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!

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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.

Honorable Mention #1: 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.

Honorable Mention #2: 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.

Honorable Mention #3: 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.

10. 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.

9. 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.

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.

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7. 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.

6. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Photo by Daniel Mizieliński on Board Game Geek under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed Gloomhaven, Jaws of the Lion was released in 2020. It holds a mighty 8.9 on Board Game Geek at the time I’m writing this and has a formidable position at #6 on the top board games of all time list.

I haven’t played the game myself, so I’ll borrow the description of it from Board Game Geek to share with you.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a standalone game that takes place before the events of Gloomhaven. The game includes four new characters — Valrath Red Guard (tank, crowd control), Inox Hatchet (ranged damage), Human Voidwarden (support, mind-control), and Quatryl Demolitionist (melee damage, obstacle manipulation) — that can also be used in the original Gloomhaven game.

The game also includes 16 monster types (including seven new standard monsters and three new bosses) and a new campaign with 25 scenarios that invites the heroes to investigate a case of mysterious disappearances within the city. Is it the work of Vermlings, or is something far more sinister going on?

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is aimed at a more casual audience to get people into the gameplay more quickly. All of the hard-to-organize cardboard map tiles have been removed, and instead players will play on the scenario book itself, which features new artwork unique to each scenario. The last barrier to entry — i.e., learning the game — has also been lowered through a simplified rule set and a five-scenario tutorial that will ease new players into the experience.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion description on Board Game Geek
5. Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)

I’ve spoken about Twilight Imperium at length in a different article, but it’s such a good game that it bears mention again here. This is a long, complex, expensive board game. There are a ton of different components and it can take up to eight hours to play.

What is the appeal of a game that monstrous in scale? Simply put, Twilight Imperium is a game that you can completely immerse yourself in. That’s the appeal – everything else disappears around you as you play it because the fantasy world is so well fleshed-out.

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 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. Brass: Birmingham
Photo by d0gb0t on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Brass: Birmingham is a recent strategy to the well-loved original game Brass, which came out in 2007. It’s an economic strategy game where you can take two of the following six actions every turn:

  1. Build – Pay required resources and place an industry tile.
  2. Network – Add a rail / canal link, expanding your network.
  3. Develop – Increase the VP value of an industry.
  4. Sell – Sell your cotton, manufactured goods and pottery.
  5. Loan – Take a £30 loan and reduce your income.
  6. Scout – Discard three cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. (This action replaces Double Action Build in original Brass.)

Economic strategy games are a mainstay of the board gaming world, and Brass: Birmingham has been considered by many reviewers to be an instant classic. In short, it’s the best possible implementation of a crunchy, complex, problem-solving game in a beloved genre.

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.





Your Board Game Kickstarter: Why & How to Spread the Word Early

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If you’re making a board game that you plan to launch on Kickstarter, you’ll find no shortage of advice on the internet. There are articles on how to build an audience, how to create the perfect campaign page, and lists of people to reach out to. These are all tremendous resources, but they don’t really answer the question of “why spread the word early?” When you start with the question “why start early”, it adds a new layer of context.

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2 Reasons to Promote Your Board Game Kickstarter Early

  1. You need to know if people want your game.
  2. You need to build a big enough audience to reach critical mass for funding.

Knowing if people want your game is critical. Sharing early will help you gauge your board game’s product-market fit, a fancy MBA term for how much people like your game as a product that they would buy, and not just as a game. Product-market fit takes into account your game’s mechanics and play experience, its art, its price, its components, and a whole host of different factors that gamers look for – consciously or unconsciously – before they buy.

It doesn’t matter who you are or how big your audience is if your product has poor product-market fit. You’ll either make less money than your true potential or you’ll straight up fail. It happened to me with a game called Highways & Byways, which I write about in detail here. It’s a sad story, but I recommend you read it because it was an incredibly formative experience for me.

Reason two to spread the word early is more obvious. You need a big enough audience to fund your game on Kickstarter. It’s become a cliche to say it, but it’s true: you bring people to Kickstarter, Kickstarter doesn’t bring them to you.

Pre-Market Validation

With the “why” behind us, let’s get to the how. Throughout the entire time you’re promoting your game, especially early on, I recommend you engage in a process called “pre-market validation.” You might also hear me call this product-market fit.

Using little bits and pieces from your development process, share with your audience and gauge their reaction. Things you can share include a basic pitch, the name of the game, art (sketches or final), components, price point…really, the list goes on. Anything that might make a difference in your game’s marketability, you can share.

You can share your work online. If your pitch, name, art, and so on gets much more positive attention than your average post on the same site, that’s a good sign. Positive attention could be comments, Facebook reactions, or anything else like that. Ideally, you want to see real enthusiasm – people saying things like “I can’t wait for this” or “this looks awesome!”

You can also share your work offline. The same basic principle applies, but instead of getting hard facts and figures like you’d get by tallying up retweets or Instagram likes, you need to read people’s body language and tone of voice. You’re still looking for enthusiasm.

