These are our picks for the top ten most underrated board game hidden gems. We used BoardGameGeek’s rankings as a guide, and we’ve picked out 10 games that we personally love that aren’t ranked as high as they should be..
We’re not including genres like war games, card games, or 18XX games where the entire genre is under-ranked by BGG’s algorithm. We’d rather celebrate those games with their own top ten lists.
We didn’t order this list by how good the games are, but by how criminal we think their current BoardGameGeek rank is. We’ve tried to point out why we think these games are so special, and also why we think they got ranked so low.
If you notice any games we missed, leave a comment. We always love to hear about new-to-us games.
10. Kohle & Kolonie
Kohle & Kolonie is a game about coal mining in the Ruhr Valley pre-WWI. It's artwork is kind of bland, its title is in German, and it takes place in Europe between the industrial revolution and WW1. In other words, it's the sort of game that people who like heavier Euros fantasize about before they fall asleep, so it's surprising that a game that has all that going for it is ranked at #1970 on BGG, especially since heavier Euros can usually count on rising into the top 1000 just by catering to an enthusiastic and underserved niche.
And Kohle & Kolonie is a solid heavy Euro. It has a few interesting new mechanics, and a lot of the game's depth comes from how limited resources and actions are. It does take a couple playthroughs for players to understand the game's strategy and see how much depth the game has to offer, but it takes less of an investment to play well than most other heavy Euros, and the gameplay is a lot more intuitive for beginners as well. Kohle & Kolonie combines together some of the best parts of heavy Euros with some of the best parts of medium Euros. It's a great game to play as a compromise, or as an introduction to heavier Euros. So why does Kohle & Kolonie rank so low? There's actually a lot of reasons.
Like a lot of games on this list, Kohle & Kolonie had crap marketing. Most of the people we've talked to, even people who are fans of and keep an eye out for heavy Euros, haven't ever heard of Kohle & Kolonie. That was the case when the game was released in late 2013, and its still the case today six years later. Most of the people who are aware of the game only found out about it when they found it sitting in the discount bin of their FLGS.
Kohle & Kolonie also has a horrible instruction booklet. Horrible to the point that it's useless. When you buy the game you can toss the instruction booklet, and you won't have lost anything of value. If you haven't played Kohle & Kolonie, you need to get an experienced player to teach the game to you, or you need to find online guides and how to play videos to learn it.
That same lack of quality extends to the artistic design of the game. There's nothing wrong with the quality of the components, but the artwork is plain. That would've been fine ten or even five years earlier, but by 2013 gamers expected their game's to look pretty, and the wow! factor of being cool looking when laid out on the table helps sell a lot of games. It's a wow! factor this game really needed too, since the mechanics are good, but they're not special enough to get most players excited.
The real death nail for this game though is the press your luck mechanic used for mining disasters. Disasters are determined through a random draw, but the less resources a player invests in safety, the more likely it is they'll have an accident. The mechanic is a good thematic fit for the game, and players can control the odds of having a disaster, but it's still a random mechanic that can advantage or disadvantage a player based on the luck of the draw. Most players who enjoy heavy Euros dislike luck based mechanics, and when a game takes three hours to play, losing or even winning a close game because of a lucky draw isn't much fun.
That said, mining disasters aren't so integral to the gameplay that they make Kohle & Kolonie a luck based game. A lot of players are fine with the mechanic, especially since the odds can be controlled, and it would fit well in a lot of light and even medium Euros. It's just an unfortunate mar on an otherwise tight Euro.
504 was designed by Friedemann Friese, a man whose previous design, Power Grid, was once ranked #2 on BGG, and still sits at a respectable #34. In contrast, 504 is currently ranked #2518 despite having a lot of buzz prior to its release, despite having a big name designer and a lot of marketing, despite being recommended as a must play for aspiring board game designers, and despite having official rules to use it as a stock market expansion for Power Grid.
