My gaming tastes are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, I love elegant games with simple rules that lead to tough decisions. On the other hand, I'm a big fan of games with lots of cards and unique special powers. I generally dislike games in which the players are battling more with the game - trying to eke out the most efficient move - than with the other players.
1 Tigris & Euphrates
Reiner Knizia, my favourite designer, is an expert at coming up with games that have simple rules but could take a lifetime to master. Tigris & Euphrates is his masterpiece and to me it feels as classic as Chess or Backgammon. Some people think it’s dry and abstract, but I find the clash of civilisations it evokes thrilling and tense, with just enough luck to keep you on your toes.
2 Race for the Galaxy
I love games where cards have lots of different effects, and Race is the ultimate. Cards represent planet and technological developments, the money you use to pay for them and the goods you produce. And there are so many individual effects that I’m still seeing things I’ve never seen before after literally hundreds of plays. The excellent expansions just add to the replayability.
Martin Wallace is a genius at evoking specific times and places in his themes and Brass does it for Industrial Revolution Lancashire. The rules are a little clunky to get to grips with but it’s worth the effort to unlock this ingenious economic game. I really like the way you have to find your own niche, while inevitably helping the other players out with your actions. Several broad strategies are possible, but within there is lots of scope for cunning tactical coups.
4 Twilight Struggle
Tense is definitely the world for this Cold War head-to-head, which always brings me out in a sweat. You feel like you’re constantly on the brink of disaster, trying somehow to deal with a hand of cards that could destroy your position, while looking out for chinks the other side’s armour. Some of the toughest decisions you’ll find in a board game, and because it’s just you and one opponent, getting them wrong seems to hurt all the more.
Another Knizia classic, and my favourite auction game. I really like the way you can only bid fixed amounts, so the auctions don’t go on forever. It’s really a game about forcing other players to make painful decisions, but also pushing your luck when the time is right. Board game experiences don’t get much better than pulling another valuable tile from the bag while your opponents chant “Ra! Ra! Ra!”, willing you to fail.
6 Taj Mahal
It’s that man Knizia again, this time with a confrontational bidding and bluffing game set (loosely) in India. Players bid against each other for various rewards, but the painful thing is that even if you lose, you’ll still have to pay up your valuable cards. This ‘know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em’ element gives Taj Mahal a bit of a poker feel and reading your opponents is as important as studying the board.
7 Glory to Rome
Reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy with its multiple card effects and special powers, but where Race is about efficiency and gradually building up your empire, Glory to Rome is about wild and crazy knock-out combinations. Whether or not it is ‘balanced’ isn’t really the question, it’s hilarious and huge fun to play.
Hard to believe this is almost fifty years old, because it anticipates so much of what modern board games are about; aA good balance of strategy and luck, quick to learn but hard to master, and all over in a sensible 90 minutes. The world would be a better place if this was the hotel investment game of choice instead of Monopoly.
9 Winner’s Circle
OK, it’s another Knizia. This one seems light and luck-filled at first - after all, you just roll and move! But it’s really another example of Knizia’s genius at risk management games. To do well you have to not just bet on a complementary portfolio of horses for yourself, but also play the other players, looking for opportunities to make a buck over them. Another Knizia that can be taught in a minute but played again and again.
10 6 Nimmt
The end-of-night filler of choice at London on Board scales brilliantly all the way up to 10 players although the more you have, the more chaotic and silly it becomes. It’s as simple as all playing a card at once and then seeing what happens, but I can’t see us ever getting tired of it.