Owen Duffy is a journalist, dad and board game expert from Glasgow. His blog, Cardboard Sandwich, is devoted to board games, card games, roleplaying games and anything else you can play around a table with friends and family.
You might not have noticed, but we’re living in the golden age of board games.
Video games may have dazzling graphics to savour, sprawling worlds to explore and a community of online players to pit your skills against, but analogue gaming has seen a major resurgence in recent years, with some incredibly talented designers turning out compelling, innovative titles that rival anything on your console or PC.
This cardboard renaissance has dispelled some painful lingering memories of childhood Monopoly sessions, and it’s seen a growing number of players turning to analogue titles to discover just how much fun you can have with a few friends, a couple of beers and a well-crafted stack of cards, dice and tokens.
But with thousands of games available to choose from, picking the right titles to dive into the hobby with can be tricky. Luckily, you can use your video gaming preferences to guide you in the right direction, and we’ve compiled a few board game recommendations for fans of some of gaming’s biggest franchises.
It’s been more than 20 years since the game that defined the survival horror genre first splattered its way onto consoles, and if fighting for your life in a world overrun by ravenous ghouls is your idea of a fun night in, there’s a long list of board games that might appeal to you.
Dead of Winter, from US publisher Plaid Hat Games, casts players as the leaders of bands of survivors in a city plagued by the living dead. You’ll work together to fight off zombie attacks, scavenge for supplies and prevent your colony falling to sheer despair in the face of a constant, unremitting threat. But while cooperation is key to your survival, you’ll each also attempt to fulfil your own secret objectives. You might be trying to hoard food, stockpile weapons or even betray your fellow survivors, leaving them helpless in the face of an undead onslaught. With everyone’s true intentions hidden, play becomes a perfect storm of recrimination, backstabbing and false accusations, and the greatest danger comes not from the dead, but from the living.
If you’re looking to capture the creepy, exploratory essence of the original Resi, though, you might want to check out Betrayal at House on the Hill. It puts players in the shoes of a group exploring a deserted mansion. As you move through the house you’ll discover new rooms drawn at random from a set of map tiles, and if you really want to get into the right spirit, you’re free to make an ominous creaking noise and mime slowly opening a door as you discover each new location. Half way through the game you’ll consult a scenario book to discover just what kind of horrific threat you’re facing, and while it may or may not be a zombie uprising, it provides a big dose of variability and some serious replay value.
With the sixth incarnation of the Civilization franchise recently announced, fans are excitedly awaiting untold hours lost to exploration, conquest and diplomacy. But if you can’t wait for Civ 6, there are plenty of cardboard-and-plastic empire simulators to satisfy your inner tyrant.
The Civ series does have an official board game adaptation, but if you’re after something that feels more akin to Civilization on your PC, Clash of Cultures could be what you’re looking for. It hands you control of a tiny tribe and challenges you to lead your people to greatness, exploring your surroundings, founding cities, discovering new technologies and battling against your opponents and packs of roving barbarians. The epic saga of your nation plays out across a hex-grid map that’s revealed piece-by-piece as you play, and the game comes with a huge stack of plastic miniatures representing units, ships and buildings to add to your empire.
Imperial Settlers, from Polish publisher Portal Games provides a very different take on the genre. A tight, tactical card game, it revolves around four rival civilisations competing to colonise a newly discovered land. And while it comes with some deceptively cutesy artwork, at its heart it’s a ruthlessly competitive game that challenges you to construct buildings, gather resources and forge a society that works like a well-oiled machine. At the same time, you’ll launch raids against your rivals and attempt to fend off their attacks. With a very different play style for each faction, there are multiple strategies to discover, and this is a game that continues to reward you with new experiences every time you play.
It might seem like an obvious choice, but if you’re looking to foil the machinations of malevolent extraterrestrial invaders, the official XCOM board game is a great place to start. Rather than focusing on the squad-level combat side of the video game series, it plays out on the grand strategic scale, with players taking the roles of officers coordinating humanity’s defence against the alien menace. But what’s really striking about the game is its use of an integrated smartphone app - a digital brain that carefully unfolds the alien invasion plan. You’ll have to respond in real time to the events spilling out of your phone, making for an incredibly tense and stressful atmosphere where the slightest error or hesitation can spell disaster.
If you’re more interested in charging into the fray with guns blazing, though, Level 7: Omega Protocol could be the game for you. Set in a secret military research facility, the game hands one player the role of an alien overseer controlling an assortment of hideous genetic mutations, while the others play as members of a special-ops team dispatched to lock down the base and eliminate the monsters inside. The game uses a clever system of adrenaline points, where every action taken by the human soldiers gives the alien player the ability to make additional moves on their turn. The result is that coordination and cold, ruthless efficiency become critical if you hope to wipe out the alien threat.
You might already know that an official tabletop port of Dark Souls is in the works, having raised over £3.7m in a massively successful Kickstarter campaign. Dark Souls: The Board Game promises to capture the exploration and unforgiving combat of its digital predecessors, and will come with some gorgeous plastic miniatures representing player characters, enemies and bosses from the video game universe.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to be available until next year. Until then, though, if you’re looking to combine deadly battles with an atmosphere of constant peril and pervasive weirdness, you might want to investigate Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Rooted in the old-school pen-and-paper RPGs of the 1970s and ‘80s, it sees most players take on the identities of characters in a dark fantasy adventure, while one serves as a narrator, describing the in-game world and populating it with characters to encounter and enemies to overcome. It’s dark, immersive and unsettling in all the right ways, and while the commitment involved in setting up and sustaining a game group might seem daunting, if you're drawn to customisable characters, intense combat and deeply creepy settings, you might well find it worth the effort.
Did we miss any great gaming board games? Let us know. You can also discover more great games on Owen's blog, Cardboard Sandwich.