It’s been nearly a year since we received the last of 2019’s thousands of board game releases.
I waited until nearly May to make my top games of 2019 list, and I’ve since discovered loads of great games, some of which would have even made my top 10 of the year. The sad truth is that there is simply not enough time to keep up with all the best new board games that are constantly pouring down on the industry. Especially not if your FONYO (Fear of Neglecting Your Own) keeps you coming back to your under-played collection.
I recently heard some content creators squirming over their top 10 games of 2020 lists due to the overwhelming amount of great designs. I’m always surprised when content creators are declaring their best games of the year when that year hasn’t even ended yet. Unless you are Tom Vasel, you likely haven’t played every noteworthy release of the year, even months into the following year. A quick glance at my want to play list on BGG reveals that I’ve only scratched the surface of 2020’s bangers, and it’s going to take me many months yet to even come close to trying everything that has caught my eye.
So rather than make a premature 2020 list, I feel inclined to revisit the many board games of 2019 that I’ve tried. I considered updating my top 10 games list, extending it to top 15 or 20, or even ranking all of the games I’ve tried against each other, but none of those options had a strong appeal to me. Instead, we’re gonna separate all these games into 5 different categories: Lovers, Keepers, Dumpers, Flingers, and Seekers. Let the fun begin!
Games that I’m still CRAZY about.
I’m a bit of an explorer when it comes to my hobbyist gaming habits. This is mostly due to the curious designer within. Sometimes it results in me playing hot potato with certain games (see Dumpers below), but it’s all worth it when I find an absolute gem that I love. The following are my cream of the 2019 crop (in no particular order):
- Pipeline– I recently talked about how Pipeline made a poor first impression at our table, but eventually we came around to its brutal economics. What can I say? I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. But with a little practice and a lot of thinking, you’ll go from scraping oil out of the bottom of the barrel to drowning in gallons of that greasy goodness.
- Blitzkrieg!– Paolo Mori is quickly becoming one of my top designers. His quick and accessible Ethnos has long been my favorite gateway game, and his difficult to obtain Dogs of War is what I asked Santa for this Christmas. Blitzkrieg deserves a spot among his greatest hits thanks to its elegant back and forth battles between 2 players at war.
- The King’s Dilemma– I finally tracked down a copy and can happily report that it was worth the wait. If you enjoy bluffing, bidding, and negotiation all wrapped into a light role-playing package, and if you can track down a group of 5 people to join you, then this is a must-play legacy game.
- QE– I now own a crap-load of auctioning games. It’s a testament to QE’s uniqueness that it firmly remains a title that I get excited to play. I love myself a golden opportunity to mess with other people’s heads and sneak away with the victory.
- Watergate– A zesty but simple tug-of-war 2-player game, certainly in the same ballpark as Blitzkrieg. I love ’em both. If you’re a big fan of this game, then the Geek Up bits coming in Q2 2021 might catch your interest.
- Babylonia– If you’ve got a soft spot for Knizia tile layers, like me, then you really should be getting yourself a copy of Babylonia. This one feels like a hybrid between Samurai’s tense tile majorities and Through the Desert’s dangling carrots and snaking connections. The big differences here are that points are constantly/instantly awarded, unique abilities/bonuses are up for grabs, and decisions have a much wider ripple effect.
- Maracaibo– This is the sole lover of 2019 that I don’t own. I had a blast trying it out for the first time. Yet Maracaibo fills the same niche as Great Western Trail, and I don’t even give GWT enough table time. I would recommend this one to anybody who appreciates an epic heavy Euro.
- The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine– This game probably deserves a spot in my top 10 games of all time. That’s how addicting and delightful it was to play through its 50 cooperative missions. I still stand by my review and declaration that this is one of greatest card games of all time. Thank goodness Kosmos has announced a sequel for next year!
- A Feast for Odin: Mini Expansion 2– Before this expansion, I looked at the shorter (6-round) version of A Feast for Odin as a joke. Why would somebody shorten this sprawling game by a single round and miss out on the big 7th round climax? This expansion changed that entirely. It essentially trades the uneventful first round of a 7-round game for an interesting, highly variable setup with an exciting head start for everyone.
