James' Top 30 Games (2018 Edition)
#30. Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon came out of nowhere in 2018. No fanfare, no kickstarter, no convention hype. This latest offering from renowned designer Reiner Knizia (whose catalog I very much want to explore deeper in 2019) is a beautiful, simple, fast abstract that scales wonderfully from 2-4 players. Turns are swift, decisions are tough, and blocking and player interaction is quiet, but ruthless.
#29. The Quacks of Quedlinberg
I imported this eventual Kennerspiel des Jahres winner from Germany over the Summer, as the theme and mechanic seemed like something interesting and different. While the theme is great, the bag building push your luck mechanic is fresh, and the art is delightful, most importantly this game is flat out fun. It isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously, but it creates some tense, tough decisions as you keep tossing ingredients into your cauldron.
#28. Fields of Arle
This is the first entry from Uwe Rosenberg on my list, who had through my first 2 years in the hobby been my favorite and most owned and played designer. In this 2 player Eurogame (expandable to 3 with the Tea and Trade expansion) you are doing usual Uwe things: breeding animals, collecting goods, building carts and vehicles, trading with nearby villages. It sticks to his tried and true formula, but the sandbox nature of this one sets it apart from his other offerings. Interaction is mainly in the worker placement blocking, and reading, forecasting, and planning for your opponent’s turn can be as stressful as taking your own.
I would never pick this game up off the shelf, and likely would have never played it had my friend not brought it to the table. And it would probably be higher on my list if the production matched the excellent gameplay. Get past the boring fantasy theme full of orcs, wizards, and halflings, ugly and drab colored components and a tiny and uninspiring board and you’ll find a laser fast hand building game with area control and some very unique mechanics. Scales very well and plays quickly all the way up to 6 which makes it a great fit for different sized groups.
The first appearance on my list from 2 man workhorse production, publisher, and distributor Splotter Spellen, Antiquity is such a wonderfully mean game. Everything you do as you attempt to expand, build your civilization, and ultimately meet the variable end game conditions often ends up being a case of 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Everything you build uses up the land and causes pollution. Every lake you fish at dries up into nothing. And if you happen to run out of wood? Game over. It’s mean, nasty, even a little ugly, but so elegant and charming at the same time. I can’t wait to spend more time with this gem going forward.
#25. 7 Wonders Duel
In my time with the original 7 Wonders, I always wished it were shorter, more succinct and to the point, or could speed up the drafting process. Enter 7 Wonders Duel. A wonderful 2 player adaptation that is a great couples game, a great filler, and just a great game. The pyramid card display allows you to forecast a bit, but not fully, and the multiple end game conditions mean balancing your own progress with keeping your opponent in check. Terrific design and so satisfyingly quick.
#24. Architects of the West Kingdom
This one just snuck onto the list as it was a late 2018 release, and you can read my full review here. Designer Shem Phillips once again takes worker placement and gives it just a little twist, with the worker investment system here in Architects, that sees you controlling 20 workers right out of the gates. So many worker placement games focus on unlocking more workers for more actions, and this one skips all of that and lets you get right down to business. Game time is short, turns are even faster, and scaling is great from a terrific solo mode all the way to 5 players.
#23. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
The first game to hook me and really get me to sink my teeth into this hobby. A few Christmases ago, my wife and I decided to turn off Netflix, try some board games, and picked this one up. It was engrossing. We played the entire campaign, about 18-19 playthroughs, in 10 days. It’s tough to rate a legacy game fairly, as we’ll now never play it again, but it was enjoyable all the way through, and holds a tender spot in my board gaming heart.
#22. Teotihuacan: City of Gods
A brand new 2018 release that many people won’t even get to play before the New Year, but it deserves a mention on this list. I first played a few solo games to learn the ins and outs of this dice-as-workers, rondel, point salad game from Tzolkin co-designer Daniele Tascini and the solo mode is fantastic! It was gripping and had me thinking about my plays for the rest of the day. I recently got it to a full table with 4 players, and it was even better. The constantly changing game state, the multiple paths to victory, and deep variable set up will keep this game fresh every single time on the table. This is one to watch, and should be a riser for me in 2019.
