Sure, the classic board games like Monopoly, Risk, and Battleship are still great fun. But the number of new games has exploded in the last several years as designers dream up space adventures, deck-building sagas, and zombie survival games. So order a pizza, invite over one to three friends, and try out the best board games in recent years.
Nemesis is the most cinematic, immersive game I’ve ever played on my table top. Like a cardboard reincarnation of the sci-fi horror classic Aliens, you and up to 4 other Sigourney Weavers are jolted awake from cryosleep on a starship, and quickly discover that, oh god, something horrible is happening. As you move from room to room, rediscovering the sections of your ship in a haze of delirium, you start to realize… there are creatures aboard. Then they attack.
Much like Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, in Nemesis, all players are seemingly working together. You need the help of your companions to flee, fight, hide, and survive. But everyone also has a secret objective. Most are harmless, like beaming out a message home in the communications room, or getting to the control room to make sure the ship is headed to Earth. But some objectives are delightfully nefarious, like making sure that one specific player dies before the game ends. Nemesis’s tension is that without teamwork you are sure to lose the game in a hopeless melee of graphic gore, but who can you really trust?
Prospective players should be aware that Nemesis is both very complicated, and brutally difficult to win. There are countless built-in elements of chance that pepper the game, and you’re never quite sure where and when the next alien will attack. Nevertheless I found Nemesis to be incredibly immersive. You have so many options and choices each turn, and an aching, unrelenting mistrust and fear (heightened by my group’s decision to play the Alien Isolation soundtrack on repeat) follows you from start to finish.
Pax Pamir (Second Edition)
It’s 19th-century Afghanistan, and from the ashes of the Durrani Empire, you’re fighting to form a new reigning court of real-life historic figures and forces. But you are not alone. To win, you and your friends will have to forge and break alliances among three coalitions: the interloping Russian and British empires and the nativist Afghanis.
I’ve played hundreds of games, but never anything like Pax Parmir. It’s a wargame where none of the soldiers are yours. You’re free to switch alliances every turn, which can feel extraordinarily freewheeling at times, and requires tons of strategic ingenuity. But I loved how cunning it feels when you deftly navigate between the three coalitions—say, marching your British soldiers out of Herat, then swapping over to the side of the incoming Russian Empire. It’s delightfully insidious.
Wingspan is a breathtaking “engine” building game where you and up to five friends compete to coax flocks of birds into nature reserves. You’ll spend turns luring unique bird cards into one of 3 biomes, or playing each of the biome’s special ability—get food, lay eggs, or gather more birds. Each time you play a biome, your birds have a chance to use special abilities, often times creating long, clever chains of well-laid actions.
This game has more birds in than a Hitchcockian horror. We’re talking barn swallows, California condors, loggerhead shrikes, turkey vultures, and literally over 160 more—each with their own special abilities. You can play three separate games of Wingspan, and never see the same bird cards twice.
But despite all the variety, this game is one of the most well-balanced games I’ve ever played. Along with brilliant artwork and extremely high-quality components, the best part about Wingspan is discovering strange new avian engines to soar into victory.
Here’s what happens when you insert the political dynamics of Star Wars into Brain Jacque’s Redwall series: You get Root, the best asymmetric strategy board game of the decade.
In Root, you and up to three other friends will battle to conquer the woodland as one of four (furry or feathered) factions. Will you choose the overextended feline Empire, a massive force struggling to dominate through sheer might? Or an aging warrior caste, the avian old-guard aiming to retake lost territory in spite of the limitations of their rigid code? Perhaps you’ll pick the simmering insurgency of downtrodden woodland critters: the rabbits, mice, and foxes sewing the bitter seeds of resentment and rebellion. Or will you go full Lando and become a wily rouge, raccoon agent and play all sides to your benefit?
Root has it all: soldiers, rebels, and rogues. Combat, resource management, and diplomacy. Players must balance the many and diverse needs of each unique and challenging faction while ensuring a steady accumulation of victory points, which are achieved through building structures, spreading influence, fulfilling quests, or establishing control of territories.
Welcome to the arboreal wonder of America’s national forests. In Bosk, you and up to three friends will compete as only trees could: In Spring, you’ll take turns erecting copses of majestic flora (either oak, sycamore, maple or birch), aiming to have the highest value trees in rows and columns. Then, in Autumn, you’ll try to blanket the forest floor with the most leaves, following the changing whims of the wind.
I love that Bosk is a pure strategy game with zero random elements. Everyone knows exactly how many trees and leaves their opponents’ still have yet to drop, and when and where the wind will blow next. This turns what might otherwise be a simple game into a clash of unadulterated gamesmanship. Yet, there is something peaceful about Bosk. Some ephemeral mix of the fall colors of the 3D cardboard trees, the whimsical conceit, and the inviting art of forest floor.
Claustrophobia 1643 is an asymmetric, two-player strategy game of survival, hellfire, and demonic combat. The game consists of 20 different unique, playable scenarios—each of which lasts between an hour to an hour and a half. One player takes the reins of the infernal forces of hell, the other roleplays a rag-tag group of humans, and you both face off in a battlefield of twisting, tunneling catacombs.
Both players get their own detailed miniatures and rules to play. The humans start with a set number of warriors (four at most) while the demons are constantly spawning new friends into the game.
I was astonished at just how much fun is packed into these short adventures. My favorite scenario so far was one tale of desperate flight, where my opponent’s sole goal was to flee through a dozen sections of the catacombs into the daylight, and I had to send wave after wave of demons to stop him. Even though he only needed 2 of his 4 crusaders to survive to win the game…none saw the daylight.
