The best board games have seen a huge rise in popularity recently. Okay, maybe it's no surprise there's been a lot more interest in them for the past year, but it started way before that: board games are officially cool again.
The best board games are nothing like the stuffy games of Cluedo or Monopoly that a lot of us are used to – they use unusual themes and inventive ideas to make things feel fresh and exciting. Just take a look our list of Monopoly board game alternatives to see how things people actually like about Monopoly can be turned into something less aggravating, more fun, and shorter.
The best board games avoid the traps of leaving you bored between turns, or at the mercy of a random dice roll as the decider of your success or failure – they give you strategies to think about, social elements to take advantage of, or even just cool components to fiddle with.
One of the key reasons these new board games have been such a hit is that after years of the internet taking over so much of our social interaction, people are looking more and more for fun ways to spend time in person, and games are the perfect excuse to get friends together in one place.
Okay, 2020 hasn't exactly been the year for gathering groups around your table, but the same applies for families too, especially as we head into the winter months. Board games create a shared activity and interest for family members of all ages, and make perfect gifts. We've got other specific guides to the best two-player board games as well as the best board games for kids. And if you just want some small impulse buys, see our guide to only the best cheap board games.
But, as with everything, some games will suit different people or groups better than others! Some are more cut-throat and competitive, while some are light and cooperative. Some are short and simple, and others are long and involved. We'll help you find the perfect game from our list the very best out there – though if you get into the hobby, keep your eye on our list of our favourite new board games.
A quick guide to our top board games
Here's a brief guide to the best board games in the categories we get asked about the most, before we get to the full list.
- Best board game overall: Cosmic Encounter
- Best board game for families: Photosynthesis
- Best cooperative board game: Pandemic
- Best board game for 2 players: Jaipur
- Best cheap board game: Ticket to Ride: New York
- Best board game for parties: Wavelength
The best board games for families, for example, might mean something that people of different ages can play, and that aren’t so competitive they cause any major fallings out at the end.
Conversely, with your friends you might want something that’s ultra-competitive and lets you play out devious plans and deceptions. Or maybe you want the top board games for parties – games that don’t require a lot of concentration, and are guaranteed to lead to laughter.
We've also got games optimised for two players (not everything has the same fun factor with two!), and cooperative games, for those who like to work together.
We’ll talk about how all of these fit into the board games we’ve chosen below, so you can make sure you’ll pick the perfect option – we have more thoughts on how to choose the perfect board game for you.
- Best Lego sets – build together (or alone)
The best board game
- If you’re going to get just one board game, you’ll want one that you can replay a lot of times without it feeling repetitive and getting stale over time – something with a very different feel every time you play.
- With this in mind, we think the best board game choice overall is Cosmic Encounter. It’s perfect for groups of 3-5 players out of the box, and has a fantastic design where the basic (easy-to-learn) rules stay the same each time you play, but every player gets a different unique power at the start of the game, and these massively change how it plays out.
- The game itself is flexible to how people like to play as well: players can work together in it, go it alone, play it as a game of negotiation, or just battle boldly.
- You can also expand it in the future: there are six(!) expansions you can buy to add new rules and mechanics, plus support for even more players, so there’s more variation than you could ever need.
The best board games: listed
We like to say that Cosmic Encounter is the board game equivalent of Mario Kart – practice will make you better at it, but just enough wild stuff happens in each game that a beginner always has a chance of winning, which makes it great for both first-time players and veterans.
The basic rules are pretty simple: every turn, a player is randomly matched with another player (an ‘encounter’), and the two must either fight (using numbered cards from their hands) or negotiate. They can invite other players to ally with them in the fight, in exchange for rewards. The idea is to be the first to have five colonies on other players’ planets, either by winning battles or negotiating well. It’s a very easy set of rules to learn.
The wrinkle is that every player has a unique alien power that totally breaks those rules. One alien actually wins battles if it loses them. One alien gets to take other players’ discarded battle cards, becoming more powerful the more others use their best cards. One can just invite itself into others’ encounters as an ally even if they don’t want it, raking up the rewards. Another actually wins the whole game if it loses all of its ships, meaning no one can tell whether you're going to try to win or intentionally lose any given battle.
Added to this are extra one-use cards you can have in your hand that break the rules even more, plus the way the game encourages you to form alliances to stop players who are doing too well (and then potentially screw over your allies if you want). It’s a game that’s guaranteed to get you laughing when everyone’s best laid plans crumble.
With 50 alien powers in the base game (and dozens and dozens more available in expansions, along with other new optional ways to play that add even more craziness), the sheer scale of what can happen in Cosmic Encounter is why we love it so much. It’s impossible to get bored of, yet is surprisingly easy to learn.
• Read our full Photosynthesis review
Take your place as Mother Nature, competing with other players to plant trees of your colour in the best spots in the forest, where they'll absorb the most light. Not only does the arboreal theme make this game look absolutely beautiful – the 3D trees will sucker anyone into playing, and the fact that each player's trees are a different shape as well as colour helps colourblind players – it works logically with the rules, making learning to play so much easier.