#21. Food Chain Magnate
Food Chain Magnate was one of the first “heavy” games I played. I feel like the board game community likes to scare people off of heavy games. The mechanics in Food Chain are fairly simple, and as long as you're playing with people of similar skill, or at least have a teacher that won’t let you make a crippling mistake early on, it’s an easy learn as well. But it’s so tough to actually play well! Which is what I love in a board game. Show me what to do, tell me my options, and I can either bury myself in hamburgers and lemonade, or build a fast food empire and crush my competitors.
#20. Rajas of the Ganges
A late 2017 release that appeared out of nowhere from husband and wife designers Inka & Marcus Brand, Rajas of the Ganges checks a lot of boxes for me. Worker placement, and tons of spots to go and paths to choose? Check. Dice as currency (and beautiful chunky and candy colored dice at that?) Check. Variable end game conditions/timer, with a VP track that intersects a currency track to trigger end game? Check and awesome and new, by the way. Add in a snappy play time and you’ve got a winner for me. Highly recommend medium euro game that isn’t talked about enough.
#19. Viticulture Essential Edition (with Tuscany E.E.)
This highly praised worker placement game from Jamey Stegmaier goes from good to great when you add in the Tuscany Essential Edition expansion. The solo mode in this game is terrific and engaging, and I believe paved a path for including a solo mode in many eurogames going forward. Yes the card draws can be random as people will often say, but this is a game that is about dealing with that randomness, knowing when to zig when others are zagging, and adapting to the situation. The turn order section, worker placement blocking, and importance of knowing when to pass are shining spots in this design.
#18. Twilight Struggle
Twilight Struggle would likely be higher on my list if I had anyone to play it with regularly. My wife and I played about 5 games before she tapped out and admitted that it just wasn’t doing it for her. I’ve played a time or two with friends since, but it is a game that you need to learn and experience at the same pace with your opponent. I adore this game design. Hand management, multi-use cards, a shared deck, dealing with the bad draws and garbage hands, and making that coup attempt because you just have to take a shot, and boom, you roll a 6 and change the game. It’s long, it’s dry, it’s historical, but it is a blast and has amazing competitive depth if you can get it to the table often with worthy opponents.
#17. Race for the Galaxy
What is there to be said about this now more than a decade old card game that hasn’t been said? Simply a classic. A single deck of cards that can hold so much variability, different paths to victory, and strategies. A game is so fast, that any time I play I just can’t help but look across the table and say “One more time?” And the answer always seems to be yes. Shoutout to it’s younger brother Jump Drive, that offers an even simpler, even faster experience, better suited for more casual gamers. I like to think they released that just as a stepping stone to get more people to play Race.
Oh Gloomhaven. The hardest thing to rank on my list. It has the highest ranking that I’ve given a game on BGG. I played it a staggering 80 times in 2018, all from January-May. And...I’m done with it. We finished it. Until the already delayed expansion releases, I’m not sure what to do with this massive box and all of my organizational supplies. But my god was it fun. We played almost exclusively with 2 players and as evidenced by our play log, we just could not stop. We played multiple times a week, multiple sessions per play, and it was the most satisfying experience in gaming that I’ve had. Exploring new lands, beefing up our characters, leveling them up to open new boxes. Isaac Childres did in a Legacy game what nobody else has been able to do - make it addictive instead of a chore. But unfortunately...it’s over.
#15. Eldritch Horror
The top cooperative game on my list and most Ameritrash game you’ll find on my list. There are so many things about Eldritch Horror that shouldn’t work for me. I don’t love chucking dice and I don’t care one bit about cthulu. But this game just works. You feel a real sense of attachment and agency to your character, beefing them up in the beginning of the game, and contributing to the team the best way you can. And then the Ancient Ones and all of their spawn and cultists and ghouls just pile on you. Injuries, conditions, debts, dark pacts - the game just beats you down and has an amazing balance that somehow gives you just one last chance before the world is enveloped by darkness with this one last dice roll.... Love it.
#14. Vinhos Deluxe Edition
Ah and here begins my three tiered love letter to my new favorite designer in board games: Vital Lacerda. I’d seen his games on the shelf. Looks heavy, I thought. Looks a little dry? I wasn’t sure. When my friend brought over Vinhos and we started playing - it was like a laser shot from the game right into my brain. It all just clicked and worked and intertwined so beautifully. The game play, the art, the iconography, the components, the multiple step process to accomplish any goal I wanted to accomplish. More Vital love a little later.
