The 40 Most Popular Board Games, According to Ranker – Part Two
Quick – What is a Nurdle? Is it:
A.) A tiddlywink which is close to, but not inside the pot?
B.) A candy bar from the 1970s that included chocolate and beef jerky as ingredients?
C.) The marking left on trees by bears sharpening their claws?
D.) The person who sweeps peanut shells out of the gallery after a vaudeville performance?
We just played a round of Balderdash. Except, in Balderdash, the bogus answers are imagineered by your friends. And your friends know you, and know you know nothing about American football and are happy to invent impossible plays, for example, claiming that a cheerleader can recover a fumble and score a touchdown, all to see if you’re foolish enough to select it. The most modern implementation of the game, Beyond Balderdash, adds the categories of people, movies, dates, and acronyms to the mix. My gut reaction is to yell, ‘That’s not the game I loved as a teenager!’, but let’s be honest. My teenage self was an idiot. Fake vocab is tiring and I’m sure mixing things up helps.
Balderdash is a party game with resiliency. Resilient enough to support the television show Balderdash on PAX TV for two years, as well as providing the basis for an NPR quiz show for nineteen years and running called ‘Says You!’. But if there are no lexophiles at your next party, Balderdash won’t carry. According to a 2005 Princeton study, extemporaneously elongated palaver makes people think you’re stupid (no matter how intelligent it makes the word gargler feel.) That’s because the bigger your words, the harder it is to follow your message. The less other people can follow your message, the less they believe you know what you’re talking about, and the dumber you sound. So much for hyperbolic erudition. Perhaps non-wordies innately understood this principal all along, and that’s why Balderdash missed this list by a proboscis, coming in at #41 in Ranker’s top board game list.
In The 40 Most Popular Board Games, According to Ranker – Part One, mindless ‘roll and move’ mechanics flooded the chart. Not my favorite subject, but a reasonable reminder of the nostalgic tug that many adults think of when you say ‘board game’. These pre-school pastimes are not an omen of what’s to come. Instead, spots 35 through 31 provide us with a number of thinkers: games that mix logic with the ability to read and outwit your opponents. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Number 35: Cosmic Encounter
Positive Votes 790
Negative Votes 616
Fifty alien races vie for control of the galaxy. Players assume one of these races, settling colonies on enemy planets and squeezing the opposition to the outer edges of space.
Since each race comes with personal special weaknesses and abilities, the replayability of Cosmic Encounter is very high. If you only played four-player games and insisted that each player play with a race no one played before, it would take twelve games to exhaust your options. The real beauty of this game, however, is how certain races interact with others in strange and unexpected ways. Counting 4-player games only, you would need to play 5,522,200 games to play every 4-way combination possible. Assuming the play time of each of these games averaged 90 minutes, it would almost take a millennium with no breaks to finish playing every iteration of Cosmic Encounter. Maybe you can spend the extra 29.1 years before the millennium closes out to write about your experiences. Assuming, of course, that you spend 20.9 years going to the bathroom first.
Cosmic Encounters first released in 1977 with only six alien races. But at the time, the idea of ‘exception based rules’, or a default set of rules that could be superseded by other rules (in this case, the rules of each individual race) was unheard of. Exception based rules, however, would continue to influence a number of flavorful games where the experience would be greater than the box the game came in. The team of designers who made Cosmic Encounter stole EBRs from their own game to give more punch to their follow-up Dune, in which each player assumes a faction from Frank Herbert’s novel of deadly trade alliances, playing by their own rules to assure the spice would flow. In his game, Illuminati, Steve Jackson found it challenging to package the sheer volume of crazy that conspiracy theorists hypothesized when talking about secret organizations bent on world domination. So he stole a page from Cosmic Encounter’s rulebook and assigned each player a different organization intent on subversive global domination (such as the Servants of Cthulhu or the Gnomes of Zürich) and gave each of these societies special powers and unique victory conditions. By the time Richard Garfield designed Magic: the Gathering in 1993, EBRs were common implements in the game designer’s toolbox. But he still found Cosmic Encounters fascinating, and inspired by that design, created a card game where each player owned different decks whose cards could be changed between games. One could say that Cosmic Encounter was not only responsible for increasing the replayability of games while providing more evocative and flavorful play, but was also the driving force behind the entire collectible card game industry.
