The Best Board Games

103 15/07/2022

By Wirecutter StaffUpdated November 19, 2021

Every year, thousands of new board games are published—more than our guide to the best beginner board games for adults could possibly accommodate. Here we list a few Wirecutter staff favorites. And though these may not be as approachable for new gamers, they have other traits we think you’ll love. Whether you’re looking for something that offers high-level strategy or narrative cooperation, or simply something that looks and feels beautiful, these are the games in heavy rotation at our game nights. If you don’t see one of your favorites, leave a comment so we can expand our collections.

Strategies to test your skills

Scythe (about $65 at the time of publication)

Player count: one to five
Duration: 90 to 115 minutes (or more)
Rules: website
Ages: 14 and up

Why we love it: Between reading and deciphering the dense rulebook and having to correct multiple mistakes during each turn, our first playthrough of Scythe ended up taking six hours. Nonetheless, we were immediately hooked by this game’s immense strategic depth and the beautiful, steampunk–meets–pastoral idyll world-building aesthetic (which Gregory Han raved about in our 2016 gift guide). Since then, our play times have fallen in line with the 90- to 115-minute estimate. And Scythe has taken over weekly game nights and inspired a dedicated group chat for discussing strategies, making and sharing memes, and planning impromptu sessions.

In less than two months, we’ve already purchased the seven-player expansion, and we’re seriously considering buying an upgraded custom box to more elegantly store the many cards and pieces. You might be wondering what kind of people want to invest that much time in a game, returning to play over and over again. But once you learn the mechanics, playing Scythe will be the only thing you want to do.

How it’s played: In Scythe, players represent one of five factions trying to earn their fortunes and claim land in post–World War I Eastern Europe. Players begin with resources (including power, popularity, coins, and combat cards), a different starting location, and two (optional) hidden objectives. Scythe is an engine-building game, so the goal is to set up systems that will continue to reap resources as the game progresses. With each turn, every player chooses one of four actions on their assigned faction mat. All players have the same set of actions but receive different rewards for them, and each character has a set of unique strengths. Other than Encounter cards (which players receive on certain newly explored territories), there’s little luck involved. The game ends after a player places their sixth achievement (star) on the Triumph Track, and whoever has the most coins wins. Scythe is a game of capitalism in its purest form.

—Alex Arpaia

Small World (about $50 at the time of publication)

Player count: two to five
Duration: 60 to 80 minutes (or more)
Rules: website (PDF)
Ages: 8 and up

Why we love it: Imagine a game of Risk set in Middle-earth, that didn’t take as long to play as rewatching all of the Lord of the Rings films would. That’s pretty much the experience of Small World, an area-control game filled with elves, dwarves, and halflings, among others. The game comes with multiple boards and enough small pieces that it took about 40 minutes to initially set up. But once Small World gets rolling, it’s an easy concept to latch onto, and the various combinations of fantasy races and powers make every playthrough a little different. Thanks to the multiple game boards, Small World plays just as well with two people as it does with five. There are now also a few versions that offer slightly different art and tone, such as Small World: Underground (which is a bit darker) and Small World of Warcraft (if you’d rather visit Azeroth than the Shire).

How it’s played: At the beginning of the game, every player gets to select a fantasy race to control from a shuffled stack. Each race is paired with a separately shuffled stack of powers, which modify what the troops of that race can do. For instance, if you pick up Wizards with a Flying power, you get bonus gold for occupying magic spaces (the Wizards feature), and you can send your troops anywhere on the board (the Flying feature). Once a player picks their characters, they get a set of tiles representing their troops; during their turn they use the tiles to take over land on the board. As players expand their empires and come into conflict with each other, they eventually run out of useful tiles, which they can then turn over (the game calls this “going into decline.”) The pieces stay on the board and can still accrue points (but they can no longer be used to gain new territory). And on their next turn, players pick a new race/power combo to use. This continues for a number of rounds, depending on the number of players. Whoever collects the most gold (earned mostly by acquiring land) throughout the game wins.

When setting up the game, players will notice a set of tiles that start on the board but that don’t act like the other playable races. These unfortunately named “Lost Tribe” tiles are meant to act as an obstacle on some spaces in the initial phase of the game. But given many societies’ historic mistreatment of native peoples, this aspect can sometimes feel uncomfortable for players (including myself). Instead I use other tiles to indicate natural barriers in those spaces, and this doesn’t affect the gameplay.

