We find ourselves in the middle of a board game renaissance. 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 have taken the plunge, dedicating more shelf space than ever before to dozens of titles that simply didn’t exist even five years ago. But the same churn that has brought so many extraordinary games to market has also made it hard to know where to begin.
You can’t buy every hot new title that shows up on Kickstarter, and even if you did there’s only so much shelf space. 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.
Azul is a great game to keep around for chill game nights. This tile-laying game brings the history of decor to life. It is said that King Manuel I of Portugal was so inspired by the beauty the Alhambra Palace in southern Spain that he brought the tile decor back to his own palace. As a player, you’ll be similarly inspired to draw and design patterns of colored tiles to display around your palace (aka your game board). Specific patterns and complete sets earn you points, but wasting tiles can set you back. Once all the tiles are gone, the player with the most points wins.
Azul’s simple rules, straightforward turns, and endless strategy make it a fan favorite. Players of all ages enjoy the pattern building, plus it’s easy to hold a conversation and keep the game going. —Sarah Johnson
The end of the world is here. Strategies are endless, but doom is inescapable. Can you strike a balance and adapt to your foes before the end of the third age? Guide your Viking clan to victory by going down in a blaze of glory!
The range of strategies and randomness of closed drafting — which helps to even the playing field at the start of the game — truly sets Blood Rage apart. Fans of area influence can choose to invade and pillage to gain control of neighboring territories. Combat-happy players can crush opponents in battle. Pacifists can even complete quests or lose fights to gain rewards. Drafting also occurs at multiple points throughout the game, allowing players to adapt and react to enemy tactics. In short, this game has something for every player and definitely deserves space on your shelf. —SJ
Cascadia isn’t just popular with Pacific Northwest natives. Everyone can enjoy the gorgeous game art and natural themes of this tile-drafting game. From the first draft, you have decisions to make about how to balance your ecosystem. Match terrain and wildlife to gain the most points and earn bonuses at the end of the game.
The appeal of Cascadia goes beyond the great art and popular ecological theme. Strategies are endless. Creating corridors, focusing on area control, and cornering endgame bonuses are all options. Plus, the hexagonal grid and random starting board generation help keep gameplay fresh. Keep it on hand for a relaxing night in, or to impress your friends from Portland when they visit. —SJ
There’s a magic to Crokinole. It’s a dexterity game where players flick discs from the edge of a large circle targeting a recessed hole at the center of the board. If you fail to sink your shot, then ideally you leave your disc as close to that center as possible. There is a twist, however: If an opponent’s disc is in play, then you must strike it with your own. It’s a thrilling game full of strategy and thoughtful action.
Part of the appeal is that Crokinole has a presence much larger than the physical space it occupies. It feels like a full-fledged parlor game, akin to billiards. This is all due to that central majestic piece of hardware, which can be hung on the wall as a piece of folk art.
There are many different types of boards, and it can be dizzying in assessing options. Hilinski are commonly revered as the best, but they’re mostly made-to-order and command a premium price. For a more mid-range option you’d do well to pick up one from Crokinole Boards Canada, whose pieces start around $130. While the investment can be quite substantial, some of these solid wood constructs are heirloom-quality productions and will stand up to multiple generations of abuse. —Charlie Theel
Nothing starts the party like a little espionage. Your mission? To deliver a message to your team. You’ll have four cards with words on them in random order; these create the code. Put them together in a phrase to help your team guess the code. The opposing team will be listening to crack your code and intercept the intel. Think fast, and don’t give too much away, as two interceptions mean game over.
Not only are team games great for parties, but it’s always a blast to see word association in action. The number of ways my teammates can describe a pig always leaves me snorting. Decrypto is my go-to game to liven up parties and family gatherings. —SJ
Good Dungeon Masters 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. —Charlie Hall
Marvel Champions: The Card Game
Marvel Champions: The Card Game is a thrilling cooperative experience that captures the massive impact and scope of the Marvel franchise. It allows you and up to three friends to play iconic heroes such as Iron Man, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel. You each grab your character’s unique deck and then select a villain to thwart.
