Best of 2019
BY NICK SHIPLEY
As a board game reviewer, I get the privilege of playing a lot of different board games. Some are good, others not so much, and most fall somewhere in-between. However, there are a few that stand out as some of the best-of-the-best, and 2019 had its fair share of notable titles.
Of all the new games I played in 2019, these are the ones that stood out and have my recommendation.
Best Family Game
Like playing games with the youngest members of the family, but you’ve reached your fill of Candy Land? Here are a couple titles that are reading-independent yet still bring all the members of the family around the table for game night.
Astro Trash (The OP) –
3-5 Players | Ages 6+ | Approx. 15 Min
In Astro Trash, players are racing to remove all their space junk from their play area by moving it to their neighbors. This fast-paced, dice rolling game is recommended for ages 6+, but could be enjoyed by any age that can recognize color and/or shapes and knows their left from their right (think a thematic version of LCR). And it’s a win-win for parents – the kids are having fun and improving their dexterity, pattern recognition, counting, colors, and sportsmanship, and the parents get a break from the ubiquitous Candy Land/Chutes and Ladders/Hi-Ho Cherry-O type games.
Go Gecko Go! (Zoch Verlag) –
2-4 Players | Ages 6+ | Approx. 20 Min
I got to play this at a board game convention after it was nominated for a Kinderspiel des Jahres (board game equivalent of an Academy Award for Best Kids Game) and really liked it. In fact, the only reason I didn’t list it as the winner is that, as of time of writing, it is without a U.S. based publisher. I would expect it to become more widely available in 2020 when it is picked up by a U.S. publisher (HABA seems like a possible landing spot). When it does, I would recommend checking it out. In short, Go Gecko Go! is a roll-dice-and-move game that’s all about piling smaller animals on top of larger animals while keeping an eye on the height of the next bridge that needs to be cleared. Kids are exposed to spatial recognition, colors, numbers, and risk vs. reward. I hope that this one lands a U.S. publisher and then lands on the PB&J shelves so I can finally pick up a copy to play with my kids.
Best Party Game
What’s better than inviting friends over, ordering a pizza, and playing a game? Inviting friends over, ordering two pizzas, and playing two games. Luckily for you, I have two 2019 party games recommendations.
Just One (Repos Production) –
3-7 Players | Ages 8+ | Approx. 20 Min
Just One had a big year in the board game world. Winner of multiple awards, including the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Academy Award for Best Game). Just One is as close to a can’t miss party game as you can get – inviting and easy to learn for non-gamers, but still proposes a unique challenge for those that usually prefer a “heavier” game. I brought this to so many family gatherings in 2019 that the family began to expect it, and then started requesting that I bring it. Being able to pick up some copies at PB&J made my Christmas shopping a lot easier as they all ended up getting a copy. In Just One, players cooperate to provide one-word clues to help the active player guess a mystery word. There’s “just one” catch – any duplicated clues are removed, and the active player must guess with less help. Players must balance providing unique clues so that they are not duplicated, but not so unique that they don’t assist in helping the active player guess the word. Highly recommended.
First Contact (Cosmodrome Games) –
2-7 Players | Ages 12+ | Approx. 30 Min
Players take on one of two roles – an ancient civilization or the aliens that are visiting them – and attempt to establish communication. The aliens have squiggly shapes, and the humans have pictures of objects, and together they try to solve the communication puzzle and uncover the items necessary to win. Partially cooperative, partially competitive, First Contact is much like a board game adaptation of the film Arrival, but the stakes are much lower and the fun is greater. A great social-deduction game.
Best Roll-And-Write Game
I don’t think any board game genre saw a surge in popularity in 2019 quite like roll-and-writes (including any “random action/record result” type games). These titles take the spirit of Yahtzee and gave it a theme.
Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (Thunderworks Games) –
1-100 Players | Ages 10+ | Approx. 30 Min
Not only is Cartographers a great roll-and-write, it’s a great game period. In Cartographers, players are creating a map by meeting the conditions on available random cards revealed throughout the round. However, your opponents can thwart your plans as they are the ones that get to draw monsters on your map when that condition is revealed. One of the coolest things about this game is that when it is over, you have a tangible work that you created and can put on your fridge.
Lanterns Dice: Lights in the Sky (Renegade Game Studios) –
2-4 Players | Ages 10+ | Approx. 30 Min
You’ve been tasked by the emperor to throw a party celebrating the end of the harvest – complete with lanterns and fireworks. The active player rolls four dice and chooses the one that best helps them reach their decorative goals. However, any unused dice are used by their opponents based on their seating orientation. Sounds confusing, but the included dice tray makes the process of seeing who-gets-which-die simple. Players must weigh their benefit vs. their opponents’ benefit each turn.
Best Abstract Strategy Game
Hate the luck-factor of rolling dice? Think the only theme any game needs is color #1 vs. color #2? You’re in luck. 2019 had one of the best pure-abstract games to come out in recent memory, and a continuation of a time-honored classic.
SHOBU (Smirk and Laughter Games) –
2 players | Ages 8+ | Approx 20 Min
Four small game boards, 16 stones, and one piece of rope is the entirety of SHOBU. In SHOBU, a player moves a single stone located on one of the boards on their side of the rope, and then mirror the move on the matching board located on their opponent’s side of the rope attempting to be the first to knock all their opponents stones off one board. It fits the “learn in minutes, master in a lifetime” trope, but so do most pure abstract games. Easier to teach (and faster to play) than Chess, and with a more unique table presence, SHOBU is the game for someone who hates any luck-factor in board games, but is not interested in Chess.
