The most influential board games of the decade, according to top designers

7 Wonders
Image: Repos Production via Polygon
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The growth of the board game industry over the last decade has been nothing short of extraordinary. Just visit a big-box retailer like Target or Walmart to see the most visible change: three or four times the amount of shelf space, with an expanded selection of titles unlike anything that existed a decade ago. The collection at your friendly local game store is likely even more diverse, thanks in part to a blossoming pipeline of new games funded through Kickstarter.

But with hundreds of titles coming out every year, it’s impossible to have played them all. Polygon reached out to a who’s who list of the industry’s top designers. Here are their picks for the most influential board games released in the last decade. These are the ones to be familiar with heading into 2020 and beyond.


Rob Daviau

The creator of the Legacy system, an evolving style of board games heavily influenced by video games, Rob Daviau is one of the most influential designers of the last decade. In addition to projects for companies like Bezier Games and Iello, he’s also the “chief restoration officer” at Restoration Games. The former Hasbro designer’s main gig these days is digging into the history of board gaming to uncover gems worthy of bringing back to life.

7 Wonders

A game that plays from two to seven, but one where player count doesn’t greatly multiply the play time? A pass-and-draft mechanic? Players taking turns at the same time? 7 Wonders attracted a lot of attention when it came out in 2010. A few expansions quickly followed, and then a two-player version that is generally rated higher than the original.

While the mechanisms in the game were not completely new, 7 Wonders put them together in a way that made them feel fresh. Players have been doing a lot of passing drafts in the past decade, and 7 Wonders is a main reason why. Roundless play and simultaneous actions also showed that downtime doesn’t have to be a part of gameplay with four-plus players.

You can see the effects throughout the decade, from Sushi Go (drafting) to Gloomhaven (simultaneous selection). Dozens more may not have directly been inspired by 7 Wonders, but the DNA runs throughout.

Zombicide
Guillotine Games/CMON

Zombicide

One of CMON’s original hits, it’s the game that launched a few hundred Kickstarters. In 2012 it was the early days of crowdfunding, and Zombicide showed that a giant box of plastic and a simple theme can catch fire, putting its publisher on the map. CMON also heavily leveraged stretch goals, add-ons, and “chase” materials (there are close to 200 separate entries for the franchise on BoardGameGeek as of right now), turning “buying a game” into “completing a set” for tens of thousands of customers.

This formula has been copied — successfully, I might add — for the rest of the decade: a wave of plastic figures, a simple theme, and several million-dollar Kickstarters followed.

TIME Stories

Consumable content in board games — something you can only play once — was long a taboo. Games had to be replayable forever. This decade has been different. I’ve personally been in this space with Legacy games, but TIME Stories took a very different approach.

TIME Stories utilizes a kind of “console and cartridge” business model. Players pick up the console — TIME Stories’ base game — with a single case to solve. Then, developers sell players new cases just like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo sell new software. The game is highly narrative, with very simple rules and mechanisms. It utilizes the same pieces in different ways in different cases, and often requires the players to make intuitive leaps about what they can and can’t do within the ruleset.

And once you’ve solved the case? It’s done. Sell it. Give it away. Let friends have it. A board game you can solve and finish? There weren’t many of those before this decade.

In four years, there have been over 10 official TIME Stories expansions and dozens of fan-made ones. More importantly, it helped inspire a slew of other consumable games. The Exit game line, which are effectively escape rooms in a box, took this to the next level, often requiring that you destroy many of the components as you solve the game. Unlock! is another popular line, and the explosion of these kinds of narrative games is due in no small part to the time-jumping adventures pioneered by TIME Stories.


Elizabeth Hargrave

Few game designers have burst onto the global stage quite like Elizabeth Hargrave. Her debut game, Wingspan, was just released this year to immediate critical acclaim. It was recently awarded the coveted Kennerspiel des Jahres. She has multiple other titles on the way through several different publishers.

The Castles of Burgundy
Alea/Ravensburger

The Castles of Burgundy

The Castles of Burgundy was the first game I played that made each number on a die equally valuable. You may have a specific number that you’d like to roll at a specific time (you really want that boat when there’s a big pile of goods!), but on average, rolling high is no better than rolling low. That concept blew my mind.

There are lots of other things about the Castles of Burgundy design that make it exemplary of how to handle dice in a Eurogame context. The die roll is at the beginning of your turn, not determining success or failure. There are four different ways to use a die — though some may not work for you on some turns — and one of those things is that you can always trade in a die for workers that help you manipulate dice on future turns. It leads to lots of interesting choices and feeling like you’ve accomplished something on every turn. And that makes it a game that I’m still playing regularly, to this day.

7 Wonders

My gamer friends seem to end up in groups of three couples a lot. The way that 7 Wonders uses simultaneous card drafting felt like such a breakthrough to us, because it’s a high-player-count game where it’s always everyone’s turn! A few years later Sushi Go brought the same mechanic to a lighter audience, to great effect.

