We live in a golden age of board gaming. If you grew up with Scrabble and Cluedo (which are okay games) and Risk and Monopoly (which are not), you may understandably believe such things are limited in scope and of interest only to kids and weirdos. But in 2017 this hobby has far more to offer. The best board games are well worth anyone's time.
Depending on your tastes, modern board gaming offers simplicity (Hive) or complexity (Twilight Struggle); abstraction (The Duke) or narrative (Tales of the Arabian Nights); co-operation (Ghost Stories) or backstabbing (Game of Thrones); silliness (Galaxy Trucker) or seriousness (Puerto Rico). Board games have something for everyone.
In this article we round up the 13 best board games available to humanity, together with our explanation of why each one is so essential, vital statistics (time to play, number of players, our difficulty rating) and a link to buy. We've also put links to help you find more information about each game on the wonderful resource Boardgamegeek, to whom I am indebted for the information about game times and recommended ages.
A note on board game expansions
Where relevant we've included our picks of the best expansion packs for each board game. Expansions are a little cheaper than full games and can be an appealing choice of Christmas present for a loved one with a particular obsession with one board game. Some of them are amazing. But there are some pitfalls to avoid.
We don't recommend that you buy an expansion until you're sure you love the base game, have played it a fair bit and are starting to feel like you're reaching the limits of what it has to offer. A good expansion takes a great game and adds more depth, but no good game needs an expansion to 'complete' it, despite what some people will tell you; some expansions, in fact, will take a tight, streamlined game and bog it down with extra rules.
What's more, for the price of maybe two expansions you could get an entirely new game. When I was getting into board gaming I went right down the rabbit hole of Settlers of Catan expansions and rather regret it. We could have been trying new games instead of settling into a comfort zone.
1. Cosmic Encounter
My favourite game of all, Cosmic is far older than any other game here - it's been published by half a dozen different companies since the late 1970s - but the way you can mix and match the various alien powers into a vast number of possible combinations means every session feels fresh.
You start with five planets, 20 little spaceships and an alien card telling you what your special power is - some element of the rules that you and only you get to ignore or change. The aim of the game is get your spaceships, by persuasion or violence, on to five foreign planets.
You're dealt an initial hand of eight cards. Some of these will be Attack cards with a number. When you encounter another alien you each play one of these face-down, and whoever has the higher number (after adding on extras for number of spaceships, special abilities and so on) will win the fight. But you also have Negotiate cards: if you both play these, you'll be able to come up with a deal that's favourable to both of you. Then again, if one of you is lying and plays an Attack card instead, they will win automatically. Quite often both parties lie.
You may already be starting to imagine the immense bluffing possibilities that this game offers. When you lose a fight, you want to lose it by a mile, so you ditch a bad card and they waste a good one; when you win, you want to do so by a fingernail. (Although this can come back to bite you if they've got a Reinforcements card, which adds a few extra points after the main cards have been played.) Is this a fight you have a chance of winning, or is it time to chuck away a bad card? But if the other guy thinks you're doing that, he might try to get away with a weaker card - in which case maybe you can win…
Cosmic Encounter is wonderful and often ridiculous. If your friends like table talk, bluffing and weird rules that combine in odd ways, this is the game for you.
Best expansions: There are currently six expansions for Cosmic Encounter: the latest, Cosmic Eons, arrived at the start of 2017. Shut Up and Sit Down has a brilliant article on Cosmic Encounters expansions, although at time of writing it hasn't been updated to discuss Eons.
Cosmic Encounter with 6 players is something really special, and for that reason we do recommend that you get one of the first 3 expansions, each of which provide an extra player colour as well as new alien types: Incursion (which sadly appears to be out of print and therefore unavailable for a sensible price right now), Conflict or Alliance. Of those three, Incursion is the best (its reward deck encourages defensive alliances in a way that balances the game nicely) and Alliance is probably the weakest.
The newer expansions don't include a new player colour and just offer new aliens, rule tweaks and other bits and bobs; we can vouch for the high quality of aliens in Cosmic Dominion, which also gives you reward cards - in fact its reward deck is probably better than Incursion's (and can be combined with it).
