While video game quality creeps forward in tiny steps, we're living in a golden age of board game design. Stuff you'll find on modern shelves is a far cry from traditional drawn-out, resentment fuel like Monopoly and Risk. Games nowadays are easy to learn, fast to play and strike a balance between strategy and randomness.
There's also enormous diversity on offer. If you want to play an all-day 6-player simulation of the European religious reformation, you can. Same if you want a ten minute bluffing game you can carry in your pocket. What unites board games is that they're tight, thrilling and fun to play. There are games where you co-operate instead of compete and ones where you're positively encouraged to scrawl on the board and rip up cards.
To help you navigate this delightful nightmare of quality, here's a list of the eight best boardgames around. We've tended toward titles you can learn and play in an evening, and which scale to suit a range of player numbers. But as a closer guide, they're presented in rough order of accessibility.
+ A word game that anyone can play
+ Scales well with any number of players
- Has moments of silent downtime
- Occasional arbitrary game end
Most party games rely on silliness or trivia to function. Codenames is a clever design that also throws a modicum of strategy and skill into the mix. One player invents single-word clues that guide their team-mates toward particular word cards laid out in a grid. The clue can be anything: it might rhyme with the target, or make a compound word, or be a synonym. The team doesn't know and the clue giver isn't allowed to say. Cue the same levels of discussion, amusement and frustration as your average party game with a ton more mental stimulation.
It's harder to come up with clues than it sounds, which can lead to moments of quiet as they desperately think of links. Not the best look for the middle of your drunken knees-up. But it also makes things far more exciting, because guessing wrong can sometimes score points for the other team, or even result in an instant loss. If that's too harsh, there's a co-operative variant in the box. There's also a separate Pictures version that uses images instead of words on the cards.
Best for: ... after dinner or party play
Smash up a city, and some friends at the same time
+ Exciting dice battle with social elements
+ Conveys a fun theme with little effort
- Little strategy
King of Tokyo is a game about being Godzilla, or one of several other silly super-monsters, crashing through Tokyo. But in a genius piece of abstraction, there is no city map. Instead, you compete with your fellow monsters to be the one doing the smashing each turn. This gives you points, as does buying cards representing mass destruction. Other cards enhance your monster with powers like extra heads, poison spit or a spiked tail. These you can use to fight the other monsters, and being the last one standing is just as realistic a route to victory as crushing the most city blocks.
All this gets resolved via a Yahtzee style mechanic that you can explain to anyone in seconds. Throwing fistfuls of custom dice around is brilliant fun. And there's a social element too, as players conspire to topple the monster in the city, while each hoping to be the one to take its place. While enjoyable as a mindless, drunken romp it's also open to some strategy in the choice of cards you buy. If you're willing to trade a few more rules for a bit more tactics, consider the King of New York version instead.
+ Easy to pick up and play, even for kids
+ Delightfully vicious
- Can get repetitive
Everyone knows set collection playing card game Rummy; everyone also knows it's samey and luck driven. Ticket to Ride takes the concept and adds a board representing a map of America. Players cash in sets of matching train cards to claim routes, vying to connect important cities with long chains to maximise their score. It's a tense race to collect the colours you need before one of your opponents, but only one player can own each route, so half the fun is swiping critical junctions from under everyone else's nose. It's a simple, family-friendly game that's unlikely to make for family harmony.
Once you've learned the most important routes, that simplicity starts to feel a bit repetitive. To compensate, the game has spawned a slew of variants and expansions of varying quality. The Europe and Nordic Countries editions trade complexity for more strategy and more viciousness, respectively. The rest are best ignored. If you're unsure, you can try the original and most of the variants out via an excellent mobile version on the app store and Google play.
Best For: ... playing with family and friends
A moment to learn, a good many hours to master
+ Deep strategy from simple rules
+ Many approaches to victory
- Abstract theme
- Sober and subdued
From the wonderful box and card art, you might imagine Splendor is a game about gem trading. In fact it's a game about nothing at all. Each turn you can either take resources or spend some buying a gem. Once obtained, that gem counts as a permanent resource toward other gems. Slowly, players build up their own little economies, aiming to purchase the most expensive gems for points. The most efficient spender will win, but the game end becomes sudden, tense sprint for the finish line.
