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:

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!

How to Make a Beautiful Board Game Box

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Box art is incredibly important in the board game industry. Not only are board game boxes beautiful, they are also iconic. People love looking at board game boxes – just check out Instagram sometime. There are whole accounts dedicated to showing off board game boxes!

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People judge books by their covers. This is true for board games, too. The naive designer may lament that board gamers are only looking at the surface, not seeing the mechanics or the potential for incredible gameplay. It’s a valid complaint, but the simple fact is that board game boxes are a huge part of board gamers’ decision-making process when it comes to making purchases. Your board game box is the most important art you’ve got – make it count!

board game box - gloomhaven

(If you’re looking for regulatory or legal requirements for packaging, check this article instead: How to Create Board Game Specs and Files for Your Printer.)

The Board Game Box as a Marketing Tool

Board game boxes serve not just as beautiful objects for their own sake, but also as critical means of communication between you and your potential customers. That includes the obvious stuff you normally see on boxes – the name of the game, the designer(s) and publisher, the age range, play time, and player count. But that also includes the messages you send about your game through your art. Through symbolism, you need to communicate most or all of the following information:

  • The complexity of your game
  • The “weight” of your game
  • The amount of components your game has
  • How long it takes to play
  • The theme of your game
  • The “hooks” that make people want to buy the game

Your box communicates not just through its cover, but also its size, and the information you provide on the back. People associate light games with small boxes and heavy games with big boxes. When gamers see a thick box, they expect a lot of components. If the art is whimsical, they expect it to be light-hearted. If the art is gritty and detailed, they expect it to be complex or dark.

Board Game Boxes & Perfection

The perfect game doesn’t exist. Games are only perfect for specific gamers. You need to attract the right kind of gamers by giving them all the information they need to know whether your game is right for them. Many gamers – wittingly or unwittingly – use their intuitive sense of what a game is or isn’t based on how it looks. That means you need to imply the essence of your game with your packaging. You have to send the right signals.

This is a really complicated concept. There is a field of study called semiotics, which is dedicated to understanding how people interpret signs, symbols, and metaphors. You don’t have to be studied in what they call the Saussurean tradition to understand how this works in board gaming. All you have to do is look at similar board games that sell well.

Look at the boxes of games similar to the one you’re making. You want it to be as similar as possible in the six qualities I listed a few paragraphs ago. Use Kickstarter and Amazon to look at some board game boxes. Look at them until you get a sense of what your own game box should look like. Copy the style you see, but still express your own personality.

When in doubt, follow the “Instagram rule” when designing board game boxes. Put a clear object in focus, use lots of detail, and make sure there is a sharp contrast between the foreground and background. That way, people will stop scrolling and look at your box online. In the store, it’ll catch their eye.

Real Examples of Board Game Boxes

As you can see, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to designing board game boxes. For that reason, I’ll be looking at the board game boxes of the five games highest up on the Board Game Geek hotness list. I’ll be analyzing each one and explaining what I think it works. By sharing my methods, I hope you’ll be able to develop your own 🙂

Board Game Box 1: Gloomhaven
board game box - gloomhaven

Good grief, look at this monster of a box! It’s wide, it’s deep, and it’s tall. Just seeing this on the shelf, you know you’re getting in for a heavy experience. With a weight of 3.77, this is definitely considered a heavy game on Board Game Geek. It’s usually priced at $150 or more, but you get a lot of parts.

The box art itself communicates a massive, complex world. It’s not a happy one, though. The name and color palette suggest otherwise. There is something to look at it in practically every corner of this box. There’s somebody hiding with a dagger in the bottom left, a creature playing cards near the bottom right, and decorative ribbons in the upper right.

Then when you look at the back, it shows off the minis and explains how the game works. This is really important because showing off components has shown to be one of the best ways to get and hold the attention of gamers.

Board Game Box 2: Root
board game box - root
Photo by W Eric Martin, posted to Board Game Geek under the CC BY 2.0 license. (Source)

Root is a different kind of game than Gloomhaven, and the box art immediately makes it clear. Like Gloomhaven, it’s a fairly heavy game and it comes chock full of a lot of components. The box is fairly large, but not nearly the size of Gloomhaven. It’s a slightly shorter game.

Root has a veneer of whimsy – little woodland creatures. Underneath that, though, there’s a complex game with mechanics such as engine building and area control. The game openly displays its darkness, intrigue, and complexity by arming the woodland creatures with dangerous weapons on the box. The size of the box and the price point also help establish the true weight of the game, so no one is surprised by it being too long or complex.

