10. The Downfall of Pompeii
A bit of an obscure title, discovering this game is a big reason I’ll always love going to the local board game café. I don’t think I would ever have come across it if it hadn’t been one of the game guide’s favorites.
In this game, players spend the first phase populating various spaces across the city of Pompeii. In the second phase, players attempt to escape the erupting Mt. Vesuvius. Most pieces that make it out wins.
9. Hey, That’s My Fish!
If you want to simulate war, you don’t need Risk, Axis & Allies, or Combat Commander. You need penguins. Hey, That’s My Fish combines the positional play of a game like Chess with a board made of ice chunks that’s slowly breaking away. This leads to devastating traps, as you cut off portions of the map and leave your opponents floating away.
As ice breaks away, this game really captures the “knife fight in a phone booth” feeling.
I learned Monikers as a kid under the name “Fish Bowl”. It combines Taboo and Charades over multiple rounds with the same answers, so as the game goes on players can guess correctly with barely any clues.
While turning folksy-games into retail products usually leaves me with a scummy feeling, Monikers doesn’t just steal the original concept. The hilarious cards do wonders to elevate the game—in Fish Bowl, we used to come up with answers on slips of paper. Acting out “riding a bike” is not nearly as funny as:
- Cat-Like Reflexes
- Kenny G
- Cersei Lannister
- The Final Countdown
- A Wedgie
7. Shards of Infinity
Timewise, Shards of Infinity is probably my most-played game on this list (check out our tier-list of cards video here). It’s a familiar deckbuilding formula, with a starting deck of ten cards, a market to buy new cards from, and a winner decided when one player’s health reaches zero.
Shards stands out with its mastery mechanic. Every turn, for just one crystal (the game’s currency), you can increase your mastery by one. Hitting milestones like 5, 10, or 20 mastery upgrade certain cards. Hitting 30 makes the game’s namesake card—the Infinity Shard—deal infinite damage. That’s right, the game ends instantly if it’s played. Every player has an Infinity Shard in their deck, so it’s always a looming threat.
Not every game is a race to the Shard, however. In fact, to get to 30 mastery, you usually have to build a pretty defensive deck with armor or health gain, or purchase cards that give you additional mastery.
Cards are split into different groups, and
6. Chaos in the Old World
When I hear people glow about owning out-of-print games, I get kind of cynical. “Come on, the game can’t be that great. You probably just paid a ton for it and are justifying the expense.”
And then I came upon a copy of Chaos in the Old World in my local board game exchange Facebook group. For $50, I received a game with a completely broken box lid and a lot of broken miniatures. But wow, this game is fantastic.
Growing up, the video game Starcraft was incredibly fascinating to me. Other than the novelty of playing LAN with my older brother, Starcraft was my first exposure to asymmetrical player powers (a video we recently published here explores this further).
Different units, build tempos and paths to victory… Starcraft opened my eyes to that intricate balance that asymmetry manifests.
In CitOW, designer Eric Lang achieves a similar feel to Starcraft by having these fascinating dial mechanisms. Players do different actions (Khorne has to kill a unit, Nurgle has to ***) to achieve dial advancement, and players get rewards, even all the way to a win. The game ends through these dials, or by winning enough victory points.
Players must navigate the different paths, all with different types of units, upgrades for those units, cards that change the board state, and a bit of lady luck. Add in table talk, and no game of CitOW is going to play out the same way.
Of all the out-of-print games that I think people should try to seek out, this game is the one that I think is the most important.
Chess is possibly the most important game on this list for me.
Growing up, my parents didn’t really love how much time I spent playing video games. My older brother played them, and all my friends were as well, so it was kind of inevitable. But my parents certainly didn’t play them with me.
My dad, however, loved chess. I think there’s a bit of Filipino cultural identity associated with chess, and my dad was happy to kick my butt all throughout my childhood (and, currently, adulthood). It was so frustrating to lose to him, but I really appreciate that he never went easy on me. Chess club in elementary school was where I exacted my revenge—unleashing the same tactics my dad used on me to unsuspecting 4th graders. If I wasn’t so lazy and began reading strategy and practicing tactics back then, I think I would’ve ended up pretty good.
These days, I enjoy an occasional match on chess.com, but I’m definitely stuck around 1200. Surprisingly, YouTube and Twitch are revitalizing my interest. Seeing the success of the PogChamps tournaments and watching streamers like Alex Botez, Hikaru Nakamura, and Levy Rozman makes me want to get back into it. Plus, how rock and roll does Queen’s Gambit make chess look? Once the pandemic ends, I think I’d love to enter some over-the-board tournaments.
I think a lot of modern board gamers hate on chess. It might be because it’s been solved by computers, or that high-level chess often ends in a draw. But the amount of study required to get to that level is so much that I don’t worry about that at all. Plus, if I ever get to the point where I’m getting a stalemate every game, there’s always blitz.
If chess was a modern board game, I think I would still be infatuated with it. My dad’s board had amazing production quality, with heavy wooden components. Even as a little kid, I had a reverence for this board, putting back the pieces carefully. The game mechanics are beautifully elegant, and the win condition (checkmate) is incredibly unique. The decision space is massive (yes it’s less than Go, but it’s way more than Catan). It’s accessible for kids to adults, but the road to mastery is long.
And, while I usually enjoy board games where all players have a reasonable chance at victory, I think it’s good to have something like chess as a competitive endeavor where a much better player will win every time. A game like this will teach a lot of humility.
What a beautiful game.
