I have recently had the pleasure of playing board games with a number of folks that are relatively new to the hobby, and it has me thinking about the foundations of contemporary strategy board games. Having been completely hooked on these games since the mid-1990s, I often mistakenly assume that everyone has a similar frame of reference. So I am repeatedly amazed at many people’s unfamiliarity with the games that I see as foundational.
I’ve been struck speechless when finding that people who are otherwise very familiar with games from the past few years are nevertheless entirely unfamiliar with the likes of Nexus Ops, Princes of Florence, or Tigris & Euphrates. And yet, those games are not on the list below. Neither are Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, both of which are of course foundational in their own way. The games below represent my view of the core pantheon that undergirds modern strategy board gaming. The Nine, if you will. These are the games that I recommend just about everyone try in order to better understand developments of the past 25 years, and where the latest hotness on Kickstarter truly originates. These are games that came without ornate artwork, shiny pieces, or custom stretch goals; these are games that managed to thrive on simply their rules and gameplay alone. Over the course of two decades, the ideas promulgated in these forerunners have flourished by subtly seeping into thousands upon thousands of successor designs across the globe.
- Settlers of Catan (Klaus Teuber, 1995)
- Carcassonne (Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, 2000)
- Ticket to Ride (Alan Moon, 2004)
We live in a golden age of strategy board gaming, and these are the clear gateways to that paradise. I have long said that the world would truly be a better place if every household had a copy of each of these three games, instead of the likes of Monopoly, Life, Risk, or Clue.
While it may be popular these days to bash older games like Settlers, the hobby simply wouldn’t exist in its current state were it not for the legacy of these titles.
These three games combine accessible rules with engaging gameplay in a truly magical way that captures the attention of anyone and everyone that stumbles upon them. When you first experience one of these games, it’s like emerging from a profound desert into an unimagined oasis. These games give you choices and agency that traditional American games deny. These games are mercifully short in a way that is completely unfamiliar to anyone coming from older mainstream board games. These games represent the pinnacle of the foundational pantheon.
Each of these games takes something familiar and makes it its own. The negotiation and haggling in Settlers of Catan, the jigsaw puzzle feeling of Carcassonne, and the rummy nature of Ticket to Ride are all familiar. And yet, the simplicity of each game belies emergent gameplay that can fascinate and delight new gamers in an unrivaled manner.
If you’ve begun to doubt the profoundly unique power of these three titles over the years, then try them again while teaching them to someone new. After all these years, they retain their power. And over the course of all these years, they have spread their wings by influencing and shaping just about everything that has come since.
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you
And you’ll blow us all away
–Dear Theodosia (Hamilton)
- Pandemic (Matt Leacock, 2008)
- Dominion (Donald Vaccarino, 2008)
- Caylus (William Attia, 2005)
The second tier is a close finish behind the first. These games expand the circle to include additional core developments and mechanisms that have dramatically shaped and reshaped the hobby. These are the Athena, Artemis, and Apollo to the first tier’s Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.
Pandemic was the launching point for hundreds of cooperative strategy games that followed from dozens of designers worldwide. While some will fault me for including Pandemic rather than Lord of the Rings (Reiner Knizia, 2000), given that the latter preceded Pandemic as a cooperative strategy game, I credit Pandemic for ultimately popularizing and propagating the trend. The cooperative floodgates opened after Pandemic and the genre is still going incredibly strong over a decade later. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the extraordinary rise of this type of game in 2008, but it has become more popular and prevalent than we ever could have imagined. As it turns out, and what we needed Matt Leacock to show us, is that there are simply times when you want to work with your friends and family, and these are the types of games that we didn’t know we needed until they came along.
Dominion also exploded onto the scene in 2008 and was imitated more quickly than just about any other game. If you subscribe to the old cliché, then the flattery for this one was rampant. The speed with which Thunderstone and Ascension repurposed the core innovation of Dominion was startling. By 2008, we had reached a point where online communications, instant translations, and international shipping had made the spread of gaming trends notably faster than the late 1990s or early 2000s. The perfect storm spread this one far and wide seemingly overnight. The breadth of contexts in which in-game deck-building has been deployed continue to be remarkable, from Mage Knight to A Few Acres of Snow to Clank to Penny Arcade to Star Realms to Great Western Trail and far, far beyond.
I cannot imagine a modern strategy board gamer not trying Pandemic and Dominion, and I’ll round out this second circle of board gaming heaven with Caylus. While Keydom (Richard Breese, 1998) is certainly the grandfather of worker placement, Caylus is the supernova. Caylus in 2005 was the first time that I ever recall an Essen release selling out on pre-orders. Pre-ordering was hardly a thing before then, but the demand far exceeded supply for this star, and the imitations followed in short order… Pillars of the Earth, Leonardo da Vinci, Age of Empires III, Agricola, Tribune: Primus Inter Pares, Toledo, Stone Age, Viticulture, etc. While you’re of course free to personally prefer any of those or the many that have come since, it’s worth remembering where it all started and why it’s nigh impossible to get through a game night these days without placing a worker or two.
