The 18 best board games 2020: for adults, families and two players

The best board games for cooperative and competitive fun with family, friends or for couples

Best board games

In the last decade, tabletop games have exploded in popularity. But the best board games are nothing like staid old never-ending games of Monopoly – instead, a new wave of games uses engaging themes and creative ideas to give you a fun and evocative time with friends and family. 

One of the big reasons they’ve taken off so much is that they give people a focus for getting together in one place and enjoying each other’s company, in an age when so much of our social lives takes place online. Okay, bringing friends round to your house from outside hasn't been so easy recently, but we've all been in more need than ever of ways to have fun with family and housemates inside the house, and board games are perfect for that – especially those here that are really optimised for replay value.

But to make sure that people are always having fun and love to get together regularly, you’ll want to make sure you’re bringing the ideal board games for your group to the table.

You can see our full list of the best board games below, and why you'd want to pick each one, but here's a quick guide to the categories we get asked about the most:

  • Best board game overall: Cosmic Encounter (Out of stock at the moment, but with more copies due in stores soon)
  • Best board game for beginners: Splendor
  • Best cooperative board game: Pandemic Legacy Season 1
  • Best board game for 2 players: Jaipur
  • Best board game for families: Photosynthesis

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.

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.
  • Sadly, it's been sold out at the start of 2020, but the publisher has told us that new stock is on the way, and that it should stay available for the rest of the year. But don't worry, we've got loads more excellent games to keep you entertained!

How to choose the best board game for you

FREE NATIVE UNION ECLIPSE 3-WAY USB CHARGER WHEN YOU SUBSCRIBE

(Image credit: Future)

Save 35% on a subscription to Britain's best-selling gadget magazine, and get this great-looking Native Union charging station completely free!

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.

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.

The best board games: listed

Best board games

1. Cosmic Encounter

The best board game is a brilliant mix of genuine strategy and unpredictable hilarity

Specifications
Players: 3-5
Playing time: 1-2 hours
Suggested age: 7+
Reasons to buy
+Different every time you play+Really easy to pick up+Competitive without feeling harsh
Reasons to avoid
-Some may not like the unpredictability

Note: Cosmic Encounter is currently sold out, so is being sold at massively inflated prices by the places that have it – expect to pay more like £35-£40 when it's back in stock in the coming weeks.

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.

Add to this the fact that extra one-use cards you can have in your hand 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), and 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.

2. Photosynthesis

The best board game for families

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 45-60 mins
Suggested age: 10+
Reasons to buy
+What a looker+Straightforward to play+Superb strategy for any age

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 how it works that 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 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 can mitigate the problem. And you can't help but love the pretty forest you build while playing.

Best board games

3. Jaipur

The best board game for two players in a tiny box

Specifications
Players: 2
Playing time: 30 mins
Suggested age: 10+
Reasons to buy
+Lots of strategy in a tiny box+Lovely art and inlay+Directly competitive without being combative

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 at once, 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 son 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 pretty cheap.

Best board games

4. Splendor

One of the best board games for introducing new players

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 30-45 mins
Suggested age: 10+
Reasons to buy
+Easy strategy to teach and get people into+Small, inexpensive game with lots of replayability+Lovely weighted poker-style chips
Reasons to avoid
-Some may want a meatier experience

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.

Best board games: Pandemic Legacy

5. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

The best board game for cooperative play with a twist

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 60-90 mins (per session)
Suggested age: 13+
Reasons to buy
+Excellent cooperative gaming+Legacy system turns the game into a story+Easy to get to grips with

This game has been in this list since way before the current situation, but it  Pandemic is a game of trying to stop diseases outbreaking all over the Earth. On a player’s 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 every single turn more disease appears on the board – if too much appears on one city, it outbreaks to everywhere nearby, pushing you closer to losing the game. 

So, you and the other players have to work together to plan ahead, triaging where the danger is now, and what’s vulnerable in the future. Who can get to Beijing the fastest to treat the situation there? Should you save Madrid next turn or focus on finding another cure? 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.