A Game of Thrones Board Game: Mother of Dragons Expansion
Of course you’ve heard of the HBO series and the novels. But to me, A Game of Thrones has always been about the board game. The first edition debuted back in 2003, and with its characteristic mix of head-to-head warfare, short lived alliances, and diplomatic backstabbing, it became an instant classic. I think of it as midway between Diplomacy and Twilight Imperium in terms of rules, but just as devious and delightful as either.
That’s why I’m so delighted with The Mother of Dragons expansion, which brings in fresh blood and expands this classic strategy game into unforgettable epic. The biggest change is that the player count has been upped to eight, with the addition of House Arryn and the Targaryens. Now you and your friends must balance cutthroat, 7 Kingdoms fighting with strategic cooperation to restrain the growing power of the Mother of Dragons across the Narrow Sea.
But undoubtedly the best addition in this expansion is the new vassal system, which turns the troops of unplayed houses into thralls under the holder of the Iron Throne. This has two benefits. Now you can play a fulsome game with less than a full table of friends (almost impossible before.) But even more importantly, losing players can now drop out when all hope is lost, without completely throwing the game. Given that the play time can reach well into 8 hours or more, this is a beautiful and rare mercy in the A Game of Thrones universe.
Who knew medieval Portuguese artisans were such a cutthroat bunch? Azul is a brilliant abstract game for two to five players. To play, you’ll take lighting-quick turns drafting tiles from a central market. Your goal is to collect sets of identical tiles, which you’ll use to fill in your personal boards for points at the end of each round. But this is no solitaire game. If you’re playing right, you’re often just as concerned about thwarting your opponent’s plans are you are grabbing the tiles that will work best for you.
With simple—but not simplistic—rules you can explain in less than three minutes, Azul is a delight for all ages. Because it moves so quickly, relies so much on strategy, and is so easy to explain to new players, breaking out Azul is always a hit.
Century: A New World
Century: A New World is the third and final installment in the series of award-winning Century strategy games. Like its precursors, you and your friends will compete by sending out parties of progressively proliferating workers to do your bidding. This game’s theme is colonial. Your pioneers will explore new lands, hunt food, farm, and trade with native inhabitants. Your goal is to accrue and spend the game’s four colored resource cubes (leather, meat, hay, and vegetables) on cards that’ll give you in-game bonuses and victory points to win the game.
Like the games that came before it, it’s easy to break out and explain Century: New World to beginners. And after just a single turn, everyone is not just on board, but already devising their own strategy. Best of all, you can combine this game with either Century: Spice Road, Century: Eastern Wonders, or all three together in one epic mashup!
Res Arcana is a fantastically dense strategy game that you can pull out, play, and pack up in as little as 30 minutes. In the game you and your friends take on the roles of various practitioners of the occult and alchemical arts. With hands of complex but easy-to-understand cards, you’ll weave magic, monsters, and machinery together in clever combinations to rapidly increase your stock of magical essences that can quickly win you the game.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a game about alchemy has found a way to distill and transmute heaping mounds of strategy into such a compact and speedy game. Each game I’ve played featured radically different game-winning engines for the champion player. And I especially love how Res Arcana’s brevity conjures a certain, unshakable tension that’s easy to delight in. Each turn feels important, and each decision feels potentially game ending.
Endeavor: Age of Sail
Burnt Island Games
Endeavor: Age of Sail is a streamlined empire-building game of trade, warfare and worldwide colonization. Over seven short turns (the game can be completed in as quickly as an hour) you and up to four friends will construct port buildings and lay claim to global trading routes and colonial outposts. Your choices will grow your empire’s four cornerstones: Industry, which lets you erect better buildings. Culture, which increases your population. Finance, which frees up actions you can take. And influence, allowing you to own valuable governorships and obtain regional assets.
The reason Endeavor: Age of Sail is worth your time is because of just how much action and cunning it packs into such a short play period. Sure, there are heavier, more complicated strategy games with almost identical themes out there: say Puerto Rico, or Mombasa. But minute-for-minute and pound-for-pound, this welterweight outranks either of them.
The publisher can’t legally say it, so let me do it for them. This is basically Jurassic Park: The Game, in all its ’90s glory.
In Dinosaur Island, you compete with up to three friends to build the most lucrative and exciting dino park. You’ll take turns genetically reengineering dinosaurs, hiring research and marketing specialists, constructing park enclosures, shops, and restaurants, and mopping up the blood as your dinos inevitably run wild and maul visitors into a fine pulp.
Beyond the stunning ’80s artwork, sturdy components, and amazing Mesozoic theme, Dinosaur Island shines in its balance and potential for replayability. There are routes to victory for numerous styles of dino parks, but the best part of Dinosaur Island is just how dismissively the game treats security failures and dinosaur breakouts. Much like in the movies, it seems that no amount of escaped raptors or decaying former customers will stop future investors and park attendees from lining up at the gate.
Like Boggle meets Dominion, this exceptional deck-building word game is the mash-up I didn’t know I needed. Up to five players take turns drawing hands of five cards—each card featuring a single letter and a reward—to spell a single word. You then cash in the reward for each card you used to buy more cards, gain victory points, or collect other bonuses.
If you’re struggling with your hand (lets say, thanks to previous ill-advised purchases, you’re dealt W, S, Q, X, and A), you can forgo a card’s reward by flipping it over to create a wild. So you can spell squaw as SQ[X]AW or waxes as WAX[Q]S.