- Inis: Seasons of Inis (expansion)– Inis is one of my all time favorite games, and this expansion was well worth the investment. Particularly the extra Epic Tale cards and area tiles, the harbors and islands, and the 5th player addition.
- Mandala– Mandala is as good as simple 2-player cards games get. I rank it right up there with the likes of Jaipur, Lost Cities, and Battle Line.
- Pax Pamir (2nd Edition)– Between you and me, Pax Pamir might just be my #1 game of all time. After plenty of plays at a wide range of player counts, it is still that good. This is a deluxe strategy gaming experience in a deservedly deluxe package.
- Age of Steam: Deluxe Edition– Speaking of all time greats, Age of Steam is a newer title on my radar (with only two plays so far) and it’s already knocking on the door of my top 10. That’s right, if you’ve been counting, we have three releases from 2019 that are worthy to be among my 10 best! That’s a good year, my friends. Of course, I may be cheating considering that Age of Steam and Pax Pamir originally released in years prior. At any rate, this is the perfect blend of punishing economics and crafty interaction for those with a blood-thirsty appetite and thick skin.
- Undaunted: Normandy– My wife and I finally closed out our campaign of Undaunted: Normandy, and it was the bomb. This is the kind of deck builder that made me realize I didn’t need Dominion anymore. We’re looking forward to diving into the next one, Undaunted: North Africa.
Other games that have survived the purge of 2020.
Now, obviously the Lovers mentioned above are Keepers. But there are plenty of other 2019 releases that I enjoy breaking out when the setting is right. The following games are great options that have thus far survived my purging ploys.
- Aerion- I’m not much of solo gamer, but Aerion eliminates all of my personal barriers to entry. This puzzly little game has a quick setup, minimal bookkeeping, and addictive gameplay loop that I intend to see through to the end of its several included expansions.
- Cairn– Cairn is one of those abstract games that is good enough to keep around yet forgettable enough to not get to the table. In other words, we’ve only played it once so far, but it was solid.
- Caylus 1303– This updated classic absolutely pummels your average worker placement game with its refined balance, deep interaction, and juicy tension. Just don’t set your expectations for something exceptionally unique.
- The Quest for El Dorado: The Golden Temples– I would not recommend this standalone expansion to somebody who has never tried the excellent Quest for El Dorado, but it does make for an interesting change of pace on its own and an epic journey when combined with the base game. More thoughts here.
- Azul: Summer Pavilion– I’ve weighed and measured Summer Pavilion against its siblings and found it to be a more gentle, gamer friendly version. At the end of the day, vanilla Azul is my go-to thanks to its more dynamic player interaction.
- Dice Forge: Rebellion (expansion)- I haven’t played Dice Forge in over year, which tells you a lot about how it fares against the rest of my collection. Rebellion does add a whole lot of interesting variety for fans of the game, and I’m hoping to explore the rest of it soon.
- Horrified– There are far too many Pandemic copy-cats out there, but Horrified remains one of the best. It’s a fun one to break out with non-gamers that presents an undeniably charming theme.
- Men at Work– I always get a kick out of Men at Work whenever we break it out. Nothing beats Crokinole as far as dexterity games go, but Men at Work is an excellent option that puts Jenga to shame.
- On Tour– While it isn’t my favorite roll & write, On Tour is one of the easiest to break out and teach others. It’s a nice, easy way to start out a game night as players discover how far they can stretch their strategies.
- PARKS– I suspect that if I was forced to play PARKS enough, it would get the boot from my collection. There’s just not a ton of meat here that I frequently crave. But as a gorgeous, pleasant game, I’m ok with breaking it open every now and then.
- Trophies– A quick, simple, and pretty party game of quick thinking. This is the kind of solid stocking stuffer that I would recommend to anyone. That’s why it landed a spot on our Holiday Board Game Gift Guide.
- Unmatched– This series becomes more and more fun as you explore the variety of characters and pit them against each other. Who wouldn’t want to see Bruce Lee take on 3 raptors?! I’ve talked about some of the newer sets here.
Games that I dropped like a hot potato.
