The 10 Best Board Games of All Time and What We Can Learn from Them

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There are over 100,000 board games in existence. The vast majority have been forgotten and buried in the sands of time. A handful have stood out head and shoulders among the rest, working their way up to the top 10 games on Board Game Geek. This is a truly staggering achievement because pleasing Board Game Geek users is no easy task!

Today, we’ll focus on the best of the best board games and reflect on why they’re so great. Or, at the very least, why the dedicated gamers of Board Game Geek consider them to be the best board games. By studying the greats, we – as designers and publishers – can create better board games for future generations.

 

10. Terra Mystica

 

best board game - terra mystica
Photo by kilroy_locke on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

 

The hardcore gamers who rate games on Board Game Geek are, in their heart of hearts, intellectuals looking for a challenge. Games allow us to transport to distant times and places, forgetting our day-to-day problems by letting us focus on innumerable in-game decisions.

Terra Mystica does this beautifully. It’s one of the heaviest, brainiest, most complex games to achieve notoriety. It’s a perfect information euro with a lot of rules and a lot of ways to play. It does this with a theme of perennial interest to gamers – building civilizations. In these ways, Terra Mystica was early to rise in the current board game boom – bringing heavy games back into vogue.

 

9. Great Western Trail

 

best board game - great western trail
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Great Western Trail isn’t a trailblazer if you read the reviews. It didn’t invent new ideas. It didn’t bring anything completely novel to the table. Yet it succeeds by the merit of being generally well put together. That’s no backhanded compliment – “second but better” is genuinely important in this world. It gave us Google and iPhones.

By generally well put together I mean it feels satisfying, doesn’t introduce new elements but marries them exceptionally well. You can see this reflected in the 9 and 10 scores of Board Game Geek, where people repeat some variation of “I really can’t explain it” and rattle off mechanics while trying to explain it. That’s the way empirical, logical, or intellectual people speak when they’re in love. That tells you all you need to know.

 

8. Gaia Project

 

best board game - gaia project
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

 

As if Terra Mystica weren’t a fantastic achievement in board gaming in its own right, Gaia Project is a souped up version IN SPACE. It doubles down on everything that made Terra Mystica brilliant – the complex decision making and the epic theme of expanding civilization. Then it marries the game to a theme board gamers have demonstrated time and time again that they love – science fiction.

Gaia Project is a picture-perfect study on how to “fix something that ain’t broken.” The game’s existence is proof that the creators were listening to feedback on a deep level, addressing gamers’ basic needs while taking the game in a surprising cosmic direction.

 

7. Scythe

 

best board game - scythe
Photo by Hilaryg on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

 

In its own right, Scythe is a fantastic engine-builder with an engaging theme. It really nailed the 1920s alt-future aesthetic while giving gamers a complex game to analyze and replay.

Yet Scythe cannot be decoupled from Jamey Stegmaier, the generous spirit behind the Kickstarter lessons blogScythe is not the first home-grown game to succeed, nor is it the first home-grown game to make millions. The visibility of the project just made it feel like it was, and that’s important. The biggest thing we can learn from Scythe comes from the fact that it is proof that small publishers can make it.

 

6. Star Wars Rebellion

 

best board game - star wars rebellion

 

Star Wars Rebellion is the only high-dollar intellectual property that you will see on this list. Board gamers are rightfully skeptical of the quality of games that come from movie studios and video game companies. Yet Star Wars Rebellion shows that big money can produce fantastic games that are really high-quality from a gameplay standpoint.

It also marks a turning point in board game storytelling. People on Board Game Geek who give this game a 9 or 10 keep saying “Star Wars in a box.” Star Wars is an incredibly enduring franchise based around story-telling beats that go back to ancient mythology. Board gaming, as abstract and mathematical as it can seem on the outside, is dependent upon story, too, whether we build it into the game or not. This game’s success proves that people want stories in their games.

 

5. Twilight Struggle

 

best board game - twilight struggle
Photo by killy9999 on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Speaking of stories, you can’t get much more interesting than the utterly insane forty-odd year stretch of time where the USA and USSR had nukes pointed at each other. The concept is so absurd that Stanley Kubrick made a comedy movie out of it. Twilight Struggle masterfully captures the tension of that era in the best wargame ever designed.

It has incredibly clever area control and hand management mechanics. It has depths that have led to 400 page strategy guides on the internet. It’s complex, engaging, and never seems to play the same way twice. Yet it always goes back to tension. Twilight Struggle is a masterpiece of capturing tension in games.

 

4. Terraforming Mars

 

best board game - terraforming mars

 

Terraforming Mars was a smash hit when it came out and the hype has never died down since. For good reason, too. It is a truly fantastic game and we have a lot to learn from it.

