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A collection of the best board games we played in 2023, inluding Smug Owl and Challengers. Graphic: Will Joel/Polygon | Source images: Various

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The best board games we played in 2023

The year we all slowed down and rolled dice — together

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

In a year filled with chaos on social media and digital platforms of all types, board games have continued to be a safe haven for folks looking to come together in person. But the relentless release schedule — including hundreds, if not thousands, of new board games, trading card games, and miniatures games from all around the world — can still be a lot to keep track of for most fans. That’s why we like to take the opportunity here on the last page of the calendar to slow down and to take stock of the best board games we played this year.

And maybe rebuild our stockpile of social media followers on other platforms while we’re at it.

To celebrate, Polygon asked dozens of writers, designers, YouTubers, actors, and personalities from around the world of board gaming to tell us which games stood out to them this year — even if they didn’t get released this year. Here’s what we found.


Blood on the Clocktower

Vanessa McGinnis, NPR digital campaign manager

We are flooded with social deduction games nowadays; why would you ever need another? The reason you should play Blood on the Clocktower is its Storyteller, both because their death is the catalyst for each game and because their role is what makes this social deduction game special. Like most of these games, your group will be divided into the good, voting for an execution each day, and the evil, killing and hindering the good team in the night. While the evil demon and their minions all have abilities to hurt and deceive the town, the good townsfolk have useful abilities, but they must work around their outsider allies, whose abilities hinder the town. But the Storyteller plays for neither team. They keep their thumb on the scale, subtly guiding both good and evil to build explosive final days of deduction, deceit, and death. If the Storyteller plays their cards right, their players will be left with a new, exciting story to share each game. Those stories are what makes Clocktower so special and why I could not stop diving back into this game in 2023.


Challengers

Jun Sasaki, CEO of Oink Games

There are many great things about Challengers, but there are two points in particular that I think are exceptional. First is the creation of a new style of game that can be played with a very large number of players. I like games that can be played by many people. While discussion-based games like Werewolf are certainly interesting, Challengers can be played by large groups of eight or 16 people with the same feeling as playing with fewer players. This kind of experience was something I had almost never encountered before.

The second is the narrative experience where all players bring their own will and ideas to craft their unique decks, and then compete and battle against each other. It reminds me of when I was a kid, practicing Street Fighter 2 at home, gathering on weekends to hold small tournaments. When I lost, I felt a real sense of disappointment, but at the same time, I felt a sense of pride for the friend who beat me, and I was happy when that friend went on to compete in tournaments. Every time I play the game, it brings back those feelings from back then, and I always find myself smiling.


Daybreak

Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change

As you can imagine, my top game for this year is centered on social impact. Daybreak, a cooperative game by Pandemic designer Matt Leacock and Italian designer Matteo Menapace, is designed to not only raise climate change awareness but also cultivate optimism through thought-provoking themes and creative problem solving that leads to real-world solutions.

This game’s blend of serious play and collective visioning is exactly my jam, and the illustrations by a diverse array of global artists are stunning. I love how Daybreak brings players together to showcase the power of gaming to inspire and drive real-world change through both gameplay and by living its values by committing to sustainable production practices. Games really can transcend traditional entertainment, drawing players into environmental and social advocacy, sometimes without them even realizing it.


Dice Miner

Alan R. Moon, game designer and creator of Ticket to Ride

My favorite game from this year, Dice Miner, was actually published in 2021. Sadly, it’s been flying under the radar, lost among the thousands of games published every year. Too bad, because it’s brilliant. The dice come in five colors. Each turn, players pick a die off a mountain, within certain restrictions. That’s a clever system, but the most clever mechanic in the game is that each die has a beer face. You can roll a beer at an opponent who then inherits whatever result is rolled. In return, you get to select two dice from the mountain instead of just one. After all the dice have been taken, there is a magic (re-roll) phase. This adds a ton of luck but also a lot of excitement to the game. The scoring is also clever and is different for each color dice. The final scores are usually very close. The game lasts three rounds and takes less than 30 minutes. I’ve probably played it over 50 times and will probably play it another 50.