It’s a brilliant game, and you can buy versions that are just that on its own – we recommend the simple classic version of Pandemic, which is under £25 usually

Pandemic Legacy takes it to the next level, though: it turns it into an epic story. The game starts off just like above, but you’ll play multiple rounds that represent the course of a year, and the decisions you make in every game have long-term repercussions. 

We don’t want to spoil anything, because a huge part of the appeal of Pandemic Legacy is that it keeps surprising you with changes to how things play. The diseases get harder, but you get new ways to react to them, you’ll need to build new kinds of building, you’ll get entirely new kinds of objective, and the game will even turn your own (clever at the time) decisions against you. There’s no experience like it for a regular group to get together and share – perfect for couples or families (with slightly older kids) for an extended period of self-isolation.

Best board games Quacks of Quedlinburg

(Image credit: Amazon)

6. Quacks of Quedlinburg

So simple to play, and a ridiculously fun time

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 40-60 mins
Suggested age: 10+
Reasons to buy
+Really easy to play+Fast-paced, with no waiting around+Different powers every time you play
Reasons to avoid
-Some won't like its random nature

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 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 five other tokens in your bag too. You’ll get a nice bonus if can go just a little further up the track. 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 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…

7. Azul

Become an interior designer for the king

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 45 mins
Suggested age: 8+
Reasons to buy
+Finely crafted play pieces+Easy to learn rules+No grout needed

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.

Best board games Survive Escape From Atlantis

(Image credit: Amazon)

8. Survive: Escape from Atlantis

The most adorably mean game on the planet

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 40-60 mins
Suggested age: 8+
Reasons to buy
+So easy to play+Be mean, but forgivably+Very cute sea creatures
Reasons to avoid
-Possible for players feel ganged up on

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.

Best board games mysterium

(Image credit: Amazon)

9. Mysterium

The best board game for mystery fans

Specifications
Players: 3-5
Playing time: 45 mins
Suggested age: 12+
Reasons to buy
+Deeply satisfying when it goes right+Also pretty funny when it goes wrong+Beautiful art and design

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? 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.

Oh, and there are two inexpensive expansions, Hidden Signs and Secrets & Lies, which add lots more dreams and guessable combinations.

Best board games

10. Welcome To

The best board game in a small box for any number of players

Specifications
Players: 1-100
Playing time: 30-45 mins
Suggested age: 10+
Reasons to buy
+Tiny box, deep game+Solve a puzzle you create+Easy, casual pace
Reasons to avoid
-No direct interaction with other players

Welcome To is a game about town planning, sort of. Actually, the houses have already been built, you’re just finishing them off. You need to number houses on some streets (by writing numbers onto pre-printed sheets of paper), using numbers that are drawn from decks of cards – you can choose from one of three digits each turn. 

You need to make sure that each street’s numbers are all in increasing order – you you can skip numbers between adjacent houses, but they still have to always be increasing. If you can’t place a number legally, then you can’t use it. That’s a problem because each number comes with a special bonus action, such as adding pools to houses or building fences, and these are how you actually get points in the game, so you have to choose: do I choose to write down the number that fits perfectly in this street but has an action that won't score me many points, or do I write a number that might screw up my order but will score me big time? 

Once the turn is done, new cards are flipped, with new actions that they’re randomly paired with. Every time you play, some scoring objectives are varied, and there are lots of ways to go for points, so even though everyone is writing on their own individual pad from the same sets of cards in the middle, you all wind up creating your own fun puzzle to solve in the later turns depending on what you do at the start.

It’s a very gentle game that doesn’t take long to play. The scoring system is complex enough that younger kids might miss its nuances. You don’t affect other players in any way in this game – your discussions will be more about commiseration for how you’ve all managed to get stuck in a cul de sac than how you’ve stitched each other up. And it plays with any number of players – you just give everyone a sheet of paper ripped from the pad, plus a pen!

Best board games Jaws

(Image credit: Ravensburger)

11. Jaws

A movie-based game to really get your teeth into

Reasons to buy
+Play as a shark hunting humans!+Or vice versa!+Two different fun stages to play
Reasons to avoid
-May need bigger boat

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).

