#10  Treasure Island

Recommended for: Everyone

Treasure Island makes the budding designer within me giddy with delight. Its commitment to an authentic treasure hunt experience is astoundingly admirable. The gameplay itself is a hoot! It is oozing with theme and deceptive strategy. The decisions Long John Silver must make are critical, and manipulating the other pirates as they flounder across the massive island in search of the treasure is deeply amusing. This has to be the most underrated game on my entire list. I can’t wait to see what they cook up with the new expansion coming in 2020.

I like to think that the designer of Treasure Island follows a very similar design style as I do: start with an experience you wish to capture (a pirate style treasure hunt) then craft and adapt mechanisms inspired by this idea (traveling and searching for buried treasure on a map, hidden information, bluffing, cooperation and back-stabbing, etc.). I realize that the game is not always perfect (the dry erase markers don’t show up as well as dry erase chalk pens, sometimes a player gets lucky and finds the treasure far too early, etc.), but the sheer ambition, authenticity, and experience of this game far outweigh any negatives for me.

#9  Root 

Recommended for: Gamers

There is something about the box art of Root that awakens a sense of whimsy inside me. It’s the kind of bold art direction that I like to envision my own designs in. Games like Root, Inis, Wingspan, Scythe, and more have opened my eyes to the value of art and graphic design in a tabletop experience. If any aspect of a game deserves as much investment and attention as the gameplay itself, it is certainly the art direction, in my humble opinion. 

Root contains the perfect marriage of whimsical theme and wacky warfare… and is a blast to play! The asymmetry allows interesting dynamics and huge replayability. The production and art are an absolute home run, and they give Root an instant classic feel. The downside is Root is a beast to teach newcomers, and shines best after the initial play or with a regular group who can keep runaway leaders in check.

#8  Ethnos

Recommended for: Everyone

Take one look at Ethnos’ setup and you might wonder how on earth this game is in my top 10. Don’t let its looks scare you off. The art direction just completely missed the mark of the game’s target audience. Yet somehow, after playing it, the game’s look and feel has a memorable charm to it. Kinda like the unpleasant fecal smell of a dairy farm that is somehow warmly nostalgic when it still clings to your clothes after going through the laundry machine.

The insert is also awful for holding the player tokens. Fortunately, the tokens come in plastic bags and the box has extra space to hold them (as if they knew it was horrible to begin with). Makes you wish they had gone for a much smaller box and cut out all that wasted space.

Production aside, this is the perfect gateway area control game that I will keep coming back to thanks to its surprisingly fast, deep, and varied card-play. I can introduce this game to even the most skeptical of participants and have all of us fully invested in the fun within 20 minutes of starting. This Ticket To Ride style of game never fails to make me giddy with delight as we dive into its perfectly tuned gameplay. Watch Tom Vasel’s and SU&SD’s raving reviews if you need more convincing!

#7  Tigris & Euphrates

Recommended for: Gamers & Chess lovers

This classic was first published in 1997, but the design was so rock solid that it didn’t come with an expiration date and it has seen many reprints since!  I’m not a huge fan of Chess, but that is perhaps the best thing to compare T&E to.  The difference is that T&E is a 2-4 player civilization-building tile-laying game with a little bit of luck and a lot of hidden information thrown in to keep things interesting.

There is an astounding amount of cleverness and depth to be found within T&E. I’m still a complete novice to it, but there’s no denying that this game is legendary. It’s designs like this one that have influenced my strong preference toward games containing low-complexity rules with high-complexity consequences over games containing high-complexity rules with low-complexity consequences.

#6 Wavelength

Recommended for: Everyone

For me, Wavelength beats out other party classics including our very favorites (Decrypto, Codenames, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, etc.) because of its consistent and simple one-two punch of memorable discussions and exciting reveals. To me, it earns a perfect 10/10, a score which I have never given a party game. Maybe 10 or 50 or 100 plays from now I’ll feel differently about it, but it’s genuinely hard to imagine myself enjoying it any less thanks to its tantalizingly endless possibilities.

This is the kind of production that the designers crafted with the end in mind. They knew that in order to get the most of out of the concept, they needed a device that allows approximative gut-feeling guesses for teammates and dramatically climactic reveals from the psychic. The device is a genius component worthy of Wolfgang Warsch’s brilliance.

