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The best board games of 2016 (arstechnica.com)
241 points by kevlar1818 on Dec 27, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

Anyone think recent board games are becoming unnecessarily complex and deeply strategy based? It could just be what I've seen from my friends but a lot of the times you can tell from the box art and title alone that you're going to need tiles, tokens, cards a 3 page manual and a practice round before you can even start. For me, that's a slog. It's too hard to hold conversation or focus on anything other than the game. I guess there will always be a divide between people who can spend 3 hours of intense concentration on a Settlers of Catan game and people who just want to play Jenga for a few rounds. Are there any popular simple games in the latter category recently?

3 whole pages... Today's active grognard community of hex based (and other) military sims with their 60 pages of manuals for MBT/Panzer or the COIN series games are providing plenty of pressure from the other end to keep things level. To say nothing of the guys with a lineal yard of book shelf space of pathfinder rulebooks or binders full of advanced squad leader and federation commander...

I'm just saying theres many levels of orders of magnitude higher complexity games pushing down from their more complex territory to keep the eurogames simple, relatively. If there's a push against eurogames its probably from the bottom up. The days of the bottom being very weak like chutes n ladders or monopoly are mostly gone so eurogames have to up their game a bit, which seems to result in games more complicated than a single page like the old days of carcassone.

Still for request for simple games, there's card games like Fluxx, which is old but under continuous development such that 1990s fluxx isn't 2014 fluxx. There's a whole genre of bluffing games, Sheriff of Nottingham and the various who is the werewolf games. Then there's organization games like the dice version of space cadets which takes about two minutes to set up and about three days for your voice to recover from all the arguing (unless your starship is more disciplined than ours LOL)

I also have to suggest Love Letter for a simple quick game. Something which is enough luck based that you can win the first time but has enough strategy to make it more entertaining.

Would 3rd Love Letter, also suggest Sushi Go Party. Plus it's a gateway drug to the excellent 7 Wonders.

a mere 60 pages? :-)

- ASL fan

>Anyone think recent board games are becoming unnecessarily complex and deeply strategy based?

Nah, both simple and complicated board games are more popular than ever. This particular list is focused on the complicated side. But off the top of my head some great and recent simpler ones:

Codenames, Bring Your Own Book (free if you print your own copy), Potion Explosion, A Fake Artist Goes to New York, Spaceteam, Colt Express, HABA Go Cuckoo! A Wobbly Nest-Building Game (Jenga-esque!), Wits and Wagers.

A few more to add..

You can teach the rules of these amazing games in about a minute: Love Letter (best card game ever?), Hand of the King, Splendor, Carcassonne.

You can teach the rules of these equally great games in about 5 minutes: Forbidden Island, Inis (my favourite game of the year!), Not Alone (a brilliant cat-and-mouse game card game that scales from 2 to 7 players )

I haven't played the original Love Letter, but Batman Love Letter (from what I remember, the Robin card is the major variation, but I could be wrong) is a great game to break out for small gatherings. Anyone can play it, and there's enough luck involved that anyone can win a given game.

Star Realms is not as easy, but most people can pick up the basics pretty quickly, and it's one of our favorites. The app is also great!

It requires more setup, but King of Tokyo is easy and fun, too. The main problem with King of Tokyo is that it soon becomes obvious that rolling for points is the best approach most of the time. King of New York fixes this, but new people are more likely to struggle with the rules.

Zombie Dice is almost purely a game you play while doing something else, but it doesn't get much easier, and it's still pretty fun.

I can second the recommendation of Forbidden Island. Got it for a 9yr old and it has been a big hit with the kids. The cooperative goal was a huge draw for me -- "we" win the game together, no one person can win. The kids are competitive enough, so having something like this was a great way to bring them together.

Two player: Patchwork, quick setup, easy rules, fast to play. Even my wife got hooked on this one. Which means it is a keeper (both game and wife ;) ).

Both Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert were a great hit and easy to teach my < 10yo nephews.

Another game that is pretty quick to pick up is Machi Koro.

Tsuro is another great one that can be taught in less than a minute.

This past year at work friends and I made a little board game and your complaints were our top requirements. We wanted it to be setup in minutes, explained in 5, played in about an hour, with turns lasting just minutes at most and with a high degree of social interaction and yet still have a fair amount of depth and strategy.

