What gives a board game “evergreen” status? Our Tabletop staff discussed it, and decided a game had to meet a few criteria to receive that title. For one, an evergreen should be at least a decade old (approximately), and still in print. Second, it should be reworkable/expandable and have a recognizable “brand” that keeps it current. And third, it likely inspires clones and knock-offs as people try to recreate the game’s success. Here’s our top 5 picks, in no particular order except Derek’s chronological list because he’s extra.
Andrew Borck – Tabletop Writer
Forbidden Island (2010)
This is the first game I thought of when making this list, because it’s not just a great evergreen game but it’s also a great gateway game. One could argue that it just reimplements the same mechanics as Pandemic, but since it’s my pick I went with the game that makes it to my table more often; also they were both designed by Matt Leacock, and both were nominated for the Spiel des Jahres.
The Forbidden series sees players trying to cooperatively overcome a different situation tied to the game’s title – in Forbidden Island they’re trying to collect four artifacts and make it back to the helipad before the island sinks or strands them. Players manage their hand of treasure cards while moving around the island trying to keep as many areas afloat as possible. It’s easy to set up and explain, but the variable player powers and adjustable difficulty setting can keep “serious” gamers engaged. Also you can almost always find it on the shelf at any given game store, which is impressive for a game with so few reissues or versions in its catalog.
Ticket To Ride (2004)
Ticket To Ride debuted over 15 years ago, but is still getting new expansions and versions released to this day. I seriously doubt we would have as many train-based or pick-up-and-deliver games without the success of this game from Alan R. Moon. Players choose from a small amount of options each round (gain new cards or claim a route) as they try to complete routes and avoid getting cut off. What starts off as friendly and innocent can quickly evolve into a cutthroat race down to the wire as players attempt to finish their route before someone else beats them to it. It can also be played nicely from start to finish, I’ve heard.
Not only are there new versions such as Ticket To Ride: New York still coming out, but there are literally dozens of maps that can be used with one of the main base games. Not even counting the fan expansions, there is a Ticket To Ride game or expansion set on nearly every continent – if you wish you could build a train empire on it, chances are there’s a map for it.
Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan) was the award-winning “classic” gateway game before the tabletop boom of the 2000’s. While it arguably hasn’t aged as well as other games on the list, it’s evergreen status is undeniable. Walk into any game store and there’s going to be a dedicated shelf, table, or corner with nothing but Catan games and expansions and pop-culture reissues such as Star Trek or Game of Thrones Catan.
If you’ve never played or learned the rules to Catan (where are you from?) players roll dice to gain resources which they can use to gain more cards, settlements, and roads as they try to build their mini-empires on a small island. Even recent games such as Spirit Island owe some of their heritage to Catan’s island-conquering gameplay, which might seem done to death now but wasn’t in the 90’s. Also keeping the game interesting is the human element as players can trade with one another but there isn’t a set limit or rule on what’s allowed. So one round you might get a 1:1 trade for something you need but by the end of the game if you’re desperate you might find yourself considering a 4:1 trade just to get that last sheep that you need. Inviting for both veterans and new players alike, Catan occupies a unique space in tabletop history.
King of Tokyo (2011)
While King of Tokyo is my newest pick, it definitely meets and exceeds the other two criteria for evergreen status. Not only has it gotten a new edition in King of New York (and the upcoming King of Tokyo: Dark Edition) but over the years IELLO has consistently issued expansions and seasonal monsters to add to the mix of available playable characters.
King of Tokyo is simple to explain but full of options and possibilities – the “Yahtzee meets Godzilla” gameplay is entertaining and has strong table appeal. Players roll and reroll dice in order to get either the points, health, attacks, or energy they’re looking for. If they’re in Tokyo, their attacks affect all the other players; if they’re outside Tokyo, they attack the character inside the city. The winner is either the first to 20 victory points or the last character standing, and with all the colorful characters and power-ups it’s still a joy to play.
In my head, Carcassonne has the same evergreen status as Catan, despite being five years younger. Publishing new versions as recently as 2018’s Safari, it continues to re-implement itself and give gamers a reason to pick up new copies (I still wouldn’t mind getting the Star Wars version). While not being difficult to explain, Carcassonne gives players a wealth of options when placing their tiles, which are always different from game to game (not to mention placing the meeples).
Players try to finish roads, cities, and abbeys while managing a small cache of worker meeples to help them claim their placed tiles. The bigger the road or city, the more points it’s worth, but players also have to gauge the risk of waiting too long to close a city and missing out on a big lump of points. Almost any city-building game with tiles owes some of its heritage to Carcassonne.
Stephen Hall – Tabletop Editor
Cosmic Encounter (2008)
Cosmic Encounter is one of the very few games I rate a 10/10. The original version came out in 1977, and to this day, I still consider it to be the pinnacle of game design achievement. No other game is as broken-yet-balanced, as wildly swingy, or as infinitely variable.
The core of the game is very simple: be the first to establish 5 colonies on other players’ planets. The twist is that every player has an unbelievably, outlandishly, completely, totally amazing, game-breaking power. In essence, the “balance” of the game comes from its complete lack thereof. Any semblance of fairness is thrown out the window, the theory being that if every player is overpowered, then no one is.