Although each player starts with eight of ten matching cards, your personal deck will rapidly evolve based on your purchases. Matching the game’s exquisite 19th-century art and theme, cards in the marketplace also come in one of four different genres: adventure, horror, mystery, and romance.
These card’s genres can give you various special benefits when used alone or in pairs: like doubling a neighboring card’s value or giving you items that allow you to draw more cards for longer words. Charming, challenging, and endlessly repayable, for any word-game fan Hardback is a must have.
Rising Sun is an absolutely gorgeous game of intrigue, alliances, and combat, set in a mythicized feudal Japan. Most fun with the full five players, Rising Sun’s antecedents are sure to be felt by veteran wargamers—there’s a touch of Game of Thrones: The Board Game, a sprinkling of Diplomacy, and a whole lot of Shogun in the mix. Play in Rising Sun is divided into three rounds, all of which start with a tea ceremony and end with battles in randomly selected territories across the board.
So what makes it so good? Unlike many of its precursors, Rising Sun is extremely fluid. During each of the three rounds of play, you can mobilize your soldiers to basically any corner of the board if you need. This dynamic ensures that you can’t ever solely rely on your physical or strategic might. Your enemies can gather anywhere. So you’ll almost always need to lean on deal-making with your ally, or at the very least enemies in détente.
While battles in Rising Sun totally lack randomness, each one is preceded by a blind bidding phase. These bids feel exciting and intense each time. They can often dramatically throw the balance of power, or drain you of your reserves for future fights.
Imagine the goliath-hunting video game Shadow of the Colossus merged into the Redwall series. That’s Skulk Hollow. In this asymmetrical, two-player battle, you’ll take the reins as either a massive, golemic horror or a merry band of anthropomorphic foxen critters. You’ll duke it out with hands of action cards to move your units around the board, attack, retreat, heal, and summon reinforcements.
I think that the best (and most bizarre) part of the game is that one of the two play boards is a map of the golem. That’s because to take it down, the foxes have to physically scale the behemoth, leap and crawl across it, and directly assault different parts of its body. This conceit creates a sense of absurd scale that’s equally riveting and hilarious.
Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
Tiny Towns is simple but addicting strategy game with just a handful of rules. You and up to six friends take turns calling out resources—colored cubes of either wood, wheat, brick, glass or stone—for everyone to place within their personal 4×4 grid of a town. Your goal is to place the right resources in the right shape, so you can replace them with buildings. There are seven buildings everyone can construct (for example, you can turn wood and an adjacent stone to a millstone) plus a secret monument of your own.
The key in Tiny Towns is flexibility and foresight. You’ll spend most of the game working around your increasingly congested hamlet, adapting your strategy as other players pick the lion’s share of the resources you’re placing on your board! Nevertheless, with simple rules and games as quick as 45 minutes long, Tiny Towns is great for families (with kids at least 12 years and up). But it’s no kids’ game, play can be challenging and delightfully cutthroat when you’re gunning to win.
If you’re a fan of the incredibly popular word game Codenames, you will absolutely adore Decrypto. Teams of up to four players work to craft cunning three-word clues while cracking the opposing team’s codes.
Here’s how it works. Each team has their own secret board of four hidden words. (For example: 1. Pizza, 2. Duck, 3. Vampire, and 4. Domino.) Everyone on each team can see their teams’ words, but not their opponents’. Each turn one team member privately pulls a card with three numbers on it, and then gives three clues that lead their team to pick the correct words matching those numbers. Your clues could be “Dots”, “Pepperoni” and “Quack”. And your team could figure out, oh, you likely mean 4-1-2.
Here’s the issue. Your opponents are always listening, and they get a chance to intercept first. If you give obvious clues like “Pepperoni”, the next time your team gives a closely related clue like “Italian” or “Food” your opponents will be able to guess you likely still referencing Word #1. That’s dangerous. If you correctly intercept your opponents full code twice, you win the game. As rounds progress, teams gradually begin to piece together what your secret words are, so you’re best off if you give opaque and tangential clues.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon
Currently Sold Out
This massive card and story-based RPG is the dystopian, Arthurian legend you didn’t know you needed to hear. Like a mashup of 7th Continent and Gloomhaven—but with a storyline that’s better written and more engrossing than either—you’ll take the reins as third-chair heroes in the bleak, downward-spiraling land of Avalon. You’ll fight monsters, comfort orphans and widows, and explore the continent over 15 connected, two-hour adventures.
Tainted Grail’s most intriguing novelty is the two types of card-based combat, which each has its own deck. There is, of course, physical combat (what would an Arthurian legend be without a bit of slaying?) but you also have a deck for dialectical duels, like fending off mobs and swindlers, and placating the spiritually broken. You adapt these decks as you progress through the game, and your cards naturally become more powerful as you upgrade your character’s six abilities, such as empathy and courage.
Ultimately though, this is a story-focused game. So if you don’t like the idea of flipping through Tainted Grail’s thick, spiral-bound choose-your-own-adventure story several times per turn, this isn’t the game for you.
Monolith Arena is redesign of 2006’s Neuroshima Hex! 3.0, a 2-person battle game that you can still break out, play, and pack back up in 30 to 40 minutes flat. In this chess-like war of escalating tactics, you’ll take control of one of 4 distinct factions—dwarves, elves, men or demons—and fight to be the first to destroy your opponent’s home base.
