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Board games are booming. What was once a hobby relegated to the dusty racks at the back of friendly local game stores has gone mainstream. Even big box retailers like Target are getting in on the action with surprisingly good selections. But the same churn that has brought so many extraordinary games to market has also made it hard to know where to get started.
You can’t purchase every hot new title that shows up on Kickstarter, but you also don’t want to be wasting time playing the same old games that your parents keep in the coat closet. That’s where Polygon’s Essentials List can help.
Just as we have done for PC and console gaming, we’ve assembled a comprehensive list of the very best modern board games. This is not an aspirational list filled with out-of-print classics or hard-to-find titles. Everything here is still in print and available for a fair price. We’ve done our best to hit all the major genres as well, from hardcore strategy games to lighter, family fare. So dive in, and let us know your thoughts — and recommendations — in the comments below.
7 Wonders shines because it’s easy to pick up and understand, especially while playing for the first time. Yet the game also has a constantly rising skill ceiling. That’s why so many of the top-tier designers named it to their list of the most influential board games of the last decade.
7 Wonders is a card game based around the seven wonders of the ancient world, each with different strengths. Those strengths take on the form of buffs or new mechanics that change how you play the game. One might give you more power to combat, while another allows you to grab cards from a discard pile. The game progresses in three thematic rounds called ages, moving from basic woodworking and trading, up through the advent of sawmills and markets, and ending with the rise of worker groups and trade guilds.
The ramp-up to each new age sets multiple strategies into motion. As the pile of communal cards runs out, players can only earn additional cards by interacting with everyone else at the table. Those final moments of an age make every card important, since you could be inadvertently giving your neighbors more victory points later in the game. Every age the game changes, forcing players to change strategies mid-game. Each time I’ve played it, 7 Wonders has been a completely different experience. —Josh Rios
Blood Rage is a Viking-themed area control game set during the Norse apocalypse known as Ragnarok. If you’ve played classics like Risk or Axis & Allies then you’re half-way to understanding what makes the game so appealing. It’s fun to move dudes around on a map, and Blood Rage gives you plenty of reasons to do that — and plenty of gorgeous miniatures to move. But, what makes the game so much fun is that you don’t use dice to fight battles. Instead, players depend on card drafting to build up their hands and prepare for war.
The same mechanics that make pick-up games of Magic: The Gathering so much fun to play also help to give Blood Rage its enduring appeal. —Charlie Hall
Sometimes the secret to having a great party is having the right kind of party game to bust out at just the right moment. One of the best is Cash’n Guns — basically the tabletop version of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, just without all the pesky kidnapping and aural mutilation.
Inside the box for Cash’n Guns you’ll find eight foam handguns and a stack of cash. The money goes in the middle of the table, with the pot slowly building each round. The guns? Those get pointed in every direction, either intimidating or wounding your competitors so that you can take all the money for yourself. It’s a game that is incredibly easy to teach, and one that rewards multiple playthroughs with the same crowd on the same night. —CH
Catan is widely regarded as the first game to bring the board games industry mainstream attention. But, in my opinion, it’s not a particularly great way to welcome people into the hobby these days. Overall strategies can be a bit hard to grasp, and the game’s social aspects can be daunting — especially if you’re dealing with introverts or first-time players.
For my money, Catan Junior is a much more entertaining first-time experience. The game uses the same trading mechanics as the original, but reduces the number of resources that players have to worry about by one. Players will collect wood, goats, molasses, and cutlasses as they build hideouts and ships to expand their pirate-themed empire. The game is lightning quick at around 30 minutes, and also features a simplified mode for kids as young as six.
The low level of complexity, fast playtime, and kid-friendly design make this a modern staple that should be in everyone’s board game collection. —CH
Codenames is a social deduction game that manages to be immensely accessible and provide a brain-teasing challenge. With its high player count and pleasing level of challenge it’s equally at home on family game night, at your local board game meetup, or even over a Zoom hang out.
Twenty five codeword cards, each with a single noun, are laid out in a five-by-five grid representing secret agents in the field. Players are divided into a red and blue team, and each team gets a leader called a spymaster. The spymaster is given a key that identifies which of the 25 codename cards on the grid represent their side’s secret agents, which team (red or blue) those agents are assigned to, and which cards represent innocent civilians. To win the game, spymasters need the rest of their team members to correctly identify their secret agents, but the only way they can communicate to them is by giving one word clues and a number indicating how many cards that clue applies to.
