Every now and then you find a board game that takes you by surprise. One that shocks you by being so much more than you expected it to be.
Today I’m going to run through a list of twenty-five boardgames that blew me away or shocked me in some way. Games that were more fun, more complex, surprisingly deep or just more of a game than I ever expected.
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A question about surprisingly complex board games
This topic of board game surprises is inspired by this question we received:
I’ve actually thought before that an interesting discussion topic would be “Surprisingly advanced games”: older games with mechanics we think of as recent inventions, or even newer games that are ‘gamier’ than we’d expect (mass-marketed “Hunger Games: District 12” is a EURO!?!)
First off I want to thank Prayerborne for the topic.
While I do think this is a great topic I thought it would be more interesting if I expanded on Prayerborne’s question just a bit. So instead of only talking about games that surprised me by being more complex or ‘gamier’ than expected, I want to share with you some games that took me by surprise in a number of ways.
Below you will find a list of twenty-five games that were somehow more than I expected. Some were more complex but others were more fun or did something totally new, or were kids games that were surprisingly fun for adults, and so on.
25 Board Games that were much better than expected:
Medium – I first started hearing about Medium after GenCon 2019. Based on what I was hearing on board game media, it sounded like everyone was playing this game. Right when the buzz started, I contacted the designers and asked if they would be willing to send a review copy.
Then when Medium showed up and I read the rules, I was shocked by how simple a concept this was and I was rather confused about all the buzz. How could this silly word game be getting all the attention it was? Then we sat down to play it, three-player at first, with just the Bellhop team, and after the first round of the game, I totally got it.
Despite how simple a concept it is, Medium works extremely well. The first hand of cards had us giggling and by the end of the first round, all of us had laughed so much it hurt. Future plays with more and different players just cemented just how great a party game this is.
Check out my detailed review of Medium for more information on this excellent word association game.
Funko Pop! Funkoverse Games – Last year at the Windsor ComiCon local gamer Jeff and I were running a table as part of The CGRealm’s booth where we were doing demos of board games while raising money for Extra Life. One of the games we were teaching was the Funkoverse Harry Potter Base Set.When we first arrived at the con, neither of us had played the game. To say I wasn’t expecting much from it is an understatement. Before they started letting people into the hall I quickly read the rules and was already impressed by what looked like a solid amount of depth to this silly looking game with huge headed characters. By the time we were done our first demo, I was sold.
The Funkoverse games are surprisingly solid modular gateway skirmish miniature wargames. I’ve since learned that the rules were actually developed by hardcore miniature gamers whose goal was to make an entry-level wargame even families could enjoy.
For more information on this series of games check out my Funko Pop! Funkoverse Harry Potter Base Set review.
Hamsterolle – This excellent dexterity game has shown up on a number of game recommendation articles here on Tabletop Bellhop and with good reason, this is one of the best dexterity games on the market. What’s surprising about Hamsterolle is that it’s not just about manual dexterity and steady hands.
To play Hamsterolle well takes tactical play and sometimes even a bit of strategy. Deciding where to place your piece is as important as being able to physically place it. Along with this, after a few plays, you quickly realized that looking to see what pieces your opponents have sitting in front of them and deciding what to place based on what they have can be very important.
Go Cuckoo – Wayne “The Star Wars Guy” Humfleet is to blame for my love of Go Cukoo. At Origins 2019 he told me that one of the things I had to do while at the con was go to the Haba booth and try Go Cuckoo. He called it “Reverse Pick Up Sticks.” Now I trust Wayne, so while meeting with T from Haba I asked them to show me the game and I was instantly intrigued.
Go Cuckoo starts off with a cylindrical metal tin with a bunch of sticks sticking out of it (the pick up sticks Wayne had mentioned). Each round you pull a number of sticks and then place them back onto the can horizontally, with sticks slowly building a nest-like structure. At times you will also be trying to balance these rather heavy eggs onto the emerging nest. The first player to play all of their eggs and place the Kiki Cuckoo meeple onto the nest wins the game.
Until you have actually tried this game you have no idea how much fun it is. Similar to Hamsterolle a big part of the game is the tactics of where to place the sticks you pull and trying to sabotage the entire thing for the next player. It’s a truly brilliant game that everyone I have ever taught to play has enjoyed.
For a more detailed look at this game, check out my review of Go Cuckoo.
Horrified – I realize I’m in the minority but I’ve never seen, nor really had much interested in, the classic Universal Studios monster movies. Due to this, I paid no attention when Horrified, a board game about them, was released. This was another case where there was so much hype about the game going on online that I felt I needed to give it a shot and I’m very glad I did.