Using a mix of cooperation, clever card play, and inter-player alliances, every game is a laugh-inducing, psychological experience. If you crave legendary, table-flip moments, no other game comes close to this one.
Sleuth is what Clue wishes it could be. This brain-tickling deduction exercise takes everything that is fun about logic puzzles and makes a timeless game out of it. From a deck of 36 unique cards, 1 is randomly set aside, face-down, at setup – the goal is to figure out which card it is.
The remainder of the deck is then dealt out to players, such that everyone knows a piece of the puzzle; that is, everyone knows a certain number of cards that are NOT the answer. Players then take turns asking their opponents questions about the cards in their hands. As the game progresses, they gain bits and pieces of information about the other cards – a little tidbit here, a vague clue there – until WHAM! Everything comes together in a glorious “a-ha!” moment. It really makes players feel like detectives.
It is an absolute crime that this game is not even in the top 1,000 on BGG. It’s quintessential “underrated gem,” and a true evergreen.
Cribbage is the oldest entry on this list by – no joke – almost 400 years. Back in the 1600’s, it was a pastime for English sailors, and the fact that it still retains such immense popularity today speaks volumes. It is the only game I have played more than 1,000 times, and it remains one of my favorites to this day.
Long before I was into tabletop gaming, cribbage was lighting the spark. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this game was teaching me about multi-use cards, set collection, and tactical strategy. It is what we hobbyists refer to as a “traditional card game,” meaning it is played with a standard deck of cards. Don’t judge it by its age or lack of “nerd appeal,” though. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better 2-player experience.
Cribbage is the ultimate “gets-better-the-more-you-play” game. And best of all, you only need a deck of cards and a ~$5-10 board to try it out!
Can’t Stop (1980)
I already mentioned Sleuth, but I have to mention Can’t Stop as well. Both games are by Sid Sackson, the greatest game designer of all time (fight me), and in the same way that Sleuth is the perfect deduction game, Can’t Stop is the perfect push-your-luck game.
In Can’t Stop, players race to be the first to the top of 3 numbered tracks. To do this, they take turns rolling 4 dice and combining them to form 2 numbers. Based on the results, they move up the corresponding tracks, and must then decide whether to stop and “save” their board positions, or roll again and risk all their progress.
This game tests players’ willpower, as they must decide whether to play it safe or go for broke. It always involves copious cheering and jeering, as players egg each other on, goading each other into rolling again when they really, really shouldn’t. Hilarious, and especially enjoyable with 2 players.
The Resistance (2009)
Just barely old enough to squeak in as an evergreen, The Resistance has steadily remained in my top 2 favorite games of all time (it flip-flops with Cosmic Encounter, depending upon the day). I love games full of deception and treachery, and this one is the gold standard of that entire category.
The Resistance did not create the social deduction genre, but it definitely brought it into the spotlight in the hobby. In this game, each player has a hidden role, either a good guy or a bad guy. Every round, a number of players are selected for a “mission,” and they each secretly play a card that determines its outcome. When a mission fails, the accusations fly, and it’s hilarious.
If you don’t mind throwing your friends under the bus and backing over them repeatedly, this game is a must-play.
Derek Thompson – Tabletop Writer
Magic: The Gathering (1993)
In 1994, some packs of Ice Age in a local Wal-Mart, combined with the baseball strike, changed my future trajectory completely towards nerd. And I’ve loved card combo games ever since; I don’t think any of the picks on my list would exist without Magic: The Gathering. It inspired so many games and entire genres, and even types of distribution. The idea of two battling wizards is commonplace now, but it felt so cool as a 10 year old kid with nothing else to do.
While I can see “flaws” in Magic nowadays — it’s too easy to get “manascrewed”, it’s often “pay to win” — it is undeniable that no other game has had such an impact on my life. I played it exclusively for almost 15 years, and I loved the game the whole time. Discovering new cards and combos with every set, facing intense, real competition at tournaments, the multiplayer politics of Commander battles, the anticipation and joy of just building a new deck by yourself — perhaps one of Magic’s most important legacies is simply the many ways in which it can be enjoyed.
Unfortunately, the other important legacy of Magic is its randomized distribution system, which is highly problematic. I spent far too much time, energy, and money playing Magic. I was addicted, and too blind to see it. Somehow Star Realms was able to wrest me away to a game where I at least wasn’t blowing gobs of cash while killing time and energy. I’d strongly discourage anyone with a prevalence towards addictive behavior from playing Magic, but it’s still the original, classic card battle for two players.
Twilight Struggle (2005)
It’s hard to go wrong with a game that slowly and steadily earned its spot as the #1 game of all time on BoardGameGeek, before the 2010’s led to an advent of “cult of the new ratings” leaving brand new games at many of the top spots. (Get off my lawn!) Twilight Struggle is a card-driven game that simulates the Cold War, and it does so by being a brutal, tense, long affair. Many games have tried to replicate its success, mostly by shortening its length (13 Days, Watergate, 1960: The Making of the President, etc.), but none have succeeded.
