Believe it or not we here at iSlayTheDragon do not agree on everything. Perhaps you’ve heard us squabble over hot topics from the board gaming world in a series about why Jason is always wrong. We also have a wide range in gaming preferences and what better way to assert your individuality than with a good old fashion authoritative top 10 games of all time list? FarmerLenny started us off and now I’m here to share my slightly better list with minor overlap.
In general I’m a pretty big efficiency gamer and enjoy games that challenge me with circumstances and puzzles to deal with better than the other players. That means I’m not a huge fan of direct interaction and tend to prefer engine building and economic games. I like elegant designs that minimize rules or combine mechanics in very smooth and intuitive ways. Most of my favorite games fall into two categories: card driven games and medium-heavy euros. I also love game systems (ones supported by expansions) which will be very apparent in this list. On to the games!
Note: I’ve been playing games since before 2011 but didn’t start recording plays until then. Play count is a decent but incomplete representation of my experience with these games as of November 1, 2015.
10. Ascension: Deckbuilding Game
The second best deck builder
Year Published: 2010
Plays since 2011: 171
Ascension introduced the quick setup, middle row drafting concept to deck building. It can seem quite random compared to the traditional format that Dominion introduced but I’ve found that is largely mitigated when framed within the 2-player experience. Suddenly each purchase has the opportunity cost of providing something new to your opponent. The center row ends up feeling a lot more like an open draft (as was the original intention) than a random pool of cards. There’s also a dual currency system that was implemented more naturally than Thunderstone since you don’t have to choose which to use on any given turn.
Another change from Dominion was the lifting of purchase and action restrictions. This makes it a friendlier game to teach and play while emphasizing the drafting concept and still encouraging well designed decks. Between the quicker setup and smoother play this game all but replaced Dominion for my family (but not in my heart).
Chaos that works
Year Published: 2010
Plays since 2011: 21
Innovation is a game that, on paper, I should hate. It has some nasty direct interaction and tableaus that develop in a somewhat erratic and chaotic fashion. But the design here is so elegant that it somehow still works. The game itself is about the eroding and rebuilding, advancing and obsoleting of society and the theme comes across very sharply. It’s a tactical game that challenges you to execute a strategy within a highly variable environment. This could rapidly descend into pure luck but as with any well designed card-driven game the key here is allowing players to overcome based on familiarity with the game system and available card pool. Your first few games will seem highly random because you don’t know what you’re doing and cards that you had no knowledge of will affect you in unpredictable ways. But if you weather the storm there’s a realization that you somehow still have control amidst rapidly changing conditions.
I’m still not sure exactly why Innovation works when it should be a chaotic mess. That speaks volumes to the strength of the design and is a large part of why I think so highly of it. That and multiple-use-for-cards is such an compelling mechanic.
8. Roll For The Galaxy
Sorry, I can’t hear you over all these dice cups
Year Published: 2014
Plays since 2011: 79
I’m probably holding back by putting Roll so low at #8 but I need more time to figure out exactly where it’s going to end up. I debated keeping it off until next year but I’ve already played it more than most of the games on this list and considering I’ve owned it for less than a year that’s saying a lot. So here it is for now looking to steadily work its way up the list in the years to come.
Having played Roll nearly 80 times I can safely say I LOVE THIS GAME. I love it enough to have easily considered jumping it right into my top 10 after a couple plays, a feat that only one other game has accomplished. Furthermore, I’m just as excited to play it now as I was when I got it back in December. I haven’t been this addicted to a game since the one sitting in the #1 spot. It’s clever, it’s fresh, and it’s downright FUN. You get to roll a whole bunch of dice which is always a blast but then you’re given some real meaningful decisions to make afterwards. I’ve secretly been searching for a truly excellent dice game to compete with all my snobby euros and Roll doesn’t pull any punches. My search is over, it’s my grail dice game.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better along came the first expansion, Ambition, to add to Roll’s brilliance. It is. It’s brilliant.
You’re going into debt, deal with it
Year Published: 2009
Plays since 2011: 5
Homesteaders is the first example of a game that elegantly intertwines mechanics in a very natural way. Auction off property rights that allow you to build a tableau where you can place workers that will generate resources. The whole thing follows the progression from settlement to town to city that drives engines forward.