Number 34: Mastermind
Positive Votes: 717
Negative Votes: 641
The board is ugly. The pieces are a disturbing riot of colors slathered across a battleship gray board. There is no backdrop or flavor; no explanation for what you are doing or why. Mastermind isn’t even a strategy game between two equals. One person plays at a time, while the other tallies that player’s progress. But if any game could make you feel like a James Bond villain, it’s this one.
That wonderful sensation of manipulative control helps to appease in your role as glorified bookkeeper. As the game master, your job is to align four stones. Your opponent is doing the true deductive work, figuring out which colored stones belong in what order based on the limited information you’re required to give them. But if you don’t spend every second chiding your arch-nemesis’ failings and belittling their successes, then you aren’t playing the game right.
Mastermind is great fun for maybe fifteen minutes. Then it gets old, fast. The problem with Mastermind is there’s no break from the continuous deductive reasoning, and nothing to pull you back once you lose interest. That’s fine. It’s still fun to play for those fifteen minutes. And it’s easy to dump everything back in the box so you can get back doing something you really love; slowly lowering your arch-nemesis into a glass tank of flesh-eating ants while you reveal key details of your genius master plan. You know. Now that they have no chance of escaping.
Number 33: Battlestar Galactica
Positive Votes: 863
Negative Votes: 694
Rogue machines hunt the last vestiges of life in the Universe, the space cruiser Galactica. While dodging the external threat of Raiders launched from Cylon Basestars, the crew, torn by factional beliefs in a time of desperate measures, must also contend with skin-jobs, cylon androids built to look and respond as human in order to infiltrate their ranks and irrecoverably shred humanity’s last hope of survival.
I’m sure many of these votes came from people who picked the game up due to the popularity of the multiple award winning television series. What a delight it must have been to find their purchase bought on a whim features incredibly robust and complex gameplay as well as an excellent prop for intense social interaction, all of which is supported by a direct translation of the premise of the show. Battlestar Galactica cruises through space on a mission to reach fabled planet Earth. While the crew rush throughout the ship to prevent the loss of vital resources, sudden overwhelming enemy forces overtake the cruiser. To jury-rig solutions, the players throw cards of varying value into a pool, which is shuffled face down then revealed. Perhaps it would be easy for the players to overcome these challenges by working together… if it wasn’t for the presence of a skin-job; one of the players is secretly working with the game to destroy the Galactica. If the ship is destroyed, the traitor wins. And if enough players play, then a sleeper agent awakens: a person who was playing the game as one of the humans will discover, halfway through the game, that they are a cylon and must also secretly work to destroy the humans.
Games where one of the players is a traitor is nothing new. See also: Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Shadows Over Camelot. But few games thematically nailed the role of a traitor in a way Battlestar did. Its as if the mechanic was created in the board game industry explicitly for this game. Battlestar also features the perfect level of complexity. It’s almost too much information for players in their first play-through, but not quite. If you hold subtle biases against players based on their gender or background, you’re in for a nasty surprise. One of the best defences for a cylon is “Oh! I didn’t understand!” or “Why is everyone suddenly picking on me?!” Watch out. I’ve seen more than one game go to a two-faced n00b who wiped the floor with experienced gamers who should have known better.
Number 32: King of Tokyo
Positive Votes – 714
Negative Votes – 423
Screw Magic: the Gathering. Richard Garfield Ph.D. doesn’t need his generation defining game to break into the forty. Give this guy a stick, a piece of string, two lug nuts, and a month worth of development and he’ll come screaming back with a multiple award winning family classic. I want to watch a television series involving Richard Garfield in complex, MacGyver-style conundrums that can only be solved using strategies he previously employed in his game design. Dan Harmon, if you’re listening, this idea’s on me (I should probably edit that to read “if you’re reading this”, but I prefer to imagine Dan Harmon reads the internet by hiring a Greek chorus complete with tragicomic masks to sing out blog posts.)
In King of Tokyo, you and your giant monster friends play king of the hill with the all-too-jaded city of Tokyo. Victory points are seized by perching precariously on Midtown Tower, rearing your head back and bellowing. But straddling the Shibuya shopping district opens you up to attack from your kaiju rivals. You can either slink to the suburbs, or fight back with abilities gained by ‘collecting energy’, such as poison spit, a giant brain, and/or extra heads.
