Top 10 Board Games for Christmas 2019 (and Why They’re Popular)

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It’s that time of the year. The leaves have almost all left their trees, most of my family is still in a food coma from last Thursday, and – oh yes – the Black Friday shopping has begun! As you might expect, this is also the time of year when a lot of people to go to Google and type in “top 10 board games for Christmas 2019.”

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While I typically write articles strictly for board game creators, today is a little different. If you’re reading this, I’m betting that you’re asking one of two questions:

  1. What do I buy for the board gamer in my family?
  2. Why are certain games popular right now?

To answer both of these questions, I took a snapshot of Board Game Geek – Mecca of all things board games – on Saturday, November 30. I started with the trendiest games and worked my way down the list, scratching off anything that wasn’t on sale right now online. What remains is a top 10 list of games you can buy (or back-order) right now that are already drawing the attention of board gamers.

With all this in mind, let’s get right to it!

10. Brass Birmingham ($50.59 on Miniature Market)

The original board game Brass is one of the most highly regarded board games of the modern era. It came out in 2007 and people were still talking about it a decade later.

Enter Brass: Birmingham. It’s got all the elements of the original that gamers liked – the economic strategy and dynamic scoring – plus some new mechanics carefully chosen by the original creator to make the game even better. In particular, they’ve added a sixth action called “Scout” in which you discard cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. They’ve also added some new industry types, which helps add variety to the game.

If you or someone in your family is looking for a challenging board game in the $50 range, this is an excellent choice!

9. Everdell ($54.94 on Amazon)

I’ve written at length about Everdell before and why it’s a good game. Long story short, it’s got a cute fantasy theme with really well-executed worker placement mechanics. It’s a wonderful mix of gritty strategy and charm that’s reminiscent of Root.

8. Nemesis ($119.99 on Miniature Market)

In many ways Nemesis is the polar opposite of Everdell! It’s a sci-fi survival horror story heavily inspired by the Alien franchise. The Board Game Geek page does a great job of explaining why Nemesis is so interesting…

Nemesis is a semi-cooperative game where you and your crew-mates must survive on a ship infested with hostile organisms. To win the game, you will have to complete one of the two objectives dealt to you at the start of the game and get back to Earth in one piece. You will find many obstacles on your way: swarms of Intruders (the name given to the alien organisms by the ship AI), the poor physical condition of the ship, the other players that will have their own agendas and, sometimes, just cruel fate.

7. Godtear (Eternal Glade Starter Set, $49.99 + shipping on Amazon)

Godtear is a hex-based tabletop skirmish board game for two players. The whole purpose of the game is to collect the tears of fallen gods. The game is driven by different scenarios, each of which have their own rules.

What you have here is a classic, gorgeous fantasy game that never feels stale. That’s the magic of having a scenario-based game – tons of variety and tons of replayability.

6. Terraforming Mars ($45.00 on Amazon)

Terraforming Mars has been considered a new classic since the day it first came out. For all its flaws, I love Terraforming Mars – it gives players more opportunities for creative play than just about any other game I’ve seen.

The basic idea is that you and all your opponents represent different corporations trying to tame the red planet. It’s the only game I know where you can throw a meteor at a planet to purposefully cause global warming so you win.

5. Marvel Champions: The Card Game ($74.99 on Amazon)

There are few companies that have as much raw material for interesting stories as Marvel. You can see that play out in Marvel Champion: The Card Game. Again, I’ll borrow from the Board Game Geek page to describe the game.

Iron Man and Black Panther team up to stop Rhino from rampaging through the streets of New York. Captain Marvel and Spider-Man battle Ultron as he threatens global annihilation. Do you have what it takes to join the ranks of these legendary heroes and become a champion?

Marvel Champions: The Card Game invites players embody iconic heroes from the Marvel Universe as they battle to stop infamous villains from enacting their devious schemes. As a Living Card Game, Marvel Champions is supported with regular releases of new product, including new heroes and scenarios.