• 3-5 players (more can be added via expansions) | Ages 12 and up | Takes 60-120 mins | Difficulty: Medium to hard | Boardgamegeek entry
The only full cooperative game in this list, Pandemic tasks you with the job of ridding the globe of four terrifying diseases. Each of you is given a role (medic, scientist, researcher, quarantine specialist) and corresponding special power, and you then travel around treating diseases, preventing outbreaks and finding cures.
There are multiple ways to die: you can run out of time; you can run out of disease counter cubes; you can trigger too many outbreaks. But there is only one way to win, and that's to cure all four diseases. You're a team, so everyone wins, or nobody does; but either way it always seems to come down to the wire.
One less enjoyable aspect of co-operative games is the way that sometimes an experienced player will take over the show and boss everyone around. Make sure that doesn't happen! Your turn is just as important as everybody else's - particularly because of those vital special powers - and while discussion and friendly advice are encouraged, only you can decide on what your character will do. Keep that in mind and you'll have a blast with Pandemic.
The iOS version of Pandemic is excellent too and costs a lot less at £4.99.
• 2-4 players | Ages 8 and up | Takes 45 mins | Difficulty: Medium | Boardgamegeek entry
Carcassonne begins with a single tile (depicting a green field, a little road and the edge of a city) in the middle of the table. The players take it in turns to draw another tile randomly out of the bag, and join it on to the growing map in such a way that the various features (roads, cities, occasionally rivers) match up properly. You then get the option to place one of your little men, or 'meeple', on one of the aforementioned features and claim it - if no one has claimed it already - and you will accumulate points as your claimed features grow bigger.
For such a simple game, Carcassonne has a surprising depth to it: it's all about knowing what tiles are left, and the probability of drawing what you need. There's also a fair element of sussing out what your opponents are trying to do and how to prevent it, although Carcassonne is on the whole a pretty chilled game. Highly recommended.
(There's an iOS version that's brilliant too, and although it's expensive by App Store standards it's still a cheaper way of seeing if this is the game for you.)
Best expansions: Traders & Builders is the one to go for, in our opinion. The builder piece allows you to take double turns if you place it astutely, and the trading goods - which are awarded to people who complete cities, even if they don't have any meeple there - encourage an interesting degree of semi-cooperation. Inns & Cathedrals is mostly quite good although we find the cathedral piece itself rather brutal; it can completely screw over someone's city if placed at an opportune moment.
The third expansion, Princess & Dragon, came out quite recently (in the new 2014 design style, at least - there are dozens of expansions in the older design) but we find it a bit mad. Both the princess and dragon can dump meeple out of features, which places far greater importance on getting into a feature, scoring the points and getting out again.
• 2-5 players | Ages 8 and up | Takes 30-45 mins | Difficulty: Easy | Boardgamegeek entry
4. Power Grid
There's a lot of mental arithmetic in this one, but don't let that, or the fact that it's themed around the building, connecting and supply of power stations, put you off what is a rich and rewarding game.
You're buying power stations, buying fuel (oil, coal, rubbish, nuclear or renewables) and building towns; the more towns you can power with the plants and fuel you've got, the more money you make. And next turn that cash goes back into buying more powerful plants, more fuel and more buildings.
Power Grid has some really smart mechanisms, including a supply-and-demand system that makes prices go up if a resource is popular and some gentle rubber-banding that gives whoever's losing first pick of the new plants and best pricing on the fuel. A key part of the game is knowing when to make your move and go for the victory, because taking the lead too soon is generally punished.
Fun fact: I have played this game more than a dozen times and never won. Yet I still keep playing it. This is generally a good sign.
Also, the original name of the game is Funkenschlag.
Best expansions: We don't feel this is a game that particularly calls for expansions, although your mileage may vary. Bear in mind that the standard game comes with two maps: Germany and the US. Expansions will add additional countries to your options, and some have distinctly different flavours that affect the way games play out. Italy makes expansion more difficult, Benelux is good for beginners, France is nuclear-friendly and so on. Boardgamegeek has a great forum posting on the expansions.
• 2-6 players | Ages 12 and up | Takes 120 mins | Difficulty: Hard | Boardgamegeek entry
5. Love Letter
Quicker, cheaper and far more portable than any other offering in this list, Love Letter is simple, and pure, and pretty much perfect for short gaming sessions and for warming up before something more demanding.
