Has any area of culture changed as massively as board gaming has in the last ten years? In 2010, the hobby was too small to be a niche, and if you heard a reference to tabletop games in the mainstream media, it was probably mocking. Only Catan, then still called The Settlers of Catan, had any kind of audience outside of the hobby, and you couldn’t find any of these games outside of your Friendly Local Game Stores or online retailers. Now you can find a well-curated selection of Eurogames at Target and Barnes & Noble, while FLGSs and board game cafes keep popping up in more and more cities. Gen Con, the biggest annual convention for board gaming in the United States, sets new attendance records each year, while PAX expanded into tabletop conventions two years ago with the first PAX Unplugged. If you haven’t played any of these games yourself, by now, you know someone who has.
This list was compiled by me, and only me, so you are reading the opinion of one person, although in my defense, I’ve played a lot of games in the last 10 (more like 15) years. It’s as comprehensive as I can make it, but there are still some highly regarded games from this decade I haven’t played (Coimbra comes to mind), and I still have a queue at home of 2019 releases to play and review. There are also some popular titles from the time period that I didn’t like as much as the general gaming community did. This list only includes tabletop board games, not role-playing games, dexterity games, or anything else that I don’t think qualifies as a standalone board game title.
You will disagree, because that’s the nature of the thing, but I hope you’ll enjoy the list, and perhaps find a game or two you hadn’t played before.
A remake of a 2008 game called Witch’s Brew, Broom Service has a light fantasy theme on top of a midweight game that lets you pick whether you want to be brave or cowardly in your roles each round. Being brave is more powerful, but if another player later in the round chooses the same role, you get nothing; being cowardly is weaker but you will always get to use that action. You use these roles to gather potions and deliver them around the board. The second edition also included rules for two players, an improvement over the original’s limitation of three to five.
Welcome To… is one of the first major “flip and write” games, where players flip cards from a shared deck, then each player writes something on their own scoresheet, a twist on roll-and-write games that replaces dice with cards. It’s also incredibly scalable, with the box promising it plays from 1 to 100 players (the limit is the number of scoresheets that come in the box), and already has multiple expansions via new packs of scoresheets that tweak the main rules. Players try to fill out their neighborhoods with houses matching the numbers on the upturned cards, but you have to keep your street numbers in order and by the end of the game it’s easy to find yourself unable to make any moves. It’s fast, fun, and very easy to teach.
I think this is the heaviest or most complex game on this list; it certainly has a lot for you to keep in mind as you play and make choices around the board. And what a board it is: It’s covered with interlocking gears that turn in each round, altering the options available to players and carrying workers to different spots. Players can place workers on the lowest available spots or pick workers back up, paying corn to do so, and then collect resources, construct buildings, visit monuments, and move up various tracks to gain points. It’s an all-in sort of game that requires your full attention but that has the kind of deep design that rewards the player who likes this sort of immersive experience.
I’m an unabashed fan of the Ticket to Ride games, which I think are the ultimate introductory game for parents looking to get their kids into better board games and don’t require any real gaming experience for parents or children—you can pretty much jump right in and play. If you’re looking for a more sophisticated train game, though, Whistle Stop should wet your … uh … anyway, it’s a great game that lets players build out the map by laying track tiles, then gives points for delivering goods to different points across the map as they head from east to west.
Designer Phil Walker-Harding has had some of the biggest and best hits of the last decade, with Gizmos, Cacao, Bärenpark, Imhotep, Sushi Go!, and Silver & Gold all to his credit already. Gizmos does two things exceptionally well: It’s one of the simplest, most elegant engine-building games I’ve ever seen; and the game’s main component looks like a gumball machine. You can’t put this on the table without getting others’ attention. The marbles (not edible, sorry) represent energy tokens you’ll collect to buy cards from the display, and you then use those cards to build your engine, using them to gain more marbles or make buying more cards cheaper, especially if you build in a way that lets you daisy-chain those bonuses. Engine-builders tend to be complicated or just require a long playing time, but Gizmos is fast and very accessible for non-gamers too.
I haven’t seen any other best-of-the-decade board game lists so far, but I assume Terraforming Mars will sit atop any such lists that focus on hardcore gamers. It’s one of the best complex strategy games of the decade, even though it’s based on one of the most unreadable books (Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson) I’ve ever read. Players work together to terraform the red planet, trying to raise the planet’s temperature, increase its oxygen content, and transform its surface, but each player works individually to gain resources and points through the cards they collect and play. It’s a solid two hours to play, but there isn’t much luck or randomness involved and it definitely rewards long-term planning.