I sure wish I had designed this game.


Disney Lorcana

Charlie Hall, senior editor, tabletop

It’s no secret that I generally dislike trading card games, and strongly at that. I simply have no interest competing against deep-pocketed speculators for tiny scraps of shiny cardboard in a marketplace that is anything but free. But Disney Lorcana has its hooks in deep, my friends, and it’s not looking good for me and my pocketbook.

I’m not sure if I have the diamond hands to stick with it, if I’m being honest. $150 a box is a lot to ask multiple times a year, but the ride so far has been an absolute delight. The reason? Disney Lorcana is a family affair here in the Hall household, a game that everyone — my wife and I, as well as our daughters, aged 10 and 13 — can all get our heads around and play together. And as the complexity of the ruleset creeps ever upward with Rise of the Floodborn, it’s at least a comfortable pace of discovery. Grab a few starter decks if you can and give it a try... but don’t you dare pay a penny over retail price.


Escape the Dark Castle

Doug Cockle, actor and voice of Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher games

My favorite game this year has been the board game Escape the Dark Castle by Themeborne. The game is super easy to set up and play, and you can play solo or with some unfortunate friends. It gets even better if you set up one of the players as a sort of narrating Dungeon Master. My son was a sadistic DM narrator for one of our games and it was a blast!!


Earthborne Rangers

Cole Wehrle, game designer and co-founder of Wehrlegig Games

There was a moment early in the starting scenario of Earthborne Rangers when I found myself squaring off against a prowling wolhund — a sort of wolflike creature you’d expect to find in a tutorial. I was no stranger to the world of cooperative living card games, and I began scheming ways to dispatch it. Then, something strange happened: My adversary stopped caring about me. Some prey appeared in the distance and the wolhund went off to pursue it. I could now move forward. Suddenly, I felt like I wasn’t the most important thing in the game world.

Open-world games have often had a troublesome relationship with their own openness. They want to convey a sense of possibility to players. However, in order to provide rich gameplay and narrative experiences, these games often have to push players into particular courses of action. Even when design teams do the hard work of building out dozens of branching scenarios, players can still feel like they are trapped in an amusement park.

Earthborne Rangers feels like it breaks genuinely new ground in open-world tabletop games. Partly it does this by getting rid of the traditional scenario format. Rather than presenting players with traditional set-pieces, the game uses a clever fatigue system that allows players to explore the game’s world at their own pace. The result is something that feels like a card-driven adaptation of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This innovation alone would be enough to recommend the game, but Earthborne Rangers goes further by introducing dozens of small improvements to the genre that make it one of the most promising living card games in years. If you’ve ever wanted to see what this genre has to offer, I couldn’t think of a better place to start.


Flamecraft

Makenzie de Armas, game designer at Wizards of the Coast

I absolutely adored playing Flamecraft this year! The charming, whimsical art style belies a strategic — and, at times, surprisingly intense — resource management and shared engine building game. You compete with other players to employ and inspire dragons in budding shops across a magical village, using gathered materials to enchant stores and run errands to curry community favor. The game comes with a large variety of potential shops and enchantments to encounter during the game, which results in your final town looking wildly different each time you play. But my favorite part? Every little dragon you encounter has their own adorable portrait and name! (My personal favorite is Skewart, but don’t tell the other dragons that.)


Forgotten Waters

Justin McElroy, co-founder of Polygon and The McElroy Family of podcasts

I had an incredible birthday playing Forgotten Waters, a rich but accessible pirate adventure that demands players balance the needs of their crew. Players take on roles on your ship, like a quartermaster manning cannons or the first mate, who monitors crew hunger and discontent. You’ll then set sail on a randomly generated set of adventures that are fully voiced thanks to the accompanying app.

There’s a lot to keep track of; players have their own stats and advancement, for example. But the app is designed to keep everything on track and easy to understand. If you have friends willing to take a few minutes to learn the basics (and can spare a couple hours for a session), you’re in for a really great time.


