What makes a favorite game? Is it the way it consistently entertains or surprises you? Challenges or delights you? Welcomes and invites you? Is it found in the excitement you feel to show it to others? The hunger you possess to return to it once more? The need to climb higher and explore deeper? The memories you smile back on and the people you share them with?
No doubt, it’s all of these things. A game is only as good as the experience it hosts and the emotions it generates for those at the table. Yet, it’s the players who fashion so much of that outcome. The perfect game for me might just be the worst choice for you. Despite our differences, we find ourselves here… Me sharing my strongest recommendations, and you hoping to find at least a spark of opportunity and/or vindication. What could be more human than the desire to find and share common joys?
I’ll warn you now that if you only consider medium or heavy complexity games to be “real” games, then you are in the wrong place. For 2023, My Top 15 Games of the Year list is the lightest it has ever been… by a lot. Not because I’ve sworn off heavy gaming (I enjoyed another play of Carnegie just last month, and I’m looking forward to Arcs this year, thank you very much). Rather, there wasn’t much on that end of the spectrum that caught my eye last year — especially compared to the lighter games. I still managed to play 53 new releases, for what it’s worth. But unless a heavy game is promising to become an all-time favorite, I’d rather explore new games that are easier to get to the table.
So perhaps you hobbyist gamers will get more value out of this list if you look at it as a “best light-to-medium games of the year” list. That’s mostly what I spent 2023 exploring. It’s what I generally prefer to play and publish. Either way, the following are my personal Top 15 out of the many that I discovered, researched, and played.
It’s worth noting that I’ve intentionally excluded Bitewing Games publications from my Top 15. As a daytime dentist and a nighttime cardboard vigilante, any design that we choose to champion will obviously be one that I love so much that I personally see to its fruition. Rather than bump another game out of the Top 15 spotlight, I’ll simply share afterwords what I love about each 2023 Bitewing release. I’ll also grant some special awards to other games and expansions. Oh, and did I mention that I’ll be revealing our next massive Kickstarter project at the end of this post?…
Let’s celebrate 2023 gaming, shall we?
Barely squeezing into my Top 15, but no less impressive, is the newest solo experience from Salt & Pepper Games. Witchcraft sees you leading a coven of witches who must protect the village while defending their innocence against skeptical jurors. Across this journey of deck deconstruction, you’ll repeatedly face the tough decision of when to oust your witches to the public to utilize their more powerful abilities. Featuring rich character illustrations by Albert Monteys and tough gameplay decisions concocted by David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin, and Roger Tankersley, Witchcraft stands as one of the best solo game releases of the year.
14. Sunrise Lane
Easy breezy family-weight games don’t typically catch my attention unless they play quickly and include a bit of spicy interaction. These next two games managed to pull that off and hit the spot. Sunrise Lane is a clean, tactical romp of playing cards and claiming matching colored plots of land with stacks of your buildings. Where players can extended off of each other’s buildings into new plots, you’ll constantly debate whether to draw more cards for a later bigger turn or seize the moment now to claim open plots. Not all plots are created equal though, and covering a high value space with a stack of your buildings can make the most satisfying score multiplier. This tactical opportunism is balanced nicely against the three end-game competitions that players shouldn’t ignore if they hope to win.
13. Sea Salt & Paper
Sea Salt & Paper finally reached North America in 2023, and it appeared to do quite well for itself. This affordable little card game caught my eye (and probably many others) with its charming origami artwork. As I mentioned in my first impressions post, the gameplay offers a “breezy, simple experience with a few sharp edges (much like its art form of choice).” I’ve still only played it a 2-players, but it has been a joy every time and earned its place on my shelf of small-box card games.
12. My Island
My Island is the hexagonal-based sequel to one of my all-time favorite polyomino games. It certainly twists and contorts your brain in new ways as you wrestle with the challenge of fitting its shapes together on a hex grid of island spaces. And that Knizia legacy formula is as compelling as ever with a whopping 24 scenarios of rules tweaks both large and small. Thanks to its addicting progression and easy approachability, My Island is the multiplayer game that saw more plays at our table than any other 2023 release.
11. That’s Not a Hat
It is true that few games are as bafflingly simple as That’s Not a Hat. Yet, it is also true that few games are as amusing and engaging as That’s Not a Hat. This party-style filler game of gifting and regifting sees players quickly forgetting where all the roaming gifts are located and secretly pivoting to lying about their offerings. It will never stop being hilarious to watch a friend or family member forget what card is sitting in front of them merely sixty seconds after it was gifted to them. That’s why this small, fast, unassuming box is indeed not a hat… it is a winner.
