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Noel’s Best Board Games of All Time – 2014 Edition

There is no doubt that my game tastes are changing over time. Last year I was very much in love with point-salad games, and now I’m craving games with interesting player interactions or economic systems. This list is my attempt at capturing my top 20 favorite games at the end of 2014. It should be very interesting to compare it with the 2015 edition and see what has changed.

This list was inspired by Casualgod’s 3rd Annual Top 20 Games of All Time. David and I have a lot of overlapping tastes, so if you like what you see here, make sure you check out his list as well.

20. Arkham Horror


I make no claims this is a good game. However, this game is an amazing experience. The cooperative aspect is very important, and it’s definitely a game that you get better the more you play.

Our first few games were way too long (3-4 hours), but once we got the rules down, now we can knock a game out in 2 hours or less.

The expansions add a lot of much-welcome variety. My favorite way of playing with them is to focus on each expansion, by just using about half the cards from the base game, and the rest from the expansion. That way each expansion shines to the maximum, with a lot of encounters being directly relevant to the theme of the game. Mixing them all just dilutes the experience and makes it a worse game than just plain base game.

19. Keyflower


The rating for Keyflower could change quite a bit (up or down) simply because I haven’t played it enough. My plays of it have been great, and I’m looking forward to playing it a lot more.

The mix of bidding on tiles and using them at the same time is brilliant. Knowing some of the winter tiles ahead of times let’s you plan more strategically for the end of game scoring. At least for the first few plays, this is probably best with 3 players, otherwise it’s too many villages to keep track of.

18. Kanban: Automotive Revolution


This is the only entry in this list for a 2014 game, and it wasn’t even part of the original list when I first put it together. However, a couple more plays quickly shot this up the ranks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this higher up in next year’s list.

Kanban is a complex game, and on the surface like the kind of games I’ve been getting away from recently. I don’t like games that are complex for complexity sake (like Madeira), but Kanban pulls it all together and makes it work very well.

There are a lot of things going on on the board, but each department is quite simple. The complexity comes in how to put together all the actions in the most efficient way. I’m four plays into this game and still learning new games.

Also, each play is quite different given the meeting goals and end of game bonus. Variability between games is a theme that will appear over and over in this list.

17. Notre Dame


One of my favorite Feld games (Castles of Burgundy barely missed the list). It plays in about an hour, the card drafting adds a nice limitation on your actions and keeps you very interested in what your neighbors are doing.

The extra cards in the mini-expansion make the game much better since it’s more varied from game to game.

16. The Palaces of Carrara


I have to admit that my first play of this was underwhelming, but repeated plays quickly turned it around, and eventually pushed it all the way to #16.

Variability in this game is huge and no two games are alike. You have to re-evaluate everything depending on the scoring cards that come up for each game. Sometimes you build wide, sometimes you go tall, sometimes you focus on some buildings, or cities, or… The resource market is very simple and interesting, and the bits are great too.

Word of advice: Ignore the basic game. Sure, play with the basic goals once, but with the rest of the advanced rules (not moving the wheel, upgrading buildings, 8-point buildings, etc). I didn’t and I almost missed out on this gem of a game.

15. In the Year of the Dragon


This is my other Feld on the top 20, and not surprisingly, it’s from the same period as Notre Dame. It’s still pretty focused, and quite different than most other games: You see all the disasters ahead of time, it’s a matter of planning around them, maximizing scoring opportunities, and fighting everybody else who is trying to do the same thing. Deliciously tight and it plays great with 5 (and also great at lower player counts).

14. Race for the Galaxy


Yet another game that is hugely variable from play to play. Here you have some control (through Exploring) but ultimately it comes down to what you find and how you use it.

This is one of the rare games that has simultaneous action selection that I actually like, probably because other people’s choices can only benefit you, and never negate your whole turn (unless you tried to get really cute).

I haven’t even started playing with the expansions, or with any of the alternate lines. Looking forward to many more plays of this.

13. Santiago


Santiago was a total surprise. Yes, I had read very good comments from my Geekbuddies, but I really wasn’t expecting it would be that good.

Santiago embodies everything I’m looking for in games these days:
– Strong player interaction (you’re competing but still need to rely on other people)
– Short playtimes
– Simple ruleset

The result is an amazing game that some people describe as vicious, but I choose to think as self-interested. You’re in it to win, and other players will have to make it worth your while if they want you to do something in particular. It’s great that the game can be won through smart bidding, being a hard negotiator as the Overseer, or just by saving up lots of money and being opportunistic.

