This blog is in two parts. This first part looks at the games of the 20th century and identifies which games went on to become classics (and are still around today). In the second part (21st Century Classics), I look at games of the 21st century and identify which games are destined to become classics.
A classic game is one that has stood the test of time. Classic games include chess (6th century), checkers (3rd century BCE), dominoes (12th century), Chinese checkers (19th century), and backgammon (3rd century BCE). If you throw in a pack of cards, you have such classics as Poker (and its variants), Bridge, Blackjack, Solitaire, Rummy, Hearts, Spades, Euchre, Cribbage, etc. You might add some other classic games like Go, Ludo, Senet, Snakes and Ladders, and Mancala, but we didn’t play any of these in my family, so I didn’t mention them.
I grew up in the United States, and in the 20th century, the most popular board games there were
Clue (1949) [marketed as Cluedo outside of the US]
The Game of Life (1960)
Trivial Pursuit (1981)
Connect Four (1974)
This list isn’t perfectly accurate as there were a few games that I left out to make room for the games that were in our house. Yahtzee, Operation and Connect Four were ever present, whereas games like Sorry (1934), Stratego (1958) and Pictionary (1985) were all unheard of in our neighbourhood. Also listed as best selling were Candy Land and Anti-Monopoly (1973), but until researching this article, I had never heard of them. All of these games continue to be sold in stores today, so they merit the title of 20th Century classics.
Family Favourite – Catan
However, the list above is based entirely on sales, so we’re really just seeing the hamburgers of the board game world. What I want to do is look back at the 20th century and identify those games that established themselves as the gamers’ classics; these would be the T-bone steaks of the board game world. On the hamburger list, only one game can be considered a T-bone – Catan. Originally released as “The Settlers of Catan”, the game was designed by Klaus Tueber (who passed away earlier this year). A testament to its success is that you can get different versions of the game themed to your preferred environment. You have Game of Thrones Catan, 19th Century America Catan, Catan in Space, Inkas Catan, prehistoric Catan, and if you want height on your board, there’s even 3D Catan. While some of these versions are simple reskins, many have slightly altered rules and mechanics to make the game fit in better with the theme.
The base game plays 3 or 4, but you can get expansions to play up to six. A typical game takes just over one hour, but it’s a very easy game to set up and learn. In short, you have a modular map (which increases replayability), and you begin with some resources, roads, and buildings. On your turn, you gather some resources, trade these with other players, and build something. If on your turn you have 10 victory points, you win. There are additional expansions to add additional mechanics and scoring opportunities, but I find the base game on its own is more than enough for me.
Before revealing the other T-bone classics, I have to mention some games that deserve a mention for their impact on the hobby, but for various reasons, were excluded from the T-bone list.
Magic: The Gathering (1993) introduced the idea of the collectible card game (CCG). It’s a two player card game with each player having to construct a deck from a potential choice of almost 20,000 cards. Cards are categorized as common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare, and you basically bought packs to get new cards. Nowadays, there is a Lord of the Rings version, and you can play it online… I went through a phase of collecting baseball cards, and I never liked the idea of being disadvantaged because you didn’t spend enough money on cards, or being permanently advantaged because you lucked out and got a super rare card. So, although I have friends who love this game, it wasn’t for me. Think of this as the vegetarian option.
El Grande (1995) is the area control game (much better than Risk!), and Chinatown (1999) is the negotiation game, and I would have put them on the T-bone list in a heartbeat, but both of these games are excluded simply because they’re out of print. Both games had 21st century releases – Z-Man Games issued the El Grande Big Box in 2015, and reprinted Chinatown in 2019. Having said that, there is Vasal’s Law. It basically says that if a game is good enough, it will get reprinted, so (although these two games are already in my collection) here’s hoping for the reprint. Z-Man Games, are you listening?!
Dungeons & Dragons (1973) combined the ideas of a dungeon crawl, rolling dice that weren’t cubes, story telling and role play. There have been several attempts to transform the role playing game (rpg) into a board game, but the role of the dungeon master has always been a problem. The rpg has been a huge success for Wizards of the Coast (who also own Magic: The Gathering), and they have released many games that reference the D&D universe: D&D Monopoly, Rock Paper Wizard, Lords of Waterdeep, and Tyrants of the Underdark to name a few. These last two are really good games! But D&D is excluded because there hasn’t really been any one board game that carried the flag for D&D in the 20th century. To be honest, although D&D is a solid rpg, and arguably the best one, D&D has become an intellectual property. The latest D&D board game is called D&D: Onslaught (2023) and it’s a two player combat game that comes with pre-painted minis.
