The holidays are prime time for families and friends to get together and unleash their competitive sides over the best board games they can find. We've all secretly wanted to flip the table when Granny hoarded all the green properties in Monopoly, or when our little brothers cheated at Cluedo. But are these really the best board games for playing over Christmas? Surely something a little different, a little funnier, or a little more skill-based would be better for bringing the family together. Who knows, maybe you won't even fall out once it's over.
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Today's best board games range from light and accessible (Exploding Kittens, One Night Ultimate Werewolf) to complex and involving (Carcassone, Lords of Waterdeep), but they all offer something a little different. Each game comes with all the instructions and pieces you need to get started, and most now have online videos that you can watch to make the rules even clearer. There are quite a few based on well known franchises and gaming series, like Star Wars and Fallout, so you can feed your gaming itch too, without staring at the screen. Playing board games over Christmas could be a gateway into making it a more permanent hobby too, so here are details on how to get into board games. And if you're looking to play with just one other person, here are the best board games for 2 players.
1. One Night Ultimate Werewolf
A quick game of suspicion and brutal murder
Players: 3 - 10 | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 10 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 8+
Deduction and deception go hand-in-hand in One Night Ultimate Werewolf, a game that practically makes wink murder a competitive sport. Each player is randomly assigned a role at the start from a motley collection of village residents - including the werewolves who seek to prey on them. Over the course of one night in which everyone secretly plays their unique moves in turn, the players have to figure out which among them is a monster. So while the Seer can flip another player’s card to see their role, the Troublemaker might then exchange that card with someone else, making it hard to be absolutely certain who is telling the truth.
As with all games of this type the fun lies in both making accurate deductions based on fact and gut feeling, and in successfully throwing other players under the bus if you happen to be the werewolf. Over the course of each ten minute-long game suspicion runs rampant and, because there is always the chance that there are no werewolves in a given game, innocent players will have to talk their way out of a death sentence. The free accompanying app makes set-up a breeze, especially for the games with more players that really show One Night Ultimate Werewolf at its best.
Best for… larger groups who enjoy finding out they never really knew someone as well as they thought.
2. The Resistance
A classic spy game that's easy to set-up, play, and repeat
Players: 5-10 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 13+
If you’ve ever wanted to have a screaming match with a loved one but don’t have a reason to hand, then The Resistance is the game you need. And since up to ten people can play the game, those screaming matches can get really loud. The premise is simple, and so is the set-up. The resistance need to succeed in three out of five missions in order to win the game - but the spies who sit anonymously among them need those missions to fail. Since all it takes is one spy taken along on a mission to tank it, the real game is figuring out who at the table is trustworthy and who is a bald-faced liar.
The gameplay is as deep as the spies are good at deception, with new layers added whenever one spy throws another under the bus to avoid detection, or when two good guys are turned against one another by a silver-tongued antagonist. Just don’t expect to come out of the experience without a few grudges…
Best for… people looking to test their ability to discern who is a traitor (or their ability to fool other people).
Very much like playing Fallout 76, but good
Players: 1-4 | Time to set up: 10 minutes | Time to play: 120 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 14+
If you're looking to take your Fallout experience offline, and you feel angry and disappointed by Fallout 76, this is the game for you. Drawing scenarios from Fallout 3 and 4, this board game is a hell of a lot like playing the actual game, with friends. You explore a map, build influence among factions, and even complete side-quests to earn more stuff. What's pleasing about this game is the attention to detail - everything feels drawn straight from the Fallout universe, down to the descriptions on the cards and the artwork.
Now, the length of each game really is a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. Games can last 2-3 hours, so if you're settling in for a mammoth session with friends that's fine. However, if you're looking to hold Grandma's attention for the duration of an evening, then perhaps it's best to pick something a little simpler and shorter. If you're willing to invest the time, and you have friends who love a bit of Fallout, this is perfect.
Best for... anyone disappointed by Fallout 76 (everyone, then)
A more complex game of bluffing, for groups of good friends
Players: 3 - 6 (2 player variant included in rules) | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 15 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+
The appeal of Coup lies in its simplicity and the inevitability of its endgame: Like characters from a horror movie, each player will be taken out either by their overconfidence or by another player’s machinations, until only one person remains. The trick to winning, however, lies in the metagame of knowing when your opponents are in a weak position and bluffing, and launching your coups at the right time.
Each player has two character cards face down in front of them, which only they are privy to. Those characters each have different abilities, from assassinating another player to stealing some of their currency, and most have the ability to prevent another player from acting. But since your opponents’ cards are face down figuring out when they’re lying about their characters becomes a tense mindgame, as double- and triple-bluffs get thrown around. Accusing someone of lying could cost them a character card and their influence at court, making them lose - or it could easily cost you the same.
Best for… groups of four or five who have experience in games that require counter-playing opponents’ moves.
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The party game with actual strategy
Players: 2-8 | Time to set up: 2 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, so get ready to go crazy watching your team talk their way out of right answers while you watch in disbelief.
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. The response to Codenames has been incredibly positive, thanks to its easy-to-grasp gameplay making it a go-to - and with Picture and Adults Only variants out there, expect to see Codenames pulled out at even more parties this year.
Best for... after dinner-party play
6. 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
7. 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. Its Widow’s Walk expansion has tapped tons of top writers like Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and Pandemic Legacy’s co-designer Rob Daviau to craft new Haunts, so expect some truly bizarre stories to play out as you fight with your friends.
Best for... Brilliant horror and amazing replay value
An absolute classic board game, and it's still good
Players: 2-5 | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 40 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 8+
Regarded as a classic for good reason, Carcassonne is available on a ton of digital platforms in addition to its original board game format, with a recent Switch release out in July in this year. Despite that there’s something special about playing the game in its original, physical format, to dropping a tile in at exactly the right place to complete a city and earn serious points.
Carcassonne’s challenge is in having a strategy in mind while placing your pieces. As you all build out a section of Southern France using tiles drawn at random, cleverly placing Meeple earns you points for each completed city, road and connected fields - so long as your piece has control of that section. While there is luck of the draw in the tiles you choose, placing a piece to steal control of a city from an opponent requires long-term tactical thinking. As a result, it’s one of those rare games that’s easy to pick up but genuinely tough to master, espcially if you’re going up against other Carcassonne veterans.
Best for… groups looking to challenge one another at long-term strategic thinking
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
The best kind of misery
Players: 2-5 | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 60 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+
Gloom is a game all about making your family miserable - but actually playing the game itself is a lot of fun. Players take turns using their cards in their hands to make members of their chosen Victorian Gothic family live the worst lives possible, before killing them off and cashing in points depending on how miserable they were at the end. At the same time, you’ll be trying to make your opponents’ families live charmed existences and fending off game-changing Event cards.
What sets Gloom apart is the glee with which it encourages you to foist misery on your family. The rules state that as you pile tragedy on a character you should tell the story of the series of unfortunate events that have befallen them, so you and your friends can make each other laugh by being as sadistic as possible. The word ‘macabre’ was invented for this game (but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a ton of fun playing it).
Best for… friends who appreciate making each other laugh as much as outplaying one another
11. 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
12. 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
13. 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
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