I juxtapose this with Gloomhaven to make a point – you have two complex games with two different tones. There are ways you can communicate the different tones without burying the true complexity of the game in the process.

Board Game Box 3: Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig
board game box - between two castles of mad king ludwig
Photo by W Eric Martin, posted to Board Game Geek under the CC BY 2.0 license. (Source)

This game is fairly light and the price point hasn’t been released yet. It takes a bit under an hour to play and Board Game Geek gives it a 2/5 on the weight rating. The art painterly and peaceful, unlike the more conflict-driven games that we’ve shown above. You get the sense that you’re in for a more relaxing experience.

Board Game Box 4: Vampire: The Masquerade – Heritage
board game box - vampire heritage
Photo by W Eric Martin, posted to Board Game Geek under the CC BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Little is known about this game at the time that I’m writing it. The art is minimalistic, showing a symbol, the name, and decorative framing. That’s pretty much all you have to go on. Yet even from this information alone, I suspect the game is going to be set in a dark, gloomy, conflict-driven world. That’s pretty amazing when you realize there’s essentially no art to go off of. That’s the power of symbolism.

Ask yourself: if you saw this in the store, what would you expect the game to be like?

Board Game Box 5: Terraforming Mars
board game box - terraforming mars

Terraforming Mars is a new sci-fi classic. The name, the font, the picture in the center of the frame…all of these imply the sci-fi theme. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice the art doesn’t depict conflict, but you still get a vague sense of unease. I think it’s because of the prevalence of hard lines throughout the art, which give you a sense that you’re getting into a complex game. It’s subtle, but you can feel it long before you can recognize it.

Board Game Box 6: Tapestry

The second Stonemaier game on our list, Tapestry falls within the same basic category of Between Two Castles. However, Tapestry is a heavier, more complex game than Between Two Castles. It’s a strategy game in the subcategory of civilization game, which appeals to a specific audience.

The box art for Tapestry is appealing for a couple of reasons. First, it contrasts the ancient and the modern in a way that makes you look twice. Second, and most importantly, it mirrors the box art of Sid Meier’s Civilization in color, structure, and content. Basically, this box art is a clear reference to other games played by this game’s intended audience. That’s a smart move.

Board Game Box 7: Paladins of the West Kingdom

I’ve spoken at length about Paladins of the West Kingdom, but some points bear repeating here. Let’s say you’re going for a hardcore fantasy audience. I’m talking about the sort of people who read medieval fantasy novels such as Lord of the Rings and who play games that resemble the style of that famous series of novels.

So what do you do to reach out to that audience? You use the word “Paladins” in big text on the box. Emphasize suits of armor and medieval weaponry. Do all of this with contrasting, highly focused colors that look great on the shelf and in your Instagram feed, and voila.

Board Game Box 8: Parks

Parks is an entirely different sort of board game than anything else we’ve mentioned in this article. They completely commit to their theme by mimicking the style of classic US postcards. It’s a deliberate way of bringing up people’s nostalgic memories of Americana.

But there is one crucial aspect that cannot be overlooked. It does this all, but still with contrasting colors and a lot of detail. The modern attention-grabbing requirements of board game boxes are still captured in this art style, even though it originates from the Golden Age of Travel.

Board Game Box 9: Nemesis
Photo by W Eric Martin, posted to Board Game Geek under the CC BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Where Tapestry imitates Sid Meier’s Civilization, Nemesis imitates the movie Alien. The structure of this box art is deliberately close to the movie poster for Alien while borrowing the color palette from its action-packed sequel Aliens.

In short, this box art works because it deliberately and very clearly references a major franchise in pop culture.

Board Game Box 10: Wayfinders

This last box art works for reasons very similar to Parks, but I think it’s worth including for a couple of reasons. First, the color palette is diverse, gorgeous, and eye-catching. Leave it to Pandasaurus to know how to use color to their advantage!

Second, this is a subtle detail that’s hard to see on the Internet, but very, very clear in real life. See how the plane’s bottom wheel and right wing overlap with the white area of the box? You can’t see it very well in this article, but on the shelf, that will make it look like the plane’s flying right at you like some kind of early 2010s movie that arbitrarily shoehorned in 3D. That is a really cool effect for a board game box!

Is there a board game out there with great box art that tells you what you’re getting into? Let me know in the comments below!