For example, a spymaster trying to get their team to pick the codenames NEEDLE and AMBULANCE might say “medical two.”
What makes the game tricky is that it creates a minefield of other cards that could spell disaster. The clue “medical two” might lead players astray if DOCTOR is also on the grid. Perhaps NEEDLE is a blue team card and AMBULANCE is team red, meaning both spymasters will have to come up with a specific clue that doesn’t accidentally indicate the other card.
The game also benefits from multiple expansions and reskins, which you can mix and match together when you play. Some options: Codenames: XXL, Codenames: Pictures (which pairs nicely when mashed togehter with the original game), Codenames: Disney, Codenames: Marvel, Codenames: Harry Potter, and the adult party game Codenames: Deep Undercover 2.0 —Clayton Ashley
Descent: Legends of the Dark – Act One
Descent: Legends of the Dark – Act One is the third iteration of Fantasy Flight Games’ marquee dungeon crawling franchise. In it you’ll play as one of several adventurers on a quest to uncover the mysteries of an ongoing conflict in the land of Terrinoth. In our review, we called it a “rich, seamless experience and one of the very best board games published” in 2021.
But this version of Descent is particularly unique in that it requires a companion app to play. Available for Android, iOS, and via Steam, the app acts like a Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons, directing the action and controlling the enemies on the board. But it also opens up multiple other ways to interact with the game. There are interstitial narrative sequences with voice acting, a crafting system, and the ability to interact with the environment in unique and unusual ways.
Best of all, the game scales well from a solo experience to an ongoing campaign with up to three friends. —CH
Good Dungeon Masters (DMs) are hard to find, and that’s part of the reason why Gloomhaven has proven to be so popular with fans of board games. Inside Gloomhaven’s nearly 20-pound box is an elaborate, branching narrative campaign set in a unique fantasy world. But the mechanics are what truly make this game spectacular.
Like Blood Rage, Gloomhaven doesn’t rely on random dice rolls for combat. Instead, players use cards to manage both attacks and movement on a tactical grid. Gloomhaven also makes use of Rob Daviau’s legacy-style mechanics, adding new characters and locations from sealed containers inside the box to permanently alter the game world over time.
Once you make it through even a quarter of the game’s nearly 100 scenarios your version of Gloomhaven won’t look like anyone else’s. A lighter version of the game is available at retail. Titled Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, it also functions as an expansion to the base game for those who have already finished their campaign. —CH
Hive is one of those charmingly simple board games with no set up, approachable rules, and satisfyingly hefty bits. Rules-wise, it’s somewhere between dominoes and chess and features an insect theme. Each tile represents a kind of insect (or spider) each with a distinct role. The rules are straightforward and build on each other logically, so you’ll only need a quick demonstration to learn them all.
No board and no elaborate setup means all you need to play Hive is a clear, relatively level space. On one hand, it’s a two-player game, so it’s not great for groups. On the other hand, it only needs two players, so you don’t need to find a group to enjoy it. Games only take about 20 minutes, so it’s not a big time commitment, and, for that matter, quick games mean you can play multiple times in one sitting.
Hive is one of those great “let’s play something quick” games to have around that’s also strategically challenging enough to keep you coming back again and again. —Jeffrey Parkin
Kingdomino Origins is a tile-placement game for 2-4 players where they gather together similar kinds of terrain. You score points based on how many contiguous tiles of the same type you have inside your territory. It’s a deceptively simple game, with only a couple of pages of rules for the basic game. It doesn’t take long, though, until you’re poring over every choice.
This newest version — the sequel to the original Kingdomino and the follow-up Queendomino — adds a few more wrinkles to the equation, including volcanoes that spit fire and characters you can draft to help you score points. The difficulty scales well depending on your audience, and Origins effectively includes these previous versions of the game.
Immediately after playing Kingdomino the first time, I ran out and bought my own set. Then, just a few days later, I bought a second set for a friend. It’s just so alarmingly simple and instantly gratifying that I couldn’t help but share the experience. My favorite part of Kingdomino is that, while it’s not collaborative, it’s also not overly combative. —JP
Dexterity games are a niche kind of board game that has been growing in popularity over the past few years, but nothing has been quite as successful as Klask.