At the start of the game, you'll place two small trees in spaces near the edge of the hexagonal board, and you'll have a bank of more small trees, medium trees and large trees ready for later in the game. You'll also place the huge sun token along two sides of the board. The sun's light beams in straight lines across the board from the token, and if your trees get touched by it, you get light points, which you can spent to plant more trees, or grow your existing ones.
The problem? If your tree is behind someone else's, the sun won't reach it, so you'll get less light points that turn. The bigger the tree, the longer the shadow it casts. But the good news is that the sun moves partially around the board every turn, so suddenly your shaded trees are in the sun, and others are in the dark. When the sun has gone all the way around the board three times, the game ends – 18 rounds in total.
At first, you can only plant seeds of new trees near your existing trees, but as your trees get bigger, you can spread out more broadly, and that's where things get crunchy. You're all competing for the same prime spaces, but your trees take several turns to grow, so are you able to predict what will be in light and what will be in shadow in three turns time? And should you keep a big tree around to cast shadows and cause your opponents problems, or trade it in for the points you need to win the game (leaving a new gap for your opponents to use in the process)?
It's a game that offers lots of strategy and a feeling of deep competition, but it's not one where you really come out thinking someone treated you cruelly or anything like that, because it takes any plan takes several turns to pull off, so you could change your strategy and avoid the problem. And you can't help but love the pretty forest you build while playing.
This game has been in this list since way before the current situation, but it's only become more appropriate. Pandemic is a game of trying to stop diseases outbreaking all over the Earth, working together with everyone else. On your turn, you need to use your actions to move around locations treating diseases, building research stations, and finding the cures that will win you the game. But with only four actions per turn, you won’t be able to do very much of it on your own, and after each player's turn more disease appears on the board – if too much appears on one city, it outbreaks to everywhere nearby, and you can only take so many outbreaks before you lose the game.
So, you and the other players have to work together to plan ahead, triaging where the danger is now, and analysing what’s vulnerable in the future. Who can get to Beijing the fastest to treat the situation there? Madrid's at risk of an outbreak next turn, but focusing on that would delay your ability to cure one of the diseases by a whole round, so what do you focus on? Each player also a has an extra power that makes them good at specific tasks, so you need to make you’re using them effectively – don't have your Researcher treating disease cubes when they're the best at finding the cures… unless you really need them to.
A clever tension is added by the card system at the heart of the game: to cure diseases for good, you need to collect sets of matching-colour cards. Except that these cards are also the fastest way to move around the board, and if you use them to travel, you can't then use them to cure, so again you're working out whether you need to spend a valuable card zipping across the board to prevent an outbreak, or whether you can risk leaving it to someone else… but you know that more disease will come out in the mean time.
And we haven't even mentioned the Epidemic cards! Sprinkled throughout the deck your draw from, these instantly step up the danger, not only spreading disease to a new location, but also guaranteeing that every location that currently has disease will get more of it. Cleverly, you can make the game harder or easier by adjusting how many Epidemic cards you include.
Pandemic is wildly popular, and that for good reason: it's a compelling and dynamic experience that gives you lots of opportunities to feel triumphant even before the game is won – the right move at the right time to help you avoid defeat feels like a win in itself. Being cooperative, kids can play along with adults without any penalty to their inexperience, since you can talk strategy together. And there are three expansions to add even more to the mix. We recommend "On The Brink", which adds three variations on the game, plus new roles for players to be – and you can combine the variations in different ways, if you want to make it really interesting.
There's also a new mini version of Pandemic, called Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America (again, not a response to current events, but eerie nevertheless). It plays almost exactly like the main version, but is smaller, cheaper and over in 20 minutes. It's less of a strategic battle than the full game, partly due to being over quicker, but as a 'travel-friendly' version of the game, or as a gift for someone who loves games, it's pretty ideal.
• Read our full Jaipur review
Jaipur is made only for two players, and it pits you against each other perfectly by creating an almost Prisoner’s Dilemma-like system where you have to decide whether to go for speed or quality. It’s a trading game: there are cards in the middle of the table you can pick up, and if you collect enough matching-colour cards, you can trade them for tokens with points values on.
But how many matching cards should you collect before trading? Whoever trades a colour first gets higher-value tokens. But if you trade a larger number of cards in one go, you get special bonus tokens with big points of their own, on top of the regular tokens. So, can you afford to spend one more turn collecting another couple of cards and going for the big payout? Or will your opponent nip in first and leave you with the leftovers?
Some colours’ tokens are worth much more than others too (and there are fewer of them), so do you both compete for the same high-value stuff or do you go for more of the lower-value cards your opponent is ignoring?
Even seemingly easy wins can be tight decisions: there are only five cards in the middle of the table to take from at any time, and if three greens come out, you might think that’s a great bonus for you… but those three will be replaced with something as soon as you take them, and what if it’s something more valuable that you leave open to the other player?
It’s beautifully designed and printed, and the box has a really pleasing custom inlay that keeps everything arranged perfectly. And it’s cheap.
Ticket to Ride is a series of games in which you collect coloured cards, use those cards to connect different locations on a board, and get points for doing it. Simple! There are bigger versions of the game that cost more and play over a longer time, but we love this miniaturised version, which gives you all the tactics of the full game, but in a short, sharp, concentrated burst.