504 isn't a game, it's 504 games. Essentially there are nine different game modules, and there are three different slots they can be put into, and each module behaves a little bit differently depending on which slot its in. All told there are 504 different combinations available, and each one is more or less a unique game.
504 games for the price of 1 is a pretty good deal, and this game has a respectable number of adoring fans, so why doesn't it rank higher? There's a few reasons for it, but it mostly comes down to this game not being everyone's cup of tea.
Firstly, 504 doesn't have 504 great games. The vast majority of games are below average to average quality, and a few are just plain bad. There are some above average games, but with so many different games they're hard to find, and all of the games are sans theme.
Other than aspiring board game designers, this is a game that's aimed at people who like to play new games. You can literally play hundreds of games of 504 and never play the same game twice. Winning at 504 isn't about studying a game's strategies in depth, it's about figuring out the basic strategies to a new game before your opponent.
To really enjoy 504 you have to be into the concept, and to get it to the table you have to know other players who are into it too. 504 doesn't make any effort to wow! new players. Your first game of 504 may be underwhelming, and there's a good chance it will be downright bad. 504 makes players do the work to fall in love with it, and unless you're already enamored with the game before you open the box, you'll probably never get there.
Arkwright is a very heavy, fiddly, Euro that takes hours to play. The game is about running factories in Britain during the industrial revolution, and although it's a Euro through and through, its design has been influenced quite a bit by 18XX games. It's currently ranked at #507 on BGG.
Arkwright uses a lot of mechanics that seem new and strange at a glance, but are actually rooted in older mechanics. It uses a unique tile laying mechanic to take actions, but it's very similar to how Concordia uses cards to take actions, and how players can buy cards to gain superior actions. It has development tiles that give your factory special abilities, but these are similar to occupations in Agricola, and they're drafted from a random pool like how it's done in Brew Crafters. Arkwright has a robust stock market mechanic, which isn't common in Euros, but it's very similar to the 18XX games that are more focused on portfolio building than stock manipulation.
Arkwright also has a wonderfully complex system to facilitate price wars between players. It takes into account the price and quality of goods along with the current demand for them.
Arkwright's biggest issue, and part of the reason it's rated so heavily, is its rulebook. With the single exception of Kohle & Kolonie, this is the worst rulebook we've ever read. It isn't just one rulebook either, its three relatively thick rulebooks, and you have to cross reference between them if you want to understand them. The English translation is bad, and at different times it manages to be confusing, misleading, and ambiguous. The books can't be used to quickly reference anything, like if a player can do X on their turn, because the rulebook may say on their turn players can do X, Y, and Z, but three paragraphs down it will clarify that players can never do X. Even the development tiles, which have text on them to explain what they do, need to always be looked up, because there are paragraphs of expanded rules and exceptions to fully explain the tile in the rulebook (seriously these should have been cards containing all the relevant text).
Luckily the designer has been active on BGG and has clarified a lot of the rule ambiguities. Keep in mind that if you want to learn the game rules from the rulebook, you're going to have to dig through the BGG forums for clarifications, because there's still not an FAQ that collects all of the designer's answers to questions.
Arkwright's other big issue is its Spinning Jenny variant. The variant is a stripped down version of the game which is intended to make it a faster playing medium Euro, and it's the recommended way to introduce new players to the game. Unfortunately Spinning Jenny removes most of the game's strategic depth and almost everything that makes it special. A lot of the game's negative reviews are from players who have only played the Spinning Jenny variant, and found it so dull they have no desire to try the full game.
7. The King Is Dead
The King Is Dead is an area control Euro set in Britain following the death of King Arthur. Players are members of King Arthur's court using diplomacy to unite the different factions and regions under their rule. The game is a great example of a light, minimalist styled Euro game that, nevertheless, has deep gameplay.
The King is Dead has an MSRP of $25, because it doesn't use a lot of pieces. There's a small board, a few wooden cubes, an eight card hand for each player, eight cards to randomize territory scoring order, and a small rulebook.