You also want to do a different type of market validation. You need to make sure that people actually spend money on games like yours. Check Kickstarter and see if you can find a few campaigns like yours that have successfully funded within the last few months. Look out for failed campaigns with similar games, too. You don’t want to fall prey to survivor bias.

Pre-market validation makes sure you do the right thing. Smart audience-building techniques mean you do the thing right. If I had to pick one over the other, I’d take pre-market validation over audience building. No contest.

What does real enthusiasm look like?

I really cannot stress the importance of pre-market validation enough. If people don’t really, really care about your game, then you’re likely to have a tough time on Kickstarter. But like I said a moment ago, it’s not just about Instagram likes.

Here is how I tell real enthusiasm apart from vanity metrics:

Real Enthusiasm
  • People asking detailed questions that indicate they’ve read the rules
  • People following your Kickstarter prelaunch page without an incentive
  • Email signups
  • A high open and/or click rate on your emails
  • Live-stream viewers
  • Active Facebook groups or chat rooms where fans talk to one another
  • Cheaper-than-normal social media ads
Vanity Metrics
  • Social media likes or followers
  • Vague comments like “looks great”
  • Impressions on ads, as opposed to clicks or signups
  • Website page views

In general, if you have this nagging feeling that you’re “forcing” people to pay attention to your game, there’s a good chance that something isn’t right. People need to voluntarily and proactively seek out more information about your game.

Building an Audience

When it comes to building an audience, I’ve written an enormous amount of articles on that. Here are seven recent ones:

  1. Choose & Use a Board Game Marketing Strategy that Works
  2. Rise Above the Noise of the Internet & Get Noticed
  3. Generate Traffic for Your Board Game Website
  4. Build a Mailing List and Send Newsletters as a Board Game Dev
  5. Build up a Facebook Page as a Board Game Dev
  6. Get Big on Twitter as a Board Game Dev & Revisited in 2018
  7. Get Big on Instagram as a Board Game Dev

Even if you don’t click on one of those articles, we can cover the basics here. If you’re already validating your market, you’re in good shape. That means you can find successful games that are similar to yours. You can start by reaching out to their audiences on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Reaching out can involve targeted ads, commenting on people’s posts, or simply following people who follow people like you.

Creating a Gathering Place

Pretty early on, you’re going to want to build some sort of “gathering place” for your fans. That could be a chat server, a Facebook group, a mailing list, or something else like that. I recommend you start a mailing list for sure. It’s simple and nearly everyone you meet online has an email address.

Once you set up your gathering place, which we’ll assume is a mailing list for the following examples, you’ll need to give them an opt-in incentive. Why are people choosing to sign up? It could be to gain access to a print-and-play version of your game, early access to art, lore updates, or even giveaway prizes.

As you might expect, part of the magic of having a gathering place is that you can continue to validate the market while building your audience. You can share art on social media or in your mailer and see if the amount of likes or clicks exceeds, meets, or fails to meet your expectations. You can even take out Facebook ads and see how they perform. (If you’re not sure what to look for, I find “Relevance Score” to be a pretty good indicator of product-market fit for your audience.)

Final Thoughts

As time goes on, you’ll do two things. First, you’ll validate your game and make sure it has strong potential on Kickstarter. Second, you’ll cultivate a critical mass of fans that will help push your game to its funding goal as early on as possible.

Are you building an audience for your game? Do you have any good or bad experiences to share? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear your stories 🙂





A Shout-Out to The Board Game Design Course by Joe Slack

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If you’re a long-time reader of this site, you likely know that my passion is helping people create their first board game. After all, that’s what the Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game series is all about.

But, of course, you shouldn’t just rely on one guide on one website! You’d be missing a ton of useful information. That’s why I wanted to take a moment to shout out Joe Slack’s website, The Board Game Design Course.

Click here to check out The Board Game Design Course.

There are two things I particularly like about Joe’s approach to teaching game design:

#1

Joe’s reached out to a wide variety of game designers, so you’ll hear a lot of diverse opinions on how to create great games. The sheer variety of sources of advice that he makes available, particularly in the Board Game Design Virtual Summit, means that someone, somewhere will say something that will really resonate with you.

#2

He’s providing learning material in multiple formats, including books, courses, a virtual design summit, and a blog. The blog is updated weekly, just like this one, with posts that go into detail on all kind of important game design information. He also does weekly mailers, too!

The courses, design summit, and books cost money, it’s true, but they’re also thoughtfully crafted and reasonably priced. Like a lot of folks, I’m super skeptical about “online courses.” Still, knowing how much work goes into making them, any thoughtfully made ones under the $300 range are worth considering.

Click here to check out The Board Game Design Course.

Overall, if you’re looking for more board game design advice, Joe’s site is a good place to start!

On that note, this is the first time I’ve made a whole post to shout out another blog. Let me know if there’s anyone else whose work you like in the comments below. I get a lot of traffic from Google these days and would love an opportunity to boost the visibility of other thoughtful creators. I’m especially interested in anyone who shares my mission: to help first time board game designers get started!