Last time, I wrote about the bottom 9 games in my board game collection. Today, it’s time for the top 9! Like before, these are the games in my collection that I like the most. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the “best” games. But these are the games that I am almost always ready to play because I know that I will thoroughly enjoy the experience that is about to unfold.
Enough introductions, let’s get this started!
For years, I considered Chaos in the Old World to be the pinnacle of asymmetric game design. Four players jockey for control over the Old World, each armed with a unique deck spells and a small army of cultists, warriors, and daemons. The actual gameplay is that of a fairly straightforward area control game where players establish their presence in different regions by taking turns summoning pieces onto the board. But each faction has its own path to victory and its own way of interfering with the other three factions.
I reviewed this game back in 2020, so I won’t rehash those thoughts here. Asymmetrical games have come a long way in the last few years. Leder Games has created a number of spectacular games in this vein, like Oath, Root, and Vast. Compared to all of these excellent games, Chaos in the Old World hardly feels asymmetrical at all. But once you sit down and start playing, you’ll understand.
Like Root, Chaos in the Old World needs 4 players to really shine, and they all need to not only understand their own faction, but each of the other three as well. Learning to play this game is a commitment, and your first handful of games will be a bit frustrating as you learn what everyone else is capable of. But even at the roughest times, you’ll get to take awesome turns that make everyone else at the table say “What? You can do that?!” And for me, that’s what asymmetrical games are all about.
Number of times played: ~8. I first learned Chaos in the Old World one or two years before I started keeping records in 2014. Every game has been fun, memorable, challenging, and exciting. But this is also the hardest game for me to get to the table. Finding three other people who are willing to commit 2-3 hours to a game like this is difficult. I’ve never had trouble sitting down for a 2, 3, or even 5 hour game, but I’ve found that most people aren’t into that sort of thing. Games that land in the 45 – 90 minute can get the table far more easily. Such is life.
#8 – Race for the Galaxy
Hey look, another game I reviewed in 2020! Race for the Galaxy is fairly old (15 years!), but it holds up so well. The one problem with it is that much of the card effects are abstracted into a robust set of symbols. The symbology is internally consistent and convenient once you spend the time to learn them, but also incredibly intimidating for first-time players. It generally takes people three or four games to really grok the language.
But once you do, Race is a fascinating game. The base game features tons of cards and there are plenty of viable paths to victory. It challenges you to think on your feet and find the best possible strategy out of the cards you draw. Sometimes you can get dealt an unwinnable hand, but most of the time there is a way forward if you’re clever and experienced enough to find it. And then once you start throwing expansions into the mix, the available strategies balloon! I love this game on its own and with the first couple expansions. After that, it starts getting a bit too weighed down by all the added mechanics and features. The core game hits that perfect sweet spot for me.
Number of times played: ~51. This is another game I learned a few years before I started recording in 2014, but I have no idea how many times I played it beforehand. At least a couple dozen, probably! These days I can usually get it to the table once or twice a year, but I also get to play it at least 4 or 5 times at the World Boardgame Championships.
Fun fact: it’s a lot of fun to write reviews about games you love. You get to share your excitement with other people, and maybe introduce them to a new and exciting experience! It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that I reviewed this game just a little while ago during Spooky Month!
Arkham Horror: The Card Game has grown on me steadily over the past year. The Path to Carcosa expansion impressed me with its story and campaign mechanics, and then the Circle Undone continued to build on that success. I think the sign of a great campaign game is that after you’ve finished the campaign, you want to go back and try it again with different characters. I’m eager to do that for all of the campaigns I’ve played so far, aside from the Dunwich Legacy. And after over 20 years of playing Magic: The Gathering, Arkham Horror’s deckbuilding elements feel like putting on an old glove.
Number of times played: 51, spread across three expansion campaigns and the base set. This game’s relatively low time commitment makes it easy to get to the table. The hardest part is honestly just finding the various mythos packs. And with Fantasy Flight’s new format, that problem has become a lot easier. I predict many more games of this in the future.
#6 – Sagrada
Ooh, this was one of my first reviews two years ago! Sagrada immediately impressed me as a very accessible game (the rules comfortably fit on just three pages) that hides a deep and challenging puzzle. In the four years since I first played it, it has become one of my favorite games. Last year, a digital version launched for iOS and Android, so I’ve spent quite a lot of time playing that edition. Honestly, the AI is pretty solid, so even if human opponents aren’t available you can still have a very fun game.
Number of times played: 32. This is another game I expect to play for many years to come.