On your turn you'll mainly do one of two things: pick up two cards from the available pool of 5 to add to your hand; or take cards from you hand matching the colour of spaces on the board, and put your little taxi pieces down to 'claim' that route as your own. You need to claim routes because you each have secret cards that tell you two places on the board, with a points value, and if you can connect them using continuous routes you've claimed, then you'll get the points. If you don't connect them, then you lose that many points.
You also get points simply for claiming routes, and also for linking tourist spots on the board regardless of whether they're on your secret cards. It's a really basic setup, but the key thing is how small the board is, and how few routes there are, and how quickly the game ends… you need to get in fast, because with four players, the routes are taken so much more quickly than you think, and the path you want to take might be totally cut off. Play moves fast, as people rapidly take new cards, or claim routes, so you can pile through a game in under half an hour, then immediately line up to play again if things don't go your way.
There's also a London-themed version of this, if you prefer!
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This is part of genre of modern board games called 'deck-building games', in which each player starts with an identical small deck of cards to everyone else, and during the course of the game you'll expand your deck with new cards that you choose, so by the end everyone is competing with wildly different, wildly personal decks. You'll play through your own deck over and over, reusing its cards when you reach the end of the deck, clapping yourself on the back for all the great decisions you made as they combine in powerful ways.
The brilliant thing this game does is pair that clever basis with a race through a jungle landscape to be the first adventurer to reach the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Your ability to get there faster than everyone else depends on what abilities you stuff your deck with during the game.
The land is made of up big boards with lots of hexagon spaces on, and different hexagon colours denote different terrain types, such as villages, jungle, water and impassable mountains. Each turn, you draw a small hand of cards from your deck, and certain cards enable you to cross certain types of terrain. It means that each turn is like a mini personal puzzle as you eye up possible routes on the board to work out which takes you furthest. "If I hack through this bit of jungle, then I can head up the river here, and then pass through that village."
However, that does mean you have to draw the right cards – if all that's in front of you is water and you draw no cards suitable for that, you can't move. But you can do something else instead: buy new cards to add to your deck! These can add powerful new abilities, or can just help you move more easily. The game comes with loads of card types, but only six are available to buy at any one time (which helps to avoid the choice being overwhelming), and when a card type runs out, a player gets to choose what replaces it in the list of six, which adds a really interesting edge to your tactics – you're steering the decisions of other people as well as yourself.
The game lets you approach it in different ways then: you can choose to spend early turns buying new cards, which will mean you fall behind others in the race initially, but you get a more powerful deck for surging forward later on; you can choose to always focus on movement, edging steadily towards the goal by always picking smart routes, but will another player catch up thanks to that plane they bought?
As you buy more cards, your deck also gets bigger, which means your best cards come up less often. There are places where you can remove cards from your deck, making it more efficient… but do you waste too much travel time if you go there? Oh, and did we mention that you can't move through spaces with other players in, so you can block off players if you're feeling punchy.
There's loads going on in the game, yet the rules are simple: draw cards; match symbols on cards with spaces on boards to move your piece, or buy new cards instead. And because the board is modular, you never need to race the same setup twice.
Though its name may be needlessly complex, Quacks (as we've taken to calling it) is easy to teach and simple to play: most of the game involves reaching into a bag of tokens and then revelling in the agony or the ecstasy of what you’ve drawn. Especially since it was you who decided what tokens went in there.
The idea is that you’re all fraudulent potion makers, making a brew using the ingredients found in your bag. You reach in, grab a token, pull it out and place it in your ‘pot’, which is actually a score track. Pull out higher-quality ingredients and you’ll get along the track more quickly, giving you more points at the end of round. You're all doing this together, eyeing up each other's success as you go.
But you’re always riding your luck. In among your actually good tokens are ‘cherry bombs’, which are what give your fake potion its lovely convincing bubbles… but if you draw too many cherry bombs, the pot explodes, and you’ll suffer a penalty.
So you’ll inevitably find yourself playing Russian Roulette with your bag. You’ve drawn lots of cherry bombs, and if you draw the one left in your bag you’ll explode. But you can feel that there are four other tokens in your bag too. You’ll get a nice bonus if you can go just a little further up the track, and there's only a 20% chance of doom. Do you feel lucky, punk?
You play nine rounds of filling the pot, and between rounds you get to buy new tokens to go into your bag, ready for drawing next time. The tokens have different powers (and can be varied every time you play), which can result in some combinations that propel you up the board at speed… if the drawing luck is in your favour.
There’s a nice system whereby people behind the leader in overall points get a head start in each round, stuffing their pots with rat tails so they start further up the track, making it easier to get a good points total that round. It’s already an ideal family game thanks to its silly fantasy theme, and this booster can really help kids stay competitive even if they’re not as good at the token-buying strategy as adults.
Some people won’t like how luck-based it is, and you can definitely have a few rotten rounds in which you draw all your cherry bombs right away, with no way to do anything about that… but it’s not common, and riding your luck (and knowing when to tactically stop drawing tokens) is a huge part of the game’s appeal, as is laughing at your friends' hubris when they think they can draw just… one… more…
Party games are often more social than strategic, since that tends to better accommodate having lots of people, and usually means there are fewer rules to learn. As a result, they're often about reading between the lines, and that's never been truer than in Wavelength, both literally and figuratively.