The 7 Wonders mechanic is strong not just because of its simultaneity. Its design also allows you to see a lot more cards than you’ll see in a typical card game, which mitigates some of the randomness inherent to decks of cards. And, even though it’s simultaneous, there’s a certain level of interaction in the passing of cards. Building your Wonder creates just enough opportunity to take a card out of circulation just because you know someone else wants it, without making that mechanic the center of the game.

Gamers have started using pick-and-pass drafting to augment other games. It’s an advanced mode for Terraforming Mars, and I know some players start Wingspan that way as well. We can thank 7 Wonders for popularizing this mechanic and showing how satisfying it can be.

TIME Stories
Charlie Hall/Polygon

TIME Stories

As designers and as players, we often ask about replayability. Will a game be satisfying every time I play it, or will it feel too “same-y” too quickly? TIME Stories threw that concept out the window. They took a gamble that gamers would be willing to invest in a unique experience, even if they would play it only once. Coupled with a unique narrative structure and immersive story, that gamble paid off.

A single TIME Stories case can take several hours to solve, but it opened up a market for a whole new set of smaller, less expensive, co-op puzzle games that are intended to be played just once. I suspect that Exit, Unlock!, and other escape-room style franchises were able to do as well as they did because TIME Stories proved that gamers will waive the replayability rule for the right experience.


Volko Ruhnke

By day, Volko Ruhnke is an instructor at the CIA’s Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. It’s a kind of university within the CIA that offers basic training and advanced coursework in the skills needed to be a defense analyst. By night, Ruhnke is an acclaimed designer of commercial board games who is best known for the COIN Series, published by GMT Games.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Freedom: The Underground Railroad cast players as a cooperative team of 19th-century abolitionists moving enslaved Americans to freedom in Canada while raising funding and building strength for the abolitionist movement. The design raised and explored questions about the potential of commercial board games to immerse players in trying and tragic chapters of human history. Could we have fun with such a topic — and should we? What roles should players be given, when the setting is real and laden with moral implications; must players represent only good actors? Does portrayal of historical victims with wood cubes or a victory score dehumanize them?

Freedom remains oft cited in board gamer and designer discussions of how and whether board games ought to address painful or controversial topics — typically, with acknowledgment that Freedom helped show the way to do so. By the end of the decade, the hobby had made room for yet another serious but quite different take on Freedom’s topic of U.S. slavery, This Guilty Land, in which players represented the forces of either justice or oppression.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad
Academy Games

Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Colombia

The first in the COIN series, Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Colombia placed four players into a modern-day factional struggle featuring military assaults, kidnapping and assassination, drug dealing, and bribery. Andean Abyss reimagined the highly successful “card-driven” game format, offered multiplayer and solitaire options, and combined Eurogame-like components with wargame realism — all to draw a wider range of players to its obscure and perhaps uncomfortable setting. The game, reasonably successful commercially, spawned a still-flowering COIN series of games with devotees and designers spanning Euro and wargamer tribes. This series of high-quality, moderately accessible, and vividly asymmetrical historical wargames helped inspire the late-decade Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right, whose attractive fantasy setting and first-rate execution made it a breakout hit. Root in turn brought a cogent insight into the dynamics of internal politico-military struggle to audiences who might not even have realized that that was what they were learning about.

Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace

Churchill assigned players the roles of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin as the leaders maneuvered across the Allied Conferences of World War II. Conceived by Mark Herman, a titan of wargame design, and published by the world’s leading board wargame publisher, GMT Games, Churchill showed wargamers a whole new perspective on the most board-gamed historical setting of all. The fronts and fighting were in the game and mattered, but mainly as context for diplomacy. Instead of pushing panzer divisions across Russia, the players gathered around the conference table that would decide WWII’s grand strategy and its postwar settlement.

Churchill launched a series of diplomatic conflict titles, beginning with Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars, an interfactional look at ancient Greek statecraft. The success of Churchill and Pericles has opened the door to a far wider and more popular variety of historical games about or merely set during war — diplomatic, bureaucratic, partisan political — that promise to illuminate for us the interdisciplinary nature of all human affairs, matters of war and peace included.


Lords of Waterdeep
Wizards of the Coast

Jamey Stegmaier

Award-winning designer Jamey Stegmaier is best known as the designer of Scythe, a tremendous strategy game and one of my all-time personal favorites. But he’s also the owner and operator of the prolific Stonemaier Games, which published Wingspan as well as other critically acclaimed titles. In the past few years he also found time to write a book, A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide.

7 Wonders Duel

7 Wonders itself is a hugely influential game, but I think 7 Wonders Duel takes the cake. It’s the game that made me — and many other publishers — realize that their large multiplayer games were just as marketable if redesigned as two-player-only games.

