I have been playing board games for most of my life and it is very difficult to sit down and come up with a list of my Top 10 All Time Favorites. While there are many games that I have played over my life, the ones that appear on my list are more contemporary and are games that I have experienced in the past 5 years or so. They are fresher in my mind and also games that I have played recently so that is mainly why they are on my list, in addition to the fact that they are great games! I only own 7 of my Top 10 and of the Honorable Mention entries; I only own 2 of those 5 so this list is not a “homer”. So on to my list:
- La Granja (2014) – Stronghold Games, Designed by Michael Keller and Andreas Odendahl
I have a fondness for economic or farming simulation games (Agricola is a favorite that didn’t make this list). I feel great satisfaction when I build something up and can look back at the work that I was able to accomplish. La Granja (or farm in Spanish) is such a simulation game where you control a small farm by the Alpaca pond near the village of Esporles on Mallorca and are working to build it into the best and most productive farm and score points by shipping your goods to market or developing your home. The game uses an ingeniously designed player board that allows for multi-use cards to be slipped under the edge representing barrows to deliver goods to the market for victory points, fields to grow grapes, olives and wheat to be used to make goods such as wine and food to be delivered, farm expansions to house additional pigs and offer special abilities and workers who bring a particular set of skills to bear on your farm. The game is extremely fun to play and very satisfying. I also like the solo variant which allows you to compete against yourself and score the most points you can. Great game with a simple theme that takes advantage of several mechanics such as area control (in the market), dice rolling (with the revenue dice) and hand management. I will play La Granja at any time.
- Core Worlds (2011) – Stronghold Games, Designed by Andrew Parks
I love science fiction! Since my earliest days seeing Star Wars on the big screen, I was hooked and fell in love with blasters, droids and colonization of other worlds. In Core Worlds, you are in control of a Barbarian Kingdom that has designs on conquering the galaxy on your way to the vast riches and power of the Core Worlds at the center of it all. Your empire is represented by cards that you draw from your deck in order to play units and vehicles to your warzone from which you launch invasions of frontier worlds in order to obtain new energy sources, new military units and leaders and newly discovered tactics in order to further your agenda and conquer it all. The main mechanic of the game is to focus on building your deck with more and more powerful units. When you conquer a planet you move that planet to your empire and can garrison weaker units under it to remove them from your deck. This ensures that you rid your deck of the dross and replace it with more powerful units to bolster your fleet strength and ground strength to be able to meet the invasion requirements of other worlds located in the Central Zone that increase in toughness and defense as you near the Core Worlds. You can also draft cards from the Central Zone by paying the energy costs of those units and add them to your deck. The one who wins will be the one that plans ahead and assembles the most powerful armies for invasion and takes the most points worth of worlds and units. I own both of the expansions for this game (Galactic Orders and Revolution) and feel that the base game is good, becomes great with the addition of Galactic Orders and becomes perfected with the addition of Revolution. A game that I would recommend to any deck building enthusiast or any Sci-Fi fan.
- Combat Commander: Europe (2006) – GMT Games, Designed by Chad Jensen
So what can you expect when you purchase one of the greatest squad level based combat simulation games on the market (made by one of the premier publishers of war games)? Combat Commander: Europe is a Card-Driven strategy Game covering tactical infantry combat in the European Theater of World War II made for 2 players, although there are several ways to play solo if you search on Board Game Geek. 1 player takes the role of the Axis (Germany) while another player is one of 2 of the major Allies, either the United States of America or Russia. The game has done a fantastic job of capturing the uncertainty and unpredictability of war in this Card-Driven Game (CDG). The game is not as easy as setting up your troops and moving them wherever you want to. You must be able to play an Order or Action card that allows you to perform a host of commands such as Fire, Move, Advance, Dig-In, etc. and in order to play those cards you have to have them in your hand. This is the true genius of the design. Some of the cards you have in your deck are worthless (called Command Confusion) and simulate the difficulties of communicating effectively on a chaotic battlefield. So you may want to Fire on your opponents but you just don’t have a Fire card, or want to move into an objective gaining victory points but you don’t have a Move card. The best part of the game to me though is the narrative that is told as the battles unfold. The narrative is the best part and allows my mind to participate in the battle, even though I am not there. It is a similar feeling to a well written book that forces you to take the role of characters and experience their feelings as you read the pages. If you like a little unpredictability in your strategic gaming and great story telling, then give CC:E a try. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
- Race for the Galaxy (2007) – Rio Grande Games, Designed by Thomas Lehmann
Did I mention that I love Sci-Fi?!? Race for the Galaxy is another card based game in my list that uses a tableau to build a civilization in order to score points from the development of technology, production and trading of goods and conquering and settling of planets. The game is not a deck builder but each player has 7 action cards in their hands that are chosen simultaneously by each player and then those actions are carried out and can be utilized to a lesser degree by the other players. The game is won when the first player is able to place 12 cards in their tableau or score points and exhaust the chits from consumption of goods. I love this game as it is very deep and there are many paths to victory. You can win with military might by building up your forces and attacking as many planets as you can, you can trade goods and abuse the powers of your planets to score additional points, you can focus on technologies and score points for various elements or cards in your tableau, etc. The choices are unlimited! Each expansion has added new and interesting cards, mechanics and powers and has deepened many established strategies and opened opportunities for new strategies. The card art is also amazing and very well done. I also love this game because the games are fairly short, ranging from 30-40 minutes and set up is easy so you can play multiple games in a row.
