Designer: Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock Matt Leacock
Artist: Josh Cappel, Christian Hanisch, Régis Moulun, Chris Quilliams, Tom Thiel
Publisher: Z-Man Games, Inc.
A now-classic of the cooperative game genre, Pandemic is one of those classic games that you almost can’t get tired of (and, when you do, you just need to add on one or more of the great expansions to keep things feeling fresh). I like the original game way more than the “Seasons” version (which, while cool in concept, requires physical alterations to the game board thereby making it a non-option for the non-wealthy).
Ironically, this was the game that my partner and I spend a ridiculous amount of time playing during the first few months of quarantine during the Covid-19 crisis, which either gives you too much information about our weird psychology or a great idea of how much fun this game is to play (probably both).
Why has Pandemic spread so successfully?
Players work together to overcome four diseases threatening the globe! As players draw from two decks, the diseases have the chance to expand, and once critical concentrations of disease are present in an area things can get really hairy, really fast. Luckily, the players have some cool special abilities to help them navigate the ever-changing threat. Not just one of my favorite co-op board games; one of my favorite games period.
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Artist: Filip Murmak, Radim Pech, Jakub Politzer, Milan Vavroň
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
I love games like this because of all the little touches that go into making it feel like you’re really in charge of a whole civilization. Through the Age pulls this off beautifully, allowing players to compete against one another to create the most successful civilization, constantly forced to balance all the little factors that go into such an enterprise. From technology to politics, from the depths of antiquity to the end of the modern age, there are just so many possible outcomes to every playthrough.
Through the Ages might take an age to master, but it’s a joy to play.
Through the Ages is a card drafting game with a bunch of really powerful and fun secondary mechanics for advancing science and managing resources. By making certain actions and spending resources, players upgrade their playing board by laying down new cards, allowing them to gain more resources (and the cycle repeats). Players try to maximize the aspects of their society that generate culture and the player with the most culture at the end of the game is the winner.
While not the easiest game to learn, once the learning curve has been overcome it is certainly one of the best civ building games around.
Designer: Michael Boggs
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Card games are awesome and cooperative board games are awesome and Marvel comics are awesome! A game that has all three? Sold. I love Marvel Champions because it blends some of my favorite game elements with one of my favorite IPs, and it does so really, really well, creating a game that actually makes you feel immersed in the Marvel experience. There are all sorts of easter eggs for the different characters, great artwork, and an awesome deck-building mechanic (though the game comes with a pre-built deck to get you started).
There’s just so much to marvel at in Marvel Champions!
So, first, you build your deck, adding in a hero, certain villain cards attached to that hero, and various other cards governing what sort of actions you’re going to use in play. On a player’s turn, there are a ton of things they can do, and their turn ends once they run out of things to do. The main goal is to defeat the villain, who is controlled by the “AI” of the game, and who can win either by succeeding at their “scheme” or else by killing any one hero. Players can play cards that represent allies, or equipment, or special events; the sheer lovely range of complexity here is just genius and the deck-building facet allows for a remarkable range of play.
Designer: Alan R. Moon
Artist: Cyrille Daujean, Julien Delval
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Ticket to Ride is one of the most classic family games around, and Ticket to Ride: Europe continues the trend with gorgeous artwork, some cool expansions, and the simplicity that allows for a broad range of possible players to feel right at home. The train theme is classic and fun and the elegant way the age of steam is embodied in this fast-tracked competitive game is simply delightful. The simple nature of the game, and the train theme, might not be everyone’s lifetime favorite, but it’s guaranteed to be one of the best family games.
Ticket to Ride is on track to be a lifetime classic.
So, the goal is really simple: try to complete various train lines across the map of the United States, competing against other rail barons for dominance of the lines between major European cities. There are some expanded rules from the original Ticket to Ride including “stations” which allow players to use routes built by other players to complete their own objectives. Europe takes all of the good things about the original game and expands upon it, adding clever new features in a way that doesn’t overpower what worked in the original, but updates things enough that a whole range of new strategies come into play.
