Matt Jarvis is editor-in-chief of Dicebreaker. He’s spent most of 2019 skirting the edge of a deep Yu-Gi-Oh!-shaped hole and yammering on to everyone who’ll listen (and those who won’t) about how good Pax Pamir 2E is. He’ll be heading into 2020 trying to resist the urge to buy a crokinole board. He doesn’t expect to hold out long.
2019 has been an interesting year for board games. After Gloomhaven sweeping pretty much everyone along on an epic fantasy adventure in 2017 and Root’s woodland war between animals capturing players’ imaginations last year, who would’ve expected the first big thrill of 2019 to be an engine-building board game about birds from a previously unknown designer? And that it would end up in the New York Times? Still, Wingspan set the tone early on for 2019; the rest of the year has continued to deliver plenty more unexpected releases, from surprising new entries in familiar series - such as the high-stress roll-against-the-clock dice game Pandemic: Rapid Response - to hidden gems, like a pair of stunning walk-in-the-woods board games - Parks and Bosk - and the Dicebreaker team’s recent obsession with seemingly basic but slyly brilliant card game Point Salad. Honestly, it could be the next best quick board game hit after the excellent Sushi Go!, if it was only easier to find.
There are a few notable omissions from my top five Games of the Year below. I really enjoyed what I played of Elizabeth Hargrave’s beautiful bird-filled board game Wingspan, but sadly haven’t had the chance to spend enough time playing to really consider it alongside games I’ve played time after time - something I hope to correct soon. After hearing endless good words, I am itching to play Res Arcana, the latest engine-building card game from Race for the Galaxy creator Tom Lehmann, but am yet to sit down with it for a full session. As a massive fan of all things spooky and sea monster-ish - not to mention an admirer of designers Eric Lang and Rob Daviau (yes, I’m that guy who enjoyed Daviau’s divisive legacy board game SeaFall, for all its flaws) - Owen’s review of Cthulhu: Death May Die left me even more intrigued to dive into the dialled-up-to-11 Lovecraftian action-movie board game and start blasting wriggling tentacles.
Even so, like all of the team’s Game of the Year 2019 lists, the ranking below reflects my favourite board games I personally played this year. Outside of my top spot, which is a genuine work of art, they might not necessarily be the most polished, innovative or even quote-unquote “best” board games of 2019, but what they all have in common is that they’re incredible fun in their own ways. I’d heartily recommend any and all - and if you ever bump into me, I’m always down for a game.
1. Pax Pamir: Second Edition
The first time I played the new version of Pax Pamir, the latest game from Root designer Cole Wehrle, I simply didn’t get it. It was perfectly fine, but I couldn’t understand why the reboot of Wehrle’s debut design - part of the notoriously intimidating Pax series of historical board games - had been so hotly anticipated. It certainly wasn’t another masterpiece like Root, I thought. Nevertheless, I played it again. Then again. And again and again. The more I played, the more I grew to appreciate its deliciously savage blend of alliance, betrayal and all-out opportunism in the guise of a historical wargame. By the end of my first two days with the game, I had played almost a dozen times and was utterly transfixed.
Pax Pamir 2E is a game of shimmering mercurial strategy, where you side with one of the three factions wrestling over control of 19th century Afghanistan for only as long as it benefits you. Despite the heavy-sounding dressing (the creators have clearly done their research, but you can go in completely uninformed), the gameplay’s basics are exactly that - in essence, you take cards from a shared central marketplace and add them to the personal court in front of you to gain more abilities. The cards’ actions might see you adding blocks representing the factions’ armies to regions on the map (which may also help your opponents if they’re similarly aligned), planting spies in enemy courts (or protecting your own), gaining money via taxation and building up your own presence via smaller tribes in each location.