Players take turns drawing and deploying randomly drawn factions tiles onto a hexagonal arena. Most of these tiles are a variety of units, unique to each faction. Some units attack in different directions, some attack at range, and some can move once you’ve set them down. Most importantly: each unit attacks with a certain speed. Once the board is completely filled with tiles, or once someone draws and plays an Attack tile, a battle begins!
For most of Monolith Arena you’ll find yourself stuck in a spiraling arms race. For example, you might place a slightly quicker archer on the board to dispatch your opponent’s powerful knight that’s threatening to cleave down on your base. But next turn, your enemy might lay down lightning quick assassin to stop the archer before he can fire. The key is knowing just the right time to execute a battle for maximum effectiveness.
Jaws is a cinematic game in two acts. In the first, three players take the reins as Brody, Hooper, and Quint to race across Amity island as the lurking shark (your fourth player) gobbles up luckless swimmers like soggy popcorn. Lastly, after tracking and tagging the abyssal beast, everyone takes to the open ocean in a riveting final battle aboard the Orca every bit as intense as the movie’s.
The great irony of Jaws is that it’s certainly suited best for breaking out with players born way, way after the film’s 1975 release. As an hour-long, weeknight family game Jaws is an absolute must-buy. The rules are few and easy to grasp, turns move quickly—especially for the players working together—and trying to remain hidden as the shark is gigglingly devious.
Still, after a roughly 45 year-late release, I only wonder what’s next? A Dr. Strangelove collectible card game?
Secret Hitler is a deduction-focused party game like Mafia or The Resistance, but with significantly more jackboots and accusations of fascist behavior. The game begins as five to ten players are each given a secret dossier containing a party affiliation card and a character card. The majority of players start as generic 1930s German Liberals, but a few are card-carrying Fascists—and one of the Fascists is Hitler himself. Only the fascists know who each other are.
Each round, players elect a president and chancellor. Together, that duo secretly enacts one of three arbitrary government policies. The Liberals win by enacting six Liberal policies. The hidden Fascists try either to discreetly enact five Fascist policies together or (later in the game) to elect Hitler as chancellor. Every game will descend into a dark spiral of collusion, lies, and impassioned accusations. You’ve never had so much fun accusing your friends of being Hitler.
Planet is a hands-on, tactile game for two to four players with simple rules but mind-bending geometric play. At the beginning of the game, each player holds aloft their inchoate planet: a giant, faceless dodecahedron (basically a blank, 12-sided die). Each round, players will flip over a stack of magnetic tiles that snap onto their planets. These tiles have biomes on them—deserts, mountains, oceans, jungles and arctic tundra. Moving clockwise, you’ll draft these tiles, and stick them on any free side (and at any orientation) of your slowly evolving world.
After a few rounds players start to compete for animal cards, each printed with the rules for who nabs them. For example, the giraffe might go to the current planetholder with the biggest desert that touches a jungle, and the blue whale might go to the planet with the most unconnected oceans. Usually the planet with the most animals wins.
While the game is quick and simple to learn, Planet demands a creative spatial awareness that I found fantastically challenging. This makes Planet a great for players of all ages, or a perfect game to break out on family game night.
$109.95 (21% off)
With over 150 hours of game crammed into a 22-pound box, Gloomhaven is immensity incarnate. Filled with countless playable characters and baddies, rule books more like tomes than pamphlets, and an immersive story that stretches across the far corners of its fantasy netherworld, Gloomhaven is easily one of the best games of the past decade.
Gloomhaven is a cooperative role-playing game. You can think of it rather like a figurine-focused campaign Dungeons & Dragons—but even more combat-oriented, played with cards rather than stats and dice, and overlorded by the box instead of a player game-master. The game is broken up into nearly 100 scenarios, which basically boil down to sweeping through a dungeon and then making choices to advance the story, slowly opening up new locations, new loot, and new cards to modify each character’s abilities.
We loved the uniqueness of each playable character in Gloomhaven. They transcend the traditional D&D; tropes that are easy to grow tired of: healer, magic user, ranger, frontline bruiser, and so on. Each character in Gloomhaven has an odd mix of abilities that blur the lines between classic fantasy archetypes. The game also forces you to “retire” and switch characters periodically throughout the game, an act which would be devastating…if you didn’t already know how much fun the next character will be!
Chronicles of Crime
Call me old fashioned, but I struggle with board games that require an app. For me, the infusion of technology mutes a bit of the spark—that ephemeral mix of friends and cardboard cutouts, plastic figurines and face-to-face interaction—that makes boardgames so joyful. So keep that in mind when I tell you Chronicles of Crime (app ridden as it may be) is nevertheless worth your time. It’s that much fun!
Chronicles of Crime is a mystery solving game, wherein through a mix of cards and the game’s app, you and your friends band together in a gumshoe detective’s journey. You’ll investigate disappearances, find stolen treasure, and even solve murders. With the prodigious use of a QR reader you can dive into the games world—asking suspects about clues, or about one another—and the app tracks and changes the story as you progress.
What’s the most fun about Chronicles of Crime is that while you’re playing—as you’re collecting DNA, analyzing a crime scene, navigating red herring leas and interrogating witnesses—you really do feel like you’re solving a mystery.
I’m still not completely sold on apps in games, but I am sold on Chronicles of Crime.
Imagine that you and four of your seafaring friends are so abjectly wretched, so gruesomely terrible, that your fellow shipmates decide that they’d like nothing more than to chuck you all overboard, and let Neptune met out your fate.
