Find out which 2019 board game apps stand out as the best of the best.
2019 was a good year for digital board games. It featured some AAA titles getting the digital treatment (two of the top 15 games on BGG, for starters), along with a high quantity for players to choose from. It was really hard to pick one winner for most of the categories this year. There were 10-15 games that we really enjoyed and could justify finding permanent places in our libraries. The games excelled in different areas, some shining as a way to spend 30 minutes on your couch against brutal AI, others work best when played asynchronously over days and weeks. Then there were the rarest of them all, those select handful which worked well in both situations.
This is the first year since we’ve been doing this that we had numerous games that we really, really liked not win a category, so we didn’t get a chance to gush about them one more time before the year was done. That means we recommend you pay extra attention to the honorable mentions on this list, as there are some true gems.
Some ground rules for our list. 1) Each game could only “win” one category (see “Honorable Mentions” to see what other categories a game excels in). 2) No Steam-exclusive games, iOS and Android only and 3) That’s pretty much it.
Without further ado, the 2019 Pixelated Cardboard Best Games of 2019.
Reader's Choice Game of the Year: The Castles of Burgundy
We have posted the results of our 2019 readers poll. The grand champion of them all is Castles of Burgundy! We won't go into too much detail here because, spoiler, we write a bit more about it further down on this list.
Best Non-Port: Solar Settlers
Solar Settlers is an ambitious original which crams a ton of different mechanics into a quick playing game that automatically scales in difficulty as you improve. The graphics and theme might not jump off of your phone screen, but the gameplay is engaging and deep. You must explore and fully settle a small area before time runs out. The game is an original, but experienced board games will feel something very familiar in the route optimization, worker placement, city building, engine building, and resource management that Solar Settlers features. The game packs a lot into a fun, quick punch and stands out as the best digital original of the year.
Honorable Mention: Feud
Best Update: Through the Ages (Expansion)
Through the Ages stands as one of the best digital board games because it allows you to play an incredibly complex game in a fraction of the time it would take on a table, and does so in a fantastic digital package that features every bell and whistle you could ask for. The app got even better in 2019 when the expansion was released, which added new leaders and wonders cards to the game. Anybody who has played the base game knows that Leaders and Wonders shape your entire strategy and adding new options provides extra depth to a game that was already among the deepest in the digital world. As an added bonus, the expansion hit digital devices before it hit physical tabletops. Using the digital version of an app to test out expansions is a really smart use of the medium, and this is a trend we’d love to see continue in 2020 and beyond.
Honorable Mention: One Deck Dungeon (Phone support), Evolution (constant improvements)
Best Visuals: Santorini
For a game with simple visuals, Santorini does a fantastic job of jumping off of your mobile screen in digital form. The menus are gorgeous, heavily featuring the fantastic god artwork throughout. In game, the simple 3D board looks natural in a digital setting and every move in animated to great effect. All of this is only a small portion of the game, but it all really helps the fantastic abstract strategy duel game excel in the digital world. The game is a keeper and the visuals play an important role in that.
Honorable Mention: Takenoko, Zombicide
Best Quick Game: Twice As Clever
We really like roll and writes around here and Twice and Clever takes the fantastic original game and adds to it in really interesting ways. Leading the pack is the bonus ability which allows you to return die to the roll pool, which is a small addition that really opens up the strategic options. Best of all? The game can be played in about five minutes, which sets up perfectly for you to be able to produce a mediocre score and say “I can do better!” before immediately launching another game. If you enjoy this type of score chasing in a roll-and-write package, Twice as Clever will be one of the best digital investments you make.
Honorable Mention: Shards of Infinity, Hex Roller
Most Surprising Game: Legends of Andor
I was personally surprised by this game (and honorable mention Zombicide) because I haven’t really found myself loving a story-based adventure game like this in the past. Legends of Andor came out in January and the quests were fun and challenging enough to keep me going for a few months after release. That’s impressive longevity for the price. Andor lacks and real progression between scenarios, but each presents you with a fun challenge. The game is perfect for expansion content and word is USM is working on just that.
Honorable Mention: Coffee Roaster, Zombicide
Best Solo Game: Aeon's End
Aeon’s End is a fantastic twist on the standard deck builder formula and wraps it all up in a challenging co-op game. There is a huge amount of variety between the various heroes, enemies, and card setups you can switch between, and all of them present unique challenges that will keep you busy for a long time trying to master. It’s no surprise that Handeabra knocked this one out of the park. Challenging, card-based co-op games where you battle an enemy is their wheelhouse, and they delivered yet again in 2019. Aeon’s End is the perfect game for spending 30 minutes on the couch with your tablet.
Honorable Mention: Shards of Infinity, Twice as Clever, Legends of Andor, Zombicide
Best Online Game: Shards of Infinity
Temple Gates Games makes the best online games. Their games load in a fraction of the time of pretty much any other games and they have a knack for porting games which setup very well for asynchronous play. Shards of Infinity is an attack-based deck builder in the mold of Ascension or Star Realms. The game has some unique twists, of course, that allow it to stand on its own. The only thing holding the game back from all time classic status at this point is some key expansions which add to the base game in important ways. Still, Shards is a nearly perfect online experience, one that any other developer would do well to emulate.
Honorable Mention: Castles of Burgundy, Raiders of the North Sea, Santorini
Developer of the Year: Dire Wolf Digital
Dire Wolf did three things in 2019 that earned it this spot: Announced the biggest list of digital ports ever, released a fantastic Raiders of the North Sea, and released Yellow & Yangtze (which is great upon first glance, but we haven’t posted a review yet). Prior to 2019, Dire Wolf had plenty of experience in the digital game realm, but hadn’t been a developer who took top tier titles as ports. The major announcement changed everything and we all waited for Raiders, the first of those planned released. Raiders had some issues out of the game but the developers listened to the community and quickly rectified pretty much every issue players lobbed at the app. The app was incredibly polished from the start and packed full of features. The final product is one of the best, feature packed, polished digital ports ever. This has us practically drooling over their forthcoming expansions of games like Root, Mage Knight, and Sagrada. It’s been a great 2019 for Dire Wolf, and 2020 looks even brighter.
Honorable Mention: Handelabra Games, North Star Games Digital
Game of the Year: Castles of Burgundy
Digidiced has always made really strong digital ports. They have some issues, as all of these apps do, but overall their games worked, had strong AI, and offered smooth online experiences. My main issue with Digidiced, until 2019, was that they hadn’t yet ported a game that I really loved. That changed with the release of Castles of Burgundy. I hadn’t ever played the physical game, but it turns out it hits all of my boxes for “all time top shelf game list”: easy to learn, impossible to master, deep strategic experience, manages to feel different each game. There’s a reason this one rates so high on the BGG list. The tutorials in the app take about five minutes, I felt like they missed something as they were so short. Turns out, they didn’t. The game is just a perfect example of having very simple rules that shine when combined with the strategic depth offered by various combinations in the game. The AI here is great and online play works well. There are some nits to pick here and there, but Castles has been my most played new app of 2019 by a long shot and it will continue to hold a spot on my phone for the foreseeable future.
Honorable Mention: Aeon's End, Raiders of the North Sea, Santorini