Here's what you get: 16 cards; a handful of counters; the rulebook; and a little red bag to store it all in. But from these ingredients an exceptionally compelling game has been cooked up - one which can be grasped by drunks in 10 minutes, but keeps revealing new depths and subtleties for months after.
The aim of the game is to end the session with the highest surviving card (the highest of all is the princess, whom everyone is trying to woo) but there are numerous sneaky ways to knock out your opponents before it gets to that point. Brilliant stuff.
Best expansions: There's Love Letter Premium, which adds a bunch of new cards (such as the Assassin, who has a value of 0 but knocks people out if they target you with the Guard). We've not tried it, but it sounds fun. And there are millions of 'reskins' of the game, keeping the rules the same but changing the artwork to a theme such as Ghostbusters or HP Lovecraft. Just look at how many there are.
• 2-4 players | Ages 10 and up | Takes 20 mins | Difficulty: Easy | Boardgamegeek entry
6. King of New York
This staple of the Tech Advisor Board Game Club is perfect for a lunchtime quickie.
It's Yahtzee with monsters, essentially: you each control an oversized creature from a monster movie (King Kong, Godzilla, Robbie the Robot, a non-branded alien thing) and take it in turns to roll a fat handful of dice, marked with various monstery symbols instead of numbers, and attempt to cause mayhem.
Roll a lot of claws and you can smash the heck out of the other monsters; roll hearts and you heal yourself; roll a bunch of lightning bolts and you accumulate the game's currency - sort of monster power - and get to upgrade yourself by buying cards.
It's fast, it's simple, and it's surprisingly tense when the last couple of monsters get down to the last dregs of their health bars.
After some deliberation we are recommending King of New York, but for a casual crowd the older, simpler and also excellent King of Tokyo may be a better pick. That one is really just about the dice and cards; New York adds more focus on moving around the city, and lets you smash up buildings and fight the army too.
Best expansions: We'd keep it simple if we were you. If you just want more monster cards, however, consider buying the version of the game you didn't get already - New York monsters can be used in Tokyo and vice versa. There are expansions for each game called Power Up, which add unique upgrades for each monster; but these incentivise people rolling for hearts and therefore make games longer and (in some players' opinion) less exciting.
• 2-6 players | Ages 10 and up | Takes 40 mins | Difficulty: Easy to medium (King of Tokyo would qualify as easy) | Boardgamegeek entry
7. Ticket To Ride Europe
This lovely and wholesomely kid-friendly number is all about building rail networks, and like the best games has the potential to be either friendly or ruthless depending on the crowd.
You begin the game by drawing a few route cards - these are essentially your missions for the game. Each of these will name two (probably intimidatingly distant) cities that you need to connect, and a point value, based on its difficulty, that you'll get for completing the mission.
So you then spend the game trying desperately to connect Edinburgh to London, and London to Paris, and Paris to Brussels, and so on until you've got an uninterrupted railway line stretching across the continent. While the other players, trying to build their own overlapping routes, inevitably snatch the sections of track you most wanted and force you into an annoying detour through Rome.
Incidentally, we are recommending Ticket To Ride Europe (which is a complete game in its own right, please note, rather than an add-on expansion) rather than plain Ticket To Ride - and not just because we're ardent Europhiles; TTRE features a slightly updated and improved rule set. But if Europe isn't available, or you just fancy a change, the original game is pretty fantastic too, as is the iOS version of the game.
• 2-5 players | Ages 8 and up | Takes 30-60 mins | Difficulty: Easy | Boardgamegeek entry
8. Betrayal at House on the Hill
Modern board games are often split up neatly into the competitive and the cooperative, but Betrayal at House on the Hill defies that.
This horror-themed game sees each player step into the shoes of one of 12 characters exploring a sinister mansion. Room tiles are drawn at random to fill out the map across three floors, and range from the expected (dining room) to the more sinister (furnace, underground lake, pentagram chamber).
As you enter each room you draw either an event, item, or omen card, each of which triggers some horrific scenario that usually requires a dice roll to determine if the effects are good or bad for you.
The group of you work together to explore the house and evade traps at first, but each time someone draws an omen card it triggers a 'haunt roll', and the more omen cards are in play, the more likely this is to trigger the haunt: one of a series of twists to the story, drawn straight from classic horror books and films.