I went back and forth in my own head thinking of how best to describe what we can learn from this game, but I think my friend Dr. Michael Heron at Meeple Like Us says it best in his own review:

 

I love this game – it’s fun, full of fascinating mechanisms and satisfying decisions.     It’s collegiate in its competition while also being cut-throat in its communality.    It rewards creative play more than any game I’ve seen in a long time.

 

3. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

 

best board game - through the ages
Photo by JanaZemankova on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Through the Ages was a smash hit when it came out in 2006 and was an even bigger smash hit when it was reissued in 2015. Like Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, it is truly epic in size and scope. It is a long, multi-hour game that spans thousands of years.

The mechanics are great, the decisions complex, and the gameplay overall is a blast. That’s not why it’s so enduring, though, at least not in my opinion. It’s a matter of size and scope. There is something deeply awe-inspiring about taking a civilization from antiquity to modernity. All the beauties of developing culture and all the ugliness of waging wars is captured within this game. It’s really kind of jaw-dropping, even more so because of the fundamental – if exaggerated – truth of its basis. This is not some sci-fi fantasy world. This is the world in which you and I live, work, and play.

 

2. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

 

best board game - pandemic legacy season 1

 

Pandemic Legacy is already built upon the incredibly durable and interesting mechanics of Pandemic, the international sensation of a game that inspired so many spin-offs. That alone would make it a solid game in its own right, but Pandemic Legacy takes in one step further. It was one of the first major legacy games, promising players an engaging story that unfolds over time. This paved the path for future legacy games, which is yet another reason to enjoy it.

 

1. Gloomhaven

 

best board game - gloomhaven

 

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.

 

The 10 Most Popular Board Games and How They Made Gaming Better

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Board gaming has a long, storied history that goes back to ancient times. You can find old games of Ur, Senet, and Chess carved out of stone and buried in tombs. Indeed, the modern board game landscape that we know and love is only about as old as Catan, which came out in 1995. There were popular board games long before then, though.

I’m not too old myself – on the young end of the millennial generation – but I can remember a time of popular board games before the modern board gaming boom. Perhaps it’s Christmas Eve today that’s kindling my nostalgic impulses. I’d like to take a moment today and look back at the top-selling, most popular board games of all time. Some have aged beautifully, some have aged horribly, but in all cases we can talk about them and learn from them.

 

10. Risk

 

popular board game - risk
Photo by janus on Board Game Geek under CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Risk is a popular mass-market wargame that came to life in the late 1950s. The focus is on the oldest of human ambitions: to conquer the world. For most board gamers old enough to read this blog, Risk was the first game to introduce them to concepts like area control and influence – at least in a non-abstract way. Risk is a viscerally real game with success and failures spelled out upon the map for all to see.

This game laid the groundwork for other games of world domination, like Axis & Allies and Twilight Struggle. Yes, there are far better games out there today – including the two I just listed. But my takeaway? This is the game we owe gratitude to because it helped introduce the world to wargames.

 

9. Pictionary

 

popular board game - pictionary

 

Pictionary is super simple. Ultimately, it boils down to drawing a picture and others guess what it is. It’s like charades with drawings instead of actions.

The board is practically a vestigial organ to the game as a whole experience. The only thing that matters are the drawings and how people guess what they are. Anybody of any age can get into the game and have a good time – making it remarkably accessible and a fun way to pass the time. This game made Concept and Telestrations possible, and for that, we can be grateful.

 

8. Trivial Pursuit

 

popular board game - trivial pursuit

 

Trivial Pursuit is a simple concept, and like Pictionary, the board doesn’t matter terribly much. The core engine of the game is fueled by answering questions about anything and everything. It’s basically every bar or restaurant’s trivia night boiled down into a single game.

It’s got a 5.2 on Board Game Geek, and to be honest, that’s not great. I think that’s a little harsh because it undersells just how much Trivial Pursuit brought to the hobby. Trivial Pursuit has over fifty special versions, which has laid the groundwork for games like Ticket to Ride to release multiple versions of a game based around the same engine. Trivial Pursuit swaps the questions and Ticket to Ride swaps the maps. The latter wouldn’t be possible without the former.

In any case, the prodigious growth of Trivial Pursuit as a franchise raised interest in party games, giving us delights like Balderdash, Codenames, and Dixit in the future.

 

7. Othello

 

popular board game - othello

 

Backgammon. Chess. Checkers. Go. These are all really, really old games. As such, they are pure abstract strategy games unmarred by the ephemeral themes du jour of modern board games.

Othello is not an ancient game, but it feels like it could have been even though it came out as late as 1883. Othello packaged up abstract strategy qualities into a new package, laying the groundwork for SantoriniPatchworkAzulOnitama, and other modern hits.