What’s so impressive about Homesteaders is the tightness that the auction imposes on the development of tableaus. There is one less item available than the number of players so one player will go home empty handed (aside from the railroad progression) but with a full wallet. The players are ultimately in charge of how punishing the game is by setting the incentive for dropping out. If you play with seasoned players you will take debt, there’s just no getting around it. That’s a concept in economic games that I like because you have to deal with less than ideal conditions. It’s tough to evaluate what things are worth with the money you do have, it’s even harder when you can use money you don’t.
The trading system provides a second source and sink for money that gives players much needed flexibility within this context. One of my main problems with resource conversion games is how knowledge of conversion paths is critical to success in a way that requires you to study the game in order to play well. Homesteaders gives players pretty intuitive steps along the way that overcomes this barrier. It still helps to know what’s coming but it’s less crucial while you are learning.
Welcoming meeples of all colors to the new world
Year Published: 2012
Plays since 2011: 7
Keyflower is another game that brilliantly mashes up mechanics. This time worker placement and auctions seamlessly coexist by using workers as currency. WOW, who would have thought to do that? It lays a very natural foundation for all the layers that get thrown on top. Delicious layers.
Layer #1 – There are different colored workers/currency. Bids and activations are determined by the first placement at any given location. Not only does this give you some delightfully excruciating decisions in resource management but it limits decisions at the same time to speed things along.
Layer #2 – Available actions expand for the first half of the game (spring and summer) and plateau once significant point sources become available for auction (autumn and winter). First and foremost this ramps up the complexity of the game until the midpoint where it stops just shy of overloading the players and instead lets them switch gears into implementing their engines. This moves into the concept of building an engine/strategy without knowing exactly what pieces are going to be in play. This is a tall task considering the majority of your points come in the last two seasons but there are enough options to give players plenty of room to adapt.
Layer #3 – Your resources are only as good as your ability to score them. Having a ton of workers or tools won’t do you any good if you can’t actually use them to score points. The early seasons lets you use these pieces to run your engine but once the weather starts getting cold you have to figure out how to turn those pieces into points. I love the condition based scoring that makes this transition more than the traditional shift from money to points that many economic games utilize.
5. Power Grid
Math is hard
Plays since 2011: 7
As far as straight up pure and simple economic efficiency games go I’m not sure there’s anything better than Power Grid. I know people like to complain about breaking out the calculators but it’s really not that bad as long as you can add stuff up. You can do that, right?
Every now and then I get tempted to let something new and fancy overtake Power Grid’s spot. Keyflower almost did but then I played Power Grid again and remembered why I love it so much. It’s the simplicity and elegance of a controlled environment that everyone is trying to manipulate to make small gains. All three phases of the game inject interaction in different ways: auction, dynamic market, and network building. These interactions prevent things from bogging down into a slog of mathematical optimization (ideally). Yet you still have a lot of control via the incredibly clever turn order mechanic. Every turn challenges you to do the best you can with the current board state or patiently wait for a more favorable one. My instinct in most games is to jump out ahead and try to stay ahead but Power Grid challenges that kind of behavior. Once players know how to work the systems there’s a wonderful metagame around doing as little developing as possible while vying for turn order.
Simply put this is the golden standard for tight economic efficiency games. Keep the rules simple and the mechanics streamlined so players can focus on playing.
Granddaddy of the deck builders
Year Published: 2008
Plays since 2011: 251
Now we’ve come to my most played game from the last five years. Dominion has managed something unprecedented. It birthed a genre and, seven years later, still remains the best of the lot. I’m aware that’s a matter of opinion but it’s pretty evident to me that Dominion does the best job of challenging players to build an efficient deck. That’s the sole focus of the game and all the restrictions in place make for a highly strategic experience in spite of what you might expect from a game with this much shuffling.
I enjoyed Dominion for several years at a fairly casual level. It was fun to play around with the game system, pulling off combos with little care as to whether or not they were winning strategies. In the back of my mind I was afraid that while Dominion was fun, it wasn’t actually all that deep. I feared that if I learned how to play well that I would be much more restricted in viable paths and the game would suffer for it. I wanted Dominion to stay fun and didn’t think there was the depth to support it. I was very, very wrong.
