In this three part series, read about the League’s secret mission in coordination with Stonemaier Games to select the top 10 games every designer should play at least once!

Key Links

Part I, Jamey Stegmaier introduced the challenge, and we our methods.
Part II, criteria for selecting games, and individual league picks.
Games Designers Play – James Mathe polled designers from top BGG choices.
Top 10 List on BGG – open voting, add games and thumb up your top 10.

Final Adjustments

Before we reveal the “Top 10 Games Every Designer Should Play at Least Once” for Stonemaier Games Design Day 2014, I wanted to mention two additional factors:

1) Round 2, 15 points. League members were shown the top 10 list and given a week and an additional 15 points to add to any titles. The goal was to allow minor fixes with group consensus. For example, there were no worker placement games that actually made it in the top 10 (due to splits of the vote), so many of us used our 15 points to throw support on those titles. Funny enough, we were still divided on WP titles, and again none made it! We debated if we should edit the #10 spot and force it, but we left it alone.

Notably, only one title shifted out of the top 10 in round 2. Resistance at #10, dropped out and #11 Forbidden Desert jumped in all the way up to #6.

I also attempted my own Diplomacy experiment and secretly corresponded with Leaguers to vote up Dead of Winter, managing to get it from rank #47 to rank #15! I’ll admit that may have corrupted round 2 data a bit, but I digress…

2) Jamey Stegmaier’s input. Jamey was given final edits on the list, and he made two key changes on #9 and #10. Firstly, and perhaps expectedly as a publisher of fine worker placement titles, he fixed our worker placement issue by taking the top ranked game in that genre (Stone Age) and placed it at #10. He dropped a personal favorite of his, Magic: The Gathering, which admittedly didn’t fit the time constraints of this event. Secondly, he dropped Acquire due to personal taste and design philosophies and saw fit to put a superb tile placement game in it’s place, Carcassonne (which did very well in subsequent BGG polling).

Without further ado, the TOP TEN Games that Every Designer Should Play*:

#1 – Dominion


10 League nominations. Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino

Quotes: “Dominion is THE deck building game. It is streamlined and establishes the fundamental paradigms for the deck building mechanics.” – Luke Laurie
“This game is a perfect example of reaching amazing depth with a very simple game system.” – Jeff Cornelius

#2 – Love Letter


8 League nominations. Designer: Seiji Kanai

Quotes: Minimalism. “The lesson is that is that tight design and strategic gameplay is possible in ONLY 16 cards. Less is more.” – Peter Vaughan
“Create intrigue with only 16 cards, each with only a number and a sentence.” – Kelsey Domeny

#3 – 7 Wonders


6 League nominations. Designer: Antoine Bauza

Quotes: “Simultaneous card drafting civ building game in which innovative neighbor mechanic makes it the same with 3-7 players” – Brad Brooks
“A new designer would learn a great deal about iconography, set collection, and card drafting.” – Chris Strain

#4 – Zendo


5 League nominations. Designer: Kory Heath

Quotes: “Meta-primer on how players perceive rules and complexity” – Christina Major
“One of the few games that makes you figure out what the rules of the game are as you play. Important for designers to realize how far you can take this idea.” – Tom Jolly

#5 – Hanabi


6 League nominations. Designer: Antoine Bauza

Quotes: “Unlike most cooperative games, Hanabi operates on hidden information–hidden from self.” – Mike Domeny
“A co-op game with little to no ‘quarterbacking'” – Jeff Cornelius

#6 – Forbidden Desert


4 League nominations. Designer: Matt Leacock

Quotes: “Team success depends on interacting with the mechanics through the mindset of the theme.” –Kelsey Domeny
“Simple primer on cooperatives, strong escalation of consequences mechanics” – Christina Major

#7 – Diplomacy


4 League nominations. Designer: Allan B. Calhamer

Quotes: “Random elements not needed for cutthroat strategy. Simple, deterministic area control, everything boils down to interplayer negotiations.” – Stephen DeBaun
“Negotiation. You cannot succeed without support. Betrayal is inevitable. This is a classic, brilliant game to study for player dynamics.” – Peter Vaughan

#8 – FATE RPG system


4 League nominations. Designers: Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue

Quotes: “Put shared storytelling first. Turns the RPG paradigm on its head: use mechanics not to model reality, but to facilitate story.” – Stephen DeBaun
“RPGs are a huge influence on boardgames and war games and cooperative games and CCGs, and all game designers should play one at some time in their careers.” – Tom Jolly

#9 – Carcassonne


2 League nominations. Designer: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede

Quotes: “Carcassonne is a classic tile laying game with extremely simple rules and a truly Euro farming theme.” – Luke Laurie
“Strategic tile placement with a variety of expansion options” – Nathan Cornelius

#10 – Stone Age


4 League nominations. Designer: Bernd Brunnhofer

Quotes: “Early worker placement with unique worker pool building mechanism.” – Norv Brooks
“Light Euro worker placement game that uses dice, randomness, and hidden information to reduce analysis paralysis.” – Luke Laurie

*This is a subjective list.

