Sunday, 13 March 2016

My top 10 games that defined modern boardgaming

Like most top 10 lists, this is entirely subjective, your list won’t match my list, but that’s ok.

Going back 40 years, most boardgames were

  •    “Roll and move”, like Parchisi, monopoly, Game of Life.  These games lacked real decision making for the most part, and some, like snakes and ladders, totally lacked any player skill
  • “Abstracts”, Like Go & Chess. While many of these games require a high level of skill, and are still considered “good games” by today’s standards, they are light on theme, which is perfectly fine for an abstract game. This is one genre where the ancients did a great job.
  •  “Suit based card games”, like Bridge, Poker, 500. A lot of good games use the standard 52(+1) deck of cards, and Poker is arguably the most well played board game in history.
  •  “Kriegsspiels”, old school wargames, with crunchy rules, sometimes using miniatures, and other times hexes and counters. Old school Avalon hill games, and many historical was games are in this genre.

The criteria for this list are boardgames produced over the last 40 years or so, ones that pushed the boardgame genre ahead in profound ways, and not necessarily through their game mechanics. It’s also heavily biased by my own play experience and perspectives.

I’ll be using 1977 as a cut-off point, and I’ll list them in chronological order. Basically, this is my take on game development over my own lifetime :)


1.)        Your faction does what now? Cosmic Encounter (1977)

Cosmic encounter is a pretty simple game, each player is trying to ship colonists to different worlds in order to colonize 5 planets. The other players are trying to stop you from doing this while winning themselves.

What makes cosmic encounter a classic was the introduction of “Alien Powers”. Each player, at game start, gets a unique alien power that “breaks the rules” and gives them a unique advantage or playstyle.

This simple innovation means that two games of Cosmic Encounter never play out the same way, as swapping out one players Alien power for another changes the game balance. And, after 40 years of publication, there are scores of alien powers.

This simple concept has an ongoing legacy, and now days many games have “power selection” as an intrinsic component to the gameplay, where all things in the game are even, asides from the cool stuff your faction or character does.

2.)        Check out the bling! The Gamemaster series (1984-86)

This is less about game innovation in regards to rules, and entirely about production values and how games could look. The five games in the series set new ground for how cool games could look, and how many bit and plastic parts could come in a box. All five were dripping in theme, and many are considered modern, if slightly flawed, classics. As a kid, there were few things I wanted more than these games. 

But check out the pictures, for 1984 this was unheard of production levels. Quality plastic pieces, tokens, box storage, non-standard dice.

  Axis and Allies – World War II, with hundreds of little men, ships and planes (picture is a later edition, my painted anniversary edition)


  Shogun – War in Japan during the feudal period, with Samurai, turn order swords, player screens, and bidding on ninjas

  Fortress America – A “red dawn” scenario, where one player plays the USA defending against invasion from three fronts.

    Broadsides and Boarding parties – a two player pirate game….. with massive model pirate ships

  Conquest of the Empire – 6 roman generals fight for control of Rome.

The game master series defined the term “Ameritrash”, and led to US game development focussing on components and theme over core game mechanics. Their legacy is best exemplified by the modern Fantasy Flight games production values, and is really where games moved on from just counters and cardboard.

3.)        Against the board – Arkham Horror (1987)

Most boardgames until this point had one winner or you won and lost in teams. A few, like the innovative “Scotland yard” had one player against everyone else.

But Arkham was the first big fully “co-operative” game, where you won as a team, or you lost as a team. Set in the HP Lovecraft universe, the players must work together to stop unspeakable horror from spilling out into the world, risking insanity and death to do so.

Arkham Horror’s 2005 edition is my most played game by a considerable margin. I own all 9 expansions; have all 48 painted investigators, custom gate holders, and an ornate Egyptian vase for my monster bag. I've put serious time into this one. 

The legacy of non-competitive boardgaming inspired by Arkham horror can be seen in Pandemic, Space Alert, Space Cadets and other co-op games. While the first edition of Arkham does not compare favourably to the 2005 version, the concept of “us against the board” is an enduring one.

