This is our third 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 #30 to #21 on our list.
— Chris Wray, May 2018
#30 – 1846: THE RACE FOR THE MIDWEST
Designed by Tom Lehman, Released 2005
Joe Huber: The 18xx series of games, going back to Tresham’s 1829, has a small but devoted group of advocates. Many more have interest in exploring the genre – after all, those who enjoy the games often greatly enjoy the games – but the length is often offputting. And while a number of shorter/easier 18xx games have been designed, most of them don’t hold up with the devotees, making them harder to get the experienced players to teach.
1846 is one exception to this rule. The game is typically about one-half to two-thirds of the length of a standard 18xx game, and also simplifies the learning curve by starting the game with a draft, rather than the more common auction. Add in a more limited number of public companies and a smaller map, and many features are well suited to drawing the beginner in. At the same time, the reasonably large number of private companies (10) combine with the public companies with sufficient variety to remain a hit with many seasoned fans. Add in the recent reprint from GMT, and it’s not surprising that this has become a popular choice for the track-laying, train-operating soul of many gamers.
1846 – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Alan How, Joe H. Craig M.
- I like it. James Nathan
- Neutral. Matt C.
- Not for me…
#29 – GHOST FIGHTIN’ TREASURE HUNTERS
Designed by Brian Yu, Released 2013
Chris Wray: Brian Yu’s cooperative game was a hit in Germany under under the name Geister, Geister, Schatzsuchmeister! before it was later released in the United States as Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters. Today it stands out as one of the most accessible cooperative titles available.
Players take on the role of treasure hunters exploring a haunted house. The treasure hunters win if they get all eight jewels and escape from the house before it becomes overrun by ghosts. To do so, they roll a dice to move about the mansion, but their dice roll may also end up adding ghosts to the mansion’s rooms!
If a player lands in a space with a treasure, they can pick up, and if they land in a space with a ghost, they have the opportunity to fight it. And fighting becomes necessary at a point, because if three ghosts accumulate in a room, there is a dreaded and challenging haunting that requires at least two players to prevail.
Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters is challenging and strategic fun. It can be played by children, but this game is difficult enough that even experienced gamers can have difficulty winning. Teamwork is an absolute must, but everybody can join in the game, as Brian Yu’s creation is streamlined and accessible. Throw in the excellent component quality and artwork, and it is easy to see why this won the Kinderspiel des Jahres in 2013.
Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters- Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Mark Jackson, James Nathan, Dale Y, Tery Noseworthy, John P., Matt C., Brian L.
- I like it. Jeff Allers, Doug G., Lorna, Larry
- Neutral. Joe H., Greg S., Nathan Beeler
- Not for me…
#28 – SHOWMANAGER
Designed by Dirk Henn, Released 1996
Joe Huber: Showmanager has, perhaps, the best rule of any game – for 2000 marks (well, in the original Queen edition, at least), you can say “I can’t work with these actors!”, and sweep them from the board. As many times as you want and can afford. As a practical matter, since you’ll have to pay to add most actors to your team, is not that many times – but it’s both satisfying to do and even more fun to cheer for others to waste their money on. Particularly when the set of actors is particularly unappealing, and you’re the one in line to take an actor next.
Eventually, you’ll put together a troupe of actors, and put on one of the four shows. Oddly, in Showmanager each city wants to see a production of just one show, but a half-dozen versions of the show. Put on the best version, and you’ll win acclaim; put on a dog, and maybe you can at least pull a The Producers and wring money from it as it’s being booed off the stage. (Unless, that is, you’re playing the original Queen release and putting on Wolf with an all-star, all-dog cast – an achievement worthy of some special award, in my book. Maybe a golden-plated bone?)
Show Manager – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Alan How, Mark Jackson, Craig M., Joe H., Tery Noseworthy, Greg S., Patrick Korner, Brian L., Nathan Beeler
- I like it. Dale Y, Jeff Allers, Patrick Brennan, Michael W, John P, Doug G., Larry
- Neutral. Matt C.
