I have shocking news for everyone: gaming has taken over my life. Actually, podcasting has taken over my life. But gaming has taken over my free time. This might not sound like a shock to many you — after all, haven’t I been crowing about board games for about five years now? Well, I’m happy to report that I’m still wholly consumed with games — buying them, playing them, reading about them, and converting others to them. It’s a problem.
In 2019, despite a rigorous touring schedule with Watch What Crappens, I did manage to play many games. Many, many games — enough that I should be content by now. But to paraphrase Luther Vandross, it’s never too much, never too much, never too much. In an ideal world, I’d get to play board games every day of the week (because I’m a lunatic), but we all know that will never happen. Turns out my friends have things called “lives” which means there are some tragic evenings where I’m left with little to do but stare at the games that are slowly cluttering up my apartment. Rather than mope though, I’ve decided to do something productive (or at least time-consuming): I’ve dusted off the ol’ blog to assemble my list of the Top Ten Games of 2019. If I can’t game today, then I sure as hell will pontificate about it.
First and foremost, one cannot write a top ten list these days without some qualifications. Chief among them is that I have not played every game that came out in 2019; so this is really just my survey of the titles I have managed to get to the table. Second, gaming is highly, highly subjective. I tend to enjoy really meaty, heavy games with mind-melting decisions. Others may be less into that. It’s all good. Everyone has different preferences, and these are mine.
Lastly, there’s a huge amount of fuzziness when it comes to declaring top games of the year, mainly because the board game industry is so deeply quirky? disorganized? idiosyncratic? A game may emerge in 2016 in Germany with a tiny print run, receive press and attention worldwide, but not actually arrive in the US on a wide scale until 2019 due to a variety of business issues (production partners, distribution, funding, crap like that). It’s not technically a 2019 game, but it sort of seems like one. Basically, this is my way of saying that while some of these titles did launch in 2019, a handful of them technically are from 2018 (or earlier). But 2019 is when I played them; so everyone relax.
Shall I just get on with it? NO. I won’t get on with it. I struggle with lists because I always want to cram everything into them, and when I can’t, I get sad. So, to make me feel better, here are some honorable mentions (that may or may not ascend to Top Ten if I ever revisit this list). Okay, is everyone ready for me to put on my Serious Game Review hat? Because it’s happening riiiiight NOW:
Honorable Mention (in no order):
Menara: Remember how I said I love games with meaty, “mind-melting” decisions? This isn’t one of them. Menara has players building hellacious towers that threaten to topple over with every passing breath. I’ve only played this Jenga-on-crack stacking game once, which is why I don’t feel totally confident that it deserves a spot in the top ten. However, it’s super fun and stressful, and the best part: when you’re all done, you’ve erected an eye-catching structure on your table (or floor). Definitely a great option for families or groups of friends who don’t want a lot of rules overhead. Menara isn’t always readily available, but I did manage to get my copy off Amazon Prime. Be sure to keep an eye out for the times when it is in stock.
Black Angel: The sci-fi spiritual sequel to the beloved game Troyes, Black Angel is a very fun but perhaps slightly overbaked monster of a game. And for all its table presence and grandeur, it has a surprising lack of personality. I’ve enjoyed every play I’ve had of it more and more, but it’s just not quite as fun (yet) as the other games in the top ten. If you’re interested, maybe try before you buy.
Pipeline: My eyes glazed over the first time I sat before this bruising economic game. All I saw were numbers and pipes and pipes and numbers. What was this MESS? Turns out that beneath the hood of this oil industry simulator is a fairly straightforward game that somehow merges simple economic principles (buy low, sell high) with tile laying. Honestly, it shouldn’t work as a concept, but it does. I’ve only played Pipeline once, and I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the experience (even though I won — BOOHYAHHHH!!). This is a game that demands more plays, and with those additional plays, I suspect it too could rise into the top ten.
Crystal Palace: My friend Tom, who co-hosts the Game Brain podcast, recently declared Crystal Palace as the second best game of 2019 (and for the record, he ranked Pipeline at #4 also). It’s not quite there for me (heck, it’s not even my top ten), but I do think it’s a very good game. The decisions players face are excellent. And by excellent, I mean cruel, evil, and unrelenting (also an accurate description of me when I’m hangry). I don’t really have anything bad to say about the game except to say that it just doesn’t “pop” for me the way others do. I look forward to playing it again and having my feeble brain crushed anew.