4.)        I can’t play, I’m painting – Warhammer 40,000 (1987)

Love it, or hate it, no game has done more for the quality of miniatures and improving the hobby side of boardgaming than Warhammer 40,000 and it’s brutish British owners, Games Workshop.

When 40k came out, model painting looked very different, enamel paints were used mostly, and people painted low detail figures for wargames, or made dioramas.

Warhammer 40k made the hobby aspect of gaming king and gaming has never looked the same. GW and their in-house artists pushed the limits of model painting and sculpting and really made it into an art form.

And while 40k and GW may not be the same creative force they were in the late 80’s and 90’s, the influence of 40k can be seen through the sheer number of high quality miniature games on the market like Warmachine, Infinity and Malifaux.

Not only that, but the idea of taking a boardgame, and painting the figures, or building custom scenery and parts, harkens back to GW’s hobby focus.

Probably my best paintjob ever. 

5. I Use my Broadsword! – Heroquest (1989)

It’s sad that this game is out of print and almost an abandoned IP, as I think it is one of the most influential games in history.

Firstly, it defined the dungeon crawler genre, best typified by modern games like Descent and Imperial assault. It took concepts from Dungeons and Dragons, and other RPGs and boiled them down into a simple game that kids could play.

And most importantly, it got sold EVERYWHERE, and exposed an entire generation to table top gaming that involved magic, orcs, demons and barbarians.

It was the first, and only modern style boardgame I recall seeing a national television advertising campaign for. The lines “I use my broadsword!” and “fire of wrath!” are iconic catchphrases my gaming group still uses whenever we roll out a dungeon crawler to play.

The lads acting like they are in a early gaming ad while we play descent
Few games can claim to have gotten more people involved in gaming than Heroquest, the true “gateway game” of the late 80’s and early 90’s. 

6.) Wow! Nice combo, you win – Magic the Gathering (1993)

I’ve already written about how MTG is evil. It’s CCG business model is designed by the devil himself to suck every single dollar out of your pocket, but it’s not the CCG model that defines MTG to me, It is deckbuilding.

MTG allowed unrepresented freedom to design and build your own play style, to explore within a games mechanics and come up with combinations and ideas that worked. Deckbuilding, the idea that there is a pool of hundreds or 
thousands of cards, and you can only have 60 or so in a deck, is a powerful one. 

MTG created a new level of “game think” about a single game, and no game, not even chess, has had more written about strategies and how to play and build a deck than magic. And now, after 23 years, the combinations of cards in a deck are approaching infinite, or certainly infinite by a humans natural life span.

MTG’s legacy is huge, so many CCG’s and LCG’s exist these days that it’s considered a separate genre. I’ve played many of them, from the sublime Android:netrunner, through the good V:Tes & the Star Wars LCG, to the mediocre Rage and the abominable Spellfire.


7.   Lol, you have wood for sheep? Settlers of Catan (1995)

First off, I don’t like this game very much. I find it dry, a bit dull, and it is very hard to win if people freeze you out of trading. I own a copy, and while I’m not really a fan, I appreciate what it has done for boardgaming in general.

The Euro school of game design was divergent to the “Ameritrash” school I mentioned earlier. Euro games were mechanically clever, but normally thematically weak and had low quality components.

Settlers was the first Euro game to crack American markets, and it’s legacy has less to do with the game itself, but because it helped start the merging of the two gaming traditions.

After this point, Euros began to improve their themes and component quality, and American games looked more at the Euro mechanics, and tried to modernize their games.

It’s commercial success also opened many people’s eyes to playing games other than Monopoly and the Game of Life. It helped to mainstream gaming and helped families get back around the dinner table.

And while it's far less influential mechanically than say, Puerto Rico or power Grid, it's it's commercial success that is important. 

Without the crossover effect of Euro meets Ameritrash, many of my favourite games would not exist. Chaos in the Old World and Lords of Waterdeep are great examples of this blending of the two schools.

8.   Only a Cylon would say that! Battlestar Gallatica (2008)

While Shadows over Camelot was the first game I played that was co-operative with a traitor, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact on me as BSG did.