One player – the "psychic" – draws a card that will have two opposites written on it: for example, "soft" and "hard". They then spin a pleasingly chunky dial that only they can see, and a lined scoring zone will end up somewhere on the semi-circle, looking like a slightly vague speedometer. Finally, they then cover the dial so no one else can see it, and then offer a clue for their teammates to try to guess where that scoring zone is on the dial. So if it was all the way to the "hard" end of the dial, they might say "diamond". Or maybe "fur" for all the way to the “soft” end. The fun starts when, as is usually the case, the dial is somewhere between the two.
The brilliance of Wavelength is that it takes an everyday activity and turns it into an enchanting game. After all, who hasn't tried rating things as an idle conversation starter? The concept is instantly familiar yet the secrecy and vagueness of where that dial might be make it very hard to give and guess good clues. Winning does feel like it requires a near-psychic connection to think the way your friends are thinking – after all, you know where you you would put "sponge" on the spectrum between "soft" and "hard", but where would they?
The guessers will turn a needle on the dial to show where they think the scoring zone is, and then you remove the dial's cover theatrically to see how close they are! Bang on gets you the most points, but getting close gets you some points too, so it never feels impossible.
You might think that the focus on one team at a time makes it boring for the other team. But guessing is so funny, and the big reveal of the dial at the end so exciting, that it keeps everyone at the table entertained. Plus, the opposing team does actually get involved by placing a marker as to whether they think the real answer is to the left or right of the guess. They win a bonus point if they get it right.
Wavelength works best as a party game with two teams (and while the game suggests up to six on each side, there's nothing really stopping you playing more), but there's a cooperative mode that allows smaller player numbers to enjoy the game. In this, you work together through a deck of seven clue cards to see how high you can score. This is great for families since it means no hurt feelings. And it's a simple game that kids far younger than the 14+ age suggested on the box can pick up.
With its mix of novelty, laughter and deduction, everyone can get on this game’s Wavelength – it should absolutely be on your list of Christmas activities with the family. And, honestly, you can just ignore the scoring completely if you want and simply play through cards – it's still a really fun time.
For a small and light board game that contains enough strategy to play over and over, while also not being intimidating to new players, Splendor is the ideal option.
It's a game of buying cards by paying a cost in gems of different colours, and every card you buy gives you more gems you can use to buy cards more easily, so everything snowballs satisfyingly as you play – the only way to buy the higher-value cards is to have a great suite of other cards in front of you.
Some cards have points values on, too (usually only the more expensive ones), and when someone reaches 15 points, the game ends that round, though other players have a chance to buy one last card which could net them even more points.
Adding an extra strategic option to this is the selection of ’Nobles’ available in every game – you get the points shown on these cards automatically if you buy specific card combinations, and only one person can get each Noble.
On your turn, you can do one of three things: take up to three gems from the central pool (these are in the form of poker-style chips, and are deeply pleasing to play with) which you'll use to buy cards later; buy a card using gems you already have; or reserve a card, which you can then buy and use it later, but that no one else can grab it in the mean time.
Everyone is buying cards from the same market in the middle, and any that are bought are immediately replaced, so even if you're not keen on the cards available, new ones appear as other people play. But this also means you might all be planning the same strategy, and you may find someone grabs the card you want from under you, or takes the last gem you need from the pot.
In play, it isn’t a game that leaves you feeling like there’s so much you can do that you’re not sure what to try next – it’s easy to see what you need and take steps towards it, but still satisfying when you're grabbing cards left and right because your of your brilliantly-built gem tableau. But equally, it doesn’t require your focus the whole time to be successful, so it’s ideal if you want to chat while playing.
Azul is a game of building a patterned wall using beautiful plastic tiles, and is surprisingly straightforward to play each turn. First, tiles are drawn from a bag and placed in piles on several ‘Factory Tokens’. Then, you get to choose tiles from the Factory Tokens and move them to your ‘Pattern Lines’, which is effectively a stockpile ready for building onto your Wall. Finally, you can place a tile on the Wall. Easy! Well, except that every part of that is full of twists that bring scope for strategic thinking and interesting decisions.
When you take tiles, you can only take one colour of tile from one Factory Token (though you can take all tiles of that colour). Any tiles left over on the Factory Token go into the middle – and this repeats as other players take their turns. But you can also take tiles from the middle, so if you’re later in the turn order, you'll probably be able to take a whole handful! Except if you do this, you’ll take a point penalty, and you’ll have to go first next time. Everything you do comes with a sacrifice – you can take absolutely any colour you like, but you’ll be leaving juicy options for other players.
Then there’s the Pattern Lines. Each line must be filled with tiles of the same colour, and when filled, you can put exactly one of those tiles into the Wall (the rest are removed from the game forever). But if you pick up too many tiles and have more than your current Pattern Line needs, you’ll wind up with the wrong colours in the wrong places, or even losing points. But maybe those sacrifices are worth it to get something in the perfect place on the Wall…
When putting your tiles on the Wall, you get points for how orderly they are, basically, and it’s deeply satisfying to have a game that rewards you specifically for making things look pretty. But where you can place tiles is limited by what you did with your Pattern Lines, so you can wind up wondering what you-from-three-turns-ago was thinking, or praising your earlier self for your visionary genius.
