Us humans sure love to build stuff. Whether it’s linking together legos, puzzling together jigsaws, clumping together wet sand, or fastening together wood, the act of building seems to be part of our very nature. This incessant hunger to create and contribute and conjure has proven to be a lucrative opportunity for board games, particularly tile placement (aka tile laying) games.
Over the years, this mechanism has sprawled into many sub-categories such as spatial puzzles, polyomino challenges, domino linkers, roll and write map builders, desert camel sprawling, tile tableau hybrids, and plenty more. In many ways, this genre has even extended beyond its technical name — some games that are tile layers in spirit feature zero physical tiles. But plenty of gamers (myself included) still usually refer to these designs as tile placement games. You still have the placement of pieces (or filling of spaces) to form routes or clusters. Because of the seemingly endless possibilities, there are thousands of published titles that fall under this wide category.
Tile placement is one of my favorite genres in board games. I decided to try and tally up all of the games I’ve ever played that feature tile placement in some meaningful way, and after surpassing 100 titles I gave up counting further.
As a fellow gamer who has researched, sought out, and enjoyed many of the best tile layers in the market, I’m excited to share my 15 favorite games in this genre. There’s no better time to share this list because tile placement has been a huge part of my focus this year. Just a few months ago we published and released Trailblazers, a trail building spatial puzzler of drafting and connecting together tiles (or more accurately cards). And next month we’ll be launching two brand new tile layers on Kickstarter from the King of Tiles, Dr. Reiner Knizia.
This post will serve two purposes. First, it’s a celebration of some of the all-time greats. Second, it’s the unveiling of two more absolute bangers on the horizon. I’m honored to be able to pay tribute in both ways. But before we get there, allow me to lay down the ground rules:
This list is comprised of my personal favorite games in this genre. So there will absolutely be personal bias involved here. I tried to select the 15 titles that I’ve enjoyed playing the most, and that I’m most hungry to play again and again. It is predictable then, that there are going to be a ton of Knizia games on this list. True, he is my favorite designer and we collaborate with him on many business projects. But even when one looks at the cold hard facts, Reiner Knizia has singlehandedly designed dozens upon dozens of tile layers. Many of his highest ranked games fall under this category. So it’s a given that he’s going to have a big presence on any list that attempts to highlight the cream of the tile layer crop.
Rather than put myself through the agony of ranking these games in any particular order, I’m simply going to toss them out there fairly randomly and let you decide which ones deserve your interest. Also, as I commonly enjoy doing with these lists, I’m going to cheat by mentioning more than 15 games because some of my picks have excellent siblings. What’s the point in making your own list if you can’t make your own rules?
Let’s get on with it!
As promised, we’re starting out this list with a legendary Knizia title from 1998. While this game is very abstract in style, it intentionally pays homage to eastern culture and particularly eastern fighting in how players redirect their enemy’s efforts and use their own punches against them. Here you’ll whip out a tile from behind your screen and smack it on the board as you surround valuable castes and compete for majority influence around those castes.
As he often loves to do, Reiner puts a twist on the end-game scoring by making the players compete for collection majorities of each caste type. Samurai is one of the more tactical games on this list, yet it never fails to hit the spot. Few things are more satisfying than swooping in at the last second and swiping a caste right out from beneath your opponent’s nose with the perfect tile at the perfect time.
In 2017, Azul took the gaming world by storm, and for good reason. This abstract, family-friendly tile drafter boasts a satisfyingly clackity starburst production with a welcoming setting of building a ceramic tile mosaic. Since its release, the Azul line has grown into a behemoth of offerings from sequels to spinoffs to reskins. I still maintain that vanilla Azul is the best of the bunch thanks to its simplicity and sharpness in the surprisingly cutthroat drafting interactions. But speaking of vanilla, there are some other great versions you could opt for including the delectable Azul: Master Chocolatier or portable Azul Mini.
Ingenious / Axio
On the topic of family-friendly abstract tile layers, another legendary title is Dr. Knizia’s Ingenious which has sold roughly 1.5 million copies in its line and led to a great sibling design that pivots from hexes to squares: Axio. In both games, you have a hand of tiles and must decide which one to play in order score color points for any matching colors you place adjacent to.