As mentioned in my intro, 2023 was a year where lighter games thrived (at least at my table). And it was a year where two-player games soared… or in this case, sailed. Sail is the first exclusively two-player game to land on my list thanks to its unique experience and gorgeous presentation. Cooperatively sailing a ship across perilous seas via the medium of trick taking is a challenge unlike any other. I’ve enjoyed the journey thus far, and I look forward to facing down the trickier scenarios in the base box and expansion.
The refreshing two-player fun continues with the abstract pawn distancing game that is Lacuna. From the moment you remove the cap from this cylindrical box to the moment you slide the box back on to your shelf, you are in for a wonderfully peculiar treat. Sprinkle the many flower tokens across a large cloth circle, and then dive right in to the thinky tussle. Lacuna is all about claiming invisible lines between matching tokens to earn you those tokens… and positioning your pawns closest to the vital unclaimed tokens for the end game swing. It feels as timeless as it looks.
8. For One Series (Galaktix, Kniffel, Schwarze Rosen, Number Up)
The For One Series is what happens when the world’s greatest board game designer (Reiner Knizia) gets serious about solo gaming. His trademark approachability and ease of play is on full display here, as are the tension and drama of surprisingly tough decisions within a series of push-your-luck challenges. In each game, Reiner starts with a clever core concept and then ramps up the difficulty while mixing up the rules across 20 episodes per game. I’ve enjoyed all four of these games thus far, with Galaktix and Kniffel only edging out the other two thanks to their spicy dice chucking. I really hope these exclusively German games make it to other regions and languages soon, because they absolutely hit the sweet spot for me.
In 2023, Reiner Knizia treated us to another title in one of his most conquered genres — strategic tile placement on a shared board. Admittedly, despite the credentials behind it, Havalandi is probably destined for a niche appeal due to its subtle strengths mixed with production frustrations. Several early adopters of this late release have complained about the lack of clarity in the rulebook, and certain public objective cards (few as they are) aren’t suitable for all player counts. But none of that stops me from being utterly delighted by this game.
There is an indescribable thrill to rolling the die, advancing the airship, scouring your restricted tile placement options, and adapting on the fly. In many ways, hot air ballooning is the perfect theme for this design in how players (like pilots) must make do with what the wind gives them. Even the launch of this game has been more turbulent than ideal, but for me the ride has absolutely been worthwhile.
Alright, who had this on their 2023 board game bingo card? — Two of the best small box games of the year are memory games. That’s Not a Hat being one and Trio being the other. Perhaps by making forgetfulness feel more casual, funny, and expected, these designs managed to overcome our hobbyist prejudice towards the genre and soften our hearts toward their antics (the same can be said for Wandering Towers, which is another 2023 release that just missed the cutoff of my favorite 15). Like the best fillers, Trio is a game that begs to be played and enjoyed multiple times in a row. You’ll hunt for matching cards in hopes of forming a set by forcing opponents to reveal their highest or lowest card. The challenge lies in remembering what cards everybody else has shown you.
5. Sky Team
The deeper I dig into Sky Team, the more I like this two-player cooperative game of landing a passenger airplane. Like others have mentioned, it feels a bit like The Crew (a legendary trick taker) where communication is limited and the objectives are tough. Here, you take turns revealing a hidden die from behind your screen and positioning it on the board to trigger an action such as steering the plane, controlling the engines, preparing the landing gears, and more. Sky Team goes the extra mile by providing a huge list of scenarios that present a mix of interesting modules. Thanks to its streamlined ruleset, rhythmic flow, and quick playtime, it has become a favorite choice for our date-night activity.
4. Patterns: A Mandala Game
I already noted how 2023 was unusually strong in the two-player department… With titles like Sky Team, Lacuna, and Sail landing in my Top 15, and others like Match of the Century and General Orders: World War II not being far behind. On top of that, we enjoyed many multiplayer games that are fantastic at two-players (My Island, Sea Salt & Paper, My City Roll & Build, and more). But despite all of the amazing innovations and unique experiences that these great designs brought to the table, I must accept the truth that one game rose above them all.
Straight from the first play, this humble abstract strategy game knocked my socks off with its tight design and layered decisions. And proceeding through even more plays, Patterns continues to… as the kids say… slap. Perhaps that’s just the tile placement lover in me letting my true colors show through. But either way, I can’t think of any other completely abstract dueling game that gets me as excited as Patterns.
3. Viking See-Saw
I might just be off my rocker, because Viking See-Saw is among my Top 3 board game releases of 2023. It successfully overcame a glorious onslaught of dumb-fun fillers and stands strong atop its mountain of prized corpses.
How is this possible, you ask? How can such a trifle of a toy be ranked so highly? Well, it’s simple, really. I’ve managed to show this game to a wide variety of groups: hobbyist gamers, buddies from high school, in-laws, strangers, and more. And it has been a hit. Every. Single. Time.
My favorite aspect is how it challenges your perception of physics and surprises the table with unexpected successes and funny failures. Now some folks (perhaps those who take themselves too seriously) might be unwilling to emotionally invest in a teetering ship of piling cargo — understandably, they’ll come away unsatisfied. Or maybe it simply depends on the group’s attitude. But for me, Viking See-Saw easily takes the award of smallest box with biggest thrills.
2. Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West
Confession time: I haven’t played Ticket to Ride in years. I first started logging my board game plays back in 2019 (which is now, unbelievably, five years ago), and I haven’t logged a single play of it in all that time — across 2600 plays. Apparently, I merely own a copy of Ticket to Ride so it can collect dust on my shelf (at least until my daughters are old enough to try it).
Considering how much my board game tastes have changed over the past several years, it’s safe to say that I have no clue what my current feelings toward Ticket to Ride are. At least, that was the case until we started Ticket to Ride Legacy. It turns out that I quite enjoy this big expensive box of trains and train tracks.
I wish I’d been able to finish the entire campaign to make sure my opinion doesn’t drastically change, but we’re more than halfway through (7 plays in) and I’m still having a blast with it. Yes, there is still a bit of that familiar potential for late-game swinginess where one player can luck into a few completed tickets while another draws hot garbage. Indeed, the legacy features are merely a growing glob of gameplay elements bolted onto the core ruleset. True, this isn’t going to convert any Ticket to Ride haters or blow away any legacy connoisseurs. But we’ve enjoyed the surprises and twists that unfold from this solid core system. And we’ve appreciated the extra measures it takes to keep things smooth and focused.
Looking at all the experiences that so many 2023 releases have brought me, Ticket to Ride Legacy has been the ultimate comfort food for this hobbyist gamer. It’s like coming home to mother’s cooking after years spent abroad. Only mom has added a few new spices and seasonings to her cupboard to keep you on your toes.
1. MLEM: Space Agency
The cats reign supreme… both in this futuristic sci-fi setting, and here on my list of the top board games of 2023. Look, if you don’t understand why this game is my number one release of the year, then you simply need to understand me a little bit better:
- I love Reiner Knizia designs (usually). I generally prefer games that are easy to introduce to anyone, interactive, surprisingly deep, and rewarding of repeat plays. That’s basically Knizia’s entire wheelhouse.
- I love a good push-your-luck game where the thrills are high and the busts are meaningful but not soul-crushing.
- I love games that get the entire table emotionally invested in their drama.
- I love games that offer tough decisions — often forcing you to pick between following your brain and following your gut.
For me, MLEM hasn’t just been another board game. It has been an event… You, my fellow players, and I are no longer humans. We are not entering our brains into a contest of optimization puzzles. We are not here to crown the smartest homosapien of this sorry lot. Nay, we are catstronauts. Together we are boarding this rickety rocket ship and blasting ourselves into the great beyond. And you will remain strapped in until you lose your nerve and bail on a nearby moon or planet, or until we erupt in a ball of flames and fur. Don’t worry, we still have our nine lives. But only the bravest and cleverest cat will earn our ultimate respect and admiration.
MLEM boasts so many moments that I love about board games. Shared incentives, unexpected betrayals, seemingly impossible probabilities, moments of selfishness, moments of loyalty, light-hearted banter, hilarious failures, glorious triumphs, you name it. It follows that legendary Knizian philosophy where players will blame their mistakes on bad luck and credit their successes to their own brilliance. It makes use of dice in ways that are gripping, seductive, agonizing, humorous, regretful, and delightful. It strings players along a space-traversing journey of temptations that vary based on your current catstronaut ability and the evolving game board. It’s a goofy game with a lot of heart that cements itself as a favorite in the push-your-luck genre, and that’s why it’s my game of the year.