Designer: Friedemann Friese
Artist: Domonkos Bence, Antonio Dessi, Lars-Arne "Maura" Kalusky, Prapach Lapamnuaysap, Harald Lieske
Power Grid is a great classic optimization game, where players take on the role of different power companies trying to compete for “top dog” electrical suppliers in the country. There’s a lot to love here, including the grunge-style artwork, the simulated living economy that makes for a really competitive game (if you like that sort of thing), and a ton of great resource management. The game manages to give you a good visual sense of your company, and there are a lot of good thematic touches that make it feel like you’re really in charge of a power company (or a European one, anyway). There are several cool expansions, too, which alter different aspects of the game, including the part of the world represented on the game mat.
What powers the fun in Power Grid?
The idea is to build cities in different locations and then power them using power plants which you also build. Players try to manage four different resources: coal, trash, oil, and uranium, and how players buy, store, and use these creates an effect on the whole game economy. Players can also bid on different types of factories, which use and store different resources. Heavy on the resource management and economics sim factor, this game offers players some room to maneuver strategically and probably plays best with around four players.
Designer: Joanna Kijanka, Ignacy Trzewiczek
Artist: Tomasz Bentkowski, Mateusz Bielski, Vincent Dutrait, Jerzy Ferdyn
Publisher: Portal Games
The idea of going it alone on an inhospitable island, removed from all civilization, striving to survive against both the elements and the mysterious secrets of the island which is now your home. This game is also one of those rare games that play brilliantly as a single-player board game, something quite rare in the board game realm. Players work together to build shelter, gain new equipment, hunt animals, and explore the island. One of the things I like most about this game, being a bit of an aesthetic addict, is just how gorgeous the game is — it’s not all hand-carved or anything, but it’s really well thought out and the artwork is immersive. It’s also a big game with a lot to manage, but the fact that it’s a co-op board game means that nobody feels left out just because of rules complexity.
Does the Robinson Crusoe maroon players?
In the various phases of each game’s round provide a really wonderfully immersive and tense gaming experience, where players need to manage a bunch of resources, handle hostile encounters, explore, and support one another to survive. The game features different scenarios to play through, adding a lot of depth to what could be otherwise a little too open-ended a gaming experience. It’s a big game and certainly not the easiest to learn, but the co-op aspect helps make up for that somewhat. Overall, it captures that stuck on an island adventure feeling really well, and it will be a blast as long as everyone playing is okay with an initial learning curve.
Designer: Thomas Lehmann
Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, Mirko Suzuki
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
I love science fiction card games, and Race for the Galaxy manages to top off my list, providing pretty much everything that you could want for a game of this type (and the numerous expansions add everything from added player support, a solo mode, and deeper gameplay mechanics). The artwork is solid, too, giving off a strong and mostly abstract science fiction vibe, but unless you get the expansions the base game can feel kind of bland. I’d strongly recommend considering getting those if you’ve played the base game once and like it.
Why should you race out and grab Race for the Galaxy?
Race for the Galaxy is a lot of fun. Especially once the various expansions are added on, players will play different action cards, try to plan strategies based on other player’s actions, and carefully choose which cards to place on the table.
It’s a game with little native interaction between players however, “race” for the galaxy, not “battle” for the galaxy, and there can be a bit of a learning curve, especially for players new to the genre. However, it’s also a really easy game to set up and start playing once you know the rules, making it an easy game to get on the table for game night.
Designer: Paul Dennen
Artist: Rayph Beisner, Raul Ramos, Nate Storm
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Deck-building games are just a plain blast, and adding that to a dungeon crawling adventure is an inspired choice for a game. The goal is to steal precious artifacts from an angry dragon’s mountain lair, as silently as possible. It’s got some fun artwork and a really solid deck-building mechanic that works along tried and true lines. It’s also a very easy-to-learn game, allowing players who are relatively new to gaming a chance to experience something a bit more complex.
