My Top 10 Board Games
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
For almost ten years, board gaming has been my number one hobby. This comes as a surprise to people whose conception of board gaming is limited to those awful nights playing Monopoly. But there is so much more to board gaming than the standard Monopoly, Risk, Sorry, or Chess. Even the relatively interesting and complex Settlers of Catan has been surpassed by many other games with similar themes. Board games nowadays come in endless rich varieties. So much so, in fact, that I believe everyone likes board games. People who think they don't simply haven't found the right one yet!
I'm writing this to highlight a few of my favorite games, and to help show how much this great hobby has to offer. Here is a list of of the ones I love the most from bottom to top:
10. Leaving Earth
1-5 Players, 45 minutes per player
Leaving Earth is about the mid-20th century space race between the United States and Soviet Union (other countries can also be involved). Each player takes charge of a space agency and is tasked with researching technology, assembling rockets with capsules to create spacecraft, and calculating routes to and from celestial objects in our solar system. Your goal is to complete more challenging objectives than anyone else (e.g. sending a human into space is worth less than landing a human on the moon, which is worth less than finding life on Mars).
For a game that involves lots of math and careful planning, Leaving Earth might appear stodgy or tedious when you first sit down to play. I'll absolutely admit it's probably not a game for everyone. But if you stick with it, you'll find that Leaving Earth is unexpectedly hilarious. There is inherent comedy in the risk versus speed element to the game. For example, only the first country to land a person on the moon earns that objective, but it takes time to research safe technology or you run the risk of malfunctions. So I guarantee the entire table will burst out laughing when your immaculately assembled spaceship, which cost three years and $80 million to build, crash lands on Mars because you thought you could get away with poorly designed landing gear. I've only played Leaving Earth a few times unfortunately, which is probably the only reason it's so low on this list.
2-7 Players, 1 hour
This is a game which really shakes up people's preconceived notions about board games. Firstly, it's cooperative. This means every player is working together to reach a common goal. Secondly, Mysterium involves asymmetric roles. One person is the omniscient "ghost" and is trying to help the remaining "investigators" figure out a murder mystery. But the ghost cannot speak—instead it must communicate to everyone else using only a deck of cards. Each card has a unique piece of cryptic art which can relate to either the person who did the murdering, the place the murder happened, or the murder weapon (yes, this is a Clue spin-off). But there are no set rules on how the art on the cards relates to anything else! It's all up to the ghost's interpretations.
Mysterium is my favorite game to introduce to people new to the hobby. The cooperative element means new players are never at risk of being demolished by those who are more experienced. Everyone wins together or everyone loses together! And because the clue cards can be interpreted in so many different ways, everyone has a plausible rationale for the choices they make throughout the game. This reduces the chance any single player will be blamed by the group if everyone loses. Lastly, the theme is terrifically spooky and is therefore required gaming on every Halloween.
8. Captain Sonar
8 Players, 30 minutes
Imagine the game Battleship, but instead of being boring, slow, and random it's exciting, fast, and tactical! Captain Sonar is a team game in which players line up on opposites sides of a table and assume the command of a particular station on a opposing submarines. Unlike almost every other board game, however, players don't take turns. Everything, from moving the submarine, using the torpedoes and sonar, fixing broken stuff, and tracking the enemy submarine's movements are all done in real time. Because there are mechanical limitations to how fast the game allows you can do things, the team with the most efficient coordination will win and blow up the enemy sub!
Captain Sonar had the potential to be even higher on my list but it's hurt by the fact that the game experience can be a bit hit-or-miss. Sometimes you play with seven other people who are all just as enthusiastic, and at the same skill level, as you are and it's great! But if one or two players aren't into it, or feel overwhelmed by the speed of the game, it can really bring things down for everyone else. Captain Sonar is a machine which demands lots of oil from all players to run properly.
7. 878 Vikings
4 Players, 1 hour 30 minutes
I have trouble describing to people why this game is so good (the goofy box art definitely doesn't help). The premise involves the Vikings and the English battling it out over the British countryside. Like Risk, 878 Vikings uses dice—but the combat system never feels dull and tedious. This is because there's a fairly high probability that one, or both sides', units will flee the battle every time a round of battle takes place. This leads to hilarious outcomes where the local village people gallantly rise up to defend their town from the viking horde, only to all immediately run away at the first sign of danger.
Like Captain Sonar, 878 Vikings is also a team game. This is such an inherently fun dynamic because it takes away so much stress that would normally occur in these sort of competitive war games. 878 Vikings also doesn't expect one team to completely eliminate the other team—instead the attacking Vikings and defending English play a tug-of-war over cities on the map and whichever side controls the most when the game ends wins. Captain Sonar is the "fixed" Battleship and 878 Vikings is the "fixed" Risk. And if you're not into the vikings theme, there are very similar versions of this game for the American Revolutionary War, the French Indian War, and the War of 1812.
2-5 Players, 2 hours
In Scythe, each player controls a faction in a post-World War I alternate reality setting. Your goal is to collect the most money (through conquering territory or conquering objectives) when the game ends. It's a tricky game to describe beyond that though. On the one hand it's about resource collection and management. But on the other hand it's about war and exploration. Clearly the designers of Scythe picked and chose pieces from lots of other strategy games (such as Settlers of Catan) and assembled them together into one big beautiful mess.
