You may have noticed we started running board game reviews here at BMD last year. Board games have always been around but in the last few years they've blown up in a big way, creating a fun and sometimes intimidating subculture in the process, which I've spent most of 2019 sorting through one game at a time. I love board games for many reasons - they're fun to learn, most are beautiful, I appreciate unique ones but also enjoy discovering how much many of these games have in common - above all, they give me an opportunity to hang out with friends without constantly having to come up with things to talk about. I may be just a tiny bit awkward.
Board games also represent an exciting part of Mondo's recent and future output. Perhaps you've played The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 or the recently released (and soon to be reviewed) Unmatched. But that's just the beginning. Mondo has plans for a bunch more games (not to mention more of their incredible jigsaw puzzles) this year, so watch out for that.
With this in mind, Mondo came together to rank their favorite games of 2019, guided here by Tim League, Jayme Boucher and Tim Wiesch. Looking at this list, it's clear 2019 was an amazing year for gaming. Who knows what amazing game nights 2020 has in store for us.
Anyway, on with the list!
Tabletop Gaming has exploded in popularity over the last decade thanks to a perfect storm of cultural and societal factors that have more people than ever setting aside their screens in pursuit of face-to-face time spent with family, friends, and coworkers. Treasured favorites of yesteryear have paved the way for fresh themes and more complex play styles that aim to provide immersive entertainment experiences at an affordable buy-in. Accompanied by a popular resurgence of decades-old classics like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, tabletop is no longer a pastime for the socially averse, nor a guilty pleasure secretly enjoyed away from prying eyes. Gaming is more accessible than ever before, and literally thousands of new games are published every year to be enjoyed by people of every shape, size, color, age, and background. Several of Mondo’s gaming enthusiasts have compiled a list of our favorite games from 2019, and whether you’re hoping to scheme, compete, work together, have a good laugh, or embark on an adventure: we’ve got recommendations for you!
In no particular order:
Era: Medieval Age
Designed by: Matt Leacock
Art by: Chris Quilliams
Every year, while prepping for Gen Con, one of the largest tabletop and hobby gaming conventions in the world, we do our homework and review all the games set to make their debut. Some titles, like Shobu (also on this list), we stumble upon for the first time at a booth, receive a demo, and fall in love. Others, we storm the line for on the first day knowing the shrink wrap need not be removed before purchase. Era: Medieval Age was the first game I bought at Gen Con this year. Matt Leacock is one of the undeniable titans of the gaming industry - creator of the Pandemic games as well as Forbidden Island and Roll Through the Ages. I’m hooked! I will play everything he creates.
Era is his latest creation and it did not disappoint. It’s a quick-to-learn and relatively quick-to-play resource building game wherein players vie to construct the most successful medieval town, balancing various facets of medieval society: farmers, peasants, clergy, nobles and warriors, not to mention avoiding the disasters and diseases of the day. Beautifully balanced gameplay is matched with beautiful design, something that always resonates with the Mondo game team.
Designed by: Prospero Hall
Art by: Phantom City Creative
We obviously need to call out any game featuring art by long-time Mondo collaborators Ghoulish Gary Pullin and Phantom City Creative’s Justin Erickson and they certainly did not disappoint here. Two of our absolute favorite horror artists working on a Universal Monsters board game? It’s a must-buy right there regardless of the gameplay, which luckily, is also fantastic!
Horrified is a fully cooperative game that pits you and your friends against classic Universal Monsters and the horrors they bring. Each monster has completely different abilities and weaknesses, and it’s up to the players to try and tackle them all before the villagers are killed off one by one. It’s a little reminiscent of Pandemic, but with a really easy mechanic to ramp up the difficulty by adding more or fewer monsters to any single game. Horrified is also easy to get to the table with folks new to gaming and still has enough depth to satisfy a group of serious gamers. Plus did we mention the art?
Designed by: Elizabeth Hargrave
Art by: Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sobel
I felt personally targeted when I learned that I could play a board game about collecting and studying birds. Conceived by an all-female design team, Wingspan features an easy to learn engine-building mechanic that rewards clever turns with ridiculously satisfying combos that get bigger and better as the game progresses. Although the barrier to entry is nice and low, you can still play competitively if you prefer a spicy game. (You can also play solo, which is a big win for me!)
The base game features 170 unique bird cards featuring breathtaking illustrations and fun facts, so you actually learn a ton as you play! Bird nerd or not, there’s something for most people to love here. Bonus: there’s already an expansion featuring 81 all-new European birds.
Designed by: Manolis Vranas, Jamie Sajdak
After first exposure to this game, I was convinced it had a legacy as rich and historic as Go. But no, this is a brand new 2019 game, and one of my absolute favorites of the year. A deceptively simple abstract strategy game with just a few basic rules, Shōbu can be learned easily by any level of gamer. But like Chess and Go, mastery is elusive and subtle strategy nuances emerge the more you play.
The design itself is minimalist and stunning, twenty polished (real) black and white stones, four wooden boards and a strand of thick rope. Like The Mind from 2018, I find great joy in buying this game as a gift and exposing friends and family to something truly awesome.