Klask plays like a mash-up of the classic Canadian folk game Crokinole and air hockey, and thankfully it takes up far less space in your home than either one of those other games. Players sit on either side of a small wooden playing surface raised up about six or eight inches off the table. Below that raised surface they hold onto a magnet that controls a striker on the top of the board. Play starts with the youngest player kicking off, attempting to sink the marble-sized plastic puck into the opposing goal with their striker.
But there are other magnets on the board as well, called biscuits. Get too close to a biscuit and it leaps off the playing surface and gets stuck to your striker. Collect two biscuits and you’ve lost the point. Play is fast and furious, but requires a deft hand. Move too quickly and your striker will become dislodged, which will also give your opponent a point. Rounds go quickly, meaning that the game is perfect for large groups — especially in a bracketed tournament format. Be sure to pick up a kit of spare parts to keep the action moving when something goes flying off the table, and if it really clicks with your group consider the four-player version as well. —CH
Machi Koro 2
It’s amazing what modern board games have done with a simple deck of cards. Machi Koro 2, the sequel to the award-winning Machi Koro, uses this basic building block to create entire cities on the table. It’s a quick, easy-to-teach game with loads of replayability.
You start with just a few cards on the table — maybe it’s a wheat field (with a number one on it) and a bakery (sporting the numbers two and three). Then you roll a single six-sided die. On a roll of one, two, or three either your wheat field or your bakery turns a small profit, giving you more money to build out your city. Do you spread out across multiple kinds of developments — maybe a few cafes or a winery — ensuring that you’ll have a steady stream of income no matter what side of the die comes up? Or will you double down on one kind of industry in the hope of a hefty payday later on? It’s a quick, fun race to the finish for two to four players … and about a million times better than playing Monopoly. —CH
Marvel Champions: The Card Game
Marvel Champions: The Card Game allows a team of heroes to work together against a single villain. It’s a “Living Card Game,” which means you won’t be hunting and pecking for the right cards in random booster packs. You always know exactly what you’re going to get when you make a purchase, and subsequent expansions are guaranteed to be compatible with the original base game.
Marvel Champions scales up to a full table of four, or down to a single solo player quite nicely. There’s also a steady stream of new content, including modules featuring Red Skull, Venom, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Just check out the expansions, such as Marvel Champions: The Rise of the Red Skull, and Marvel Champions: The Galaxy’s Most Wanted —CH
Charades is one of the oldest folk games around, but what it lacks is structure. Sure, you’ve got a nice hat or bowl full of fun phrases to pantomime in front of a small crowd, but how do you know if you’re winning? Where’s the climax of this evening spent playing a game? Where’s the denouement to go with it?
Monikers gives the structure that Charades so badly needs. Each player is dealt eight cards, then selects six to contribute to the stack of 40 to 50 that will comprise each round of play. Everyone knows they have a card or two in the deck that they’re looking forward to acting out, and that helps those who might be otherwise hesitant to participate.
Play proceeds in three rounds, with each one progressively harder than the last. In the first round you can use any words, sounds, or gestures that you like save for the word on the card itself. In round two, you’re limited to using just one word. Then, in round three, you have to resort to pantomime. With a slightly competitive — and moderately intoxicated — group of friends, you’ll get lots of fun out of this deck of 550 cards. when you need more, though, check out the expansions such as Monikers: More Monikers, Monikers: Serious Nonsense with Shut Up & Sit Down, and Monikers: Classics. —CH
Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
On the surface, Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile looks like a gussied-up version of Risk. But Oath really isn’t a strategy game at all. As I mentioned in my review, it’s a complex storytelling engine. Played regularly with the same group of people, it becomes more than a simple contest of wills. It’s a role-playing game wearing the clothes of a board game. Combined with the amazing art of Kyle Ferrin, it’s something truly special.
It’s also got some tremendous production values. The game board is actually a woven, neoprene-backed mat that rolls up for storage. The pack-in allows you to set it up and break it down quickly, and the add-on metal coins and card sleeves are a must-buy in my opinion.