What’s all the noise about Clank!?
Players try to delve into the dungeon and grab artifacts, while each turn the dragon tries to find and eat them! Every time that the players do various things they end up making noise and the more noise they make the greater the likelihood that the dragon will find them and damage them. Players can upgrade their characters from basic thieves by adding equipment or other support cards, allowing them to take on enemy monsters. There’s a lot to do in this game and all for a low entry-point in terms of difficulty and learning curve, making this a win in my book.
Designer: Andreas Seyfarth
Artist: Harald Lieske, Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: alea, Ravensburger
Puerto Rico is one of the most popular games to come out in the last twenty years, grabbing the attention of players and holding it, proving that it is a lifetime collection game. The game’s concept is that the players are assuming the roles of colonial governors of the island of Puerto Rico, which does lead us to the game’s one major downfall: its theme.
While the mechanics and complexity of Puerto Rico are super sound, the idea that players are running colonial plantations is not an appealing one and will likely be a turn-off for many (there are some terminology concerns as well). It’s a heavily abstracted theme and doubtlessly wasn’t intentionally problematic at its outset, but that element of the game does need to be noted from a modern context.
Does the game still have merit? Absolutely, especially if its context is properly understood.
What planted Puerto Rico so high on so many best-of lists?
Easily the best thing about Puerto Rico is how fun the economic simulation is; the mechanics of this game are very sound. Players take different roles and different resources and use those resources to buy buildings. There’s also a really interesting worker management mechanic that adds a wonderful layer of complexity. This is absolutely not an easy game to learn or play, but it remains popular for a reason, largely because its gameplay experience is still an excellent simulation experience.
Designer: Eric M. Lang
Artist: Henning Ludvigsen, Thierry Masson, Mike McVey, Adrian Smith
Publisher: Cool Mini Or Not
I wrote about the game Chaos in the Old World a while back (it’s now a collectible) and if you liked the gameplay of Chaos you’re going to love the gameplay of Blood Rage. This game is really solid mechanically but it’s also an epic battle game that takes players on a journey to the dark depths of Ragnarok, giving players a fun aesthetic to dive into.
Why did Blood Rage become “all the rage?”
It’s really, really fun. It's a drafting game, giving players a chance to see what other cards are being played and construct strategies based on what the players are putting out, with a lot of secondary cards and abilities that mix things up and add a lot of great tactical depth. Different card combinations alter the playstyle as the game progresses, making each game drastically different, even though each clan starts with the same profile.
This is a combat game, totally competitive, so be mindful that it’s not going to be for everyone. However, it’s not always head-on, and some card combinations allow players to even gain victory points by sending their soldiers in to be defeated, which makes things a lot more interesting than if it was all simply head-to-head.
Designer: Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson
Artist: Eric Belisle, Steven Belledin, Zoltan Boros, Noah Bradley
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Lords of Waterdeep made a huge splash when it first came out, though its popularity faded a bit in the intervening years. Personally, I still rank it as an absolute favorite, partly because of its depth and partly because of just how delightfully simple it is to learn and play compared to many other similarly styled “eurogames”. It’s also a true D&D-themed game, straight from Wizards of the Coast itself! The gorgeous quality of the game components is also a big point in its favor.
Is Lords of Waterdeep as deep as it seems?
The goal is all about taking on the role of a… you guessed it, Lord of the city of Waterdeep. You’re going to be building buildings, owning buildings (that other players will want to use), and sending out various mercenaries on various quests. There’s a lot here to love and very little not to love especially considering how much material can be played through without hardly any hassle. Most eurogames involve an annoying learning curve but not Lords of Waterdeep, it’s accessible even to normally lightweight players.
Designer: Ben Cichoski, Daniel Mandel
Publisher: Upper Deck Entertainment
I’ve reviewed this one before, not only for its all-around great feature set and its awesome cooperative factor, but I cannot stress enough how good this game is. For one thing, it’s built on the Legendary deck building system, which is rightfully one of the best around. They’ve got versions for various classic IP, with the majority being for the Marvel universe (but also include 007, Buffy, and Big Trouble in Little China.