You will enjoy Scythe if you can find elegance in the chaotic mix of disparate objectives and game play mechanisms. For some, it will all be an awful mess that elicits annoyance and boredom over the two-plus hours it takes to play. But for others, there will be a moment when they say "Ohhhh...." and suddenly everything starts clicking into place. As a member of this latter group, I enjoy Scythe immensely whether I win or lose. It's just such an engaging puzzle. Another thing to mention about Scythe is that it is a gorgeous game in terms of art design. The art is so good that I even have a print of it hanging in my room.
5. Galaxy Trucker
2-4 Players, 1 hour
Galaxy Trucker earns its place on this list by being the funniest game I've ever played. During the first stage of the game all players are rushing to build a spaceship by grabbing parts from the center of the table which need to be fit together in particular ways. Like Captain Sonar, this is done in real time and everyone has to stop one minute after the first player finishes their ship. After this mad dash to assemble a semi-functional spaceship, everyone faces a series of challenges in space. The general goal here is to collect more cargo than anyone else—but more often than not you'll be lucky to make it through the challenges with your ship even intact! Hazard such as asteroids, aliens, and slavers either tear apart your ship or steal your crew/cargo. There's nothing funnier than seeing someone's magnificent spaceship reduced to little more than a single engine and a couple cabin spaces by the end of the round.
4. Letters From Whitechapel
2-6 Players, 1 hour 30 minutes
Random chance makes lots of games fun. In this list, Leaving Earth, 878 Vikings, and Galaxy Trucker all have significant elements of luck which invariably lead to hilarious outcomes. But sometimes you'd rather play a board game which is pure skill. Letters From Whitechapel is a game which pits your wits against your opponents with a Chess-like level of tactical thinking. Like Mysterium, Whitechapel gives players different roles with asymmetric information. But whereas the ghost and the investigators in Mysterium are working together to solve a mystery, in Whitechapel the investigators are trying to thwart the Jack and Ripper player from carrying out his gruesome murders.
The game uses a map of London's Whitechapel neighborhood on which the investigators move their pieces around trying to find Jack's home. The Jack the Ripper player doesn't have a piece to move around—instead they secretly record the spaces they travel on a sheet on paper, and only reveal locations on it if an investigator crosses the trail. Because the investigators are usually a few steps behind Jack, they need to use clever deductive thinking to figure out his likely destinations. But is Jack bluffing? Is he simply moving in one direction, only to backtrack over his steps and head in the opposite direction? The simple rules of Letters From Whitechapel lead to some of the most interesting mind games I've ever encountered in board gaming.
3. Twilight Imperium
3-6 Players, 6+ hours
Twilight Imperium is the board game to end all board games. It's an epic space opera that takes a minimum of six hours to play. There's something in it for everyone: warfare, diplomacy, trade, science. Focusing on just one aspect of the game is not enough for your empire to win. To triumph in this crazy space marathon players must artfully weave all facets of this wonderfully complex game together.
There's so much to talk about with Twilight Imperium that I could write a whole post on it. But there's one thing in particular which I think makes TI really stand out, and that's the political dynamics each group brings to the game. I usually play TI with a group of players who generally dislike direct competition in games. A few even claim this game isn't about fighting or conquest (though they act differently when I threaten to demolish their home planet with my War Suns)! This means that attacking someone out of opportunity or aggression will immediately turn you into a pariah, thus cutting you out of trade deals or technology sharing. So, just as in real life international relations, players spend a long time building up a credible rationale for attacking their opponents in order to avoid reprisals from other players. Bluster and "revenge" for perceived slights play important roles in this as well. These political maneuvers are part of the reason why Twilight Imperium transcends so many other board games.
2. Terra Mystica
2-5 Players, 2 hours
I love this game. It's just the most lovely, perfect game I've ever played. Everything works together in such a beautiful way that makes every game a unique and wonderful puzzle. The gameplay is similar to Scythe's in that players are building a civilization and spreading their empire across the map. But Terra Mystica has no combat—all the magical races of creatures can live side by side in harmony (except the stupid Riverwalkers. We hate them). That's not to say there isn't player interaction, however. Players compete with each other for territory, bonus powers, and of course, favor with the four mystical cults.
As I'm trying to write this description of Terra Mystica, I'm realizing that it doesn't have many of the same flashy traits we've seen in the other games on this list. Rather, it's just an impeccably made game of little wooden buildings and magical bowls of purple power pieces. I think my reason for adoring it so much is very personal. I started playing Terra Mystica just as much obsession with board games started to flourish. And the memories I have playing this game are so dear and special to me (thanks Matt and Megan!).
1. The Resistance
5-10 Players, 30 minutes
This spot could have been taken by other social deduction games, such as Secret Hitler or One Night Ultimate Werewolf, but I chose the Resistance because it is the one which I've consistently had the most fun with over the years. For those who don't know, social deduction games generally involve two teams of players each trying to achieve certain goals. But everyone's identity is a secret which means you need to lie, bluff, cajole, beg, intimidate, and double-cross others in order to help your team to victory.
I don't know what it says about me that I enjoy games where lying plays such a crucial role. In any case, there is just something so satisfying about winning over enough people's trust that they select you for the final mission, and it's your vote which decides the outcome of the entire game. I have a bad habit of gloating loudly in those situations, which is probably part of the reason why I am immediately distrusted by most of the table as soon as the game begins. In the end I had to put the Resistance number 1 on this list because I've played it the most and it never gets old.