes for Betrayal Legacy, coming straight off the back of Pandemic S2. And in many ways it delivered! It has all the right elements: a dramatic campaign, permanent changes to the board, hidden content in boxes and elements, dozens and dozens of cards and stickers.
Where it left me wanting was in areas where the game would suddenly end. The Betrayal scenarios aren’t 100% balanced, so in some cases either the traitor or the other players simply have no chance. And the legacy elements, while very welcome, weren’t especially deep. You mostly just added cards to the event and item decks, without making significant changes to the game itself, other than giving the odd item or so a custom name.
Still, more legacy games are always a good thing, right?
OH BOY OH BOY. Gloomhaven is the #1 game of all time on BGG, and for good reason.
The best way I can describe it would be that it’s Dungeons and Dragons, but with all the Dungeon Master aspects automated. And as someone who always wants to play D&D but always ends up being DM, that’s a very good thing. It means I actually get to play D&D.
There’s far too much to say about Gloomhaven for me to summarise here, but I’ll quickly mention the things I love about it. I love…
- The strategic card-based gameplay.
- The RPG levelling-up mechanics and retirement system.
- The way you slowly unlock the game’s content, with the majority of the playable classes inaccessible at the start.
- The random events, and emergent world-building.
What don’t I love? I don’t love the over-complicated systems (though these are fixable with external software). And I don’t love the lack of a decent storage system, though again you can find you own solutions for this.
But is it the best thing I played in 2019? Absolutely.
Charterstone is a legacy game of the ‘worker placement’ variety. Those are board games in which you (surprise surprise) place workers onto a board and gain the benefit of wherever you’ve placed them. The setting is a fairly generic Settlers-style land where you’re sort of building a new little town from scratch and your workers are doing things like producing stone and wheat.
The legacy stuff kicks in via a cool system where you can unlock ‘crates’ for your village to earn points. These crates go on to unlock extra buildings for the town (that anyone can use), opening up the game’s complexity further and further.
Charterstone was a very gentle game, although we only played with two people so we didn’t tread on each other’s toes very much. With more people I can see it getting very interesting and varied, although the game does come with rules that allow you to play with extra automated players.
The best thing about it? The game board is double-sided so if you ever fancy running the campaign again you can just buy a ‘recharge’ pack and get stickering all over again!
ps. this game has the best metal coins of any game I’ve ever played
Ok, here we go. Many of the legacy games I listed about were actually made by the same chap – Rob Daviau. He’s a board-gaming legend and genius, and he’s single-handedly changed how we think about board games over the last decade via the creation of the legacy genre. (I’m a fan, if you can’t tell).
But Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy had one limitation: they were already pre-existing games before they were given the legacy treatment. Seafall, then, was designed as a legacy-first game. And it’s.. kind of a mess?
I know, I’m disappointed too. But it’s just incredibly complicated, not particularly fun, and more of a chore than anything else. I really really want to finish it, and to have a good time, but it’s not happening so far. And that’s a shame, and it feels like the ultimate missed opportunity.
Machi Koro: Legacy
A really, really fun legacy game! I had my eye on this one for a while (via the legacy game wikipedia entry), and I’m so glad it turned out to be a winner.
Machi Koro is a game already, of course, but it’s not one I was familiar with. The way it works is that up to four players play as mayors of little towns, earning money to build new structures for their towns, which then activate on the roll of a dice. (eg. I build, say, a bakery in my town that gives me a coin each time I roll a 5). But here’s the thing: everyone rolls the dice on their turn, and this can activate buildings in anyone’s town. And it’s not just earning coins, it could be taking coins away from the active player and so on.
Machi Koro: Legacy slowly introduces more and more mechanics to this formula over 10 games, with all the legacy bells and whistles. There’s nothing fundamentally game-changing but all the additions are welcome, and it’s much easier to get your head around than a hulking beast like Gloomhaven or Seafall.
By ‘campaign game’ I mean board games that you play over multiple sessions, but don’t contain legacy elements. They typically have ‘scenarios’ that are mostly different ways to set up the board and may or may not be related to each other. This doesn’t make them any ‘lighter’ than legacy games though, and gives them added replay-ability over typical games.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Arkham Horror: the Card Game is currently #21 on BGG’s list of games, which is somewhat surprising as it doesn’t even feature a board! Instead, it’s a ‘living card game’ where you build a deck of cards from a given pool and play through a series of Lovecraftian scenarios.
