Welcome to my top 30 games. We’ve slogged through the games that are ‘pretty good’ or ones that stand out from the crowd due to a particularly genius mechanic; from here on out the games listed are ones that I would play at any time or any place.
30 – Suburbia
Suburbia by Ted Alspach is an economic engine tile laying game. Each player is trying to build their own self-sufficient suburb to increase their income (to buy more stuff) and increase their population. Suburbia has a lot going for it with different types of tiles that play off each other in various ways (like giving benefits for building parks near residential areas).
While the city building aspect is a lot more abstract than in some of the other games in this genre, the economic engine building in Suburbia is unparalleled. The more buildings get added to your city, the more money and population each of your other buildings can generate.
If you’re a fan of the SimCity video game series, Suburbia is one of the best analog alternatives that I’ve found. You’ll find yourself trying to decide if you really want to place an apartment complex next to an airport, or if you should just build a lake to generate income. As mayor, you should listen to your residents who are willing to pay more just for the privilege to live next to fish.
29 – Hardback
I’ve reviewed a few of Tim Fowers games here already, and if you’ve read any of those you’ll know that I’m a fan of his output. Hardback is the pre-quill to Paperback, and while my preference lies in Paperback (spoilers for a future list), I recognize that Hardback is an excellent game on its own.
There are two major differences that separate Hardback from it’s predecessor. Instead of 8 different decks of cards that you can buy from, now there is a single giant deck of cards that make up the store, and each card now belongs to one of four suits. Choosing to specialize in a suit will offer powerful synergies, as each suit has their own specialties. The other difference is that any card can be a wild, it just gets flipped backwards and doesn’t score for being in your word.
Hardback has the same bones as it’s older brother, but wow does it ever feel like a wholly different game. This is one of the few times where I can say that a modestly sized collection can hold both games (it helps that the boxes are quite small).
The biggest downside to Hardback is that my wife is terrifyingly good at it and absolutely crushes me. Of the 10 games we’ve played together I’ve won… none. Luckily winning isn’t everything! Right? Right??
28 – Brass: Birmingham
The Original Brass (now renamed Brass: Lancashire) by Martian Wallace was regarded as an absolute triumph of game design. I’ve read reports of people playing Brass hundreds of times, exploring the depths of the system. Brass: Birmingham is the sequel published in 2018 with a complete visual overhaul and some subtle, but impactful tweaks in gameplay
In Brass: Birmingham players are tasked with building industries across the Birmingham countryside, using canal boats to ferry the necessary goods across their networks. What makes Brass so interesting is that players rely on each other to build network links and produce the coal and iron necessary for the rest of the industry tiles. Another clever wrinkle is that halfway through the game there’s a mass reset. All the canal links are removed, all the level 1 industries are torn away, and their spots are now available for an eager capitalist to come and build back better. This generates a lot of points for people, and gives players a chance to jump into locations they were previously squeezed out of.
I‘ve played both Brass: Lancashire and Brass: Birmingham and it’s the latter game that I enjoyed more. Both obviously are excellent games and quite similar in many ways, but I have a clear favourite. It’s dry, economic, and tense, but also makes you feel clever when you manage to pull off a big move and flip four tokens in a single action.
27 – Agricola
“Misery Farm” by Uwe Rosenberg is a right bastard of a game. Players begin with nothing but a wooden shack just big enough for their two workers. Through your sweat, blood, and tears you’ll fight and scrounge to eke out a living from the land.
Actually though, Agricola is an excellent game. By starting players with nothing and forcing you to make tough decisions such as choosing to collect the necessary resources to build a new room for your house, or ensuring you have enough food to feed all your workers by the end of the round. As you make these decisions and your empty green pastures get populated with various animals and the land gets tilled you you develop a sense of ownership over your slice of earth.
Agricola can feel brutally hard in the beginning, but before long players have figured out how to use their tools and occupations to their full advantage, providing ample food for each of the feeding rounds and accruing goods to create a fully functioning farm. Every game of Agroicla has a nice arc from poverty to wealth and there are few games that I find as satisfying as this one.
26 – Patchwork
On the other end of the Uwe Rosenberg spectrum, we have Patchwork; a 2 player only polyomino tile laying game about gathering buttons and sewing a quilt. The trick to Patchwork is that every tile has 2 costs that must be paid. Buttons, and time. Buttons are easy, they’re just a currency, but the time cost moves your piece further along the track, hurdling you towards the end of the game. After every turn, players assess who is further behind in the time track, and whomever that is, gets to take the next turn. Taking a tile with a large time cost can give your opponent several turns in a row!
Patchwork is my perfect two player game. It’s open information, it’s non-confrontational, it’s small enough that it can be played at a coffee shop, and light in rules so I feel confident that I can introduce it to nearly anyone in my life.
25 – Jaipur
Have you ever been sitting at your breakfast table, sipping your tea and thought to yourself “I wish I was selling goods in India? Well Sébastien Pauchon has got you covered with Jaipur, a 2 player-only game about trading spices and being screwed over by pogs.
Just looking at the components of Jaipur may lull you into a false sense of security. A deck of cards and a collection of cardboard pogs that represent the goods that you’re acquiring and selling. Playing Jaipur, the ebb and flow of the market becomes apparent and very quickly you’ll start to dread what opportunities you’re leaving for your rival. After all, you get big bonuses for selling multiple cards of a type of good, but the value of each good sold goes down. If you have four leather cards in your hand and you’re hoping for a fifth, but then your opponent sells three, suddenly a lot of their value has just been lost.
It’s this dynamic tempo that makes Jaipur so interesting and replayable. If your primary gaming sessions consist of 2 players, then Jaipur is a game that needs to be in your collection.
24 – Tokyo Highway
Tokyo Highway was one of the first games I reviewed on this site. It’s a clever dexterity game from designers Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka. I won’t belabour the point here, but Tokyo Highway is an excellent dexterity game that creates an excellent sprawling mass of popsicle sticks and tense moments as you try to thread your road in impossibly narrow conditions.
While I still firmly believe that the best player count for Tokyo Highway is 2 players, I’d recommend to everyone play it at least once, regardless of player count. It elicits a different kind of joy when your play has a physical aspect, and Tokyo Highway is a master of physical play.
23 – Pandemic
Woof. It’s hard to talk about Pandemic while in the midst of an actual pandemic, but this game is gold and deserves to be praised. Released in 2008, Pandemic by Matt Leacock is to this day the gold standard for cooperative games. In Pandemic, players are trying to cure 4 diseases ravaging the world. Players do this by collecting 5 cards of a colour and then discovering a cure at a research centre. While trying to discover a cure, players will need to move around the map treating the various diseases. If ever one location becomes overwhelmed by disease it can rapidly spread to the neighbouring cities, causing chaos and outbreaks. If too many outbreaks happen, if you take too long to find the cures, or if too much of one disease type is on the board, the players lose.
Since it’s original inception, the Pandemic series has had several re-imaginings, including 3 legacy games, a dice game, and even a World of Warcraft version.
It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone reading this list who hasn’t played Pandemic. If you haven’t, I highly recommend gathering a friend or two and seeking out the original game!
22 – Bärenpark
If you were to imagine building the best theme park possible, just how many bears would be involved? The correct answer is ALL the bears, and designer Phil Walker-Harding is here to back me up.
Bärenpark is a polyomino tile laying game in which players are populating their parks with various habitats holding bears of differing values. Tiles get placed from your supply onto players individual boards, and as icons get covered, you take more tiles into your supply.
I enjoy polyomino tile laying games, and Bärenpark is no different. Cramming weird shapes into restrictive templates is my definition of a good time. Bärenpark also benefits from being quick and easy to play, and the bright, charming art via Klemens Franz does a lot to endear new players to this lovely bear park.
21 – Flamme Rouge
While I’m not the type of person to watch organized sports, I generally like games that attempt to emulate the sporting experience. Flamme Rogue puts you in the pedals of a pair of cyclists – a Rouleur and a Sprinteur – as you race around the modular track, either slipstreaming behind your rivals, or attempting to break away from the pack.
What sets Flamme Rogue apart from other racing games is that you’re not building an engine, going faster and faster as the game goes on. Instead you’re challenged to manage your exhaustion, coasting behind players, trying to keep up with the pack while also conserving just enough energy to sprint to the finish line. Being in the front of a pack can be advantageous because… ya know… it’s a race. But cyclists at the front of the pack also pick up exhaustion cards which can clog their deck. It’s not uncommon for a player who was leading the entire race to have a turn where they have nothing but exhaustion cards (which the professionals call ‘hitting a wall’).
More of a deck deconstruction game, Flamme Rogue is rich in both short term tactical decisions and long term strategic payoffs, if you can play your cards right! It’s those strengths (and the funny moustaches on the cards) that lands this game in my #21 slot of favourite games.