Meeples unite! Here are our picks for the best board games for 2019. Analog gaming has seen an awesome renaissance in recent history and offers some things that PC games can’t do, or don’t do quite as well. Whether that’s staring your friend in the eye, trying to call their bluff or just wrapping your greasy mitts around a good bit of paper, analogue gaming can be a fantastic way to spend a few hours, an afternoon or even a whole weekend with your friends. If you and your friends can hurdle the initial barrier to entry, board games can be some of the most memorable and rewarding experiences you can have with your buddies.
There are a bunch of things that can make or break a board game. A strong theme is a great way to sell an experience and get you in the door to speak but is hardly the last word when it comes to having a good time. Build quality is also something to consider, as some board games can be quite expensive, it’s something you’d ideally like to hold onto for a while, which leads us to our final point; that a board game should make you want to play it multiple times and provide you with a fresh experience when you play it again.
Board games also have a strange collectibility element to them. While we may not all have an infinite amount of shelf space to put more X-Wing Miniatures, in this era of digital distribution, setting aside physical space for a game like Twilight Imperium is a point of pride. There is also something aesthetically pleasing about seeing every expansion of dominion placed side by side on your bookshelf, an allure that seems to have been forgotten with the slow demise of physical media. So if you’ve got some free space on your shelves, consider filling them with something other than dust and hope and grab a good old fashioned board game.
Addictive and tough in equal measure, Pandemic deserves the enduring success that makes it a co-op classic. You take command of experts trying to contain a slew of diseases ravaging the world. Players will need to use their character’s unique abilities in tandem to stave off the apocalypse. Lone wolves won’t last long here; only a team that communicates will survive.
You’ll need to be decisive, too. The goal is to cure those diseases before you run out of time, but it’s an uphill (if fun) battle. Each turn brings more infections with it, and these can quickly spread from city to city in a devastating domino effect. In the meantime, epidemics (where new and previously infected cities are hit even harder) remain hidden within your deck of cards, so there’s always the threat of a fresh outbreak looming.
Of all the games we’ve played recently, Betrayal at House on the Hill is the one we keep coming back to. Players take on one of many horror tropes before exploring an eerie mansion room by randomly-selected room. This means you’ll rarely get the same layout twice. That sense of uncertainty is also true of your objectives; Betrayal features 50 varied scenarios to play through.
The way these are selected is brilliantly organic. As you pick your way through abandoned ballrooms and libraries, you’ll uncover events, items, and ‘Omens’ that will eventually lead to staggeringly varied scenarios (known here as ‘Haunts’). The mission you get given will be then decided by how many Omens are in play and where you found them, so you never really know what’s coming next. That’s where the game truly begins; you may be fighting to escape the house as it floods, or perhaps a traitor walks among you. Both sets (survivors and traitors) then have their own secret rules to follow. This results in a tense race to the finish as you work to undermine each other and, hopefully, survive.
Despite what you might think, this board game excels at delivering an interesting, authentic Fallout experience. Each session offers a huge and unexplored wasteland, factions to interact with, classic monsters to battle, odd jobs to bungle, and ruins of a long-lost world to discover. It also has a semi-cooperative element; players pursuing their quests often empower those same factions, but pushing a single one over others can lead to everyone’s downfall. Although it has some odd ending triggers and a weird scoring system that doesn’t quite add up, you’ll eventually realize that Fallout is stronger as a story engine than a truly ‘competitive’ game.
Well designed and plenty of fun (even if you’ll sometimes get knocked out of contention by random happenstance), the miniatures and components only add to what is a top-notch slice of post-apocalyptic America. War never changes, it seems, and for once that’s a good thing.
An absolute beast of a European-style strategy game, Coimbra has players drafting sets of unique, coloured dice and collecting power cards to fulfil various conditions. It sounds like a lot of other relatively abstract strategy games, no? The brilliance is in how the moving parts all interact with each other. Cards have powers that activate based on what colour dice you choose each round. Dice then have effects based on what colour they are but can cost more based on the rolled number.
They also let you pick more cards based on where on the board these dice are placed. Combined with a cute little minigame that sees players travelling around Portugal, there’s so much going on in the game that simply choosing which dice you want to buy each round becomes an agonizing strategic puzzle (in a good way).
Nominally set during 16th Century Portugal, Coimbra’s theme is not nearly as important as its mechanics and lovely looks. Beautiful graphic design and charming art round out a game that would probably be fun even if it were drab. It’s among the best strategy games to be released in the last few years.
Veteran designer Martin Wallace’s newest is a departure from the norm for him: a strategy game focused on miniatures battles rather than an in-depth economic management game. Getting our hands on Wildlands really typified his less-is-more design philosophy. Unlike many miniature games, Wildlands eschews dice and randomization favouring deep tactical strategy and reliable effects.
While it’s a pretty familiar fantasy theme, that familiarity is welcome because Wildlands plays like nothing else. Namely, this game uses faction-specific cards and powers instead of stats. Knowing how and why to play what card is an art in and of itself—launch too many attacks, and you’ll be vulnerable on defence, defend too much, and you’ll cede the battle’s momentum to your eager opponent.
Wildlands is a very intuitive game, is easy to teach, and contains several unique factions within the box, so you’ll get a lot of variety right away.