Frosthaven

Connie Vogelmann, designer of Apiary

Throughout 2023, a few friends and I have played almost 30 Frosthaven scenarios (and are still going strong). This comes after we worked our way through almost all of Gloomhaven!

Frosthaven itself is great: The variety of character classes, monsters, and scenarios keep us engaged game after game. There is always a new puzzle to figure out, a new story to unlock, or a new monster to fight. But even better than the game itself is the tradition that it has given our group: Every week or two, we have an excuse to get together with the same friends, and play a game in a system that has become second nature to us. There is something extremely comforting about all working together to defeat whatever bizarre scenario the game throws at us that particular day, and having the opportunity to laugh together at the absurdity of some of the situations in which we find ourselves. In the midst of an industry that sees thousands of new releases every year, those repeat plays, that tradition, and that familiarity is really special.

Luis Loza, Pathfinder creative director, Paizo

Strategic combat is something I know well, and it pretty much doesn’t get better than Frosthaven. I was a fan of the original Gloomhaven, with its strategic combat, interesting character classes, branching RPG narrative, and legacy campaign material. Frosthaven does it all but better. Each scenario is an exciting chance to make use of your character’s interesting abilities and work with other players to make it through by the skin of your teeth. The addition of building up the settlement of Frosthaven is just an extra layer of frosting on an already well-frosted cake. My gaming group has spent many, many weekends playing through the game already and it feels like we’re only just a bit deeper than having scratched the surface. After every session, I’m thinking about what I would like to do next with the settlement or reminiscing about the most recent combat. This game has occupied my brain in ways that few other games have and I can’t wait to get back to it every week.


The Funbrick Series

Jonathan Ritter-Roderick, head of games at Kickstarter

I can’t pick just one! So I’m going to bend the rules a bit. The Funbrick Series from Itten is my favorite group of games released in 2023. They start at around $15 each and are well worth a look. My favorite so far is Three Second Try which blends dexterity, knowledge, and speed with the coolest analog timer I have seen in a long time. Everything Itten releases has lots of love and thought put behind it, which is why I often find myself playing them for years.


Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

SungWon “ProZD” Cho, YouTube personality and voice actor

I’ve always loved Gloomhaven’s combat. Choosing a top half and bottom half of two cards to maximize your turns and making sure you finish the dungeon before your cards run out is such an engaging system. But one of the biggest obstacles to Gloomhaven (and partially why my original group ran out of steam) is the barrier of setup. It is a pain to grab all the map pieces, and setup/teardown really can slow down momentum — not to mention the table space it takes up.

Then Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion came out, and I finally played through it this year with my wife. It is truly a game-changing experience. Having the maps printed in the book is such an incredible convenience, and it means you can play through multiple games in one night with ease. Even though my wife and I are both Gloomhaven veterans, I also appreciated that the game teaches you the rules through tutorial levels in a way that feels easy to grasp and intuitive. If you haven’t played Gloomhaven yet but are curious, Jaws of the Lion is the essential way to start your journey.


Gudetama: The Tricky Egg Card Game

Anya Combs, freelance games consultant/musician

Writing about a game of the year was incredibly difficult. This year was one of change and transition for me personally, so my time playing games has been limited. Part of that is due to my creative life exploding — I am a NYC-based musician when I’m not in the games world, and I’ve had more gigs than ever! Part of that was due to me leaving a full-time job and branching out into full freelance life, a scary but so far quite rewarding decision. These are good problems, but ones that have limited my time to play games because the wheels of capitalism keep turning.

However, one of the games I kept coming back to — especially while hosting D&D nights and general social time with friends — was Gudetama, the simple yet strategic card game. I have a deep love of card games, especially party-based ones that are easy to learn but difficult to master, mostly because of my time constraints these days. But Gudetama was brought out repeatedly, and watching friends who are hardcore gamers and friends who are casual players all react with joy and excitement was pretty great.

(My favorite is card 10 btw, it’s so stinking cute.)


Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory

Charlie Theel, freelance writer and Polygon contributor

2023 has been such a great year for the hobby. Many new releases impressed me, but one game that really haunts my thoughts is the impressive Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory. This complex design has players advocating for various societal classes and competing in an economic simulation. It’s highly asymmetric, with factions consisting of the capitalists, working class, middle class, and the state. Over the course of three hours participants forge deals, argue over legislation, and occasionally work together to further their self-interests. Through card play and devious maneuvering, you forge unions, establish industry, and acquire goods and services to support your workforce.

This is an influential work that offers both inspiration and agony. It remains apolitical and distant from the most controversial of topics, while allowing participants to adopt a unique perspective and fight for their side’s success. Its zero-sum final state with a single victor is the most decisive of criticisms and highlights the cutthroat nature of capitalism. This one is bold and depressing, but it leaves you mired in reflection.


John Company: Second Edition

Tom Brewster, video goblin at Shut Up & Sit Down

No game has dominated my brainspace more this year than John Company: Second Edition. This is a monster of a box to describe cleanly — an economic, simulationist, semi-role-playing, semi-cooperative gambling and negotiation game where players take the role of board members running the East India Trading Company.

It’s that last part that’s initially horrifying to most folks. So much of board game media has been rallying against the ugly colonialist revisionism that’s seeped into the settings of the games we play with our family and friends! Why are we now sitting down to a game where we play as the people responsible for the most insidious corporation in history? Luckily, John Company quickly reveals itself as a whip-smart piece of satire — a barbed and biting document of savage colonial greed. One minute you’re plundering Bengal with the brutish, callous force of a corporate raider; the next, you’re bribing the prime minister with your plunder so as to not enact window tax on the Scottish castle you just bought for your nan’s retirement. Directly connecting those entirely disparate worlds is the magic trick here — squarely framing the actions of those responsible as the result of nothing more noble than a psychotic, never-ending gluttony.

John Company: Second Edition is an utterly spellbinding text from Wehrlegig Games that thoughtfully expands ideas of what table games can do.


Just One

Em Friedman, scholar, critic, and Polygon contributor

My weekly board game group is ridiculously clever, crunch-loving hardcore nerds. Our Board Game Arena history is full of engine-building, strategy-heavy games with long teaches and even longer playtimes. But sometimes we all need to be reminded that our cleverness can bite us in the ass, and that’s where Just One fits in our rotation. It’s a game I can (and did) explain to my very much non-gamer mom in less time than it takes to pour a glass of water, and yet the delight is how complex it can become as players try to figure out what clue words will work on the current target while also trying to avoid giving the same clue as another player. It’s a fun icebreaker, though it truly shines with old friends and loved ones — and I’ll be bringing it to the holidays this year.


Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team

Rick Perry, production designer and creative producer on Dimension 20

After wrapping months of intense production work, nothing makes me happier than playing with tiny gothic space edgelords.

Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team is a tabletop wargame (and craft project) for two to four people set in the grimdark future of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. With a smaller footprint than similar games, each player commands a single squad of operatives. It’s Warhammer 40,000 Lite: The game ends after four rounds and takes about an hour.

The current iteration of Kill Team has been out since 2021. Gameplay is mature and balanced, with gads of scenarios and 22 teams to choose from. Fair warning, however, because the game comes in pieces on sprues and you’ll need clippers, glue, primer, and paint to put it all together; but that’s part of the fun! (For maximum building satisfaction, try Tamiya Extra Thin Cement, flush cutters, and an X-Acto.)

Discerning hobbyists know it’s hard to beat the quality of Games Workshop plastic miniatures — they are a joy to build, paint, and have on the table.


Land and Freedom

David Thompson, co-creator of the Undaunted series

Land and Freedom is a one-to-three-player semi-cooperative game where three factions (Communists, Anarchists, and Moderates) must work together in an uneasy alliance against Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a card-driven game that uses an incredibly clever chit-pull system (where bits are pulled blindly from a bag) to generate tension. While set during the Spanish Civil War, this game does a fantastic job of bridging wargame and Euro sensibilities. As a gamer who typically doesn’t like semi-cooperative games, Land and Freedom does something very, very special in creating an organic, thematic structure for semi-cooperative play.