- Puerto Rico (2002) – Ravensburger, Designed by Andreas Seyfarth
This was the first serious strategy game that I purchased in 2010 as I was trying to get back in the hobby. In Puerto Rico you assume the role of a colonial governor on the island of Puerto Rico and are trying to become the most influential by shipping goods like indigo, tobacco or sugar to Europe or building buildings. You are given an individual player board that has spaces for buildings and plantations and you have to grow crops to sell or ship (for doubloons or victory points) and then use the profits to buy buildings that give you special abilities or advantages. All players share a set number of ships that have a limited space in their cargo holds and you have to be wise to be able to ship the most of your goods while limiting the ability of your competitors to ship theirs. The game hinges on action selection through the choice of a role card which includes the Trader, Builder, Captain, etc. Each of these roles gives you as the one that chose it a special ability while all players get an opportunity to take advantage as well in turn order. The game is very competitive and forces you to jockey for position to take the most advantage of each situation. I personally love many of the combinations that are offered by buildings and actions such as the famous Harbor-Wharf strategy where you build these two buildings to allow you to get extra VP for each delivery and offers you your own ship to transport one type of good to Europe. The game is very smooth and plays best with 4-5 players. I love the game as it is well designed, has great strategy and while it can become repetitive, offers hours of fun in developing your very own plantation. This game is a definite classic and should grace the shelves of every serious board gamer.
- Cyclades (2009) – Matagot, Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc
War, huge magnificent creatures of legend and myth! What is there not to like? When I first played Cyclades at my brother’s house in Atlanta, GA, I was hooked. In this game you are trying to curry the favor of the gods of the ancient world including Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Athena and Ares in order to become the greatest leader in Ancient Greece. My favorite part of the game is the bidding element. I mentioned you are vying for the favor of the gods and you do this by bidding on them in turn order using your money. You can only get the favor of one god each turn and that god then grants you certain powers for that round including movement of armies and building of fortresses, movement of ships and building of ports, a new priest and building temples, a philosopher and building of universities and/or income. The goal of the game is to build two metropolises which will require you to build one of each of the 4 building types or take over another player’s metropolis. The bidding mechanic is amazing and well done as once outbid, you can bid on another space that is either vacant or has someone else’s bid in place. This in turn displaces them and the cycle continues until someone relents and chooses a lesser god (like Apollo). The players then take the actions in order of the gods and the round ends and starts all over. You do not know how much money others have as it is hidden behind a screen. So, when the game comes down to the end, you never know if the player has the funds to get the god they need to win the game or not. You also have to pay close attention to the available creatures as some are game breakers and can win the game on one move (like the Pegasus). I love both this game and Kemet from Matagot but will play Cyclades anytime.
- Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam (2014) – GMT Games, Designed by Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke
Since purchasing Liberty or Death by GMT Games, I have fallen in love with the COIN Series (Counter Insurgency) and have now purchased 3 other volumes. Fire in the Lake is a treatment of the Vietnam War and deals with not only the combat aspect but the political struggles between the US, ARVN, the VC and the NVA. The game is based on a command and special activity system where each faction has a set of abilities to wage war their own unique way. The game is Card Assisted (as compared to Card-Driven) with the cards setting the turn order each turn and offering each of the two sides a special event that aids them or hurts their enemies. The game is a hybrid euro game that will feel comfortable to traditional gamers but the mechanics and strategy will take several plays to master. I am a big fan of war games in general and find that the COIN series are the best on the market due to the fact that they don’t focus only on the war but branch out and look at all aspects of the struggles inherent in any revolution. The game is beautifully made with a mounted map that has various terrains depicted (including the palm leaves in the jungle. Can you see them in the pic above?), well made wooden cubes and discs in a wide array of beautiful colors and very well thought out historical leaders and event cards that immerse you in the era. I think that this is the best of all of the COIN games and I recommend you get a copy.
