In case you missed it, board games have gotten really good recently. With so much of our lives mediated through screens, it’s refreshing and humanizing to play face-to-face with people. Millions of people have taken the step from the tedious Monopoly and Life of their youth to modern gateway classics such as The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Cards Against Humanity, but where do you go from there?
We’ve hand-picked this list of fantastic games to suit a wide range of players and interests, showing off just a sample of the most fun and interesting games that have been released in the last few years. With the holidays coming up, these might be just the thing you want for bringing together friends and family.
Espionage and associative vocabulary have never gone so well together. Codenames is a spy-themed party word game where two teams compete to locate all of their agents first. Random words are laid out in a five-by-five grid. Both teams’ spymasters can see a card that tells them which words are for each team, which are neutral, and which one is the black assassin word. The spymasters take turns saying one word and a number. Their team has that many guesses (plus one) to find the words associated with that clue. Pick correctly and the word gets covered with their color and they continue. Guess wrong and the turn passes, unless they picked the assassin word, which means they lose immediately. The first team that finds all of their words wins. It’s extremely simple and easy to teach, but the granular variability of the words makes it an interesting and challenging puzzle.
Few games have been so rapidly embraced by the community as classics as Codenames was in 2016. Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil has become a notable auteur of modern board gaming; his games, which include Space Alert, Dungeon Petz, and Galaxy Trucker, vary widely in terms of mechanics, but are generally unified by being side-splittingly hilarious. In addition to the original Codenames, the publisher has subsequently released a visual version with Codenames: Pictures and a naughty, Cards Against Humanity-inspired version called Codenames: Deep Undercover.
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Stacking or unstacking various objects while trying to avoid knocking everything over is a classic premise for games, from classics like Jenga to more modern variants like Toc-Toc Woodman or the app-enhanced Fabulous Beasts. Junk Art is easily one of the best we’ve ever seen, however. Based around stacking oddly-shaped wooden objects into abstract sculptures, it’s actually more like 12 games in one, with assorted rule and objective variants to keep it fresh. In one game you might be drafting cards to strategically choose pieces and build the tallest sculpture, while another might see you rotating between sculptures, trying to avoid knocking them over while leaving them in dangerous positions for the next player.
Junk Art is a great example of taking a simple and accessible premise — stacking odd wooden shapes — and using smart design to squeeze as much fun out of it as humanly possible. Players of all ages can enjoy it, and the generous number of variation will ensure this party game remains fresh for some time to come.
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Like Battleship, but in real time and with teams, Captain Sonar is a thrilling game of dueling submarines designed for up to eight players. It begins with two teams setting up on opposite sides of the table and dividing into different roles. The captain, for instance, charts their course on a transparency with a marker over the map and decides when to fire torpedoes, while the engineer works to maintain the sub’s systems as it takes damage. Players can also take on the role of the radio operator, who must listen to the other team’s chatter to deduce their location. It’s a tense battle of wits that requires teamwork, quick thinking, and clever deduction.
We’ve seen team-on-team duels with interlocking mini-games like this before — just take a look at the excellent Space Cadets or its spin-off, Space Cadets: Dice Duel — but combining it with hidden movement and deduction like in Letters from Whitechapel or Fury of Dracula is an absolute stroke of genius. The game also comes with five scenarios that have different maps and special rules, along with a turn-based variant for more methodical play, adding more replay value to an already great base game.
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Players looking for a heavyweight strategy game with no randomness to foil their best-laid plans need look no further than Food Chain Magnate. Up to five players build competing fast food chains across a variable board. The game’s strategy focuses on human resources; growing your company by hiring specialized employee cards such as pizza and burger chefs to make food, waitresses to garner tips, marketers to create desires that need fulfilling, and executives to support more employees. It’s a straight-up economic race to earn the most money before the bank runs out, but the path there is far from linear.
It’s a little like Monopoly, in that it provides the satisfaction of growing a sprawling business empire, but it’s also Chess-like in that there’s basically no hidden information and nothing left to chance. All of the individual elements of the game are quite simple, so it’s not too hard to teach, but its interlocking systems add up to an elegant and complex puzzle that will challenge and titillate the most serious strategy gamers. It also clocks in at an estimated hour per player, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s unparalleled in the experience it offers those who are up to the challenge.
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The same designers that took us on magnificent, mythological adventures through Greece and Egypt with Cyclades and Kemet have rounded out the trilogy with a journey into Celtic legend. Inis sees up to four players at the head of competing clans as they explore and populate a growing kingdom of modular pieces, striving to be declared high king. It’s an area control game in the tradition of Risk, but with three different win conditions to keep players on their toes and prevent snowball victories. Our games of Inis have always been tense right up until the end.
While it doesn’t have the fantastic miniature monsters of its two predecessors, Inis doubles down on that kind of mythic variety, with every tile providing unique effects and a big deck of epic cards that feature powerful (though specific) effects and fantastically psychedelic art. The staggering combinatorics of regions and epic cards that can show up in a given game makes every play different, and helps imbue the title with interesting and challenging decisions.
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