Ravensburger’s Horrified is one of the best cooperative games I’ve played. It’s mostly a pick-up and deliver set collection game but exactly what you need to pick up and where you need to deliver things changes depending on which monsters are in play. The number of monsters in play also greatly changes the difficulty level making this a great game for scaling the difficulty to match player experience levels.
Check out my Horrified review for a deeper dive into this great cooperative game.
King Me! – When I first heard about King Me I was a bit intrigued. The weekend before discovering this game my wife and I were at a brewery, there was a checkerboard on the table that we sat at and we ended up playing a few games of Checkers while enjoying our beers. Playing the basic game of Checkers was more enjoyable than I remembered, so when I saw this Ravensburger game that was some new version of checkers I was curious to check it out.
What I didn’t expect was for King Me! to be so much better than the classic game it’s based on. King Me! takes Checkers and turns it into a near-perfect information area majority game, where controlling different sections of the board will score points for players throughout the game. The deeper into enemy territory the more points that section is worth for your side. Every area on the board will score once and only once during the game and you get plenty of heads up on what areas will be scoring next.
This game is both tactical and highly strategic and so much more fun than just playing Checkers. To learn more about this game check out my King Me! review.
Camel Up – When I first saw Camel Up I passed over it thinking it was just a gateway racing game that happened to be using camels instead of race cars or horses. It wasn’t until playing a friend’s copy of the game that I realized just how much more there is to this game. While the game features a race it’s not really about racing at all, instead, it’s about betting.
A couple of things stand out about Camel Up. The first is the fact that no one player owns any camel in the race. Instead, players are placing bets on which camels they think will be in the lead each round as well as the winners and losers of the overall race. The second is the brilliance of the camel stacking rules and how they affect the way all of the pieces move. There is way more to this game than just hoping you roll better than your opponents and win the race.
Minecraft Builders & Biomes – It was my podcast co-host Sean that convinced me to give this Minecraft board game a shot. His family loves the digital version of Minecraft. So after trying a terrible Minecraft card game he went looking for a much better game and found Builders and Biomes. While we both expected this game to be better than the card game, we were shocked by just how much more of a game this is.
What was most surprising about Builders & Biomes is just how strategic this game is. The game is played out over three rounds with different types of things scoring each round. Decisions made in the first turn of the game will affect your final scoring in round three. Added to that are some excellent tie ins to the licence including the big block cubes and the way you draft blocks, as well as equipment upgrades and fighting off mobs like creepers for bonus points and end game scoring.
Check out my Minecraft Builders & Biomes review for more information about this surprisingly good licenced board game.
Jaws – Similar to Horrified, Jaws is another game where I’m not actually familiar with the licence the game is based on. Except for knowing the Jaws “music” and the fact that it’s about a big shark, I’m unfamiliar with this classic movie. Due to this, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Jaws the Board Game. This is one of those modern board games that proves that we are past the time of all licenced games being terrible.
Jaws is an example of yet another excellent licenced board games that surprised me by just how good it is. Jaws the Board Game is a one vs. many game split over two acts where one player plays the shark while the other players play characters from the movie. In act one the characters are trying to hunt down the shark whereas in act two it’s the shark who becomes the hunter.
For a more detailed look at this movie tie in board game, check out my Jaws review.
Qwirkle – You can find copies of Qwirkle everywhere. It’s a mass-market game I think I’ve seen in every store with a game section and that’s the main reason that most hobby gamers might not expect much from it. Qwirkle is a tile-laying game with a lot of similarities to Scrabble, except in Qwirkle you are matching shapes and colours instead of spelling words. Qwirkle also deviates from Scrabble by not needing a board.
Without requiring words, Qwirkle does a great job of being much more accessible and levelling the playing field between players. The tile placement rules lead to a rather tactical game which can also reward some long term strategic planning. This is a game that I like to break out for friends and family who claim they don’t like hobby board games and it pretty much always manages to win people over.
Zenteeko – I had never heard of Zenteeko until I was contacted by the publisher on Instagram who asked me to review a copy. At that time I was still pretty new to this Bellhop thing and jumped at the chance to be able to review a new game. What I wasn’t expecting is how much I would actually enjoy the game.
On the surface, Zenteeko seems like a version of Nine Men’s Morris perhaps crossed with any get four in a row style game, and I do have to admit the two-player version does feel pretty much like that. It was the three-player rules for Zenteeko that really sold me on the game. With three players it’s all about the balance of trying to score a win without accidentally giving that win to one of the other players.
The other great thing about this game, which you can read in my Zenteeko review, is that it is very portable. The component quality is top-notch and pretty much weatherproof, which makes this a great game for bringing on trips outside. Either on a picnic, to the beach, or, our personal favourite, to keep us occupied while the kids are playing at a splash pad.
Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle – This is another game I have to thank Sean, my co-host, for introducing me to. While I’m not a big Harry Potter fan my girls are and when Sean told me there was a really solid Harry Potter card game out there I decided to give Hogwarts Battle a shot. What I found most impressive about Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle is how the game slowly introduces you to the gameplay and how that gameplay evolves over time.
There are seven boxes included in the game, one for each of the main Potter books. As you complete one book you open the box for the next book which includes new rules and new components. This adds a legacy game aspect to this deck builder. Another shock came partway through playing when the difficulty significantly ramped up at book number five.
Kingomino – This domino based game was another one that had a lot of hype surrounding it when it came out. I first got to try it during one of our Extra Life events when I grabbed a demo copy off the shelf at the local game store and Deanna and I played it early Sunday morning while half asleep. That morning we played three games in a row. I immediately went and purchased my own copy of the game, put the demo copy back on the shelf, and then played my new copy another two times.
Kingdomino features very simple to learn rules and plays in a very short playtime but manages to fit in a ton of difficult choices, planning, and testing of your spatial awareness, in that tiny time slot. This game featured many Eureka! moments as we first learned to play it, as the game evolved from just trying to fill out our kingdoms without leaving gaps, to trying to maximize crowns, to learning to watch what your opponents are doing. There aren’t many games that are this deep in this small of a package.
Risk Star Wars Edition – Seeing the name Risk on this box is going to scare away a large number of hobby gamers, which is a shame as this version of Risk happens to be really solid. What a lot of people don’t know is that this is actually a re-theme and re-imagining of a classic Star Wars board game, The Queens Gambit.
In Risk Star Wars Edition you are using card play to take part in three battles at once, all set during the Return of the Jedi movie. There’s the battle in space, the mission to blow up the shield generator on Endor and Luke and Vader’s epic duel in front of the Emperor. It’s an excellent game, which I think would have actually sold better and be more popular if it wasn’t tied to the whole Risk franchise.
Blokus – Here’s another mass-market game that you can find almost everywhere and it easy to dismiss due to that fact. Blokus is a very tactile palomino based game where players are trying to get as many of their pieces on the board as possible. When placing tiles your tiles can only touch your own tiles by the corners. This brilliant rule makes it so that you can often slip your pieces between opponents’ pieces and being able to cut another player off takes tactics and planning. While playing Blokus with experienced players is an almost chess-like experience, the rules are simple enough you can even play it with young kids.
Ticket to Ride New York – Despite its popularity I’ve never been a big fan of Ticket To Ride. One of the main things that keeps me from playing the original is how long it takes to play through a full game, especially at higher player counts, as well as the fact that the game isn’t all that great with two players. When I have the time to play longer games I would rather play something else and when it’s just me and another player I prefer tighter games.
To my surprise, I learned that Ticket to Ride New York fixes both of these problems. Ticket to Ride New York scratches that set collection route building itch and manages to do it in under half an hour even at the maximum player count. Added to that it’s extremely cutthroat and tactical with only two players.
Even if you aren’t a Ticket to Ride fan I suggest giving New York a shot.
Homeland the Game – This is another licenced board game where I’m completely unfamiliar with the property it’s based on. Homeland is another game I would probably never have even noticed if it wasn’t for board game media buzz. I heard a number of people talking about how this was a great social deduction game that had many similarities to Battlestar Galactica, one of my favourite games of all time, so I had to check it out.I’m pleased to say that the buzz was right.
Homeland is actually quite similar to BSG, using a hidden card mechanic that does remind me of skill checks in the sci-fi classic. Compared to Battlestar, Homeland has a much quicker playtime. Another aspect I really enjoy is the fact that there are three factions, with the media faction actually wanting some terrorist plots to succeed but not too many.
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem – As soon as I read Prayerborne’s question the first game that came to mind for me was Sons of Anarchy from Gale Force Nine. This is a game I was shocked to learn is a worker placement based euro game that also includes an auction mechanic. In Sons of Anarchy you play bike gangs and each round you will send your bikers out to locations on the board like the Suburban Meth Lab or the Local Irish Pub to skim cash, run guns and collect contraband. It’s not at all what you would expect from a game with such a theme.
Hey, That’s My Fish! – When you first see Hey! That’s My Fish it’s really easy to dismiss it as a simple kids game, but it’s much more than that. While it is simple enough for kids to enjoy, there’s a surprising amount of depth in this game.
In Hey, That’s My Fish all you do each turn is move one of your penguins in a straight line until they can’t move anymore over a hex map made up of tiles with one to three fish on them. After moving you pick up the tile you just left. The thing is, as tiles are picked up the board keeps getting smaller and smaller. This game is incredibly cutthroat and is another one that can feel almost chess-like when playing with an experienced player.
The Climbers – I have to admit that I personally wasn’t surprised by The Climbers but I still think it deserves to be on this list as it’s not what many people expect. When you see the box art, or even see people playing The Climbers, it looks like a block-stacking dexterity game. While yes, you do indeed stack and re-stack blocks in The Climbers the stacking itself is not meant to be any type of challenge. The Climbers is really about strategically placing the blocks in such a way that your character can get the highest up the stack, with the goal of being the one at the top of the mountain at the end of the game. It’s actually a rather tactical game that can be extremely cutthroat.
Dungeon Lords – One of the most misleading games in my collection is Dungeon Lords. When you first see this game, if you are like me you think about the PC game Dungeon Keeper. While Dungeon Keeper is a strategy game, it’s a pretty light one that is more about silly graphics and humour than strategy and tactics. Dungeon Lords, on the other hand, is one of the heavier games in my collection.
The difficulty of Dungeon Lords is something that is even addressed in the rulebook. There is a rather long tutorial section and at the end of this section, the book asks the person teaching the game to confirm with the players if they are still interested in playing after seeing what the game is actually about. I don’t think I own any other game that gives players an out before actually getting started.
Chocolatiers – I picked up Chocolatiers at Origins because I’m a Daily Magic Games Fanboy. However, when I opened it up, looked at the components and read through the rules for the first time, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much from this box of chocolates making game. It wasn’t until actually playing Chocolatiers that I discovered how much deeper it really is.
For me, this one definitely falls under surprisingly complex. I found that Chocolatiers is one of those games where the metagame changes the more you see of it. Things like realizing just how important your box layout is and figuring out that there are different amounts of each chocolate in the game caused my strategy to evolve as I played. While I wouldn’t call it a heavy game, there was definitely a lot more to Chocolatiers than expected.
Battle Sheep – Blue Orange Games makes a number of games that are aimed at kids. While I know they make great kids’ games I’m often surprised when one of those games seems to be enjoyed more by adults. Battle Sheep is just such a game. While my kids love how terrific Battle Sheep is with its piles of almost poker chip-like playing pieces all with silly sheep graphics on them, they never really got into the actual game.
This is a shame because the gameplay in Battle Sheep is very tactical. Similar to Hey, That’s My Fish, players are moving their sheep on a hex-based map. The difference here though is that each turn players pick one pile of their sheep and move any number of them in a straight line leaving at least one sheep behind. This continues until the board is full and the player who has the most sheep showing wins.
One of the things that makes this game better for adults is that it’s nasty. The entire game is about trying to cut off your opponents as quickly as possible so they can’t disperse their sheep.
Photosynthesis – Here is another game from Blue Orange Games, however, this one isn’t aimed at kids and that’s a good thing because Photosynthesis is way harder to play than you would expect. When I bought Photosynthesis I knew it had awesome components. One of the main reasons I bought it is because I thought the table presence would be great for public play events. I had heard the gameplay was good but didn’t really know what I was getting into.
Looking at Photosynthesis, I expected a light abstract game that plays quickly and that is not what it is. Photosynthesis is a thinky game that is extremely strategic. You are trying to place your trees so that they will get the most sun while also casting shade on your opponent’s trees. Each round the sun moves around the board and it’s accounting for that changing sun position that makes this game rather brain burning.
Board Game Geek claims you can play a game in half an hour to an hour but I’ve never seen that in practice due to the amount of AP this game causes. To be honest, the first time I played Photosynthesis I was actually disappointed because it was so far from what I expected, but if you know you are in for a mind melt it can be quite fun.
Quoridor – The final game on my list today comes from The Lobby, our chatroom on Twitch. After discussing this topic on our show Wednesday we had a number of suggestions for games we missed. Many of which I had not played but Quoridor is one that I have played and I agreed that it belonged on this list.
This is the kind of game you can find at mass market stores but also at novelty shops that sell things like desk toys. For example, we got our copy at a place called The Man’s Shop. Quoridor is an heirloom game, a beautiful looking game made of wood that you are expected to leave out both as a display piece as well as a game. What’s surprising here is that in addition to looking cool, it’s also a really solid game.
In Quoridor you are trying to get your piece across to the other side of the board but each round you are going to either move your pawn one space or place a wall. Each player has twenty walls and the only restriction when placing a wall is that you can’t completely block off another player.