In the last decade, tabletop games have exploded in popularity. But the best board games are nothing like your staid old never-ending games of Monopoly, but a new wave of creations that match exciting and interesting themes with fun interaction between friends or 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.
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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.
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.
OUR TOP PICK
- 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 an 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.
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 have little theme.
- 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.
1. Cosmic Encounter
Our top board game is a brilliant mix of genuine strategy and unpredictable hilarity
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
We like to say that Cosmic Encounter is the board game equivalent of Mario Kart – practice and clever play 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 perfect for introducing people to board games.
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 simple set of rules to learn.
The wrinkle is that every player has a unique alien power that totally breaks those rules. One alien wins battles only 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. 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.
One of the best board games for introducing new players to board gaming
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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.
The cards have points values on (though usually only the higher-value ones), and when someone reaches 15 points, the game ends that round, though other players have a chance to buy one last card to make them number one.
Adding an extra strategic option to this is the selection of ’Nobles’ available in every game – you get the points totals shown on these cards automatically if you buy specific card combinations, and only one person gets 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 fully buy and use it later, but that no one else can grab in the mean time.
When you buy a card, the gem symbol at the top-right is now a gem you can spend every single turn, meaning you need to take fewer gems from the pile to afford more expensive cards. Everyone is taking cards from the same pool 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 middle.
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.
3. Beasts of Balance
A top game and a fine piece of shelf candy when not in play
Reasons to buy
This high-tech game uses an app to ask you to balance awkwardly-shaped 3D creatures on top of each other on a special base, without them falling over. Placing an animal changes things in a digital world shown on your phone, tablet or TV (which is wirelessly connected to the base). The system uses NFC to know which piece you've placed, so there's no pulling to wool over its eyes. It's like a reverse Jenga, but without the sweet security of the objects all being a uniform shape.
You can play the game in a few different modes – one option is try to get the most points you can by placing animals, then cross-breeding them into strange new creatures (stored in a digital bestiary), or using power-ups to create high-scores, or adding distractions such as the need to keep one hand on the touchscreen while placing a creature, so you're in less control, but you get more points.
There's a kind of discovery element of playing this way that's really satisfying, and the gorgeous art of the digital world really brings things to life. We also love little touches like the ability to actually carry on playing if you fail, provided you can get everything back on the base in a very limited time!
There are loads more modes, though, and expansions add not only new creatures to stack, but also things like Battle Cards, which are power-ups you can place to cause havoc with other people.
The really desirable bit here is the animals themselves – they're all polygonal, almost abstract forms of the creatures they represent, and they look absolutely fantastic whether they're stacked in a precarious pile, or just sitting on your shelves.
The tactile nature and friendly face of the game, plus the fact all you have to do to play is put a thing on top of another thing, means it's excellent for kids – while adults will find quite a lot of strategy hidden inside to keep it fun. We've suggested age 7+ above, but that's for really understanding the game. Younger kids can enjoy it too (and will be hard to keep away from it).
4. Welcome To
The best board game in a small box for any number of players
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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 decks 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, or skip whole houses to come back to later. 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 the gap I’ve left perfectly (so it doesn’t cause me pain in the future) but doesn’t have an action I especially need, 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 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!
The best board game for families
Reasons to buy
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 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 rapidly, 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, 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, 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.
6. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
The best board game for cooperative play with a twist
Reasons to buy
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 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 also want to make you’re using them effectively.
It’s a brilliant game, and you can buy versions that are just that on its own. 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 group to get together and share.
The best board game for two players in a tiny box
Reasons to buy
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, 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.
8. Flamme Rouge
Our favourite board game for the thrill of the race
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Flamme Rouge is a game of bicycle racing in the early 20th century, without 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. 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 are 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. 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. 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.
Become an interior designer for the king
Reasons to buy
Azul is a game of building a patterned wall using beautiful plastic tiles, and is surprisingly simple to play. 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 its 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.
The best board game for parties
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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 (say, a submarine), and a job they have on the submarine (say, 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 the today?”, to which a non-Spy player might answer something like “Er, no, it’s… a bit gloomy?” 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 stab in the dark 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.
11. Fog of Love
Just might be the best board game for couples
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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 leading to the end of the game… but try again. Along the way, players will create a new story of love each time, and it can't help but lead to smiles and laughter. It's a really thoughtful game, and a forthcoming revised version improves the option for playing as same-sex couples, including new cover art.
12. When in Rome
Introducing the only Alexa-powered board game
Reasons to buy
This game has teams moving around the globe, city to city. Enable the game's Alexa Skill and you’re ready to play by answering multiple-choice questions from voices local to your city, delivered via your speaker. The question range from easy to hard, so families can play and pick up facts along their journey. Categories include arts, culture, myths, food and drink – get questions right and the local becomes your friend, and on you go.