Welcome to Vindication, s deep-strategy fantasy game, where you all simultaneously wash ashore, and embark on a quest to build your character and regain your lost honor. You’ll spend turns discovering the mystical island you ran aground on, earning and spending 6 unique character traits like wisdom, vision and courage, forming a team of companions, fighting monsters, acquiring rare relics, and more.
Vindication is an undeniably heavy game moves freaking quickly—and without leaving you feeling like you’ve been shortchanged. A 3-player game can be finished in an hour, an impressive feat for a game with this level of strategic depth.
Here’s the game to play with The Magnificent 7 soundtrack on repeat in the background. In Western Legends you take on the role of living legends in American Wild West—as a do-gooding deputy, a dastardly desperado, or a mix of the two. With a true “sandbox” approach, the game largely leaves you free to spend turns roaming as you may. You win by growing your legendary status through your choice of means: mining gold, buying weapons and steeds, robbing banks and other players, winning duels, partying, playing poker and more.
The game utilizes a brilliant deck poker cards, each of which has a special ability (for example, you can discard the 3 of clubs to move extra spaces.) Not only do you use these cards for their abilities, you’ll use them when fighting duels (with the winner playing the highest card), and for real games of Hold ‘Em of poker in town. The whole concept is genius.
The game also wholly immerses you in the fantasy. Twenty minutes in, you’ll find that playing the game feels like your favorite spaghetti western.
Here’s a game with some seriously lethal levels of whimsy. In Everdell, you compete with up to three opponents to found the greatest woodland-critter city of all time—a tableau of 15 curious constructions and creatures, such as the Barge Toad or the Resin Factory.
Each turn you’ll either place one of your steadily growing corps of workers to gather materials (berries, sticks, resin, and stones), or purchase a new citizen or building with those aforementioned materials to add to your town. Each new addition gives you victory points at the end of the game, and/or a special bonus or power during the game. Once you’re out of actions and have deployed all your workers, you have to gather them back up to prepare for the next season. After three seasons, the game’s over.
Everdell is a thoughtful, challenging game that nevertheless moves extremely quickly. But you’ll delight in discovering how to use your very limited resources to string together clever combinations of card effects, which will reap you satisfying rewards or heaps of victory points. And with the gorgeous artwork, detailed components, and giant 3D cardboard tree, you can’t help be transported into Everdell’s whimsical world.
Pipeline is a dense and challenging strategy game about every arch-capitalist’s ultimate dream: privatizing a government oil industry. That’s right! You and up to three friends get to form your own complex, puzzle-like refineries that process sweet crude into top-tier black gold. You’ll spend turns snatching up barrels from various marketplaces, hiring experts, laying pipes, eventually automating sections of your refinery, and raking in that cold, hard cash. All while (so the science tells us) the seas boil and the forests burn around us all.
Pipeline is a beast. It’s cerebral, strategically formidable, and features a variable, finicky scoring system that frankly makes it difficult to calculate who’s ahead during the game. All told, I wouldn’t recommend Pipeline for anyone but serious board-gamers with prodigious patience and plenty of proclivity toward abstraction. There are a lot of moving parts on each turn, and it’s easy for players to spend chunks of time recalculating their best move… as everyone watches.
That said, as a fascinating mix between a heavy strategy game and a geometric pipe puzzle, Pipeline is certainly worth the brainpower you’ll burn.
Architects of the West Kingdom
At its core, Architects of the West Kingdom is a brilliantly-balanced worker placement game—a category of games like Agricola or Le Havre where players spend turns deploying minions to complete a limited number of tasks. Here, you and up to four friends will take the reins as Charlemagne’s royal architects. You’ll send your goons to buy up blueprints, collect money, secure building materials, and construct fantastic wonders.
Architects takes a few delightfully unique twists on the genre. First, the game forces you navigate every architects’ prototypical quandary: will you design and erect your buildings with virtue, nobility, and moral clarity or are you going to be a total shyster about it? Certain choices—like sending goons to the black market, raiding the city coffers, or hiring priests—will move you along the game’s virtue track, which can lock you out of places to send your minions.
Another great twist is that workers, which take the same action multiple times, create a compounded effect. Send your first worker to the quarry and you receive one stone, send your second and receive 2, etcetera. But Architects also allows you to round up and imprison your opponents’ workers, usually when one of your opponent’s is benefiting too much by taking the same action. Together, these abilities beautifully balance one another out, creating tight, ruthless contests you won’t forget.
Twilight Imperium: 4th Edition
$119.96 (20% off)
Now in its fourth edition, Twilight Imperium still reigns tall as the uncontested behemoth of the board-game world. Like an insane mashup of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game and Star Wars: Rebellion, this beast hungrily consumes time, space, and brainpower in cruel quantities. With all six players, you’re looking at a minimum of eight hours of playtime (not including two-plus hours to prep new players on the rules). Twilight Imperium is also set during the outbreak of a galaxy-spanning war, and when the hundreds of components are set up on your dining room table, it sure feels like it.
There’s been a lot of tiny changes made from previous additions, most of which either streamline play and balance out issues with the 17 playable spacefaring races. But the game is the same as ever. You’ll conquer planets, field massive spaceship armadas, trade goods, discover deadly new technologies, vote in the galactic senate (to change the rules of the game), and laugh caustically at the lamentations of your weaker friends as you dominate their home-worlds and eliminate them hours into the worst Sunday they’ll have in weeks.