Right around the time that I discovered Isotropic I also read a review praising Dominion’s depth so I decided to take the plunge. I switched to the lightning fast, highly competitive 2-player environment of the Isotropic community and learned just how robust Dominion really was. I stuck with it until Isotropic announced that it was shutting down and ever so quickly switched back to in person casual play. I’ll note that all of my recorded plays are physical games, if you add in my Isotropic matches I’m sure the total would be closer to 500+.
That leads to the other amazing thing Dominion manages to pull off. It straddles the line from super casual to highly competitive. I’ve experienced the whole spectrum and genuinely enjoy each style of play equally. I love messing around with silly combos just as much as running a tight and fast deck. I can play differently with players of varying experience and still feel rewarded, that’s an amazing thing.
Plays since 2011: 10
I have a soft spot for brutal, punishing games. Ones that reward players for playing well and doesn’t offer any help for those that fall behind. Despite the friendly appearance, Agricola is notorious for being a tense and cruel game.
Years later a sequel of sorts came along, a little game known as Caverna: The Cave Farmers. It was friendly. It let you be more flexible, accomplish more things. It’s Agricola without the sting and without individualized player goals (cards). And for quite a few it was praised as the better game. But for me it lost a lot of the things that I liked so much about Agricola.
I play Agricola for the tension. Hours of excruciating tension. Ruthless, passive-aggressive tension. The game thrives on creating and maintaining this dynamic. On top of that each player is challenged to make the most of what they’re given (occupations and minor improvements). This provides variation and gives players unique ways to overcome the harsh environment. They also allow for a distinct variation between diversification and specialization.
My name is Andrew and I’m on Team Agricola.
2. Railways Of The World
Plays since 2011: 12
Railways has a special spot on this list because it is genuinely one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had playing games. I love every moment of each play and will never ever turn down a game.
Given my preferences it may seem like Age of Steam or even Steam should be here instead but they’re not, Railways is. The main reason is the freedom to develop my railroad network the way that I want. I don’t always enjoy fighting against a game system, I want it to provide a framework to play in. If it feels like too much work then I’d rather play something fun instead. Despite being looser and friendlier Railways does a better job of immersing me in the experience. And yet with more experienced players it’s still pretty brutal and punishing to inefficient play. At its core Railways fits the bill of being a well oiled economic efficiency puzzle.
In spite of its flaws I haven’t found a better empire/engine building game and that’s why it gets a top spot.
1. Race For The Galaxy
It’s not even close
Plays since 2011: 165
I can’t imagine any game ever dethroning Race For The Galaxy in my collection or heart. It’s so ingrained in my gaming experience that it almost doesn’t matter how good of a game it is. It’s one of the first games that I learned after getting into the hobby and a family favorite. Fortunately it is an amazing game and also claims the top spot because it is hands down my favorite design. I could give a lot of reasons but the simplest one is that it packs more decisions into the shortest period of time than any other game. It is the super filler.
Coming soon to the top 10?
Here are the games that just missed the cut either because they are too new or I don’t have enough experience with them to determine their position. Any of them could easily show up here next year, particularly the first one (look out Agricola).
- Fields of Arle
- Glass Road
- Terra Mystica
For inquisitive minds Ginkgopolis is the game that got booted from the list to make room for Roll For The Galaxy. The main reason is that I don’t own it (and couldn’t take a picture of it) despite how much I absolutely adore it. If I manage to pick up a copy it has a nearly guaranteed spot.
Feel free to tell me that this is the best top 10 list ever or why I’m wrong. And if you want to hear from the rest of our team make sure to start bugging them on Twitter and let them know that you’re sick of hearing about boring euros.
Interesting list…I’ve played only a few of the games (Agricola and Race for the Galaxy), but not one is on my Top 10 list. Admittedly, I don’t even like Agricola. However, of the “coming soon” list, Nations is on my Top 10 for both its sweeping presentation of the world’s history in a tight manageable game, along with an accessible, yet difficult solo mode in a way that leaves Through the Ages in the dusty shelves of Antiquity.
This is the second-best top ten I’ve seen… 🙂
Well done! I enjoyed reading it.
Thanks for a great write-up. As someone whose top 5 is almost exactly the same as yours, I recommend Mottainai, if you haven’t tried it already! So much depth in a 15-minute game.
Going to go look up Railways now…
It’s a little strange that so many of your top games have seen fewer than 10 plays in the past ~4 years. What, do you have a life or something? I mean, you’re writing for a board game website!