I’ve only played through two scenarios so far (so not even a full ‘campaign’) and I haven’t got stuck into the deck building stuff yet, but so far I’m impressed. If you ever played Netrunner (you missed out if you didn’t), it’s basically that with tentacles. New content is released for the game constantly, but in pre-determined ‘mythos packs’ rather than the randomised ‘booster packs’ you frustratingly get with some card games, so I’m sure I’ve got many months of (expensive) entertainment to look forward to if I decide to really take this one seriously.
Good luck finding this anywhere. Originally a Kickstarter game, 7th Continent is now a highly sought-after rarity that even Amazon will struggle to find. Zatu have some in stock sometimes, so I’d recommend keeping an eye out there, or just trying your luck on eBay.
But anyway: 7th Continent is a bit of a beast. The gameplay is a pretty simple choose-your-own-adventure system where your choices and outcomes are represented by numbered cards, of which there are literally HUNDREDS in the box. The average playtime for a campaign of 7th Continent is reported as over 10 hours, though it features a handy save feature, where you basically place the cards you’ve currently got out back into a special part of the box. More games should have this.
I’ve played maybe five hours of 7th Continent so far, and I feel like I’ve only really scratched the surface. I’ve love to play more though – so do seek it out if interested.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
I know I said board games were a modern thing above, but this is a game that apparently first came out in 1981! The version I’ve played is a modern reprint by Space Cowboys, but is very much in the same spirit as the original.
The way it works is that you play as an amateur sleuth in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes as you try to solve a case. You run around London, looking up locations in a full-length directory and hunting for clues in full-length newspaper clippings. Then you reference the locations in your scenario book to see what you find. It’s simple and lets you focus on actually solving the mystery, rather than faffing around with dice and counters.
The downside is lots of reading. But that’s ok!
Mythos Tales is basically exactly the same game as Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective except that it’s based in Lovecraft’s Arkham. Like, it has the exact same directory and newspaper clippings. It’s made by different people though so I guess it’s just a rip-off?
My caveat against recommending the game is that it has loads of mistakes in it. Which is pretty shoddy given that it’s a somewhat precise game where if you get a name or number wrong you literally can’t proceed. So, erm, watch out for that.
Watson and Holmes
Remember how I said that Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective was good because it didn’t faff about with counters and tokens? Well, Watson & Holmes is what you’d get if you did that, ie. not as good.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
RC:AotCI is the archetypal ‘scenario’ game. You play as survivors on a deserted island, and go about the business of exploring, hunting, gathering, and building – but there’s always a twist. On top of this simple survival simulator you can play dozens of quite different situations. Maybe you have to rescue your friend from pirates, catch the attention of a passing ship, or escape an exploding volcano. I’ve played through a few of the scenarios and they really do shake up the game in interesting ways.
Crusoe plays a lot like Pandemic, though. It’s co-operative, so you all share what you’re trying to do, and you only have so many actions you can take each. But it’s hard as hell and, even with the best teamwork, sometimes luck is just against you and you’ll lose by the skin of your teeth. Still, I love this.
This War of Mine
This War of Mine is Robinson Crusoe with all the joy and colour taken out of it. It’s gritty, depressing and just as hard. Based on the well-received 2015 video game, you play as civilians in wartime, holed up in a house and occasionally braving out in the world to scavenge for supplies. (Strong Dead of Winter vibes if you’ve played that).
I’ve never won a game of this, and it’s hard to imagine bringing myself to give it another go – it’s just so depressing. At least Robinson Crusoe has coconuts.
TIME Stories is a pure scenario game. Literally, there isn’t a game beyond the scenarios you buy for it, so when you buy the game for the first time you’re just getting the board and pieces, with one scenario to play with. But that’s ok, because the game is solid.
The idea is that you play as time-travelling agents sent back in time to investigate some mysterious time shenanigans. And then you sort of go around exploring various locales, spending ‘time points’ to take actions. When you run out, and you haven’t completed the scenario, you have to reset everything and start from scratch. But, twist: this time you’re not going in blind. You know who to speak to and what to pick up. So you kind of Groundhog Day your way through it until you eventually win.
And it’s good fun. It’s just not super replay-able unless you buy more scenarios, which is ironic for a game all about doing things over and over…
This is a ‘crossroads game’ by the folks who made Dead of Winter. The premise is that you’re the crew of a starship and you play through various ‘episodes’ of your adventures, Star Trek-style. The game is notable for its branching storyline and permanent character record sheets (giving it a very light legacy touch).