The perfect wrinkle to this game is that your final score is equal to whichever of the five colors you have the least points in. This forces you to remain balanced across the board and allows you to execute truly devious maneuvers to block your opponents from scoring the colors they desperately need. Best of all, if you reach the end of a color point track then you get to declare with gusto “Ingenious!” or “Axio!” and immediately take another turn.
With the hexes of Ingenious, you need to be careful to not let an opponent score tons of points in a ton of directions with a single tile. With the squares of Axio, you need to be careful to not let an opponent create one or more bonus point pyramids by enclosing solo spaces. In either case, I come away satisfied by a light abstract game with just enough bite to keep decisions impactful.
This list will feature a few hidden gems, and Orongo is first of these to be mentioned. What happens when you ask the world’s best auction game designer and the world’s best tile placement game designer to put their heads together and make one game? Well for one thing, it’s rather convenient to make your request, because those two designers are actually one: Reiner Knizia. And the result of your request? Orongo.
So why is this game not as popular as many others on this list? Well, not to point any fingers, but this one did release during the Knizian dark ages (a period when he was least popular during is design career) with a less than ideal production due to mildly annoying components. The tiles blend in a hair too much with the board, the seashells are delightful until they decide to roll away from where you place them, and the flimsy bingo chips contribute to a feeling of cheapness to the game.
Even if each play is occasionally riddled with a few pesky component moments, the game is packed with Knizian tension that is bursting out of every minute of its lightning fast 40-minute playtime. The thrilling race to erect your Moai statues first while bidding for tile placement opportunities and blocking your rivals has cemented Orongo as one of the most underrated Knizia designs ever, tile placement genre or otherwise. I wouldn’t be surprised if this game gets a new edition sometime in the next couple years.
A Feast for Odin
Many creators have seen the popularity of mega-hit polyomino games like Tetris and Patchwork and tried to replicate their success. This has even spurned loads of hybrid designs that combine polyomino puzzling with a larger board game. But perhaps no other game has been as ambitious or successful at making the ultimate polyomino board game as Uwe Rosenberg’s A Feast for Odin.
A Feast for Odin revolves entirely around its more than 350 tiny polyomino tiles. Acquiring them, upgrading them, and puzzling them together on your board to surround and acquire bonuses while covering up negative points. And for those who are feeling adventurous, you can accumulate even more boards — islands and buildings — to sprawl even more tiles onto. This is accomplished across 6 or 7 rounds of players taking turns claiming one of dozens of worker placement spaces.
A Feast for Odin is by far the most complicated, lengthy, and sprawling title on this list. In many ways it swims against the simple elegant current set by the flowing classics of tile laying. Yet it earns a spot here because it manages to come together into a cozy sandbox of a Eurogame that fires on all cylinders while never losing sight of the joy of polyomino puzzling.
Through the Desert / Blue Lagoon
Did somebody say sand? Because this next duo provides a cornucopia of sand by desert or beach. And just like how sand takes thousands or even millions of years of weathering and erosion to form, Through the Desert and Blue Lagoon may very well take just as long to be usurped in their greatness.
Despite the sandy undertones, designer Reiner Knizia has built his legacy upon the firm rock of elegance and simplicity from which emergent interactions and excruciating decisions flourish. Speaking of these games in interviews, Dr. Knizia has shared how their experiences mirror that of life itself: there is so much that we want to do, but we don’t have the time or ability to do all of it, thus we must make sacrifices and decide.
Through the Desert gives you two actions, and Blue Lagoon gives you one, but in either case you desperately wish you had just one more action. One more action to enclose a desert space and keep your opponents out. One more action to claim your fourth coconut before your rival snatches it up. One more camel or tile to tie the bow on your carefully wrapped plans. But you’ll never get that extra action… all you’ll get is succulent regret.
Note: Through the Desert is getting a new version from our friends over at Allplay — launching on Kickstarter in October.
While the above sandy twins do display a remarkable timelessness within their experiences, even they do not provide the era-spanning sensation of Chartae. Nine tiles, two players, two topographies. Two cartographers duel over a tiny growing map in a quest make their favorite feature, land or sea, the dominant zone.