A word of caution, however, that the rules are a bit daunting and will require at least a little bit of study from everyone gathered at the table. —CH
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Werewolf, also known as Mafia, is one of those modern-day folk games that has been remixed and reinvented multiple times. If you’ve lost time to Among Us recently, then you owe this branch of tabletop gaming quite a lot. But as far as physical interpretations of the classic hidden role game go, it doesn’t get any better than One Night Ultimate Werewolf.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf upends the classic game by removing player elimination and condensing the experience into a single, chaotic round. Like most hidden role games, players are trying to figure out who’s secretly on the evil team so that they can vote them out. But, unlike most hidden role games, you don’t need a narrator (sort of like a Dungeon Master) to keep everyone on the same page. Instead, a free smartphone app guides you through the brief set-up phase where players make use of their special actions.
These app-enabled actions are what make the game so chaotic, because they give players the ability to swap out their hidden roles. That means someone who starts the game as a villainous werewolf might end up as the hapless villager before play even begins. What’s wild is that they won’t know that they’ve been swapped.
The single round becomes a delicate-but-intense balancing act about deciding how much information you can share without implicating yourself. You might start out on one team before realizing you were switched to the other side, only to find out you were swapped right back by someone else. The nights may be short, but they are packed with backstabbing, dramatic reversals, and sudden revelations. Your group will quickly find themselves playing round after round after round. Once you’ve exhausted the base game, check out the expansions and variants: One Night Ultimate Daybreak, One Night Ultimate Vampire, One Night Ultimate Alien, One Night Ultimate Super Villains, and One Night Ultimate Bonus Roles —CA
Pandemic Legacy is a journey that starts off as tough, but manageable. The further you push at the game’s boundaries, the grimmer things get, until your group is collectively hip deep in viscera and government red tape.
Pandemic Legacy includes the basic game, Pandemic, widely regarded as the best gateway into modern board gaming. You can play the vanilla version of the original game as many times as you please, but once you start the Legacy campaign, the world you’re playing with changes forever. Players open government files, recruit new agents and develop old ones, and place stickers on the board. The titular pandemic worsens and mutates over time, and the campaign slowly feels less heroic and more like a struggle for survival. You and your friends will have an experience akin to a summer blockbuster, but broken out across at least a dozen games.
While it can be a little heavy to play a game of Pandemic Legacy, for obvious reasons, it’s still a superbly designed game and arguably the best example of a legacy-style board game. Pandemic Legacy remains as cooperative as the original game, and grows with your gaming group over time, creating memorable moments when things fall into chaos or when you and your friends pull off a win by the skin of your teeth.
Based on the incredible world building of Jacub Rozalski, Scythe is a strategy game that takes place during an alternate post World War I-era timeline. The game is replete with wild technology, as if Nikolai Tesla had turned his mind toward fashioning weapons of war. Players will stride across the land of Scythe with giant steam-powered mechs at their side, but the world that they pass through is strictly pastoral. It’s a dichotomy that will stick in your mind long after you’ve stood up from the table.
While the art and world building is incredible, the gameplay itself is nearly flawless. Players will slowly upgrade their empire in subtle, asymmetrical ways that will set them apart from the competition. Rarely is force required to win the game, as Scythe’s finely wrought gears can be turned from just about any direction. If your gaming group gets hooked early, consider switching over to the campaign included in the expansion, Scythe: The Rise of Fenris. You’ll also get plenty of mileage out of Scythe: The Wind Gambit, as it’s compatible with both the base game and the campaign expansion. —CH
The Apples to Apples family tree has gotten pretty extensive. First Cards Against Humanity repurposed the game’s rotating-judge mechanics for a much more adult-oriented game. Then dozens of barely disguised rip-offs tried to eke a little profit out of CAH’s runaway success. Then came the third generation (SuperFight, Red Flags: The Game of Terrible Dates, and Funemployed) but the best of Apples to Apples’ grandchildren may be Snake Oil, which gives players the most opportunity for creativity and humor. Snake Oil isn’t just about picking the best card to impress the current judge, it’s about making creative choices, and finding creative ways to defend them.
The play mechanic goes straight back to Apples to Apples. Judge duties pass around the table, with each player in turn flipping over a customer card, so everyone knows whether they’re pitching a product to, say, an astronaut, a ghost, or Little Red Riding Hood. Everyone else at the table takes a hand of noun cards and tries to combine two of them into a worthwhile product for that client: You might end up creating a Memory Sword, a Magic Banana, or a Truth Puppet. Then everyone gets a chance to pitch their product to the customer, who picks one based on how clever or applicable it is.