Spirit Island could be a Bizzaro-world sequel to The Settlers of Catan. Instead of colonizing a newfound landmass, you and your friends team up as the invaded isle’s guardian spirits. You’ll muster the native population, deploy your elemental powers, and work together to frighten, drive, and otherwise murder the invading settlers off your sacred land. Catan fights back, baby!
Wonderfully complex but not excessively complicated, Spirit Island is the best cooperative game of the decade (yes, even better than Pandemic). As spirits, you’ll spend your turns building influence on the game board, learning new powers, and picking which ones to use. Meanwhile, the game automates the unceasing advance of the settlers who explore, settle, and ravish new biomes in a set order.
The game includes dozens of ways to modulate the difficulty, but even the easiest modes require an almost preternatural cleverness; your team needs to know which battles to fight, and to discover the best way to collaborate for maximum fright or damage.
Scythe was the best game of 2016, and it many ways, still hasn’t been beat. In this gorgeously illustrated steampunk reimagining of 1920s Eastern Europe, five players complete for regional prestige, resources, and territorial control of a hexagonal game board.
Although battling your friends with coal-powered mechs is a significant part of the game, Scythe is by no means a combat-centric slog. The game actively penalizes direct warfare, which might sound frustrating but makes the game all the more strategic and balanced. You’ll find yourself immersed in Scythe’s strategy and aesthetics as you plan each turn’s single action. For example: First you might complete a quest to steal food and money from local farmers, next you’ll build a mine to connect territories across the board, and lastly you’ll sweep into a nearby Soviet territory to do battle and steal all their iron.
Brass: Birmingham is a stunningly gorgeous strategy game of rapid industrialization, first by canal, then by train. You and your opponents will spend turns laying cards to found ironworks, coal mines, breweries, manufacturing depots and more across England’s sprawling West Midlands. Founding and selling these new industries require coal, cash, iron and plenty of dealmaking beer—and each of these resources has their own subtle and unique rules for creation and delivery. As well, during the first half of the game you’ll be laying canals to connect your industries. Halfway through the game, you remove your canals, and continue with trains.
I love Brass: Birmingham for the rapidity and depth of the gameplay. It’s a meaty, strategy-heavy behemoth, but one you can realistically wrap up in an hour and a half.
But be warned, Brass is not for the faint of heart. The rules can be fiddly and quite delicate. If you make one small illegal move without catching it, you can irreparably throw the whole game.
Betrayal Legacyretains the beloved formula of 2004’s creepy classic: Betrayal at House on the Hill. You and your friends enter an abandoned house, grab a few wretched items and uncover a few terrible clues until suddenly—muahahaha—the haunt begins. One player is revealed to be a (hereto then unwitting) traitor, and you enter a bloody, horrific battle, usually to the death.
What makes this legacy edition so much fun is watching this tried-and-true formula evolve over each of the game’s 14 distinct plays. You and your friends will take up various characters in centuries-spanning family lines, leaving your mark by adding, amending and destroying items, leaving ghosts in the haunted house’s rooms, and even making significant changes to the game’s core rules.
Betrayal Legacy’s only major blemish is a conceptual one: as in the Jurassic Park series, the game never fully answers: why do people keep returning to this den of death?!
In Sagrada, you and up to three friends compete to design and craft historically marvelous stained glass windows.
The basic mechanics underlying Sagrada are elegant in their simplicity. Each round, someone grabs a handful of multicolored six-sided die from a bag and rolls them. Then, players take turns drafting and placing the die like shards of stained glass onto a personal 4×5 grid “window,” making sure to follow the game’s simple placement rules: Dice of the same color or number can’t ever touch. As your window fills up, these restrictions can become absolutely crippling, so foresight is a must.
Best of all, Sagrada is one of the extremely few games with a single-player mode (an increasingly popular trope for board-game designers) that’s actually worth your time. Visually arresting and endlessly replayable, Sagrada is certainly the best puzzle game in a while.
Empires of the Void II
After unpacking all the vaguely militaristic components and reading the game’s central conceit, “to conquer the fringe of the galaxy!” you’d probably figure this for a brutal war game. But Empires of the Void II is more Starship Enterprise than an Imperial Star Destroyer—and Picard’s Enterprise at that.
In this two- to five-player romp, you’ll scour the far edge of the known universe in your massive Worldship, exploring and politicking across eight backwater planets while befriending exotic alien races. Sure, you’re also duking it out with your opponents. Ships can do battle, and you can conquer planets to outright colonize them. But fulfilling quests of diplomacy and aid—like curing diseases or fighting off piracy—tend to pay higher dividends, so the space battles are far fewer and farther between than in bloodier galactic-scope games like Twilight Imperium 4th Edition or Eclipse.
In all, Empires of the Void II is an engrossing, gorgeously detailed and highly repayable game that rewards grand strategy and card-hand management—one who forces you to outwit and outmaneuver your opponents, rather than outgunning them outright.
In Santorini, your aim is to be the first to move one of your minions to the top of a three-story tower. Each turn, players pick one of their two minions, and move it one space over grass and half-built towers on a 5×5 game board. After each turn, the minion you moved constructs one floor of a tower in a bordering space. Sounds easy, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Ignore the cartoonish artwork, the Duplo-esque game pieces, and simple rules. This game is chess with more dimensions, where the most strategic, cutthroat player wins. Each player gets a mythical Greek hero card that gives them a special power—like building two pieces of tower, or moving twice under certain conditions. With the cards, Santorini plays best as a three-player battle, where you and two other friends are continually self-balancing the game. You’ll find yourselves ganging up on anyone close to winning, capping towers so they can’t climb on top—until somebody discovers a brilliant move no one can stop and takes the match.