Most importantly, many of the cards will gain you further influence with one of the factions. At semi-random moments during the game, a dominance check will trigger and award points to the player(s) who are aligned with the most powerful faction if they hold a large enough sway over the board. This is where Pax Pamir 2E finds its utterly engrossing core, becoming a challenge of timing and knowing when to jump ship to the side that’s most likely to score big next time around without giving your opponents enough to a chance to join you on the up-and-up. It’s this constantly shifting landscape and the way that players can sit in both uneasy alliance and cut-throat competition with each other and the other factions on the map from turn to turn that makes Pax Pamir 2E not just 2019’s best game by a country mile, but an absolute all-timer when it comes to unmissable experiences on the tabletop. (The inimitable Dan Thurot was similarly impressed, writing about why Pax Pamir 2E is one of 2019’s most important board games for Dicebreaker earlier this year.)
It’s worth saying that it’s also unbelievably gorgeous, with the most sumptuous components of maybe any board game I’ve ever played. Forget unnecessary plastic miniatures and other such tat; Pax Pamir’s compact but dense box of delights includes resin blocks that feel slightly chalky in all the right ways and a cloth map board that means you start enjoying the game and investing in its historical theme even as you unpack it.
Root was something truly special. Pax Pamir 2E, for my money at least, surpasses it in greatness. (Which makes it even more painful that it's currently sold out pretty much everywhere you look.) With Wehrle and his brother Drew having announced their publishing label Wehrlegig Games with such a breathtaking first release, I can barely contain my excitement for their upcoming second edition of Cole’s similarly acclaimed John Company.
2. Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth
I should preface this by saying I love Lord of the Rings; my wedding ring is engraved with elvish, a replica of Andúril (Aragorn’s sword reforged from the shards of Narsil, obviously) sits in my flat, and my wife and I rewatch the nearly 12-hour extended trilogy of films on a more than semi-regular basis. I also adore Mansions of Madness: Second Edition, to the point where I own every expansion for the app-powered co-op board game of exploration, mystery and grisly Lovecraftian horror. Given all that, it’s perhaps little surprise that I enjoyed Journeys in Middle-earth - a spiritual successor to Mansions’ gameplay set in Tolkien’s fantasy world - so much. But I actually approached the co-op adventure game with a huge amount of apprehension, wondering what it could possibly add to either that would make it more than a so-so crossover between the two.
Happily, I found that Journeys in Middle-earth builds nicely on Mansions’ use of a companion app to handle monsters, story beats and branching player decisions, offering up a roleplaying-light adventure that takes the players’ fellowship on its own enjoyable quest. The connected scenarios are broken into chances to freely explore the sprawling overworld, discovering quests and events along the way - the highlight of the game, for me - and zoomed-in combat encounters set on dedicated battlefield boards where combat becomes more tactical due to terrain and a greater number of enemies.
Replacing Mansions’ fatalistic use of dice to resolve tests (which works nicely for a horror board game full of eldritch chaos) is an immensely satisfying deckbuilding-lite card system, where each player’s character has a unique stack of cards dictated by their character (including familiar faces like Bilbo Baggins and Gimli), class, equipment and abilities they’ve unlocked by levelling up during the multi-hour campaign. It’s a fantastic way of making Journeys in Middle-earth a fitting companion to Mansions rather than a lazy reskin, and allows for a pleasing level of replayability as you tackle the core box’s campaign with a different combination of skills and options - we’ve replayed the story multiple times, and are yet to tire of it.
The lore side of Journeys in Middle-earth isn’t quite as strong as the gameplay (there’s iffy writing in more than a couple of spots), but there’s enough fun to be had in simply roving around the world and seeing what adventure lies ahead to make us want to continue playing for a good long time to come.
Shobu came out of nowhere and blew me away with its strategic abstract gameplay. It’s so elegant and ingenious that you’d swear it had been around for centuries; instead, it’s one of 2019’s most dazzling hidden gems.
The premise is laughably simple: you’re trying to push your opponent’s stones off of the board by moving your own pieces into them. Except there’s a twist. Well, four, actually.
Shobu doesn’t just play out on one board. The game comprises four separate boards, each with the players’ opposed black and white pieces on. Here’s the trick: when you move one piece on one board, you must move another piece on a different board in exactly the same way. The first move can’t push your opponent (it’s ‘passive’), while the second (your ‘active’ turn) can.
The mirroring of moves and the juggling of passive and active manoeuvres to avoid being shunted off by your rival while lining up your own winning plays makes for a tense and thinky time without overloading your grey matter or soaking up the hours for a single match. It’s right up there with the likes of Santorini, Tak and Hive as a modern abstract board game that easily deserves a place in every collection.