The game is played in eight rounds, and each player has an eight card hand, each card being a different unique action. Players can play as many cards as they want in a round, but once they play a card it gets discarded and can't be returned to their hand, so each player gets, at most, eight actions before the end of the game.
The King is Dead is rules light (I've already explained over half the game's rules), and it plays in about 30 minutes, and even has an optional variant.
This is a great game if you want something that plays fast but still has a bit of depth to it, if you want something that doesn't need a lot of table space to play, if you're a fan of area control games, or if you're a fan of minimalist designs. Despite how good and accessible it is, its BGG rank is #1283.
The King Is Dead is a reskin of a 2007 game, the King of Siam. That game does a little, but not much, better ranking at #1169, probably due to being released eight years earlier and having a stronger theme. The King is Dead's Arthurian theme is well integrated, but it's been overdone, and the game's art design is perfectly serviceable, but nothing special.
The real issue with The King is Dead and the King of Siam is neither game had good marketing. Both games were released by smaller publishers, and both are virtually unknown games. Even though we're huge fans of area control games, and huge fans of minimalist designs, and we make an effort to keep up with new releases, The King is Dead nearly flew under our radar, and we only found out about the King of Siam when we looked on the BGG page for The King is Dead.
6. Gold West
Gold West is a game about creating a Gold Mining empire in mid-19th century California. It's a light weight Euro that usually plays in about an hour, focuses heavily on area control, and it looks beautiful. Even though the game gets a lot of love from its fans, and has some glowing reviews, it's ranked at #710 on BGG.
Part of the problem with Gold West is it doesn't do anything new. The game is full of mechanics that most of us have already seen in other games. It's hard to get excited about a Euro if it doesn't have a new mechanic to show off. New mechanics aren't everything though. Terra Mystica didn't feature any new mechanics, and its always ranked high and sold well. Like Terra Mystica, Gold West integrates old mechanics together in interesting and new ways, and the gameplay is really good.
Gold West's biggest issue is it just hasn't had good marketing. The game was released in 2015, and we keep ourselves pretty up to date on the current hottness, yet we didn't find out about Gold West until this year, and we only found out because a friend of a friend of a friend posted a picture of themselves playing the game on Facebook, and it miraculously got back to us and we thought, 'damn that looks like a cool game.'
5. Reef Encounter
Reef Encounter was designed by Richard Breese, better known for his Key series of games, and in particular Keyflower, a game which cracked the BGG top 100. At it's core, Reef Encounter is an abstract game about laying tiles on a board, defending your sets from other players, and eventually picking up your sets to score points. There are also mechanics for changing the point values of tiles, and timing is really important. Reef Encounter is a solid tile laying abstract with lots of player interaction and tension.
Reef Encounter also has a very strong theme. Players are Parrotfish eating coral and the shrimp that are on them. This isn't just a tacked on theme either, it's well integrated into the game, and it's done better than any abstract we can think of. In fact it's integrated better than most Euro themes. Also the theme and everything about the game is really, really, really, really, really, really, cute.
Despite its wonderful theme, colorful artwork and fantastic gameplay, Reef Encounter is currently ranked at #579. Unlike a lot of games on this list, we don't think there's a big reason why it isn't ranked higher, we think it's a lot of little reasons.
First off the instruction booklet is subpar. It's not incomprehensible, it's just confusing and requires some work to understand. The instructions are just more complicated than they should be. Despite how complicated the rulebook makes the game seem, we've seen people who know the rules easily teach the game to new players. We've taught the game to new players without any issues.
Secondly, as far as we've noticed, the game has never had a big marketing push. We found the game because we're big fans of Richard Breese, and almost every fan of the game we've talked to found the game because they're fans of Richard Breese, or because they know a Richard Breese fan who introduced them to the game.
Lastly the game came out in 2004, and that was just bad timing. In 2004 people liked games named after cities with pictures of the city on it. Games about war did well too. Power Grid had one of the cutest art designs of 2004, and Ticket To Ride's artwork was pushing the boundaries of how cute designer games were allowed to be. We've talked to a lot of players who played the game and liked it when it was new, but they didn't buy it because it was too cute and they felt self-conscious having something that cute in their collection.