BSG is an important game for many reasons. Firstly, it killed the idea that western games based on established IP’s were most likely going to be mass-produced rubbish that stunk. For every “Dune” that was produced, you had a dozen “CSI the boardgames”, established IP usually meant the game was going to be rubbish.

Secondly, it turned the co-operative genre on its head with it excellent take on the traitor mechanic, making the traitor not just a problem to deal with like in shadows, but the core of the game. No game produces the same level of finger pointing and baseless accusations as BSG. It’s simply a joy to play.
Finally, it represents a great blending of the ideas and concepts mentioned earlier. It has great production values, role selection, euro worker placement and resource management, co-op game play and diplomacy.

It is literally an excellent amalgam of everything game developers have learned over the last 40 years, distilled into what I consider to be a modern classic.

It’s also heavily influential on Dead of Winter, another modern classic.

9. Crowdfunding - Zombicide (2012)

Zombicide might not be the first, but it is the successful crowd funded game franchise of all time. Check out these numbers for the Zombicide crowd funding.

·         Season 1 $781,597 
·         Season 2 $2,255,018
·         Season 3  $2,849,064 
·         Black Plague $4,079,204

Exploding kittens made almost as much with one game, but that was more to do with “the oatmeal” than anything to do with the game itself, so it doesn’t fit my point, which is, that Zombicide aptly demonstrated that you can crowd source a boardgame, if that boardgame looks special enough and enough people get interested.
As the sales figures show, each season has been more successful than the last.

Zombicide showed how a company with a cool idea, but without the funding to make it a reality, could reach an audience and obtain funding. While this legacy is still unfolding, I like that companies can go straight to the customer, and if they do release a fine product, customers react accordingly.

10. Technology and gaming – XCOM (2015)

A lot of people did not like what XCOM tried to do but personally, I loved it.

XCOM wasn’t the first game to use a companion app, but it is the one game I’ve played where it is integral to the gameplay and it makes for a unique gameplay experience.

The APP manages so much of the gameplay, and it makes the game frantic and fast, as only automation can. I’ve never played a game where you really feel the time pressure like XCOM, and I think that’s an excellent use of technology. 

There is romanticism with keeping boardgames distinct and different from computer games, but I think XCOM showed how modern technology can be used alongside a boardgame to enhance the experience.

Also, if you haven’t read my report on playing thegame solo, check it out. It was the most stressful, harrowing boardgame experience of my life, but a really rewarding one.

I’m really looking forward to how other games utilize technology like XCOM did to improve gameplay. Dead of Winters companion app is brilliant as well.  

Other honourable mentions
  • Dominion – For introducing the deck building genre
  • Twlight Struggle – For making card driven games accessible, and for it’s amazing theme and game play
  • Pandemic legacy – For taking what began with risk legacy, and making legacy gameplay into a classic
  • Warmachine – For making miniature wargaming into a pretty balanced competitive game and for its community focus
  • X-wing – For making miniature wargaming accessible to people who aren’t as interested in the hobby aspect.
  • Smash up - For the simple concept of combining two pre-built decks
  • Dune - For taking cosmic encounters role selection, and adding it to strategy games. 
I'm sure there are many games i've missed, but these are the ones that stand out to me. 

I like X-wing

And Warmachine too


  1. So many different games and so many years, a thought-provoking article. I'm still waiting for your 'Deliverance Lost' review. That story is considered very 'middle of the road' (Read: Mediocre) and I'd love to see your opinion on it.

    1. I started working in town again last week, i've chucked it in my bag to read on the bus. Thats one reason I havent done any reviews, the HH books were my commute reading

  2. Amazing review. Charts a lot of games I played as well in it. Funny thing, after the BSG bit and Arkham I started thinking 'what about X-Com' and bam, delivered. I'll be sharing this post at a gaming convention this weekend.

    Side note, my brother and I used to wake up in the mid hours of night to play axis and allies, we had portions of our room set aside for that and Shogun... to have that sort of energy again.

    1. A&A was the first big game I purchased with my own money. I remember seeing it in a store when i was 12 and had a part time job cleaning up a bookstore after school. I was so stoked to buy that thing. Compared to everything else on the market, it was amazing. My friend had Shogun, many weekends spent playing those two


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