Many board gamers are shallow. All they care about is how things look. It’s not what’s on the inside that matters (unless you’re talking components and then we’re back to high snobbery with supreme deluxe big box editions).
Oh. My. God. Look at the size of that box.
I like big boxes and…
*Tony coughs and glares*
Right, but not the Board Game Quest team. Today we’re going to embrace substance over style, function over beauty, and we’re going to celebrate the ugly games we love. Don’t get us wrong we love games full of plastic minis, deluxe resources, and exquisitely drawn artwork. Yet sometimes, none of that matters because the game is just so much fun. So cuddle up with your beige euro game, hug that train game, and invite any Splotter game to join you on the couch as we share our ugly favorites with you.
The Ugliest Games We Love:
Chosen by Tony:
A couple of years ago I discovered the hidden gem Breakaway Football. I tried it on a whim when it was offered to me and fell in love immediately. I’ve yet to play a tabletop game that so perfectly captures the spirit of American Football. Yet, as the game is a print on demand Gamecrafter title, its components never really lived up to the amazing gameplay. The art could best be described as…utilitarian… boarding on 18xx bland. The playmat begging to be a gameboard or neoprene, and the text can be garish at times. Yet underneath that rusted-out Ford Fiesta of a paint job is the engine of a Ferrari. The game is a tense back and forth battle of strategically choosing the right cards with just the perfect amount of luck thrown in to keep things exciting. If you are a fan of Football, there is no better game than Breakaway Football. I really hope someday it gets the deluxified version it so richly deserves.
Food Chain Magnate
Chosen by Andrew:
First, let me start with this: Food Chain Magnate doesn’t belong on this list. I love it, but it’s not ugly. Yet somehow it’s become somewhat of a poster child of the “ugliness” of the heavy euros from Splotter. I think the player aids, box art, and food/drink shaped wooden meeples do plenty for the overall table presence. Now the back of the box is… blank. And the map tiles are sparse. But they serve their purpose. And of course it’s a great game. It’s one of a small number of times I think really is a true “sandbox” allowing you to pretty much pull on any levers you want. It can be extremely punishing but you’ll learn something new every time you play.
Chosen by Christopher:
I originally went old school with Backgammon, as it proves no theme and no art can still make a great game. However, I saw everyone else was writing paragraphs, so I am going to continue with old school games with Strat-o-matic baseball. The game doesn’t even waste time with player pictures, but to this day remains my favorite board game adaptation of America’s Pastime, with an honorable mention to Bottom of the 9th. You can buy updated player cards up to the start of this current baseball season. Since my most recent update was the 1989 season, I am going to have fun playing with Greg Maddux pitching to Vladamir Guerrero Jr. This game’s components are so simple, they only use green Sorry pieces as players and not a bat or ball to be seen, it happens all in your mind.
Chosen by Jason and Andy:
Jason: Folks I have a confession to make: I don’t like to play ugly games. So when I was presented with the choice of learning an ugly game or playing a pretty one that I wasn’t particularly interested in, I gave the uggo a chance. I don’t know if it was due to the stellar reach or the engaging gameplay, I was charmed enough to buy the game years later. I would tell you how the game plays, but real talk, it’s been four years since I played it and I don’t remember. I know there were cubes bumping into each other and a rather brown color palate. Very enticing.
Andy adds: I still play regularly and newcomers who weren’t around in 2009 when “HT” (as the cool crowd calls it) was the beige hotness are amazed that something so ugly can be so awesome. Gameplay is elegant and simple, with only 5 possible actions, each of which can be upgraded by completing routes, but the game forces you to choose b/w those sweet, sweet upgrades and all of the other ways to score points. Oh and the bumping! So much interaction compared to anything like it in the Eurogame space. Many of the game’s mechanisms have since found their way into other Euro favorites, such as the Terra Mystica/Gaia Project/Terra Nova universe, but the imitaters tend to lard on extra mechanics and lose the perfect stripped-down elegance of HT. Like the actress in a romcom who takes off her glasses and is suddenly beautiful, HT emerges from players’ first play like Venus from the sea on a shell. It’s now available in the smallest “big box” you’ll ever find, which adds in all expansion content, but in truth, the original HT is still the king of all ugly games and the expansions tend to add fiddle without much violin.
Chosen by Michelle:
This is one of my favorite action drafting games with some elements of set collection which give that civilization tech tree satisfaction. The thematic ancient font is hard to read on almost every game component it touches, from the rulebook to the cards themselves it just looks outright goofy. Muted colors and basic drawings are supposed to evoke that ancient feel as well but it doesn’t mean it looks good to the eye. They did try to make an effort on the borders of action tiles but it’s easy to miss, and thus not evocative enough to make the game less ugly. On the other hand, in terms of gameplay that’s where Gentes shines best in its Eastern Mediterranean setting. The balancing act of setting yourself up so that you are taking the maximum number of actions within a tolerable number of hindrances (i.e. hourglasses in the game) is quite elegant. Resources take the form of specialized people like priests, soldiers, merchants, artisans, noblemen, and scholars who require training throughout the eras. Of course like all things in life, a strong income source means actions aren’t wasted and time is gained back so this incentivizes players to work towards civilization cards that give coin as early as possible. At the end of the game, any players who miscalculated their actions or hoarded cards are punished. Something amusing to note is that there is a “Deluxified Edition” but to be honest there were very few significant graphical changes made in it. They focused mostly on physical component upgrades but it did not have a big impact on its ugly factor.