Diplomacy (1959) is a great game that has stood the test of time, but it required two things that I never had – six hours and 5 or 6 more people who wanted to play it. Nonetheless, it was a game that was regularly available in the local Walmart (and still is!). At its core, Diplomacy is a negotiation game, but for me Chinatown scratched that same itch in a smaller period of time and with fewer people. Undoubtedly, Diplomacy has stood the test of time, and it rightly deserves to be called a 20th century classic. In fact, Renegade Game Studios will be releasing a new version of Diplomacy in just a few weeks!
Sentimental Favourite – Dune
Gamers always remember the first game that took them away from their “family favourites”. They remember that moment of realization that it was possible to have a great game that didn’t rely on the roll and move mechanic. A game that as soon as it was over, you just wanted to bask in its awesomeness. For me, that game was Dune (1979). In 2019, Gale Force Nine published a new (and improved) version. It plays four to six, takes between two and three hours to play, and has a BGG complexity of 3.98 (although it doesn’t feel that complicated a game). It’s easily the heaviest game in my collection and it’s also the one with the longest playing time, but this game brings back so many fond memories, that it will never leave my collection, and I always look forward to the next time I can bring it to the table and introduce it to a new audience. But if those initial stats scare you, a simpler (2.68 complexity) and quicker (less than an hour) version of the game was released as Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy (2021) to tie in with the recent movie. Also taking advantage of the new movie are Dune: House Secrets[which puts Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game in the Dune Universe], Arrakis: Dawn of the Fremen [which tries to play Diplomacy in two hours, and is a reimplementation of Borderlands] and Dune: Betrayal which uses the setting for a social deduction game. And don’t confuse any of these games with the great deck building Dune: Imperium (2020) designed by Paul Dennen (who also designed all the Clank! games).
As this article is already getting too long, I won’t go into a summary of how to play Dune. Instead, I recommend you visit the Dune page on Zatu and read the uncredited review of the reprint. I will only quote him/her when they say “I love this game and would encourage everyone to get it and play as soon as they can. Convince your friends it is worth the effort…” And if you want more, there are two house expansions - Dune: Ixians and Tleilaxu, and Dune: Choam And Richese – with a third one (Dune: Ecaz & Moritani) coming out later this year.
I should point out that the team that created all the various versions of Dune (collectively known as Future Pastimes), also created Cosmic Encounter (1977). I was so tempted to include that game on this list instead but I think that Dune is the better game. Both games involve variable player powers, alliances, negotiation, bluffing, and hand management, so I couldn’t really keep both games on the list, especially given they were designed by the same team. Fans of Cosmic Encounter will say that there are more alien species in CE so that adds greater variety to the game, and that Dune tends to slow down when you get to the auction phase, so CE should be the one to keep. Both criticisms are valid, but I think Dune has more meat on its bones, and provides a better gaming experience. Cosmic Encounters is light hearted; Dune is intense. Moreover, I think Cosmic Encounter cemented their classic status in 2008 when Fantasy Flight released their version of the game. So I’m going to put Cosmic Encounter down as a classic of the 21st century, not the 20th. Dune did have problems with availability, but those were caused primarily by the expiration of their intellectual property rights in the 1980s when the 1984 Dune movie (directed by David Lynch and starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides) was being planned. Fantasy Flight tried to revive Dune in 2012 by placing the game in the Twilight Imperium universe (Rex: Final Days of an Empire) , but although the game was well received, it just didn’t catch on fire until the 2019 release with the original IP.
For the next three games, I chose three game designers, and then their best game 20th century game (that is still in print). The three game designers are Sid Sackson, Reiner Knizia, and Richard Garfield.
Sackson Selection – Acquire
One of the fathers of modern game design was Sid Sackson. Credited with designing over 120 games, he once said “[A good game] should be easy to learn yet have infinite strategic possibilities, give you the chance to make choices, create interaction among players and take a maximum of one and a half hours to play.” I’d probably have to agree with all those sentiments, so it’s quite fitting that the next game on my list is one of his games - Acquire (1964). It plays three to six, with four players probably being the best combination, and it lasts about 90 minutes.
Acquire is part investment game, part hand management game. An indexed 9x12 grid sits in the centre of the table; it represents a development area, and next to it there is a face down arrangement of tiles. Each tile corresponds to a particular spot on the grid (so tile 3A goes in space 3A on the grid). On your turn, you have to take these three actions in order
- Place a tile on the board
- Buy up to three shares
- Pick up a new tile
As tiles are placed on the board, hotel chains are created. When two hotel chains are connected by a tile, they merge. At that point, the larger chain takes over the smaller one. However, once a hotel chain reaches 11 tiles, it is considered a safe hotel chain, which means it can’t be acquired by a larger hotel, so you can’t play a tile in a space that would link it to another chain.