 

6. Clue / Cluedo

 

popular board game - clue or cluedo
Photo by DancerInDC on Board Game Geek under CC-BY-ND 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Even the most purely intellectual games like Chess or Go have elements of bluffing and deduction. You’re always trying to analyze your opponents’ moves and react accordingly. Clue (or for those of you who spell colour with a “u” – Cluedo), was the first mass-market game to make bluffing and deduction an explicit part of the game.

It is out of the mansion, yes – the very one where Miss Scarlet committed a murder with a lead pipe in the billiards room – that more sophisticated tabletop games that receive critical acclaim today were born. I’m talking about Mysterium, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and Mansions of Madness.

 

5. Monopoly

 

popular board game - monopoly

 

Nearly everybody I know has played Monopoly. Roll the dice, buy properties, pay rent to other players, and curse at the dice. It’s a well-known routine in the household of many people who grew up with board games.

Look, I’ll be honest. Monopoly is not a good game. It’s got a 4.4 on Board Game Geek and I’ve made my stance on it abundantly clear in the past. In fact, the game was created initially by socialists to show why unchecked capitalism sucks. Couldn’t make this up if I tried!

Yet it has served the hobby board game industry in two incredible and contradictory ways. First and foremost, it more or less made the market for mass market games. That, in turn, led to the hobby board games we know and love. We owe Monopoly our gratitude for this. In an alternate universe with no Monopoly, there is no Scythe or Rising Sun or Codenames.

Second, Monopoly managed to open the floodgates while being a decidedly broken game. It’s become the whipping boy of elitist hobby board gamers, so much so that it’s comical. In becoming a whipping boy, it’s shown game designers of our generation what not to do – helping many games avoid runaway leaders, an over-reliance on luck, non-judicious implementation of player elimination, and burdensome game length.

 

4. Scrabble

 

popular board game - scrabble

 

I’m going to stick my neck out for Scrabble. It’s got a 6.3 on Board Game Geek and I think that’s too low. It’s a smart, simple, and elegant game that uses the very elements of our language as components.

Scrabble is the foundation of just about every word-based tabletop game out there. That alone is an achievement for the ages, but I think there is something more important going on. In Scrabble, the pieces you work with are thrown into a bag and doled out by random chance. That’s the foundational quality of collectible card games like Magic. You can make maneuvers to benefit yourself and to block others – that’s an atypical form of area control and influence. Scrabble hasn’t so much created direct spiritual successors as it has burrowed its way into the psyche of game developers – coming out in subtle ways as they borrow mechanisms from this 1948 masterpiece.

 

3. Backgammon

 

popular board game - backgammon

 

Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence. It’s estimated to be around 5,000 years old and was mentioned in written history by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. King Tutankhamun was rumored to have played this game at one point.

Let that sink in.

Here we have this game, installed on just about every computer and available in every store, that was played in the Mesopotamian era. What’s more, it’s still a pretty good abstract strategy game and it stands the test of time. My takeaway here as that Backgammon is the great-great-great-great-etc. grandfather of every game we play.

 

2. Checkers

 

popular board game - checkers

 

Checkers is a straightforward abstract strategy game for 2 players. Like a lot of games from antiquity or the medieval times, there is no theme per se, just a simple arrangement of pieces that follow some rules and allow for a battle of wits. These days it’s one of the first games that young children learn and it can be found outside of every Cracker Barrel restaurant sitting on wooden barrels. (It’s not as hard as the peg game, though…)

I’ve seen a lot of arguments online about whether checkers is a game of subtlety and nuance or a game of brutish simplicity. As for myself, I’ll readily admit its been many years since I’ve played the game. Whether you play all the time or remember the rules 40 years after you last played a game, you have to admit checkers has one astounding quality. It’s a tremendous game to teach children. If you want to start children out with a brainy game, checkers is a good place to start. Raise ’em up right!

 

1. Chess

 

popular board game - chess

 

Last but certainly not least, the best-selling game of all-time is Chess. It’s for great reasons, too. Chess has variable player powers, a sophisticated area control foundation, and endless possibilities of play. It’s captivated people from Humphrey Bogart to Joseph Stalin to the RZA. One could write volumes on the contribution of chess to the gaming community and to the world at large. I’ll keep it simple.

Chess has given us communities. It’s given us diehard fans who tweak their strategies, obsess, and seek ways to better themselves. Like no other game before it, chess has stoked passion and earned love. Chess has made livelihoods and Chess has caused deaths.

Try saying that about the latest CMON game 😛

Board Game Designer vs. Developer vs. Publisher

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Creating board games takes an enormous amount of time and effort. The simple fact is that there are a lot of distinct tasks that have to be handled to turn a game from an idea into reality. This is why I urge each new board game designer to share the workload, delegating tasks to a team instead of doing them all alone. When it comes to delegation, it helps to define some roles. Let’s start with three roles: board game designer, developer, and publisher.