4. Cthulhu: Death May Die ($80.89 on Amazon)

I don’t know if you can tell, but this game has got a bit of an edge to it. Cthulhu: Death May Die feels like it crawled straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. It’s a cooperative game where you and your fellow players are investigators seeking the summon the Elder Gods. Also, you start the game completely insane.

This is an intense game, but with so many thematic miniatures and a total commitment to theme, this game has worked its way up The Hotness list and stayed there for a while.

3. Tapestry ($75.73 on Amazon)

Some of the most well-liked board games of all time are civilization games. One of the most well-liked board game designers is Jamey Stegmaier.

Jamey Stegmaier made a civilization game.

Enough said.

2. Gloomhaven ($86.50 on Amazon)

If you’ve ever stumbled across my greatest board games of all-time list, you know Gloomhaven is at the top. Seriously, it has been #1 on the Top 100 board games list on Board Game Geek for a long time now.

Gloomhaven is so massive that it’s hard to begin to describe why it’s good. It’s heavily story-driven, huge in size and scope like Through the Ages, and it has great components. The theme, backed up by lots of story, is incredibly in tune with gamers’ desires for rich, lived-in fantasy worlds. This game captures what gamers love about literally every other game above it in this article. Gloomhaven truly is the apotheosis of gamer desire.

1. Wingspan ($59.99 on Amazon)

As we said before, new Jamey Stegmaier games are a big deal. Wingspan, however, has been particularly popular. On the Stonemaier Games website, it’s described as a “competitive, medium-weight, card-driven, engine-building board game.” It also won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award, which is a really big deal.

If that weren’t enough, it’s also got a ton of different components – cards, miniature eggs, wooden dice, a birdfeeder dice tower, action cubes, and more.

Long story short, it’s got mechanics that gamers like, gameplay that critics adore, and physical pieces to make gamers feel good about their purchase. It’s a win all around!

Final Thoughts for Buyers

There are so many great board games for Christmas 2019 out there! Any game on this list is an excellent choice – all you have to do is narrow down by price point and theme. The board gamer in your family is sure to be happy!

Final Thoughts for Gamer Designers

Gritty, complex games continue to dominate Board Game Geek! If you want to capture the hearts and minds of the most hardcore board gamers, make a smart, complex game with a big box and a lot of components. The BGG community does not shy away from the intellectual challenge! If they are the market you want to pursue, take some lessons from these games – you’ll be glad you did 🙂

Title photo credit: By PZS69, CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/4647501/wingspan





6 Reasons Escape Rooms Will Make You a Better Board Game Designer

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Handcuffed to my manager, I reached into the toilet to find a small key. We unlocked the jail cell and eventually broke out of prison with two minutes to spare.

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The unwitting reader may suspect this was a sordid affair unbecoming of a Fortune 500 company. In reality, it was my first experience with an Escape Room. I’ve since been in many more for work and family functions alike.

Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer. This is partly because Escape Rooms are everything that board games aspire to be – complex problem-solving games that appeal to a wide audience and provide a remarkable physical experience. You can’t capture the true experience of an Escape Room in a box (though some have tried), but you can learn from them, take elements from them that work, and apply them to your future designs.

With this in mind, here are six reasons I believe that Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer.

1. Escape Rooms are master classes in theme.

Board games often run the risk of having themes that feel pasted-on. For as much as we talk about theme-mechanic unity here, it’s an ideal to be pursued and which is seldom truly met. To have a truly immersive theme is the dream of many board game designers.

Fair enough, board games can still be great even if the theme feels watery. But then you have Escape Rooms. In them, everything is a part of the game – the dimensions of the room, every prop, and every symbol. Escape Rooms are an entirely different medium in which wholly original theme ideas can be played out. You can’t use many of them in board games, but they are, at the very least, idea factories for those who prefer to create games with cardboard and plastic.

2. The appeal of Escape Rooms is in the physical experience.

Part of the reason Escape Rooms appeal to people who don’t normally play games or solve puzzles is the physical experience. You are locked in a room and you have to use your wits to escape. Every prop, every errant number or symbol scrawled on the wall or the floor, and every strange gadget could have a purpose.