When a merger takes place, everyone counts up the number of acquired hotel shares that they have. The two players with the most shares receive a cash bonus. Now all the shareholders of the acquired hotel must individually decide whether to hold on to their shares, trade them in (receiving one share of the acquiring hotel for every two of the acquired hotel), or sell them for cash. The game continues until after placing a tile, that player declares that there is a hotel chain of 41 tiles, or unable to place a tile, declares that all the hotels are safe. At this point, all the shares are sold to the bank, and the player with the most money is declared the winner.
A new version of Acquire (published by Renegade Games) is due out any day now.
Knizia Selection - Ra
Another father of modern game design is Reiner Knizia. To date, he is credited over 650 games, with his very first one being Desperados (1980). He is noted for two trilogies – his auction trilogy (Modern Art (1992), Medici (1995) and Ra (1999)) and his tile laying trilogy (Tigris and Euphrates (1997), Samurai (1998), and Through the Desert (1998)). Given that list of six games, it came down to Ra and Tigris and Euphrates. Ra has just been reprinted by 25th Century Games in a gorgeous version, while an equally gorgeous (but revised) version of Tigris and Euphrates called Huang (2023) was just released by Phalanx. Some of you might have chosen Tigris and Euphrates (1997), but I went with Ra. Ra is an easier teach, plays in under an hour, and plays equally well with 3 to 5 players. T&E takes at least three times as long to teach, needs at least two hours (90 minutes plus 30 minutes of teach), but I feel it is really just a four player game. More correctly, all the four player games of T&E that I have played were great, but by comparison, the 2 and 3 player games didn’t feel as much fun. Ra is great at all player levels, and there is something special about having the other players shout “Ra! Ra! Ra!” as you go to draw a tile. But, of course, to play Ra you have to like auctions. If you prefer civilization games, then go with T&E.
Let me quote what the reviewer on the Zatu website “Just go out and buy it immediately. Seriously, I had heard RA was good but I did not expect to think it was 'this' good. It's so simple yet so full of choice and depth. The components are amazing, the gameplay loop and flow is brilliant and you can have a rip roaring time with friends in under an hour. What's not to like? Ra, Ra, Ra Ra Ra!”
Garfield Selection - Robo Rally
Richard Garfield has only designed about a dozen games, but one of those was Magic: The Gathering, and in so doing, he spawned the LCG genre. A year later, he was back with Robo Rally (1994). There aren’t many games that use programmed movement as a mechanism, but this is such a great mechanic. You have a set of action cards, and you need to program the next five movements of your robot. The problem is that as you move, you bump into other robots, get on conveyer belts, get damaged by a laser, etc. So, your carefully laid plans pretty much go out the window after the first card. The game takes about 15-20 minutes per player, and plays 3 to 8 (with the more the merrier). The game was last produced by Avalon Hill in 2005, and many people complained about the quality of the components. Moreover, the rulebook contained suggestions for creating huge maps, but those should not have been encouraged. Robo Rally plays best when the playing area is kept small. Needless to say, you have to enjoy a bit of chaos in your games to enjoy Robo Rally. You get the joy of watching your opponents’ plans crumble, mixed with the agony of having your own plans destroyed. It’s definitely not a game to take seriously! A new version of Robo Rally, reprinted by Renegade Games, is due out any day now.
Surprise Selection – Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
I’m sneaking this one in at the last minute. It’s a tricky one because it’s not really a board game. In Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1982), there has been a murder and you have to solve it. Simple as that. There are no dice, no hidden traitor, just a mystery to solve. Actually, there are 10 mysteries to solve in the box. It’s a one or two player puzzle and it will take between one and two hours to solve a case. When you think you have solved it, you read the answer, but you usually lose a few points because there was something that you missed. But at that point, there’s no going back. Like modern escape games, there is no replayability. However, in addition to the original game, you can also buy Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack The Ripper & West End Adventures, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Carlton House & Queen’s Park, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Bureau Of Investigation which has you solving paranormal cases in an HP Lovecraft inspired Boston. In each box, there are 10 cases to solve. If you like your escape games, you should give these a try. If you aren’t sure about the game, head on over to the Space Cowboys website (here) , and you can download one of the cases to give it a try and see if it’s something you would enjoy.
Roll those dice, baby!