#5 A Feast for Odin

Recommended for: Gamers

Satisfying in every way. The crown jewel of an expert designer. A big box packed to the brim with brilliance. What more could you want from a game that has polyomino engine building, a carefully curated cornucopia of worker placement options, and a starting score of -86 points?!?

In all seriousness, Uwe Rosenberg has laced so many wonderful mechanisms together into a complete package that this one game could literally influence dozens of my own designs. One example I love is how he captures the thematic riskiness of hunting and raiding by using dice while avoiding the common pitfalls of “roll for success” by allowing pre-roll planning and post-roll mitigation or failure compensation. This very idea has had an influence on my designing of attempting snowboarding tricks in my snowboarding game.

#4 Brass: Birmingham

Recommended for: Gamers

It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes Brass: Birmingham so enjoyable, but perhaps this is because EVERYTHING about it is interesting and engaging.

Important (but not overwhelming) decisions are crammed into every nook and cranny of the game. The constant flow of tactical developments between the changing board state and a replenishing hand of cards keeps players on their toes.  

The lure of entrepreneurial opportunities has us both satisfied and hungry for more. The spinning gears of strategy can be heard from each of our brains as we scour our hands, player mats, and the game board for the next golden goose. It feels as though the gorgeous game and its beautiful opportunities are expanding in sync with our industrial networks.

It’s games like Brass that I could never see myself personally designing. They are far too intricate and mechanical for me to wrap my head around. In this case, I’d rather simply soak it all in and savor its flavor as a gamer.

#3 Pax Pamir (Second Edition)

Recommended for: Gamers

I still haven’t won the game, but I’ve had a blast changing my tactics on the fly. Many big moves often feel like a gamble, and sometimes those gambles can pay off big time (and make you feel deviously clever) as everyone else realizes that you’ve made the perfect move at the perfect time to swing the pendulum of chaos in your favor. The game seems to regularly end with a player or two possessing king-making power, but it hasn’t been a major detriment to our enjoyment of the game as we are all friends gathering to have fun rather than strangers seeking to establish our superiority.

For people who can handle this level of complexity but usually prefer lighter games, Pax Pamir 2e is likely not a good fit. While the actions are very straightforward and the turns are simple, the optimal decisions are masked behind a highly tactical game with opaque victory objectives. Some participants have struggled with understanding how to win, or even score points, and stumbled when connecting those dots to their options while juggling the interactions of others. To them, the game feels too random, chaotic, and opaque. The game is well designed and streamlined, yet there are still enough rule exceptions for some to trip up or pass by the newcomer, and the overall strategy is far too complex to immediately grasp. Due to the highly tactical nature of the game, it also slows down each player’s turn as they often have to replan their move at the start of their turn.

For those who are more eager to dive into the deep end, they will be highly rewarded by one of the most satisfyingly tactical experiences to ever emerge from a cardboard box. The gorgeous production and unique theme serve to enhance the layered interactions. The emerging dominance cards, oscillating coalitions, closed economy, and unstable loyalties all combine into a supple, historical harmony between musical chairs and tug-o-War gameplay.

Pax Pamir 2e is a brilliant design and a delightfully tactical romp all wrapped in a stunning package, even if it is not for everyone.

#2  Crokinole

Recommended for: Everyone

I had never played Crokinole before I asked for a Tracey board this past Christmas. After watching Quinns’ excellent SU&SD review of the game, I knew that this one was right up my alley and so I took the plunge.

Crokinole is without a doubt one of the sexiest games in existence. From the flicking and gliding to the ricochet clacking to the strategic positioning and jaw-dropping maneuvers… this is as supple as it gets. Perhaps this is less a board game and more an indoor sport or family heirloom or whatever you’d like to call it. But if there is any game in my collection that I will be playing until the day I die, it will surely be Crokinole.

#1 Inis

Recommended for: Everyone

My goodness, Inis is an outstanding game. It excels in basically every single category I can think of. The game contains some of the best art, tension, design, interaction, replayability, accessibility, variety, strategy, and tactics I have ever encountered in a tabletop experience.

The 3 possible victory objectives seem so wonky and random at first, yet they form a perfect triforce of paths that have created some of my favorite competitive moments in all of board gaming. Long live the Celtic King.

Thanks for joining me on a journey through my top 50 board games! Do we share any favorites? Which tabletop games make your greatest of all time list?

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