This version of Legendary is a massive deck-building game, with 600 cards all featuring great tie-in artwork. Sure, it’s going to appeal most to fans of the movies, but as a stand-alone game, the mechanics are so dang sound that as long as all the players are down with the horror aesthetic nobody’s going to be unhappy playing it.
What can you expect to encounter in Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building game?
This version does everything right, capturing the look, tone, and feel of the Alien film franchise in a cooperative deck-building extravaganza, where getting out alive is not an easy task and is going to require careful teamwork by all the players at the table.
Designer: Matt Leacock
Artist: C. B. Canga, Tyler Edlin
The more complex companion to Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert offers a massive amount of awesome gameplay depth in a super accessible format that creates a cooperative gaming atmosphere filled with tension, fun, and mystery!
Your desire to play Forbidden Desert isn’t going to dry up anytime soon!
Players crash land in the desert near an ancient buried city of Atlantian-like technology, and must work together to uncover the secrets of the ancient city, survive thirst and desert storms, and try to escape before being buried themselves in the formidable sands! There is so much to love here. As the players take turns, the game grows progressively harder, and the added depth of gameplay when compared to Forbidden Island makes this a way better option for replay. There’s more mystery, more to do, and a better sense of progression.
Buy it now from your local game store and thank me later.
Designer: Jacob Fryxelius
Artist: Isaac Fryxelius
Often cited as one of the best board games of its type, Terraforming Mars is a fantastically deep economics and resource management game, where players take on the role of different corporations trying to make Mars habitable for human life over the course of many centuries while simultaneously one-upping each other in an attempt to have made the most advancements over the course of play.
Terraforming Mars marshals my attention every time!
This is a deep and intense game with a big set-up period, a complicated rule-set, and a massive amount of micromanaging required to play. It is, in a word: not friendly to new players. However, once the initial learning curve has been mastered (which will take at least three frustrating basic playthroughs with groups of friends), the rules of the game do become second nature. Managing the various resources is easier once you learn how they interact, and it’s surprising how quickly the game can go by once everyone is on the same page.
Designer: R. Eric Reuss
Artist: Jason Behnke, Loïc Berger, Loïc Billiau, Cari Corene
Publisher: Greater Than Games
There are a whole host of games out there that feature colonialist motifs — from Puetro Rico to San Juan, but what about a game that features an anti-colonialist theme? In Spirit Island that’s exactly what we get, with the mystic spirits of a small island working together to destroy and discourage the hoards of European-styled colonizers who are coming to enslave your people and pillage your lands.
Spirit Island is one heck of a spirited game!
Spirit Island has a lot that I love: from a great and original theme to a superb cooperative mechanic, to a great amount of depth. It’s also one heck of a heavy game, with a very high degree of complexity that makes it pretty much totally inaccessible to fresher gamers. That, I think, is a bit of a shame since the overall theme and mechanics of the game are a serious blast. With all the variables in the works, this game requires a lot of work to keep track of everything and even longer to understand the various strategies involved in winning. What makes it possible is the cooperative factor.
Since players aren’t competing with one another, everyone can help everyone else decide how to proceed and how to learn the rules as they go. This makes things a lot more forgiving than an opposed game that features a similar degree of complexity. There are a couple of things I don’t like (the arbitrary loss of the game if the invader deck runs out is a major failing that many co-op games share in a similar fashion), but the progressive complexity and risk of the other game factors is a lot of fun.
Designer: Isaac Childres
Artist: Alexandr Elichev, Josh T. McDowell, Alvaro Nebot
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Embark upon an epic quest comprised of multiple scenarios, vanquish monsters, and leave your mark forever upon the world! Gloomhaven is remarkable for its ability to capture the fun and pizazz of kick-in-the-door D&D through an excellent card-based tactical system. It’s also a cooperative game, with players working together to take down the monsters inhabiting the various locations they discover along the way, and that facet alone marks this as a huge win in my book.