When your best laid plans (and tiles) work perfectly, playing Azul is akin to the feeling of suddenly sweeping through the last few words of a crossword you’ve been struggling with – everything slots neatly into place. Crucially, even when that's not how it goes, it's still a lot of fun, and fiddling with its chunky plastic tiles is reason enough to buy it, to be honest.
It’s a good blend of long-term strategy and the need to think fast when someone takes the tiles you want, and though you don't interact with other players too much as part of the game itself, that makes it great for snacking and chatting while playing.
There’s almost no better way to introduce someone to modern board games than this. Adorable wooden whales! 3D scenery! Dump your friends in the water, then eat them with sharks!
The idea of the game is that you all control a group of inhabitants of the island of Atlantis, which is in the process of sinking in the water. You need to get your people from the central island, made up of hexagonal tiles, over to the safe islands in the corners of the board. You can’t move your people very quickly, though, unless you can get them into boats, which are much more efficient.
The key twist is that not only do you get to move your people, but you also control the various sea creatures patrolling the oceans, which are capable of destroying boats, eating people who have fallen in the ocean, or both.
And then as a bonus way to mess with your friends, the players are also the ones who decide how the island of Atlantis collapses: you’ll choose a tile to remove every turn, potentially dumping your opponents’ little plastic people into the water where they can become shark bait. Every tile also does something when you flip it – some bring more sea monsters onto the board, some give you a power-up to use later in the game, some are whirlpools that immediately destroy everything within a certain area… and one is a volcano that immediately ends the game.
It’s so simple to play, but there’s a beautifully cutthroat undercurrent to these ocean adventures. It will feel a little different to play every time, because you never know when and where new sea creatures will pop up, or how your other players will choose to use them. And it's a game where it's okay to be mean – it's built right into the game!
The one possible downside is that it's possible for one player to feel like they have no chance, either through the luck of where sea creatures appear, or actions by other players, or both. But it's such a fast, breezy game that you'll be done quickly even if this happens, ready to try again.
In this light game (but that has a lot of pieces to spread out), one player is a ghost, and the other players are mediums investigating their murder. The ghost player has to communicate with the mediums via dreams, pointing them towards what really happened.
What this means in practice is that each medium needs to guess a correct combination of person, location and weapon (very Cluedo) from a selection in the middle of the table. But the ghost can't talk or gesture at all to guide them.
Instead, the ghost has a big deck of cards, each of which has unique surreal art on it. Every turn, the ghost draws a limited number of these cards, then has to use them to (try to) point the mediums in the right directions.
This requires some major creativity: if a dream card has a soldier on it and the weapon was a sword, that's a safe bet… right? But if there's nothing that's such a good fit, can you give them a a dream with a key in and hope them assume that metal means sword? But maybe you didn't notice there were mushrooms in the background, and one of the other possible weapons was poison, and now that medium is convinced in the wrong direction.
On future turns, you can give more dreams to the mediums, hopefully helping to narrow things down (but sometimes making confusion worse). However, you only have seven turns to solve the whole murder, so don't get too comfortable.
The sense of deep satisfaction you get from Mysterium is unrivalled, both as a ghost player or the medium – much like charades, when a set of clues is perfectly interpreted right from the off, it feels great. And sometimes great minds simply do not think alike.
But whether you're successful at solving the murder in time or not, you'll still want to go again straight away with someone else in the ghostly hot seat, and all new murders and dream combinations to unpack.
Big-name licensed titles tend to be more about paying homage to the licence than making a great game. So it's a joy to find that Jaws is the rare fish that does both.
It's an asymmetrical game, meaning different players play in totally different ways. It's also an 'all-versus-one' game, meaning some players are working to cooperatively to beat one player who's all on their own. In this case, one player steers the toothsome wooden shark piece secretly around Amity Island, eating swimmers and probably humming the movie soundtrack. That player records where they're moving on a secret notepad, and has a small selection of bonuses that help them cause extra carnage.
Be too greedy and the other players, taking the roles of Hooper, Brody, and Quint, will track you down fast. They have ways to make the shark reveal where they are, and can lay traps to that effect, or rescue swimmers just before the shark can sink its teeth in. It's a great game… well, it's not really cat and mouse, more cat and even pointier cat, since everyone is doing hunting of some kind – the humans are hunting for the shark, the shark is hunting for swimmers.
But that's just Act One! When the shark has eaten its fill of swimmers, or gets found twice by the crew and harpooned with a barrel, you flip the board over for Act Two, which is set on the boat, mimicking the finale of the film. This is a thrilling slice of tactical action as the humans rush around trying to predict where the shark will surface and attack them. The crew has access to weapons, and the shark to horrible special attack cards – but what you get depends on your respective performances in the first round.
The two acts are like two games in one box, equally exciting, which you could even play separately if you like, though there's obviously more satisfaction to working through the whole experiences. Both are full of spills, strategy and quotable shark events. These kind of three-vs-one games are great for groups where different people enjoy competition at different levels – someone who likes to be ruthless can take the role of the shark, while people who enjoy cooperative games can be part of the human trio.