—James Austin

Party starters

Anomia (about $8 at the time of publication)

Player count: three to six
Duration: 25 minutes
Rules: website
Ages: 10 and up

Why we love it: Some games require sharp focus, advance planning, and subtle strategy, and this can lead to a lot of intense, furrowed-brow looks around a silent table. Then there are games that are so quick, with such engaging energy, that if you play them too late at night, your neighbors might end up filing a noise complaint. Anomia is firmly in the latter category, and I’ve often worried that my more-competitive friends would lose their voices after playing. Mechanically, it’s a simple word- and pattern-recognition game. Yet in practice it develops dramatic tension as cards are flipped, symbols are revealed, and players race to come up with an answer before someone else does. Anomia is also replayable because the rounds usually take less than half an hour and there are almost 100 cards that can come up. But if you do get bored with this version (or, more likely, once your game group has memorized all of the cards), there are other editions, including Anomia Party and Anomia X, that add all-new card decks while keeping the same gameplay dynamic.

How it’s played: Players pick one of the included decks, and each flips a card face-up in front of them. Each card has one of six colored symbols and a category. The categories can be everything from “Rock opera” to “Last name” and are broad enough to lead to debates at the table (“Do sea monkeys really count as pets?”). Gameplay continues with each player flipping another card face-up in front of them, covering the previous card. If any two symbols around the table match when a card is flipped, those two players are in a “face-off”; whoever says an example of something in the category on their opponent’s card takes the card and wins that point. Removing a card to reveal the card below it often leads to another face-off directly after, creating a vibe of intense expectation punctured by hectic bursts of sudden activity. Each time a card is flipped over, your brain goes through a lightning-quick process of identifying the new symbol, cross-checking that against what you know is on your card, quickly reading the category of the other card, accessing your memory to try and find a good example, and then finally shouting it out before the other player does the same. This processing challenge under intense time pressure has a way of short-circuiting your brain, and it makes the game equally frustrating and engaging. Either way, it’s a fantastic time of chaotic yelling.

—James Austin

Expansive, continuous adventures

Betrayal at House on the Hill (about $30 at the time of publication)

Player count: three to six
Duration: 60 minutes
Rules: website (PDF)
Ages: 12 and up

Why we love it: Betrayal at House on the Hill is what would happen if H.P. Lovecraft wrote a Scooby-Doo episode and turned it into a party game. Each player is assigned a character with different traits, including sanity, knowledge, might, and speed. As they explore a spooky mansion, they collect items and experience wacky, atmospheric events, from running into spiders to playing games with a creepy child who gets aggressive with his toys. The strategy in Betrayal at House on the Hill is minimal, but the camp factor is high, so players can get goofy. Because more than 100 different scenarios can ensue (all reminiscent of your favorite horror/sci-fi movies or TV shows), this game has great replay value.

The Best Board Games

How it’s played: In the first phase, players collaboratively build and explore a haunted mansion by placing room tiles. In the rooms, players may acquire an event, item, or omen card. The players read the cards out loud—silly voices encouraged, in the spirit of telling a ghost story while holding a flashlight under your face and sitting around a campfire. For event cards, players may face a dice-rolling challenge based on their traits. Players can also acquire magical items around the house to help them later on, but discovering omen cards has a chance of triggering the second phase of the game. In the second phase, called the Haunt, one player turns traitor and is assigned one of more than 100 unique scenarios. The traitor faces off against the remaining players in a dramatic final battle, until one side emerges victorious.

—Marni Kostman

Mysterium (about $35 at the time of publication)

Player count: two to seven
Duration: 60 minutes
Rules: website (PDF)
Apps: Android (mobile game), iOS (mobile game)
Ages: 10 and up

Why we love it: Part Clue and part Dixit, Mysterium turns players into psychics who must work together to solve a murder case based on ambiguous, beautifully illustrated “vision” cards (which are open to interpretation). Although some people love the collaborative feel and mystery of the psychic roles, I’m all about playing the ghost who delivers the visions. Mysterium requires you to find the subtle connections between cards and to consider how each person is most likely to read them. It’s even more fun (or frustrating, depending on how far into the game you are) when people wildly misinterpret your message.

How it’s played: One player takes on the role of the ghost, who tries to convey the details of their murder via vision cards illustrated with objects, characters, and dreamlike landscapes. The remaining players are psychics who must solve the murder case using the vision cards to pick out the correct person, place, and thing cards—to advance, each psychic must solve a different facet of the case. A common color, shape, or theme might be the only connection between a set of vision cards and a person card. The psychics bet on who they think placed a correct guess each round, and whoever wins the most bets has the greatest advantage during the final round. In the last round, the ghost gives the psychics one final vision, and any psychic who guesses correctly wins.