It's fifteen years later, and cute designs are finally in fashion. No one feels embarrassed playing a cutesy game so long as the gameplay is good.
Quantum is what's known as a 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate). Players move spaceships across the board to explore the universe, conquer planets, and fight each other by rolling dice. The game has six different kinds of ships, each with their own movement and attack stats and special abilities. There's a tech advancement system where players buy cards to give their alien species unique abilities or one-time benefits. The game also has a modular board with dozens of different setups and tips for creating your own maps.
Quantum is also a Euro. It's rules light. The rulebook is only a few pages long and it can be taught in under 10 minutes. A game only takes about an hour to play. It's a good fit for people who like light Euros, for people who like 4X games, for people who just want to roll dice, and for groups that are looking for a short game while they wait for another game to end.
Quantum got a glowing review from Shut Up and Sit Down, it has a large number of fans, and it's harshest critics usually just say the game is only average or not one of their favorite games to play. To be fair, some people are turned off by Quantum's dice based combat and that luck is a larger factor than in most Euros, but that's true of most 4X games. The game wasn't just good, when it was released in 2013, it hit on almost everything that was popular with the top-rated games. A lot of people felt Quantum should've cracked BGG's top 100 and been a breakout hit for designer Eric Zimmerman. However it's six years later and the game is OOP with only a single promo expansion and sitting at #418 on BGG.
So what happened? Quantum was picked up by a small publisher who decided to play it safe rather than have faith in the game. The game didn't have a good marketing push, and most people only found out about the game after Shut Up and Sit Down decided to do a review on it, or after it appeared on Board Game Arena. The game had a low production value, and it shows in the component quality. The publisher chose to go with a low price/high margin rather than trust that the game could sell well at a higher MSRP. There's even talk that the designer had developed an expansion (and this is the sort of game that could really benefit from expansions), but the publisher never bothered to pursue it.
One issue we have with the game, which isn't publisher specific, is the game's basic map. It's a pretty bland yet balanced map that focuses equally on exploration and combat, and it's meant to be a good map for teaching new players all the concepts in the game. The problem is it's a very boring map that doesn't showcase the game well. Every time we've used that map to introduce new players to the game, it's very hard to get them to agree to a second game. When we introduce players to the game with some of the other maps, most of them end up really liking it.
3. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Years ago we went looking for a story-telling board game to add to our board game collection. We found the names of about a dozen story-telling games and started reading and watching the reviews to figure out which one was the best. Half of the games had negative reviews that said they weren't really games, they were just story-telling exercises. The other half were games, but they were setup in a way that playing optimally to win and telling the best story were often mutually exclusive. With every review the reviewer would point out the fatal flaw of the game, and then they would talk about how The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen got it right. Finally we went on Ebay and bought a copy of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (it was OOP at the time).
Baron Munchausen is the best story-telling game ever made. As far as we can tell after sitting through hours of reviews, it's the only story-telling game that's actually a game and not broken. Not only is it rules light (you can teach the game in 10 minutes), it has the most entertaining instruction book ever written. Despite a ton of glowing reviews, it's ranked a dismal #2841 on BGG. So what happened?
Probably the biggest issue is Baron Munchausen doesn't know what it is. It sells itself as an RPG, but if it's an RPG it's an RPG in the most basic and abstract way. I guess it could be considered a LARP where players play characters that are playing a game. It narrowly manages to meet BGG's standards to be listed as a board game, and only because it uses money or chips to represent money (the game is sold as just an instruction booklet). It's a gambling game and a drinking game, but the gambling and the drinking are both optional, and not integral to the gameplay.
At least for our gaming group, Panamax was the most anticipated new release of 2014, and when it arrived it delivered. It's easily the 2nd best medium-to-heavy Euro of 2014 after La Granja (which didn't get a full release until 2015), and we can't think of any new game that got to the table as often in 2015. Five years in, and this game still gets played regularly.