- Not for me…
#27 – HEROSCAPE
Designed by Stephen Baker, Rob Daviau, Craig Van Ness, Released 2004
Mark Jackson: “There’s a lot more here than just pretty bits – but it’s still easy to get lost in the “shock & awe” of the massive brick of terrain and the great figures. Undergirding that, however, are two solid game systems (basic & master), fast gameplay, a perfect sense of playing to its audience (throwing together LOTR, the Matrix, Viking hordes, dragons, the Terminator films), and the ability to create a wide variety of interesting scenarios.
“This is what Duel of Ages or Epic Duels want to be when they grow up.”
So, that’s what our own Frank “Moo” Branham wrote upon the release of the original box of Heroscape… and what followed was six years of expansions that filled out a Ready Player One-like universe of iconic fantasy, sci-fi and geek culture archetypes – and allowed players to create a multitude of different ways to play: straight combat, capture the flag, defensive stands, death races, etc. In the process, both Marvel Comics and Dungeons & Dragons were sucked into the system, with varying degrees of success. (Marvel didn’t work, but the D&D stuff was actually pretty good.)
Now out of print, the game continues to inspire a legion of fans to keep developing new characters & squads… and to keep fighting the eternal battle.
Heroscape – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Mark Jackson, Matt C.
- I like it. Alan How, Jeff Allers
- Neutral. Craig M., Joe H., James Nathan, Dale Y, Patrick Brennan, Tery Noseworthy, Greg S., John P
- Not for me… Nathan Beeler
#26 – LORD OF THE RINGS
Designed by Reiner Knizia, Released 2000
Nathan Beeler: Lord of the Rings was the first co-op game I can remember playing. It may, in fact, be the first Euro-style co-op ever published. In my book, it is most definitely still the one to rule them all. The once novel game play was a revelation when it first hit the table nearly twenty years ago. Even now, after the Kumbaya thing has been done to death and left to rot like some hippy’s broken guitar on the stairs, the original Knizia design still holds up quite well. The challenge of slam dunking the ring in the fiery pools of Mount Doom still takes all the resources of all the players (sometimes even the hitherto lesser known fifth hobbit, Fatty), as well as some clever moments of self sacrifice. This never fails to make for close calls and memorable gaming experiences. The wonderful John Howe art and the top notch components also help keep the overly comfortable setting fresh. Put the soundtrack on in the background, sit down with four other Middle Earthers, and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic evening.
Lord of the Rings – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Alan How, Mark Jackson, Craig M., Matt C.
- I like it. Jeff Allers, Patrick Brennan, John P, Patrick Korner, Doug G., Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Larry
- Neutral. Joe H., Tery Noseworthy, Greg S.
- Not for me… Dale Y
#25 – HANABI
Designed by Antoine Bauza, Released 2010 (Game History)
Chris Wray: Hanabi is a cooperative game in which players try to create a fireworks display by placing cards on the table in the proper order.
The card deck in the basic game consists of five different colors of cards (red, blue, green, yellow, white), numbered 1–5 in each color. There are three 1s of each color; two 2s, 3s, and 4s; and one 5. The cards are held outward, meaning you can’t see them, but the other players can. To play cards into the fireworks display, 1s must go down first, then 2s, and so on. On a player’s turn, they may do one of three things: (1) Give a clue (sometimes called “hints”). This involves telling one player either a “number” clue or a “color” clue for all of the cards of the chosen number or color in their hand. (2) Play a card into the fireworks display. The player announces this, and if the play is legal, the player puts it into the display. If not, one of the fuses (sometimes called “storm tokens”) is used. The team only gets three of these before they lose the game. If a 5 card is successfully played, the team gets a clue flipped back over. (3) Discard a card. This card will then permanently leave the game. The team then gets a clue flipped back over.
This continues until the team either wins — by getting the 5 card in all five colors — or the game ends. The team can lose by running out of fuses, but the game can also end if the deck runs out. If the deck does run out, all players get one last turn before the game ends.