I know I billed these five games as thinkers, but King of Tokyo is more heart than head. Sure, lots of decisions must be made. But really, this game is best when players roll the dice and have a good time. Once the rules are explained, crack open a beer and start playing giant radioactive monkey in the middle with your friends. It’s a quick game, but like a titanic nightmare lizard fueled by atomic energy and man’s hubris, you’re destined to return for a sequel.
Number 31: Twilight Struggle
784 Positive Votes
688 Negative Votes
Twice the United States has had to send several millions of its young men across the Atlantic to find the war; but now war can find any nation, wherever it may dwell between dusk and dawn.
—Winston Churchill, ‘The Sinews of Peace’
Two mighty nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, remain trapped in a deadlock of mutually assured destruction. Fearful of the ever present question of nuclear Armageddon, the two superpowers rally for four decades in a campaign of propaganda and espionage. Smaller regimes are scrabbled after as stepping stones in a grim cold war, as each metanation struggles for cultural dominance and the eradication of the other’s way of life.
Twilight Struggle is a rare two-player only game winning big points by matching flavor to game mechanics. When “DeGaul leads France” the U.S. player loses influence in France. If “Solidarity” is played, then the U.S. gains influence in Poland… but only if John Paul II is elected pope. That’s great and all, but why is Twilight Struggle supposedly the best game of all time?
Wait. I need to back up. There’s another very popular ‘best board games’ list at Board Game Geek. Unlike Ranker, BGG doesn’t compile votes. It averages the rating that users give for games (adjusting for games with few total ratings) similar to how products receive their feedback rating on Amazon.com, or how Magic cards are voted on Gatherer. Using this system, BGG posits Twilight Struggle as the best game of all time, since its ‘nerd rating’ is the highest (an impressive 8.218.) For compaison’s sake, the previous entry, King of Tokyo, comes in at 7.310. And Chutes and Ladders, from last week’s list, rides a giant slide all the way down to 3.403. I assume the top of the slide was a picture of a boy holding aloft Chutes and Ladders, annoying his friends by loudly extolling the virtues of his favorite game, and at the bottom of the slide is that same kid, parked on his ass with a bewildered expression on his face as a board is tented on his head and pieces are strewn everywhere.
As I said before, Ranker’s system is flawed. But Twilight Struggle taking top place means that BGG’s system is flawed, too. Even players who love and swear by their pet game know it isn’t for everyone. Theory at twilightstrategy.com created a list of six reasons why Twilight Struggle may not be for you.
- Do you enjoy playing (and have opportunities to play) 2-player games?
- Are you able to set aside enough time to play this game? Your first game might take up to 4 hours; once you’ve learned the rules, the longest game you’ll play is probably around 3 hours, with the shortest being 1 hour and the average being 2 hours. This varies by playgroup, of course, but this is not a filler game!
- Do you enjoy games that require a lot of thinking?
- Do you enjoy games that are extremely tense and nerve-wracking?
- Are you OK with games that have a small but not insignificant luck component?
- Are you OK with the fact that it may take you two or three plays to really understand the game?
I think theory understated the luck element. There is a lot of luck involved in this game. It’s mitigated by good gameplay, but expect to roll the dice, and often. I would also add “7. Are you OK with spending four hours reading and maybe re-reading a rulebook before playing a game?”
So why is this game number one at Board Game Geek? For featuring such a difficult rule book to pile through, the game is straightforward once you understand the designer’s intent. It’s a simple-complex game. I think a lot of players respond to that. But I also think the convoluted rules help to shoot it up BGG’s list. If you pick up the rule book for five minutes, are bored to tears and put everything back in the box, you probably don’t vote on whether Twilight Struggle is a good game or not. Maybe it is? How would you know? Twilight Struggle is number one through a positive affirmation loop. If you’re the type of person who can handle learning the rules, then you’re likely to be the type of person who will upvote this game.
But, if you ask me, Twilight Struggle doesn’t deserve the lauded position it incidentally achieved. ‘The best game’ must be a great game to the greatest number of people. It should be approachable. Its components should be enticing. Its artwork should be enchanting. Its rule book should not only be easy to read, but should be entertaining in its own right. And when you win, you should feel like your victory was due to your own ability, and not because of some lucky rolls. On all these categories, Twilight Struggle falters and sometimes fails. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great game… it just means, by definition, it can’t be the best.
Click here to continue on to Part Three of the Forty most Popular Board Games, According to Ranker. Or perhaps you’d be interested in one of the other chapters found in the According to Ranker Page?