Panamax is a medium Euro about moving ships through the Panama canal that typically plays in under 2 hours. It has a lot of unique and interesting mechanics, like drafting rolled dice to take actions and the way ships move through the canal, and it has quite a bit of depth. It's also kind of semi-cooperative. Victory usually doesn't come just by maximizing your actions, but by also positioning yourself so your opponents have to improve your position to maximize their actions.
If you like deeper games, and you want something with enough replayability to get 100+ plays out of it without getting bored, but don't want something so heavy most players will feel overwhelmed, Panamax is an easy recommendation.
So why is this game, which we think deserves to be in BGG's top 100 or at least top 150, currently sitting at #527? Looking at the negative reviews of the game, there's a pattern of complaints. The game is too fiddly. The game takes too long to play. The game is broken and unbalanced. Luck plays too big a factor. We agree 100% with all of these complaints if you're playing the game for the first time, and probably for the first couple times after that too.
The problem with Panamax is it's designed for players who are already experienced Panamax players. The game is balanced for mid and high level play, but not so much for beginning players. The game's unique mechanics takes a bit of time to understand, and although we wouldn't classify Panamax as a punishing game, if you don't understand how the game plays out it's possible to take what seem like reasonable moves in the first round that leave you in an unwinnable position. It's not uncommon for a game of all first time players to take 4 or 5 hours to get through, but if you have four experienced players, average playtime is about 90 minutes.
HM. Madeira and Cottage Garden
We want to give an honorable mention to two games, Madeira which is sitting at #326 and Cottage Garden which is at #707.
Madeira didn't make the list because considering it's a heavy Euro, its #326 ranking is pretty respectable, and after becoming popular while OOP it's getting a good marketing push and an upcoming deluxe edition. When it released in 2013, Madeira was the heaviest Euro ever created (its BGG weight is currently at 4.27), and it was virtually unknown (we found it by specifically searching for the heaviest Euro in BGG's database). If you're looking for a really heavy Euro, this is a fantastic game and our #1 recommendation.
The other game, Cottage Garden, was created by designer Uwe Rosenberg, and is currently ranked at #707. Despite its low ranking, its had a lot of good marketing and is pretty well known, so it's hardly a hidden gem.
Rosenberg is mostly known for his fantastic medium-heavy Euros, but he's also put out some really great light games, and Cottage Garden's predecessor, Patchwork, cracked the BGG top 100. We feel like Cottage Garden should have gotten there too, or at least got into the top 200.
Cottage Garden has a lot in common with Patchwork, but it has a bit more depth and is a bit heavier of a game. It plays up to four players, but it plays well as a two player game, and is every bit as much of a good couples game as Patchwork is. We love Cottage Garden and recommend it to any Rosenberg and Patchwork fans who might have been turned off by its lower ranking.
Barrage is our pick for the best game of 2019. The year isn't over yet, but it's unlikely anything will come out that will change our minds. Barrage is an asymmetrical Euro about building damns to generate electricity with medium-weight rules and tons of depth. The game uses worker placement, an original rondel mechanic to build structures, and another original mechanic involving water and how it flows down river.
If you're into medium or heavy Euros, Barrage should be on your wishlist. The game is currently ranked #1546 on BGG.
A big reason for Barrage's low ranking is that it was a Kickstarter, and it's had fulfillment issues, and it's shipped with some low quality components. From what we've heard the publisher is working to resolve fulfillment issues and replace some components with better quality pieces, but it's a shame that such a great design got released like this.
Barrage is also the sort of game that turns off certain players. The rules aren't hard to learn, but playing the game well is. There's a lot of original mechanics, and the game has to be played quite a few times to understand what strategies work. Barrage is also big on planning ahead and can be very punishing. If you don't start the game with a strategy to score in the last two rounds, and if your opening move doesn't play into that strategy, you've already lost the game.