All you can do is place out the next tile into the 3×3 grid, or rotate one of the tiles already out by 90 degrees. It’s a spectacularly compact battle of wits that resides in a tiny box… a micro game that packs a macro punch — in and out before 10 minutes have passed. Woefully underappreciated in our greedy more-ish hobbyist culture, yet wonderfully genius all the same. Keep an eye out for my full thoughts on this one in an upcoming post…
Would this tile-laying list be truly well rounded and complete without an excellent domino game on it? I submit to you that it would not. Good thing, then, that Renature is solid enough to be here on its own merits — no special treatment needed. And before anyone goes and claims that Axio (mentioned above) is also a domino game, let me remind you that publisher Pegasus Spiel decided to use punchboard tiles rather than true, chunky dominos. Therefore, by decree of the Council of the Dominites, Axio is disqualified from consideration for greatest domino game of all time. Better luck next printing, I suppose.
Renature and its prolific creators, Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, give me everything I could ever want from a game that uses a pile of dominoes: namely, cute woodland critters and the salty tears of my opponents. Here, you’ll take turns extending one of many lines of animal dominos and optionally placing a plant token in an adjacent empty space. These plant enclosures are where the magic happens as players wrestle for majority control either by sheer overpowering foliage force or by cunning neutralization.
Babylonia sees Reiner harnessing his decades of experience in this genre to conjure a modern masterpiece. By weaving together the surrounding majority showdown of Samurai, the route-building struggle of Through the Desert, and the special power variety of current board games, Dr. Knizia manages to fashion a new and thrilling strategy game.
Across my ten plays of the game, this one has only grown me from a game that I like to a game that I love to a game that I revere above most others. Babylonia is still relatively young (published only four years ago), yet I have no doubt it will stand the test of time.
Between Babylonia and Mille Fiori, Reiner Knizia has proven that he’s still got it when it comes to tile layers. Where Babylonia feels like a an old school design with some modern seasonings, Mille Fiori feels like a modern design with some old school spice.
It takes a really good game to get me this excited about a simultaneous drafting point salad. The brilliant twist of Mille Fiori is that each card is linked to a space on the shared board — a space that you claim with one of your transparent acrylic tiles when you draft its associated card. The various card suits allow you to assemble clusters of tiles, extend lines of tiles, build pyramids of tiles, and more. But the thing that makes this game so dang thrilling (aside from the huge combos) is that you are constantly stepping on each other’s toes in a struggle to claim the spaces you most want.
Many folks are perfectly content with the base game (it is fantastic, after all), but I find that the new/upcoming expansion brings the game up another notch for me. It tempts you with more agonizing incentives while letting players battle over the massively advantageous turn order.
Full disclosure here: I am the publisher of Trailblazers. But I also left off plenty of other great tile layers (including Knizia designs, believe it or not) because Trailblazers scratches a certain itch for me as a player better than any other game has.
For my tastes, this is the best spatial puzzler I have ever played due to its approachable rules that give way for a seemingly limitless skill ceiling. Simply draft a couple trail cards per turn and use them to build some hiking, biking, and kayaking loops. How hard can it be? Famous last words.
It has the flexibility to be something you can easily show to families and non-gamers, small groups or large groups, while also challenging you to plan, adapt, learn, and overcome. That’s why I’ve logged over 60 plays — many of which are me taking on the huge array of solo challenges that hit the spot as bite sized daily puzzles. Thanks to the push-your-luck nature of needing to close your ambitious loops in order to score anything on them, I find myself in a constant addictive struggle with my own ego. Sometimes my ambitions lead to glorious triumphs, and other times they lead to horrible failures. But I’m always hungry to blaze more trails.
Alongside Orongo and Chartae, Stephenson’s Rocket suffers the tragic fate of being dreadfully under appreciated by the industry. But, as a publisher who wouldn’t dare reprint it (I mean, it already got an Ian O’Toole version, for crying out loud), I can at least understand why this one isn’t as popular.
This wonky train game of extending railroads, gaining stock, and merging companies is among the good doctor’s most opaque designs. It certainly rewards repeat plays with a group that is economically minded and not afraid to get their hands dirty with a bit of extortion. Yes, extortion. Any time a player proposes to extend a railroad in a certain direction, anyone else who has stock in that company can propose a veto which initiates a vicious auction where players bid with their shares in that company. The winner of the bid decides which direction the railroad will go in, but they do it at the expense of their shareholder power in that company.
Once you understand how badly your opponents want certain trains to progress in certain directions, you mind find your skull sprouting horns as you prey upon their desperation with the dreaded veto.
My City / My City: Roll & Build / My Island
Up until we encountered My City, our experience with any legacy game was riddled with frustration, exhaustion, and eventually apathy because of how cumbersome they all were. They just keep piling more rules, setup, teardown, flavor text, and busywork onto the experience until we no longer have the patience for them — often in the name of a narrative plot twist that never paid off.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Reiner Knizia noticed the popularity of legacy games and decided to fill a niche that all others had overlooked: the more casual/family market. It’s impressive that he managed to pull it off with My City, introducing a legacy experience that didn’t sap us of all of our joy and strength. But it’s even more impressive that he managed to do it with one of the sharpest polyomino puzzles ever created.
I have played far too many polyomino games, more than any gamer should ever need in their life, and I can still point to My City as the one that did polyomino puzzling best. Set aside the addicting legacy evolution of its 24 episodes. Set aside the unique features that gradually make your board and tiles different from anyone else’s. Set aside the expert riffing of a master musician who takes you on a fascinating iterative exploration of objectives, restrictions, and incentives. Set all that aside, because every little element of the core, bingo-style gameplay somehow brings out the highs and lows of tile puzzling in all the best ways.
I’m sure that some of you were growing in a nervous panic as the list neared its end without me mentioning the legendary Carcassonne. Meanwhile, others of you have reached this title and merely shrugged with an underwhelmed indifference because you are so desensitized to this game that has ruled the world for decades already. That’s board games for you.
Draw a tile, decide where to put it, and throw down a meeple on top if you are so inclined. This simple game of map building and majority competition has just enough of a passive-aggressive bite to it that I’ll happily keep it in my collection and expect to play it for years to come. There are now so many expansions, spinoffs, and reimplementations of Carcassone, that you would be hard pressed to not find something that fits your tastes. Heck, as recent as last year we got a cooperative version: Mists over Carcassonne.
But you’ll be shocked to hear that my favorite flavor in this line is Carcassonne: The Castle, by Reiner Knizia. Not because his name is on the box (although that did convince me to track down a copy)… My favorite way to play Carcassonne has always been at 2-players. With Carcassonne: The Castle, Dr. Knizia comes in as a guest-star designer and gives the core premise a heightened 2-player focus.
Tigris & Euphrates / Yellow & Yangtze
To nobody’s surprise, we saved the best for last. As someone who has played well over 600 different board games in his life, with over 100 of those being tile layers, I can say with confidence that Tigris & Euphrates and its sibling design Yellow & Yangtze sit at the top of this mountain of cardboard. They are a monument to Knizia’s tile design genius thanks to the staggering depth and gripping drama they provide.
I love that nobody truly owns a kingdom of tiles — it can be shared or overthrown by an ambitious rival leader. I love how you have to stretch your neck out and take big risks by acquiring monuments or engaging in conflicts in order to come out on top. I love how you must juggle the four types of points throughout the game, forcing you to pivot positions mid-session, because you only score for your weakest color.
Tigris & Euphrates is certainly the more confrontational and dramatic of the two, where conflict is more punishing, rewarding, and impactful. Meanwhile Yellow & Yangtze is the more tactical, flexible, incremental, opportunistic, and forgiving design. I’m the type who likes to own and jump between both as I explore and appreciate their unique qualities.
Outside of these sibling designs, no other game portrays the rise and fall of civilizations with such elegance and grace. No other game feels like such an epic battle of wits. No other game has gotten so much out of four simple action options. The layers of strategy and discoveries in this enduring tile placement experience are unmatched.
Introducing two brilliant new tile placement games by Reiner Knizia.
As a super-fan of the tile layer genre, this reveal has been a long time coming for me. I am beyond excited to finally introduce to the world Cascadero and Cascadito, two new tile placement games by Reiner Knizia.
2-4 Players, 45 Minutes
The kingdom is shattered, its towns are divided, and its people are distrusting. The newly crowned ruler, El Cascadero, seeks to reunite the land, but he can’t do it alone. Thus, he appoints four ministers to visit the people and restore civil harmony. While the ministers are obligated to bring prosperity to the entire land, each of them also has one dedicated responsibility: Farming, Crafting, Mining, and Markets. El Cascadero also records in his book the successes of his ministers…
Cascadero is the next epic tile placement strategy game from acclaimed designer Reiner Knizia. Ministers visit towns by placing their envoys adjacent to them; but towns are distrusting of single envoys, so newly placed envoys will only trigger town scoring when they are part of an established group or carry an official seal from El Cascadero himself. Towns with royal heralds at them or a history of envoy visits are even more valuable, as they willingly collaborate for even greater successes.
Players must decide between two competing strategies: build long chains of their envoys to achieve synergies and objectives, or establish smaller, separate groups of envoys to trigger timely town scoring. Both will award victory points, yet your victory points will mean nothing if you don’t also reach the end of your appointed success column.
By triggering town scoring, you’ll advance along that town’s matching success column, gaining bonuses as you pass over them. Bonuses include earning victory points, advancing further on any success column, claiming an official seal, repositioning an envoy, or even acquiring an additional turn. Through careful timing and clever plans, players can trigger a cascading combo of exciting bonuses that swing momentum in their favor.
Cascadero provides a wealth of replayability through emergent player interaction, variable board and tile setups, and an advanced player mode featuring traveling heralds. Yet the game will always end in one of two ways: when one player reaches fifty victory points or must place a tile but has no tiles left. The players who reached the end of their appointed success column qualify for victory, and whoever among them has the most victory points wins.
1-4 Players, 30-45 minutes
The kingdom is reuniting, but the work of El Cascadero and his ministers has only begun. Many challenges and opportunities await the kingdom. Bandits threaten to overwhelm the towns, rivers present new modes of travel, trade continues to grow, and the borders must be defended.
Cascadito is the smaller spiritual sibling to Reiner Knizia’s big box tile placement strategy game, Cascadero. Each player receives their own sheet and a pencil. 6 dice are rolled, and players take turns drafting a die used to fill in a space on their map. The dice display 5 colors, representing the 5 town types on the map. When a colored die is chosen, the player fills in a space adjacent to a matching colored town.
By reaching towns with groups of filled in spaces, players will trigger town scoring in the book of successes on their sheet. If players plan their routes wisely, these escalating successes can trigger a cascade of combos to give them a competitive edge in earning the public achievements and private bonuses.
The game ends immediately when all the public achievements have been claimed or when one player gains all the private bonuses. Players will then tally up their successes and achievements to determine the winner.
Cascadito retains the challenging, combotastic core of Cascadero — the interplay between the map and book of successes — while providing a refreshingly unique and complimentary experience:
- Players are limited to the dice options on the table, and they must watch their opponent’s plans and routes carefully when drafting a die on their turn.
- Features 4 dramatically unique sheets with different maps, tracks, achievements, strategies, landmarks, and bonuses. These sheets are (1) Rural Beginnings, (2) Raiding Bandits, (3) The Two Rivers, and (4) Trade and Defense.
- Contained within a smaller and faster package, great as a filler game or travel companion.
- Includes a solo mode for each sheet with a standard and advanced difficulty.
If you want learn more about these games, then check out the Predicted FAQ Post for both Cascadero and Cascadito on BoardGameGeek. Or, if you simply want to follow the Kickstarter campaign (launching in October), then you can subscribe to the pre-launch page here.
To all of you fellow tile-laying enthusiasts, I say thanks for joining me on this compiled journey through some (but certainly not all) of the all-time greats. And thanks for helping us to keep this genre thriving with your support of our Kickstarter project! Neither this post nor these two upcoming games could exist without your support.
What are your favorite tile layers? Share with us 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 Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and newly released 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.