2 Players | Ages 6+ | Approx 60 Min
Ok, I know that Chess has been around since at least the 1400’s, but there’s something to say about a game that is still popular after 600 years, and is rereleased in different “sets” every year. There were multiple Chess sets released in 2019 and some are available at PB&J. Like Zelda? There’s a Chess version for that. Like The Mario Brothers? There’s a chess version for that. Like baseball rivalries, members of Congress, birds, Harry Potter, wood pieces, marble pieces, etc.? There’s a Chess set for all of that. Personally, I’m waiting for a Chess set where the pieces are smaller Chess sets.
Best Entry Level Game
Looking to dip your toe into the pool of modern board gaming but unsure where to start? We’re glad you’re here, and here are two good introductions to the hobby released in 2019 that will lead to a lifelong addiction help you see if board gaming is right for you.
Noctiluca (Z-Man Games) –
1-4 Players | Ages 8+ | Approx 30 Min
Noctiluca is lightly themed abstract strategy game for 1-4 players. Players draft dice (nocitluca) from the board by number, and then place them on their individual cards by color to perform deliveries. Noctiluca is a good introduction into the card drafting and set collection mechanisms. Designed by Shem Phillips (more on him in a bit), Noctiluca is very simple to learn and teach, but is not devoid of strategy. If you’re past the entry-level phase, it still makes a great filler between heavier titles. One of my favorite games of 2019.
Tiny Towns (AEG) –
1-6 Players | Ages 14+ | Approx 45 Min
I really like Tiny Towns and any other year it would have been my top pick. Another lightly-themed abstract game, Tiny Towns has players creating, well, tiny towns, on their individual player boards by placing buildings based on certain placement conditions. But, as the board fills up, it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, for players to meet the placement conditions. It can be a very frustrating game in the best way possible and is a good intro into grid coverage and pattern building.
Best Mid-Weight Game
So you’re ready to take the next step from entry level games and explore new mechanisms and invest a little more time into game play? Welcome.
Azul: Summer Pavilion (Plan B Games) –
2-4 Players | Ages 8+ | Approx 45 Min
In the third installment of the Azul series, Azul: Summer Pavilion has players doing exactly what the name would suggest–building a summer pavilion. Much like its predecessors, it combines strategy with beautiful components to leave players with a mini work of art at the game’s conclusion. Azul: Summer Pavilion delivers exactly what you want in a mid-level game – challenging decisions, executable strategy, quality components, beautiful table presence – and does so under an hour.
Star Wars: Outer Rim (Fantasy Flight) –
1-4 Players | Ages 14+ | Approx 120 Min
Two quick things things: First, I like this better that Azul, but I think this game lands closer to “advanced” rather than “beginner”, as it should because there is a pretty big jump in time commitment. It’s hard to name something the winner of mid-weight, when many would consider it heavy. Second, I think it’s important to note that I am not much of a Star Wars person, so my opinion here is independent of the theme. (That’s being said, if you love Star Wars, you will like this.) But while I think that the theme may help with its popularity, I believe that it’s gameplay is more impressive than the theme, because at its core is a very good pick-up-and-deliver game. Players take on the role of smugglers picking up contraband, dodging the empire, and delivering the goods to planets within the Star Wars universe. If you like Star Wars, or if you like pick-up-and-deliver style games, do yourself a favor and check this one out.
Best Advanced Game
So, you like board games? Cool, me too! Check these out. I hope you like Shem Phillips.
Paladins of the West Kingdom (Renegade Game Studios) –
1-4 Players | Ages 12+ | Approx 45 Min per player
Remember me telling you about that Shem Phillips guy up there under the entry level game Nocitiluca? He did this one too. Shem Phillips has quickly become one of my favorite board game designers – in part to his ability to design everything from lightly-theme abstract games, to heavy euro-inspired worker placement games – but also because he just makes good games period. The designer of the North Seas Trilogy (all of which are great games and highly recommended), Phillips embarked on the West Kingdom Trilogy in 2019, with the latest entry, Paladins of the West Kingdom, being the heaviest to date. Players work to fortify the city from invading forces and increase their influence throughout the kingdom. The player with the most victory points at the end of the game wins.
Architects of the West Kingdom (Renegade Game Studios) –
1-5 Players | Ages 12+ | Approx 30 Min per player
Remember me telling you about that Shem Phillips guy up there under the entry level game Nocitiluca and heavy game Paladins of the West Kingdom? He did this one too. The predecessor to Paladins, Architects has players building the cities that you later protect in Paladins. Architects has a little less euro-feel than Paladins, and could be described as more “point-salady”, but if you like that type of worker placement (and/or if you enjoyed Phillips’ Raiders of the North Sea) you will enjoy playing Architects. It is worth noting that you do not have to play Architects prior to playing Paladins. They share the same universe, but are ultimately independent games.
While you can pick up most of these titles at PB&J Games, it’s important to remember that games existed prior to 2019 and PB&J offers so many great games aside from just the 2019 titles I mentioned – Castles of Burgundy, Stone Age, T.I.M.E Stories, Ticket to Ride, Near and Far, Raiders of the North Sea, Indian Summer, 7 Wonders, Power Grid, and on and on – are all fantastic games and available in-store. There are many great games to find and I wish you best of luck with finding them, and the new releases, in 2020.