Bonus: Halls of Hegra

Halls of Hegra lives in a very similar space by bridging wargame and Eurogame concepts. In this solitaire-only game, the player takes the role of a commander of Norwegian forces during World War II, leading their troops against a siege from numerically superior German forces. The game uses worker placement as its core mechanism, while evoking the feel of tower defense. It has become my favorite solitaire game.


My Island

Paula Deming, Watch It Played, Things Get Dicey, This Game Is Broken

One of my very favorite gaming experiences this year was playing My Island from Kosmos. This is the third game in a series designed by Reiner Knizia — the first was My City and the second was My City: Roll & Build. But you don’t need to have played either of those to understand and enjoy My Island! My Island is a competitive legacy-style game, which means it has a campaign where each chapter the rules change and evolve. You discover new twists and turns in the game as you play and experience the discovery and development of your own mysterious island. A lot of legacy games are hard to play all the way through, as it can be tricky to get the same group together over and over and keep playing. But I found My Island very easy to get to the table — each episode is 30 minutes to one hour or so, and we often played a whole chapter (three episodes) in one sitting. It worked great at two players, and I played the whole thing with a friend long-distance over Zoom, each using our own copy of the game.

The tile-laying puzzle of this game is so satisfying, and the changes to that puzzle as you go through the campaign keep things interesting and engaging. Each new chapter had a true “Wait, whaaaat?” moment of reveal. Approachable for new gamers with enough strategy to definitely tickle the brain of more entrenched hobbyists. I loved it!


The Silver Bayonet

Chris “Peachy” Peach, The Painting Phase

The Silver Bayonet is one of those games that’s just crept up on me. I didn’t know much about it; in fact, if it wasn’t for Pete the Wargamer passing on a copy, I might never have stumbled upon it.

But what is this game, I hear you ask... Well, simply put, it’s Napoleonic skirmish meets Hammer horror. You build up a small diverse warband of up to eight daring soldiers from a selection of the six main warring factions of that era. These can be from all walks of life, from the humble infantryman or a dashing cavalryman to more specialised hunters, like the Supernatural investigator or Occultist.

The great thing is if you know nothing about the Napoleonic Wars or their uniforms... it doesn’t matter. Personally, I started with the British, made a few fabulous and gritty warriors inspired by the ’90s TV series Sharpe, and got stuck in. As the game is very open and free in its design and choices, I’ve recently begun a warband of armored, musket-wielding Knights Templar. None of this ever happened during this era... or at least we don’t think it did. Accuracy be damned!

This is why I love this game: It opens up so much scope for building forces based on cool and evocative themes, full of conversions — game pieces that players themselves create from scratch!


Smug Owls

Tasha Robinson, senior editor, films

Are you good at solving role-playing game or fantasy-quest-style riddles? More importantly… are you good at solving them when there’s no fixed, planned answer? It’s easy to say yes to that, but Smug Owls, easily my favorite find of 2023, will make you prove it. A party game where decks of cards are used to randomly generate riddles like “What follows a path before it is edible?” or “What is broken and sadly is sharp?”, Smug Owls follows the usual Apples to Apples formula of having a table of players generate responses to a prompt, except one player, who judges them — but in this case, the cards generate the riddle, and then the last person at the table to come up with an answer is the judge, aka the “Smug Owl.”

Smug Owls is one of those games that really makes me appreciate how quick and clever my friends are. It’s a blast to rack your brains to come up with an instant answer to “What explodes but lingers?” (“A particularly terrible fart”?) and then hearing how everyone else around the table interprets the same question in radically different, surprising ways. (“Fireworks!” “Roadkill after three days in the sun!” “GameStop stock!” “My last relationship!”) It’s also the kind of game you can explain and demo in about 30 seconds, and it’s great as a game-day party-starter, icebreaker, or palate cleanser. I bought this one at Gen Con the same day a friend showed it to me, and I’ve gotten a lot of laughs out of it since.