A cooperative game where you can’t talk to the other players, The Mind has a single deck of cards that runs from 1 to 100. In each round, all players must play their cards to the table in one pile of ascending order—but, again, you can’t communicate with anyone else. It’s a game of rhythm, learning other players’ tendencies, with a couple of cards thrown in to allow you a few mistakes along the way. I’ve still never completed the entire game; with two players, you must finish 12 rounds, and in that last round each player gets 12 cards and must play them all—so the two of you have to play all 24 of your cards in ascending order to win. Good luck.
This is the game that set off the Tetris craze in board gaming, although it was a slow burn at first before the 2018-19 explosion in tabletop titles that use those familiar polyomino shapes. Patchwork is strictly for two players and comes from designer Uwe Rosenberg, who’s better known for long, crunchy worker-placement games with rulebooks long enough to make Dostoevsky blanch. In Patchwork, each player has a board with a 9×9 grid on it and will ‘buy’ tiles from the table to try to fill it. The tiles are arranged in a circle around the main track, and you need to pay buttons to buy those tiles; buying a tile moves you a fixed number of spaces forward on the track, and every time you pass a button space, you get one button for every one shown on your board. You win by collecting buttons and filling up as much of your board as you can.
A great midweight strategy game with a modular board, Istanbul has a great pickup-and-delivery mechanic that lets you move around the board, dropping tokens on every space you visit, until you run out of tokens and have to go back to the start to bring them all home. You also get a rogue “family member” token you can send from the police station to any spot on the board; he’ll be sent back home when someone else visits the space where you’ve sent him. The goal is to be the first to collect five rubies, but you can get rubies in several different ways, from trading in goods to fully expanding your merchant’s cart to straight-out buying them with cash.
A truly great, portable family game with a unique mechanic at its heart and artwork that looks like it came from a Miyazaki film, Kodama has players place cards to add branches to their own trees and then lets you score for any of the six features, like caterpillars or mushrooms, that appear on multiple, connected branch cards. The real hook is that you overlay the cards slightly on top of each other in any way that connects a branch, as long as you don’t let three cards touch or cover any key features, so there’s more freedom to playing—almost artsy—than there is in most games.
Designed by Richard Garfield, who’s best known as the designer of Magic: the Gathering, King of Tokyo lets players pretend to be monsters attacking the city of Tokyo … and each other, rolling dice and playing cards to try to knock other players out, which makes this game somewhat unusual in modern board gaming. Most Euro- or “German-style” games are designed to keep all players in the game and competing until the end, but in King of Tokyo, the winner is the last player still standing. Only one player can control Tokyo at a time; if you’re there, your attacks hit everyone else, but everyone else’s attacks hit you. It’s a great dice-rolling with colorful, crazy artwork that should appeal to kids of all ages.
Most legacy games take existing concepts and repurpose them for the legacy format; Charterstone, from Jamey Stegmaier (designer of Tapestry and Scythe), is one of the rare legacy games that is entirely new. Players build their little corners of the kingdom over twelve sessions, gaining powers and resources that can carry over to future games, using other players’ buildings as well as shared spaces even as the rules shift from game to game. It’s very well balanced and individual games move quickly enough that a twelve-session commitment isn’t too arduous.
One of the best dice-drafting games ever made, Sagrada’s base game has players choose from a communal pool of dice rolled in each round as players try to match certain patterns by placing dice on their own stained glass windows. The original was already excellent, but the expansion that lets you play with up to six players replaces some of the dice drafting with personal dice boards, so you don’t get penalized too badly by coming up near the end of the dice draft. It works well either way, but the expansion makes it a viable game for six and one of the few great games that comfortably plays with that many people.
Phil Walker-Harding has had a slew of hits this decade, with two games on this list, a couple more in the honorable mentions, and one that’s a bit too new for the list in Silver & Gold. Imhotep earned him a Spiel nomination and spawned a Duel spinoff strictly for two players. Two to four players compete to place stones from their quarries on any of the communal ships, which then go to one of the four scoring spaces, each of which has its own scoring system. There’s a bit of take-that to the ships, as you can choose to ‘launch’ any ship you like, even if it’s not full, to try to prevent someone else from placing stones on board; managing that is just as important as figuring out where to send your own stones.
Of all the games on this ranking, this might be the one that has struggled the most to find its audience—but it deserves a much wider fan base than it has. Most worker placement games take far longer to play or to get players deep into the game, but New Bedford moves quickly and introduces short-term goals that speed up the experience without sacrificing strategy. Players build out the city of New Bedford by laying tiles, yet the heart of the game is on the seas, as players send their workers on whaling expeditions, drawing whale tokens randomly from the bag and hoping for big scores, with your odds improving the more you prepare for the trips.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.