Lords of Waterdeep and A Game of Thrones: The Board Game

Prior to Lords of Waterdeep and A Game of Thrones: The Board Game’s second edition, my perception of IP-based board games was that they were cash grabs and reskins of other games. I’m sure that’s a huge generalization, but my sense is that these two games made gamers realize that great games were now being made in fictional worlds they already loved.

Terra Mystica

Scythe, Clans of Caledonia, and Gaia Projectall top 50 games on BoardGameGeek — would not exist were it not for Terra Mystica. These are all games that have soft, not-combat interactions on maps and player mat systems where the structures you create unlock better income. While I think Hansa Teutonica was the first game to do this, Terra Mystica brought it to the masses.

Honorable mentions include Kemet and Eclipse (these started the wave of thematic Eurogames with direct player interaction), Ascension and Star Realms (inspiring games that become evergreen in digital form), as well as Risk: Legacy (which created the Legacy genre).

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Comments

I love 7 Wonders, but I had no idea it was so recent or that it is responsible for the drafting mechanic. I have stayed away from the TIME Stories games because they lacked replay ability, but after reading this I will give the a try this holiday.

To me, it seems like a conflict of interest that 2 or the 3 games chosen by Volko Ruhnke are 1) a game from his own series and 2) a game published by the same company that publishes his own games.

Why is Time Stories on this list twice?

Two different people voted for it, Rob and Elizabeth.
It is a confusing layout though

There are several games that are on here twice, because more than one of the devs they interviewed thought they were worth including.

Not sure whether to roll my eyes or applaud the audacity of Ruhnke including one of his own games on his list.

I feel like Rob Daviau was being modest by not including one of his games on the list. Risk Legacy was a flop, but it led to the creation of Pandemic Legacy, which was so impactful in the game industry that every release for about 3 years had to shoehorn in a legacy/campaign system.

I’m going for "roll my eyes"

I got to say, this flew about 15 feet over my head. I was expecting to know at least 1 game, given this is supposed to span an entire decade.

I’m trying to suppress my snarky impulse to assume you only play Monopoly variants, but if you don’t recognize anything on that list, what do you play? 7 Wonders is available in Target. And while the others aren’t as widely distributed, Lords of Waterdeep, TIME Stories, Zombicide, and Castles of Burgundy have been extremely prominent in every game store I’ve ever been in.

It’s cool if none of them are your thing, or even if you really have never heard of them, but that does just make me genuinely curious how you avoided them.

well I’m 33 and don’t have 4 friends willing to hang out for hours at a time to play board games any more, so I was already expecting to not know most of them.

Thanks for suppressing the snark. I had to do the same as this reads to me as super niche. I do have several varieties of monopoly, but haven’t played it in ages. I always preferred LIFE anyway.

I don’t play many new games. I still play things like Catan, Risk, even Axis & Allies if I can find the aforementioned group to sit down. I have played more "party" type of games, card against humanity type stuff. The newest game I have played was with a friend who brought a game with a toilet and poop you were supposed to catch, at least my toddler enjoyed it.

Yeah, the "game store" hasn’t really existed in my area for a long time. Searching Target.com for "board game" brings up 700+ hits, compared to maybe 20 when I was a kid.

I’m not trying to be mean, it was just an observation.

Terra Mystica is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s truly wonderful, even if the art is a little old and weird looking. I’d love an updated version of it! It’s what made me fall in love with Eurogames.

I know a lot of people love it, but I bounced off 7 wonders real hard.

My "everybody loves this so why don’t I?" is House on Haunted Hill.

I’m with you. I played Battlestar Galactica before House, and bounced right off of it (House). I know they’re thematically different, but BSG is a far superior hidden role game.

Azul got me back into board games.

Lords of Waterdeep is so good! It’s one of my favorite games to introduce people to who are wanting to "get into games".

It’s worth mentioning that I find the expansion to essentially be mandatory at this point.

What are some great games that can be fine for two players? My wife and I have Pandemic (and a couple of expansions), and Forbidden Island, and a couple of smaller card based games. We’re always looking for more, but just unsure what is a good fit for 2.

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle is a pretty great 2 player co-operative deck builder. My wife and I also enjoy playing Boss Monster together.

My wife and I play Hero Realms, it’s a competitive deck-building game, but it has an official campaign variant. It can feel hard sometimes, but we liked that about it. For two, we also like Sagrada.
I have a buddy who loves to play Machi Koro with his wife (that sounds dirtier than it is).

Interesting. I own over 100 board games and NONE of these games would make my list.

Influencial? Try Scythe, Terraforming Mars, Ticket to Ride, Netrunner. COUP, Dice Throne, Pandemic Legacy.

7 Wonders? Eh, that game just feels old and outdated these days.

It’s not ‘best board games’. It is influential. Check the definition and read the article carefully again, they outline pretty clearly how their influence is meaningful for the board game market.

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