Between full plays and demos at GenCon, I tried over 50 new boardgames in the last twelve months, and it was hard to winnow the list to just ten. There were also many games I didn’t get to play at all or didn’t play enough to rank them here, including Kodama: The Tree Spirits, City of Spies: Estoril 1942, Bottom of the 9th, and Forged in Steel. I don’t consider reissues of older games, but many classics saw new editions in 2016, including Ra, Agricola, Citadels, and Medici.
I’ve tried to limit this to games released just in the last twelve months, so anything from about December 2015 forward, but release dates are a lot more nebulous in boardgames than in music or film. I did not include any games you couldn’t go out and purchase now—any of those, like the upcoming Tak: A Beautiful Game, will have to wait for the 2017 list.
Disclaimers aside, let’s get into it: here are the best boardgames of 2016.
Inis is a Celtic-themed game with some striking artwork where players build out the map of regions and compete to control areas, but doing so strictly via battles actually reduces your chances to win. It’s a moderately complex game with multiple paths to victory and cards that are passed around in a drafting mechanic that helps keep game play balanced for everyone. The game also comes with well-crafted miniature figures that don’t matter for the game itself but might float your currach.
On the heels of the runaway success of Pandemic Legacy, designer Rob Daviau introduced this new legacy-style title, the first that isn’t a spinoff of an existing game, that also tells a story over multiple game plays as players explore the board, discovering new islands and raiding opponents to gain points and advance the plot. As with other Legacy titles, the box comes with sealed envelopes that players open over the sequence of plays, altering the plot or adding new elements to the game play.
Released at the very end of 2015, this chemistry-themed title is a sharp deckbuilder where players must use their cards to try to isolate xenon cards after other gases—some less noble than others—and build out refining operations or other cards to add points. The twist here is that players are actively trying to trash non-xenon cards from their hands, taking one strategy used by Dominion players and building part of a new game around it.
Another strong title from Days of Wonder, Quadropolis has players filling out their own city boards by collecting building tiles of different types, each with its own scoring mechanism. The catch is that the supply of each tile type is limited, and other players may be chasing the same ones you are. The artwork is bright and clean, and the game has two levels, classic and expert, with the latter expanding your city board and adding two more tile types for even more ways to score.
One of the most visually appealing games of the year, Saloon Tycoon has players building both out and up, creating an old-west bar by adding rooms to go up to three stories, gaining points from public and private cards that reward points for certain combinations of rooms and citizens—but there are a few villains stalking around to reduce your points total or limit your ability to make moves each turn.
A simple, quick, abstract two-player game that twists the typical route-building mechanic with a board of three route types and variable scoring methods. Each player has just a handful of tokens to place on the board to control routes, two of which allow the player to break a route in half, and two of which allow the player to change routes—but you only draw two tokens at a time, so you have to plan around what you and your opponent have yet to play.
Martin Wallace, the designer of Steam and Brass, developed this lighter route-building game where players compete to clear the fog-strewn board to connect their building sites to resource dumps—but any player can use the hexes you’ve cleared or the resources you’ve uncovered. It’s a simple, elegant introduction to the kind of more involved pathfinding games Wallace has pioneered over the last twenty years.
An asymmetrical two-player game first released in Poland in 2013, 7 Ronin made its English debut this year and it’s the best pure two-player title of 2016. Based on the Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, 7 Ronin pits one player as the samurai of the title, defending a village against the other player’s horde of invading ninjas. Each of the samurai has a specific power, and each area of the village has a particular feature or benefit to the player who controls it each turn.
The best complex strategy game of the year, Terraforming Mars’s dry title obscures a lively, thorough game where players complete to build out the surface of the red planet, raising its temperature, oxygen level, and water supply while constructing buildings to gain resources or points for the end of the game. Despite its playing time (90-120 minutes) and the superficial complexity of the game, there aren’t that many rules to understand, and turns move very quickly. With 200 cards in the deck to give players choices of buildings or events to use, replay value will be very high.
No game clicked on all cylinders for me this year like New Bedford, which takes an overused theme and mechanic and creates something completely new out of it. We’ve seen dozens of games where players collect resources, buy buildings, collect a fee when other players use them, and gain points at game-end for it. In New Bedford, however, that’s not the point of the game—the goal is to outfit your two whaling ships for lengthy trips at sea that allow you to take in whale tokens that constitute the bulk of the scoring. The art is perfect, the rules are simple to understand, and there’s already a big expansion that doubles the number of potential buildings in play in each game.
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.