The 4th edition of Twilight Imperium is the product of improving and refining easily one of the most epic board games ever produced. A massive space opera of conquest, diplomacy, and trade. Twilight Imperium is nothing short of your favourite 4X PC game made manifest. Anywhere from 3-6 players command a plethora of unique races, each with their own backstory and perks to usurp the known galaxy’s throne. Literal armadas of detailed plastic miniatures are commanded around a vivid, hex-based galaxy map, and evocative art and fiction give Twilight Imperium a truly unique theme.
A word of caution: the size of the box alone may be enough to send some running for the nearest exit, and the amount of time you need to devote to this game is beyond substantial. If you’re playing a 4-player game, it will take all day, and if you somehow get the maximum 6 players together, you’ll want them to pack their PJs. Drawing from the best tropes of every corner of science fiction, this expensive and expansive board game is an experience like no other.
Don’t be fooled; the cutesy woodland facade conceals an interesting and deep asymmetrical strategy game. Each player controls a tribe of beasts and fights others for dominance by controlling strategic clearings. One player, the ‘Marquise de Cat’, needs to expand their dominion over the forest by moving troops and quashing rebellion. The Eyrie, an alliance of feudal birds, plans elaborate machinations to marshal their limited troops and retake the woods. Under their noses snoop the Woodland Alliance, a growing insurgency of mice and hedgehogs ready to overthrow their oppressors.
Finally, the vagabondish adventurer raccoon (a player who’s basically flying solo to accomplish their own objectives) skirts around the edges. It’s a pretty hardcore strategy game with a unique theme and great design that always leaves you wanting to play again.
Better still, Root encourages you to think outside the box. Each time you play will differ greatly from the ones before it based on the weird new strategies players are sure to dream up. However, getting the most out of it requires understanding the radically different ways factions play—it’s only really worth it if you can get people together to play more than once.
The gorilla in the room of 2017’s board games, Gloomhaven is a sprawling co-op dungeon crawler with an elaborate, non-linear campaign mechanic. Taking on the role of fantasy heroes, players work their way through hordes of automated monsters in a series of choose-your-own-adventure-style scenarios. Players’ decisions during and after each session influence what will happen next, forever locking away some game scenarios and opening up others.
As you play, you also advance your character, making some neat choices and often permanently altering your statistics and equipment. These kinds of long-term narrative arcs make Gloomhaven perfect for those who have a consistent group to play with, though solo play is entirely possible. It also has a box larger than many small children and doesn’t fit on a single shelf in my house.
Basically, it’s a fantastic game for RPG fanatics and tactical gamers everywhere. For all its complexity, it has a fantastically functional and simple manual that doesn’t take hours to parse and rarely needs to be consulted during play.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Mad Max delivered packages? Probably not, but I’ve got just the game for you anyway. Wasteland Express Delivery Service is a game that casts you as drivers for the very last delivery company on Earth. It’s a mad storm of dice-rolling and zooming across a post-apocalyptic landscape in your truck/tank/bulldozer to complete missions and deliver packages. It still has its share of bloat and weak mechanics (it’s pretty much a pick-up-and-deliver game at heart and can get somewhat repetitive), but that’s easy to overlook. With a little planning and a lot of luck, you might even live through the experience.
Overall, it’s well produced with lots of miniature vehicles, a light blend of economic strategy, and a heavy hammer of market forces. For a big game that can take two hours to complete, it also has a nice end mechanism and rarely overstays its welcome.
The mechs-and-pastoralia art of Jakub Roszalski really captures the imagination, and Scythe makes the most of it. In fact, its world of 1920s misery is proving so captivating that it’s actually getting a PC RTS called Iron Harvest. Just a brief perusal of Scythe will show you why. The cards have fascinating scenes of agrarian life juxtaposed with smoking dieselpunk mechs and war machines. Cows walk alongside four-legged spider bots that guard the peasantry. Hulking metal giants stalk the misty distance as troops cross a plain.
Scythe’s appeal as a game, though, is more than the (lovingly-painted) board or the mech miniatures—it’s the fully integrated strategy between different styles of play. Much like a good game of Civilization, it’s about expanding and building as much as it is about combat, and there are plenty of ways to win that don’t involve firing a single shot. See, hidden within what looks like a bland wargame is a complex strategic-economic game about consolidating territory and bluffing opponents with shows of force and grabs for uninhabited land.
If our bodies didn’t require sleep and our loved ones didn’t require love, I’d have room in my life for lifestyle-level tabletop games like Warhammer 40,000. For those of us who are subject to reality, X-Wing is an amazing alternative that preserves everything that’s good about miniatures while mercifully compressing the time it takes to finish a battle.
Scalability is a huge asset to X-Wing. Like 40K, every ship, pilot, and upgrade has a point value associated with it, so you can knock out a four-ship skirmish in half an hour or settle in for a massive, multi-part campaign with capital ships like the Tantive IV and assign squadrons to four or five different players. What makes X-Wing work most, though, is its FlightPath™ system.
Pioneered by WWI flight sim Wings of Glory, players commit movement orders in secret, then reveal them all simultaneously. Is your opponent’s TIE Bomber going to sprint right at you, or barrel-roll behind an asteroid? Trying to out-guess and out-manoeuvre your opponent takes real strategic thinking but doesn’t burden X-Wing with a billion rules.