Playing Gloomhaven doesn’t leave you at all gloomy.
Gloomhaven is an initiative-controlled card system, it’s a dungeon-crawler game without dice, it’s a sprawling “legacy” game where your choices are intended to actually alter the physical nature of the game, and it’s massive with 95 scenarios in the base game that can each take between 90 minutes and five hours to play. There’s so much here to love… but there’s also a lot I’m leery of - especially the legacy nature of the game which is almost always a big turn-off for me.
That said, having played it, I can also say it’s massively fun, as long as you have a group of friends who also love playing epic board games on a weekly basis (because you basically have to play this game consistently to get the proper effect. Like a “choose your own adventure game” your play progresses the story, so don’t buy this unless you’ve got a good gaming group who wants to hang in there through all 95 scenarios it takes to conclude).
Designer: Jens Drögemüller, Helge Ostertag
Artist: Dennis Lohausen
Publisher: Feuerland Spiele
This is a gloriously ambitious game in the same vein as Terra Mystica but in space! There are a huge number of things to keep track of in Gaia Project, from building, colonizing, terraforming, trading, upgrading, technology, and resource management. If anything, Gaia Project took its predecessor and made it even more complicated. That said, this immense game is also a total blast. It’s deep, engaging, and features a massive amount of replay value.
I project you’re going to love Gaia Project
If you’re down for a complicated gameplay experience, this game is going to make you very happy. All the complexity in the original game is improved here, with the depth and replay value increased. Players work through an incredible randomly generated map based on connecting “sectors”, terraforming worlds across a region of space.
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Artist: Dennis Lohausen
Publisher: Feuerland Spiele
So, how could I possibly skip A Feast for Odin which not only features my namesake, it dives deep into the culture of my ancestors, providing a fun and informative civilization management experience? A Feast for Odin is a massive game, so be prepared for one of those heavy gaming experiences that requires time, patience, and a solid learning curve. But know that once you get used to all the components and figure out the essentials, this is absolutely a game that will stick with your collection for years to come. It also happens to feature some really lovely artwork, and aesthetic, as you know, is something I value really highly in all my games.
Feast your eyes on the gameplay concepts of A Feast for Odin!
The basic goal is to get more points than the other player, starting from a negative point total at the game’s outset and then covering up the negative point spaces on the home board with buildings and various other beneficial items. Players need to manage food, workers, and decide on the actions (from over 60!) that they can spend their workers’ energy (and resources like wood and stone) on. As you’ve probably guessed, the complexity of this game is pretty high, but it’s an appealing game and I think even lighter-weight players might enjoy the experience of learning it step by step.
Designer: Mike Elliott, Bryan Kinsella, Ethan Pasternack
Finding a game set in the Star Trek universe is actually pretty easy, but finding one that makes it feel like you’re really in an action-packed episode of the series is a lot harder. That’s what Fleet Captains manages to do so well. Taking on the role of an entire faction (like the Klingons or the UFP) and through a combination of combat, expansion, exploration, and mission completion, the players compete for victory points. It has a grand strategy feel to it more than an intimate one, but it really does “feel” like Trek.
What makes me starry-eyed about _Star Trek: Fleet Captains?
I love so much about this game, from the way the map is generated randomly using hexagonal pieces, to the way the massive card selection allows for a huge range of variation and replay value, to the way random events (like Qs appearance) can upset a whole game’s worth of strategy. It’s really clever, lots of fun, and feels like a Star Trek strategy game in a way that a lot of others I’ve played did not.
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Artist: Kyle Ferrin
Publisher: Leder Games
Root instantly became a favorite of mine, blowing my mind with the different factions (that play completely differently!), the fun and engaging artwork, the awesome theme, and the incredible complexity of the interaction between all the elements. The four factions (the nefarious Marquise de Cat, the rebellious Woodland Alliance, the ancient Eyrie (enemies of the cats), and the mysterious Vagabonds.
