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Play Matt: Top Titles 25 - 1

MT Updated
Play Matt: Top Titles 25 - 1
There Will Be Games

See entries 50-26 here.

#25 Ticket to Ride / Ticket to Ride: Europe

There’s a good reason why this has been a smash breakout hit outside the hobby: it is fast, fun and exciting. And for gamers, there’s just enough meat here to satisfy. The original has the nasty ratchet of predicting and blocking routes, while the Europe version is a little kinder and has a few extra strategic levers. It’s a game where you’ll never have a dull session and that, alone, makes it worthy of a top slot.

#24 Wrath of Ashardalon / D&D Adventure System

What makes it work is that it's D&D packed into an hour-long nutshell. All the thrills of exploration, character building and loot-hunting in what feels like a living, breathing dungeon. All my Adventure System games are in the loft and I feel no great motivation to get them down again. But then, when I thought about it, I've played through the entire campaign of all three. That's over thirty hours of wonderful gaming with friends and family, easily enough to merit a spot. Wrath of Ashardalon is the most old-school of the series and that’s what makes it my favourite, as I explored in my review.

#23 Washington’s War

I'd be the first to admit there are some problems with Washington's War. It's especially frustrating when you end up with a bunch of your opponent's event cards. But that's a small price to pay to have such a fascinating slice of card-driven strategic history that you can play to completion in just two hours. The ease of getting it to the table means I've had the chance to explore the different strategies and asymmetries between the sides in delightful detail. I reviewed it in 2011, apparently before I'd learned what paragraphs are for.

#22 Specter Ops

Hidden movement is one of my favourite game genres, but it's easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Specter Ops gets almost everything right. It's easy to learn, quick to play and always offers just the right balancing of finding and seeking and puzzling to keep everyone on the edge of their seats. There are moments you could wish for clearer rules but don't spoil the tensions: just go with what feels right. This one got the review treatment in late 2015.

#21 Conflict of Heroes

Yes, I know it's very gamey for a wargame and I don't care. There's more than enough historical flavour and the rest is made up for by the heady brew of tactics and action point management. Giving up your command pool is like giving blood, one of the most agonising choices in all of gaming. It also plays well solo. Storms of Steel is my favourite but all the games in the series are excellent. Back when I used to cover wargames on Shut Up & Sit Down, I used the release of the second edition of Awakening the Bear to give it the review once-over.

#20 Nexus Ops

I still find it incredible that one game could manage to nail all the complaints folk have about dudes on a map games in one package. All the joys of conquest and the thrill of dice rolling in a neat 20-30 minutes per player, including teaching time. And on top of that, you've got the pleasure of hoarding objective and energise cards to plan one brutal winning turn: so long as no-one else gets there first. My copy is the original Avalon Hill printing and it now seems incredible you could once buy so much plastic for £20. But I reviewed the FFG reprint when that came out.

#19 Once Upon A Time

This is barely a game by most definitions. Interpreting the rules and determining a winner is almost arbitrary and down to the whim of the group. And I don’t care: I love it. It's an absolutely magical story generator that never ceases to amaze me in the way it inspires the imagination of everyone that plays it. It should be a mandatory game for any would-be budding author. Given its uncertain status, it's not been reviewed by that many people, so it was a pleasure to try and redress the balance.

#18 Cosmic Encounter

My first games of Cosmic were a disaster. That’s partly down to the weak Games Workshop edition I owned and partly because I didn’t understand what kind of game it was. It looks like a “dudes on a map” game but has no borders or manoeuvre. It’s often sold as a negotiation game but the sides you pick are often obvious. But Cosmic Encounter isn’t like any other game: it’s about working out where your alien powers fit in the mad dance of asymmetry that characterises this cosmos. Once that’s understood, its madcap genius of exciting combat and fanciful flares all falls into place from there.

#17 King of Tokyo

I don’t think I’ve ever had more family fun than I have with King of Tokyo. We loved the way it gave a feel of almost building an RPG character, together with lots of violence and table chat, a good mix of excitement and a strategy in a convenient package. Plus the Yahtzee elements made it easy to teach. And it’s just as good with a table of tanked up, trash taking gamers who are determined to take it down to the wire.

#16 Arkham Horror 1st Ed

There are so many stories I could tell you about Arkham Horror. How I had to call a wholesaler to have it delivered to my crap (now defunct) LGS just so I could buy it. How the solo game kept me sane through the stress of early parenthood. How the box my dad hand-made for me is the most precious gaming thing I own. How many times we've failed to save the world. So many stories that it can easily justify its place here on the list and leave me disinterested in the newer edition.

#15 Undaunted: Normandy

Deckbuilding has always struck me as a mechanic looking for a home. What I never expected was for that home to be World War 2 infantry combat. Yet here it is, the deck taking all the heavy lifting of morale, casualties and command confusion while still providing a fun challenge. That leaves some simple movement and shooting rules to create an ultra-light yet ultra-engaging wargame across a dozen thrilling scenarios. A brilliant idea, brilliantly executed and worthy of its five-star review.

#14 Napoleon’s Triumph

If you've never played Napoleon's Triumph, it can be hard to express just what makes it so compelling. Rachel Simmons’ wargames are not like any others, for starters, and the innovation on display is staggering. The map and pieces are a lesson in brilliant minimalist design. And the play, with its chess-like depth combined with agonising fog of war, is rarely less than magnificent. Desperately in need of a reprint.

#13 Lords of Waterdeep

Before I played this, I was dubious anyone could make a truly satisfying worker placement game - a genre I once heard described as "games about queueing" - let alone one based on the D&D world. But here we are and it turns out that it's just what the mechanic needed to give it a satisfying coat of theme and interaction while retaining all that weight of strategy. It's another one with a shamefully old and excessively verbose review. So instead I'll offer the tale of the family I loaned this to, together with the expansion - to take on holiday. When they came home, none of them was talking to each other. Now, that's a game.

#12 DungeonQuest

I'd like to offer an apology to all the grumbling gamers I've forced to play this totally random chaos-fest down the decades. I'm sorry ... that your taste in games isn't better. Sure, DungeonQuest contains zero strategy. But when it tells such amazing, exciting and often hilarious stories, who cares? All editions of the game are great, but "Revised" is the best and the one I've most recently reviewed. It's got more interesting deck contents than the original edition and lacks all the clunky "strategic" elements of FFG's first reprint.

#11 Automobiles

Automobiles barely registered on most gamers, and I really have no idea why. It's about the best "deck-builder" I've played, although you build a bag, not a deck. But that's great: it removes the chore of shuffling and means you have far less card text to digest prior to playing while preserving all the joys of the genre. And then to add an absolutely nail-biting racing board on the top is a stroke of genius. I was lucky enough to get to review this one for Shut Up & Sit Down and, hopefully, thereby help bring it to the wider audience it deserves.

#10 Wiz-War

I'd wanted a copy of Wiz-War ever since I found out about it, but that was "between editions". I knew I'd love it. And then FFG delivered their edition and I was ecstatic and, even after all that anticipation, it turned out to be everything I wanted from the game and more. A madcap tactical combat game fueled by creative combinations from an endless well of freakish magical effects. Unusually among fans of the game, I approve of most of FFG's changes. You need to have permanent objects that don't count against your hand limit, but other than that, I'm good, as I explained in my review.

#9 Titan

A former number one of mine, from when I first started getting into board games. It's slowly been pushed down the list by its Titanic play time. It's something I lamented about in my review. Thank goodness for online play. If you can push past the learning curve, it's a fascinating game which has had a colossal impact on the history of game design. A mish-mash of abstract strategy, tactical combat and the statistical delights of tons of dice, it's cited as a major influence on a number of well-known games, including Magic: the Gathering.

#8 Pax Pamir 2nd Ed

It’s rare to be so beguiled by a game that I’m so bad at. Pretty much every play has been a disaster because the circles within circles strategy makes me too dizzy to concentrate. Everything impacts everything else, leaving players scrabbling of some end, any end, to grab and start to unravel the puzzle. Throw in admiration at the cleverness of the design, the outstanding components and the sheen of history and you’ve got a top game by any measure.

#7 Battlestar Galactica

What keeps pushing this up and up my ratings is that years after release it continues to get played in person and by forum and continues to be absolutely enthralling at every step. What makes its tick is the tantalising drip of almost-enough information but never quite enough. So many cards, so many decisions that hinge on those dark elements of doubt. And, as a bonus, I've found it's a pretty reliable 3-3.5 hour play, too.

#6 Commands & Colours: Ancients / Memoir ‘44

A bit like Hannibal further down the rankings, there was a time when I grudgingly questioned quite how good this actually was in the face of all the acclaim. It took me a long time to realise that the answer is: very good indeed. I hadn't quite got there when I wrote this review. This entry also covers Memoir '44: it's especially good with the expansions and Campaign Book. But C&C:A is the best stand-alone, with its minimal setup time and the astonishing depth of play and history it pulls from the relatively painless rules overhead. 

#5 Gloomhaven

The box is too big, the campaign overwhelming and the legacy elements underwhelming. But the core gameplay loop of Gloomhaven is so good, so satisfying, that it’s easy to forgive those minor faults. Character creation by fine-tuning a deck of multi-use cards is very clever, and the three-pronged decisions each turn of top effect, bottom effect and initiative is a thing of genius. The challenge is high and every scenario grinds to a nail-biting conclusion. And if cooperative games aren’t your thing, wait until the party decides to make the challenge even higher by squabbling over gold instead of fighting monsters.

#4 Risk: Legacy

Not only the best Risk, but the best “dudes on a map” games ever designed. So much seething hate and tactical jockeying packed into two hours. It keeps everything that's great about Risk, the trash talk, the missions, the thrilling victory charges and jettisons all the crap, replacing instead with awesome stuff like HQs and nukes and faction-specific powers. It was also the first Legacy, and it's still the best. My board, smeared and stickered with the detritus of a dozen sessions isn't just a board any more: it's a memorial. Both to empires that have risen and fallen and to the friendships that powered them.

#3 Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

Until I'd played this, I would never have believed that the solution to the age-old conundrum of the epic play times of epic games would be to take the map away. Yet all that goes with it is the most tiresome, least interesting parts of civ building. You're left with an empire to manage and foes to scatter and a thousand and one brain-busting, ever-shifting tools to do it with. One of the many happy things about having a great game get a second edition is that you can review it and say, with confidence, that it's a top ten game.

#2 Imperial / Imperial 2030

When I first encountered modern Euro designs in the late 90's I was underwhelmed. That's partly because I was playing the wrong games. But it was also partly because I'd imagined them as some extraordinary, fiendish, sanity crushing combination with the strategic depth of Go, the fierce rivalries of Civilization and the thematic draw of Talisman, and none of them was like that at all. Until I encountered Imperial.

Imperial is literally everything I've ever wanted from a heavyweight strategy game. It absolutely doesn't deserve to languish outside the BGG top 100. The core of the game is the fascinating, brutal, circular dynamic between economy and military that's created when you can literally buy someone's entire army out from underneath them, but you need armies to get the money to do it. It's got another one of my old reviews that doesn't remotely do the game justice.

#1 Twilight Struggle

I held off on playing it for a long time because the theme didn't really interest me. But it doesn't need to. Every card in every round in every game is such a sweet agony of tense choices that I couldn't care less whether the game runs long or semi-scripted or is over-reliant on coup rolls. I would play every card just for the joy of playing that card, of learning from my mistakes and trying again and never mind the bigger picture.

Fortunately, there is a bigger picture and I've tried to capture it over no less than four reviews if I remember correctly. But I don't think I ever have: it's perhaps my greatest regret as a reviewer. So let's end on another Shut Up & Sit Down piece because it is, at least, amusing.

There Will Be Games

Matt Thrower
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #311270 22 Jun 2020 00:53
I fear I must have missed something fundamental in my play-through of the D&D Adventure System-Castle Ravenloft as my whole group found it tedious in the extreme. Bad art, uninteresting combat mechanics, perfunctory writing etc. and yet I continue to see it lauded so it's a little perplexing and perhaps worth another shot.

I am however looking forward to both Pax Pamir 2e and Undaunted: Normandy which I have on the way.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #311272 22 Jun 2020 04:10

Andi Lennon wrote: I fear I must have missed something fundamental in my play-through of the D&D Adventure System-Castle Ravenloft as my whole group found it tedious in the extreme. Bad art, uninteresting combat mechanics, perfunctory writing etc. and yet I continue to see it lauded so it's a little perplexing and perhaps worth another shot.

I am however looking forward to both Pax Pamir 2e and Undaunted: Normandy which I have on the way.


You don't have to like a game just because others do. I'll agree that the card art and the writing is poor. Many of the early scenarios are quite easy, which some people don't care for in a co-op game but I prefer a well-pitched difficulty curve with some quick wins.

The main reason I like it is because it creates the sense of a living, breathing dungeon to explore, something almost no other co-op game has managed.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #311273 22 Jun 2020 05:38
Yeah it's not really a case of wanting to like it, more a nagging suspicion I might have somehow fucked up the rules. Which, given its simplicity isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of my intellect.
Ah_Pook's Avatar
Ah_Pook replied the topic: #311279 22 Jun 2020 10:23
I like the D&D games because they hit what I want it if a coop dungeon crawl well with a minimum of rules overhead or fiddly bullshit. Roll dice, kill monsters, find loot, fight a big bad at the end. It's simple and fun, and the rules get out of the way of having that simple fun.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #311283 22 Jun 2020 12:34
Okay, I know what to complain about now - Catan, Power Grid. Both of which I'd much rather play over Lords of Waterdeep, which I found immensely overrated all over the place.

As a resident PHG and Emerson Matsuuchi fan, it's nice to see Specter Ops up here.

Otherwise, great list and I wish I had played more wargames.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #311287 22 Jun 2020 12:56
There's a lot more gold in the wargame scene than people know, there's just also a bigger tide of broken shit.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #311292 22 Jun 2020 14:01
Yeah, with wargames it seems like you basically gotta 'know a guy', and then that's your go-to person to play these mostly 2p games.

At the clubs I used to go to before all this, 2p games were very uncommon, and I never really thought to play wargames with my wife.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #311293 22 Jun 2020 14:11
I can't complain, other than to take ARKHAM 2e over 1e, but I get the sentimentality there. The rest of this all lines up with what I want in games as well. I might actually prefer 1960: THE MAKING OF A PRESIDENT to TWILIGHT STRUGGLE (am I allowed to say this?), but I'd need more plays of each to suss all that out.

Candidates where my top 25 differs from Matt's are probably:
WALLENSTEIN: cube tower used to cool effect, grindy attack mode to convinced taxed rabble to pitchfork other taxed rabble so they become my rabble, and tons of horribly misprounounced German make this a gem.

ACQUIRE: best gateway game that is also 50 years old. Great money game for folks that learned to deeply hate MONOPOLY.

SURVIVE: Best, most ruthless meeple game since CARCASSONNE, and definitely more overt about it. Yeah, I am sinking that boat.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #311296 22 Jun 2020 15:03

Jexik wrote: Okay, I know what to complain about now - Catan, Power Grid. Both of which I'd much rather play over Lords of Waterdeep, which I found immensely overrated all over the place.

As a resident PHG and Emerson Matsuuchi fan, it's nice to see Specter Ops up here.

Otherwise, great list and I wish I had played more wargames.


Thanks. I feel the same about Power Grid as you do about Waterdeep. Power Grid is just a maths lesson, except more expensive and time-consuming.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #311297 22 Jun 2020 15:10

jeb wrote: I can't complain, other than to take ARKHAM 2e over 1e, but I get the sentimentality there. The rest of this all lines up with what I want in games as well. I might actually prefer 1960: THE MAKING OF A PRESIDENT to TWILIGHT STRUGGLE (am I allowed to say this?), but I'd need more plays of each to suss all that out.

Candidates where my top 25 differs from Matt's are probably:
WALLENSTEIN: cube tower used to cool effect, grindy attack mode to convinced taxed rabble to pitchfork other taxed rabble so they become my rabble, and tons of horribly misprounounced German make this a gem.

ACQUIRE: best gateway game that is also 50 years old. Great money game for folks that learned to deeply hate MONOPOLY.

SURVIVE: Best, most ruthless meeple game since CARCASSONNE, and definitely more overt about it. Yeah, I am sinking that boat.


It's not sentimentality: I've never actually played Arkham Horror 2e. Just never felt the need to. I'm sure it's a superior game but when I've got the original, a bunch of expansions, a bunch of cool stories and a hand-made box I know I won't ever get rid of it, so I've never felt the need.

I did not like 1960. It seemed to have a bunch of pointless fluff elements and then just consisted of adding cubes, taking them away, adding them and so on ad nauseam.

Wallenstein is great - it's further up this list, somewhere.

Acquire is really clever, it's a game I admire as a seminal design but fundamentally it feels too much like hard work than a game.

Survive is okay, but I found it didn't deliver on its promise in the way I'd hoped. Yes it's great fun to pull tiles out from under your opponent's meeples and eat them but the hidden values make the whole game a crapshoot. As a result, you just can't gloat the way you want to.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #311300 22 Jun 2020 16:11
Yeah, 1960 didn't work well with me either. It was missing all of the big dramatic swings (e.g. high stakes coups) of Twilight Struggle. Which I don't think is wrong, thematically, it just moves it way down for me gameplaywise.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #311302 22 Jun 2020 17:25
I think my heart can't take the gut-punch awfulness of playing some of the cards in TWILIGHT STRUGGLE when things swing your opponents's way. 1960 dilutes that to my benefit and your detriment, I suppose.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #311303 22 Jun 2020 17:29
I think the gut wrenching coup rolls are actually a feature, not a bug, but the absolute dependence on card knowledge to know some shit to avoid is a much more questionable decision. It means you have 0 chance against an even average player who knows the cards. I have mixed feelings about that?
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #311308 23 Jun 2020 03:02
So the question is what gives the gut punch without the advantage?

I have been playing some Founding Fathers at yucata, and it's probably too early to comment - but it feels like the events on the cards can be massive, but because they represent people, they cycle through all the time, so knowing the deck for those one use kind of events is not a thing so much.

I don't know if it's gut punchy though in quite the same way.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #311311 23 Jun 2020 06:43

jeb wrote: I think my heart can't take the gut-punch awfulness of playing some of the cards in TWILIGHT STRUGGLE when things swing your opponents's way. 1960 dilutes that to my benefit and your detriment, I suppose.


Coup rolls aside, I find much of the fun in Twilight Struggle is trying to manage each turn to minimise those swings by nullifying enemy events in your hand.
jpat's Avatar
jpat replied the topic: #311313 23 Jun 2020 08:58
The GMT version of the rules for 1960, which I used the other day with my first-printing Z-man copy, are nearly the same but reduce some of the add cube/remove cube swings by requiring support checks for card events that place cubes in states carried by the opposing candidate (or the state where the opposing candidate token is in). Media in that region obviates support check requirements. This makes media somewhat stronger and reduces the back-and-forth swings that are athematic given how short the time period modeled is.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #311314 23 Jun 2020 09:21

jpat wrote: The GMT version of the rules for 1960, which I used the other day with my first-printing Z-man copy, are nearly the same but reduce some of the add cube/remove cube swings by requiring support checks for card events that place cubes in states carried by the opposing candidate (or the state where the opposing candidate token is in). Media in that region obviates support check requirements. This makes media somewhat stronger and reduces the back-and-forth swings that are athematic given how short the time period modeled is.


That's really interesting: I didn't know there had been a rules update. And the media was one of the chief offenders when I was moaning about "pointless fluff" so it sounds like GMT might have managed to kill two birds with one stone. Might have to give this one another pass.