Star Wars: Rebellion
Have a friend and an infinite amount of free time? Then you’re almost ready to play Star Wars: Rebellion. You’re just going to need more time. Just learning the rules can take up to two hours, and play can easily spill into the five-hour territory. With two massive game boards, hundreds of plastic figurines, and more dice and game tokens than you can keep track of, Rebellion plays like a monstrous mash-up of Risk and Twilight Imperium: 4th Edition.
In this asymmetric slog, you either take command of the Rebels, sending heroes like Luke and Leia across the galaxy to foment rebellion, or helm the Galactic Empire, fielding massive armadas of spaceships to scour for the rebel base, destroying planets with Death Stars, and capturing the rebel heroes in the process. Like an abandoned star system, you will finish this huge game utterly depleted.
The City of Kings
The City of Kings is a cooperative, fantasy game for one to four players that rivals Gloomhaven in pure heft—and I mean that both in scope and sheer, physical weight. This game’s a beast!
With the soul of your favorite grand-adventuring RPG, you’ll spend turns inThe City of Kings slowly uncovering a sprawling map, fulfilling quests, battling increasingly tough enemies, and leveling up your hero’s nine distinct stats. And whether you’re playing the game’s preset story or random encounters—each tense game boils and builds until finally ending in an epic crescendo.
In The City of Kingsyou don’t just control your hero. You’re also directing a caravan of little workers, whom you send across the board—mining and collecting materials to fulfill quests and craft new gear. These workers end up playing a huge role in keeping your heroes properly armed and tackling various scenarios.
Thunderstone Quest is a brilliant synthesis of two of my favorite board-game mechanics—dungeon-crawling and deck-building. To play, you and a friend (we suggest two players, max) take turns cavorting about a fantasy town or battling through a dark lair to defeat powerful monsters. Each turn, you’re building a custom deck of heroes, items, spells, and weapons that will help you delve ever deeper into the dungeon.
Now this isn’t the first dungeon-crawling/deck-building game I’ve ever played. That title belongs to Clank!, but Thunderstone Quest may very well be the best. Each game of Thunderstone follows a “hero’s journey” progression, where you start weak but grow and evolve as play progresses. The final boss fight is also an exciting crescendo each time, because if approached with strategy it can decide the entire game.
In Terraforming Mars, you and up to four friends take turns buying and playing cards that construct cities or enact terraforming projects on a hexagonal map of Mars. Each terraforming project has a planetary effect, and will give you a special bonus—for example, allowing you to produce resources like titanium faster, or lowering the cost of future projects. It’s by chaining those bonuses together to form clever bonus-earning engines that you’ll earn the most victory points and win the game.
But you have to work fast; the game ends when everybody’s terraforming projects have done three things: raise the atmospheric oxygen level to 14 percent, up the planetary temperature to 8 degrees Celsius, and lay down all nine ocean tiles. If you’ve ever read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, you need this game.
Anachrony’s premise is delightfully mind-bending. A cataclysmic meteor is years away from destroying civilization, which you know because future scientists traveled back in time to tell you. Now, you’re competing with up to three players to build the fortified society best able to withstand Armageddon. You’ll do so in part by hazardously borrowing tools, genius minds, and rare minerals (even from the meteor itself!) from your future self within the game.
Anachrony may be the best “worker-placement” game I’ve ever played; a category of games wherein players draft minions and spend turns placing them on a limited number of options. Here you’re loading up your minions into exosuits, and sending them away to gathering water and minerals, build massive structures, research new technologies, and travel through time.
The time-traveling mechanic in Anachrony is where the game truly shines. At the beginning of each round, you can “borrow” up to two resources of various types from your future self. But doing so causes holes in the fabric of space-time itself. To fix them and close the time loop, you have to develop time travel and spend and send those resources back to your past self later in the game, lest you suffer grave consequences.
Ethnos is rich on strategy and light on rules, edging it into the same territory as Carcassonneor Ticket to Ride—excellent hooks to introduce newcomers into the world of modern board games. The game basically revolves around collecting and playing cards in simple sets: either sets of one color or sets of one type of fantasy creature. Easy enough!
Each time you play a set of cards, you place a token onto a region of the fantasy game board that corresponds with the color of the top card in your set. That top card will also give you a special bonus. Wizards let you instantly pick up more cards, for example, while feathered Wingfolk allow you to place your token anywhere on the board. The game is played in two or three phases, and at the end of each you score points for having the largest sets of cards and the most tokens on each region of the board.
We loved Ethnos for several reasons. First, turns are crazy fast; you either pick up a card or play down a set, so even a five-person game rarely stretches beyond an hour. And with 12 possible tribes of fantasy creatures, like hobbits, elves, minotaurs, and giants (although you only play with six each game), each game features a host of different special abilities, demanding a different strategic approach.
The concept behind Photosynthesis is so simple, it’s brilliant. Each player places two trees in a hexagonal, game-board meadow. As the sun rotates around the meadow’s six edges, your trees soak up sunlight. Unless they’re behind and in the shade of other trees. You spend your sunlight like a currency to grow your trees taller; thereby collecting more light and making a longer shadow to cast on your opponents. Or you can spread and grow seeds to make more trees. To gain points, fell your giant trees faster than your friends. That’s it.