I love, love, love this game: it’s incredibly fun!
Root will keep you rooted to the gaming table
This game is absolutely complex but the actual gameplay itself is super smooth. The learning curve isn’t a simple one, but this feels like a far more accessible heavy game than most I’ve encountered. The aesthetic and the asymmetric design add both a ton of replay value and fun: players will find themselves immersed in this game in a way that many other heavy, resource-centered games, don’t allow for. It’s also worthwhile to note that a session of Root can go by pretty quickly, being playable in under two hours.
Designer: Corey Konieczka
Artist: Matt Allsopp, David Ardila, Balaskas, Tiziano Baracchi + 43 more
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Easily the best Star Wars game I’ve ever played, because it recreates, on a grand strategy level, the feeling inherent in the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire. It’s like being inside the Star Wars universe, and the delightful sense of tension and interplay between the two galactic powers is just plain incredible.
You won’t rebel against a game night featuring Star Wars: Rebellion.
This is a two-person game. This is a massive, epic, complex, and extremely fun two-person game. This is, in fact, the two-person game to end all two-person games. It’s also the best Star Wars game I’ve ever played. It’s the Rebellion vs the Empire in a galactic game of deadly hide and seek, where the Empire’s might can be turned against it as the more mobile Rebellion hides its base and completes objectives to destroy Imperial holdings. There are so many things to love about this game, from the way it feels really true to Star Wars to the way the tension always feels poignant and fun, to the way that all the complexity is front-loaded onto the set-up and otherwise simplified during play.
That last point is probably my favorite: because while it takes a while to get the game ready, the Rebellion has a lot of its rules built-in on the game pieces themselves — by drawing a card, that card tells you exactly what to do, thereby eliminating a lot of the clunkiness that such a big game might usually have. That makes this an ideal game for players who are just pushing into the heavier world of strategy games, as well as those who are just die-hard Star Wars fans!
Designer: Antoine Bauza
Artist: Dimitri Chappuis, Miguel Coimbra, Etienne Hebinger, Cyril Nouvel
Publisher: Repos Production
Have you ever wanted to build a civilization from the ground up? Well, in 7 Wonders you finally can, and in a system that is far more accessible for fans of lighter-weight games. Other favorites of this genre, like Advanced Cilivation or Through the Ages, are incredibly complex games to learn and play, making them off-putting to new players or players more interested in casual fun than micromanaging and long setup times.
It’s a wonder that a copy of 7 Wonders isn’t owned by everyone
7 Wonders bridges the gap between the deep simulation world of civilization building and management and the sort of fun and fast-paced gameplay that makes it accessible for a wider range of players. While it has all the excellent aspects of a civ-building game, like resource management and deep economics, the game system handles all of this with a powerful card development system that quickly feels intuitive. Out of all the civilization-style board games out there, this is probably the best.
Designer: Antoine Bauza, Bruno Cathala
Artist: Miguel Coimbra
Publisher: Repos Production
The little brother of 7 Wonders, one of the best-selling board games in all of history, 7 Wonders: Duel is an absolute treat of a game that takes all the great civilization-building strategy of its predecessor and condenses it into a simplified format for play between two players.
I loved being able to feel like I really was at the forefront of a grand, age-spanning civilization in 7 Wonders, and having a lot of that squeezed down into a smaller and more streamlined system works really well for me. This is the game I like to use to introduce new players to the deeper side of the board game multiverse.
What makes 7 Wonders: Duel so wonderful?
7 Wonders is a big game and can be pretty intimidating to players new to deeper strategy board games, but Duel simplifies things while at the same time ensuring that all the great game concepts that made the original work are still respected. Players can win through various conditions, like military and science, and have access to all the cool resource mechanics their hearts could desire — all in a condensed package!