Shobu’s stunning simplicity is such that you could play it yourself using a chessboard or even on a beach with some pebbles and lines drawn in the sand (or a pen-and-paper grid with copper and silver coins) to get a taste for its unique call-and-response rhythm. If enjoy the game and can afford it, you should absolutely pick up the boxed version - both to support the creators of an outstanding game, and because the wooden boards, dividing rope and stones that come in the package are a lovely little set worth owning.
4. Letter Jam
Coming from the people who brought us Codenames - one of the best board games in years - Letter Jam is another devilishly clever and tricky co-op game about choosing your words carefully.
It’s a little bit Hangman and a little bit Hanabi, as players try to figure out a secret word made up of letter cards in front of them. Each player has a different word and set of letters, with one letter displayed at a time. The problem? They can’t see it. As with Hanabi’s challenging puzzle of making fireworks without looking, the cards face outwards, so it’s up to the rest of the group to try and give clues to each person about their hidden letter.
They do this by spelling words using the group’s visible letters, placing fruity little chips to indicate whose letter goes where. As you can see everyone’s letters except your own, it takes a bit of deduction to figure out what you might have - as well as some carefully-considered clues to avoid having to guess whether your blank in CA_ is a B, P, T, M or something else. Not a good one, that.
Everyone’s working together, and cracking your hidden word by the end of the game is a definite reason to celebrate when Letter Jam’s brain-burning tips can occasionally leave your cranium’s contents feeling like they could be spread across a couple of slices of toast.
As Matt Thrower noted in our review, Letter Jam’s occasionally sticky difficulty means it’s not quite as easy to break out as an instant-hit party board game. If you and your friends are up for a challenging but collaborative word puzzle, though, you’ll be sweet on this.
5. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea
If you’d told me at the start of the year that my personal pick for 2019’s top civilisation board game would consist of a dull-looking pile of wooden discs and a bland map straight out of a history book instead of a slick, beautiful two-hour affair with painted 3D buildings from the designer of Scythe, I would probably have laughed myself all the way back to the dawn of humanity. (Which, given my fondness for the civ-building genre, would’ve likely suited me just fine.)
And yet, for as much as I enjoyed Jamey Stegmaier’s Tapestry as a feat of polished gameplay and visuals, I found myself utterly enraptured by the more scattershot and messy Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea in a way that few other games could match this year.
Despite its presentation as a by-the-numbers wargame about building up your empire over the millennia, ACIS is an utterly daft and uproarious party game about being a dick (in that non-mean-spirited way that many of the best party board games allow for) on an almost godlike scale.
Its heart is in the classics of the genre, drawing its basic gameplay from the very original Civilization board game (a favourite of mine, whose legendary designer Francis Tresham we sadly lost this year); each turn, you place discs on the map to represent your chosen empire growing in strength, or remove them one by one when simulating conflict in an area shared by multiple players. Simple enough, and not exactly thrilling.
Then you get to play some of the cards from your hand, and all hell breaks loose. The cards unleash natural disasters, barbarians and all sorts of other wild effects across the map, blasting discs off the table with fiery volcanic eruptions, the Black Death and various other ridiculous events. What was previously a boring collection of wooden pieces becomes a lot of laughter, as the world wonder you constructed last turn is unceremoniously wiped from existence and your fleet of ships is immediately sunk.
If you like your games balanced and fair (or you’re likely to be enraged by someone bumping off your units turn after turn), ACIS isn’t for you. This isn’t a game to take very seriously - while there’s a surprising and impressive amount of customisability possible out of the box to recreate real-life historical scenarios and bring what can be an evening-filling play time down to a more reasonable length, it’s a drunken graduate spouting random facts about Caesar in-between shots rather than a history professor dressing down for the weekend.
Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea isn’t a perfect game, but it is perfect at finding enormous, ridiculous fun. Sometimes, that’s just what you want.
Read more of Dicebreaker’s Game of the Year 2019 coverage, including the Dicebreaker team’s personal favourites and more designer picks.