Stardew Valley: The Board Game

Matthew Mercer, voice actor and co-creator of Critical Role

As massive fans of Stardew Valley the video game, my partner and I were enthralled when we discovered a board game had been released. We were pleasantly surprised to find it captures the spirit of the game quite well!

This one-to-four-player game does a wonderful job of easily adjusting difficulty based on the number of players, with choosing both a profession and a starting tool allowing you to adjust your play style to the emergent goals that arise. Multiple minigame loops intertwine, with you exploring the ever-changing mines for geodes and ore, farming crops via planning and watering, foraging as you race to fishing spots or collecting animal products via dice chance, all while befriending villagers to gain Hearts to spend toward victory.

With the Season deck randomized or customizable each game, it’s ever a unique bit of challenge and fun with every play. Adding in both optional Hard Mode rules (and some of our own home-brew ones), we keep finding fresh fun in this game, and occasionally ask each other at the end of a long day: “…soooo, Stardew again?”

Even as a newcomer to Stardew Valley, I can see this being a good time, but if you share in our Stardew obsession… ENJOY!


Warhammer 40,000

Steve Warner, co-designer of Disney Lorcana

It’s tough to pick a single favorite board game! There are so many good ones, and it really depends on what you’re looking for, but I’ll do my best to keep it to just two.

If you want to immerse yourself in something, I’d have to go with Warhammer 40,000 from Games Workshop. There is so much strategy and creativity in the game; not only do you have so many options — how to set up your characters, squad size vehicle loadouts — but also tactical ones, like where you move your forces on the board. Players also get to build and paint their own miniature figures, which can be relaxing and satisfying all on its own.

Bonus: Horrified: Universal Monsters

If you’re looking for a more traditional board game experience — I have to go with Horrified: Universal Monsters from my colleagues at Ravensburger. It is a dynamic cooperative game that has something for everyone. You work together to gather items, solve puzzles, and defeat monsters — it’s a blast.


Forest Shuffle

Efka Bladukas, No Pun Included

In a year of neoprene playmats, hundred-hour campaigns, and boxes of promises, Forest Shuffle has absolutely nothing going for it. Apart from one little detail — it’s just a darn good game.

Forest Shuffle is a tableau builder. Think Wingspan, Race for the Galaxy, etc. Each turn you either draw cards or play cards or sometimes do both. There’s two types of cards: trees, and various flora and fauna that live tucked under the trees. Each have various scoring criteria, but you need to play a tree first to play the flora/fauna around it. And then the combos start popping off.

Hares. They’re known to be populous. So, you can play multiple in the same space. But then if you play a fox — it scores for each hare you have. Delightful! The European fat dormouse will score you an eye-watering 15 points — but only if you also have a bat. The bat will score you no points unless you have three different bats. And so on. An ecosystem of combos.

It’s not innovative. It’s so old-school — it already has a dominant strategy that sneaked past the playtesting that will need to be fixed by a future expansion. But it’s cheap, it’s so beautifully illustrated it gives Wingspan a run for its money, it’s fully biodegradable, and every turn you feel so pleased you just want more. Many this year will overlook Forest Shuffle. They’ll make a mistake.


Wingspan

Ovidio Cartagena, senior art director at Wizards of the Coast

One of my favorite games the past year was Wingspan. Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, with artists Natalia Rojas and Ana María Martínez Jaramillo, this was a very soothing, beautiful experience. The very first thing I loved about it is how the game looks. Gorgeous art and plenty of birds to enjoy! I spent a long time just admiring the artwork. Once I got to play the game, I was completely absorbed. I love looking for bird species and identifying them, and that birding experience was enriched by Wingspan.

This game is for anyone who would love to get started on birding, or someone who hasn’t had much time to go out in the field and wants to connect with that love of birds. I, for one, am looking forward to going on a nice long birding hike and play Wingspan at night over hot chocolate.