Honorable Mentions:

– (9A) Magic: The Gathering
– (10A) Acquire

#11 – King of Tokyo
#12 – Resistance
#13 – Pandemic
#14 – Stone Age (moved into top 10)
#15 – Dead of Winter
#16 – Lords of Waterdeep
#17 – T’zolkin
#18 – Twilight Struggle
#19 – Castles of Burgundy
#20 – Agricola

Final Thoughts

Thanks for reading this series! Thanks especially if you voted and submitted a top 10 on our first post. We appreciate everyone’s list of top games they would recommend. Here’s something I learned along the way, worth mentioning: There is no right answer to the top 10 games question.

There’s 70,000+ games out there, and every one of them has the potential to teach you a lesson in game design. Maybe it’s a lesson that only you need to learn, and not for someone else due to genre or play style. That’s ok.

Maybe it’s a positive lesson, or a negative lesson, or a lesson that only comes out after multiple plays. Maybe it’s a game on the BGG top 100 or not ranked at all yet. It’s all good. Many of us became quite passionate about the games on our own lists, and the BGG list tells me that people value games for a variety of reasons. A key lesson (for me) turned out to be:

Play many games, and be open to the lessons that they have to teach.

I wanted to extend a sincere thanks to Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games for the invitation to select the events at this event, and to the League for embarking on this adventure.

We wish the best to the designers attending the Design Day, and we look forward to playing the games that those designers will produce!

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Peter Vaughan

Game Developer at Breaking Games

Peter eats games for breakfast! Founder of First Play LA, Squirmy Beast and League of Gamemakers, and Director of Development for Breaking Games. First published designs include What the Food?! and Nightmare Cove, and development credits include Letter Tycoon, Boomtown Bandits, Sparkle*Kitty and Rise of Tribes.

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18 Readers Commented

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  1. Peter Vaughan Author on November 3, 2014

    The top 10 on our BGG list right now (Nov 3) according to thumbs are:

    1. Love Letter
    2. Carcassonne
    3. Ticket to Ride
    4. Pandemic
    5. Dominion
    6. Puerto Rico (yay!)
    7. King of Tokyo
    8. Hanabi
    9. 7 Wonders
    and a 3 way tie for 10 (Settlers, Magic, Battlestar)

    Ticket to Ride was the biggest game outside of our voting. Maybe we thought it was too gateway?

  2. Luke Laurie on November 3, 2014

    The more I play Stone Age, the more I agree with how it fits the concept of a game designers should play. It was no reliance on text. All information is communicated through icons and symbols. It is efficient with components. It demonstrates core principles of worker placement. It uses hidden information to decrease visual information and certainty about other player’s score. The randomness in resource acquisition decreases analysis paralysis – forcing players to use a heuristic for return on investment, rather than absolute calculation. I’m glad Stone Age made the final list. It represents Worker Placement and several aspects of Euro games well.

  3. Jamey Stegmaier on November 3, 2014

    I’m excited to see the final list revealed! I thought I might share some behind-the-scenes information about the list based on the 70 participants at Design Day:

    –Only 1 person knows how to play Zendo, only 2 people know how to use the FATE system, and only 2 people know how to play Diplomacy. All of the other games had 10+ people who both owned and can teach the games.

    –One hiccup I ran into was that a handful of people had either played all of the games and/or had no interest in learning the ones they didn’t know (these seemed to be very experienced gamers). However, I have three timeslots during the day (mixed in with prototype playtesting) for playing games from your list. So I had to find two games that the experienced gamers (a) hadn’t played and (b) wanted to play. They had all played everything from your extended list. I ended up going to with Rococo and Concordia.

    I think that’s it for the data that really jumps out at me, but if you’re curious about anything, I’ll let you know!

    • Peter Vaughan Author on November 3, 2014

      Thanks for sharing Jamey! Indeed, I’m fascinated with every part of the design day. I wish I was there for it!

      Ahh logistics are even harder than making the list. Very interesting about the hiccup. Of course, we struggled with finding new titles for experienced designers. We didn’t really believe you’d get all gateway gamers. In fact one day Luke posted a list that was far and away a list we’d all rather play ourselves! But I’m hoping that with your prototypes, additions, there’s a lot of games for thought for all.

  4. Royce Banuelos on November 3, 2014

    Great list! Good to see the development process behind it as well 🙂

    • Peter Vaughan Author on November 3, 2014

      Thanks so much Royce! It was a tough challenge to be sure – glad to make it to the other side! Thanks for reading and joining in.

  5. Alan Wong on November 3, 2014

    Thanks for sharing, Jamey!

    It’s interesting that some people “Didn’t want to play” games they didn’t know, and stuck to that desire. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of the list and the day?

    Also, I think that playing a game to learn about it’s design can be very different than playing a game to win. How did the people react to playing games they already knew? Did the people discuss the games afterwards from a design perspective? What were some of the most insightful comments you heard?

    The articles have been a really good thinking exercise. Now, I’ve gotta go find some people to play Diplomacy with!

