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The Best ’90s Board Games

While many will remember the 90s as the decade of Furbies, Friends, and furiously loud grunge music, it was also an extraordinary decade for great board games. Two things happened that changed the face of gaming forever: the advent of collectable card games and the import of wholly fresh design ideas from Germany. We’ve covered those two things in the first two items of this list of iconic games from the 1990s, but keep reading and you’ll find there were a whole lot more revolutionary ideas in the offing.

Magic: the Gathering

Where else to start than with the game that started the collectable card craze and revolutionized games and game stores in the nineties? There was a time when almost every role-playing and board gaming club switched to playing Magic: the Gathering. And it’s easy to see why with the lure of finding powerful rare cards in hidden packs, planning a deck to construct around them and thrilling to the mix of random draw and strategic combinations during play. It’s a recipe that’s still almost as intoxicating today and the game remains in good health. With high prize money tournaments, online play, and regular expansions to collect there’s never been a better time to get involved.


Catan, known in the ’90s as Settlers of Catan, didn’t sweep the popularity stakes like Magic. Nor has it aged quite as well. But in many respects, it had as much — if not more — long-term influence on the gaming scene. Before Catan, almost all tabletop games were variations on war board games or dungeon crawling. But Catan’s mix of trading resources that players used to build a network of roads and settlements in an attempt to secure as much territory as possible showed us a whole new side to gaming. There was rich interaction without direct fighting or ganging up and rich strategy while still rolling a pair of dice and drawing random cards. It also introduced us to the novel paradigm of board games that existed in Germany, and gaming has never been the same since.

Modern Art

Among the top designers who worked in German gaming, the most talented and prolific is Reiner Knizia. His oeuvre is so large that he’s worked on almost every genre but his particular love is for auction games, and his best auction game is Modern Art. Players take the role of dealers bidding to secure artworks based on five different methods of auction, from open bids to hidden values. But there’s a catch: your purchases will only be valuable if they’re popular: in other words, if other players are also collecting paintings by the same artist. This heady mixture of strategy and pointed satire on the art world is leant extra depth in the latest edition, which uses pieces by real-life artists.

For Sale

You’ll rarely see so much game in such a small package as you will in For Sale. The game involves two decks of cards, one of real estate and the other of cheques, which are used in the two phases of play. In the first a selection of real estate cards is revealed each turn and the players bid on them using a limited supply of money. In the second, a selection of cheques is revealed and players secretly choose real estate from their hands to sell for those cheques, the most valuable getting the biggest payout. This simple game is a setup for endless agonising moments of not knowing whether you’re going to be outbid in an auction, or outclassed in the secret hunt for cheque payouts. It’s excitement all the way down to the wire, but is simple enough for kids to play and still rewards canny strategizing.

Blood Bowl

Adding this game here is a bit cheeky: you may have fond memories of the first edition of this crazy game of violent fantasy football, but the current edition is a complete redesign. The good news is that it’s even better: leaner, better looking and more strategic while still being just as crazy and just as violent. The Warhammer-esque underpinnings have been jettisoned in favor of a whole new game concept where your turn ends when you fail an action. That leaves every choice teetering on the precipice of risk and reward as you struggle to decide whether it’s worth prioritizing a dangerous action to advance your game plan. Plus, the old cardboard standees have been replaced with super-detailed plastic miniatures that look amazing on your tabletop.


If Tichu didn’t require exactly four to play, it would have conquered the world. It’s not much to look at, essentially a rebranded deck of standard playing cards with four special extras, but there’s a reason for that. It’s actually a tweaked, commercialized version of a family of playing card games widely played in China. You play with a partner and the idea is to try and clear your hand by laying out a higher-value Poker style card combo than is currently on the table. But this basic formula is full of fascinating wrinkles because it’s rarely clear when it’s worth splitting a combo in your hand just to take what’s on the table, especially given the partner element. There’s also a pivotal bidding aspect because calling “Tichu” — betting you’ll be first to empty your hand — is where the bulk of points are won. Accessible, engaging and scarily addictive, Tichu deserves a much wider audience.

High Society

Given this is the second Reiner Knizia auction game on the list you may gather that the good doctor (he’s got a PhD in mathematics) is keen on the mechanic and good at delivering it. This is the lightest and fastest of the three (see one more below) but it still delivers thrills, spills and biting social commentary. Each round is a sequence of bids on some fancy item that indicates you’re part of monied culture. But while your cash reserves range from small to high value, you can’t get change: you’re forced to choose between creeping up your bid or risking being left with only high-value notes to fritter on paltry wins. The other twist is that some cards are negative; for these, bidding works in reverse, with the first player to pass “winning” and everyone else throwing away their cash. You’ve got to keep up with your social circle by spending vast sums on trifles without beggaring yourself, a point of view that’s as fun to play as it is alienating to observe in reality.

El Grande

Of all the games published in the ‘90s, El Grande is perhaps the most enduring and the one that still feels freshest and most relevant today. Which makes it surprising that it hasn’t seen a reprint and remains expensive on the second-hand market. The secret of its success is posing players with a series of circular, but interactive, conundrums to solve as they seek to maximise influence on a map of Spain. You can go early or gain more influence to spend, not both. You can take a powerful action, or you can put lots of influence on the board, not both. And of course you can’t possibly have the majority in all the regions of the board, you’ve got to pick and choose your battles. It’s so well done and pushes so many gaming buttons that it remains thrillingly playable 25 years after it was released.

Tigris & Euphrates

This is another perennial classic that’s currently out of print, although it has a better track record of editions appearing than some other games on the list. It’s also the third Reiner Knizia game on this list, giving you some idea of how his work bestrode gaming in the ’90s. Tigris & Euphrates is framed as a game about the birth of civilization, but it’s actually quite abstract and quite superbly deep and nuanced in play. Players place tiles that represent different aspects of growing civilizations and groups of tiles combine into a kingdom, to which players can add leaders. You score by growing a kingdom with a new tile but only players with leaders in the kingdom get points. This open-ended play where you don’t “own” kingdoms but are tensely trading points with other players is hard to wrap your head around at first but enormously rewarding when you do. The heavyweight king of the decade, don’t expect it to stay out of print for long.


Finally, we come to another Reiner Knizia classic involving auctions. In Ra, you’re bidding on the history of ancient Egypt. Not in terms of artefacts but the far more abstract concepts of events, monuments, pharaohs and the like. Each type of tile has its own convoluted scoring mechanic, so you want to collect — or avoid — certain combinations. On your turn, you either add a tile to the stack available or start an auction, but currency in Ra is very limited and the winning amount becomes part of the next lot for auction. This makes every tile draw and every bid an excruciating elevator of excitement as you try and force players to bid on tiles they’d prefer to avoid while not getting caught in that trap yourself. Currently out of print, a new edition has just been funded via GameFound.