Pret-a-Porter, 3rd Edition: This fashion simulator is brutal. Simply brutal (for the record, so is the world of fashion — please watch Kell on Earth for further illustration). Here’s what I dig about Pret-a-Porter: the worker placement decisions are gleefully difficult (are you guys noticing a pattern to the games I like?), and the act of building up a fashion empire is quite fun — sometimes even deeply satisfying. Most of all, I love that the game focuses on fashion — a pleasant respite from the usual sci-fi or high fantasy themes that dominate the hobby. But that being said, Pret-a-Porter has many fiddly elements (oodles of tokens where a few tracks would have sufficed) that make players feel less like burgeoning Tom Fords and more like some schmoes pushing around game pieces. Still, a pretty strong economic simulator that I look forward to playing again.
The Quacks of Quendlinburg: This game actually won the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres, which is like the Oscars for board games. It’s a push-your-luck “bag building” romp that has players pulling chits out of a sack in the hopes of increasing their fortunes. Draw too may of the bad chits (in this case, cherry bombs), and you bust, which is bad (duh). There’s a reason why this game won Game of the Year — it’s straight up fun. Highly recommended and nearly a contender for my top 10.
Belratti: Here’s something fun. Belratti is a light, borderline party game in which some of the players are curators at a museum and some of the players are artists (represented by cats and owls respectively, natch). The cat curators have invited the owl artists to submit art for an upcoming exhibit, but a nefarious faker rat named Belratti is trying to sneak his paintings into the big show. You know what? I’m not even going to try to explain this game any further because it already sounds crazy. Just know that it’s actually very simple and boils down to simple image association. We’ve seen variations on this theme in games like “Mysterium” and “Dixit,” among others, but this is the most straightforward, streamlined, and hilarious version of all. I’ve played this game countless times, and it never, ever fails to enthrall everyone. I believe it may be getting a large distribution sometimes soon, and if so, Belratti definitely should be snatched up for a light game night. It just baaaaaarely missed the top 10 (in fact it was in there until about twenty minutes ago).
6 Nimmt!: This is just a simple card game that breed chaos and laughs, and the only reason it’s not in my top ten is because it’s from 1994 (oops). I’m mentioning it here because I played it for the first time a few months ago, and now it’s in heavy demand with several of my friends. If you see it, buy it.
Tragedy Looper: Here is an excellent, excellent game that is so brilliant, it deserves heaps of awards and accolades. However, it came out about five years ago; so I really can’t in good faith put it on this list, despite falling in love with it this year. Just know that if you play Tragedy Looper, it has terrible components that often undermine what is otherwise a superb game. Plus, learning the game can be a conceptual beast, but so so worth it. It’s probably one of the most tense, thoughtful, and fascinating experiences I’ve had in gaming ever.
Okay, are we ready for the top ten?? I reserve the right to revisit this list and change things around in the future kthanxbye.
The designer of this game, Andreas Steding, created one of my favorite games of all time, Hansa Teutonica; so no wonder that he’s churned out another awesome title. Gugong has players exchanging cards with different interconnected areas of the board in order to execute actions. It’s a tricky, beautiful, and gloriously clever game that deserves to get to my table way more than it has. I have played it as much as I’d like to, but enough to know that it’s special. Major brain melting with this one. (Brain melting is good)
This game claims to be a civilization-building game, but I can assure you that it’s not, and I’d rather you not get your hopes up high on that front because it would do a disservice to this otherwise sharp and fascinating game. Gentes uses time, money, and people as resources to forge a thinky — if dry — puzzle. I only wish the game had more personality, but everything else fires on all cylinders.