Because of its sheer logicality, Photosynthesis is an absolutely perfect game to lure in folks new to the world of modern board games. Veteran gamers will find much to love as well. Sure, flora aren’t known to be the most cutthroat of life’s kingdoms, but you can revel in touches of nakedly competitive meanness as your shadows smother you opponent’s ill-laid shrubs.
After half a decade of reviewing board games, and another two of playing as many as I could get my hands on, I’ve finally found it. The most complex, complicated board game I have ever encountered.
Feudumisa medieval, economic fantasy game for up to five players. Explaining even the gist of this monster’s rules accurately would take a stout pamphlet. So please allow me to just straight-up butcher them: Using a hand of cards, you’ll take turns by picking four of 11 possible actions to send six types of pawns across a complex, fantasy board to spread influence and domination, collect a dizzying array of goods (from saltpeter and rosary beads), defend and develop your new holds, and jockey for influence in six separate guilds—each of which function with cascading effects that may require a supercomputer to effectively preplan. The winner? Most points at the end. Oh, also there’s blimps and subs.
Exhausted yet? If not, then this is the game for you! Feudum is a complex, challenging undertaking you will not soon forget.
Clans of Caledonia
Clans of Caledonia is a fluid and impeccably balanced strategy game of mercantile expansion in 19th-century Scotland. You and up to three friends expand your clans’ business empires across Scottish lowlands—buying, selling, and developing markets for goods like mutton, cheese, bread, and of course whisky.
Although bursting with game pieces and options for each turn, Clans of Caledonia manages to combine heavy strategy with notably simple and straightforward mechanics. One of the best is the open marketplace, where selling goods (like whisky) makes them cheaper, and buying them up will cause prices to skyrocket. This intuitive mechanic means you’re constantly worried about how your sales and purchases will hurt or benefit your competitors.
Serious board gamers will also spy features from some of the best European-style strategy games, like Agricola, Terra Mystica, and even Settlers of Catan.
Shards of Infinity
Like its forbearers Dominion, Star Realms, and Ascension, Shards of Infinity is a member of the tight-knit clan of deck-building games. In Shards, you’re buying heroes and mercenaries with various skills and specialties to form your own sci-fi/fantasy army. Each turn you’ll field as many heroes as possible, attacking your opponents and slowly chipping away at their life points.
Although the gameplay and theme is hardly unique, Shards is a breeze to learn and moves extremely quickly. You can bust out Shards, play a game, and pack it away in 20 minutes flat. We also loved the variety of heroes you can hire—not just in their special abilities, but in the ways you can hire and field them. Alongside the normal heroes, some cards—called Guardians—will stay in play even after your turn is over. Others cards—called Mercenaries—can be bought and played like normal heroes, or they can be instantly deployed for a one-time use.
Human Punishment: Social Deduction 2.0
Like a second cousin to The Resistanceor Secret Hitler, here’s a four- to 16-player party game of secret teams, bluffing, deduction, and deception. At the beginning of each game, you’re dealt a character card and two secret ID cards that combine to place you on one of three teams. There’s the Humans, who are trying to kill all nonhumans. The selfish Outlaws, each of whom are trying to be the last alive. And the Machines, who are trying to kill all humans, but aren’t concerned with the Outlaws.
The game moves clockwise, with each turn an option to: investigate one of someone’s two ID cards, draw a special action “program” card, or pick up one of several guns on the table and aim it. If you start your turn with a gun in hand, you have to either fire it off, switch your target, or drop it. As folks discuss who they are, and fire weapons—which usually allow you to flip cards in lieu of dying or taking damage—a clearer picture of the battlefield starts to coalesce.
Too Many Bones
Too Many Bones is a messy, goofy, and sprawling tabletop RPG, in which you and up to three friends embark upon epic quests as “gearlocks,” creatures halfway between Harry Potter House Elfs and Sméagol. They’re not pretty. Component-wise, Too Many Bones is one of the most inventive RPGs. The game uses over 100 distinct dice for ailments, attacks, defenses, and other character-specific skills; countless cards that detail a day’s adventure and options to complete it; repurposed poker chips for players and baddies; and mouse pads for character sheets and a battle map.
We must admit, Too Many Bones is extremely slow out of the gate. The rulebook is thick and seemingly organized for maximum confusion, so you’ll likely stumble through your first adventure. But as soon as you know what you’re doing, the game moves extremely fluidly. Each day usually gives you an option to load up the battle map with baddies, which you and your friends tactically assault. These battles and other adventure choices allow you to unlock new skill dice, or up the number of dice you can roll each turn. Somehow we left a five-hour game of Too Many Bones pretty eager to do it all over again as soon as possible.
Here’s the most frenetic cooperative board game we’ve ever played; more so than even Spaceteam. The idea behind Magic Maze is actually pretty simple, as are (theoretically) the rules. You and up to seven friends take the role of four Dungeons & Dragons characters engaged in a petty larceny at a labyrinthine local shopping complex. Against a three-minute sand timer, you guide the characters around a walled maze, one move at a time, to find and steal weapons. The yellow barbarian must nab the yellow sword, the green ranger pinches the green bow, and so on. Once all four characters make it to their armaments, everyone scrams for the exit.
Here’s what makes the game interesting: each player controls every character simultaneously, but only a few actions. In an eight-player game, you may only be able to move characters south, while your friend can only open doors, or move characters up and down escalators. Everyone has to coordinate…but nobody is allowed to speak. You can stare intently at your friends, or place the game’s “Do Something!” figure in front of them, but you have to silently hope they realize what it is you want.
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