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil, Scot Eaton
Artist: Tomáš Kučerovský
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Codenames: Duet is the updated cooperative version of the classic Codenames game of party gaming fame, and is by far my favorite of the two iterations (primarily because co-op games themselves are my favorite). It’s an incredibly light and easy game to play, with just the right amount of complexity to keep a group of players (potentially a large group of players) happy, but without overburdening everyone with a hard-to-learn ruleset. Ultimately: it’s fun, it’s simple, and it’s a co-op game, making it one of my favorite party board games.
The popularity of Codenames: Duet is easy to codify.
Can we place the spies and avoid the assassins? The game premise is really simple and really classic, as players work their way through a 5 x 5 grid of cards that are laid out on the table (from a deck of 500, meaning that there is a lot of replay value here). Using a decoder ring card, players try to get their partner to guess where they need to place their spy card using a clue comprised of a word and a number (nothing more), but watch out! If a player picks a spot with an assassin marked on it, the game ends.
Designer: Paul Dennen
Artist: Clay Brooks, Raul Ramos, Nate Storm
Publisher: Dire Wolf
Dune: Imperium is foreshadowing the release of the new Dune film series, offering players a chance to delve into the rich setting with a hybrid deck building and worker placement game that features a simplified Dune aesthetic (one based on the new movies, sadly, and not my favorite 1984 version). It’s a bit more of a learning curve than some players might be ready for, but I think it’s still light enough for players who aren’t used to heavyweight games to pick up and enjoy.
Will Dune: Imperium worm its way into the heart of your collection?
Players take on the role of one of the various Great Houses of the Landsraad, the ruling political feudal body in the Dune universe. The goal is to compete with other players to harvest spice and become the dominant force on the desert planet Arrakis (also known as… Dune). Using a really cool mixture of a deck-building mechanic, combat, and worker placement the game features a great sense of tension. None of its mechanics are massively unique, but the interplay between all the various factors are really well-connected and balanced, making this a real winner.
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino
Artist: Matthias Catrein, Julien Delval, Tomasz Jedruszek, Ryan Laukat
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Ever since my friend John introduced me to Dominion, I’ve been a total fan of this brilliant deck-building game where players vie for control of the most valuable lands by amassing a great fortune and making clever use of various action cards. It’s a game with a huge range of tactical options and a bunch of expansions that allow for dramatically extended play and a variety of optional rulesets.
I love, love, love how easy this game is to learn. It’s extremely simple to pick up, even though it’s extremely difficult to master. There’s not a lot of deep story embedded in the game, so the aesthetic does feel a little like aesthetic for the sake of aesthetic, but the variety inherent in even just the base set is massive, so it operates more like a game system than a single game.
How Dominion came to dominate my heart.
My first introduction to deck building games, Dominion opened my eyes to a vast new world of gaming potential, where the possibilities for victory were much broader and more fun than I could have imagined. Sure, there are tried and true card combinations and classic approaches to the strategy of Dominion that players are bound to fall into, but there’s also a maniacal sense of glee that arises from managing to forge the path to victory using an uncommon deck combination that nobody else has dared yet try. Once you start adding on the expansions, this game becomes really massive, and the range of potential play is huge. Anyone who loves trying to outwit their friends needs to play this one.
Designer: Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
Artist: Charles Woods
Publisher: Gale Force Nine, LLC
Firefly is totally one of the best science fiction television series of all time, and probably Joss Whedon’s best work (which I say as a total Buffy nerd), but it’s also a series with a lot of emotional meaning for me. One of my favorite games to play with my sister, it manages to offer a surprisingly deep Firefly experience without either dipping too deeply into the canon of the show or staying within the realm of purely generic. Our favorite way to play is to make our own unique captain cards and take on the challenges that the game presents in our own unique ways.
What lights up Firefly’s gameplay?
Firefly: The Game is all about hiring crew, undertaking jobs (both legal and not), and trying to survive in an increasingly small sky. It’s about outrunning the Reavers lurking in the black, and about outwitting the Alliance patrolling the corporate space lanes. All the themes of Firefly are implemented really deftly within this system, to such a degree that it could almost be one-half of a role-playing game, rather than a trading game.