- Dominant Species (2010) – GMT Games, Designed by Chad Jensen
Survival of the fittest is the name of the game in Dominant Species, a worker placement game that is very cutthroat and will tax your brain for the entire 2-3 hours that you are playing it. In the game, the year is 90,000 B.C. and you choose to be one of 6 species (Insects, Spiders, Amphibians, Mammals, Reptiles or Birds) that is attempting to become the dominant species on the planet. Each of the species has various special abilities (such as the resilient Mammals who always have at least one population survive on a tile whether or not they have access to their adapted food source or not) and utilizing that ability is key to their success. At its heart, the game is worker placement and each player is given a certain amount of cylinders that are used to choose actions on the board in turn order. The available actions include adaptation of your species to allow for feeding on different types of elements that exist on the board, speciation (placing more cubes of your species out on the board according to the type of terrain), migration (moving from one tile to an adjacent tile), wanderlust (moving onto new land hexes you place to broaden your reach and improve your terrain to score more points) and domination which is one of the more important functions as it allows you to score tiles that you are in control of (due to your superior numbers) and then also provides you with a powerful action card that can change the game if you are dominating (or more adapted to the food elements on that tile) than any other species present. I love Dominant Species. It is one of the most elegant and smartly designed worker placement games I have ever played. The game play is intriguing with the varied options and choices, can change on a whim with other players cut throat actions, and is extremely meaty and satisfying, even when you lose. I would suggest that everyone checks their feelings at the door when you play as is it can be in your face action!
- Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala (2014) – Days of Wonder, Designed by Bruno Cathala
I purchased the game in 2014 so I own a 1st edition copy with the slave cards rather than the reprint Fahkir cards. The game is commonly referred to as a “meeple displacement” game where you are trying to move around groups of multi-colored meeples that represent 1 of 6 tribes, the Assassins, Merchants, Builders, Viziers, Elders and the new guys on the block, the Artisans (Artisans of Naqala expansion), in order to take advantage of their specific abilities to score points. Points are scored through a combination of factors including set gathering of good cards for points (Merchants), acquiring the services of Djinn that score points but more importantly give powerful abilities to manipulate the game (Elders), scoring gold coins using the Builders, collecting Viziers that score points based on who has the most and collecting precious items and artifacts (Artisans) that have either special game changing abilities (like moving a camel from one tile to any other camel free tile) or a victory point value. The game is somewhat of a point salad that has some area control as well but is a fantastically made and produced game. It is fascinating and entertaining and I have yet to tire of its gameplay or the varied ways that you can achieve victory. I also love the expansion and do not feel that it has watered it down but simply opened up additional ways to score. I feel that you must focus on at least 2 scoring aspects to be effective and you must always be willing to adjust your strategy when you see an easy and big scoring chance! One word of warning though, while I love the bidding mechanic for turn order, do not get caught up in the need to always go first. With the system of movement for the meeples, you will always have a good opportunity to do something good even after your opponents have gone. You can very easily get caught up in overbidding and losing those points at the end of the game as each gold coin is a VP. Definitely one of my surprise purchases of 2014 as I didn’t expect it to be as good as it is.
- Twilight Struggle – (2005) – GMT Games, Designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews
So what does it take to become the number 1 game on my list? A good design and some nice components aren’t enough. This game has to be a game that is easy to play but hard to master because of its depth, include strategic thinking and moves that don’t always pay off immediately, must be competitive and most of all, must be smart! That game for me is Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle is a two-player game simulating the forty-five year ideological struggle known as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States which can be played in 2-3 hours. The entire world is the stage on which these two countries “fight” to make the world safe for their own ideologies and way of life. The game starts right after the end of World War II in the midst of the ruins of Europe as the two new “superpowers” of the world squabble over what is left and ends in 1989, when only the United States remained standing.
The game is Card-Driven and the map is a world map of the period, where players move units and exert influence in attempts to gain allies and control for their superpower. The beauty of the CDG system is that each decision of whether to use a card for the event or the operations value is a struggle as if it is the other side’s event, it might go off hurting you very badly. There are mechanics to allow for the removal of some of the best cards for your opponent in a side game within the game called the Space Race as well as nuclear tensions, with the possibility of game-ending global thermonuclear war (Shall we play a game, anyone?). I have played TS about 30 times and love it more and more with each sitting. The game makes me sweat, cringe, jump with joy and bite my fingernails. To me, a game that can do all of that in one sitting is worth the price.
Honorable Mention: Orleans (2014 – Tasty Minstrel Games), Bora Bora (2014 – Ravensburger), 51st State (2010 – Portal Games), Evolution (2014 – North Star Games) & Archipelago (2012 – Asmodee)