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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scythe, Clans of Caledonia, and Gaia Project — all 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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