Chosen by James:
Don’t judge the contents by its cover, which is quite a nice composition by Katy Grierson. But this game, which is my favorite from Weird Giraffe Games, has some card art that is utilitarian at best. Besides being a fun game, what earns it a spot on this list is the low quality photoshop appearance of the cards. In this game, cards represent buildings you’re trying to build in your town out of dice and there are specific requirements for colors and pips and this part is wonderful as the graphic design doesn’t impair your ability to understand the requirements of each card and see how they’ll score later. Some cards also grant bonus points at the end of the game for each cactus, or hitching post, or bird in your town and all of those features look like they were pasted on by someone who flunked out of the Winston Smith school of collage art. It’s visually jarring while also very functional.
Great Western Trail, 1st edition
Chosen by April:
The three expressionless faces staring out of a drab cover didn’t do this game any favors, but it still made its way to the BGG top 100, as well as a place of honor on my own shelf.
The board is nothing spectacular either, and those dour faces are repeated on game art, although the cow cards themselves are nice. Maybe for some, a game about realistic cowboying doesn’t sound that fun either, but the theme is a part of why I love this game so much; the rest is gameplay.
In GWT you’ll slowly build a deck of cow cards and traverse the trail multiple times to sell your cattle. As buildings are established along the trail, you may need to pivot, or take riskier shortcuts, all to hopefully get a good payout at journey’s end and progress your train to increase your income. Deck building is one of my favorite mechanisms and I’m also a fan of objective cards, which play a part in Great Western Trail, so it does a lot that I like. There have been multiple newer editions printed since the success of the original, with much-improved art, but I don’t get to play this one often enough to justify another purchase, so there on my shelf it remains, in all its sepia toned glory.
Chosen by Jacob and Bailey:
Sure, Splotter is the easy target here. Their quaintly “homemade” vibes are renowned, but it’s definitely a feature, not a bug, so you can’t really call the ugly or plain design decisions mistakes or flaws. The idea that their games always bring home the concept of game design and function first could not be more clear when you left a hundred chits with line drawings on them sift through your fingers. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than the game Antiquity. The game is overstuffed with little cardboard chits representing fish, pearls, wood, gold, stone, dyes, and more. Add to that the hilarious building tiles, which literally look like they were illustrated on a brown paper shopping bag and then cut to size. The player board/aid is like a little pamphlet made from thin paper. When the main board gets overrun with pollution, it looks like one of those Dice Tower videos where all the components are just dumped out of the box. But the game provides one of the more unique gaming experiences I’ve had. Each player, at some point in the game, must choose to build a cathedral in their city and dedicate it to a specific saint. The saint not only provides the player with a special game-breaking power, but also sets their unique (and incredibly difficult) win condition. I simply love the concept that the player can decide, mid-game, what their win condition is, and I’ve never played another game like it. So I’ll put up with the mess, and actually, now that I think about it, it’s really growing on me.
2-4 Players • Ages 13+ • 60 minutes
Chosen by Brian W:
My son is my primary board game player in the house and we play about a few every week. I busted Feudal out about 2 years ago with him and his initial reaction was not a pleasant one. He loves chess and what he really liked is how the different pieces have unique movements like chess and similar strategy aspects as well. Plus, he has yet to win and that fuels him more than anything to want to bring this unattractive game back to the table. I first played Feudal back in high school and even back then it looked old, ugly, and dated. It’s part of the 3M Bookshelf Series from the 60s-70s so it’s long overdue for a facelift & update. The beige-to-green peg game board and bag of army men quality of the characters will never win any production value awards. Despite the lack of beauty, Feudal is a fun gateway game that I kept around hoping my son would enjoy it like I did and am happy he enjoys it enough to regularly bring it back to the table to play.
2-6 Players • Ages 10+ • 90 minutes
Chosen by Brandon:
One does not simply walk by a table playing Innovation and stop to marvel at its beige checkered card backs or large connected icons. This is not a game that screams illustration of the year. The rulebook is not easy on the eyes with its black text on dark beige background. Even the cards, filled with text, are not the easiest to decipher from across the table. At least there is a pop of color with the icons and when they are splayed out across your tableau they start to provide some semblance of cohesion. And yet, Innovation continues to be a card game I continually turn to at the two-player count to fill in that civ building card game itch. It remains a game that requires time and effort to move beyond the initial barriers. Once you’ve found its pulse, you won’t even notice how hideous it truly looks. The upcoming Ultimate edition, releasing in 2024, is attempting to tackle some art updates, though I have not given enough attention to whether this will be dramatic enough to pull in a new audience. Regardless, don’t let this game pass you by. It’s truly excellent.
Chosen by Emma:
Beautiful botanical and wildlife games have been flooding the market in recent years, with art so lovely it could be framed. BEEEEES! is not one of these. It has a character on the front cover that feels like a Honey Nut Cheerio Nightmare, as though the titular bees are reaching forward to steal your soul. Which is a shame, because this is a great dice game that never fails to entertain at game nights. Players roll dice simultaneously at breakneck speeds trying to achieve combos that let them claim honeycomb pieces for their hive. The player that most efficiently puzzles their hive together by matching the tile colors up, while also continuing the speedy dice rolling, wins. The hive tiles themselves are fine, with clear iconography that’s easy to read in a frenzy. Also included are rubbery eraser-like bee tokens, which are fun to make a grab for. But the challenge cards are crowded with distracting cartoon bee characters, and the game box itself is too small, requiring effort and strategizing to fit everything back in. The character art is a bit of a shame, and I’d like to see it get updated at some point, but BEEEEES! is the most consistently entertaining dice game on my shelf.