clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The best strategy board games to mix up game night

New, 36 comments

Wargames and worker placement and dinosaurs

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Gen Con 2018 — Wooden pawns from Root, each with adorable printed facial features. Charlie Hall/Polygon

Strategy games have been around for millennia. From early version of Chess to tabletop wargames, humans have always been looking for ways to challenge our friends in battles of wits.

With such a long history, strategy games have evolved over the years, branching off into several sub-genres that sometimes overlap. They include map-based area control games, worker placement and resource management games, and wargames. To muddy the waters even further, many modern games draw elements from several of those styles, defying genre altogether.

In an attempt to pare things down a little, and avoid a list of 50 plus games, I’m narrowing down this category to only include competitive games that can play more than two people and take at least a half hour to complete. (Cooperative and under-30-minute games will get their own roundups in the future; we’ve already covered two-player games.)

There are a mix of intensities and play styles represented here, from classic Eurogames like Catan and Stone Age to gorgeous-but-brutal independent wargames like Root and Scythe. Read on for our favorite strategy board games to introduce at your next game night.

7 Wonders

7 Wonders components Asmodee

In 7 Wonders, players represent ancient civilizations competing to develop their cities into important cultural centers. Points are awarded for constructing one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, building other landmarks, making scientific discoveries, establishing an army or hosting professional guilds. There’s no one correct path to victory — everyone will have a different strategy — which keeps things interesting over several sessions.

Several expansions have been released, add new ways to earn victory points. The most recent expansion, 7 Wonders: Armada, gives each player a naval board with ships that can be advanced to grant extra bonuses.

Buy 7 Wonders here: Amazon | Walmart

Catan

Catan, set up for play. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Catan is a game night cliché for a reason. The game that introduced many Americans to European-style strategy games rebranded from The Settlers of Catan in 2015 with a new look and updated rulebook. If you haven’t revisited Catan since then, its worth breaking back out.

Catan plays three to four people, but an official extension allows for up to six.

Buy Catan here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Dinosaur Island

Dinosaur Island components Pandasaurus Games

A buzzy Kickstarter project when it was launched in 2018, players in Dinosaur Island compete to build a Dino-themed amusement park, complete with actual dinosaurs grown from DNA samples. It’s pretty much an unlicensed Jurassic Park board game, with more neon and less Jeff Goldblum.

Buy Dinosaur Island here: Amazon | Pandasaurus Games

A Game of Thrones: The Board Game

As far as board games based on media properties go, A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is one of the best. The political struggles that make the fantasy series so compelling also make for cutthroat game nights. Players take on the role of one of the great houses in Westeros and attempt to gain control of the Iron Throne. Be warned: this is an intense game. Sessions can sometimes last for three hours or more.

Buy A Game of Thrones: The Board Game here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Photosynthesis

Green, yellow, brown and blue trees made of cardboard spring up around a brightly-colored forest clearing. Charlie Hall/Polygon

When it debuted at Gen Con in 2017, Polygon called Photosynthesis “a visual and mechanical marvel”. Players cultivate a grove of trees, harnessing the sun’s energy as it revolves around the board and blocking competitor’s leaves from soaking up the rays. Gorgeous board art and 3-D game pieces compliment Photosynthesis’s themes of adaptation and life cycles.

Buy Photosynthesis here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Root

Root box art Photo: Leder Games

The adorable “Game of Woodland Might and Right” made Polygon’s list of best tabletop games of 2018. In his Gen Con wrap-up, Charlie Hall explains the basics:

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: The River Folk Expansion adds new factions, new actions, and a cooperative mode.

Buy Root here: Amazon | Leder Games

Scythe

scythe_sideboard_2 Charlie Hall/Polygon

Speaking of Scythe, the alternate history wargame was a hit at Gen Con 2016, after a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. Players control warring factions attempting to wrest control of post-WW1 Europe’s rural population with giant mechs and, sometimes, war buffalos. The strategy in Scythe is dense, with 25 possible player combinations, each requiring slightly different tactics. Plus, the illustrations are gorgeous.

The latest expansion, Scythe: The Rise of Fenris, adds a cooperative mode and a new eight-game campaign that can be replayed and customized.

Buy Scythe here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Small World

Small World game board and pieces Days of Wonder

The titular small world can’t support all of the people trying to inhabit it. Players control different mix-and-match fantasy races — such as Mountain Trolls or Wealthy Ratmen — who attempt to capture as much territory as possible and protect it from takeover by other clans. Once defeat is inevitable, a player can choose to send their pieces into “decline”, which allows them to send another group into the fray.

Buy Small World here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Stone Age

Stone Age components Z-Man Games

In Stone Age, hunters, gatherers, farmers, and traders work to keep their communities fed. Players represent Stone Age-era tribes competing for resources in this game set in the early days of society. It’s a classic European-style worker placement game, in the vein of Catan.

Buy Stone Age here: Amazon | Z-Man Games

Terraforming Mars

Terraforming Mars components Stronghold Games

The year is 2315 and the World Government has announced that it will begin a program to colonize Mars, but first we need to make it fit for human habitation. In Terraforming Mars, players represent the corporations tasked with shaping the Martian landscape to support life. Earn victory points by building cities, altering the atmosphere, introducing plant and animal habitats, or otherwise advancing the human agenda.

Buy Terraforming Mars here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Twilight Imperium

Twilight Imperium game board Fantasy Flight Games

The fourth edition of Twilight Imperium streamlines the rules of this space opera game that pits alien races against each other as they fight for control of a player-generated galaxy through politics, trade, military force and diplomacy. Because the map is different every time, and the strategy is so complex, Twilight Imperium is a new experience every time you play. It’s also looong — a single game can last all day.

Buy Twilight Imperium here: Amazon | Fantasy Flight Games