Because of this setup, it works best as either a four-player game or as a two-player game (in which one player controls all three humans).
Flamme Rouge is a game of bicycle racing in the early 20th century, before all the doping and transfusion scandals. In it, each player has two riders in a team, and the idea is to get just one of them over the finish line before your opponents. Along the way, you’re jockeying for the optimal position for your riders, but that position isn’t necessarily first place…
Each of your two riders has a small deck of cards, and every card has a number on, which is how far the rider can move in a turn. One of your riders is a Sprinteur, and their deck has some very high numbers, but also some low ones, and some gaps in between. Your other rider, the Rouleur, has more middling numbers. Everyone’s riders have exactly the same decks.
Just like real bike racing, Flamme Rouge encourages you to form a pack. If you’re in front, your rider will become more exhausted (which means you pick up a card with a very low number and add it to your deck). If you’re behind someone else, you’ll have an easier ride by being in their slipstream. So in a dream race, you’ll be second the entire way, until the last turn, when you’ll burst out into the lead. Of course, it never works out so neatly.
At the start of a turn, you’ll draw three cards for one of your riders, pick how far they’ll go that turn, and then do the same for other rider, without the option to change the first one, which is your first chance for a pitfall – maybe you gambled on moving quite far this turn with your first rider, but your second rider gets all low numbers, so your own riders won't be helping each other with the slipstream. Everyone else is doing the same in secret.
Then the cyclists move on the track, in order from front to back, and carnage ensues: your careful plan rapidly backfires when it turns out you're at the front because everyone else went slow… but actually that means they've saved your other rider from falling behind! Or maybe your plan goes perfectly, but someone else predicted it and is now leeching off your slipstream. The cards you use are then removed from the game for good.
At the very end of the track, hopefully you’ve saved your high cards for one final run over the finish line, and the only small issue with the game can be that if someone's managed their cards well, you might know they'll be able to beat you no matter what you play. But that's a big if… they might have picked up too much exhaustion to find the card they need when it really matters, or they might have used their high cards to catch up after some early missteps.
You get good variety from the box: the track is modular, and different variations add hills, which drastically change what cards you’ll want to play. It comes with loads of track suggestions in the box, but there’s also an app for designing and sharing your own, and finding ones others have made. An expansion adds supports for 5-6 players, plus adds cobbles as a road surface, which are really great for adding even more variety if you've already played a lot.
Men at Work is a dexterity game, meaning that it's all about keeping a steady hand. The game tasks players with building up a construction site, placing girders and workers on a series of platforms that increasingly looks like a game of Ker-Plunk – and a collapse is just as inevitable as in that game…
On your turn, you'll flip a card that will tell you whether you'll place a new girder (a very long and thin block) or a worker (a little person-shaped block), but more importantly it will tell you where you have to place that thing, and any additional conditions.
These are what make the game tricky – the card will tell you do something like place a red girder that's touching girders of two different colours, or that must be balanced perfectly on only a single support. Or maybe it'll tell you to place a worker anywhere you want, but then you have to make it so that they're carrying a small a very fiddly brick piece. And then there are panic-inducing cards that ask you to do things like place a girder so that it's being held up by one of the (much less stable) worker pieces, or that makes you place a brick on a worker before you even pick it up, and then place both brick and worker on the site together.
Oh, and did we mention that you can only use one hand to place things? Oh boy.
When (and it is when, not if) you slip up and cause a collapse of beams and people across the site, you'll lose one of the three Safety Certificates you're issued at the start of the game. Lose all three and you're out of the game (though we actually don't like this elimination rule, so we tend to just say that you can no longer win if you're out of certificates) – last one left wins.
Hilariously, though, it only counts as an 'accident' if something falls and touches the surface you're playing on – it's so funny to see pieces slip and pin a worker between two girders, but because nothing touched the floor it's not technically an accident…
Given that accidents lose you the game, you'll just play super-cautiously, right? Nope! The final brilliant idea of the game is that it tempts you into playing the riskiest versions of your turn that you can: after you've been building for a short time, a new rule comes in that if someone places a block that's the highest thing on the whole construction site, they'll get an Employee Of The Month award – if someone gets three of these, you can win the game that way instead.
So suddenly, instead of drawing a card and looking at the most sensible way to place your piece, you find yourself desperately trying to work out if it'll balance stably on the increasingly precarious top of the structure.
It's a really silly game, it's really simple to play, it's just as amusing for adults as it is for kids, and it requires no brain power at all, so is ideal for times when you just want mindless fun. Do make sure your table doesn't have a major wobble, though…
The zombie apocalypse has happened. You and your friends play as survivors, holed up in a makeshift colony, working together to complete a goal that will guarantee your safety and win the game. Every turn, you’ll need to meet a small objective that’s usually got to do with having enough supplies, while also working towards your big overall objective… and all before you’re overrun by zombies or run out of food. Oh, and one of you might be a secret traitor who actually wants the whole group to fail.