It can be dry and dusty. Should that be a worry, you can try it on iOS and Android first. But it does a fine job of balancing deep strategy with moments of excitement and interaction. There are various paths to victory, and what each player is aiming for becomes clear from their gem collection, at which point you can start nipping in and buying up what they need before they can. Choosing when and how often to stymie your own plans by doing so is part and parcel of the rich strategies on offer. And all from rules a ten year old could learn, even if they couldn't figure out the tactics.
Best For: ... gaming with reflective adults
A visual as well as a strategic treat
Everything in the X-Wing line comes packaged with a clear plastic window so you can see what you're buying. When you look, it's not hard to see why. You play the game with detailed, hand-painted models of Star Wars spaceships. Placed on a black tablecloth, they look incredible. I played this in a pub once and strangers kept stopping by to take photographs.
The game itself is fast and tight. There's pre-game strategy in picking a roster of starships and upgrades. During play, you secretly plot their movement each turn. Players reveal choices simultaneously, making for some nasty surprises. There are two base sets, one for the original trilogy and one for The Force Awakens. Both contain three models and are great value, but once you've got the bug you'll want more and therein lies the catch. Extra ships are not cheap, and each adds a layer of complexity with new rules, pilots and upgrades. But on the other hand, you can put them on the mantelpiece as decorative conversation pieces.
Best for: ... people who can't resist pretty toys
+ Fantastic blend of strategy, luck and interaction
+ Different on every play
- Can be exceptionally brutal
- Colossal nerd factor
Worker placement, where you place pawns to gain resources and deny them to others, is a popular mechanic in hobby board games. Many titles that use it feel more like spreadsheets than actual games, however. Lords of Waterdeep is a glorious exception. It's draped in a loose Dungeons and Dragons theme for starters, plus there are an astonishing number of ways to screw with your opponents. You can send them on pointless quests, steal their resources, block their strategies. I've seen sessions of this where no-one would speak to each other afterwards. Add the Undermountain expansion and it's even worse.
This interaction adds to the already demanding strategies and stops the game stagnating. Yet there are further bulwarks against the spreadsheet grind. Players add to the options on offer by building new spaces with new powers to place their pieces. The range available differs with each play, so there's no fixed route to victory. You'll be on your tactical toes anew with every game, at least until one of the other players slices them off. If you're worried this fantastic game might cost you friends, there's an iOS version to try first.
Co-operate to create your own unique copy
+ Fosters team building among players
+ Legacy mechanic makes your copy unique
- Lacks imagination of human opponent
Legacy is the hottest concept in tabletop gaming right now. It means that players physically alter their copy of a game depending on how each session plays out. You write on the board, destroy a few components, add new ones from sealed packages, and by the end, your copy will be unique. Not only a record of your games but playing differently, needing different strategies, from other copies. That's why this game comes in red and blue versions: they play the same, but you can have two distinct copies if you want.
The original Pandemic was a popular co-operative game. Everyone worked as a team to win a joint victory, trying to save the world from a hideous disease. Each player had a distinct role with special abilities and only by blending them together could they eke out a victory. You can check it out on iOS or Android if you want. Without the creativity of human opposition, though, it tended to get stale fast. Adding Legacy took it to the next level, and it's now the top-rated game on hobby site BoardGameGeek.com.
Best for: ... those who prefer co-operation over competition
+ Seamless mix of action and negotiation
+ Massive variety of peculiar aliens
- Many expansions of uneven quality
- Feels unfamiliar compared to traditional games
Cosmic Encounter was first published in 1977 and has been through numerous editions since. There's are simple reasons for such enduring popularity: it was years ahead of its time and remains brilliant. Each player gets a unique alien power from a huge deck, ensuring no two games have the same mix. Then you have to try and establish colonies on rivals' planets. But for each encounter, the players involved negotiate with everyone else for temporary alliances.
While fairly simple, it's got an odd setup that can seem peculiar to those familiar with traditional attack and defence games. Once you've got to grips with it, though, the ever-changing alien powers make every game a hoot. Examples include winning encounters by losing, reversing card numbers so 17 becomes 71, or being able to resurrect lost ships. If the options in the box aren’t enough for you, there's a big selection of expansions to add, of varying quality.
Best for: ... those who love to talk as well as play