Hanabi is a tense deduction game, and players who enjoy it tend to become addicted to it. It fixes the “alpha gamer” problem present in so many co-ops, and it forces you to see the game state from the perspective of other players. Hanabi rewards repeated play with the same persons.
Hanabi won the 2013 Spiel des Jahres. The game has had several different versions, which I detailed in an article last year.
Melissa: One issue that I have encountered with people who play Hanabi a lot is the conventions that spring up. For them, these add to the experience – but as someone who doesn’t use them, they add an additional layer of rules and simplify some of the deliciously tense decisions around what to play or discard. I’ve used Hanabi in my boardgame research because it plays reasonably quickly; it’s always interesting to see how people use the cards and/or tiles and their bodies to help them remember critical information.
Hanabi – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Patrick Brennan, Michael W, Patrick Korner, Matt C., Brian L.
- I like it. Alan How, Craig M., Joe H., James Nathan, Jeff Allers, Tery Noseworthy, Greg S., Melissa, Lorna, Larry
- Neutral. John P, Doug G., Fraser, Nathan Beeler
- Not for me… Mark Jackson, Dale Y
#24 – PANDEMIC LEGACY SEASON 1
Designed by Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock, Released 2015
Chris Wray: Pandemic Legacy is a campaign version of Pandemic, a game in which players are disease-fighting specialists who must cure four diseases that have broken out across the world. Just as in Pandemic, on each turn, a player can use their actions to travel between cities, treat infected populaces, discover a cure, or build a research station. They get cards that can help with this mission, but the team has to work quickly: the disease is spreading, and sometimes when you flip a card, you get a terrible outbreak in a new city. Each player has a unique role on the team giving them a special ability, and using their powers, the players must work together to save the world.
What makes Pandemic Legacy unique is that it is played over a 12-month campaign. Players move onto the next month if they win that month or lose twice, so the campaign goes between 12 and 24 games. Over the course of the campaign, players will make their board unique, as their decisions will affect future plays. They can give their characters upgrades, alter the map, and receiving funding to help them in future endeavors.
The game was released in October 2015, and just a few months later, it became BGG’s #1 game, a title it held until this year. Daviau and Leacock designed the game to tell a story, and gamers adored the campaign-style narrative arc, which is complete with surprise-filled boxes with each victory-or-defeat. A second season of the game was released last year, and that version has also received critical acclaim.
Patrick K: Epic and cinematic in scope in a way that has seldom been seen before or since.
Pandemic Legacy – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Mark Jackson, James Nathan, Patrick Brennan, Greg S., Patrick Korner, Lorna, Larry
- I like it. Tery Noseworthy, Michael W, Matt C.
- Not for me… Craig M., Dale Y, John P
#23 – CODENAMES
Designed by Vlaada Chvátil, Released 2015
Chris Wray: Codenames is among the newest games to make our list. Codenames took the board game world by storm in late 2015, quickly selling hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of copies.
Two teams play around a 5×5 grid of 25 words. Each team has a “spymaster” who knows which words belong to his or her team, and on his or her team’s turn, he will offer a clue and the number of cards in the grid it applies to. For example, if two of the words were “drill” and “car,” the captain might say “oil two,” meaning the clue is “oil” and it can apply to two of the cards. The captain’s team must guess at least one clue, but they are free to guess the number of cards the clue applies to, plus one extra. However, if they inadvertently point to one of the cards belonging to their opponent, their turn ends. To ramp up the tension, there are words to avoid, especially the dreaded “assassin” card, which the game ends immediately (and your team loses).
Codenames is a thinking man’s party game, but with laugh-out-loud or high-five-your-teammates fun. Though the box advertises 2-8 players, you could play with a larger crowd. Codenames has a lot going for it: how quickly it plays, how easy it is to teach, how tense it is, and how it appeals to both gamers and non-gamers alike.
In 2016, Codenames won the Spiel des Jahres.
