My Top 10 Formative Tabletop Games

My Top 10 Formative Tabletop Games
I’ve played a lot more tabletop than this in the years since, but these 10 absolutely had a long-running impact on me as a gamer, and later as a designer and developer. These are in order of importance, as I perceive it now, rather than the order I encountered or became obsessed with them.

1. AD&D, 1st ed
I have told the story many times about how I was introduced to this game by my Uncle, who had only the DMG, and he said if I could figure it out, we could play. I had to infer what we were missing from the information that existed, and cobbled together playable (if totally unbalanced) rules. So, I was literally writing RPG material before I ever played an RPG.

2. Tunnels and Trolls
I was hooked on D&D… and for a few years had no one to play with. T&T gave me simpler rules I could actually master, and tons of solo adventures I could play by myself.

3. Champions/ Hero System RPG​
This game was what I “graduated” to from D&D, back when I briefly cared about such things. Both the careful combat rules, the ability to design any character I conceived of, and the interesting effect of point-buy PCs for “balance” taught me a lot about what does and doesn’t work in an rpg, and why you might include things in a game most people shouldn’t use.

4. Car Wars
Both a big part of my tactical education, and of my player-build experience.

5. Dungeon
Once I began to have geeky friends I could play with, it was still tricky to find time and focus to play an RPG, and none of us could DM worth a crap. The Dungeon boardgame gave me 80% of what IO craved, and did it faster an more easily than trying to get 13-year-olds to settle down and play a full RPG session. My love of Dungeon remains with me, and I even wrote extensive alternate rules for a recent edition.

6. Star Fleet Battles
My favorite larger-sclae tactical game for many years. There’s an important lesson in the vast sea of starship designs about being equal without playing similarly.

7. Gamma World
I admit I was hooked on this largely for theme, since it felt very much like D&D, but an important part of that lesson was that theme often trumps system. RIFTS gets an honorable mention here too, for teaching me theme doesn’t always trump system.

8. Monopoly – My father – Professor of Economic – had a homebrew version of Monopoly that involved 2 boards (which overlapped at GO), a set of rules for investment in the stock market, bank interest rates, buying and building businesses, and lots of other things I can’t remember anymore. We only played a few times, but I loved the ability to look at a game, make changes, play it, and get an entirely different experience out of it.
This particular variant’s main drawback was that generally everyone got richer and richer, so the game never ended. we did try using “whoever has the most money when the bank is broke wins” rules, but they made the game less fun and less satisfying.
The irony of an doctor of economics rewriting Monopoly so everyone always got richer was lost on me at the time, but I’ve sit and pondered it on many a quiet afternoon since.

9. Ars Magica
The only game on this list I’ve never played, and the one I read the most messageboard posts regarding. The anything-goes work-it-out magic system, the strong links to historic scholarship, the idea of a troupe system, magi/companions/grogs being intentionally not balanced and still all viable way to impact a game, the overarching Order with its twelve houses and different tribunals, the politics… all had me entranced as an example of a different play mode. And a lot of the things that people later gushed about Vampire were by that time tried-and-true ideas I’d been exposed to by Ars Magica.

10. L5R
This is the last game I consider “formative,” but it was the first CCG I loved, which had a lasting impact on how I viewed the entire category of games. I was a deep lover of a crab fortification deck which was very rarely effective (and then only in 5-8 player games, which my friends and I did regularly engage in for a year or so), but was always something other people had to decide how to deal with.

Honorable mentions – Mancala (a totally different paradigm of game), Lost Worlds (which was for a few years the geek game I played most often, since friends and I could carry booklets at school and get in quick games between classes); Go (which taught me how complex tactics can evolve from simple rules); RIFTS (which I loved everything about – except the entire game system); Hero Quest (which, for a while, was my older-self’s Dungeon); A Charity Casino (where I learned an entire company full of mathematicians may not sit down and examine the odds of various games, resulting in my fake $10,000 stake becoming a fake $1.5 million in the course of two hours); trivial Pursuits (which I learned I didn’t much like, even when I was good at it, unless I was with people I’d enjoy just hanging out with), and Battleship (made me think about information control in games).

About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on November 29, 2015, in Game Design, Retrospective and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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