Marvel Champions is the most refined of publisher Fantasy Flight Games’ line of Living Card Games. In this format, expansion packs are non-randomized, avoiding the heartache and exorbitant costs of traditional collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering or the Pokemon Trading Card Game. The additional content is plentiful as well, featuring individual heroes such as Scarlet Witch and Captain America as well as full-featured campaign scenarios such as The Mad Titan’s Shadow, which allows you to recreate the Infinity War. To top it all off, the game plays remarkably well as a solo experience. —CT
Monikers is good rowdy fun. It incorporates elements of Charades, Taboo, and Catch Phrase. But it’s so much more than all of those. Played in teams over three rounds, the stakes rise progressively. In the first, you can say whatever you want to coax your team into guessing the right name. In the second, you can only say a single word as your clue. In the final round you can only pantomime.
The crucial quality holding it all together is that you use the same set of names each round. So even if you struggled to guess Count Chocula in the opening act, if you simply recall what occurred in the previous round you will have a leg up on the competition. Cleverly, the player behavior can form a throughline from beginning to end, as strong clue-givers will begin acting out certain gestures early in the game so they can reincorporate those specific tells in the third round. It’s a genius design and one which always produces laughter and mirth. —CT
Every essentials list needs a blood-chilling game. Our pick is Nemesis. The gameplay focuses less on killing and more on finding ways to escape, avoid, or outwit danger. It is truly a survival-horror experience brought to life on your tabletop.
You and your crewmates each have unique skills and weaknesses. Working together is the only way to make it out alive. This mechanic drives cooperation but also leaves you open to the traitor’s deception. Time is of the essence, and the hostile organisms hunting for you get more difficult to defeat as you play. With a variety of scenarios and a great narrative arc, Nemesis will never sit on your shelf for long. —SJ
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
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
The original Pandemic, designed by Matt Leacock and released in 2008, is one of the best gateways into modern board gaming. Players must work together to quell diseases across the globe, carefully moderating their limited pool of actions to save as many lives as possible. Meanwhile, they must also take care to research a series of cures, in the form of suits of cards that, when combined, hold the clues to put these plagues into remission.
The Pandemic Legacy series, on the other hand — created with the help of Rob Daviau — turns that blissfully challenging cooperative game into a white-knuckled action movie. The 12-game arc included with Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 carries forward into a post-apocalyptic extravaganza in Season 2 before rolling back the clock for a prequel in Season 0. Any one of the trilogy will be well worth your gaming group’s time. — CH
Quacks of Quedlinburg
The Quacks of Quedlinburg has players taking on the role of fraudulent doctors. As a collection of unscrupulous individuals, you will gather a wide range of ingredients to toss into your pot and contribute to a secret brew. If your recipe is off, the whole mixture could spoil.
This is translated pretty seamlessly to a clever bag-building game. You purchase ingredient tokens and chuck them into your pouch, later pulling one at a time and triggering special effects. As you push your pot further and build its value, you risk toppling the whole potion and losing out. The push-your-luck system offers dramatic highs and constant temptation, providing for a robust family-size game that will appeal to a wide spectrum of tastes. —CT
Rhino Hero Super Battle
Sometimes you marvel at a huge cardboard construction; other times you curse in despair as it all comes tumbling down. This is the gamut of emotion that manifests through Rhino Hero Super Battle. In the preeminent stacking game for family game night, players alternate placing large rectangular floor sections atop cardboard supports. The goal is to build the skyscraper ever higher, while also managing to climb the rickety thing with your caped animal meeple.
It’s frivolous fun, cribbing the core concept of Jenga but doing it all in reverse. In Rhino Hero Super Battle, the whole thing gets more tangled and wobbly the higher it goes. If you fumble and cause the collapse, you lose and the player who has scaled to the highest level wins. In this way, it’s a delightful game of chicken as you each push the envelope and stretch the construction to the sky. —CT
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 Nikola 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 are 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
Ready to cause chaos? Pick up Secret Hitler for your next party. This fan favorite combines deduction, bluffing, and betrayal with the backdrop of 1930s Germany. Will the liberal team be able to pass enough policies to take down the secret Hitler? Or will the hard-liners create enough chaos to elect him to office? The fate of the world is in your hands!