We ended making a little stock game called "Day Traitor" where on your turn you play one of your three cards that let you see the future of two stocks, followed by selling and buying stocks, and cash out for gold. Get 10 gold and you win.

The amusing part is that on the back of the card half of the information (either the stocks or the amount they will change) is visible so everyone else around the table can see this partial information. And to go with that you might have just bought a bunch of "Red" stock further leaking information that you think it will go up and so the person going after you might also buy Red. When you buy a stock it gets a bonus $1 bump in price (as well a negative $1 bonus when you sell). This all combines to create many situations where we try to convince each other the now is the time to buy/sell something to great amusement because doing so might help you. Over the course of the game you need to cash out for gold, but the more gold you buy on a turn the more expensive it is so you want to acquire gold at just the right speed for however the game plays out.

There is a little bit more, but that is the meat of the game. It has been a lot of fun designing it with our group and just need to get some art and then I will stick it up thegamecrafter.com or somewhere so at least we can get a copy. We went through a lot of design choices where we found something fun, but would cause a turn to take twice as long or double the explanation time or setup time. We ruthlessly would cut anything that didn't add fun or broke our requirements of fast quick setup and explanation and in the end created something pretty fun.

That sounds like a lot of fun. You should definitely do a Show HN if/when you get it up somewhere, I'm sure a lot of people here would be interested in the design process.

Edit: Also, I really want to play this. Please do that Show HN so I know I can get this game somehow. :)

Checkout the board for "Wealth of Nations"; it's a slick way of handling market pricing.

I want to play this game :)

You should def share the full game somewhere. Sounds super fun.

There's absolutely a Renaissance of complicated board games. They rarely rise to the level of Civ for PCs, but can still involve a lot of reading rules / cards. For the die hard fans, they're usually easy to pick up because few games are really 'new'. But for the beginner, telling someone "this is a dice version of Puerto Rico" is useless.

Are there good, easy to learn party games from the past few years? Codenames is a huge hit, and released a Codenames:Pictures followup this year.

Insider is sort of a 20 questions game where one of the guessers knows the buzzword, and must help push the team towards the goal within the time limit without being voted as the insider at the end of the game.

Secret Hitler situates players in 1930's Germany, pitting liberals against fascists in a social climate favoring authoritarian policies.

Sushi Go Party! is a card drafting / set collection game that's fairly easy to explain to novices, and a lot of the appeal is in the variable setup. This version also scales to like 8 or 10 players, if need be.

Captain Sonar is more complicated, but varies with the player's duties (First Mate is considered easiest by my group). It involves two submarine teams hunting one another. The mix of roles i interesting, from easy things like First Mate charging systems, to more challenging roles like Captains navigating the ship without giving away position or Radio Operators tracking the enemy ship and narrowing down their position. Most of the rules are simple, and the rulebook's size is mostly attributable to explaining the more complicated maps. Personally, I like the radio operator, as it's something of a real time Japanese pencil puzzle game.

Speaking as a hard core board gamer, I find it absolutely hilarious that your idea of a complex board game is Settlers of Catan!

That's the intro, beginners board game to these complex Euro games.

But I guess that kinda proves your point...

There's lots of not-so-deep ones out there in the new "board games renaissance", too - like Forbidden Island / Forbidden Desert, Sheriff of Nottingham, or recently this year, Secret Hitler.

They take like 2 minutes to set up, 2 minutes to understand the rules, and are loads of fun even for kids (maybe not so much on the kids with the Hitler).

I don't think Catan is particularly complex. I play casual rounds with friends all the time.

Catan is more complex (but less complicated) than Monopoly.

That's a pretty low bar, considering how little strategy is involved in a game of Monopoly.

What are your definitions for "complex" and "complicated"?

Monopoly has less strategic depth but more rules. Or at least feels that way to me.

Monopoly has zero depth. Zero! Imagine making a computer game out of it, so throwing the dice, counting money and moving your game figurine is automated. What is left? Almost nothing. It is busywork, there are no decisions for the players to make.

That's not necessarily true actually. Monopoly isn't a terribly complex game, but if you play it correctly you must either buy or auction every property landed on. It's mostly an auction and money management game, and there are decisions to be made

> if you play it correctly you must either buy or auction every property landed on

But this is an awfully short and simplistic decision tree, isn't it?