Many of these games made a strong enough impression for me to purchase and enjoy them for several plays. Others were a train wreck right from the get-go. Either way, I eventually found myself ok with never playing them again, and those that I owned were traded or sold away thereafter.
- Point Salad- Like a well-made salad, this game is tasty, addicting, and not completely filling. After a few plays, it doesn’t provide much incentive to keep returning for more. But for $15, it was fun while it lasted.
- Res Arcana– This is a solid design that any engine builder super fan should put on their radar. Unfortunately, we didn’t love it because the game feels like a ho-hum resource converter. Res Arcana was ultimately unable to escape the shadow of its own genericy.
- Wingspan + European Expansion– The presentation initially knocked our socks off, but our many plays over time demonstrated the law of diminishing returns. Wingspan contains a pretty narrow track for decisions and strategy; most turn actions will feel on-the-rails, for better or for worse. As a gateway engine builder, I can’t deny that I enjoy playing it. But as a game night go-to, it now struggles to do more than mildly amuse.
- Tapestry– I wish Tapestry had spent more time in the development oven. The fun factor of a session of Tapestry can vary just as much as the strategies and Civilizations themselves. Cutting certain elements, balancing others, and increasing players’ abilities to truly interact with each other on the map could have gone a long way to make Tapestry a consistent hit. Ultimately, I’d rather not roll the dice on how fun a 3-hour game will be.
- Tiny Towns– A solid bingo-style spatial puzzle that lost its luster after five plays. My City is also a quick, accessible Bingo-style game about building a town for points within the confines of a spatial puzzle… and frankly, it blows Tiny Towns out of the water. But to its credit, Tiny Towns can be played with up to 6 players!
- Jaws– An amusing, highly thematic experience that gets bogged down by an excessive setup, rules-to-depth ratio, downtime, and duration. Act 2 especially dragged on and thereby felt weaker than Act 1. Played it once and had no desire to play it again. But I still respect that shark meeple.
- Bruxelles 1897– I enjoyed how compact and dense Bruxelles 1897 is for a strategic, Euro-style card game. It makes me wish more games would follow suit by trimming the fat and getting to the juicy center. My only complaint is that the game lacks legs to get it beyond more than a few interesting plays.
- Cartographers– This award nominated flip & write lacked the tension that I love to experience in my favorites of the genre. More thoughts here.
- Dead Man’s Cabal– Some interesting decisions, a fairly solid production, but the turns with many steps (simple as they may individually be) are prone to regular AP leading to longer down time and slower turns. The game also seems to lack any true sense of progression or change over the course of its long playtime… what you are doing on the first turn is practically the exact same as what you are doing on the last turn. This makes Dead Man’s Cabal feel as though it overstays its welcome. It quickly got the boot from our collection.
- Era: Medieval Age– A hefty price tag for fancy parts and pieces amount to a glorified spreadsheet roll & write polyomino Yahtzee game. I admire its production ambition but can’t get past its clumsy execution. Too much time is spent reading spreadsheets, moving pegs, or arranging dice and not enough time is spent playing a game.
- Funkoverse– Shameless cash grab of an unimaginative game with an IP pasted on top. There was absolutely nothing in the game design that made it feel like the IP we tried (Batman). The gameplay of Funkoverse itself consists of mind-numbingly basic dudes-on-a-map mechanisms and offers no reason to exist. The bland design is just veiled behind colorful funkos and meaningless variety. Unmatched is a much better version of this.
- Rune Stones– A generic resource converter. While the deck building aspect of the game certainly works, it doesn’t fully embrace any of the mechanism’s strengths. Rarely do you feel rewarded for slimming your deck or punished for bloating it. Most of the differentiating traits between the cards just blur together into a dull, samey mush. Not for me, but I can see why others may enjoy it. Kyle has a very different opinion from me on this one, so it’s worth giving his video review a look!
- Tricky Tides– I was quite impressed with Tricky Tides. The artwork and presentation is what drew me in, but the interesting combination between pick up/deliver and trick taking is what really sold me on the game. My main downside would be that the game takes way longer than advertised. We would simply rather play a meatier game if we are doing a 4 player game for 90 minutes.