Any game that combines deduction, group voting, and hidden roles is sure to be a hit. What sets Secret Hitler apart is the complete absurdity of the theme. With everyone in character playing this game, I’ve enjoyed some of the funniest and, oddly enough, cathartic evenings of my life. Grab a copy for pure shenanigans you’ll enjoy round after round. —SJ
What do you get when you combine strategy, simple mechanics, and sci-fi? Space Base! This easy-to-learn and quick-to-play dice roller makes you the commodore of a fleet. Build your base efficiently to create the ultimate engine for resource production. If you succeed, you may even get promoted to admiral.
The draw for this charming random production game is a blend of luck and strategic choice. Players can choose to take huge risks, play it safe, or seek massive endgame combos. Whatever strategy you adopt, the luck of the roll is the great equalizer. Space Base is a perfect game to introduce friends to tabletop. Teach it in a couple rounds, then sit back and enjoy the game. —SJ
Splendor is the quintessential modern family game. Players take on the role of Renaissance gem merchants trying to collect various precious stones. But that’s not important. What you’re really doing is buying cards that help you buy even more cards, eventually grabbing ones worth a large number of points. It’s a simple game of either buying the card you want or reserving one that you can’t yet afford to keep someone else from grabbing it. All of this is supported brilliantly with a simple yet warm physical production of chunky plastic chips and well-illustrated cards.
This game works so well because it pares away all of the nonsense and opacity of more complex games, drilling down to the heart of what makes set collection work. You can teach Splendor in a couple of minutes and be playing competently in a few more. The appeal spans a wide age range, and the strategy beneath the surface will reveal itself over many sessions. It’s a beautiful and simple design that displays the most basic principles behind modern board games. —CT
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
Terraforming Mars marries a delightful science fiction setting with sophisticated strategy. It puts players at the head of the various corporations intent on terraforming the red planet, raising the oxygen and temperature to foster growth and ultimately create a second home for humanity. It’s a visually compelling space as the barren planet slowly begins to adapt to your will before capitulating entirely in the endgame. The final result is a surface teeming with life, not altogether foreign to the environment of Earth.
What has cemented Terraforming Mars’ legacy is a gripping card system. Participants alternate playing cards to their personal area of the table, called a tableau, gaining ongoing bonuses and setting up synergies for the future. It’s a lengthy affair that rewards long-term planning and subtle strategic considerations. For all the effort it requires, it certainly rewards with a gratifying arc and spectacular conclusion. —CT
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
Mission Deep Sea is the sequel to 2019’s award-winning The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine. Both are cooperative trick-taking card games where players collect cards of the same suit to score points. One of the most fascinating aspects of these two releases is how they teach the core concepts and strategy found in classic titles such as Hearts, Spades, and Euchre. Additionally, they broaden the reach of the genre by embracing a cooperative format, allowing players to puzzle out randomized challenges as a group with limited communication.
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea is the stronger of the two games, offering a completely revised and expanded set of task cards. This enormous deck of cards dictates the group’s objectives, such as requiring a specific player to win the trick with the blue nine or one player to win all of the tricks containing cards with a red suit. The creativity in the sequel is strong, and the breadth of challenge is extraordinarily satisfying. —CT
Become the ultimate suburban architect in Welcome To... The paths are endless, but the goal is simple: Create the perfect neighborhood. Will you focus on building public spaces, duplicating houses, or elevating to estates? Find your favorite strategy and race fellow architects to the finish line.
Why keep a roll-and-write (or in this case a flip-and-write) in your stash? They’re easy to learn and support dozens of players at a time. Welcome To... also features simultaneous action to keep games moving. Random card draw and the variety of strategies add replay value to this retro game. Add it to your table for a fun, light strategy option. —SJ
Elizabeth Hargrave’s critically acclaimed masterpiece Wingspan is one of the most satisfying ways to introduce friends and family to the world of modern board games. The nonviolent experience, created by an avid bird watcher, is bursting with Audubon-grade art by Ana María Martínez and Natalia Rojas. The components, courtesy of Stonemaier Games, include charming little wooden eggs and handy trays to keep all your bits in order.
While it may take a little handholding to get newbies up to speed, it’s one of those games that will stick around on the table long after you’ve finished your first playthrough. It’s also available digitally, including on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. —CH
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