It was a remarkable year for tabletop games, a space that includes traditional board games as well as collectible card games and miniatures. Excellent products are being created at the highest levels by AAA manufacturers, while designers both new and old continue to innovate.
This year saw a mountain of new releases. It’s impossible to play everything, so here are my picks for the very best tabletop games of 2018.
Arkham Horror (Third Edition)
Fantasy Flight Games’ 2005 version of Arkham Horror (which was actually a revision of the 1987 original) might as well have been the stand-in for Parks and Recreation’s Cones of Dunshire. On the table, it’s a bewildering assortment of cardboard chits and fine print that takes about four hours to play, even longer for first-timers.
The game’s third edition, released this year, is a revelation.
What was once a muddled application of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is now a much more focused cooperative adventure game. Inside the box you’ll find multiple scenarios set in the 1920s, brought to life with a colorful, modular game board that no longer requires two kitchen tables to fit all the components. It’s a game that can be easily taught on the fly, and one that rewards multiple sessions with the same dedicated group of players.
Battlestar Galactica: Starship Battles
No one was more surprised by the success of the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game than the good folks at Ares Games, whose Wings of Glory series had attempted something similar with vintage warplanes years before. It’s that lineage of design and manufacturing that has contributed to the extraordinary Battlestar Galactica: Starship Battles, which began shipping just this week.
While the glow has faded somewhat from the Battlestar Galactica television series in the years since its 2009 finale, the fandom remains strong. Ares’ new boxed set is nothing short of weaponized nostalgia, right down to the paper components that have had their corners lovingly trimmed off.
Ares has a lot fewer spaceships to work with here compared to the Star Wars franchise. To make up for it, it has designed a tactical miniatures game that scales to as many players as you can fit in the room. The game plays easily as a light and airy romp that’s easy to teach, but turn the page and there’s a whole other story with the advanced rules. The system supports four different levels of altitude, and even models momentum and inertia. That means you can fly in one direction while shooting in another.
Most surprising of all is the sheer quality of the miniatures and the game components, including the pack-in materials. The level of detail on the ships themselves is simply astonishing.
Get it here: Amazon
Avalon Hill’s Betrayal at House on the Hill has turned into an unusually strong franchise in the last few years, with both a full-fledged expansion and a spinoff game themed to Dungeons & Dragons. It makes sense, then, that Hasbro’s hobby board game imprint would try its hand at a Legacy version. To do it justice, it brought on the creator of the Legacy system itself, Rob Daviau.
It just so happens that Daviau also had a hand in designing the original Betrayal at House on the Hill. The result is magic. From our spoiler-free review:
In Betrayal, players move their pawns around the board, uncovering random rooms in a haunted mansion as they go. The tiles themselves drive the action of the game, prompting players to draw items and events from a few decks of cards. Every round they must roll dice and, if they fail to roll high enough, a so-called Haunt is triggered. Depending on the combination of the rooms uncovered, the items that the characters have in their possession, and the location of the various players in the house any one of 50 different Haunts begin. When that happens, at least one player takes a separate instruction manual into the next room. They become the Betrayer, and when play resumes, they spend the rest of the night trying to murder the other players.
The experience of playing traditional Betrayal, with or without the Widow’s Walk expansion, is janky as all hell. It’s effectively dozens of different mini-games all rolled up into one bargain priced package. But, because of its narrative momentum, the whole thing manages to hold together. You can drop a few rules, or mess something up, and the game is still incredibly fun because, as a storytelling engine alone, it’s second to none among board games.
Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress
Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress is a full-fledged Warhammer 40,000 campaign tucked inside a single massive box. It’s a game that traces its lineage all the way back to the 1980s and the original RPG-lite board game, HeroQuest, blessed with dozens of exclusive new push-fit miniatures from one of the best manufacturers in the business.
There are also hooks inside for multiple versions of the traditional 40K tabletop wargame. From our spoiler-free review:
At its core, Blackstone Fortress is about the dozens of enemies inside the box. Those include traditional baddies, like Chaos Space Marines, as well as entirely new units, such as undead Imperial Guardsmen. Each type is driven by an easy-to-read sideboard card, with a grid of potential actions on one side and attacks on the other. Once spawned onto the table, it’s up to the roll of the dice to see how they behave. Combat is fluid, and moves surprisingly quickly thanks to a handful of custom dice.
On the heroic side of the table is a rogues’ gallery of adventurers hailing from obscure corners of the larger 40K universe. They include a starship navigator and a priest, as well as a swashbuckling nobleman and a pair of diminutive “ratlings” that work together as a single playable unit. Each of the nine explorers has their own unique abilities, with upgrades coming in the form of new equipment that can be purchased with loot between games.
Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game
Portal Games’ Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game is a narrative adventure in the same mold as the classic Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective series. Inside the box are a series of cases, and in order to solve them players need to work together to create a narrative from big chunks of text and from artifacts included inside the box.
The hook here is that one of the artifacts isn’t actually inside the box — it’s on the web. To solve these crimes, you’ll need to access an in-fiction online database created by the game’s designers, as well as websites and search results available in the wild. It’s an ambitious project, one made all the more impressive by the game’s ability to break the fourth wall and string together a single storyline that connects it all together.
This is the kind of tabletop game that doesn’t merely appeal to fans of board games. It’s an unconventional experiment, and the perfect gateway for people new to the hobby.
Keyforge: Call of the Archons
KeyForge: Call of the Archons claims to be the “world’s first Unique Deck Game.” Designed by Richard Garfield, the man behind Magic: The Gathering, it’s sold in unique decks. From our preview at this year’s Gen Con tabletop convention in Indianapolis, Indiana:
Unlike traditional [collectible card games], which rely on randomized booster packs to build out competitive decks of cards, KeyForge will be sold by the deck. Each deck will be created through procedural generation, making each one unique.
How unique? Lead designer Brad Andres explained to Polygon that KeyForge’s procedural generation engine is capable of creating 104 quadrillion different decks. For the liberal arts majors in the audience, that’s roughly 32 billion unique decks of cards for every human now living on the planet.
And that’s just using the cards created for the game’s initial release later this year.
While it remains to be seen if the competitive, organized play scene will live up to the hype, the game itself is a ton of fun right out of the box. The starter set includes four decks of cards plus all the bits you need to get started.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the game is that there are no timing-based interruptions during a player’s turn. That means converting the game over to a proper digital version should preserve the feeling of playing in person. Keep an eye out for more on Keyforge in 2019.
My Little Scythe
Originally designed as a My Little Pony-themed reskin of the multiple-award-winning strategy game Scythe, My Little Scythe is an absolute treasure. Not only does it retain the kind of back-and-forth strategic layer of finely interconnected systems that made the original a modern classic, it’s actually easy to teach to kids.
Best of all, it was designed by a 5-year-old Canadian and her father. The miniatures are darling, and fun to paint. Do not sleep on what is easily the best family game released this year.
Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right
In Root, up to four players each take on the role of a distinctly different faction of woodland creatures. Subjects of the Marquise de Cat rule with an iron fist, while the Eyrie are dangerous birds of prey. Meanwhile, the Woodland Alliance fights using guerrilla tactics, and the Vagabond sits back, waiting to throw in his support with the oppressed.
In practice, each player at the table is playing a completely different kind of worker placement, area control game. The system reminds me of the interlocking complexities of Scythe, but with an art style very nearly as endearing as that of Night in the Woods.
Root retails for $60 and also has an early expansion, called The River Folk, that adds two new factions to the game. If you’ve been intimidated by GMT Games’ counter-insurgency (COIN) series, try this on for size.
Publisher Leder Games even has an expansion available now. Called Root: The Riverfolk Expansion, it adds two new factions to the game, a cooperative mode and an AI.
Diana Jones Award-winning designer Eric Lang continues to release new games at a blistering pace since formally joining the team at CMON. His best effort this year is called Rising Sun, and it’s an absolute monster.
The spiritual successor to Blood Rage, Lang’s other hit miniatures-heavy game, Rising Sun earned more than $4.2 million on Kickstarter ahead of its release in 2018. Where Blood Rage had mechanical links to the classic area control game Risk, this fantastical Japanese-themed title owes more to Diplomacy. It’s a social experience, well-suited to groups who enjoy stabbing each other in the back.
Shadows in the Forest
Alphabetically last but definitely not least is Shadows in the Forest, a marvelous game that can only be played in the dark. It’s a modern version of a classic but incredibly rare board game originally sold in Germany. In my review earlier this year, I called it an essential title for parents of small children:
Created and originally self-published by Walter Kraul in 1986, Waldschattenspiel pits a small team of nocturnal dwarves against an individual searching for them in the woods. The goal is to use a small candle to shine a light on the dwarves, freezing them in place. If all the dwarves can manage to gather together in one place without being frozen, they win.
In Thinkfun’s version, the candle is replaced by a tiny LED lantern. The dwarves are replaced with creatures called Shadowlings, which are adorable given their vaguely Totoro-shaped bodies. When the lantern light falls on them, the player moving the lantern — called the Seeker — takes the Shadowling’s removable white mask as their reward. Capture all the masks, and the Seeker wins.
But, if the Shadowlings can get close enough they can unfreeze each other, winning back their masks. Get all the Shadowlings hidden, together, behind the same tree and they win instead.
It’s also one of the least expensive titles on this year’s list, so grab a copy before the holidays are through.
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