What's the first thing you think about when it comes to board games? Family feuds over the annual festive game of Monopoly or Risk? While these are of course still fun – don't worry, your brother will speak to you again some day – there's an incredible array of board games available now that are miles away from repeated dice rolls of old. From the fiendish atmosphere and replay value of Betrayal at House on the Hill, to the co-operative feel of Pandemic Legacy, today's board games make a pleasant alternative to video games and there's nothing like clustering around the table to share in an adventure.
There's slews of brilliant options out there but how are you to know which is the best board game? To help you navigate this rollercoaster of quality, here's a list of the eight best board games around. We've leaned toward titles you can learn and play in an evening, and which scale to suit a range of player numbers. As a rough guide, they're presented in order of accessibility, with the easier to understand games first.
The party game with actual strategy
Players: 2-8 | Time to set up: Two minutes | Time to play: 15 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+
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
2. King of Tokyo
Smash up a city, and some friends at the same time
Players: 2-6 | Time to set up: Five minutes | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 8+
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.
Best For: ... drunken knees-ups
3. Ticket to Ride
Cut-throat family fun
Players: 2-5 | Time to set up: Five minutes | Time to play: 30-60 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 8+
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
4. Betrayal at House on the Hill
Betrayal? More like replay-all
Players: 3-6 | Time to set up: Two minutes | Time to play: 60 minutes | Complexity: Low | Age: 12+
There is nothing quite like taking part in your very own horror movie. Betrayal at House on the Hill casts you as one of six well known tropes - little girl with a doll? check - before throwing you into a haunted mansion that you build and explore as you go. Each player lays room tiles as they cautiously explore, meaning an entirely unique house, complete with basement, creepy grave-filled garden and chapel. The early exploration stage is a perfect time for newcomers to get used to the just in depth enough play-style and it's a great warm up for what's to come.
Events occur in each room you enter and Omen cards are gradually accrued. Every time an Omen card is drawn, the player responsible must roll all six dice. If the number rolled is above the number of total Omen cards, the house stays relatively safe, if not then the Haunt stage of the game kicks off and things get interesting. A traitor is borne amidst the group, meaning one player goes off to read the way they'll be terrorising the rest, and there's a huge variety of horrific ways the house will turn on the inhabitants. What fresh hell is this? An amazing one.
Best for... Brilliant horror and amazing replay value
A moment to learn, a good many hours to master
Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: One minute | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+
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
6. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game
A visual as well as a strategic treat
Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: 5-10 minutes | Time to play: 30-45 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 14+
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
7. Lords of Waterdeep
Dungeons and Dragons with dizzying depth
Players: 2-5 | Time to set up: Five minutes | Time to play: 60-120 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 12+
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.
Best For: ... Those on the hunt for a deeper experience that might lose you pals
8. Pandemic Legacy
Co-operate to create your own unique copy
Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: Five minutes | Time to play: 60 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 13+
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
9. Cosmic Encounter
Endless arguments about aliens
Players: 3-5 | Time to set up: Ten minutes | Time to play: 60-120 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 12+
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
Think we've missed any tabletop games that deserve inclusion? Let us know in the comments below, with your real-life playing anecdotes (almost) always welcome.