Board games often run the risk of feeling overly cerebral. You have to use your imagination to see the battles play out or feel the stresses of the theme. This is not the case with Escape Rooms, which force theme upon you by means of physical experience.

Granted, Escape Rooms and board games are totally different kinds of experiences. What can a board game designer do to capture even one-tenth of the Escape Room magic? I have two answers to that: use the props to get good ideas for components, and pay attention to unique tactile experiences and see how you can use simple components to take a game to the next level. (Exit games are a good example of what I’m referring to.)

3. Escape Rooms must allow for different viable winning strategies.

By their very nature, Escape Rooms tend to attract a wider audience than simply gamers. The people who wind up playing do so for anything ranging from corporate retreats to family getaways to an unusual date. For this reason, the game has to accommodate a variable player count that can range anywhere from 2 players to 8 or more.

What this results in is a decentralized gaming experience that allows different viable strategies. Yes, certain riddles must be solved in order to escape the room. This cannot be avoided because it is the nature of the game. However, different people can focus on different puzzles. They can freely float from puzzle to puzzle with no real penalty.

In short, gamers have a lot of true agency. They’re not forced to do something they don’t want to do. If they get stuck, they can try something else.

4. Escape Rooms have multiple built-in mechanics that ensure a variable difficulty level.

The ability to work on different puzzles or switch between them is one mechanic that allows players to change the difficulty level of the game. Another mechanic, present in every Escape Room I’ve ever been in, is the ability to ask for hints. In most cases, you are allowed three free hints that you and your team can ask for whenever things get stale. After that, you may receive additional hints with a time penalty.

The hint system is fantastic. There is nothing quite as frustrating as a game that forces you to solve a problem that you’ve lost interest in. This is especially true with people who don’t play a lot of games or solve a lot of puzzles in the first place. It’s an engagement killer. The hint system completely bypasses this.

By allowing players to change strategies on the fly and to request hints when they’re stuck again gives players real agency. This is often what is missing in board game designs, and seeing meaningful choices implemented well will make you a better board game designer.

5. Escape Rooms have built-in time constraints that keep them from becoming stale.

Your typical Escape Room is sixty minutes at a maximum. I think the time limit is a part of what keeps these games fresh. Without the time limit, you would not have the sense of urgency and you would run the risk of people just wanting to go home.

Built-in time constraints are not always sensible in board game design. In fact, they’re usually not. But if your game runs long and your audience doesn’t explicitly want that, then cut the play-time. A short but great board game is like a beloved EP by your favorite band. A long but uneven game is like a double album that you never want to listen to again.

6. Escape Rooms are still a novelty.

It’s no secret that large sections of the board game market run on novelty or fear of missing out. While there are plenty of deep criticisms which one can aim at monetizing FOMO, the truth is that human beings are hard-wired to seek novelty.

Escape Rooms started in 2007. Part of why they are interesting is because they’re new. When you’re making board games, you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the “second but better” approach is often more reliable.

However, you should generally stay on the “early adopter” side of the design curve. Your game is a lot more likely to please the most well-connected board gamers and stay fresh for a long time if you do something relatively novel. In other words, don’t just make another farming game with different colored cubes for resources!

Final Thoughts

Escape Rooms will broaden your board game design horizons. The medium in which Escape Rooms take place is so fresh and innovative, it’s hard to play one without walking away with at least one game design idea. Not to mention, they’re just plain fun!





4 Lessons from Everdell for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Last year, Everdell by Starling Games raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter. It has remained a popular board game since, regularly topping out the Board Game Geek Hotness and showing up multiple times as a giveaway prize in Pangea contests. With that in mind, we owe to ourselves to spend a little time studying its success!

Everdell is a worker placement, tableau-building board game. As the name suggests, Everdell has a fantasy setting, and is indeed named for a charming valley within the game’s world. The setting is described as being “beneath the boughs of towering trees, among meandering streams and mossy hollows, a civilization of forest critters is thriving and expanding.”