I agree that auctioning/trading can be interesting, but if you play with experienced strategy players or seasoned eurogame-gamers you will either find that A) there is a naive sucker at the table who will make an uneven trade and hand another player the victory or B) find out that everyone will hold on to their cards.

I loved playing Monopoly as a kid, but comparing it now to German Boardgames like Settlers of Catan I realize now that kids are a bit stupid (and I was no exception) and it just felt great to count the paper money.

There are a ton of card-based games that are fast and easy to play, without complicated rules, such as Cards Against Humanity, Red Flags. These require minimal explanation and are quite portable but are still fun and social.

There's many board games of a lot of types coming out in recent years. I also usually prefer the ones that seem 'pure' in that they have a focus on a few mechanics that work well and are quick to explain. A couple examples are Coup, Codenames and King of Tokyo.

While playing Empires in Arms, a mega-wargame that requires 7 players and 18 months of 1-per-week play to finish, we'd play side games of Nuclear Destruction, which is fluffy card game. Both kinds have always existed.

If anything, what I have seen are games get simplified and play optimized to the point where each player has little downtime. It all really depends on the designer of the game and the style of games they create. I would recommend titles such as Splendor or Ticket to Ride. Both have very simple rules and are addicting to play. As for Jenga vs strategy games, its not really fair to compare these since they lie in very different genres. The preferences and expectations of the players will be towards different genres. The strategy genre is booming right now.

Not necessarily Jenga-simple, but I've also come to realize that I'd much rather play 2-3 rounds of a 30 minute game with friends than try to get through a 120 minute round of one game where it's not clear if we're playing correctly or how we're doing in the game.

In this regard I (we) have had a lot of fun with King of Tokyo (the Power Up! expansion is cheap and IMO required). There is also the newer King of New York that supposedly fixes some balance issues (and a Power Up! to that as well).

I've also heard good things about 7 Wonders.

Totally agree. I've enjoyed Codenames, fun team game and each game doesn't take long. With family or friends we've had the most fun playing the Jackbox Games, specifically Drawful or Fibbage. You can buy them on Apple TV or usually I use the steam link my PC. Each player just needs a phone or tablet. Granted they are not board games but most people have a PC or a Apple TV or Android device hooked up to their PC.

Anyone feel like there's been a resurgence in the popularity of board games in general? Maybe I'm just getting older and my friends are interested in activities other than partying, but I feel like all my circles have simultaneously taken interest in board games. Which is awesome. It used to be impossible to organize a group to play a round of Catan. Now people are down to play Through the Ages.

Yes thanks to kickstarter I've enjoyed many board games that I otherwise would not have even heard of. It's offered an alternative path to production thats led to many great games.

Bohnanza is fun, and doesn't get much attention.

Ticket to Ride is great fun too.

Button Men is fun, and possibly free if you print it, but requires some dice.

There are lots of new party games coming out too. Codenames is one that is simple and seems to be getting more and more popular.

Have been playing Codenames yesterday and it's surprisingly fun for a game that essentially just consists of 25 words during gameplay.

Exploding Kittens and Love Letter are two other games that are quick to explain and fast to play (and that we play somewhat regularly). Basically, a good list might be Board Game Geek's list of Party games: http://boardgamegeek.com/partygames/browse/boardgame?sort=ra...

My friends and I enjoyed a lot of rounds of Pit (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pit_(game)). It is a good game for when you have a group of 4 - 6 people and don't want the commitment of an overlong game.

I have introduced Cogz:


to a few friends. They all liked it and a couple bought it to play with their children.

The rules are reasonably simple, setup takes about 5 mins. Success requires some strategy and some luck. Games usually take about 30 mins.

Giant jenga is fun. Dependinh on how you play it can be more demamding than you might assume. But still, no ruke book or cards means anyone can pick it up in seconds.

Correction: "giant wood block stacking game" as the "giant jenga" product isnt exactly giant imgo.

Yeah I"m with you. I hate games that take forever to learn the rules, to get going, that cause mass confusion, that require extreme amounts of patience. I usually pass out from fatigue or the alcohol.

Not fun at all and things get too tense.

I suspect that what you are seeing is not a change in the market but a change in what your friends are interested in. Many of my friends who play board games regularly no longer want to play the simpler games available.