Best board games

12. Flamme Rouge

Our favourite board game for the thrill of the race

Specifications
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 30-40 mins
Suggested age: 8+
Reasons to buy
+Always a really tight tussle+A mini strategy puzzle each turn+Lovely, evocative art
Reasons to avoid
-Last few turns can be foregone conclusion

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… 

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.

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. 

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 one from falling behind! Or maybe your plan goes perfectly, but someone else predicted it and is now leeching off your slipstream.

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.

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 it a lot.

Best board games: Men at Work

(Image credit: Future)

13. Men at Work

Steady your hands as you build the world's dodgiest skyscraper

Specifications
Players: 2-5
Playing time: 30-60 mins
Suggested age: 8+
Reasons to buy
+Pure fun for all ages+No setup required – just start playing+Colourful and silly

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. If things just shift around and slip, but still stay supported, then no harm no foul, we guess? Though we're not sure about the 'no harm' part – 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…

Best board games Dead of Winter

14. Dead of Winter

The zombie survival board game

Specifications
Players: 2-5
Playing time: 90-120 mins
Suggested age: 13+
Reasons to buy
+Evocative mix of theme and play+Lovely production quality+Everyone plays different every time
Reasons to avoid
-Traitor games can cause some stress

 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 takes 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.

Best board games: Tiny Towns

(Image credit: Alderac Entertainment Group)

15. Tiny Towns

A new board game that's perfect for beginners

Specifications
Players: 1-6
Playing time: 45-60 mins
Suggested age: 14+
Reasons to buy
+Very simple to play+Different strategy every time+Cute and approachable

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.

Best board games

16. Spyfall

The best board game for parties

Specifications
Players: 4-8
Playing time: 15 mins (per round)
Suggested age: 12+
Reasons to buy
+Tons of variety+Hugely funny+So simple to explain
Reasons to avoid
-Only good with four to eight players

Spyfall is about being the worst spy in the world. Everyone is handed a card at the start of a round, which tells them the location they’re in (eg, a submarine), and a job they have on the submarine (eg, captain)… except for the Spy, who gets a card that just says "Spy". 

The Spy’s aim is to work out where the hell they are, and everyone else’s aim is to work out who the Spy is. The actual round consists of asking other people questions, which sounds easy but is hilariously hard: the non-Spy players need to ask something that the Spy would be likely to get wrong, but that doesn’t totally give away the location by implication. And similarly, if a non-Spy player is answering, they need to give an answer that makes clear to other non-Spy players that they know the location, but still doesn’t give it away to the Spy (which might make you look like the Spy if you're too unclear). 

So, the submarine captain might ask “Seen anything interesting out of the window  today?”, to which a non-Spy player might answer something like “Er, no, it’s… a bit dark.” Meanwhile, the Spy is just listening to all of this, trying to infer which location from the list of possible ones provided in the box it could match, while also answering and asking questions in just a vague enough way to not appear suspicious.

It’s so funny to hear the strange questions and cagey answers people come up with, and the increasing desperation near the end of a round when a Spy might get the feeling everyone is on to them and just takes a wild guess before they get caught.

The problem? It maxes out at eight players, which is enough for a cool soiree, but not a big party. If you want something that can take up to 30, we recommend Two Rooms and a Boom – a game in which everyone is divided into two teams (red and blue), which are then mixed up and split over two rooms. 

One blue player is secretly the President and one red player is secretly the Bomber. There are three rounds in which players can talk to each other, suss out who’s friendly to them and who isn't, and then vote to exchange a small number of people between the rooms. At the end, Red wins if the Bomber ends up in the same room as the President, blue wins if they don’t. You can buy a nice set of it, but best of all is that there’s a free printable version you can download here.

17. Fog of Love

Just might be the best board game for couples

Specifications
Players: 2
Playing time: 80-120 mins
Suggested age: 17+
Reasons to buy
+No rulebook – learn as you play+Fully cooperative game for two
Reasons to avoid
-Might get a bit intense at times

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.

Best board games Isle of Skye

(Image credit: Mayfair Games)

18. Isle of Skye

A lovely calm time of building an island and outhinking friends

Specifications
Players: 2-5
Playing time: 45-60 mins
Suggested age: 8+
Reasons to buy
+Lovely art for your islands+Great mix of bidding and building+Random objectives every game

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.