During your turn, you’ll be able to do a bunch of stuff – go searching for supplies at different exterior locations, barricade doors, kill zombies… – that will help the colony. The traitor won’t want to be given away, so that player will be putting on a show of helping at least, but any supplies (which can be fuel, food, weapons and other treats) you find are secret information that only you know, so when everyone’s desperate for food, you can claim to be unable to help despite sitting on a Sainsburys’ worth of ready meals. Withholding supplies might not be as effective as you wanted, though, so maybe you'll resort to actual sabotage, but then everyone will know there's a traitor, even if they don't know who. (You can choose to play with no traitor at all if you prefer, and it's still a very fun cooperative game that way.)
Adding to the confusion around the traitor is that every player has a secret personal objective they must complete by the end of the game on top of the main objective, and they personally only win if they achieve both. So there will be people who are hoarding fuel even though the colony needs it, and even though they’re not the traitor… and this will make them seem real suspicious if it gets noticed.
Happily, you can do something about the dirty traitor: hold a vote and exile them from the colony, where they’ll continue playing, but with a new secret goal that you won’t know about, but will make you nervous as you see them moving from location to location. Of course, you might end up accusing someone innocent of being the traitor, in which case exactly the same thing happens to them, but now you’re down one true ally. The innocent exile might not even be unhappy about this – if it looks like the colony is going to fail, they’ve still got a chance to win on their own.
All of these ingredients mixing together makes every game a cocktail of stories about how you narrowly escaped zombie hordes at the old school, only to find yourself betrayed back at the base, before wrestling the colony back back to safety and kicking out the traitor just in time to escape to safety… or any other mix of stuff.
But there’s a final garnish that really cements Dead of Winter’s place in this list: Crossroads cards. During your turn, a player will draw one of these cards and read it to you, and it will contain a small piece of narrative fiction, and often a moral quandary. Maybe you find a small group of survivors, who you can leave at the mercy of zombies and steal weapons from, or you can rescue… but then the colony will need more food.
It all makes Dead of Winter a game that can take most of an afternoon to play, but you’ll come out of with so many memories and cool stories that you’ll be ready jump straight back in.
Here's how you learn the tiny rules of Tiny Towns. On your turn, you choose a resource such as brick or glass. Everyone gets one unit of that resource and places it on their four-by-four grid board. If you've got a pattern of the right resources in the right shape, you get to replace them with one nice wooden building piece. Buildings score points based on their position relative to other buildings. That's it!
Except it isn't, of course. This basic formula is a gentle roll down the ramp into a sea of decisions, which may or may not come back to haunt you. Your first builds are easy, but a mere sixteen squares is not much space at all. Soon, you'll be cursing your earlier cavalier attitude to placement as existing buildings cramp your space to make new ones. Half-made patterns you'll never finish will litter your mat. Players will start making cheeky hate-picks of resources, forcing others to take something useless that will clog up their board.
If that's not enough, there's a random selection of building types in use every game. so there's huge replay value, with no two setups needing the same strategy. It's good that there are only tiny rules for Tiny Towns, but it's even better that the game inside is very big indeed.
• Read our full Wingspan review
Wingspan perfected a simple formula that helped it soar over the competition. Players are building a nature reserve for different species of bird cards from their hand. Attracting a bird means spending food and eggs, and you get more food, eggs and cards the more birds are already in your habitat. It's a neat, devilish, circular puzzle that few other games have managed better.
As you play, this loop draws you into the game, tighter and tighter. You'll be planning turns in advance, thinking about playing that bird to gain this food which in turn lets you play another bird and so on. It's so satisfying watching your little avian empire grow and thrive, and the strategy is in fine-tuning the system so it gives you exactly the resources you need exactly when you need them.
With 170 different birds, needing different mixtures of the five types of food, though, that's a lot harder than it sounds. Most birds also have a special ability related to their species. The real-life Inca Dove, for instance, builds and lays in multiple nests, so its in-game equivalent nets you extra eggs. These powers create constant, erm, chicken and egg problems to solve, as you often have to juggle priorities to get the best use out of them.
That's not the whole secret to Wingspan's success, though. The components, from the lush bird art to the smooth resin eggs, are fantastic. There's even a cardboard dice tower in the shape of a bird-feeder, and the thoroughly pleasant theme of building an aviary has very wide appeal. That, together with its relative simplicity for such a deep game, makes it great for family play with older kids. The suggested 10+ age on the box is maybe a bit optimistic, though – as ever, it will depend on the kid, but we certainly wouldn’t call this a starter game for kids that age.
Players get points for the birds in their reserve, with harder-to-play cards worth more. There are also secret and public goals, such as having the most eggs in a certain type of nest, for bonus points. With just enough randomness to how games will play out and a good level of interaction to keep things exciting and social, Wingspan has the plumage to pull anyone deeper into its engrossing nest of strategies.
Utterly unique, and innovative in the extreme, Fog of Love has two players travelling along the rollercoaster of a relationship: heartbreaks abound, compromises must be made, hidden desires will drive your action, and perhaps you’ll split up… but that's all part of the story.
You each play as a character, with traits drawn from a set of cards that inform your goals for what you want out of life (ie, what you'll aim towards during the game) and how your character would act. You'll be role-playing, effectively, through a plot given to you by the game.