The gameplay itself is basic worker placement stuff, with some neat sci-fi touches like extra tokens representing robot workers. It all gets pretty complicated as you add more stuff, but so far I’m enjoying it and seeing where the story goes.
Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game
Made by the same folks behind Robinson Crusoe, Detective puts you in the role of detectives trying to crack various cases. It has a strong whiff of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective about it, as you run around locations chasing various leads. It has an added layer of complexity though in that information you pick up can unlock new stuff, and new leads whereas in the Sherlock games everything feels a bit trapped in time. Detective also features a time-tracker where certain things only happen on certain days, or in the morning, etc. so it’s a bit of a richer sim.
The game campaign runs over a couple of interlinked cases, which is a good and a bad thing. It’s good that’s there’s an overall arc, but it’s bad because I’d really love to give the system a go without having to dredge through the same names and places over and over again.
Without spoiling anything, we also figured out something pretty crucial super early on but weren’t actually able to ‘apply’ our solution until the last game, which robbed something from the experience.
Games that are just games, and nothing else fancy.
A game in which you play as Allies during WW2 recovering stolen Nazi art. Basically you have to lie to everyone constantly about everything. So if that’s your kind of thing, check it out!
What a beautiful game! Azul is definitely one of the best-looking board games I played last year. The box alone is pure art, which suits the premise: competitive mosaic construction.
It comes with boards that you fill in with pieces you pick up from one of a few assorted pools. But there’s all kinds of complications that mean that you’re not simply filling in the blanks – pick up more than you need of one colour and you’ll lose points for the wastage. The strategy deepens very quickly as you realise that you can easily screw your friends over by forcing them to pick up a huge surplus. It gets kind of savage.
Oh and the tiles. It comes with scrabble-like tiles that you have to feel to believe. They’ve got a feel to them I can only describe as ‘delicious’ and make the most satisfying sound as they clink together.
Scythe is just a great game. It’s set in a fictionalised steam-punky 1930s Europe, where giant mechanical mechs are the main state apparatus. It’s based on this beautiful fantasy art, which you’ll also find all over the board and game cards.
But despite appearances, Scythe isn’t a combat game. Yes, there’s fighting in it, but you’re encouraged to do it pretty rarely (it costs you in-game popularity) and it’s not the main thrust at all. Instead, it’s a pretty technical game of efficiency. You want to build yourself a steady economy of resources and profit by constantly streamlining how you play.
The way round words is probably too much to summarise here, but a unique mechanic I’d call out is that you get four actions to pick from each round, but you can’t play the same action two rounds in a row. The strategic implications of this are pretty profound but get this, one of the game’s classes has a unique ability: to simply ignore that rule. How intriguing!
Scythe also has a non-legacy campaign that I’ve just started. It’s too early to say if it’s good or not, since you start with a pretty standard game of Scythe. But things kicked off with a good 20 minutes of read-aloud exposition so woo for that.
I played a few of these, along with the also-decent Exit series. Together, they’re the industry’s attempt to replicate escape rooms as board games. And I prefer the Unlock! series over Exit.
With Unlock you’re playing with a deck of cards, and the Unlock app on your phone. You then work your way through little scenarios, decoding things, spotting hidden clues, and so on. There’s all kinds of things going on that I don’t want to spoil, but they can give you the same thrill as a real escape room, especially since you’re always against the clock…
Power Grid falls under the surprisingly-robust category of industrial infrastructure-based board games (looking at you, Ticket to Ride, and Brass). In this game, you’re responsible for building up the power supply for the US/Germany by developing different power industries.
The game features a living economy system, where all players purchase resources from the same pool, but resources become more expensive as players buy them up. It’s a game that rewards careful planning and is a decent lesson in economics at the same time. Probably not for everyone though.
Puerto Rico is an inherently problematic game and it’d be wrong to try and get around that when talking about it. You play as the colonisers of Puerto Rico, building an economy for yourself with plantations, etc. You farm these plantations with brown ‘worker’ tokens that are brought over on a ship every couple of turns.
It’s a shame for board games to attempt to gamify problematic eras of history in this way, especially when the board game format allows for so much flexibility in setting. There’s no need to make a game that recreates imperial colonisation so I simply can’t in good faith recommend this game. It’s also not that fun.