Designed by: Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Peter Olotka
Art by: Ilya Baranovsky
The 1979 cult classic game was thought to be lost to the ages, but the good folks at Gale Force 9 have dug it out from the sands of Arrakis and brought a fantastically affordable version of the game back from the dead. We’ll admit that at first glance the rulebook is a tad bit intimidating… but what is actually happening here is a ridiculously nuanced and thematic ride across the story of Dune!
Almost any move you want to take is an option here if you’re willing to immerse yourself in the politics of the world. Buying favors and alliances from the other houses at the table is encouraged! Treachery and betrayal abounds! Someone gets to be the Kwisatz Haderach! Yes, this is a game for sci-fi nerds who grew up reading these books and still make excuses for why the 1984 film is better than people give it credit for, BUT it is also one of the most deeply satisfying world domination games ever created and deserves a spot on your shelf.
Silver & Gold
Designed by: Phil Walker-Harding
Art by: Oliver Freudenreich
I’m perpetually on the hunt for games that are easy to teach, fit in my bag, and get folks around me excited to play. Silver & Gold is clever, affordable, and meets all of these requirements in around 15-minutes: it is an absolute treat!
The goal of the game is to fill out as many treasure cards as possible over four rounds using the included dry-erase markers. Everyone gets to draw simultaneously, copying tetromino shapes that are revealed one at a time from a randomized deck. The pace is quick, feels just the right amount of hectic, and offers players plenty of opportunity to explore new strategies every time they play to maximize their points. There’s a perfect balance of strategy and luck wrapped up in an addictive experience that has most people saying, “one more time!” at the conclusion of end-game scoring.
Designed by: Ondra Skoupý
Art by: Dávid Jablonovský, František Sedláček, Lukáš Vodička, Michaela Zaoralová
Although I am not addicted myself, my family is swimming in Scrabble-heads. When I caught wind of a collaborative word puzzling game buzzing around GenCon this year, I had to bring it back to my wife and my mom in particular. Letter Jam ended up being the most-played game of our very-game-heavy Christmas break.
In the game, each player has a five letter word in front of them that they cannot see. One letter at a time, all players simultaneously expose a single letter of their mystery word to the other players. Using the letters you can see (not your own) and an optional wildcard letter, players take turns spelling a clue word that helps the others deduce their own secret letter and move on to the next. The official endgame rules provide a glimpse of the collaborative spirit of the game, “If more or less everyone has spelled a word, then you have all more or less won.”
Wickedly challenging and very replayable, Letter Jam makes for a fantastic social gaming experience. And not everyone around the table has to be a master wordsmith. The stronger Scrabble-enthusiasts can carry the water for us mere spelling mortals.
Designed by: Danielle Deley, Lindsey Sherwood, Nathan Thornton
Art by: Sarah Kelly
Everyone needs more party games in their life. Big boxes full of miniatures and a thousand cards are great for the right group, but most folks are really intimidated but that sort of thing and are looking for something easy and fun for groups. Medium is that game.
The play itself is pretty simple; you and the player on your left each take a card with a single word on it and then attempt, without discussing it, to simultaneously say a word that falls directly in between those two words contextually. Sounds easy right? The fun really starts when you both guess the wrong word because then you are trying to guess a second time for the word between the two random words you just guessed. What might have started with the words “button” and “magic” can morph into you and your friend yelling “Glenn Danzig” at each other in a crowded bar at Gen Con on your last attempt to score a point to the screams and cheers of the rest of the table! This game is as fun as the people you play it with and around the Mondo office it’s been a blast.
Designed by: Peter McPherson
Art by: Matt Paquette
All of my favorite games of this year feature something in common: simultaneous play. I dislike lots of downtime between turns, since it encourages players’ attention to wander to other things, like phones, which is a real bummer and kind of defeats the purpose of enjoying a game together. In Tiny Towns, players take on the role of woodland creatures in charge of building out our own (ahem) tiny towns, which are represented by a 4x4 grid.
The game presents players with seven different buildings or structures (there are fifteen included in the game so play varies with every setup) that can be constructed whenever a player collects the required resources on their board in a specific shape. Each type of building has special rules for how they score points throughout the game, varying from laws of adjacency, to frequency, to placement restrictions.
Your brain starts to break (in a good way) as you realize that following multiple rule sets while also staying mindful of the limited space on your board is HARD. As an added element of complexity, the only way to collect new resources is by going around the table and taking turns as the “master builder” and declaring what resources everyone at the table must collect and place on their board. Since everyone is trying to build different structures, you can get extremely screwed over by having to place resources you don’t want in spaces you had planned on using for your own construction! This is one of the most frustrating but satisfying games I’ve played all year, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking to flex or improve their spatial skills.
We also really enjoyed these other games over the course of the year, some of which didn’t necessarily come out in 2019:
Catch the Moon, Tapestry, Heads Will Roll, The Quacks of Quedlinburg, Monikers, Res Arcana, Wavelength, Watergate, Parks, Die Crew, Aquatica, Drop It, Moon Base, and of course: Unmatched!