#5 – Star Wars: Rebellion
Another one of my earliest reviews! Star Wars: Rebellion is, by far, the most comprehensive Star Wars game. It gives two players the opportunity to reenact the epic conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance as it played out across the original trilogy (and Rogue One). The excellent theming and clever mission card system enable you to feel like you are part of an alternate history. A history where Obi-Wan Kenobi never sacrifices himself, or one where Boba Fett captures Lando Calrissian on Corellia, or perhaps one where Grand Moff Tarkin locates the secret rebel base on Dantooine, of all places, and commands the Death Star to reduce the planet to dust.
Every game of Star Wars: Rebellion is memorable and exciting from start to finish. The only problem is that it is very complicated and commands a steep learning curve. There are so many mechanics, pieces, and subtle rules that it can be intimidating and overwhelming for your first few games. But I assure you, it is absolutely worth the time to learn.
Number of times played: 27. With games lasting 2-3 hours on average, not including 1-2 hours of teaching, it is hard to get this game to the table. Most of my plays come from the World Boardgame Championships, though I’m slowly spreading the love to more and more of my friends!
#4 – Innovation
Innovation is a weird game. I describe it as the technology tree from Civilization, but as a card game. Players start the game with a pre-historic technology, such as pottery, agriculture, or writing. Each technology card has a unique ability, and players will need to use those abilities to work their up through the ages. What I love about this game is that as you progress, technologically, the card abilities become more powerful and more complicated (mostly, there are always exceptions). Each card also depicts three symbols, which could be from one of six suits. The number of symbols from each suit designates your relative dominance over that type of industry. If a player tries to use a technology that requires a symbol that another player his more of on their tableau, then both players get to take the effect.
This creates some really interesting decisions. Do you use an effect that your opponent also gets to share? Can you take advantage of that sharing to put yourself in an even better position?
The game also creates some amusing situations. You could find yourself riding the hard sciences quickly through technological eras, progressing from the Classical era to the Renaissance to the Industrial age in just a couple turns, while your opponent is struggling in Prehistory. Or you could make it to the Modern era only to find that your opponent is about to win, so you use our last result: you activate Fission and nuke everyone back to the stone age. Literally, everyone discards all their cards and starts over in prehistory . . . oof.
Innovation is one of my favorite card games, especially with two players, and I am always happy to play it. I should do a full review at some point.
Number of times played: ~84. I learned this game not long before I started recording my game plays, but I think I only played it once or twice back then. One thing I should note: this game has four expansions, and I own them all. But I’ve never played with any of them. That’s right, 84 games with just the base game, and I’m still not sick of it. Every game feels different and fun in its own way, and I still feel like I’m discovering new fun things to do in this game. I cannot recommend Innovation enough.
Full disclosure: this is objectively the worst game on this list. It largely is just a game about rolling dice and getting lucky. There is some strategy in how you try to mitigate your luck and nudge probability in your favor, but if the dice aren’t on your side, you will lose. That’s not generally my style of game, but Queen’s Gambit makes up for the minimal strategy by being visually spectacular and thematically perfect.
Queen’s Gambit reenacts the climactic final battle from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. On one game board, the Trade Federation’s battle droid army faces Naboo’s Gungan nation. On the other board, Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul face off deep inside the palace. Else where on that board, Anakin races toward the Droid Control Ship to deactivate the Trade Federation army and save his new friends. But those are all secondary to this game’s main attraction: a three story board depicting the Theed Palace! Padme, Captain Panaka, and the rest of the Palace Guards must reach the throne room on the third floor and capture the Trade Federation Viceroy before they are wiped out by the Droid guards. But the Trade Federation can keep deploying reinforcements to the Palace, so it is essential that Anakin reach the Droid Control Ship as quickly as possible.
This asymmetric war game captures the theme of the final battle perfectly. All four fronts of the battle have their own critical function, and a skilled player must balance their attention across all four. But this is also a card-driven war game. Each player has a hand of cards, each of which allows them to activate a small sub-set of the units on one of the fronts. So even though you have a bunch of palace guards and battle droids in the palace, most cards will only let you move three or four on your turn. This keeps turns short and snappy, and ensures no player is out of the action for long.
Throughout the game, the Naboo player will always feel out numbered and outgunned, but all they need to do is get Anakin to the Droid Control Ship and every droid on all three boards will immediately deactivate. The only non-droid unit the Trade Federation has, after all, is Darth Maul. And if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan can kill Maul, then the Trade Federation is completely defenseless.