8. On The Underground
Here’s a game that came out in the mid-Aughts, had a moment, disappeared, and then — like so much entertainment in 2019 — was rebooted back to life. Does that mean it’s not qualified to be on a best of the year rundown? Don’t know. Don’t care. What matters is that I’m am *really* digging this game. The concept is pretty simple: players must build subway lines for a passenger in London (or Berlin) who then rides the tube to any number of stops. Here’s what I love about the game: the rules are super simple, the strategy is surprisingly deep, and the user-created subway map is incredibly fun to gaze upon at game’s end. Plus, I enjoy the challenge of building a PERFECT metro line that the passenger can’t help but take time and time again. If this game reaches a mass market, I recommend it to everyone who’s interested in dipping a toe into board gaming.
7. Just One
This is about as bare-bones as a game can get. But it’s also about as fun too. The concept is simple: there’s a secret word that one person doesn’t know. Everyone around the table has to present a one-word clue to the guesser, but first, if there are any overlapping clues, they are removed. What this means is that if everyone goes for obvious words, everyone will overlap, and the guesser will have no clues to the mystery word. But if everyone goes too obscure, the clues will be too far flung to point to the correct word. It isn’t the most challenging game, but the theatrical fun of revealing clues only to have four people jot down the exact same esoteric word is kind of unparalleled. A party game essential.
In this hodgepodge of a game, players are privateers sailing about trading goods, upgrading their ship, exploring the wilderness, fighting on behalf of European powers, and much much more. Maracaibo is the definition of an overstuffed, convoluted, counter-intuitive mess… and for some reason it works. It works REALLY well. How? I don’t know. Maybe chalk it up to designer Alexander Pfister’s proficiency with mashing disparate gaming mechanisms into a coherent whole, but damn… this game is a blast. I cannot wait to play it again and again and again and again. Unfortunately, it’s a bear to teach, and I fear people like my dear friend Sly (who I often recruit for gaming) will be unwilling to ever try this one after they see the laundry list of iconography. This definitely is not a game for everyone, but for me, it scratches my sweet spot. It may even rise to fifth on this list at some point. Or maybe fourth. Or third! But for now, it holds steady at number six.
There was a time this year when Wingspan was the easy #1 choice for me. It’s a fantastic, must-buy game… if you can find it. Copies of Wingspan have been flying off the shelves (pun intended) steadily for a year with no sign of letting up. The hot sales have been bolstered by awards, great reviews, and the sort of press normally reserved for more mainstream entertainment. Is all the hype worth it? Yes. This is a paragon of elegant, streamlined engine-building, and the theme of collecting birds is beyond refreshing. Not everything in board gaming needs to involve elves and wizards, and Wingspan absolutely signals to the industry that there are legions of players who are eager to embrace contemporary, real-world, sophisticated themes (much as Viticulture did in 2013 — from the same publisher, perhaps not so coincidentally). Even more excellent is that Wingspan is designed by a woman, Elizabeth Hargrave — a stellar debut in a male-dominated hobby. But let’s not overlook the game which, at its heart, is a fabulous blend of art, theme, fun, and choices. Perfect to pair with a glass of wine and your best friends.
4. City of the Big Shoulders
First off, this game wins best title of the year. Without even originally knowing its context, I loved the name. Then learning it derives from a Carl Sandburg poem? That’s just fancy (which is great because I am a very fancy man). City of the Big Shoulders (or COBS, as it has been deliciously nicknamed) takes place in post-fire Chicago and has players investing in and managing the real-life companies that helped rebuild the city (think Quaker Oats, Schwinn, etc). There’s a lot going on in this game — it’s sort of a Frankenstein of worker placement, economic simulation, and stock market intrigue — but it works really, really well. Choosing how much to invest into each company (and at what time) is a meaty, fascinating decision to make every round. The real joy, however, comes from building your little businesses into unstoppable money-making machines. Watching your company stock skyrocket amidst ballooning payouts is pretty much THE BEST. I’m super into City of the Big Shoulders.