#13. Raiders of the North Sea (With Fields of Fame & Hall of Heroes Expansions)
Shem Phillips 2015 hit that put him on the map. With a distinct art style from The Mico, Raiders put a twist on the standard worker placement mechanic with a place one/take one design. The game has a variable set up that make each game unique and has multiple end game conditions that can reward different playstyles. The expansions take it to the next level allowing even more paths to victory and options to accrue points. I do wonder if Phillips’ other entry on my Top 30, Architects of the West Kingdom, will manage to supplant this one as I get in more plays of both.
This 2016 point salad design by Hisashi Hayashi features a sprawling variable board, with built in variability at every turn on the setup. It’s part network building, part worker placement, part resource management, part contract fulfillment and all about those sweet, sweet victory points. I mention paths to victory a lot in my top 30, because I like when a game doesn’t pigeonhole you into one direction or obvious winning strategy. Yokohama lets you go anywhere and everywhere to get points, and with many end game triggers, you can really push the game in the direction you want it to go.
#11. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game
Having never watched an episode of the show (I have since) I was a bit apprehensive when my friend brought this game to the table for the first time. But it is one of the most fun, tense, hilarious, and also frustrating board games I’ve ever played. No game has come close to nailing the hidden traitor mechanic like Battlestar Galactica has. There’s a lot of randomness in the game, so you have to be okay with that going in, and you’ll get burned occasionally by it, but at the end of the day, it has always been worth it when we look at just how much fun was had throwing accusations, lying, cheating, and sneaking around with this game at the table.
Yes, the cover art is horrendous. Yes it’s yet another dry eurogame set in the mediterranean. But Concordia has a few things going for it that set it apart from the rest. It’s very easy to teach (the rulebook is only 2 double sided pages), quick to pick up and play, and you will never feel like there’s nothing for you to do on your turn. But the hand management and card system is where it really shines - not only are they your actions and one of the built in timers but they’re also the only thing that matter in the end of the game as they are your primary source of scoring points. A brilliant design.
The highest abstract you’ll find on my list, Azul burst onto the scene in 2017, and only continues to grow in popularity (I saw it on the shelf at Target just the other day.) The drafting element of this game is so simple and pure, I can’t believe it feels so unique and interesting as well. Add in great tactile production, a quick teach, and accessibility that will allow you to play this game with your 6 year old kid or your 76 year old Grandma, and you’ve got an all-time classic. I can’t wait to try out it’s sequel, Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra, and see if it makes the list in 2019.
#8. Clans of Caledonia
This hit from little known German designer Juma Al-JouJou reads like a love letter to it’s obvious muses. Cardboard Reality guild member Lorcan said it best in the CBR Slack chat: “Clans of Caledonia is a best of mid weight euro compilation album.” Take the growth and expansion of Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, the contract fulfillment of Marco Polo, turn the economics up to 11 and plant your roots in 19th century Scotland. So while it may not necessarily bring anything unique to the table, it does wrap it all in a tidy little accessible package (and tinier box) with variable set up, a fluctuating economic market, and a snappy play time. With an expansion in testing and on the horizon in 2019, I expect to continue getting this game to the table often.
The second appearance from designer Vital Lacerda, Lisboa takes all of the great things I said about the intertwined mechanics of Vinhos, and injects a crash course of mid 1700s Portuguese history directly into the design. Everything you do has a reason, a purpose, and historical significance, and the game reminds you of that in every turn. Multi-use cards are the star mechanic on display here, and player interaction, while limited, can be cutthroat and strategic. With ridiculously beautiful art by collaborator Ian O’Toole, this game is looks just as beautiful as it plays.
#6. Grand Austria Hotel
At its core, Grand Austria Hotel is a simple cube pusher. Get a recipe - in the form of a guest, gather the cubes - here representing coffee, wine, cake, and strudel, and place them on your player board - your own personal hotel full of different floors, benefits, and considerations. But the theme and gameplay are so perfectly intertwined. And then there’s the dice! You roll a huge pile of dice, which will dictate which actions you can do this round, and how beneficial those actions will be. Adaptability is key. You aren’t always going to get the results you needed or want, and with a tight allowance of only 14 main turns in the entire game you’ll have to change your plans quickly in order to succeed.