These range from the angry undead to science experiments gone wrong, but almost all have one thing in common: one of the group is a traitor. They're given separate rules and win conditions, and the game shifts gears to be one vs. many, with each side trying to both figure out what the other's goal is and how to stop them.
It's great fun, and the niche horror references are always entertaining to try and spot, but the sheer level of randomness in house layout, cards, and haunts means that the end-game can occasionally be hopelessly unbalanced, but that's the price you pay for the otherwise welcome unpredictability.
Expansions: Right now there's only one expansion for Betrayal: Widow's Walk. This adds a selection of new cards and room tiles, including a new roof floor, but the main addition is 50 new haunts, written by a selection of writers with serious nerd cred.
It's an expansion that's more about adding new content than it is about shifting the core game mechanics, so we wouldn't recommend it unless you've already worked through most of the 50 haunts in the base game.
• 3-6 players | Ages 12 and up | Takes 60-120 mins | Difficulty: Medium | Boardgamegeek entry
9. Space Hulk
We're going full nerd now. Space Hulk is an asymmetric two-player miniatures strategy game set in a violent sci-fi universe, and unlikely to appeal to your nan on Christmas Day. But if you can find someone as geeky as you to play against, not to mention the small fortune required to buy the thing, you'll have the time of your life.
One of you controls a small group of human space marines exploring an abandoned space ship, who move slowly and excel at ranged combat; the other controls a limitless supply of speedy aliens - Genestealers - who haven't got guns but will tear the marines to pieces if they can get close enough. And on each of the missions, you'll each have to achieve one or more objectives in order to be declared the winner - kill something, get to a room, activate, collect or destroy an object or feature. Don't die.
Most of the mechanics will be familiar: each character has a number of action points each turn, which can be spent on moving, turning, shooting etc. But there are some wonderful touches. There's Overwatch, a mode whereby a marine waits for the alien turn and shoots anything that moves - blasting away at the creature rushing towards him until it dies or his gun jams, the tension! And the Genestealer player moves not individual aliens but 'blips' on the marine player's motion detector which may turn out to contain anywhere up to three creatures.
Playing as the Genestealers tends to be a bit less engaging than playing as the marines: while he's checking sight lines and planning formations, most of the time you'll just be sprinting full-pelt at the nearest human and trying to bite his throat out for him. To compensate for this, the game's makers encourage you to play each scenario twice, so you each get to play as both sides. Well worth it if you've got time.
Note that Games Workshop has stopped selling the fourth edition of Space Hulk, released in 2014, so your best bet would be to try eBay. We've seen the game there for around £100.
• 2 players | Ages 12 and up | Takes 60 mins | Difficulty: Hard | Boardgamegeek entry
10. Scotland Yard
In Scotland Yard, one of you takes on the role of Mr X, a criminal of some unspecified and hopefully non-violent sort. The rest of you are detectives trying to track down and catch the first player. If the game ends and Mr X is still at large, the solo player wins, although in our experience this doesn't happen very often.
The odd, asymmetric semi-cooperative structure of Scotland Yard is its first hook. The second is the clever way it hides information from most of the players. The detectives move their pieces across the board (a map of London) quite openly, paying for taxi, bus and Underground journeys from their limited budget; but Mr X moves about in secret, checking the board for the optimum route (wearing a cool visor to stop players from spotting where he's looking) and noting down his position each turn on a pad.
Scotland Yard is different every time but always tense. The moments when the net is closing in and escape seems impossible are exceptionally memorable.
• 3-6 players | Ages 10 and up | Takes 45 mins | Difficulty: Medium | Boardgamegeek entry
Ever play Magic: The Gathering? It's great, but one of the weaknesses of Magic and collectible card games in general is a lack of accessibility for new players: if you've not put in the hours beforehand learning about the bewildering range of cards, grasping the meta game and assembling a solid deck, you're going to get schooled. (Granted, you can borrow a deck that someone else has built for you, but you're unlikely to play it with any degree of finesse - and assembling the deck kind of is the game.)
Dominion is the defining example of that slightly different beast, the deck builder. Deck builders are great levellers, because everyone starts with the same (extremely basic) deck; you build the deck over the course of the game by playing cards that give you money, then spending that money on new cards (that may in turn give you more money, or have some other beneficial effect). But the cards on offer vary from game to game - being most commonly chosen by random at the beginning so nobody knows exactly what to expect, although sensible beginners' setups are offered in the rulebook.
Be warned that Dominion is sometimes described disparagingly as "multi-player solitaire". A lot of the time each player is essentially doing their own thing, trying to build an efficient card engine for generating victory points (although there are a few cards that actively mess with other players and need to be countered). If you can live with that, you'll have a great time with Dominion - and you don't need to spend all your money on card booster packs, either, since everything you need is in the box.
Dominion isn't available on mobile, but there are two broadly similar deck builders that are, and they are both free and worth a try: Ascension and Star Realms. And Dream Quest is a fantastic iOS deck builder that adds Roguelike RPG elements.
Best expansions: I haven't played any of Dominion's intimidating range of expansions, but experts say they improve the game a lot. If you're getting seriously into Dominion, try this article for advice on the expansion to pick first.
• 2-4 players | Ages 13 and up | Takes 30 mins | Difficulty: Medium | Boardgamegeek entry
12. Settlers of Catan
For many of us, this wonderful game was the introduction to the hobby and obsession that is board gaming.
Catan's board is made up of rearrangeable hexagons indicating various terrain types, each of which produce (on a certain roll of the two dice) a certain kind of resource. A forest tile with a 6 or an 8 (high-probability numbers on two dice) is likely to produce a lot of wood. A mountain tile with a 12 is likely to yield ore only very rarely. The aim of the game is to build roads and towns across the board, gain control of the most valuable hexes, and rack up victory points.
Be warned that there's quite a large random element - it can be annoying to control a valuable 6 or 8 hex then watch that number never get rolled - but there's a huge satisfaction in gradually working towards whatever scheme you've come up with, whether that's upgrading all your towns to cities, controlling key ports for superior trading, or systematically ruining your son-in-law's day.
Best expansions: Seafarers is excellent and simple, adding sea tiles - which you can expand across using ships instead of roads - and goldmine tiles, which produce whatever resource you like. Cities & Knights is more drastic, changing the entire tenor of the game and making it far more ruthless and complex, but we're rather fond of it. Traders & Barbarians is fun but a bit of a hodgepodge.
If you just fancy a small novelty to shake up your game, remember that many of the individual components of Traders & Barbarians are sometimes available on their own, such as the cool-looking-if-confusing Great River. Don't pay more than a tenner for that one, mind you.
Steer clear of the 5-6 player expansion; it's a pain because you'll also have to buy the additional 5-6 player expansion that goes with Seafers, Cities & Knights and so on, and the wait between turns gets too long. (And whatever you do, don't improvise a 10-player game!)
13. Beasts of Balance
Adding a digital element to something that's inherently analogue can be a bad move. We've seen it done badly with games like Monopoly but Beasts of Balance is an example of where it enhances the experience by a long way.
At a glance, Beasts of Balance (or BoB) appears to be a kids version of Jenga with colourful plastic animals. However, it's got hidden tech depths that really show off what you can do with some small chips and a nicely designed app.
The kit comes with a base (that requires three AA batteries) and plenty of pieces to stack. You connect the base to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth and half of the game takes place on the free app.
There are animals but also elements and artefacts, all of which have an NFC (near field communications) chip inside - like Nintendo's amiibo or your Oyster card - so the game knows which piece you're about to place. You can buy more pieces if you like.
It's up to you how you play so you might start with an animal like the warthog and then place an earth element to keep him happy. Items you place will appear or have an effect on the world you create inside the app.
All sorts can happen including cross-breeds (which are hilarious) and migrating animals to or from water, creating new beasts. You'll need to keep everyone in your kingdom happy and avoid extinction while gaining points.
Challenges will be thrown up by the app like pushing a button while placing so you have one hand or tapping on something in game (like a full moon) repeatedly to retain points.
There's more tech as the base acts as a weighing scale so it knows whether the pieces are there or not. If everything falls down, the volcano in the app erupts and you can try and quickly rebuild to carry on playing otherwise it's game over.
It's a clever marriage of physical and digital design and you can play solo or with loads of people taking turns. The beauty is that what happens each time you play will be very different to the last.