Some have also tried to adjust Twilight Struggle by taking away its key mechanisms, which are these: when you have to play a card with your opponent’s Event (both players share a common deck), your opponent still gets the Event! And quite often, you have no choice but to let them do it, and Events grow more devastating as the game progresses. The other key mechanism is Scoring cards. Regions are only scored for points when a player draws and plays the appropriate card; while that player can control the timing of the scoring, it also means they waste an action round doing it. Missing a turn to give your opponent 10 points? Brutal.
In one way or another, every “Twilight Struggle in an hour” knockoff I’ve played as tried to lessen its cruelty, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Twilight Struggle so good. You can skip most of the expansions, but if you find the game’s rulebook too daunting, I highly suggest checking out the app from Playdek.
Race for the Galaxy (2007)
It’s hard for me to explain Race for the Galaxy’s success. The buy-in for this game — the amount of iconography you had to learn — was so large, that after a few failed attempts, I had written this game off completely. However, thanks to the great digital app for the game (and before that, the Keldon AI), I was finally able to get this game to click. And it is truly brilliant. The iconography is necessary – it makes the game easily understood with a quick glance, when lots of things are happening around the table. And it’s actually very intuitive, once you understand it, though I feel you could say that for any system of icons. (“If you get it, then it makes sense!”) It surprises me that so many gamers had so much more patience than I did in 2007 and 2008.
While Race for the Galaxy didn’t exactly inspire entire new genres like some of my next picks, it’s impressive how much it got right for fast card games before deckbuilding even existed. While a shared pool of cards isn’t a new idea (see Twilight Struggle above), Race was one of the first games that players just shuffle up and get going. I’ve never liked resource management in board games much either, and Race turned that idea on its head by turning cards into resources, simplifying the game and forcing delicious turn angst at the same time. (Yes, San Juan had both ideas three years earlier, but my understanding is that many ideas of San Juan was borrowed from Lehmann, while Lehmann developed his own separate card game also inspired by Puerto Rico. Plus, Race is faster and prettier.) Other engine-builders with shared decks like Deus and 2019 darling Wingspan would simply not exist without Race for the Galaxy laying the groundwork.
Before I got heavy into board games, I played Magic: the Gathering exclusively for many years. So, I had plenty of experience with “deckbuilding”. But not like this. Dominion took a fundamental concept – players preparing their own deck of cards – and turned it into the game, rather than the pre-game. Such a simple twist on a concept that had been around for 15 years, but its impact was massive. Dozens of games — too many to list — have copied this mechanism since, so much so that it’s just as common of a mechanism as worker placement, tile-laying, or set collection.
Many games have tried to “improve” perceived flaws in Dominion. It’s too abstract; it’s “One Action, One Buy” rule is too restrictive; it has weak art and no theme, and so on. While the art and theme could be improved, the gameplay of Dominion needs no adjustment. It’s just clean. Even the designer himself took “redesigning” the game too far in recent expansions, and Dominion: Renaissance was a return to simpler times. My favorite (and perhaps the most underrated) expansion is Hinterlands, because it simply has crazy cool new cards without any bells or whistles. And that’s what makes Dominion work so well: it’s a bridge between traditional Eurogames and card-combo lovers like me who grew up on Magic and Cosmic Encounter. Oh, and speaking of expansions? Dominion: Menagerie (a new set, not the eponymous card) is arriving this March. And as long as they keep coming, I’ll keep buying.
7 Wonders (2010)
You can say all you want about Fairy Tale being the first “drafting game,” but 7 Wonders was the game that popularized it. (And given Antoine Bauza’s love for Magic: the Gathering, I’m pretty sure that was a more likely source of inspiration.) Much like Dominion took the deckbuilding pre-game of Magic and turned it into the game itself, 7 Wonders took the popular drafting style of building Magic decks from brand new packs of cards, and turned that into the game itself. Unlike Dominion, 7 Wonders is a gorgeous game with a serviceable, popular theme. And Bauza took great care to make more than just a game with drafting. The wonders, the resource engine, the way the game focuses on neighbors, the card combos — everything just works, as if this was a very old design, iterated repeatedly until chiseled to perfection.
7 Wonders has its share of expansions, but I’m not willing to go much past Leaders and Cities; I don’t need boards and more tokens in what is first and foremost a card game. However, what’s really most impressive about the legacy of 7 Wonders is not its expansions or its vast array of knockoffs (still going strong today), but rather its 2-player version. It’s fairly standard for designers to try and capture a successful game in a 2-player-only version (Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, Imhotep: the Duel, Rivals of Catan, etc.), but none have succeeded like 7 Wonders: Duel, which is just as good of a game as 7 Wonders. What I find particularly impressive about 7 Wonders: Duel are Bruno Cathala’s additions, some of the ideas swiped from the criminally underrated Sobek (science tokens, face-down cards) work incredibly well here. While Dr. Shark was a bust, I’d love to see those two work together some more.
So that’s our picks – any you already have, or want to add to your wish list? Be sure to support your friendly local game store, if possible. You should be able to find most, if not all of these on the shelf. Happy gaming!