The Top 5 Strategy Board Games Ever

You can see the most recent update to this entry here.

You can see the latest update to this entry here.

This entry is going to get a little geeky, so grab your loincloths and hang on for the ride.

Ever since I was a little kid, I not only loved playing board games, but I loved making board games. I’ll show you photos of my creations on a future entry, but today I want to focus on my favorite board games of all time.

I’m writing this today for three reasons:

  1. If you enjoy strategy board games, you might make some new discoveries from this list.
  2. I’m currently in the final stages of testing a board game I’ve been working on for many months that I will soon put on Kickstarter, so I want to gauge reader interest in this kind of thing.
  3. If you know of any lovely single ladies who live in St. Louis who enjoy playing strategy board games, let me know! A coworker of mine and his wife play these types of board games all the time, and I must admit I’m a little jealous of that arrangement.

For most of my younger years, as was the case for many of us, board games consisted of rolling dice and moving pieces around the board. Monopoly, Candyland, Sorry, etc. They’re all variation on the same theme. They’re about 90% luck and 10% skill.

I think my parents realized how mindless those games are, so they exposed us to other more tactical board games like Labyrinth. Great game.

In my teenage years, I played a lot of Risk, Stratego, and Chess. The latter two are almost all skill, while Risk has some elements of luck.

The only version of Candyland worth playing.

In college and for the few years that followed, the main games that I saw being played were party games like Cranium, Trivial Pursuit, Apples to Apples, Balderdash, Scattergories, and Taboo. These games are okay, and a lot of people really enjoy them, but I don’t like being put on the spot or being the center of attention, so these games definitely are not my favorite. I like to have time to process my strategy. I also hosted a weekly poker game for many years.

As an adult, I discovered a huge treasure trove of games in a category called “Euro games.” You may have heard of this category of games without realizing it. Have you heard of Settlers of Catan? It’s by far the most mainstream of the Euro games. These are a highly tactical and strategic set of games, many of them made by Europeans (apparently board games are really popular in Germany).

I love these types of games because they make me think, but they’re not stressful. It’s just a game after all. I love the social aspects of them, and I love these 1-2 hour glimpses into another world. There’s something about being surrounded by friends and looking down upon a map of your dominion that I really love.

So without further ado, here are my top 5 strategy board games ever. Keep in mind that there are tons of strategy board games out there, and everyone’s taste is different, so my list will vastly differ from other lists. I’m just going to post screenshots of the boards and the names of the games–if you’re interested, you can click through to each game’s profile on Board Game Geek or ask questions in the comments section. Have you played any of these games?

1. Agricola

2. Stone Age

3. Dominion

4. Settlers of Catan

5. Fresco

Runners up:

6. Ra

7. Railways of the Eastern US

8. Chess

9. Blokus

10. Stratego

 Addendum: I woke up this morning and realized that I didn’t talk at all about why these Euro strategy games are better than other Euro strategy games (or games in general). Here are a few reasons:

  • Everyone’s in it until someone wins. Some of these games have a set number of points you need to reach, and when you do, the game is over. Others have a designated end point, and everyone counts their points at that time to determine the winner. Several of the games even have an element of secrecy–you only have a rough idea of how many points your opponents have until the end. The key point here is that people aren’t eliminated from the game (like in Risk) and just have to sit around and wait for everyone else to finish.
  • There are many paths to victory. With any great game, you need to have the capacity to be nimble–to adjust your strategy based on the resources available and the strategies of other players. A key part of this is having many different ways to win and even more ways to get there.
  • Variation. You can play a great game hundreds of times if it’s different every time you play. Settlers does this by having a board that randomly changes every time you set it up. Some of the other games use random cards to add millions of permutations to each game.
  • Minimal and managed luck. If you play a high-luck game and the dice aren’t rolling in your favor, it’s a terrible experience. All of these games have small amounts of luck (10-20%), but you can manage your luck with all of them. You’re not just blindly rolling dice every turn with no control over the result. Agricola, the best of the bunch, essentially has no luck at all.
  • Clear understanding of the correlation between your strategy and your chances at victory. This is something I learned while designing my game. Players need to be able to set goals and know how to get there. Early versions of my game didn’t really have this–you’d make moves and play cards, but you were just playing for the sake of playing instead of setting and attaining goals. The current version solves that.
  • Easy to learn, tough to master. All of these games require you to read a rulebook to play. But the instructions aren’t all that complicated after you read them. Sometimes complicated games require you to constantly be checking the rules, even after you’ve played several times. That’s not the case with these games.

24 Responses to “The Top 5 Strategy Board Games Ever”

  1. Jasmin says:

    Oh, my goodness. There are so many pieces and colors! Look at the sheep pieces. They are so cute that I want to eat them! I’m not a regular board game player, but there’s this one game called “Last night on Earth” that is pretty cool. It’s zombie vs. human. That game was intense. I couldn’t stop myself saying out loud, “I’m gonna die. We’re gonna die.” after I got infected by a zombie bite. But we survived at the end.

    I don’t know about easy to learn. I’m still learning Settlers. By the way, you got any wood for my sheep? HAHAHA! 😀

  2. Impostor Josh says:

    I’m pretty sure I could crash your blog with comments about Euro/strategy games.