Larry: Brilliant creation. My favorite thing about it is that it’s such a versatile game. It shines with casual players, experienced players, adults, kids, families, and mixed groups, and works as a highly competitive 4-player game or as a rollicking party-style game with 6, 8, or more. Few things are more satisfying than seeing a high numbered clue; unless it’s guessing one!
Codenames – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris Wray, Alan How, Craig M., James Nathan, Dale Y, Jeff Allers,Patrick Brennan, Michael W, John P, Patrick Korner, Doug G., Matt C., Brian L., Larry
- I like it. Mark Jackson, Joe H., Greg S., Fraser, Melissa, Nathan Beeler
- Neutral. Tery Noseworthy, Lorna
- Not for me…
#22 – FOR SALE
Designed by Stefan Dorra, Released 1997
Chris Wray: In For Sale, players are buying and selling real estate to make the greatest possible profit. Each player starts with $18,000 (in 3-4 player games) or $14,000 (in 5-6 player games). The game then proceeds in two phases, using two different decks: the property deck and the currency deck. During the first phase, players are bidding on properties from the property deck, which has cards ranging from 1 (a cardboard box) to 30 (a German castle). A number of these properties are flipped up, and then players bid, with the higher bids earning the better cards.
When that phase is over, players will sell the property cards, hopefully for a gain. During this second phase, players are trying to get currency cards, which range in value from $0 to $15,000. A number of these are flipped up, and players bid with their properties, with the higher properties earning the better currency cards. The player with the most money at the end wins!
For Sale is a simple-yet-effective auction game. Players must manage their money wisely, and outwit their opponents with clever bluffing and bidding. Like most games on this list, For Sale accommodates a wide range of audiences at a variety of different player counts. With its short playtime, intuitive mechanics, and fun theme, it is easy to see why For Sale is such a hit.
Uberplay released a revised edition in 2005 and the subsequent English-language versions by Eagle-Gryphon have all used these later rules.
Larry: Maybe the best super-short filler ever created. It still gets plenty of play in my group, more than 20 years after its original publication.
For Sale – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Craig M., Joe H., James Nathan, Michael W, John P, Patrick Korner, Matt C., Fraser
- I like it. Chris Wray, Alan How, Mark Jackson, Dale Y, Jeff Allers, Patrick Brennan, Tery Noseworthy, Greg S., Doug G., Brian L., Nathan Beeler, Lorna
- Neutral. Melissa
- Not for me…
#21 – SMALL WORLD
Designed by Philippe Keyaerts, Released 2009
Chris Wray: Small World is a fantasy-themed follow up to Philippe Keyaerts’s Vinci. Fantasy races such as wizards, amazonas, orcs, giants, and others attempt to occupy a land that is too small for them. On their turn, they use their forces to attack and occupy adjacent territory, earning gold (i.e. points) for the lands that they capture and hold. When their troops spread too thin, they can go into decline, with each player being allowed to have on race in decline at a time. Races in decline continue to earn gold, but they’re easily attacked, and eventually they’ll be wiped from the face of the map.
Small World comes with more than a dozen races, but it also comes with 20 special powers which can be paired with each race. These race/power are combinations are drafted, but the newer one cost gold to obtain, so the game becomes about finding the right sets and grabbing them by going into decline at the right time. The game is played over a predetermined number of rounds, and the player with the most gold at the end wins.
Days of Wonder’s artwork and production value is stunning, and thanks to countless expansions, the game is highly replayable. Small World has been an enormous commercial success, becoming one of the staples of fighting and negotiation games. The game also has a popular digital adaptation.
Small World – Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Greg S., Matt C., Brian L., Nathan Beeler
- I like it. Chris Wray, Alan How, Mark Jackson, Jeff Allers, Patrick Brennan, Tery Noseworthy, Michael W, Fraser, Melissa
- Neutral. Craig M., James Nathan, Dale Y, John P, Patrick Korner, Doug G., Lorna, Larry
- Not for me…
OTHER ENTRIES IN THE “50 MODERN CLASSICS” SERIES: