Long time Bellhop fan Kevin wrote in asking if we had experienced any unappealing board games that ended up being great. He was looking for games that didn’t catch our eyes but ended up being fantastic once we actually played them. You know, those board games people may have skipped over because of how they looked.
In this article, I present 15 such games. These are all great board games that were much better than they looked at first glance.
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You shouldn’t necessarily judge a board game by its appearance:
Keven Renaud, Tabletop Bellhop Patreon patron, wrote to ask,
What are some games that didn’t appeal to you by sight but you were blown away when you played them?
Thanks so much for the great question and for your support Kevin!
Any time we put together a list like this it should be pretty obvious that what games make or don’t make the list is very subjective. It’s based on the games we’ve personally played as well as many personal tastes and aesthetics. However, I feel that this particular list is even more subjective than usual.
Besides the fact that appreciation for art, form and function are very personal, with board games, there’s another big divide, that of theme vs. function. Some gamers are much more interested in the mechanics of a game and how functional the components are over how visually appealing and tied to the theme they are. What one player considers an ugly game another may think is perfectly designed due to the ease of play.
The point being is that the games on this list weren’t appealing to me and my group. That doesn’t mean these are bad games in any way, or that you should be insulted that a game you think looks great made this list of bad looking games. The goal here is to highlight some amazing games that people may have overlooked and to celebrate those games for being great regardless of how anyone thinks they look.
Something that I did not get into is games that have their play impacted by the fact that they weren’t designed with colour blindness in mind. This isn’t something I have personal experience with (nor does anyone in my regular gaming group) and I didn’t feel qualified to include games with that problem due to that.
One last thing before I get to the actual list, you can listen to Sean and I discuss this topic on The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast episode 145, Not As Bad As They Look.
Board Games that played better than they looked:
Suburbia – When thinking about this topic the first game that comes to mind for me is Suburbia and the story of the day I bought it. My wife and I were on vacation in Toronto, visiting the newly moved 401 Games (an FLGS that happened to have the most board games for sale in one place that I’d ever seen). I spent far too long looking at games, long enough that Deanna got bored and decided to meet up with me later.
When we did meet up and I showed her what I bought her first response was “Of all the games they had there you bought that?!?” That game was Suburbia.
Now, she had a very valid point. Look at the cover of the box up there. Does that look like a fun and engaging game? I sure don’t think so. And I remember Deanna pointing out that the back of the box looked even less appealing.
The thing is, I did my research before our trip and Suburbia was one of the games on my watchlist. If it wasn’t for that research, I would never even have picked up this box to look at the other side.
That night we played the game for the first time and both loved it. I remember Deanna’s comment was something like, “I take it back. I’m glad you picked this up, it’s really good!”
If you’re not familiar with it Suburbia is a medium to slightly heavy weight city building, economic, resource management, tile laying game where each player is trying to build their own suburban area. Each round you will be drafting tiles and adding them to your growing cityscape trying to balance population growth, reputation and income. What really makes this one shine is the amount of player interaction due to the way many of the building tiles are modified by having multiple of the same type in play.
Over the years I think Bezier Games got the message about the look of this game since they’ve now released a really pretty looking Collectors Edition of Suburbia as well as a more striking retail version.
Brass – Next up is a game that I know people avoided due to the way it looks despite it being one of the best route building economic games out there, and that’s Brass from Martin Wallace.
I love Brass. It’s one of the best games in my collection. Brass is a game I’ve enjoyed since discovering it many years ago, but it was always really hard to get to the table. This game features one of the most drab, most boring, and most tan coloured, boards that you’ve ever seen. Over the years I’ve seen many people complain about how bad this game looks while trying to advocate for it and get more people to play.
It seems Roxley Games was paying attention because they decided to work with Martin to re-print and update Brass. They did this through a Kickstarter during which they produced two different games. The first is Brass Lancashire, which is basically a reprint of the original game with some very minor rule tweaks. The second is Brass Birmingham, which provides both a new map and a totally new resource to manage, beer.
One of the big things that Roxley did with these updated versions of Brass was to improve the way they look, greatly.
What has been fascinating to see since is the buzz that now surrounds these games. In the case of Brass, we can literally see how much the boring cover, functional but ugly maps and bland components impacted the success (well, lack of success) of the original game when compared to how well the new printings are doing.
Personally, I’m just happy to see more people discovering and enjoying this fantastic game.
Terraforming Mars – One of the most popular games I own is Terraforming Mars. It’s one of my most played games and a game that a large portion of the local gaming community enjoys. I can’t remember the last public play event I went to that I didn’t bring Terraforming Mars in case someone wanted to play it.
While the gameplay in Terraforming Mars is fantastic, you can’t mention this game without someone feeling the need to point out how they think the game failed in art, component quality or graphic design. These complaints include the stock photo artwork on the cards, paper thing player boards, chipping paint on the metal cubes, and more.
All of these are valid complaints, but none of them has ever bothered me personally. For some reason, there’s something about Terraforming Mars that makes me overlook these issues. The gameplay, to me, is just that engaging. So much so that I didn’t notice the poor art choices and if any of my metal cubes have chipped I haven’t noticed it. The one thing that did bother me while playing was keeping cubes in the right place on my player boards so I did go out and get some very reasonably priced Terraforming Mars player board overlays from Etsy, and later replaced those with the official double layered boards that came in one of the later Terraforming Mars Kickstarters.
For some rather different content focused on Terraforming Mars, you can check out our Terraforming Mars FAQ Readthrough.
The Castles of Burgundy – Here is another game you can’t mention without someone pointing out the graphical failures.
What really stands with The Castles of Burgundy is that similar to the previous games mentioned, the publisher put out a 20th Anniversary Edition that promised updated artwork and design. However here what we ended up getting was a slightly more high contrast game that still had all of the drabness and problems of the original.
This is a total shame as The Castles of Burgundy is a fantastic game. It is considered by many to be Stefan Feld’s best game and plays very well at all player counts while being particularly good with only two.
I’m actually currently playing two games of The Castles of Burgundy on Board Game Arena and my physical copy of the game sees play now and then. However, I have to say the BGA version is more enjoyable due to things like tool-tips and not having to deal with the fiddliness of putting out new tiles each round.
What I’m looking forward to is a soon to launch crowdfunding campaign for a Deluxe Edition of Castles of Burgundy though at this point I’m concerned it may have the same problem as the Anniversary Edition. Let’s hope they finally get it right.
Carpe Diem – While Castles of Burgundy may be the Stefan Feld game that people are the most vocal about, unfortunately, many of his games aren’t so great looking. One that sticks out the most to me is Carpe Diem.
To me, this one is even worse than Castle of Burgundy. While the colours in Castles of Burgundy may be bland there’s little in the graphic design that impacts gameplay. Sure some of the buildings may be a little hard to tell apart but that’s nothing compared to the tiles in Carpe Diem where at a glance it’s near impossible to tell the difference between a green field and a green building and the border scoring graphics are even harder to tell apart.
I’m somewhat baffled by the design choices here as there is no reason for the buildings to share such similar shapes or for them to have used similar colours for different items. To me, it just makes sense to have differentiated things as much as possible? Perhaps not being able to quickly see what things are across the table was a design goal?
Despite some questionable design choices, Carpe Diem is still a fantastic game. The interesting tile drafting mechanic, combined with some restrictive placement rules, makes what could easily be a multi-player solitaire instead a rather cutthroat game that plays great at all player counts. I particularly love the way players determine what they wish to score each round and how much planning is required to score well in the final rounds.
If I had to pick one game on this list to get updated with a new design, Carpe Diem would be it.
For a more detailed look at this Stefan Feld tile laying game check out our Carpe Diem review!
Go Cuckoo – Go Cuckoo is a game that isn’t ugly in any way, but it makes this list due to not being nearly as simple as you might expect.
On seeing this game most people are reminded of playing pick-up-sticks as a kid. While that might be a fond memory, not many gamers are looking to buy a new set of pick-up-sticks and will pass this game right on by. However, once you see someone actually playing Go Cuckoo you can’t help but stop and watch. You will want to try it and then, as you deftly try to balance a stick five inches out from the container in an increasing web of wood, while trying not to drop any eggs from the nest, and carefully place an egg of your own, you will be hooked.
While sold as a game for kids ages four plus, this game is a ton of fun with gamers of all ages and experience levels.
To hear me rave about this game even more check out my Go Cuckoo review!
Food Chain Magnate – I’ve yet to hear more people complain about the look of any one game than I’ve heard people bemoan the art and components in Food Chain Magnate.
Personally, the art in this one doesn’t bother me that much, I actually like the aesthetic they went with. However, I am aware that many people do not. Despite art that I don’t mind, the board design and the tiles that go on top of it are some of the least appealing things I’ve ever seen in board gaming. They look like some kid’s craft project or, at best, a prototype someone printed off in their basement.
The thing is, all of these components and graphics are very effective during gameplay. They are designed to be functional and work very well during play. That said, just a bit of colour and some added details would have made this game look so much better.
Hacienda – One of my wife’s favourite games is Hacienda. This is a game that never really took off. You never see anyone talking about it. I think a lot of this lack of buzz has to do with the fact that the game doesn’t look appealing at all.
Hacienda looks like a boring Euro game, with a bunch of hex tiles in different colours and chits with animals on them which get placed onto a map that basically looks like a dog bone. There are cards in the game that have some okay artwork but the terrain types on them look far too similar, which is not only less visually appealing but also impacts gameplay.
Despite the poor looks, Hacienda is a total hidden gem. It’s a classic Euro, originally released in 2005, that still stands up and that we still play pretty often.
I guess there must be some fans out there as a second edition was released in 2019 that did do some work to improve the looks of Hacienda. The main differences are that they changed the card art and iconography to make the terrain types easier to tell apart. The board, animal chits and hex tiles are still as boring as the original though.
The biggest problem with the second edition though is that it’s only published by White Goblin Games in the Netherlands and is very hard to find here in North America.
Tyrants of the Underdark – I still don’t really understand how a game based on Dungeons & Dragons with its rich history of fantastic artwork can be so ugly. Not only is Tyrants of the Underdark unappealing, but the drab colours also make it hard to distinguish things on the board. The one redeeming design aspect in the original printing of the game is the plastic spy figures, which stand out as the one thing they had a budget for.
Just last year Tyrants of the Underdark got a new updated edition and they removed these spy figures, along with the plastic shields. Now all of the troops in the game are represented by flat boring tokens. The new edition actually managed to make the game look worse, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Putting all of these component issues aside this is a fantastic D&D board game that evokes the ideas of it’s theme explicitly through play. Unlike many other games, I can’t see putting this specific set of mechanics anywhere else. The Underdark theme isn’t just pasted on, it’s a key part of the game.
The only advantage I see to picking up the new printing (besides it being the one that’s in stock right now) is that it does include the one expansion that was released for the game so far. There’s also the fact that the new edition may lead to future expansions, something I would greatly appreciate.
Learn more about this Drow based mash up of deck-builder and board game in our Tyrants of the Underdark review.
Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System Games – Since we’re talking about Dungeons & Dragons I feel the need to also mention the D&D Adventure System series of games.
This series started with the Castle Ravenloft Board Game which was published by Wizards of the Coast. Somewhere along the way Wizkids took over and is still putting out games for this series.
The one thing that’s in common for all of these games are the bland looking puzzle fit dungeon tiles, unpainted miniatures and really boring looking cards and tokens. Even worse, some of the more modern games in this series have gotten rid of the minis and replaced them with counters.
Similar to Tyrants of the Underdark, what baffles me here is that these are Dungeons & Dragons games. How are they not tapping into the vast archive of D&D art to make these games really shine?
As for gameplay, these games are solid. They aren’t my favourite dungeon crawling games, but they are quite fun and have mechanics that are actually derived from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. They are also very replayable, which is something that is lacking in a lot of other dungeon crawl board games.
Dominant Species – I didn’t think to include Dominant Species on this list until I noticed it mentioned on several other ugly game lists.
The reason it didn’t come to mind for me is that I really love this game and I find with heavier games like this you get so invested in playing the game and figuring things out that you don’t even realize just how bad the game might look.
