This is our fourth entry in our list of 50 modern classics, those games we think hold up as shining examples of game design over the past two decades. We discussed the aims of this list in our first entry, but in short, we are trying to identify modern classics that stand the test of time and are worth trying. You can find links to the rest of the series at the bottom of the page.
We detailed our methodology in our first entry, but to recap, each Opinionated Gamer was allowed to vote for 15 games (from a list of more than 100 nominated) released between 1995 and 2015. We left the criteria for selecting games to the individual, with my only request being that the games picked be subjectively good (i.e. the writer liked the game) and a little objective (i.e. they’re well regarded and available in the modern hobby).
Without further ado, here are the games that made #20 to #11 on our list.
— Chris Wray, May 2018
#20 – RACE FOR THE GALAXY
Designed by Tom Lehmann, Released 2007
Jeff Lingwall: Race for the Galaxy is a tableau-building, simultaneous action-selection game set in space. The mechanics are descended from Puerto Rico–players select from a hand of action cards that activate phases for all players to produce resources, trade resources for more cards, settle or conquer planets, and so on. The player that selects the phase gets a bonus, such as drawing additional cards with the explore action. The cards function as both currency and as the elements of the tableau. The theme is a descendent of Star Wars–many cards are either “Rebel” or “Imperium”, with synergy drawn from having more cards of the same type.
Race is considered by many to be a masterpiece of game design. With expansions, it plays from one to six players, in as short as ten minutes, with amazing depth and replayability. The key to winning is often to execute multiple synergistic card combinations, while simultaneously watching the opponents’ card combinations to appropriately leech off their action selections. This is no easy task, and experienced players will crush newbies. If there is one drawback to the game, it is not very accessible. There are many icons to learn, and getting the flow of the game down can be difficult. Despite this, the speed, challenge, and satisfaction from a well-played game of Race earn it a deserving place in the pantheon.
Melissa: I’m less-than-lukewarm on this, possibly because by the time I tried it everyone already knew all the rules and icons. I’m just not good at icons, so understanding the cards felt like deciphering something mysterious. On the other hand, I adore Roll for the Galaxy and will rarely turn down a game. Perhaps it’s time to give Race another go.
Race for the Galaxy – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Joe H., Patrick Korner, Patrick Brennan, Matt C., Brian L., Mark Jackson, Nathan Beeler
- I like it. Michael W, Lorna, Larry, Tery
- Neutral. Chris Wray, James Nathan, Dale Y, Craig M., John P, Doug G., Fraser
- Not for me… Greg S., Melissa
#19 – TRAUMFABRIK (a.k.a. DREAM FACTORY)
Designed by Reiner Knizia, Released 2000
Patrick Korner: Traumfabrik is Reiner Knizia’s entry into the often-crowded ‘auction game’ genre where players bid (in the original editions this was with ‘contracts’, newer versions replaced this with cash – boring but functional) for the services of directors, actors, special effects gurus, etc., all in hopes of putting on the most impressive films. Players get randomly-assigned movies which, depending on the type of film involved, may need actors, a stirring score, perhaps even a guest star or two (later editions called these contracts for reasons best known to the publisher). In the original German edition, the movies, directors, and actors were all drawn from real life – the Hollywood Golden Age of Movies, to be precise. In later editions, to avoid trademark and copyright issues, these were substituted with more satirical versions.
The key to Traumfabrik is that, each round, you can mostly see what’s going to be available – the central board acts as a bit of a pathway, with each space containing one or more tiles to bid on, save special ‘party’ spaces where everyone gets a tile. This allows for considerable planning ahead, as long as you manage your cash on hand, which is the other key. Cash is a fully closed system, with each winning bid being equally distributed among the other players. As such, you will always be able to get what you want at some point – best make sure it’s what you need.
Once movies are fully stocked with the necessary tiles, their relative quality is scored (by counting the number of stars on the screenplay itself along with those on the tiles you’ve added). At the end of each round, the best movies produced that round score trophies – and at the end of the game, the best movies overall score once more.
A well-designed, thematic, and enjoyable game that ranks with Knizia’s finest medium-weight titles.