    However, I will limit myself to two points.

    1. You should really consider playing Puerto Rico (or consider adding it to your top 5). Reasons: There is NO element of luck (Catan has dice rolls, Dominon has shuffling variabity) so it is like Agricola. It doesn’t take an afternoon to set up (like Acricola). The replay opportunities/strategies are huge even with the same group of people. Downside = 5 player max.

    2. I think a mini-shout out to Ticket to Ride is required.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      I’m glad to hear you know of these games, Imposter Josh. I actually played Puerto Rico a few times years ago after I saw it was the top-ranked game on Board Game Geek, but I couldn’t really get into it. At the time, it violated one of the rules at the bottom of the blog entry–a clear understanding of the correlation between strategy and success. But it was the first game with no luck that I had ever played, so that may have been a factor. I’ll have to try it again.

      I haven’t played Ticket to Ride, but I’ve heard good things. I’m not too into the idea of having “secret goals” you have to achieve, but I’m open to a good game in general.

      • Vineet says:

        I second ticket to ride. The best part about that game is that it doesn’t take all that long and can be played by as few as 2 people. A good game usually last 45-1hr.

        • Jamey Stegmaier says:

          That’s a great point, Vineet–one of the best aspects of my favorite board games is scalability. A game might be different if you’re playing with 2 players versus 6 players, but I like the flexibility to choose. Fresco and Settlers don’t play particularly well with 2 players, in my opinion.

    • Gabby says:

      I am going to defend agricola here because it actually only takes 5 minutes to set up. I have heard really good things about Puerto Rico though

  3. Josh says:

    Have you tried 7 Wonders? I tried to learn while heavily intoxicated at the beach a few weeks ago and for some reason couldn’t get it. Seemed like something you might dig though.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Josh–I wonder why you couldn’t figure it out…

      I have heard good things about the game, but I haven’t played it.

  4. Gabby says:

    At Jamey’s behest I will post my top 5 games due to my expertise and “having played exponentially more games than Jamey”. Disclaimer, most of these games take a bit of time to learn.

    1. Dungeon Lords
    2. Through the ages
    3. Agricola
    4. Twilight Struggle
    5. Carcasonne

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Carcasonne made the top 5? Wow. I had heard that it’s a fair amount of luck. The iPad app for it is $10, but maybe I’ll give it a try.

    • Impostor Josh says:

      I am dropping everything to vehemently disagree about Carcasonne being in the top 5. Unless you have a photographic memory the strategy is limited (and the odds are poor and hard to calculate to boot). NOW: it is uber fun to play when you want to have a conversation/hang out with Josh on the beach, but it doesn’t belong in the all-time, desert island, top 5.

      I cede your point on Agricola set-up. It just seems more tedious to me for some reason.

      • Gabby says:

        I agree that carcasonne has a bit of luck to it, but it is also very strategic and skill intensive, I also think it is very fun, so it makes the top 5.

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  10. William says:

    I’d have to disagree that Settlers has minimal luck; the excessive amount of luck is actually why I quit playing it. If the dice aren’t going your way, you can very well be locked out for the first half of the game.

    I love Agricola with drafting – that way you get some say in what cards you end up with and it’s less likely that one or two people get awesome combos while the others get cards that don’t work together. 🙂

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      William–I definitely have to agree with you about Settlers…I’ve learned a lot since writing this entry. I think you’ll see more of my current tastes in the updated version of this entry linked to at the top o the page.

      Agricola remains one of my favorite games–I like the drafting, although sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of cards.

  11. Bruno says:

    For me, a board game has to be both high luck and high strategy. If it’s only high luck, no one’s actually playing, they’re just going along with it without actually controlling anything. If it’s only high strategy there’s a risk someone might screw up at some point and never regain their balance for the rest of the match, effectively being locked out of victory, which is not fun at all.

    But if a game is high strategy and high luck, it shines. Even if you make some horrible mistake, there’s still a chance for you to come out on top, AND you have to plan your moves carefully. So my favorite board games are games like Pandemic and Munchkin.

  12. […] I’ve written several other “best strategy games” posts on the blog in the past (here and here), and every year–heck, every month–they seem more and more […]

  13. josh says:

    For me it is:

    Dominion

    Power Grid

    Game of Thrones 2nd Edition

    Catan (Knights and Cities in particular)

    Kingdom of Solomon a Christian version of Caylus… OR a more strategic version of Stone Age.

    Carcassonne I like, but there is too much chance involved for me to consider it a strategy game. However, I have played a 3 tile open hand that makes more strategic as everyone can see other people’s potential play making. Also a way of increasing strategy is the Tower expansion, using approximately 1 tower per 25 tiles in the game.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Josh: Thanks for sharing your list. It’s a good reminder for me to return to this post from time to time, as my taste in games continues to evolve. I still haven’t tried out Power Grid, but I really need to–it sounds like my kind of game!

      • josh says:

        Its almost pure strategy… as almost all chance potentially involved in the game has some ability to be manipulated by the players. Also strategy changes with regards to how many are playing, the plants and resources other players will buy and what areas on the given map have been chosen to be used for the number of players you have.

        Its limitation is that the board is a fixed map, hence, new maps are produced as expansions (cheap to expand).

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