By moving your unique craft around the ‘Verse, you buy upgrades at ports and planets, take on contracts, and use unique items, coupled with your crew’s skill and the luck of the dice, to overcome obstacles while on the job. It’s an immense amount of fun and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Designer: John Yianni
Artist: John Yianni
Publisher: Gen42 Games
Human beings love strategy games almost as much as we love games of luck (and we often come up with extreme strategies for beating the odds in those games of luck), but most games of strategy that one can play to any degree of depth require a fair number of components to play. Even famous strategy card games generally require a large deck. Not Hive! Hive is a boardless board game with just 22 hexagonal tiles, which themselves create the playing field.
What’s the buzz with Hive’s gameplay?
Hive is played between two players in turns, with each player putting down a hexagonal tile each turn. All the pieces can be moved, once placed, according to specific rules for the type of bug printed on the tile. Only each player’s Queen Bee cannot be moved once placed, and the game ends once she is completely surrounded by other tiles.
Since each different “bug” has a different way to move in relationship to the other hexagonal tiles, a huge range of potential tactical and strategic options await the savvy player, and no two games ever feel quite the same. This is not only an awesomely fun game with a great range of strategies, but it’s also ultra-portable, making it a great alternative to digital games for those trying to detox from digital overload.
Designer: Dane Beltrami, Corey Konieczka, Christian T. Petersen
Artist: Scott Schomburg
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Ah, Twilight Imperium! You glorious and incredible creature. This is one of the most complicated and most delightful games in existence, especially if you and your friends are willing to commit an entire day to its play. Sitting down for a session of Twilight Imperium actually feels like running the complex political machinery of an empire, and it’s best played alongside the sort of friends who don’t tire easily and who enjoy figuring out how to leverage big gains from small changes on the field. It’s a game with the complexity of a wargame, and with all the complicated military potential for some epic battles, but where actually deciding to go to war is rarely (if ever) the right choice for your people.
Twilight Imperium is dense but the sun will never set on this beauty.
Playing TI is awesome because the goal, and the playing field, are never the same between any two games. The galaxy map is constructed from 51 tiles, created together by the players one tile at a time; strategy cards further define different necessary approaches to play, and claimed planets can make or break an empire (as they can lead to both friction and war or peace and the prosperity of trade). Between simply managing the spread, trade, and defense of your empire, and the complicated effort of trying to complete both public and secret objectives, this game is a massive and immersive experience like no other.
Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave
Artist: Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
One of the most beautiful games to come out in the last couple of years, Wingspan is brilliant in every possible way, aesthetically and mechanically. It also happens to be one of my latest recent favorite games and one that I can easily say will remain a permanent part of my collection. Wingspan is also one of the rare games where the single-player version of the game actually feels really fun, which is frankly not always the case with board games labeled “single-player.” Perhaps it’s the subtle puns built into the game, or just how gorgeous the game is, but it’s simply a treat to unpack and set it up regardless of whether I’m playing with myself or up to four others.
What makes Wingspan soar?
It’s a game about maintaining the best possible wildlife bird preserve, which might not sound like the best game until you realize that the mechanics are totally addictive. It’s really a resource management game, where each player has different birds, plays them using different types of food, and uses the ability of the card they just placed. It’s a fast-paced game with a fair amount of luck involved, which happens to be light enough for non-games (a great introduction to heavier games for non-gamers, actually), but a really relaxing game for long-time gamers who need a chill experience.
This is definitely the top game on my list from the last few years because it’s a perfect middle-ground game for all players and most age ranges. It’s a great game to introduce lightweight players to a more complex gaming experience, it’s a good game to relax to if you’re a hard-core gamer without much free time, and it’s a joyous aesthetic experience for everyone. There is a digital version available which you can definitely check out as well, it’s totally awesome, but because the physical construction of Wingspan is just so totally gorgeous I have to recommend grabbing the real thing. Besides, we all need to get off our screens more these days.