Most of what we do here at The Thoughtful Gamer is aimed at people who are already part of the modern board gaming hobby, but I figured it would be a good idea to write something up for those who are stuck at home right now who may not have yet discovered the wonderful new games we love. If you’re a regular reader, consider sharing this with family and friends!
During this pandemic you’re probably spending a lot more time with your family and household than usual, and maybe you’re discovering that those dusty old board games up in the closet are kind of…well, dusty and old. The fact is that many of the most popular board game regulars aren’t very good. That is to say, they’re often long, dull, and arbitrary. Some of the classics are great (maybe I should write another article on that…) but I think everyone’s board game closet deserves a bit of a shake-up, because over the last 30 years or so there have been an explosion of fantastic board games you may not have heard of.
Or, if you have heard of them, you may see that they appear complex and for dedicated nerds like me. Do not fear–game design has advanced and while that does mean a large number of great complex games, it also means that the simpler, family fare is better too. Here are 10 recommendations, and I guarantee each and every one of them is more fun than Monopoly.
If there are three major successes from the early days of what we call “eurogames”, they’re Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and my first pick: Carcassonne. It’s a delightfully pleasant game set in the French countryside. Each player’s turn is as simple as can be: you take one tile and simply decide where to place it. As the game progresses the game “board” grows as each tile progressively builds the countryside with towns, roads, and chapels.
The strategy in Carcassonne is figuring out when to place your meeples, as you only have so many of them and they’re the only way you can generate points. It’s one of those games that’s as simple as possible but contains a surprising amount of depth. One of the true modern classics.
Imagine if Jenga was redesigned by some art students and you’ll have something close to Catch the Moon, a game about perilously balancing ladders on top of and in between each other until you’ve made a physics-defying dream structure. It’s very difficult to get a balancing game to work well, but Catch the Moon’s ladders have just the right amount of weight, friction, and subtle variations to make placing them engrossing. And what other games out there so closely resemble delicate art creation?
Most modern games have rightly abandoned the “roll and move” mechanism you find in Monopoly, Sorry, and others, where players roll dice to see how far their pawn moves. But Deep Sea Adventure is one of the games that does it right. Everyone is playing as divers trying to bring back treasures from the ocean depths. The deeper you dive, the more valuable the treasure, but you need to get back to the surface before your oxygen runs out or you lose it all.
Deep Sea Adventure plays with hubris to create hilarious and exciting moments where people get so close to bringing their treasure hauls back to the surface before an unfortunate die roll causes them to collapse. Bonus: it comes in a very small box so it’s super portable.
4. For Sale
Here’s a quick playing auction game where you bid against other players to get properties and then sell those properties for the most money. It’s two quick, different auction games rolled into one, and there isn’t a better example of design elegance. For Sale isn’t about complicated calculation but reading your opponents and trying to get into their heads. It’s about squeezing value out of your money and creating situations where they have no good options. For Sale is one of those games that’s just perfect.
Cooperative games have become very popular over the last ten or fifteen years, and Forbidden Desert is one of the best. Everyone has crash-landed in a furious desert, and they must navigate the hot, beating sun and the ever-shifting dunes as they search for the missing parts of their flying machine.
The coolest part of Forbidden Desert is that the storm blowing all the sand around moves throughout the game in an unpredictable way, burying players unlucky enough to get caught in its path. You’ve got to manage your water supply before the sun becomes too much to bear, and you’ve got to wisely utilize the ancient artifacts you find buried in the dunes.
6. Lost Cities
This is one of my favorite two player card games. It’s deliciously simple. There’s a deck of cards 2-10 in five different suits, and players want to score as many points as possible by laying down cards of the same suit in columns. The trick is that you can’t lay down a card of a lesser value than the highest played card. Also, every time you commit to a suit you lose 20 points.
Lost Cities is a super quick game that pulls you in. Before you know it you’ll be playing 3, 5, 10 times in a row, trying to find that perfect combination of plays to score mega-points.
Here’s something of a minor miracle. Sprawlopolis is only 18 cards and fit in a bi-fold wallet, yet it’s one of the most engaging, deep games on this list. No joke. Like Forbidden Desert this is a cooperative game, where players will be working together to build a small city by playing and overlapping cards on the table.
You’re trying to score points by connecting roads and common building types, but you’re also scoring according to a couple of randomly selected scoring conditions. See, before the game you’ll take three of those 18 cards and flip them over, revealing how you can score additional points alongside how many points you need to score to win the game. It’s a beautiful bit of elegant design that gives the game a ton of replayability.
The cutest game on the list, Sushi Go is a game about trying to strategically collect sushi to score points. Everyone will get a hand of cards with the anthropomorphic sushi characters on them, choose one, and pass the remaining to the player on their left. You’ve got to figure out what you need and what other people need to make your decision. There are great moments where you have taken some risks and need the right card to come your way, and you’re just hoping that no one else takes it before you do.
The party version is definitely the best one to get, as it’s still remarkably inexpensive but provides a large variety of different sushi types to play with, making each game different. It also allows more people to play (up to 8!), so that extra five bucks is more than worth it. This game and the previously mentioned Forbidden Desert prove that Gamewright is one of the best family game publishers out there.
Chess and Go are historical artifacts and masterful games that people dedicate their lives to. Contemporary designers have tried to tackle this style of abstract strategy game, and Tak is the best one I’ve played. Based on a fictional game from Patrick Rothfuss’ novel Wise Man’s Fear, Tak has players trying to connect two sides of the board with roads, while blocking their opponent from doing so.
There are a couple of different types of pieces you can play, but generally the complexity is very low. Like Chess or Go, though, Tak has a ton of depth and strategy. You have to plan ahead to put your opponent in a situation from which they cannot escape. If you want to dig your teeth into something that offers a lot of depth, give Tak a try.
10. Tiny Towns
One of my favorite games from 2019, Tiny Towns has players building, well…tiny towns. Every turn a resource is chosen and players choose where to place it. There are a number of different buildings you can build based on creating patterns with those resources (sort of like tetris pieces). The puzzle of Tiny Towns is fantastic and often hilarious, as you need the cooperation of your opponents to get the resources you need to build what you want to score points.
This is probably the most complicated game on the list, but it’s still a great option for families. The production from AEG is delightful and I can see this becoming a favorite in many homes.
Board games are truly an amazing way to spend time with those you love with a bit of friendly competition (or cooperation!) I hope this list inspires you to check out some of the amazing games out there and start a new family game night!