Lord of the Rings: Risk
Risk… but it’s Lord of the Rings! Set aside a day for this and have a blast.
In addition to letting you play as the many factions of the LotR universe and war it out for control of Middle Earth, LotR: Risk also has a neat way of recreating the journey of the hobbits on their way to Mount Doom. So as they make their way across Middle Earth, this acts as a fun in-game timer to the end, although it’ll still take many, many hours for you to get there.
Lord of the Rings: the Card Game
A trading card game… but it’s Lord of the Rings! Made by the Arkham Horror folks (Fantasy Flight), this sees you building a deck and going on little adventures around Middle Earth.
Something about this just didn’t click with me, and we spent more time staring at the instructions figuring out the order of the game’s various phases then we did actually… doing anything. But if card games are your thing, and you’re big into Tolkien, this might be for you?
Lord of the Rings: Trivial Pursuit – the DVD game
Ok, imma be honest with you: I bought this because Rob Daviau designed it, and I thought it might have some legacy elements in it. Reader: it does not.
It’s a DVD-based Trivial Pursuit game based on the Lord the Rings. The questions are laughably easy though, and the DVD is just the worst. It somehow looks like they made the game before DVDs were invented, it’s that bad.
Another game from the old days that I’m only playing now! Masterpiece is an ‘art auction’ game where you bid on paintings without knowing their value and then go about trading with each other. (It has a lot in common with Operation Faust, in fact).
It’s not a bad game, it just isn’t a modern board game. It mostly comes down to the roll of the dice as to where you land and what you get. There’s some mild strategy involved in remembering who has what, but that’s about it. The paintings are nice though.
(Masterpiece is the 11,532nd greatest game of all time, according to BGG).
The Fluxx games are interesting little things. They start with two rules and no goal, and you go from there. The gameplay then is literally creating and reinventing the rules of the game. Draw 1, Play 1 is it? Nope, I’ve just played a card that means you Draw 2, Play 1. It’s quick, fun, and chaotic. And it lends itself to endless new variations like this, the Batman variation.
There’s nothing much to say about the Batman version specifically, other than it features all the Batman things you’d expect. A decent purchase for a Bat-fan after a quick game.
One Night Werewolf
It’s that famous Werewolf game you probably played when you were little or in Drama lessons. Except you might have called it Mafia instead. It’s simple: everyone plays a role in a village, and a couple of you are werewolves. At night, everyone takes it in turn to wake up and do something, then in the morning you all argue about who was who and vote to kill a werewolf.
It’s a fun little party game, and the ‘One Night’ variant helps because, unlike the old game, you play a single night instead of a whole week. So if you get killed, you’re back in action pretty sharpish.
Food Chain Magnate
A cute lil’ game where build a fast food empire, right down to managing your corporate structure. And then you try to absolutely destroy all the other players. Brutality with burgers.
Mini two-player board games
There’s a lot of board games out there just for two players. These tend to be smaller, card-based affairs. But don’t let their smaller stature put you off, there’s some real gems out there too.
A simple game of goods (and camel) trading. There’s very little else to say about Jaipur other than it’s fairly pleasant and passes the time on a ferry journey very nicely.
A game about geishas that is basically one big maths puzzle. It’s quite intriguing for a game or so, but grows old rather quickly. Also, the premise is that you’re offering gifts to geisha in order to ‘earn their favour’. Make of that what you will.
Seven Wonders: Duel
I bought the original 7 Wonders for a friend once and we tried to play it in a local pub. We got pretty far into unboxing it and reading the instructions before we decided to just call it a day and focus on the drinking instead. Maybe I just hadn’t developed my gaming chops enough yet, or maybe the beer was just that good. Either way, I stayed away from the series ever since.
But for my birthday I got 7 Wonders Duel, which is basically a simplified 1v1 version of the 7 Wonders main game. The gameplay is simple: you go through three ‘ages’ and pick up technologies and buildings to construct a little civilisation. Along the way you can also build Wonders – expensive-to-build structures that give you massive bonuses.
An average game can take as little as 20 minutes, and it’s deceptively strategic. #16 on BGG’s list, and rightly so!
Well, that was a longer list than I expected! I hope you found it useful (you’ll find links to buy any of the games you fancy by clicking on their images).
If you’re not already a board gamer, I hope you consider giving some of the above a go in 2020. They’re good, clean analogue fun, and I’m always happy to suggest something specific to your interests.