As you can imagine, this is right up the alley of many dedicated board gamers. But why exactly is that?

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1. Cute fantasy themes go a long way.

I don’t know what exactly it is about fantasy themes, but board gamers love them. Indeed, readers, moviegoers, and TV bingers all love fantastical settings. This can range from cute and furry settings like those in Everdell and Root to complex worlds like Lord of the Rings or even gritty fantasy epics like Game of Thrones.

Let’s be honest. Life is freaking hard. Sometimes it’s so hard that you don’t even want to face it head-on. Thus, fantasy settings give us a harmless way of unplugging from all the things that stress us out. Science fiction, another perennial favorite of board gamers, is basically fantasy with a thin veneer of science applied. If you don’t believe this, harken back to classic novels like Frank Hebert’s Dune. The shared lineage between science fiction and fantasy is on full display there.

This isn’t necessarily a lesson explicit to Everdell, but the unique history of Starling Games makes it a relevant one. A quick look at the Starling Games About Page states that “Starling Games was launched…in 2018.” In other words, Everdell put a brand new company on the map. That’s a testament to just how much fantasy themes connect to people. That kind of rapid connection to an idea only comes as a direct result of an emotional need being met.

2. Worker placement is popular for a reason.

Like many games, Everdell uses worker placement. In the case of Everdell, workers are placed to help players gather resources, draw cards, and take special actions.

Worker placement is also known as action drafting. This is relevant because it means that players are competing for the permission to perform certain actions in the pursuit of certain goals.

Worker placement is a very simple concept with really profound implications. You can play based on just your needs or with the intention to block your opponents from meeting theirs. There is a reason this mechanic is present in many BGG Top 100 Games such as ViticultureCavernaA Feast for Odin, and Agricola.

Sometime around 2018, I did a major poll asking people what their favorite themes and mechanics were. I can’t find the link to it, but the upshot is that fantasy themes and worker placement mechanics blew everything else out of the water. Everdell is popular in part because the creators identified what gamers liked and simply gave it to them!

3. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel if your game provides enough variety.

Maybe I’ll get some heat for this, but I’ll just go ahead and say it. Everdell doesn’t really do anything new. It’s another worker placement fantasy board game with good components.

This is not an insult.

There’s an old concept in business called “second but better.” Indeed, the most innovative ideas often fail or turn out mediocre at first, so your best experiences with games (or otherwise), often come from masterful creators on well-worn territory.

A commenter on Board Game Geek, jamesjacob, said it better than I possibly could here, so I’ll just quote him.

Don’t let the charming artwork fool you. This is an impressive game that combines tableau-style engine building with classic worker placement mechanics. On the surface, the rules seem pretty ‘I’ve-seen-this-100-times-before’, but the inter-connectedness of the cards makes for engaging decisions and pulling off combos is very satisfying. 

4. 3-D components are a gimmick, but they helped the game draw attention.

On the Board Game Geek ratings page for Everdell, I noticed a few particularly grumpy gamers complained that the fancy 3-D tree included with Everdell does nothing. Fair enough – Everdell could be played without the tree. But I think these gamers are missing the point.

It’s no secret that the board game market is oversaturated and noisy as can be. Anything that can break through the sheer deluge of sameness that defines board game Facebook groups and Twitter feeds is valuable. And indeed, I think it’s necessary if you want to have a shot at making good money on an individual game.

I’ve stated many times before that gimmicks cannot substitute for actual quality gameplay. At the same time, I think gimmicks are necessary to making people look for long enough to absorb the deeper, better qualities of games. The same is true even for books and movies that come out these days. That’s why books have clicky titles and that’s why movie trailers show scenes out of context. They fight for your attention so that enough people stick around to see the real artistry.

Final Thoughts

Everdell is an excellent example of a well-made game perfectly tailored for its audience. It’s a fantasy worker placement board game in a hobby industry full of people who love that kind of experience. It isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s well-crafted, so it doesn’t have to be. And it has just the right amount of gimmickry to make you pay attention.

Not bad for a civilization of woodland creatures!