12. The Great Zimbabwe


This is a very unique race game (the same way that Race for the Galaxy is a race) where you can change the ending line in exchange for some advantages. It features the kind of player interaction I like, where you’re competing with people, but at the same time using each other’s resources in a positive way.

Each game is very different depending on the map layout and which gods come out. The only downside is how suddenly the ending can arrive, and how it can be spotted a turn or two in advance and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.

My favorite player count for this is probably 3 or 4.

11. Troyes


I never made a top-20 list last year, but I think this would have ended up much higher on last year’s edition. Unfortunately I only played it twice on 2014, so I’m not surprised it slid down a bit. Maybe next year it’ll go back up.

I love dice as inputs, coupled with dice-manipulation mechanics, and this game is all about that.

Extremely varied gameplay is again present here: Only a few cards come up in each game, that those completely determine how the game is played (along with the event cards). No two games are alike, although that sometimes can be a bad thing (I introduced a friend to this game and we ended up with punishing events and cards that didn’t combine very well with each other).

I was a bit disappointed with the expansion, so those of you looking for it, I’d say skip it and save all that money.

10. Ra


By now this list has quite a few games with bidding mechanisms (and there will be more further down). Ra is the purest of them all in that it’s only about bidding.

It’s another one of those games with a very simple ruleset that I love (with a slightly complicated end-game scoring, but it’s easy enough with the player mats).

The thing that makes Ra stand out is that the bidding is very “chunky”. You have four tiles and you can bid one of them. That’s all. Sure, it makes valuing things easier than Medici, but that’s not a bad thing.

9. Lord of the Rings: The Card Game


It’s not surprisingly that an LCG is very variable, but I’m always amazed at how completely different each scenario makes this game feel. And by that I don’t mean that one scenario is more combat heavy and another one more questing heavy. It’s that the new rules and events for each scenario change the game completely, and at the same time make it so extremely thematic. For example, in Journey Down the Anduin, at one point you get on a boat and you’re not attacked by the enemies in the engaging area, but you draw an extra card during the encounter phase (because you’re traveling so quickly).

I haven’t tried this solo yet (which I hear is brutally hard), but it’s great fun with two players. Some scenarios are extremely hard though (I’m looking at you, The Hobbit!), and most of them encourage you to tweak your decks in different ways.

8. Glen More


I love the jump-ahead mechanic in this game. There’s always a great tension between getting something before other people, and still getting the other tiles you want along the way. The end-of-game penalty for having larger towns makes it even more interesting.

The tile-laying part of the game is very interesting too, because you have some restrictions (roads and river) and only the tiles next to a tile you lay down are activated, so you need to plan very carefully.

All in all, it combines short play time, and extremely meaningful and difficult decisions. Oh and it plays great with two as well.

7. Hansa Teutonica


For the longest time I kept reading about Hansa Teutonica as the poster child of boring, dry euros, as well as having a reputation for being extremely aggressive.

I don’t mind my euros dry, but I typically don’t like them aggressive. However, it turns out this was love at first sight for me. From the first play, I enjoyed every minute of this game. I didn’t see the play as aggressive, but more of a blocking play that you get a benefit when someone moves you out of the way.

Unlike many other games in this list, this doesn’t have much (any?) variability from game to game, but because there are so many ways to approach it, it can still feel quite different.

I’m looking forward to many more plays and trying some of the expansion maps as well.

6. Pandemic


My highest-rated cooperative game. There may be some nostalgia in here, but I would pick this one above all other coops.

Cooperative games have strong random elements, and sometimes things are stacked in such a way that no matter what you do, you will fail. That’s the nature of the game. Pandemic has that problem as well, but play time is short enough that it doesn’t matter. You pick up the cards and do it again.

I love that the infection is driven by a deck of cards because you have a lot of information about what is likely to come up soon (since the discard pile is shuffled and put on top after every epidemic). That’s something that was sorely missing from Pandemic The Cure (the dice version of Pandemic).

Finally, in case things start feeling too samey, the expansions add a lot of variability (I didn’t like my first play of In The Lab, but I suspect it has a very steep learning curve).

5. Kingdom Builder


This game is the definition of variability from game to game. The rules themselves are just a couple of mechanics on how to put settlements on the board, and the scoring is mostly down to the cards that are drawn at the beginning of each game.

This was another one of those games that the first play felt a bit underwhelming. I thought the game was playing me, rather than me the game. It wasn’t until the second game that I realized it was about positioning myself to accomplish what I want to do, rather than trying to select different terrain cards. It’s also really interesting how you have very different goals early in the game (minimize terrain adjacencies so you can move to other places on the board), than you do late in the game (touch as many terrain types as possible so you can put your pieces anywhere you want).

Yes, you can get some ridiculously broken power/scoring combos, but again, games are quick. Have a laugh and play it again.

4. Homesteaders


Short, tense, and every decision is extremely meaningful. There are only 10 rounds to the whole game, and you won’t even get a building in each round. You can go hugely in debt, and yet (hopefully) everything kind of comes together at the end.

It certainly fits with me liking bidding games, but it might initially stand out as a game with very little apparent variability from game to game. Rahdo even dismissed it because it didn’t vary enough. Let me tell you something: This game is so tight, that minor changes will throw off your long-term plans in no time. I recently started a game where I had decided I was going to go for the Church and in-game points, but the way the bidding tiles came out, and the way Amy was bidding against me, I was forced to change plans and go for a resource/dudes strategy. So much for lack of variability!

It plays fantastic with any player count. The only downside is that a lot of buildings are available right from the start, so it’s a bit overwhelming for new players. Well worth a small time investment to learn this fantastic game though.

3. Age of Steam


I’ve tried a lot of train/route-building games, and Age of Steam comes out clearly on top (I need to play more Steam to decide between the two though).`

The auctions for player order/bonus are extremely interesting an unforgiving. The roles themselves are very well thought out so even if you don’t get first place, you can still snatch first build or first move.

The route building and delivery aspect are always very fun and satisfying, the only downside is the randomness of where new goods appear on the board (yes, you see where they’ll appear, but you don’t know when, which makes all the difference in the world). Players can also find themselves in a downward spiral that takes them out of the game completely, but that’s part of the experience of the game (although I agree that a 2-3 hour game where you’re out of contention for half of it is not very fun, experience or no experience, so don’t let that happen).

Finally, the variety of maps for Age of Steam out there make this game infinitely replayable. It’s not jut a different distribution of mountains and rivers, it’s that most maps radically change a few rules and transform the experience into something completely different.

2. Dominion


Speaking of variability, here’s Donald X’s other hugely variable game. Dominion was the first deck builder. I’ve played a bunch since then, and I keep coming back to this one: it plays quickly, works great with any player count (but best with just 2 or 3), and it’s always completely different.

Just like Troyes, some games are going to be more amazing than others depending on the combinations that come up, but it’s always really fun looking at that new set of cards and figuring out a path to victory.

1. Brass and Age of Industry


I’m giving my #1 game of all time award to both Age of Industry and Brass. It might feel like I’m cheating, but I really consider Brass as a particular Age of Industry map with some funky rules thrown in. The fact is, both games feel very similar (with card drawing being the main difference).

I might give Brass the edge as a best game, but Age of Industry wins because of the different maps available and the different experiences it provides. I go back and forth between which one I like better, but I have them both rated as 10 (my only two 10 ratings on BGG).

They have the exact kind of player interaction that I love, where players are jockeying for position, using each other resources, and yet trying to out-do each other. I love that player order is determined by how much you spend in a turn, which gives you very interesting control over your turn.

I also consider Brass to be game that can be best played online: each turn is fairly long and meaty, and there are at most 16 turns in a 4-player game (most likely you’ll have a couple of them back to back, so more like 14). As opposed to games that are 100+ turns long, and in each turn you’re just clicking OK to something. I’m always up for a game of Brass online, so if anyone is interested, let me know me and let’s play.


This list first appeared on BGG

  1. Not even close. You meant to say “best board games I can remember playing”. I’m sorry I subscribed to your blog, I’ll fix that as soon as possible.

    • That’s why the list is called “Noel’s Best…” Of the games I’ve played, those are the ones I consider the best 20. Obviously can’t speak for the ones I haven’t played.

  2. Thanks for this list, Noel! I have such limited time to play board games, it really helps to get your detailed opinions on what’s good and why. Big appreciations!

  3. Hello,

    Nice collection of board games you shared, enjoyed your post, I like most “Lord of the Rings: The Card Game”.
    Thanks for sharing.

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