Traumfabrik – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Craig M., Joe H., John P, Patrick Korner, Fraser (original), Brian L. (Original), Nathan Beeler, Larry, Tery
- I like it. Dale Y, Michael W, Greg S., Doug G., Melissa, Mark Jackson, Lorna
- Neutral. Matt C.
- Not for me… Patrick Brennan
#18 – AGE OF STEAM
Designed by Martin Wallace, Released 2002 (Game History)
Chris Wray: Age of Steam was created by legendary game designer Martin Wallace in 2002. Wallace designed Lancashire Railways for Winsome Games in 1998, giving him some experience with designing train games. In 2000, after playing his first 18xx game, he got the idea for Age of Steam. “It struck me that the goods movement of Lancashire could be combined with the tile system of 18xx,” he said, “resulting in Age of Steam.”
In Age of Steam, players issue shares, auction off turn order, select special abilities, build track, and move goods. The goal of the game is move goods from one city to another, with the goods being able to be moved as many “links” allowed by the player’s position on the engine track. A good must stop movement as soon as it enters a city with the same color as the good, although because players are free to choose their route, they can intentionally avoid such cities. Each completed link increases the income of the railroad link’s owner by 1 on the income track.
After those phases, players collect their income, then pay their expenses, which are their number of shares and their position on the engine track. At the end of the game, a player’s victory points are equal to income times three, less shares times three, plus the number of track pieces.
Age of Steam is tense, with the competition for building track and shipping goods being fierce throughout. The game presents fascinating choices at each stage of gameplay, and players always agonize over how many shares to issue and what action to select. The game can be unforgiving to mistakes, but that’s part of its charm: this game is a true battle of wits.
There’s considerable depth here, and given the number of maps available, players could spend a lifetime working their way through Age of Steam’s various iterations.
Age of Steam won the International Gamers Award (Multiplayer Category) in 2003.
Larry: Age of Steam might well be the King of the Less Heavy (i.e., not 18xx) Train Games. Nevertheless, it’s still a challenging design, whether you’re struggling to avoid the “death spiral” at the beginning or trying to maximize your income at the end by setting up long deliveries. One of the greats.
Age of Steam – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, James Nathan, Dale Y, Greg S., John P, Patrick Korner, Fraser, Lorna, Larry
- I like it. Craig M., Patrick Brennan, Matt C.
- Neutral. Tery
- Not for me… Michael W, Joe H., Doug G., Brian L., Mark Jackson, Nathan Beeler
#17 – SAINT PETERSBURG
Designed by Bernd Brunhoffer, Released 2004 (Second Edition Released 2014) (Game History)
Chris Wray: St. Petersburg is a worker placement game that accommodates 2-4 players. Each player starts with 25 rubles, and over the course of the game, they’ll be buying cards that give them additional money or victory point. There are four symbols in the game, representing the four types of cards: workers (which tend to just give money), buildings (which tend to just give victory points), nobles (which give money and victory points), and exchange (which allow you to upgrade the previous three types of cards).
When buying cards, players pay the cost in the upper lefthand corner. However, they can reduce the cost if they already have the same card in their tableau or if they have the same worker symbol on worker cards. With the exception of the first worker phase of the game, there are always eight cards in the display at the start of a phase, including any unpurchased cards from previous phases and the necessary number of new cards. Cards from the current round are always in the first row; cards from the previous round are always in the second row and are available discounted by one rubble. If cards are still in the second row after the next exchange round, they are put into the discard pile. The game ends at the end of the round in which cards have run out for one of the decks. At that point, players add their existing score, subtract five points for each card in their hand, get one point for every 10 rubles (round down), and then add points for nobles. Players get points for the number of different nobles they bought. The values go up steeply: one noble earns 1 point, 2 earn 3 points, 3 earn 6 points, 4 earn 10 points, all the way up to 10 nobles, which earn 55 points.
St. Petersburg is engine building at its best. While the game is fairly easy to teach, the clever mechanics reward thinking not just about the current round, but future rounds as well. In my experience, new players rarely win at St. Petersburg because they focus too much on what is for sale in the current round and not enough on what might be for sale in a future round.
As a fun historic tidbit, St. Petersburg was designed by a legendary figure in the gaming industry, Bernd Brunnhofer, founder of Hans im Glück (HiG). As a joke, the original design was credited to Michael Tummelhofer, which was a combination of the names Michael Bruinsma (of 999 Games, HiG’s partner in the Netherlands), Jay Tummelson (of Rio Grande Games, HiG’s partner in the USA), and Brunnhofer himself.