Unfortunately, getting Anakin to the control ship is the least mechanically interesting part of the game. All you do is roll two standard six-sided dice and hope you roll a number that is not blocked by droid fighters. If you dodge the droids, you advance one space. After five spaces, Anakin blows up the control ship. It’s just that easy. And it’s worth noting that the Naboo player basically cannot win the game unless the control ship is destroyed (except in one very specific and difficult to achieve circumstance). So while it’s not interesting, it is absolutely essential and both players cannot afford to ignore it.
Number of times played: 34. This game is so ridiculous and over-the-top, I just love it. It scratches the asymmetric war game itch while also being very accessible and easy to teach. Games generally last about 90-120 minutes, which is well within most peoples’ tolerances. And who doesn’t want to play a game with a three-story board! I love the way people react when they see it all set up! Like I said before, this is not a great game. It might not even be a good game. But it is an amazing experience, and I love it for that reason.
Just over two years ago, I wrote my first review about this game. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 remains one of the best Legacy games ever made seven years later. While Risk: Legacy introduced the world to a new style of board game, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 perfected it. This game has a gripping narrative tied to a very strong core game. Pandemic has been one of the industry leaders for cooperative board games since it first hit shelves nearly 14 years ago. And it provided the perfect backdrop for this new type of game.
If you’re unfamiliar, Legacy games are a type of campaign game where the game changes over time. You’ll add stickers to the board, tear up cards, and open up packages and envelopes with new components and new rules throughout the campaign. I fell in love with this game so much that after playing it once, I wanted to share the experience with my other friends. At time of writing, I’ve played four full campaigns, and the latter half of a fifth. I know this game’s story beats by heart, but I love every moment of the game so much that I keep wanting to come back for more. I’ve played a number of Legacy games since this one, and I’ve enjoyed many of them, but none have quite captured the joy, surprise, and excitement of this first one. It’s like the first time you do an Escape Room. You can have great experiences at other ones, but that first one you do will always be special.
Number of times played: 76. Like I said, I’ve played in five different campaigns of this over the years. It’s an excellent game, and one that I would recommend to everyone if they have even a passing interest in cooperative board games.
And now, my favorite game in my collection:
1 – War of the Ring
War of the Ring is the most comprehensive depiction of the Lord of the Rings novels in any game. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I think of Star Wars: Rebellion as the Star Wars equivalent of War of the Ring. But War of the Ring is, somehow, even more complicated and often lasts even longer than Star Wars: Rebellion, despite taking place on a smaller-scale board. Still, it is the same sort of game: one player commands the Shadow, Sauron’s massive army of darkness, while the other controls the Free People of Middle Earth: a loose amalgamation of Elves, Dwarves, and Men scattered across land. Both players will utilize their particular strengths to decide the fate of Middle Earth once and for all.
The Shadow Player is largely focused on a military campaign. If they can control 10 victory points worth of Free People cities and strongholds, then they win. The Free People’s goal is to protect those cities and strongholds for as long as possible to buy Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship enough time to enter Mordor, climb Mt. Doom, and cast the One Ring into the fiery depths.
But both players also have an alternative win condition. The Shadow player can actively search for the Fellowship and put Frodo in dangerous situations where he must wear the Ring. Each time he does so, his mind becomes subtly corrupted by Sauron’s dark influence. If the corruption track fills up all the way, then the Shadow player wins. At the same time, the Free Peoples player can try to take advantage of the Shadow’s distraction and launch a daring attack on the Shadow’s territories. If they capture just 4 victory points worth of Shadow cities and strongholds, then they win by distracting Sauron to such a degree that Frodo can finish making it up Mt. Doom unmolested.
I love this game’s theme and attention to detail. Every incident, scene, and character from the books makes an appearance. You get the opportunity to play out the battle for Middle Earth in all its minute detail. You can transform Gandalf the Grey into Gandalf the White, call upon the Ents for aid against Saruman, and lay siege to Minas Tirith. Or you can deviate from the books, and launch an attack against the Elven stronghold at the Gray Havens or have King Aragon lead an army straight at Morannon! What will you do when you are in command?
Number of times played: 27. This game is really tough to teach, and lasts a long time. But despite that, it is my favorite game, and it is one I am always willing to play. What makes this game stand out for me is that despite the asymmetry, it is incredibly well-balanced. Games always come down to the wire, and it is very possible for either player to win. Granted, a more skilled player has a much better chance of winning, but for evenly matched players? It really comes down to a combination of strategy and luck. War of the Ring is an absolute beast of a game, but once you play it a couple times, you’ll learn first-hand why I can’t get enough of it.
Thanks for joining me through this jaunt through my my favorite games! I hope this helps you ring in the new year on a high note. Next time, I'll be returning to some more traditional reviews. First up is one of 2021's hottest new games: Lost Ruins of Arnak! See you then!