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.
Modern board gaming isn’t just about zombies and elves and space marines. Sure, there’s a ton of that, but every year the range of possible tabletop experiences grows by leaps and bounds. Enter Fog of Love: a romantic comedy board game for two. Both players create their own fictional character and work through one of several scenarios with fixed chapters and randomized scenes, charting the course of their relationship to its happy (or unhappy) ending. It’s an elegant game that strikes an incredible balance between mechanics that create an interesting puzzle to solve while keeping story and character forward, instead of getting lost in abstract min-maxing.
Fog of Love’s genesis speaks worlds about its revolutionary place in the industry Designer Jacob Jaskov played and loved hundreds of board games, but his wife was never interested in any of them. For all the industry’s growth and diversification in the last several decades, games still almost exclusively focus on external conflicts, and never on internal, character-driven stories. Jaskov developed Fog of Love for this uncompromising audience of one, and the result is an exquisitely sharp application of some of modern gaming’s best design practices and ideas, while also totally defying industry convention. Its Walmart-exclusive distribution deal in the US hopefully speaks to a radical diversification of the mainstream board gaming industry in the near future.
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Some games are built entirely around a single idea or theme, with every mechanic designed to serve it. For others, a “theme” is just a thin aesthetic veneer over its crunchy, abstract systems. Azul, a game about laying beautiful tiles for the Portuguese royal palace, is squarely the latter. Players compete to build the most complete and aesthetically-pleasing square of colorful tiles. Drafting tiles from a shared pool, combined with rules for how to lay them or save them for future rounds, makes for a satisfying puzzle that’s easy to learn, but hard to master and plays well (and differently) at its full range of two to four players in just about half an hour.
When building a game collection, it’s important to have a range of weights and interaction-styles. Azul is a fantastic “opener” for a game night, since it plays quickly and provides a constant stream of interesting decisions without ever overwhelming players into “analysis paralysis.” It also features a pleasant level of passive-aggressive interaction (through denying tiles to other players), making it important to keep up with what your friends are doing without ever putting you into direct clashes, which can be the perfect, congenial tone that some people like to set for an evening of laughter and conversation around the table, with games as the excuse to get there.
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In Gloomhaven, 2-4 players team up for a co-operative fantasy adventure campaign that spans hundreds of hours, with over a dozen, unique characters to unlock. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a video game, but no, Gloomhaven is the latest massive dungeon crawl board game to blow up on Kickstarter. Players assume the role of wandering adventurers in a persistent world full of treasure to find, monsters to hunt, and dungeons to clear, accruing new items and abilities as they go. It’s standard video game fare, but Gloomhaven has set the board gaming world ablaze for how elegantly it distills that experience into an analog format.
Fantasy dungeon crawl is a crowded genre in board games as well as video games. Historically dungeon crawls fall under the “Ameritrash” lineage, with their mechanical excess, focus on simulation, and heavy dose of randomness. This tracks from poorly-aged classics like Hero Quest through to Gloomhaven’s immediate Kickstarter precedent, Kingdom Death: Monster. While similar in the broad strokes as ponderous coffin boxes, laden with ridiculous amounts of monsters and loot, Gloomhaven takes a more restrained and thoughtful approach than KD’s maximalism, with tighter mechanics reminiscent of European-style board games
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There are big board games, and then there’s Twilight Imperium. Fantasy Flight’s signature strategy game of galactic diplomacy and conquest is famously massive, hosting four to six players in a galaxy that takes up an obscene amount of table square footage, pounds of plastic miniature spaceships, and up to eight whopping hours of play time. Every player assumes the mantle of a unique alien civilization, competing to be top dog in space in the wake of a galactic empire’s collapse. Whether you want to be savvy traders like the Ferengi, haughty imperialists like the Centauri, or a hive mind like the Formics, the expansive mechanics and broadly-sourced archetypes of TI allow for basically whatever flavor of space opera tickles your fancy.
TI’s first edition released in 1997, making it ancient by the standard of contemporary board games. Several iterations have tightened up and streamlined the rule set towards more elegant, Eurogame-style mechanics and a vastly more appealing visual presentation. The 2017 4th Edition incorporates 20 years of player feedback, making a surprisingly smooth and refined version of a game that by all rights should be massively unwieldy. There are myriad, more focused versions of the TI fantasy now available in board and video games (from Eclipse to Stellaris), but nothing quite matches the maximalist grandeur of TI 4th Edition when you want to go all-in on a day of pretending to be on Babylon 5 with your friends.
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As the themes and mechanics of modern board games grow increasingly elaborate, sometimes you just want the simple thrill of beating someone to the finish line. Flamme Rouge is a brilliant bicycle racing game that elegantly distills the real-world mechanics of team cycling into a fast, fun, strategic, and family-friendly board game. Each of 2-4 players controls two racers (a “rouleur” and a “sprinteur”), each with a corresponding deck of cards with the numbers 2-9 (the rouleur has an even spread of 3-7 while the sprinteur has a more boom-or-bust deck with twos and nines in the mix). Every turn each player draws four cards from each deck and chooses one for each of their riders to determine how far they move down the two-lane, modular track. Drafting and exhaustion mechanics encourage you to stay in packs and end with exactly one space (but no more) between you and the next rider in a rule set that is remarkably easy to teach because of how cleanly it distills real world cycling.
Racing games are as old as board games themselves — Snakes and Ladders traces all the way back to ancient India as a meditation on karma and morality. Note “meditation,” however: the “roll and move” mechanic at the heart of Snakes and Ladders was random and non-interactive by design, but in modern gaming “roll and move” has been relegated to children’s and “Ameritrash” games. Flamme Rouge’s card-driven racing mechanics keep some of that randomness, but temper it in order to put skilled decision-making front and center. As the general complexity of board game rules goes up, Flamme Rouge is an excellent reminder for the value of elegance and simplicity.
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