—Signe Brewster

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 ($60 at the time of publication)

Player count: two to four
Duration: 12 to 24 sessions, 60 to 120 minutes each
Rules: website (PDF)
Ages: 13 and up

Why we love it: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is an amazing step up for people who love classic Pandemic but want more of both a plot and a challenge. You’ll need a dedicated crew of friends to play, though. The game takes place across 12 to 24 sessions, during which you’ll mark up the board, change cityscapes, and tear up and destroy rule cards. Every session adds new elements. Pandemic Legacy is also radically harder than its progenitor, with rules that dynamically increase the challenge if you’re having a victory streak. I don’t think we won a single game that wasn’t down to the wire.

How it’s played: As in the original Pandemic, in this version each player takes on a specific role to limit the spread of four viruses across the globe and research a cure. But then things … change. As you play more games in the season, the viruses mutate, rules change, cities rise and fall, and new character options and abilities (and penalties) come into play. Each session is different from the one before because game modifications are permanent and carry over between sessions. The continuous gameplay creates the feeling of a coherent, evolving story, and we were always curious (and terrified) to find out what would happen next.

—Tim Barribeau

Star Wars: Outer Rim (about $65 at the time of publication)

Player count: one to four
Duration: two to three hours (more or less, depending how you play)
Rules: website
Ages: 14 and up

Why we love it: Set in the “original trilogy” era of Star Wars, Outer Rim lets you play as a smuggler, a scoundrel, or a bounty hunter—or all three—as you travel between various wretched hives of scum and villainy in search of Fame. Playing as classic Star Wars characters is obviously a treat, but our favorite aspect of Outer Rim is that it doesn’t promote the cutthroat, relationship-destroying competitiveness of games like Catan or Risk. You’re all playing for Fame, but it’s not a zero-sum resource. There’s no need to attack other players. You can if you want to—you are a scoundrel, after all—but there’s equal benefit to helping others. Despite its complexity, the game is also easy to pick up and exceptionally well balanced; over a few dozen games, the winners never finished more than a few Fame points higher than the “losers.”

How it’s played: Each player gets a basic starter ship and chooses one of eight characters. Options include Lando, Boba Fett, Jyn Erso, and even Doctor Aphra from the comics. Each has special skills that benefit different styles of play. (For instance, Han Solo provides a bonus to your ship’s speed, letting you complete missions faster.) The goal of the game is to gain Fame points, which you can earn in a variety of ways: collecting bounties, delivering illegal cargo, and more. As you make money from these jobs, you can upgrade your gear and even replace your starter ship with the famous Millennium Falcon, Slave I, and others. During each turn, a player can choose to move their ship between planets, purchase upgrades, and then do jobs, collect bounties, and so on. Jobs are games-within-the-game: multistep activities like heists or the infamous Kessel Run, requiring multiple rolls of the dice, with wins based on your character and crew’s skills. Although the game can run long in its standard first-to-10-points mode (especially with four players), we found that it can be equally fun with a set time limit. In that case, the winner is the person with the most Fame points when time expires.

—Geoffrey Morrison

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (about $45 at the time of publication)

Player count: one to eight (we’ve found it works best with up to five players, but there’s no technical limit)
Duration: two hours to all day
Rules: website
Ages: 14 and up

Why we love it: The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series somehow generates the expansive, open-world feeling of video games like Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption out of a small collection of paper materials and raw imagination. Though it’s not as immersive an experience as some mail-order mysteries, it effectively bridges the gap between a traditional board game like Clue and that sort of role-playing detective experience. (In other words, if you like this game, you may want to consider trying out one of those, too.)

A deduction game at its core, Consulting Detective is an irresistible puzzle for mystery fans of all stripes—and one that will challenge even the most seasoned gumshoes. There are tons of potential sources, clues, and leads that you can review, following the threads of the case in a satisfyingly organic way to reach your own conclusions.

How it’s played: Each box comes with 10 cases set in Holmes’s London, arming you with a map and directory, a newspaper, a case book, and a short list of contacts to fall back on. At the back of each case book is a list of questions to be answered, some pertaining directly to the case and others hovering around the periphery of the story or relating to strange events unfolding in the city. Depending on how many you get right and how many leads you’ve followed, you’ll get a score that tells you how well you did compared with Holmes. In each case, he dramatically reveals how he would have cracked the caper, usually using fewer leads than you and being insufferably smug about it. (The third case in the current edition of the game is available as a free sample, if you want to try out the mechanics before you pick up the box.)