While each of these three games is more complicated than the first tier, each showcases a pivotal turning point in the evolution of the hobby, and each has ably demonstrated that it can stand the test of time as the seed for an idea that has since flourished worldwide.
- Auction Trilogy: Modern Art, Medici, Ra (Reiner Knizia, 1992)
- El Grande (Wolfgang Kramer / Richard Ulrich, 1995)
- Risk Legacy (Rob Daviau, 2011)
I’ll widen the circle here to include three additional core mechanisms that have flourished for years across the hobby — auctions, area control, and legacy. We are now entering the third circle of foundational strategy games.
The number of strategy board games that include an auction in one form or another must number in the thousands at this point, but they can almost all trace their roots back to the groundbreaking work of Reiner Knizia. Every few years, he gave us a new incarnation of this essential method of asset valuation and distribution, starting with the seminal Modern Art in 1992. While debates over everyone’s favorites among these three titles will rage for decades (if not centuries) to come, I submit that any and all strategy board game hobbyists ought to at the very least try all three. The later releases of Medici and Ra cemented Knizia’s permanent place as the progenitor of auction games. The breadth of contexts in which the mechanism has been deployed is a testament to the impact of these games and their multitude of auction innovations.
Similarly, area control games (also known as area majority, or more accurately as area plurality) have taken on countless forms in the past 25 years, but anyone enjoying modern games should really find four friends and seek out El Grande. 2008 was obviously a remarkable year for gaming, and 1995 clearly was too. The lessons you can learn from wrapping your head around El Grande, including its plurality competitions, province-court dichotomy, and tie-breaking methodology, will serve you well in approaching innumerable contemporary games.
Just as games far and wide have implemented and re-implemented auctions and area control competitions in myriad ways, the number of games attempting to import a “legacy” feature in one way or another is growing by leaps and bounds. This newest of entries in the foundational pantheon (a mere 9 years old) earns its place in part on the prospective flourishing of its central innovation. Before 2011, no one really talked about board games having a “memory” that would cause them to change based on how you played them. That was the domain of role-playing games and video games. After 2011, love it or hate it, people became enraptured by the idea that their actions and choices could have far-reaching consequences across game sessions for months to come. Just as Klaus Teuber once taught us that our decisions in games could have meaning, Rob Daviau taught us in Risk Legacy that those decisions could have a lasting impact. The fact that many folks find the limited playable timeframe for some legacy games to be distasteful does nothing to dislodge this concept from its ascendant place, given the way it has propagated like wildfire across the hobby. In fact, I expect that we’re just now seeing the beginning. As with the early imitators of Dominion (eventually moving beyond close parallels to many adaptations and incarnations further afield), we are only just starting to see designers and publishers spread their wings and experiment with the true potential and scope of the legacy concept.
- San Juan (Andreas Seyfarth, 2004)
- Can’t Stop (Sid Sackson, 1980)
- Um Reifenbreite (Rob Bontenbal, 1979)
- Tier auf Tier (Klaus Miltenberger, 2005)
Just as Greek mythology includes a startling array of more obscure divinities, so too must we look beyond our core Olympians to our Calypso, Helios, and Pan. Having charted our Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades down to our Athena, Artemis, and Apollo, we will now descend from those mountainous heights to the broader fields and fountains of gaming inspiration.
New devotees of the strategy board gaming hobby would do well to ensure that they experience tiers one, two, and three of course, but they should also find time to dabble in the wider pantheon so as to gain a more fulsome understanding of the depth and breadth of the hobby.
Andreas Seyfarth and Sid Sackson have to join the likes of Klaus, Klaus, and Wolfgang in some manner. While one could make the argument for including Puerto Rico, Manhattan, Acquire, or Sleuth instead, I submit that San Juan and Can’t Stop have had the more profound and lasting impacts (even if I personally think you can save your pennies). The essential push-your-luck game and the popularization of multi-use cards as currency have had ripple effects for many years with many designers across many countries. Newer gamers would do well to go back and see the roots of today’s hobby sprouting in these games.
Given the popularity of newer racing games, such as Flamme Rouge and Formula E, and the extension of the genre into newer terrain by games like Louis & Clark and Expedition: Northwest Passage, I feel obliged to include the whimsical Spiel des Jahres winner Um Reifenbreite. And given the incredible pervasiveness of both Haba as a publisher in the children’s sphere and of dexterity games generally, I think it’s only fair to reserve the final place in this fourth circle of gaming heaven for Tier auf Tier (even if you don’t invest the time to master both tiers). As foundational titles, these games add to the bright legacy of analog gaming and its hopefully even brighter future.
So the next time someone tells you that this game Dominion or Caylus or Pandemic feels so similar to Great Western Trail or Lords of Waterdeep or Spirit Island, effectively saying that Plato’s logic is so derivative of Aristotelian reasoning, feel free to point them here. Most contemporary games can and do find their roots somewhere in this pantheon. You certainly don’t have to like or enjoy all of these games (I definitely don’t), but I implore you to show them their due, remember their impact, spread their gospel, and appreciate their lasting contributions.