10. Everdell (2018)
Featuring stunning artwork and mechanics that blend the best of Stone Age (worker placement) and Seasons (card tableau and engine-building),Everdell compresses a rather rich gaming experience into a game that plays in less than an hour. You’re forest creatures gathering the usual array of resources, spending them to buy building cards for your own little cities; the cards offer myriad scoring opportunities, some tech-tree mechanics where you buy one card now and might get its sibling card later for free, and the ability to meet high-point objectives in end game. The best part of the game itself is the quick start, where the first season (of four) is the shortest, and players also get to choose when to move themselves into the next season.
9. Takenoko (2011)
How can you not love the panda game? Players in Takenoko try to match objective cards by building out the shared Japanese garden on the table, placing the three types of tiles, irrigating them to grow bamboo, and moving the panda around to eat the bamboo (so you can take it). The patterns on your cards may give you points for certain arrangements of tiles (all irrigated), for collecting sets of bamboo pieces, or for building bamboo stalks of up to four pieces on multiple tiles of specific colors. The goals are mostly easy to achieve and don’t take very long, so young players can hang along with older ones, and the theme is among the cutest you’ll find.
8. Great Western Trail (2016)
If you like vast, engine-building economic games, this is about as tight and well-designed a game in that genre as you’ll find. Great Western Trail is a game about cows, sort of, where you’re collecting them and delivering them to Kansas City (where I assume they get to play outside in a big field for the rest of their natural lives), but the game layers more options on top of that basic theme. You need to hire workers, which you can only do in limited ways, so you can build buildings, gain more and better-quality cows, and move along the board’s delivery track that rewards you for making deliveries across longer distances. Trail gives you a lot of ways to score, but limits your options in each turn so it’s not too overwhelming. It’s a great model of a way to keep a complex strategy game fun and playable.
7. 7 Wonders Duel (2015)
7 Wonders itself appears further up the list, but it just doesn’t work well with two players—there’s a variant using a dummy player, but it feels forced and you lose something essential when you use it. 7 Wonders Duel rethinks the entire game to fit two players, ditching the card drafting for a tableau that gives you just a couple of choices on each turn, but retaining the core mechanics like the tech trees and the scoring for military strength. It’s also very portable, as all good two-player games should be.
6. Pandemic Legacy (2017)
Pandemic itself is too old for this list, but it’s easily a top ten all-time game for me and the best cooperative game in tabletop history. Designer Matt Leacock teamed up with the Legacy Mastermind himself, Rob Daviau, to create two “seasons” so far of Pandemic Legacy, which still asks two to four players to work together to save the world from four simultaneous epidemics, but this time the game throws new and bigger obstacles in your way, with the potential for entire cities to be lost if you’re not quick enough or just plain unlucky.
5. Azul (2017)
Azul hits a sweet spot of combining a little long-term planning with an element of ‘take that!’ where you try to do unto others before they do it unto you. Players take square tiles from a shared supply to try to fill spaces on their own 5×5 mosaic boards, needing anywhere from 1 to 5 tiles to fill a single space on the grid, but as each round progresses, the odds of someone getting stuck with more tiles than they can place—leading to big penalties—increase. Rather than expand the game, Next Move and designer Michael Kiesling have created several standalone sequels, with last year’s Azul Stained Glass of Sintra and the upcoming Azul Summer Pavilion starting with the same tile-selection mechanics but changing your boards and goals.
4. Splendor (2014)
It’s so simple—the rules don’t even run three pages of text—and yet so replayable, making Splendor one of my go-to recommendations for readers who are new to board gaming. Splendor’s oft-imitated format has rolling displays of cards in three rows, with the top row the most expensive to purchase, and asks players to collect tokens in five different colors to buy cards, each of which then stands in for one token for the rest of the game. Thus Splendor is an engine-builder that never feels like one, and with four players you’ll find players swiping cards from the display that other players were hoping to grab.
3. The Castles of Burgundy (2011)
This is the game that gives “point salad” a good name. Players compete to fill out their own kingdoms of hexagonal tiles, each of which confers some benefit when placed—sometimes just points, but often some additional bonus move or gain—allowing them to build up little engines for big point scores by the end of the game. There’s always a fight to be the first player in the next round, and with three or four players, it’s inevitable that multiple players will be after the same tiles. There are also big bonuses for filling in an entire region of one color on your board, worth more points the earlier you do it, and some large end-game bonuses from the yellow tiles that can easily be worth 15-20 points as well. It’s a 90-120 minute game but rewarding when you learn to play it well. Designer Stefan Feld has made several games in this same vein, including Bruges and Bora Bora, but Castles is still his best.
2. Wingspan (2019)
Practically perfect in every way, Wingspan combines immaculate design, complete dedication to its theme, and incredible artwork for a serious gaming experience that usually takes under an hour to finish and that will leave you ready to play again. New designer Elizabeth Hargrave, who took home the Kennerspiel des Jahres for this game, is a dedicated bird-watcher, and decided to take her knowledge of North American birds and build a game around the specific characteristics of over 150 species, asking players to build ‘habitats’ to attract different types of birds and collect them in combinations for bigger point totals. If you’re looking for a great game that isn’t hard to learn but gives you a little more crunch than the most popular games do, this should be your next purchase.
1. 7 Wonders (2010)
When people ask me for my favorite tabletop game of all time, I have two answers: Carcassonne, which rules for its sheer simplicity, and 7 Wonders, a marvel of design and speed. 7 Wonders introduced so many new mechanics or tweaks to the world of board gaming that you can see its influence in dozens of later titles, from card-drafting to resource management to a new twist on the technology tree, yet the game plays in only about a half an hour. Players build their cards to their own cities, and can try to gather enough resources to complete all stages of their unique Wonders for large point totals and other gains, while also trying to stay ahead of their neighboring players in military strength, collecting sets of science cards, or getting the right purple guild cards in the last stage for more big scores. It’s fine with three players, fun with five, and wonderfully chaotic with seven. The only negative about 7 Wonders is that it doesn’t really work with two players, but that’s why we have 7 Wonders Duel, too. This might be the best board game ever, but it’s definitely the best of this decade.
Honorable mentions: Coup, Root, Cacao, 7 Ronin, Lanterns, Glen More, Silver & Gold, Quacks, Tokaido, Spirit Island, Love Letter, Concordia, The Cones of Dunshire.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.