When you take a moment to step back and look at the game and notice that your entire species of primates are represented by a tall cone and some cubes and are habituating a board that’s just a boring collection of hex tiles with coloured counters in the corners, that’s when you realise that the game is really quite ugly.
To go with this though, the fact you don’t readily notice the bad graphical design and component choices means that the game is just that good. The design work is clearly functional and doesn’t impede gameplay and if that’s the case maybe I shouldn’t be calling this one out at all.
On the other hand, if people didn’t mind the visual aspects then we probably wouldn’t have so many options available from third parties for upgrading the components.
Dominion – While I wouldn’t call Dominion ugly, it’s also not visually appealing. I find this game to be plain and utterly uninteresting.
This card game was released at a time when gamers had gotten used to glorious artwork from games like Magic: The Gathering and its spin-offs. To me, Dominion always seemed like a step backwards in card design. Though it more than made up for that in terms of mechanical innovation. This game is often credited with being the game that launched deck-building as a genre (even if it wasn’t the first game to use deck-building) and for that, it will always have my respect.
Despite its drab graphic design and badly pasted on theme Dominion still stands up as an excellent deck-building game, one that’s great for introducing new players to the genre.
For an interesting look back at this early deck-builder check out my Return to Dominion review, where I take a look at a classic write up I did back in 2010 when the game was new to me.
Drop It – The next game I want to talk about is Drop It, which sadly I don’t actually own. This is a game similar to Go Cukoo in the fact that it’s not ugly at all and is actually quite well designed graphically. The problem I find here is that Drop It doesn’t look like it will be all that interesting or fun.
This is a game where you have no idea what to expect until you personally drop your first piece and start scoring points. Drop It is expertly designed and has way more going on than it looks at first glance. It’s not until you drop your first couple of pieces, and start scoring, that you realize just how well designed this game is.
While Drop It may look like a kid’s toy there’s a really solid game here that gamers of all ages will enjoy.
El Grande – One of the things I couldn’t help but think about while working on this list of games is just how much graphic design and components have improved over the years. Thinking about the way things have improved over the years makes me feel a bit guilty for calling out some of the older games on this list, but I still couldn’t help myself and decided to toss El Grande on here regardless.
El Grande is a classic, no, actually it is the classic, area majority game. It’s one of the games responsible for the term “cube pusher”, as it and many other games at the time featured a bunch of wooden cubes on a map. El Grande actually sticks out for that period for having two different sizes of cubes. How extravagant!
The most notable design choice in El Grande is the piece they chose to use for The King. This is one of the most phallic game pieces ever produced for a board game.
While these pieces may not be the most pretty, they are all very functional. The king is impossible to miss and the large cubes really do stick out when compared to the others. These components make the game easier to play which is a good thing. When comparing El Grande to the look of modern games though, a bunch of cubes on a map feels kind of lazy and boring.
With multiple new printings coming out and various anniversary editions being released, I keep expecting someone to do an El Grande update that features minis.
Despite its looks, El Grande still stands as one of my favourite games of all time, as it continues to do area majority better than most games out on the market.
Draconis Invasion – The last game I want to talk about is on the list specifically for my podcast co-host, Sean. Draconis Invasion was the biggest surprise of the year for him, back in 2021. It was a game he expected very little from but it ended up being his favourite new game of the year.
In Sean’s own words:
“This game is sort of a misdirect. The box, with its dragon attack DOES look intriguing. But then you get into the cards and layouts and think, oh, its Splendor, with dragons and scary skulls. The artwork is dark, low contrast and often indistinguishable at a distance.
Then you play, and maybe the Terror mechanic annoys you, but you play again. You noticed something and think you may be able to play better because you noticed it. Then you play again, because you wonder if this other strategy would work. Then you’re on your sixth play and you’re still thinking, “Just one more game!”
Draconis Invasion was far more engaging than I had ever expected and kept me wanting more.”
Find out most about just what it is we loved about this competitive fantasy deck-building game in our Draconis Invasion review.
That’s it. Those are my fifteen top choices for great games that don’t look like much. I hope I may have made you reconsider taking a second look at a game or two that you might have dismissed in the past.
I’d love to know, what are some board games you’ve played that ended up being way better than you expected them to based on their appearance? Let us know in the comments below!