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was first released in 1981, and there are four editions at this point, each with 10 unique cases. In addition to introducing new cases, each box slightly tweaks the mechanics or adds a larger serial story, so you’ll find something worthwhile in each one.

—James Austin

Beautifully designed and fun to play

Cathedral (about $50 at the time of publication)

Player count: two
Duration: 20 minutes
Rules: website
Ages: 8 and up

Why we love it: As a commitment-phobe when it comes to games, I like that Cathedral is easy to learn and fast-paced—a game usually runs about 20 minutes. Two players compete to outmaneuver each other on the board, and much of the strategy comes from staying several moves ahead of your opponent. Best of all, Cathedral is beautifully made: The hardwood pieces feel substantial, and the set is handsome enough to leave out on a coffee table, ready for play.

How it’s played: This two-player strategic area-control game may remind some people of Go, and it shares many aspects of play with Blokus. After one player places the cathedral, the players take turns placing their variously shaped pieces to capture territory and prevent their opponent from doing the same. The first person to place all of their pieces on the board wins. (If neither player can place all of their pieces, the person whose remaining pieces take up less space is the winner.)

—Winnie Yang

Sagrada ($35 at the time of publication)

Player count: one to four
Duration: 30 to 45 minutes
Rules: website (PDF)
Ages: 13 and up

Why we love it: The gorgeous patterned board, vibrantly colored dice, and quality pieces of Sagrada drew me in. And its theme of building artisanal stained-glass windows offers a break from themes of so many other games that focus on collecting resources or land. But it’s more than just a pretty game. The rules are simple to understand, so you can dive right in to playing. And since it has a quick turnaround time of about 30 minutes, you can play multiple rounds on game night. Although the strategy is fairly light, each round challenges your pattern-recognition skills because the boards and objective cards change.

How it’s played: Each player is a stained-glass artisan trying to build a window, using colorful dice, and gain the most victory points. Everyone starts with a color-coded panel with different restrictions and chooses secret objective cards that only they can see. Public objectives are also laid out, and they vary by game—everyone can see these and gain points by arranging their dice according to the stipulations of the cards. To maximize their points, players choose dice based on several factors: the colors or shades (values) that work within their board’s limitations and the game’s rules, their own objectives, and the public objectives. The player with the most points wins the game.

—Anna Perling

Wingspan (about $45 at the time of publication)

Player count: one to five
Duration: 40 to 70 minutes
Rules: website (PDF)
Ages: 10 and up

Why we love it: When I was testing Wingspan, I played with eight people—including first-time gamers and folks who spend 12 hours straight playing Twilight Imperium. And each one of them declared that they wanted to play Wingspan again afterward. Unfortunately, it seems to sell out frequently (you can pre-order or reserve Wingspan from other retailers, if there’s no stock available). This may be because the unique, bird-themed engine builder is simply delightful to play.

Thoughtful design touches make Wingspan a work of art. The card illustrations, done by Natalia Rojas and Ana María Martínez Jaramillo, rival those of Audubon. They’re beautiful enough to hang on the wall, and you can, in fact, purchase prints. The pastel egg pieces are as enticing as Jordan almonds. And even the birdhouse-shaped cardboard box you roll the dice in is surprisingly useful, ensuring the wooden cubes don’t fall off the table. Wingspan isn’t just gorgeous, though. It has enough different bird cards (170) and varying strategies to make replaying it worthwhile. Plus, each bird card is stamped with facts about the species, so you learn more every time you play. The game has been endorsed by the pros, too: Wingspan nabbed a 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres, a subcategory of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres game awards. Get Wingspan, and be prepared to audibly gasp, Instagram everything, and wonder aloud if you’ll end up purchasing the cards as prints.

How it’s played: Players are bird lovers (“researchers, bird watchers, ornithologists, and collectors”) working to bring the most birds to their yard (or nest). To start the game, players get an action mat, five bird cards, two bonus cards, and five food tokens. Over four rounds, they can choose to play a bird card, gain food, or lay eggs to unlock other actions for each corresponding section to their mat. The player with the most points after four rounds wins.

—Anna Perling

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Wirecutter Staff

Further reading

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