Old classic game brought back with a new visual style
Winner: Ra – A top tier board game receives a top-tier makeover from Ian O’Toole and 25th Century Games. Enough said.
- Pollen (a quick Samurai-style competition in card game form wrapped in a vibrant production)
- Classic Art (an old-school betting card game with gorgeous artwork on display)
- Foodie Forest (a charming trick taker with a light-hearted theme of cooking soups… sometimes with trash)
- Photograph (a stylish looking card game of photography and memories)
Haven’t played in years… even better than I remember it.
Winner: Onitama – Haven’t played this in years, but it’s still a great 2-player abstract game.
- LAMA (the UNO usurper)
- Pan tu Nie Stal (the new Polish theme is perfect)
Fall from Grace Award
Winner: Medici – Yes indeed, it is now gone from my collection. The more I played it, the more I felt it was too vanilla, too mathy, and too long compared to other favorite auction games. Plus Medici: The Card Game gives me everything I want out of the Medici experience.
- Horrified (the new spinoff game soured my taste for Horrified)
- QE (still fun, but I increasingly prefer the faster paced High Society)
Winner: For One Series – I figured this wouldn’t be all that interesting being a solo series of games from Knizia. This looked pretty basic and obviously non-interactive, so how fun could they be? It turns out, they are fantastic thanks to the addicting challenges built on solid core systems. These easily land among my all time favorite solo games because they are so easy to get into and enjoyable to explore.
Winner: Wandering Towers – Much of the joy ofWandering Towers comes from the simple premise of roaming stackable towers that trap wizards inside them. This is made even better by the fact that players often forget where their wizards are trapped. Wandering Towers does a great job of embracing simple, solid, family-weight gaming with this novelty.
- Viking See-Saw (dexterity stacking on a see-saw brings a whole new element of suspense)
Winner: Miller Fiori: The Masterpieces – This expansion elevates Mille Fiori from a great Knizia game to an all-time favorite Knizia game for me. That’s thanks to added jostling for turn order and extra considerations for which card to draft and play. Hopefully it receives an international release soon — it deserves it! Notably, Devir plans to bring it to the US and a few other countries if enough folks reserve a copy.
- The Quest for El Dorado: Dragons, Treasures, and Mysteries (not the strongest QFED expansion, but still a fun addition to the entire line)
Favorite Spatial Puzzle – Trailblazers
Published by Bitewing Games
Trailblazers has cemented itself as my all-time favorite spatial puzzle game for a variety of reasons. It takes the pipey goodness of Ryan Courtney’s Pipeline and Curious Cargo and distills that challenge down to pure, tense, thrilling route building. Despite its low interaction, the high skill ceiling and push-your-luck nature of needing to close your loops keeps it engaging. It’s also the most versatile game I’ve ever made or played. It plays all the way up to 8 players in only 30 minutes (assuming you have a large enough table), yet it boasts 3 fully fleshed out solo modes that present a mountain of challenges. It works well with several modular expansions, and it’s supremely travel friendly thanks to the clamshell case and carabiner.
Favorite Negotiation Game – Zoo Vadis
Published by Bitewing Games
I’m proud of all of our publications, but I’m especially proud of Zoo Vadis. Few things are as satisfying as the development journey that this game has been on. I uncovered a hidden gem from decades ago that was largely forgotten and written off by the industry (save for its most loyal cult following of fans), did a deep analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of Quo Vadis, presented my findings and suggestions to Reiner Knizia, witnessed him work his magic with some truly brilliant changes and additions, and collaborated with the talented Kwanchai Moriya and Brigette Indelicato to bring this new and improved design to life. Now my reward is that I get to enjoy playing one of my all-time favorite board games and hearing other folks’ great experiences as well. This industry is awesome.
Zoo Vadis is my favorite negotiation game because it’s clean yet deep, fast yet thrilling, and welcoming yet rewarding. It always feels like a sandbox of possibilities thanks to the negotiation tools and actions at your disposal. The ratio of game length to strategic depth is unmatched in the negotiation genre. And the opportunities for player interaction, cooperation, bartering, and betrayal are some of the most memorable in my hobbyist career.