Check out Exploding Kittens - simple but requires a bit of tactical skill.

Played this last weekend with a group that included two young kids. It was a pretty fun diversion with a few simple mechanics, and the kids enjoyed the cards.

Munchkin is slightly more complex but worked as well.

I also think Zombie Dice is a pretty fun game while being relatively easy.

A lot of these games just need a good editorial team or better design.

The rules are often not as concisely or clearly explained or the iconography is confusing.

Once you get down to it, it's easy.

I often think "all the accounting could be better done by a computer". So I am not that much into that kind of games anymore.

> Are there any popular simple games in the latter category recently?

One Night Ultimate Werewolf


Love Letter


Wait, are we talking about board games, or JavaScript frameworks?


I'm so happy with this resurgence of intelligent board games.

But as a fan I have to say, that board game is not based on Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy. Because the game is about terraforming mars and not about politics, although there was a minor subplot about mars terraforming going on in the background of those books. Am I taking fucking crazy pills?

I believe the best board games are timeless, as with music, books and many movies. I'm not too hip on the latest from the last few years, but ones I'd recommend:

Diplomacy. Axis & Allies (some variants more than others). Liberte. Illuminati. Ticket to Ride. ASL (esp SK's by MMP). Carcasonne. Empire Builder. Acquire. Puerto Rico. Dominion. Empire of the Sun. Uno. Fluxx.

You can't tell which ones are timeless until a few years have passed.

agreed. reason I shy a way from putting much weight into any recomms about games which came out in last few years. the newbs-think-crackers-are-steak effect. my own list here vary from prob 50+ years ago to 5 years ago. yet still memorable or enjoyed within last year. prob lots more left out

I just got Scythe for Christmas. I'm just waiting for people to return from their families after the new year to give this a go!

I'm a European-style game enthusiast and am gradually warming to it, but it was stressfully complicated the first few times.

It's a great game! It's also a DLC for Tabletop Simulator and is very playable there.

+1 for Terraforming Mars. I enjoy playing it solo as well as with a group. There is enough variety in the cards to keep it fresh and the difficulty ramps up quickly.

What difficulty? The player cannot die or loose.

Nice to see The Networks by Gil Hova on this list.

I've been working on developing a couple board games for a couple of years now, and at the start of that campaign, I ran into Gil Hova's Bad Medicine on Kickstarter. On a whim, I sent him an email through his website asking for some advice about creating board games, not really expecting much of a response.

What I got was a 4-page email of well-thought-through answers to all of my questions, and a bunch of additional pointers furthermore. I met Gil at the Boston Festival of Indie Games in 2015. Super nice guy.

I have The Networks in my collection, but haven't got it to the table yet, but I eagerly await my first play-through.

Do you have permission to put them on a blog ? Would love to read some of it.

A lot of great selections here. Terraforming Mars is outstanding.

Great list, but it's missing Tyrants of the Underdark [1]. Probably my game of the year.

[1] https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/189932/tyrants-underdark

Too much complex ;)

What a dire list. The only game that looks interesting is Imhotep. Just a bunch of branded crap and stuff from celebrity designers that sold a thousand copies before even being released. The re-issue list is equally uninspiring, and they cannot resist adding yet another Rosenberg; one that I don't think was ever out of print for a moment. Schotten Totten is a good reprint, though (of something else that hasn't really been out of print for more than a few moments.) But, come on, Ra gets a reprint and it doesn't get mentioned? Shogun?

As a devout Ra lover - and of the whole 90s era of euros - I still can't help but feel the irony of your complaint about celebrity designers being shortly followed by a solid Knizia name drop.

The current era of board gaming is definitely a move into excess - it reminds me of the cycles we go through in fiction and literature - where we move from the spare, crisp words of Richard Yates or Raymond Carver into the florid excesses of William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace.

I don't see a need to demonize excess - it just is one of the extremes of our experience. I didn't quite follow Rosenberg once Caverna was released - it seemed like he had merely translated Farmville into cardboard - a giant stack of little square in-app purchases. However, I think his ambitions are paying off - there _is_ fun to be had in excess. It's just difficult to pull off a tasteful bacchanalia. But his latest feels like a realization of this.

Whatever - I do still like Ra more. I am just not going to be disgusted with myself for two hours spent amassing a horde of tiles printed with racks of ribs, pregnant sheep and English crowns for the Norse god of the moment. This was just what we did in 2016.

Curious as I'm only a casual boardgamer now, but what would your 2016 list be?

Other than the choice of reissues, this might be my 2016 list, too, of what I've encountered. When I said "what a dire list," I probably meant "what a dire year."

The problem with year's best lists for board games is that you won't close in on what's best from 2016 until 2019 or 2020. Board games don't easily fit in with the typical revolving year of fashion; they're mathematical/economic constructs with lots of emergent characteristics, and their true values are only discovered over time, unevenly. All you generally get from a "best of the year" list is a "bestsellers of the year" list, which within the long development/marketing/shipping/marketing cycle of game production, boils down to a "preorders of the year" list.

I think boardgaming is falling into a cycle where (issued too soon) lists like these are falling into a harmonic cycle with game productions (because of their need to synchronize around yearly major gaming conferences) and informing the qualities to be looked for in next games to go into production. Luck is pushing the industry in a direction that optimizes for marketing and not quality or fun. Boardgaming has always been prone to this. Before hobby boardgaming, it was Christmas and the toy cycle.

To get a real best of list, you have to play a large selection of games from this year, and with the vast amount of games issued, you'll have to have that number filtered by lots of people whose opinions you respect before you can have a reasonable expectation that you've touched most of the best games from this year. The only people who do this are the Spiel des Jahres jury. They're going to issue the best quick recommendations, and when their picks are not that fun, it probably means the entire industry was not that fun.

He asked for your list of best games, instead you gave a critique of the industry. So of what YOU have played, what do you consider the best?

No, I answered the question directly in the first sentence, then gave a critique of "best of the year" lists. I've played a thousand games; are you seriously interested in what I happened to play from this year and I liked, or do you just want to criticize people who criticize best of the year lists for board games and explain why?

I don't communicate in product recommendations.

edit: Looking at the list above, though, I did forget that Medici got a reprint. It's another of the Knizia auction trilogy with Ra, should always be in print.

Come back in 2019 and an informed list will be available.

I played a ton of games this year, but most weren't released in 2016. Of those that I played, I'd rank them as:

1. Pyramid Arcade 2. Quadropolis 3. Medici (reprint) 4. World's Fair 1893 5. Eko 6. Animals on Board 7. Control

That being said, I own several 2016 games I haven't been able to get to the table yet: Oceanos, 13 Days (Cuban Missile Crisis), Codex, Circular Reasoning, Glux, Santorini, Mechs vs Minions, and Imhotep. All of which I expect could possibly add to or replace something on the above list.

Not the OP, but I would have had Arkham Horror: The card game on this list. It came out fairly late and hasn't ended up on many best of 2016s, although Quinns from Shut up and Sit Down had it as his #1 this year. If you have any interest in the LCG format and/or coop games I would check it out.

Yes! The Arkham Horror LCG is one of the very few games (digital or physical) I've been excited to purchase the first day it was available. Pretty simple to play, but lots of fun depth with all the deck building options and campaign progression.

7 Wonders: Duel is a great game for 2 people. Simple, yet strategically complex, with varied gameplay.

my list (not op)

1. Scythe

2. Pyramid Arcade

3. Hands in the Sea

4. Energy Empires

5. Mechs vs Minions

6. Medici (reprint)

7. Via Nebula

8. Millennium Blades

9. Power Grid: The Card Game

10. Yokohama

Shogun was the game that introduced me to real board gaming many, many moons ago, but I haven't played Ikusa or the recent reprint.

I take it that you like the most recent incarnation?

It's an exact reprint:) The quality of what you get in the box is variable, and it shipped very, very late, but that's par for the course with Queen Games.

edit: also, not the Shogun I was mentioning, which is the Dirk Henn game https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/20551/shogun which is the same game as Wallenstein, but with a different map.

Shogun is one of my absolute favorites, and i still have my original (well worn) set.

The perfect combination of luck, strategy and diplomacy IMO. It is a game for those long winter afternoons though, as the average game ive played lasts at least 4 hours (once we went nearly 10 hours).

But i would say that over 50% of game time is spent just chatting to the other players about Japanese history and other interesting stuff during play.

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