This month, I want to take a look at some of the top games of the 1990s. This is a list of the top ranked games from each year of the decade according to the rankings at BoardGameGeek. But that’s only ten games, and this is The Eleven, so I’ll round it off with the top game that didn’t win its year. The Wild Card, as it were. Here we go!
1990: The Republic of Rome was designed by Richard Berthold, Don Greenwood, and Robert Haines, and originally published by Avalon Hill. The most recent US edition was published in 2009 by Valley Games. It’s a game of politics that takes place over about 250 years of the Roman Empire. Players are attempting to control the senate with their families, trying to compete for offices, military command, economic concessions, and supporters. Proposals are made to the senate which must be voted on by the players, and these may generate revenue, recruit armies, assign offices, prosecute previous office holders, address the concerns of the people, and so on. You are trying to become the most powerful in Rome, but if Rome falls in the process, everyone loses.
This is a pretty big game, with a listed playing time of 300 minutes. But it speaks to its quality that, 25 years later, the game is still solidly within the top 250 games at BGG. It’s not one that I’ve played, but one I might be willing to check out in the right circumstance and with someone who knows the game well that can teach me. If you want to learn more, check out Scott Nicholson’s teaching video.
- The top five games of 1990: The Republic of Rome, Eurorails, Daytona 500, Space Crusade, Adel Verplichtet
1991: Tichu is a ladder climbing game from designer Urs Hostettler that was originally published by Fata Morgana in Germany. The most recent English edition was published in 2007 by Rio Grande Games. In the game, an entire 56-card deck is dealt out evenly among the players. It’s essentially a standard 52-cards deck with four extras. One player leads a card or cards from his hand. This could be a single card, a pair, a run, a full house, or so on. The next player must play a higher ranked set of the same type – if you played a pair of 8s, the next player must play a pair of 9s or higher. An opponent could pass, and if all of opponents have passed by the time it gets back to the leading player, the leading player wins the trick and leads the next one. You are trying to get rid of all of your cards, and the last player with cards scores points for the opposing team. Games generally go to 1000 points.
This game has a ridiculous following. The fans of the game absolutely love it. I’ve played the app a few times, and it’s OK – I really think I need to play the physical game to really get a sense of it. It’s a little more than a straight trick-taking game, and it still gets played a lot today. For a quick rundown and visualization of the game, here’s the Untitled Flash-Based Review Thing video.
- The top five games of 1991: Tichu, History of the World, Formula Dé, Quarto!, EastFront
1992: Modern Art was designed by Reiner Knizia (not the last time he’ll appear on this list), and was originally published in Germany by Hans im Glück. The most recent English edition was published in 2004 by Mayfair Games. It’s a pure auction game where players are trying to make their paintings the most valuable. The active player plays a card, and that determines which type of auction will be run – open (bid until someone wins), once around (everyone gets one chance), sealed (secret bid), or fixed price (seller picks the price). When the fifth card of an artist is offered, the round is over and the top three artists that have been collected pay out. After four rounds of this, the player with the most money wins.
I’m not a fan of auctions, I’m not a fan of Knizia, this one has never really interested me. But it’s still respected enough to be the top 1992 game, so if it sounds interesting to you, try to track down a copy. Here’s the UFBRT video for a more visual explanation.
- The top five games of 1992: Modern Art, Loopin’ Louie, Breakout: Normandy, Confusion, 1870
1993: Magic: The Gathering was designed by Richard Garfield, and was/still is published by Wizards of the Coast. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. This is the game that defined the collectible card game genre. It’s a two player game where each player constructs their own deck and pits it against the other. On your turn, you’ll draw a card, then start playing cards and engaging in combat. The first player to reduce their opponent to zero life (you start with 20) is the winner.
Magic has had enduring popularity mostly because of the ever-evolving nature of the game. Most games remain static over time, with the occasional expansion to breathe new life into them. Magic is always getting new cards, new strategies, new ways to play. The most dedicated players pour tons of money into the system, making it a true cash cow. It’s been around for over 20 years, and there’s no stopping it. I’ve played once, and found it to be OK – I’m sure there’s more to it once you start getting into all the cards and combinations rather than the starter deck I used.
- The top five games of 1993: Magic: The Gathering, Sticheln, Beyond Balderdash, Lifeboats, Once Upon a Time
1994: Blood Bowl is a game designed by Jervis Johnson and published by Games Workshop. The original was published in 1986, but it is the third edition that tops the 1994 list. The last printing of this edition was in 2002, with the Living Rulebook edition taking over in 2004. Blood Bowl is true fantasy football. Set in the Warhammer universe, this game pits humans against orcs in a miniatures based football game. Players advance the ball, block, tackle, score touchdowns, all that good stuff.