Balk is simple. Ten gold cards number 1-10. A gold card gets flipped into the middle. Everyone has a hand of bid cards numbered 1-10. You play one face down, reveal, and if you have the biggest card, you win the gold. Most points on gold cards wins at the end.
Here’s the rub: if you bid the same value as someone else and tie for the largest bid, no one gets the gold.
So here’s what happens: the gold 10 card is up for grabs. Do you bid your 10 to try to beat out everyone else? But what if the person next to you plays their 10? That means you’ve both wasted your best card! Maybe I’ll play a 1 and let everyone else bid high on this card. But what if everyone else is thinking that, and someone wins the 10 with a low bid like a 2?!
Just like great games on this list such as Codenames, Monikers, and The Fox in the Forest: Duet, Mysterium’s charm comes from limits on communication.
In Mysterium, one ghost player is trying to convey to a team of mediums details of their killer—just like Clue, we’re looking for person, location, and murder weapon. However, the ghost can only communicate using Tarot-sized cards with artwork on them.
“The ghost gave me this card with a suit of armor, so I think they’re trying to say it’s the soldier? But the suit of armor is floating, so maybe it’s the magician? And most of the card is colored red… does that mean I should take a look at this person in red clothing?”
As a ghost, keeping a poker face as your mediums hit the nail on the head, only to doubt and choose something else, and then end up on something you didn’t even notice on the card; that’s Mysterium.
It’s a little bit of a bigger game and harder to get to the table compared to something like Codenames, but I think that contributes a bit to its charm. Collaboratively working through the multiple rounds with a group of committed players is a true joy of board gaming.
2. Terraforming Mars
It feels like Terraforming Mars is a love it or love-to-hate-it game.
I think anyone who’s played it will agree: the components are crap. Not only are the player boards made of paper, it’s like… bad, thin paper? It’s worse than the 11-year-old player boards in Chaos in the Old World. And if you nudge it hard enough, your cubes can go everywhere. If that happens badly enough, it can be game ruining.
So yes, I’ve been 3D printing better boards. And yes, I’ve been printing fancy 3d tiles.
But it’s because I think the gameplay deserves it. There’s so much to love:
Terraforming Mars is an engine building game where players manipulate resources to purchase cards that help them produce resources and terraform the planet. The card play is where the game shines. There are 137 cards in base TM, and none of them are duplicates. That’s a more impressive roster than most deckbuilders.
This game is three hours straight of min-maxing decisions as you try to carve out
1. Rising Sun
Let’s talk about what’s wrong with Rising Sun.
- It’s not my favorite experience at three players because you get a bit less negotiation, and at six players there’s a ton of downtime. You might only get one action a season at six players.
- There are end-game scoring cards to buy that are less fun than buying monsters, though often are more optimal. I think the awesome, 5-coin behemoth of the River Dragon (that I spent a lot of care painting) has only been bought once or twice throughout all my plays, and never by the winner.
- The Bonsai Clan feels weak to my play group, unless Ryujin (the God that lets you buy cards during the shrine phase) is in the game. If the Bonsai Clan can snag Komainu (the monster that acts as a priest), they can lock down Ryujin all game and then the opposite problem occurs—it’s almost impossible to stop.
- The Kickstarter exclusive components are quite missed from the retail version, and include gameplay changes rather than just aesthetic upgrades.
- The Kotahi controversy is really problematic, and unfortunate considering Eric Lang’s great work as an activist otherwise. Its inclusion brings the theming concretely into appropriation-rather-than-inspiration territory.
And yet, here it is. Despite some flaws, Rising Sun has been at my #1 spot for quite a while now. Why?
- The honor mechanic is fantastic. In Rising Sun, ties are broken by honor. That’s all ties, including resolving bids during the game’s unique battle system, gaining harvest bonuses, and even winning the game. Honor is a ranking on the side of the board that can be manipulated by taking honorable and dishonorable actions during both the action and battle phases. Ties happen frequently, so being at the top of the honor track is important. That is, unless you purchase monsters or cards that benefit off having lower honor than your opponents.
- The battle system in Rising Sun could almost be a game by itself. Instead of resolving with dice or cards, Rising Sun implements a bidding system on a set of actions. Using coins gained during the action phase, players secretly bid on a set of battle actions (such as committing seppuku to kill off one’s own forces for points and honor, taking an enemy hostage, hiring ronin as reinforcements, or gaining points for every figure). Bidding coins can secure victory, but the catch is that the loser of the battle gains the coins that the winner used. This system creates the chance for beautifully exciting battles, with underdogs stealing key actions and large battles shifting the trajectory of the game.
- Shared actions and the ally system foster great table talk. Actions in Rising Sun are carried out from a pile of “mandates” that cause the entire table to take the same action. For example, one mandate lets players buy a card from the market. However, the player that plays that action as well as their ally gain a discount. The temporary (and often razor-thin) alliances in Rising Sun lead to hilarious betrayals and brutal “it’s just business” moments.
- The table presence is really, really impressive. A beautiful board, detailed miniatures, player shields… I’ve painted the monsters and 3D-printed strongholds as well. The grandeur of the game leads to a sense that this game is an event to play, making for memorable sessions.
Rising Sun synthesizes all of these great aspects into one huge puzzle: gaining coins, jockeying for territory control, working with your ally, manipulating your honor, finding creative combos, efficiently using your clan’s ability… Rising Sun doesn’t have a single path to victory, and the decisions you make throughout the entire game are excruciatingly difficult.
Rising Sun is my #1 board game of all time.