St. Petersburg won the International Gamers Award (Multiplayer Category) and the Deutscher Spiele Preis in 2004.
Matt Carlson: When I think of St. Petersburg, I think of it as the minimalist essence of a victory point engine. You must develop your engine at the start, and then decide when to change over to pure VP production mid-game. It also offers early (blue buildings) vs late (orange nobles) scoring and has a nice dose of special power cards that can tempt a player into a new strategy when they appear.
St. Petersburg – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Joe H. (original edition), Doug G., Patrick Brennan, Matt C., Melissa, Nathan Beeler, Lorna
- I like it. James Nathan, Jeff Allers, Craig M., Greg S., Patrick Korner, Fraser, Brian L., Mark Jackson
- Neutral. Dale Y, Michael W, John P, Larry
- Not for me… Tery
#16 – EL GRANDE
Designed by Wolfgang Kramer, Richard Ulrich, Released 1995 (Game History)
El Grande is an area control game based on Spain in the 15th Century. All players represent one of five ethnic groups: Spaniards, Basques, Galiciens, Catalans, and Mauren.
In a given round, players will play cards to determine turn order and determine how many cubes they can move into their available supply: higher cards give you priority for turn order, but lower cards give you additional cubes.
The goal is to drop these into the regions on the board: scoring happens at the end of each third round, and players earn points for having the most, second-most, and third-most cubes in a given area. To do get cubes on the board, players play action cards, which allow them to place a number of cubes and take various actions. Some actions allow you to move the cubes on the board. Others allow you to place a mobile scoreboard, which changes the scoring value for each region. Others yet force other players to send cubes back from their supply. The card in the fifth stack (which is the only card in the Fifth stack) lets you move the King, the character that controls where cubes may be played.
Players can also places cubes in the famed Castillo, a large tower on the edge of the game board. During scoring, it is scored first. After that, players use their disks to secretly selection one region in which to move all of the cubes in the Castillo. Then the remaining regions are scored. The player with the highest score at the end of the game wins!
It may not have been the first area control game, but since publication it has been held up as one of the finest of the genre. It has always been high on the BGG rankings since inception, and it is easy to see why. El Grande is everything a game should be: a streamlined, intuitive, captivating experience with great presentation value and high replayability.
El Grande’s 1996 victory made it arguably the first “heavy” game to win the Spiel des Jahres, and that had an important impact on the games that were made afterwards. It also won the Deutscher Spiele Preis in 1996.
El Grande – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Greg S., Matt C., Fraser, Lorna, tery
- I like it. Jeff Allers, Craig M., John P, Patrick Korner, Doug G., Patrick Brennan, Melissa
- Neutral. James Nathan, Dale Y, Michael W, Joe H., Brian L., Mark Jackson
- Not for me… Nathan Beeler, Larry
#15 – BOHNANZA
Designed by Uwe Rosenberg, Released 1997
Uwe Rosenberg’s game about bean farming has been an enormous hit since its 1997 release. Long before Uwe designed heavy game like Agricola, he focused on card games, doing some genuinely innovative work in that space.
On a player’s turn, he plays down the first card or two from his or her hand into his or her bean fields. Cards can’t be rearranged, so this can be good or bad: if you’ve already got beans of that type, you just made your field more valuable, but if you don’t, you’ll have to uproot your progress to play down the new type. Then you flip some cards from the deck and negotiate with your fellow players: somebody’s going to take these beans, or you have to, but often times you can trade them away to advantage yourself. Finally, you draw more cards into your hand at the end of the turn.
The game is part negotiation, part hand management, and even part bluffing. There are some novel mechanics here — not being able to arrange your hand, for instance — and they combine to form a game that is both strategic and family-friendly. A game of Bohnanza often veers between laugh-out-loud fun and heated negotiation, and it always keeps the entire table engaged.