Favorite Chaos Game – Gussy Gorillas
Published by Bitewing Games
Gussy Gorillas holds a special place in my heart as its designer who tested and enjoyed it with many groups, friends, and family over the years leading up to its publication. It is actually the design that led to the creation of Bitewing Games. We had an amusing, simple card game that we wanted to share with the world and bring to crowdfunding, so we founded Bitewing Games. Of course, that quickly spiraled out of control and took me on a path to becoming a publisher of much bigger games from established designers and artists I love. But I’m glad that we still brought this one to life.
Gussy Gorillas is my favorite chaos game because it’s simple to jump into and funny to see how things shake out. You’re simply holding up one or two cards at a time (facing away from yourself) — offering a mystery card to others while trying to convince them to give you their visible cards. The fact that every card can either be really good or really bad for your score (depending on context) makes it feel like a bit of a roller coaster as you urgently try to put out fires and avoid more traps. The chaos stems from the simultaneous trading that happens in quick burst rounds of play.
Best New To Me Game Released Before 2023.
Every year this award seems to always end up with me simply crowning yet another old Knizia game that I tracked down and loved. So rather than list yet another Knizia, I’ll instead list four 😜:
- Tatari – A top 3 favorite push-you-luck dice game!
- Palazzo – A shockingly great Knizia auction game
- Chartae – The best micro game I have ever played
- Cat Blues – An underrated Knizia card game with unique auctions and tight scoring
Best Game I Didn’t Love
Winner: Undaunted: Battle of Britain – It’s the solid Undaunted system you know and love layered onto an arial combat game. The only reason I didn’t love it is because I prefer the more strategically dynamic experience of the other Undaunted games.
- Spots (a very charming game, just not as clean and spicy as I like my push-your-luck dice chuckers to be)
Worst Game I Enjoyed
Winner: Galaxy Cat Extension – This one is a very dumb Knizia card game with just enough of his secret gameplay sauce combined with Japanese humor to keep me amused.
- Wonder Bowling (Is there really a strategy or skill to how you strike the box and knock over an exact number of bowling pins? Probably not, but it’s still an enjoyable filler)
Best Couple’s Game
Winner: Sky Team – Cooperative, simple, quick, and kind. That makes it easy for us to get to the table after the kids are in bed!
- My Island, My City Roll & Build (these legacy-style polyomino games make for an engaging campaign competition that never becomes overbearing)
Up & Comer Award
Winner: Kasper Lapp – I’ve only tried That’s Not a Hat, but this designer has a good variety of titles that have caught my eye (Gods Love Dinosaurs, Fun Facts, Magic Maze, and more). Most impressive is how diverse they are.
- Salt & Pepper Games (Resist and Witchcraft are stinking good games and productions)
- Rebel Studio (see MLEM: Space Agency; also San Francisco and Meadow aren’t too shabby either)
- Ian O’Toole (an artist to watch, could be big some day, who knows)
Introducing the Jazz Collection, by Bitewing Games
Earn the highest ratings and book the best seats for music fans at the jazz festival.
Bebop is an old-school, shared board tile laying game with a new feature — dual-layered placements of tiles and dice.
Shuffle & Swing
Manage inspector mice and worker cats to build jazzy instruments for giant musicians.
Shuffle & Swing is a modern, multi-rondel worker placement game with a unique twist of using opponent workers. This Eurogame preserves timeless design ethos — clean systems, tight interaction, and focused scoring.
Cat Blues: The Big Gig
Bid for the hottest blues bands and book your big gig as you compete for the most mouse tips!
Cat Blues: The Big Gig is a classic, hidden gem Knizia card game with an evolved ruleset — removing past flaws while enhancing exciting strategies.
Much like the musical legends of Jazz, we’re blending ideas together and keeping it fresh.
Our Jazz Collection Kickstarter is launching in March. Don’t miss out! Subscribe to the Kickstarter pre-launch page:
What were your favorite games of 2023? Share below!
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the critically acclaimed titles Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games with a bite.
Disclaimer: When Bitewing Games finds a designer or artist or publisher that we like, we sometimes try to collaborate with these creators on our own publishing projects. We work with these folks because we like their work, and it is natural and predictable that we will continue to praise and enjoy their work. Any opinions shared are subject to biases including business relationships, personal acquaintances, gaming preferences, and more. That said, our intent is to help grow the hobby, share our gaming experiences, and find folks with similar tastes. Please take any and all of our opinions with a hearty grain of salt as you partake in this tabletop hobby feast.