 

teamwork - like board game designer, developer, and publisher

 

The first thing you need to know about designer, developer, and publisher roles is simple. The lines are blurry. The definitions I am about to give you are simply for your convenience. They are to be tweaked, twisted, torn up, or thrown out at your convenience.

 

What’s the difference between board game designer, developer, and publisher?

 

Designers make the game’s soul. They come up with the basic ideas behind the game (the core engine), design mechanics, create the rules, and sometimes even come up with the theme.

Developers bring the game to life. Developers tweak until the game is perfected. They commission art, proofread, and play-test. Sometimes they even order samples and liaise with reviewers.

Publishers share the game with the world. They take the completed game created by designers and developers, and run as far as they can with it. They raise funds, market the game, and if everything goes according to plan, manufacture and fulfill it.

Designers can develop, publishers can develop, designers can publish, publishers can design, developers can design, and developers can publish. It’s all very flexible.

 

A sample timeline for a board game designer, developer, and publisher team

 

What does this look like in practice? I’ll demonstrate below with the sample timeline I created for Kickstarter Math: How to Deliver Your Board Game On-Time and Within Your Budget.

Validate game idea by market Publisher 23 weeks before campaign
Develop basic lore Developer 23 weeks before campaign
Game specs Publisher 23 weeks before campaign
Contract Publisher 22 weeks before campaign
Set up website Publisher 21 weeks before campaign
Set up mailing list Publisher 21 weeks before campaign
First draft of the game Designer 19 weeks before campaign
Manufacturing RFQs Publisher 18 weeks before campaign
Fulfillment RFQs Publisher 18 weeks before campaign
Start and maintain WIP thread on BGG Designer or Developer 18 weeks before campaign
Work on brand Publisher 18 weeks before campaign
Play-test the game – early, private Designer 18 weeks before campaign
Play-test the game with at least one person not designing it Designer 17 weeks before campaign
Play-test the game – online, general Designer 16 weeks before campaign
Preliminary artwork Developer 15 weeks before campaign
Screen artwork with audience Publisher 15 weeks before campaign
Play-test the game – online, guided Developer 12 weeks before campaign
Play-test the game – blind, online Developer 11 weeks before campaign
Play-test the game – blind, offline Developer 11 weeks before campaign
Create physical prototype (with or without art) Developer 11 weeks before campaign
Test physical prototype Developer 9 weeks before campaign
Sign-off on game / Art must be done Publisher 9 weeks before campaign
Print review copies Publisher 9 weeks before campaign
Facebook group outreach Publisher 9 weeks before campaign
Board Game Geek outreach Publisher 9 weeks before campaign
Reddit outreach Publisher 9 weeks before campaign
Send review copies Publisher 7 weeks before campaign
Podcast outreach Publisher 7 weeks before campaign
Blogger outreach Publisher 7 weeks before campaign
Streamer outreach Publisher 4 weeks before campaign
Press outreach Publisher 2 weeks before campaign
Manufacturing preparation (complete) Publisher 1 week before campaign
Fulfillment preparation (complete) Publisher 1 week before campaign
Kickstarter campaign Publisher Campaign
Pre-order / sales system Publisher TBD
Ongoing distribution Publisher TBD

 

Interpreting the sample timeline

 

As you can see, publishers typically handle the majority of tasks associated with creating a game. This is because publishers act as organizations which have the resources to coordinate a lot of different tasks simultaneously. Designers, on the other hand, have relatively few tasks – design the game and do some early play-testing – but their work is critical! Game design and play-testing take up more time than nearly anything else except for possibly manufacturing and commissioning art.

Developers are in the middle. When games are first created, they’re often raw and rough. They’re nowhere near ready for the marketplace. They have to be further developed before a publisher can do much with them.

You’ll notice that the timeline doesn’t linearly go from design to development to publishing. This is no accident! From the very beginning, the publisher will need to make sure an idea is viable from a manufacturing, cost, and market perspective. Publishers who accept submissions rule out pitches that don’t meet these requirements. Publishers who work directly with certain designers may create specifications which the designer is obligated to follow. It depends on who you’re working with and how they roll.

Developers can get involved early on too! If the publisher and designer have a clear idea on what the theme will be, a developer can start working on certain elements of the game that will be applied later. This could involve creating lore or commissioning artwork. This can have the effect of enriching the game as an overall experience while saving time in the long run for everybody involved.

 


 

The most important takeaway here is to come up with a coherent way to split up labor. The board game designer, developer, publisher paradigm is the simplest way I know of doing that. This is a method I’ve been using on my own games, Yesterday’s War and Tasty Humans, and I’ve found it extraordinarily effective.

I’ll leave you with a question: are you more of a designer, developer, or a publisher? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you 🙂