Bohnanza – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Joe H., Greg S., Patrick Brennan, Mark Jackson
- I like it. Chris Wray, Jeff Allers, Craig M., John P, Patrick Korner, Doug G., Matt, C., Fraser, Melissa, Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Larry, Tery
- Neutral. James Nathan, Dale Y
- Not for me… Michael W
#14 – TIGRIS & EUPHRATES
Designed by Reiner Knizia, Released 1997
In Tigris & Euphrates, players are building civilizations at the dawn of time, and they have four different leaders to help them: one each for farming, trading, religion, and government. Players will gather victory points in these categories by placing tiles on the game board to form civilizations. When these civilizations are merged by tile placement, there is an abstracted form of conflict to see who comes out on top.
As with many Knizia games, the most interesting part of Tigris & Euphrates is the scoring. At the end of the game, a player’s score is equal to the category where they have the fewest victory points.
Tigris & Euphrates is civilization building in abstracted form. But despite how thin the theme is under close study, the game actually feels like civilization building, and even the conflict feels real. The game is deeply strategic, and the scoring ensures that the game is always closer than it seems. For good reason, Tigris and Euphrates is considered by many to be Reiner Knizia’s masterpiece.
Tigris & Euphrates won the Deutscher Spiele Preis in 1998.
Fraser: One of the things I love about Tigris & Euphrates is that the two, three and four player games are all quite different experiences. Identical rules, but they play out very differently. I so miss the online BGG play by email notification implementation.
Tigris & Euphrates – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Michael W, Craig M., Joe H., Greg S., Patrick Korner, Patrick Brennan, Fraser, Melissa, Lorna
- I like it. Chris Wray, Jeff Allers, John P, Doug G., Larry, Brian L.
- Neutral. Matt C.
- Not for me… Dale Y, Mark Jackson, Nathan Beeler, Tery
#13 – 7 WONDERS
Designed by Antoine Bauza, Released 2010
7 Wonders is a card drafting game in which players each become the leader of one of the great cities of the ancient world. Their city gives them different advantages, and during the game, they can complete wonders unique to their city.
7 Wonders is a pure play card drafting game. The game is played over three eras, and at the start of each, players receive a hand of cards and then choose one to play, passing the the rest to the left or right, depending on the era. Cards have different costs and different functions. Some give basic resources or advanced resources (used to build later cards), give military might (used to score points at the end of the round), science (which give victory points for set collection), commercial advantages (such as money or the ability to buy resources cheaply), or even pure victory points. Instead of playing a card, a player can play it under their board to build one of their wonders, or they can discard it for three coins.
7 Wonders has been a commercial and critical success every since its release. It feels like engine building — a favorite mechanic of gamers — and the asymmetric gameplay feels balanced. It plays 3-7 players easy (and 2-players with special rules), and the game lasts only a bit longer at higher player counters, making it perfect for larger-than-average groups. Several games have attempted to replicate the card drafting success of 7 Wonders in the intervening years, but few (if any) have succeeded in building a game as well loved as Antoine Bauza’s classic.
7 Wonders won the International Gamers Award (Multiplayer Category) in 2011, as well as the Kennerspiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Preis that year. It is one of only a handful of games to have received recognition from all three major game award organizations.
7 Wonders – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Doug G., Mark Jackson
- I like it. Craig M., Greg S., John P, Patrick Brennan, Matt C., Fraser, Larry, Brian L.
- Neutral. James Nathan, Jeff Allers, Dale Y, Michael W, Patrick Korner, Melissa, Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Tery
- Not for me… Joe H.
#12 – LOST CITIES
Designed by Reiner Knizia, Released 1999 (Game History)
Chris Wray: A Lost Cities deck consists of 60 cards: 9 cards (numbered from 2-10) for each of five destinations plus 3 “investment” cards for each destination. At the start of the game the deck is shuffled and each player is dealt eight cards, which he can look at throughout the game.
On a player’s turn, he must play or discard a card from his or her hand and then draw back up to eight cards. Each player has a stack (an “expedition”) for each destination, and cards can only be played in increasing value. Investment cards can only be played before all numbered cards for that destination. For example, once a player has played a 2, 3, and 5, he cannot go back and play a 4, nor can he play an investment card. As an alternative to playing a card, a player may discard it to the spaces in the center of the table, although as noted below, doing so can be risky since his or her opponent may draw it. When replenishing a hand, a player may either draw from the card stack or from any of the face-up discarded cards. Once this is complete, the next player’s turn begins. This proceeds until the last card is taken from the draw stack, at which point the game ends immediately. Players can strategically postpone this by drawing from the discarded cards.