Like Apples to Apples, Snake Oil is simple enough for fairly young kids to grasp, but can be as family-friendly or as raunchy as your play group wants to make it. What makes it stand out is its extreme flexibility. Most of these games reward whoever knows the judge-of-the-moment best, or happens to draw the funniest card. Snake Oil rewards whoever has the most inventive and colorful description of their made-up product. As with selling actual snake oil, it all comes down to how fast, furious, and convincing you can make your sales patter. —Tasha Robinson
People who’ve never played Splendor may have a little difficulty understanding why the game is so addictive. The mechanics are simple: Players take on the roles of Renaissance gem merchants trying to amass the best collection of jewels. Each turn, you either collect gem game chips, use the chips you already have to buy gem cards, or reserve a gem card for later purchase. Over time, the gems you buy give you points and help you buy bigger and better gems, and your collection will eventually help you acquire noble patrons, which give you more points. It’s a kind of jewel-based pyramid scheme, where you’re all just trying to climb the pyramid fastest.
But while the mechanics are so simple that they take about three minutes to teach, there is depth to Splendor. Since you’re buying from a randomly generated play field, no two games will be the same. There’s a real builder’s satisfaction in laying out a purchase strategy and climbing that ladder. It tends to be a pretty quiet, contemplative game, as everyone works separately toward their goal. It’s competitive, and there’s a minor capacity for screw-your-neighbor moves, but it rarely feels particularly aggressive. The heft of the poker-chip game pieces, the sense of slowly building a functional machine, the little mental checkmarks as the stages of your plan click neatly into place … it’s all very satisfying. Be sure to check out the expansions, such as Cities of Splendor. —TR
Star Wars X-Wing
Sometimes all you want to do is punch a starship in the mouth. But, if you’re looking for a tabletop space combat game with a more civilized edge, look no further than Star Wars X-Wing.
Now in its second edition, X-Wing is notable in that all of the miniatures come fully painted and ready to drop on the table. Players use specially designed rulers to fly their ships around on a two-dimensional battlefield, rolling custom dice once they get in range to take a shot. Games can be played as competitive, matched-play affairs using points to keep things fair. But, for my money, I prefer to play more thematic asymmetrical scenarios. With just the base game and a few additional models you can recreate the famous fights from the Star Wars movies and comics with ease.
Fans of fleet-sized engagement — like those seen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — should check out Star Wars: Armada instead. —CH
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the “roll and write” genre of board games, but you’ve almost certainly played the most famous example of one: Yahtzee. Roll some dice, write down the numbers that you get, and pass the dice along until someone wins. It’s a decent mechanic, but what it’s always needed was a great theme to go along with it.
That’s the magic of Welcome To…, a delightful roll and write game about building subdivisions in 1950s California. Players pull cards instead of rolling dice, which helps to speed play along. But the game actually allows for a lot more freedom in what players write on these specially-designed scoring sheets. Do you continue building out along one street with this new batch of cards, or begin filling out the next? What about fences, parks, and swimming pools? What’s the best and highest use of that eight that just cropped up?
In the end, it’s not just about the right numbers coming up on your turn, but about what you do with those numbers on your sheet and how they contribute to your overall strategy. It’s great for solo players who have burned through the latest crossword puzzle, for families, and even for large groups. All you need is a scoring sheet from the pad and a pencil and you’re ready to play. —CH
The first thing you’ll likely notice about Wingspan is the art, produced by Ana María Martínez and Natalia Rojas. It’s simply a gorgeous thing to lay on the table.
Playing as a bird enthusiast, the goal of Wingspan is to attract birds to different habitats. It’s played with cards, dice, and tokens, each of which has been lovingly crafted by designer Elizabeth Hargrave and the team at Stonemaier Games. Each of the hundreds of bird cards has its own unique art, too — sometimes I just look through the cards instead of playing the game.
But Wingspan is not just about looks. The game is fun to play for bird enthusiasts and others alike. One of the things that stands out to me, someone otherwise not completely into the board game scene, is that Wingspan is a game I can play alone — but also with up to four other players. Playing alone doesn’t lessen the experience at all; in fact, I think it enhances it, because I can spend as much time admiring the birds I’ve attracted as I might otherwise in real life. After attracting birds, players earn points via tokens and eggs.
Wingspan is available as a physical board game, but also playable on both Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. —Nicole Carpenter
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