The fans of this game are pretty rabid about it. I’ve never gotten to try it, but I love Blood Bowl Team Manager (which is more about the behind the scenes process than about the actual games). It is one I’d like to try sometime – it’s apparently quite a time investment (3 hours), but is probably quite rewarding.
- The top five games of 1994: Blood Bowl 3rd Edition, RoboRally, 6 nimmt!, We the People, I’m the Boss!
1995: El Grande is a Spiel des Jahres winner from designers Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich. It was originally published by Hans im Glück, with the most recent English edition being a big box released by Z-Man for the 20th anniversary this year. El Grande is an area control game where players are first bidding on power cards which determine turn order and how many caballeros you have added to your available stash. Each player chooses an action card which allows them to add caballeros to the board with the goal of controlling, or at least coming in second or third in each region. After every three rounds, there is a scoring, and after the ninth round, the player with the most points wins.
This game pretty much defined the area control game in board gaming. It’s a very good, very tight game, and one of the few titles by Wolfgang Kramer that I actually like. I’ve only played in person once, and a few times online – I think it’s much better in person. The game has held up very well over time, and in fact is the highest rated game from the 1990s.
- The top five games of 1995: El Grande, The Settlers of Catan, PitchCar, Medici, Warhammer Quest
1996: Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage was designed by Mark Simonitch and originally published by Avalon Hill. The most recent English version was published by Valley Games in 2007. It’s a wargame about the Carthaginian leader Hannibal and his attempt to conquer Rome. The game uses a card-based system introduced in We the People. You’ll generally be positioning troops, reinforcing armies, gaining political control, and of course meeting on the battlefield. The winner will be the one who best dominates on military and political fronts.
I’ve never had any interest in this game, but it is one of the six games from the 1990s that are still in the top 100 at BGG. It can take anywhere from 40 to 200 minutes (which seems like a ridiculous times spread).
- The top five games of 1996: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Netrunner, Catan Card Game, Age of Renaissance, Show Manager
1997: Tigris & Euphrates was designed by Reiner Knizia and originally published by Hans im Glück. Fantasy Flight most recently published it in English in 2015. The game is set in the dawn of civilization, and players are trying to build up their own societies. Players are assigning leaders to collect victory points in their categories, and in the end, your lowest scoring leader is your final score.
I’ve played this once, and we got a lot of rules wrong, so I don’t feel qualified to give a final opinion. The game is considered to be Knizia’s masterpiece, and even spent some time at number one on the BGG rankings.
- The top five games of 1997: Tigris & Euphrates, For Sale, Bohnanza, Primordial Soup, Löwenherz
1998: Samurai is another game from Reiner Knizia, also published by Hans im Glück and most recently by Fantasy Flight. The game is set in medieval Japan, and players are trying to gain favor with the samurai, peasants, and priests. You are trying to surround cities with your pieces, then collect figures based on who has the most influence around the city. When all of one type of figure has been distributed, the game is over, and the player with the high score wins.
This game is part of Knizia’s tile laying trilogy (as is Tigris & Euphrates), and has a lot of fans who think it’s better than its predecessor. I haven’t played this one, but the pieces look really cool. It’s kind of abstract, but most Knizia games are.
- The top five games of 1998: Samurai, Through the Desert, For the People, Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, Elfenland
1999: Paths of Glory was designed by Ted Raicer and published by GMT Games. A deluxe edition was just produced in 2014. It’s a wargame set in World War I. This is another card-driven game where you are either the Germans or the Allied Powers, and are trying to put down the other team.
Not only is this game the top game from 1999, it’s also one of only three games from the 90s in the top 50, and probably the highest rated true wargame (Twilight Struggle is the only other contender, but I don’t see that as much as a wargame). It’s another long game (eight hours), but still has some really big fans. So if that’s your thing, check it out.
The highest ranked game from the 90s that wasn’t top of its year is Ra, another Reiner Knizia game. That’s four Knizia games on this list, proving that he owned the decade. Ra was published by alea, with Rio Grande publishing the most recent English edition in 2012 (though apparently Tasty Minstrel is working on an upcoming reprint). It’s an auction game set in Egypt. Players are bidding on lots of tiles, trying to collect the right kinds of sets. Sets score at the end of each epoch, and after three epochs, the player with the most points wins.
This game is a perfect storm of things that don’t interest me. Auctions, Knizia, and Egypt – none of those are appealing to me. And yet, I still would like to try it some time. It might be a train wreck, or it might just be the right combination to wow me. We’ll have to see.
- The top five games of 1999: Paths of Glory, Ra, Tikal, Roads & Boats, Time’s Up!
That’s it for the 90s. It’s good to look back on the past every now and then to see how far we’ve come, and also to see how greatness can remain great. Hope you enjoyed it – thanks for reading!