Issue 18: Top five desert island board games

It's a board game thought experiment.

Hello! It’s been a bit less than a week since we last met over this email, and I hope it’s been a good week for you all. It’s not been an overly exciting week here, though I did get some gaming in that I’m pleased about, so let’s start there this week.

What I’ve been playing

On Saturday, Ginny and I played a game of Century: A New World, which was a nice little worker placement game. It features the trademark ‘upgrade the cubes’ approach from its predecessors, and it generally met my expectations for the series. A nice, accessible worker placement game, all told.

I also played a solo game of Pandemic: Iberia. I did extremely poorly. Like, third round loss poorly. I don’t know quite how it happened, but I don’t think I planned properly for a second-turn epidemic, and I probably should have. It’s not my first rodeo. I also gave Raiders of the North Sea a solo play, which is something I’ve enjoyed with the app before. It’s a pretty well streamlined game with the app, so I’d recommend it.

All that came because I asked Instagram followers what games I should play on Saturday, and they didn’t disappoint. Some games suggested we didn’t get to:

  • Isle of Skye — actually, I’m not sure how this plays at two players. I might have to break it out.

  • Cacao — a great game! We’ll have to get to it soon.

  • Bärenpark — adorable bears, tile placement? What’s not to love. I just need more hours in the day.

  • Pandemic: Fall of Rome — I went with Iberia, but to let you in on a little secret, I’m planning a big ol’ Pandemic issue in March.

  • Viscounts of the West Kingdom — High on my list, I just didn’t quite have the energy for a brand new game.

  • Century: Spice Road — I opted with A New World (Ginny suggested it, and I’ve really wanted to play it, too)

We also played several rounds of Master Word, which was a real delight of a game. I’m sure I’ll have more about that one next week. Oh, and Gudetama — a trick-taking game that comes from the ‘Cucumber’ family of games.


There’s not too much today, but if you’ve made it this far, I figure I can take a few moments.

First, I’m looking to start a board game book club. I haven’t quite decided what the first book we’d read together would be, but I’m leaning toward GameTek by Geoff Engelstein. If you’re interested in joining, simply reply to this email, or message me on Instagram. I’ll be sending out an email on Wednesday, I hope, with more details.

Second, if you know somebody who might enjoy this newsletter, please do share it with them. Or if there’s something I should be reading that I haven’t talked about, please do share it with me. I’ll even include a handy button for you below.


Third, I don’t really have anything else this week, but I hope you’re enjoying the newsletter. If you ever have feedback for me, don’t hesitate to send an email my way. Thanks!

One of my favorite books and films, High Fidelity, features a recurring trope in which the main character Rob and his record shop associates make ‘top five’ lists relentlessly. (The best one? Top five side one, track ones, because I sure have opinions.)

In that spirit, and in the spirit of The Office after Ryan starts a cheese pita fire, here it is: my top five desert island board games.

A few ground rules first, though: Let’s say you have a supply of decks of cards, because you were traveling aboard a transport ship full of them. You won’t need more cards. It’s fine. Maybe you also brought a book of classic card games, so you don’t have to worry about, you know, bringing Hearts or something. That wouldn’t make any sense, anyway. And let’s say you were not alone on this island, and there are three other people with you, none of whom have any board games with them.

And before you ask: No, you can’t bring a box with the insert thrown away and survival supplies inside instead. Come on, Dwight.

The first game: Carcassonne

This is assuming I get to bring expansions. I’ve played Carcassonne a whole lot over the years, and I think I would enjoy continuing to play it a whole lot. Once a day? That sounds like a good start. I also find the solo mode a fun challenge, so we’re in business here.

Each expansion offers something slightly different, and while under normal conditions, in which you have access to more than just five games, I’d advise getting other games before getting the expansions, it’s going to be important to keep the game fresh and interesting.

The second game: Ganz Schön Clever, but with dry erase boards

This is probably my favorite roll-and-write game, and it’s a game that translates really well to repeated plays. I’ve played the game through the app many times, and it’s generally a relaxing experience. I figure that on this desert island, there will be a lot of time to kill, and there would be nothing better than a great roll-and-write to while away the hours.

The third game: Power Grid

One game I haven’t played in an age but think would make a good desert island game is Power Grid, an auction and resource management game about providing power to many people. There are several reasons this is on my list.

First, I think it’s important that I have something that reminds me that there was once a thing called electricity, even if it wasn’t on my desert island.

Second, I think the auction mechanic would be fun with groups that really get used to each other. There could be some interesting competition in that regard.

Third, I just love the little mathy conclusion the game comes to, and I recognize that might be anticlimactic for some people, but for me, it’s priceless.

The fourth game: Magic: The Gathering

I think this one might actually be cheating, but I’d bring several boxes of Magic: The Gathering cards with me from sets both old and new. As a teenager, I spent many hours refining my decks, and I think that would be a wonderful way to pass the time without actually playing a game with others. (I should also note that I loved playing blue control, and my decks rarely set out with the end goal of “win,” which I recognize now was particularly obnoxious.)

This photo’s actually a bit old by my board game photo standards, but it’s not as old as the effect implies. Anyway, it’s what I’ve got right now. I’ll post something more magical on Instagram, probably.

The fifth game: Cosmic Encounter

There is so much variety in this game that it’s staggering. All of the games above are a bit more focused on being interesting and consistent, but Cosmic Encounter is focused on being interesting and wildly inconsistent from game to game. That’s a fascinating dynamic, and it would be just loads of fun to play it over and over on a desert island. (Minus the desert island part. I actually don’t think I’d enjoy that at all.)

The games that got left behind on the wreckage of the ship

I considered the following games:

  • Tokyo Highway, because it would be interesting to see if I could ever get good at it, and because we’d need something to help our physical dexterity over time. It didn’t make the list because I would lose all the pieces and never play the game after two weeks on this island.

  • Pandemic, which I don’t think would present enough of a challenge over time as a cooperative game, even though I love the genre, and I love the game. But it does feel like it might get repetitive if it’s one of the five games I’m cycling through. But, hey, all of these might feel that way. This is why I own a few more than five games.

  • Twilight Imperium, because even though I’d have the time for it, I don’t think I care enough about it to bring it. Still, I’d like to play it at least once.

  • Merchant of Venus, because while I really enjoyed it when I played it, I still think a four-hour game might be a little long, even for a desert island. After all, I suspect a lot of time will be spent figuring out dinner for the night. That seems important.

  • Keyflower, because having something a bit chunky to really set the group into would be fun, and I think this worker placement classic would be a great one. Maybe this should knock off one of the games on the list. Hmm.