- Tussie Mussie– A simple, beautiful game of I Cut, You Choose that doesn’t provide a compelling reason to keep coming back for more plays. That’s obviously a tough ask for an 18 card game, but Sprawlopolis (from the same publisher) manages to pull it off.
- Welcome To: Outbreak Thematic Neighborhood– This one is a hot mess. Deep Water Games was clearly going with quantity over quality on these expansions. It seems they were in such a big hurry to crank these out that they didn’t bother to properly test, polish, and streamline this expansion. The rulebook is unclear, the added gameplay poisons the base game’s fun, and the graphic design muddies the visibility of your writing.
Games that were amusing to try at least once.
I’m blessed to have some good friends who possess solid collections and a knack for teaching their games. Most of these are games they’ve introduced me to that made for a fun night.
- Paladins of the West Kingdom– A nearly solitaire game from a publisher I’m lukewarm on… all the more impressive that enjoyed this play. While the novelty of Architects and Raiders felt overshadowed by their blandness, Paladin’s blandness is overshadowed by its juicy arc. Not one I would buy, but I wouldn’t mind playing it again.
- Taverns of Tiefenthal- I can see why this is thought of as a spiritual sibling to Quacks of Quedlinburg. Taverns largely benefits/suffers from the same strengths/weaknesses as Quacks. On the other hand, Taverns quite possibly beats out Quacks for me because bad luck is much less punishing, strategic options feel more numerous, and the theme is even more charming.
- Animal Kingdoms– Solid, simple gameplay. Very easy to teach, but enough meat on the bone for interesting decisions. The kind of game you can play with anyone. Not sure if it would hold interest beyond a few plays, but it was fun to try at a convention.
- Last Bastion– Improves on the rulebook, production, and gameplay of Ghost Stories, yet still feels largely the same. Last Bastion/Ghost Stories is an engaging cooperative game that plays best at a rapid pace with experience players, but doesn’t reach the heights of my favorite co-ops because so much of the game comes down to luck of the dice.
- Tuki– From the publisher of Azul. Tuki is an amusing real-time dexterity game we tried at a convention, but not exceptional enough for us to throw down money on.
Interesting games that still elude me.
Whether they haven’t hooked me enough to convince me to open the wallet, or they require a ideal setting that my current situation can’t provide, these are the games that hover over the fringe of my radar and elude my reach.
- Isle of Cats– This is the big game that was missing from my Battle of the Polyominoes comparison. Drafting + polyominoes + psychedelic cats certainly sounds interesting!
- Detective: City of Angels– We weren’t huge fans of Chronicles of Crime. While amusing, it was ultimately not as satisfying as a board game without a screen; and it honestly feels kind of pointless to play with other people. Detective: City of Angels appears to be the game we wanted out of Chronicles.
- Dune- A heavy, Shut Up & Sit Down approved war game that works best at 6? Sign me up! ….Anyone?….No? *Sigh*
- Nova Luna– I’m sure I would enjoy this one, but it seems so similar to Rosenburg’s Patchwork (aside from the polyomino tiles) that I struggle to justify the purchase. Can anyone convince me to bite?
- Rail Pass– A real time cooperative dexterity game where you pass trains that are carrying physical goods to each other causing a jumble of brains and arms. Best of all, when you want to pass a train along, you have to communicate by saying “Toot toot!”
- Barrage– A heavy, nasty economic game of controlling water flow with dams for power. The overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim surrounding this one tells me it is certainly worth a go!
- Shobu– An elegant, abstract game of pushing stones off wooden boards. I’ve heard good things about this one, and the presentation is just classy.
- L.L.A.M.A.– A simple Knizia card game is always going to catch my attention. If I were in a supremely casual setting perfect for a light card game with kids and/or grandparents, I imagine this would hit the spot.
- Medium– While I usually opt for something with at least a hint of strategy, this appears to be a light, funny party game I would enjoy. Two players hold a unique topic card and must simultaneously blurt out the same word that connects the two topics, that is if they are on the same wavelength.
This concludes my walk down memory lane of the best board games of 2019! Can you think of a Lover, Keeper, Dumper, Flinger, and Seeker from 2019? Share them with us in the comments below!
Article written by Nick Murray. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!