#5. Rising Sun
Rising Sun is an amazing game. A game I almost missed. I saw it on kickstarter, and thought “eh, another Blood Rage, another minis game, another cash grab” and completely ignored it, never even looking at gameplay or content. Only after it fulfilled to backers and hit social media did I stumble onto it, see the mechanics, read the descriptions, and realize how interesting it sounded. My 2018 Game of the Year took my usual quiet, head-down, analysis heavy gaming table and turned us into underhanded, negotiating, backstabbing, conniving Feudal Japanese overlords. The diplomacy, action selection, and off-the-cuff battle system work together brilliantly. It’s a game about playing offense and defense. It’s a game about picking your spots and taking your shots. I would adore this game even if it were cardboard standees on a map. But it’s not so let’s talk about that production! The minis are amazing, beautiful and huge, and awe-inspiring. The content from the Daimyo pledge is the best board game production I’ve ever seen - the chunky plastic mandate tiles, the strongholds, the battle flags, and the art! Give this game a chance if you never did. It is a terrific game design AND a terrific presentation.
#4. A Feast for Odin
Uwe Rosenberg shows up with one last game on my Top 30 with this behemoth of a box and his best overall game design. Uwe has always had this divide between his love of farming and gathering (Agricola, Fields of Arle, Caverna) and tile laying (Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Spring Meadow) and finally merged them together in 2016 with this Viking exploration game. With a staggering 61 action selection spaces (soon to expand via latest add-on The Norwegians) and multiple paths to victory, you’ll be collecting, flipping, and placing goods all over your boards to maximize your points. A great beat-your-high-score solo mode pushes this over the top for me, and I’ll play it anytime I’m given the chance, whether it’s alone or with a full table.
#3. Great Western Trail
Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail is a mash up of mechanics - some hand management and deck creation, some worker placement, a bit of blocking, map creation, and tile laying, and even a bit of racing with trains. The theme does nothing for me - it’s there, but it isn’t a hook for me personally - but the gameplay and design is just elite. The timer of the game is constant, ever present, always ticking, where every stop along the road or stop to score points in Kansas City will be consequential for all players. The interaction is light, but you must pay attention to opponents or you’ll get walked all over. The Cow strategy has emerged as a successful one, but hopefully brand new expansion release Rails to the North will give a bit more importance to the trains and buildings aspects of the game.
#2. The Gallerist
And the trio of Vital Lacerda and Ian O’Toole collaborations finishes their appearance on my list with their 2015 release The Gallerist. With elite production and presentation once again by Eagle-Gryphon games, The Gallerist is a seamless, perfect integration of theme, design, art, and gameplay. You are a Gallerist - a curator, art dealer, and artist manager, and you will do all of those things in this worker placement game. You’ll discover artists, buy art, promote those artists, sell their art, balance the patrons coming in and out of the gallery, use your assistants wisely in the international market, and just try to get filthy rich! I’ll keep sounding the same trumpet for Vital Lacerda - everything you do is for a reason and it all makes sense, which is just refreshing in board games. Top of the line rulebooks, player aids, components, and cardboard only add to the mastery at work here, and a heavy dose of variability and player interaction keeps this game fresh each time it hits the table.
#1. Gaia Project
I had never played Terra Mystica before playing Gaia Project (I have since, and Gaia is just flat out better) so I didn’t have any expectations or preconceived notions going into Gaia. I opened the box and thought this all looked kind of nerdy, space themed, and eh I don’t know about this. But then I got it to the table. Just superb. I love the the variability in the setup, so you’re always playing a new game each time. I love the asymmetrical player powers, giving you a focus and an advantage in the game. I love the tension and tightness of resources, and the sometimes helplessness you’ll feel being just 1 resource or move short of a blockbuster chain of events. Every action is vitally important, even deciding when to pass out of a round. You’ve got to stay so plugged into the game to try to play your own board and your opponents’ as well. You’ve got to stay one step ahead to get that spot before she does, because she’s got all that power loaded up and ready to spend. The production is a plus as well - I prefer the molded plastic to its predecessor's chunky wooden blocks, and the player scaling is terrific, with a detailed, difficult solo automa mode, and scalable map sizes for all player counts. I’ve had so many elite gaming moments in this game in such a limited number of plays - the interaction, balance, and design is just perfect.