3. Underwater Cities
I love this game. It is so so good. Players compete to make fabulous underwater cities (hence the name), all while battling over limited action spaces and scant resources. There’s a lot to adore here: a fun theme, a strong engine-building element, and tight worker-placement competition. However, what distinguishes Underwater Cities is its clever, agonizing card play. I won’t get into the specifics, but taking actions in this game involves playing a card, and if the card color matches the action you want to do, you get an all-important bonus. So, doing a green action with a green card means you’ll get the green bonus. Yay! But what happens when you want to do a green action, but you only have an orange card? And the orange card bonus is too good to forgo for a green action? That’s the crux of it: a never-ending, monstrous dilemma that will have you cursing the game but secretly loving it. For me, it’s an easy top-5 pick for 2019 (even though it technically first debuted overseas in 2018). That being said, some players bemoan the “kelp strategy” as being overpowered, which could be an issue for those who are wary of such things. For me personally, I’m not going to dive into the great “kelp strategy” debate of 2019. I honestly don’t care too much about it — especially because it hasn’t impacted any plays I’ve had of the game. Plus, a new expansion will be rolling out to stores soon enough, and apparently it offsets the much maligned kelp situation. Whatevs — the game is awesome, kelp or no kelp.
2. The Dilluvia Project
You guys. This game is… fantastic. Here’s the story with it: The Dilluvia Project emerged in 2015 with a limited release of about 1,000 copies. Basically, it was impossible to get — I’m not even sure if it was available in the US. Eventually it disappeared into the ether, only to quietly reemerge four years later with a large reprint, thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games (which is why I’m categorizing it as eligible for a Best of 2019 list). There wasn’t a lot of fanfare about this re-release, which is a shame because if any game deserves some love, it’s this excellent worker-placement, tile-laying, “city building” (in name only) game. I’m so excited about The Dilluvia Project that I may just have to start a second paragraph.
In The Dilluvia Project, players are tasked with building a city in the sky; although that really only amounts to placing a bunch of abstract tiles on a large grid. But don’t mind that. There’s so much to consider with this game. First, there’s a brain-melting market showdown where everyone may buy special bonuses that will critically support their strategies. Then there’s an achingly intense worker placement phase that has players constantly rethinking their most efficient course of action. And finally, there are those city tiles whose location on the map leads to a whole other decision-tree of possibilities. Throw in some tough choices on income generation and a funky scoring mechanism, and you have something just short of pure excellence. Where the game does fall short is its components. By and large they are good, but the income tracks are clunky, and the tiles have art that is so over-stylized, it’s easy to forget we’re actually forming a city: most of the “buildings” we erect just look like abstract squiggly lines. Man, if only those tiles actually looked like buildings, the theme would have just shone through so beautifully. It’s not a major issue for me, but some people I’ve played with have gotten seriously hung up on this stuff, which is a shame. Despite these nitpicks, The Dilluvia Project is superb, and it was going to be an easy #1 for me… that is, until I played…
Welcome to the number one spot. Barrage not only tops 2019 — easily — but it might just be a top ten game for me of all time. It’s just that good. What’s it about? Building dams in the Swiss Alps! But also steampunk! And an alternate 1930s timeline with no Nazis but perhaps giant mechs! Am I losing you? Please stay because you need to know about this game. Barrage hails from a duo of acclaimed Italian designers (Tommaso Battista and Simone Luciani) and first landed on gamers’ radars after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018. From there, everything went downhill. The Kickstarter fulfillment for Barrage was a master class in ineptitude, and when people did finally receive their copies of the game (if they received them at all), many had torn boxes, warped player boards, and various other disastrous production qualities. The pitchforks came out, and unhappy Kickstarter backers torpedoed the game’s rating on boardgamegeek.com, a.k.a. ground zero for the board game hobby.
It’s a shame that there’s so much controversy around the components because Barrage is otherwise excellent. Superb. Amazing. Heck, the fact that I’m tossing out these platitudes DESPITE its glaring production issues shows just how good this game is. Like so many other titles on this list, Barrage plunges players into a web of decisions that is simultaneously thrilling and masochistic, but what elevates this game is its deeply interactive nature. Players are constantly jockeying for position with their various dams and aqueducts and power stations, ideally leaching precious resources from others to use for their own gain. This is all supported by razor sharp worker placement gameplay and a super kewl resource wheel thing that is a game unto itself. In the end, Barrage is all about timing, and players will spend much of the game’s 3+ hours on the precarious edge of glory and utter failure. Absolutely fantastic. When Barrage comes to retail, its production issues should be solved, which means you should do yourself a favor and buy it ASAP.
What have your favorite games of 2019 been? Any I’ve missed?