    • Jamey Stegmaier on November 3, 2014

      Alan: Ha ha, yeah, it does defeat the purpose a little bit. But I didn’t want to force people to play stuff they weren’t interested in.

      Those are some great questions, but I won’t know the answers for 2 weeks–the Design Day is on November 15. 🙂 I’ll keep an eye out for them! I have instructed the teachers to approach the teaching sessions with the purpose of the Design Day in mind, so hopefully that will help keep the focus on game design, not winning.

    • Christian Strain on November 3, 2014

      That was strange to me too. A designer should be willing to learn and play anything. Even if it’s a bad game, you’ll learn something from the process. Sometimes you learn even more.

  6. Christian Strain on November 3, 2014

    I think I had the most diverse list from the group having only 2 games (7 Wonders and Dominion) int he final list. I was sad to see that no storytelling games (Nights of Arabia, Agents of SMERSH, Dead of Winter, Betrayal at House on the Hill) made it in. Also, no real-time games like Space Cadets: Dice Duels. The list is very euro-centric.

    Still, I can say I agree with 9 out of the top 10 to some degree 🙂

  7. Brandon Raasch on November 3, 2014

    Thanks for pointing it out Christian, I thought the the list was a bit ‘Euro-centric’ myself. Arabian Nights is a great example of a game with wonderful game design mechanics (a choose your own adventure/board game hybrid, skill chits that drive your future choices, and more).

    • Peter Vaughan Author on November 4, 2014

      Yes, the list is Euro-centric, to be sure. But some of this probably has to do with the time constraint. 30 min was a tough factor to deal with in terms of narrative games.

      I LOVE Arabian Nights, but it has a couple of negative lessons to overcome:
      a) Any play with 4+ players grinds turns to a halt, and bores the death out of anyone not acting or reading the book.
      b) The decisions are meaningless. I dig that you can set your target goal, but events may make you wish you’d set it otherwise. And great that you can pick skills, no guarantee you’ll be playing those anytime soon…

      So for my 30 min, if D&D is allowed, a session choosing character goals and skills and then embarking on a scenario that mocks up an Arabian Nights storyline would be much more valuable. That said, I do dig CYOA – I’d be happy to play Arabian Nights with you Brandon next con we’re at!

  8. Oliver Kiley on November 4, 2014

    This is a bit of a weird response – but I’m going with it …

    Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted an article today (VERY long) ultimately about Games as Art, and specifically that the notion that games need to be designed to be “fun” (in all its various meanings) leads to certain best-practices within a particular genre of games being promoted – and in effect we get stuck designing and redesigning the same basic thing. Games as Art is not going to take off until other experiences and meanings from gamers are emphasized over fun.

    What’s that have to do with this list?

    These are all games (maybe with the exception of Diplomacy + Zendo, I can’t comment on Fate RPG) that do represent “best practices” for fun games in many regards – but these games are also from a vary narrow swath of the gaming spectrum or potential gaming spectrum – most them are relatively recent games and the runner up list is as well.

    I wonder to what extent this is a product of the method of selection, having been reduced to a mathematical process with rigid criteria. I’d rather see all the designer judges argue and debate the merits of potential candidates and get close to a consensus list that way instead.

    Sorry if I’m being harsh! I applaud the effort – I just would’ve liked to see more diversity in the range of what was being considered.

    • Peter Vaughan Author on November 4, 2014

      Hi Oliver!

      Thanks for the reply. Would you mind sharing the link to the RPS article? I see an article, “Games for Humanity”, but I’m not sure if that’s the one you mean.

      I’ll agree that a collaboration and consensus model (like our Trello approach), given time may have produced a better list, but what if that list took off Diplomacy after much debate? I’m not sure I see a fault in a list just because it focuses on modern game design. I’m proud that Diplomacy stayed, and Acquire made it on our top 10, and for all the older games that were nominated for merit rather than age (Go, Poker, etc). I am definitely for diversity, and so I appreciated that an abstract game is on the list. Could we use more of various categories, sure.

    • Peter Vaughan Author on November 4, 2014

      The film industry feeds upon itself to this degree as well, turning out “safe” choices with known marketability as well. Cue comic book films for the next decade. But I don’t think that means that for a new film student you have to look at Hitchcock instead of Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption by virtue of including a classic. You probably want to look at both, of course.

      I think Antoine Bauza and others are reshaping game experiences, working from existing titles, and games they loved and making games that are new and different and yes, artistic. Even among designer’s own works, it was hard to choose Agricola over Caverna, where undoubtedly design flaws were improved upon. I happen to think Richard Garfield taught me more from the King of Tokyo expansion mechanics than he did even from Magic or RoboRally. I see the industry as constantly improving, so I think I can understand why the list has a tendency towards ‘recent games’

    • Peter Vaughan Author on November 4, 2014

      Lastly, I’d love to hear your top choices that a new gamer should play? Would you include all classics, or is there a % of modern games that would come into the list. I think it would be great to know if so, which modern games you think have the most value?

  9. Jay Treat on September 8, 2015
    This list serves a different purpose. The distinction is subtle but important. Still, most folks who are interested in your list would likely be interested in this one too.

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