You open written information about scenarios your characters find themselves in, which give you different options for what your character would do. You each choose which option your character would go for, and then you see if they match. Do you choose one that would push your character closer to what they want, even if that puts you in conflict with the other player, or do you just follow their lead on this one because it's the nice thing to do? In this way, though it's not a competitive game in any way, it's not exactly cooperative either.
A narrative is built not just from the scenarios that come up and how you react to them, but also extra 'Scene' cards you have, which could be funny or serious, adding more to the feel that you're playing out a romantic comedy (or drama). And it reaches a peak with the Destiny cards, which are the final game-ending state you're working towards, meaning you might be intending to be a Heartbreaker based on how the game is going, or maybe that you're together in Unconditional Love… and you might both have different ideas about this based on the personal private information you have.
You're creating a new story of love each time, and it can't help but lead to smiles and laughter, and possibly some awkward conversations (the game regularly reminds you that you're role-playing!). It's a really thoughtful game, and a revised version improves the option for playing as same-sex couples, while expansions add more scenarios and situations.
It's also incredibly easy to learn – in that you don't really have to learn it in a dedicated way. The tutorial that teaches the rules does so by just having you play the game in a simple introduction scenario. It's fun from the moment you unfold that board.
Enjoy the calming bucolic beauty of building your own Scottish isle… but then mix it with a bit of cunning financial fighting to get all the best stuff for your own island.
A little bit like the popular game Carcassonne, you’ll build islands by putting tiles together, matching certain areas together (so that lakes fit with lakes, and mountains fit with mountains, for example). You’ll want to connect whisky barrels to your castle by road, because these will get you coins to spend every turn. Everyone is building their own little island, but in the middle of you all is a joint set of criteria (randomly chosen each game) for how you score points: you might get them for having your island’s tiles arranged neatly in squares, or for having the most farms – it’s all nice twee stuff like that.
But! To actually get the tiles to build your island, you go through a kind of auction. At the start of each turn, everyone draws three tiles from a big bag. Then you each secretly decide one of these to just throw back in the bag so no one can have it, then you’ll set a price for the other two, so that if someone else wants them, they’ll have to pay you money for them. If no one buys them, you get to keep them (but the money goes back to the bank).
Easy! So just price the tiles you like really high, right? If only. The thing is, you set the prices of tiles by placing your own coins from your own purse on them… so if you’ve put all those coins down on a tile to price it really high, you then can’t afford to buy other people’s tiles if you want those instead.
Unless! If someone does buy one of your tiles, they then give you however many coins you demanded for that tile, but you also get your own coins back. You DOUBLE your money! And if their turn for buying was before yours, then instead of having no coins, you're the richest chieftain in Scotland…
This section is like a mini game-theory experiment every turn. You have to guess at how highly you can price tiles you want to keep to put people off, but without then making it obvious to other rich buggers that you really want that tile and would be unhappy if they bought it (though at least you’d have money). Or, equally, maybe you have a tile that you think another player would like, so how high can you price it to extract big money from them, without putting them off?
Although there’s tons to potentially think about here, the game actually moves at a really fast pace through this phase, because you only have two tiles to assign money to – the juicy part is once you all see what everyone else has done with their tiles too.
And once the thinky part of buying tiles is over, you then get the much more relaxed task of fitting them into your island, giving the game a lovely rise and fall.
It’s a nice breezy thing that still works the brain, and gives you plenty of scope to feel clever without tiring you with long decisions. And if you want to make it a bit more involved and heavier, with more strategies available, try the Journeyman expansion, which adds a little man who can move around your island and get you points, as long as you’ve built your island in the right way.
How to choose the best board game for you
Picking the best board game to start your collection (or for adding to it with a new option) is all about what kind of game you want to play.
As we mentioned before, this is partly down to choosing something that fits well with the people you’ll play with, but there’s also just what kind of thing you think you’ll have fun with – you can always find a group of like-minded friends to play something that sounds right up your alley.
Here are some of the things you could consider – they might sound like a lot, but you know your family and friends, so it’s easy to trust your gut and pick something they’ll enjoy:
- Cooperative vs competitive – some games have everyone working together towards a common goal, while others are all about beating the opposition. Both are tons of fun, but some people like to work together more than they like a competitive atmosphere, so it’s just about reading the room.
- Direct vs indirect competition – If you do choose a competitive game, there’s also often a difference between games where you’re all competing indirectly (a bit like poker) compared to when you’re directly attacking each other (like chess). Some people find the former less interesting, some people don’t like the aggressiveness of the latter.
- Simple vs complex – Some people love the idea of a game that’s all about building up complex economic strategies that take a whole afternoon to pull off, while some much prefer a punchy experience that’s over in 30 minutes or an hour. And, of course, younger kids may find simpler games easier to join in with.
- Theme vs mechanics – Some people enjoy games more when there’s a strong theme that helps them grasp the mechanics (or just that adds atmosphere), while some will only want to focus on the mechanics and will be happy with ‘abstract’ games that are all about the rules, really.
- Building up a collection – if you’ve already got a few games, we recommend trying to buy new games that play very differently to what you have so far, rather than doubling up on games that play in similar ways (unless you just love that kind of game – you do you!). We’ve kept our selection quite broad here for this very reason.