To determine the winner, each stack is scored separately and then all of the stacks are added together. The “fame points” (i.e. the numbers on the cards) within an expedition are all added up, and then twenty points are deducted for starting the expedition (meaning the total fame points can be negative). Expeditions not started by the players are worth zero (meaning the twenty point deduction only is applied to expeditions that are started). If a player has 1, 2, or 3 investment cards on the stack, the result is then multiplied by 2, 3, or 4, respectively. Each expedition with 8 or more cards gets an extra bonus of 20 points, which is not multiplied by the investment values. The player with the highest score wins the game.
Lost Cities is surely a classic, and it deserves a spot in many game collections. It is a short but tense two player game, and I see why Dr. Knizia loves when fans call it “the ultimate spouse game.” There’s a great deal of strategy in Lost Cities. Sure, there’s some luck mixed in, but managing your hand — and deciding when to pursue an expedition — make the game fascinating. The game is tough (even frustrating at times) because the best laid plans for great expeditions are often dashed early in the game. The investment cards add a push-your-luck element to the game, since they often must be placed early before you have adequate information about your ability to score enough points on the expedition.
Lost Cities inspired several spinoff games, which Opinionated Gamer Luke Hedgren recounted in an article about the game’s family.
Lost Cities won the International Gamers Award (2-player Category) in 2000.
Lost Cities – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Jeff Allers, Greg S., Patrick Korner, Doug G., Patrick Brennan, Fraser, Melissa, Mark Jackson
- I like it. James Nathan, Michael W, Craig M., Joe H., John P, Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Tery, Brian L.
- Neutral. Dale Y, Matt C., Larry
- Not for me…
#11 – WEB OF POWER
Designed by Michael Schacht, Released 2000
Lorna: Web of Power is a light-middle weight area control/area influence game where players are trying to gain power placing cloisters and advisors throughout Europe. It was later reimplemented by China and Han.
In the original game you have a hand of 3 cards. Most cards represent two countries but France has its own card. Players usually play one to two cards, based on country, allowing placement of cloisters equal to the number of cards played along routes. Once at least one cloister has been placed, a country is open to advisor placement which can be placed instead of cloisters. The number of advisors is limited to the total number on cloisters of the current majority player. Placement is limited to one country per turn. Two cards may be played as a joker with a total of 3 cards then allowed on a turn. Players can also discard a card with playing a piece. Players then refill from two face up cards and the deck if three cards are needed.
The game has two scoring phases. Once after the deck runs out the first time and the second after the second time through the deck. Having the most cloisters in a country during scoring gives points equal to the total number of monasteries in the country. Second place scores the number of first place monasteries and so forth. During the second scoring cloisters are scored again. In addition advisors and chains are also scored. Countries have alliances indicated by boxed numbers on borders, if a player has the most advisors in each country they will score points equal to the total number of advisors in both countries. There is no second place scoring for advisors. Chains are scored if a player has four or more cloisters in a line (no branching) and scores one point for each cloister.
Web of Power is a great game. I prefer it with three players as there is a bit more opportunity for strategic play. With more the game leans more heavily on tactics. I don’t believe there is a dominant strategy. The game plays quickly enough to be a filler or play a few games in a row to make up a meatier evening. The challenge is making the most of your hand. Some of the key rules that make the choices interesting are that the first play into a country can only be one cloister. So you can open a country allowing other players moves but this can also be strategic if you feel you can gain majority. Also not all the countries have alliances with every border country. Since placement of advisors in a single can allow scoring for multiple alliances this is important to realize. Finally the game is interesting because to score more you need to have other players to join you. I prefer the first incarnation over the changes made to the game later which seemed to decrease the decision making.
Web of Power – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Dale Y, Michael W, Craig M., Joe H., John P, Patrick Korner, Doug G., Patrick Brennan, Melissa, Mark Jackson, Lorna, Tery
- I like it. Chris Wray, Jeff Allers, Greg S., Larry
- Neutral. Nathan Beeler
- Not for me…
OTHER ENTRIES IN THE “50 MODERN CLASSICS” SERIES: