When I first got to graduate school here at MIT, I came pretty empty-handed on the board game front. The few that I had owned in college, I had given away to friends or left at home with my family. Now, nearly five years later, Grace and I have built up a decent collection of board games. It’s intentionally somewhat of an eclectic set, reflecting both of our tastes as well as avoiding overlap with the collections of several of our friends. (So don’t read too much into any absences from this list!)
I won’t be writing about every game in our collection, partly because there are some games I haven’t gotten to play enough yet to say, and partly because there are a few duds, games that we bought or otherwise picked up that didn’t turn out like we were hoping. One example is Castles of Burgundy, a game highly recommended on BoardGameGeek (it’s still #11 overall) that we just didn’t have any fun playing.
It’s experiences like that one that lead me to question some of these official sources’ opinions on the “best game.” The BGG community consistently ranks lengthy Euro-style strategy games very highly, which is fine if you recognize that that’s what that community appreciates about board games. Unfortunately, it doesn’t align with my preferences and those of many of my friends, some of whom have been scarred by getting sucked into long and complicated games they don’t enjoy.
Fortunately, there are some other options. You can look at the most popular games on Amazon, especially if you like party games like Codenames and Cards Against Humanity. You can watch the almost-universally-positive Dice Tower review videos to get a feel for whether the things they like about a game are the same sorts of things you like about games.
But sometimes you just need a suggestion or two, ideally from someone you know. And that’s what I hope this post will provide.
I wrestled with whether to introduce any sort of ordering to these games. In the end, I’m just putting them in alphabetical order. Each game that I’ve included on this list has its strengths, moments when it’s simply the best. Each game also has its weaknesses. I’d encourage you to either read the whole list or skim the whole list. It’s only 25 games!
Some errata: For each game, I’ve included a short description of the gameplay, some standard stats, a description of the moments where it shines and the downsides. All stats are taken from BoardGameGeek’s community opinion except where noted. I used the notation of “2P”, “3P”, etc. to make the list searchable by number of players, with the best number of players for each game in bold. Times seem to me a bit on the low end, and don’t involve time spent teaching, but I’ve adjusted a few of them upwards. The complexity rating is on a 1-5 scale where higher means more complex, but given my preferences, it’s really more like 1-3.
Description: Build up a city of a the ancient world through accumulating resources, trading, making scientific advances, and bolstering your military. Drafting mechanism: pick one card from a hand of seven, then reveal all picks and rotate hands and pick one from a hand of six, and so on. After three hands, add up scores to see who has the highest point total.
Stats: Players: 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P. Time: 30 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 2.34.
Positives: The drafting mechanic scales well; with lots of players, you aren’t waiting for someone else to take their turn. You also don’t have to pay close attention to everyone else, as you only interact with your immediate neighbors.
Negatives: The number of symbols to understand can be intimidating for new players (though the cheat sheet helps). Somewhat limited replayability, as there are only a few strong overall strategy motifs (although the expansions help a little on this front). Slight potential for kingmaking.
Best when: You have exactly 7 players and don’t want to split up.
Variants: In “7 Blunders,” you compete to get the lowest score.
Pro-tip: If you own the expansions, you can fit them all into the original box using Broken Token wooden inserts.
7 Wonders: Duel
Description: A two-player variant of 7 Wonders. In addition to the usual win-by-score, introduces two new takes on the military and scientific components that allow for instant wins. Card distribution mechanism is also interesting, as players take cards from a pyramid, revealing options for their opponent.
Stats: Players: 2P. Time: 30 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 2.24.
Positives: Interesting gameplay, tough decisions to make to balance different victory conditions.
Negatives: Can be very stressful when an instant loss is on the line, especially when it comes down to the luck of which cards are where.
Best when: You’re a couple wanting to play an intense but short two-player strategy game, or you want to split into two groups but the other game needs all but two people.
A Game for Good Christians
Description: A version of Cards Against Humanity where every white card is taken from the most disgusting, awkward, and hilarious parts of the Bible. Players choose from a hand of ten such cards to answer questions like ”
Stats: Players: 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P, 9+P. Age: 14+. Weight: 1.25 (estimated).
Positives: Gets players thinking about the Bible, curious enough to actually look up the verses. Publishers also write “Card Talks” with often compelling theological takes on many of the most offensive cards.
Negatives: Sets some people off into thinking it’s an anti-Bible game. I haven’t tried to play with those not familiar with the Bible, but it could give inaccurate impressions.
Best when: You have a large group of mature Christians who can appropriately balance the offensive humor of the game with the seriousness of Scripture.
Description: Four players try to fit as many Tetris-like pieces onto a board as possible, with the requirement that any pieces must touch another of their own pieces diagonally but not adjacently.
Stats: Players: 2P, 4P. Time: 20 min. Age: 5+. Weight: 1.79.
Positives: Simple to explain, but the resulting geometric challenges make for interesting gameplay.
Negatives: You want precisely four players. If one player takes a long time, it can drag out a long time.
Best when: You have four players who want to play something geometric and light.
Description: Two teams compete to contact their own agents before the other team contacts all of theirs. One team member knows every agent’s identity but can only communicate through single word clues to their teammates each turn. Agents can be words (the original game), pictures (an expansion), or even regular expressions or Pusheen GIFs (in an online version a friend made).
Stats: Players: 6P, 7P, 8P, 9+P. Time: 15 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 1.36.
Positives: Most of each team works together and can casually discuss the options to try to properly interpret the clue. Scales well with any large enough group of players; it’s not a big deal if the teams are uneven.
Negatives: It can be quite stressful to give the clues, since you know your team will blame you for any mistakes. Sometimes it leads to miscommunication which can make team members on the same team mad at each other.
Best when: You have a large group that prefers games with both a social and a strategy component.
Caveat: I’ve actually never played the physical game. A friend in our board game group coded up an electronic version; if you’d like try it out, ask me for the address.
Description: You are bandits robbing a train in the Wild West, but also competing by shooting and punching each other in order to come out with the most valuable loot. Players “pre-program” their movement by playing cards into a stack that is later resolved in the same order as played, but with some choices still to be determined along the way.
Stats: Players: 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P. Time: 40 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.81.
Positives: Gives a good mix of a sense of control over your own destiny and chaos coming from the other players’ actions.
Negatives: The programmed movement can be confusing at first to new players; sometimes we play a practice round before resetting and playing for real. It can feel frustrating when all of your best laid plans are dashed by another player doing something unexpected.
Best when: You have a group of 5-6 players looking for a somewhat crazy and chaotic game that still has a degree of strategy.
Description: You are trying to maintain influence in a dystopian universe by paying money to take out your political opponents. Everyone starts with two character cards which give various special powers, but you can claim to have any other character card and use those abilities as long as no one calls your bluff.
Stats: Players: 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P. Time: 15 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 1.44.
Positives: Fairly short bluffing game. Expansion adds another element (political parties) that enhances the game.
Negatives: Very political, often ends with kingmaking (a losing player deciding which of two opponents wins). Luck of the draw can give one player a really poor opening hand and another player a potentially winning combination.
Best when: You want a game for 4-6 players that involves a mix of bluffing and strategy.
*Caveat: We don’t actually own Coup, but a friend of ours made a re-skin of the game using Pusheen for our wedding. He called it “Cousheen.”
Description: Compete to build the most valuable kingdom with a catch: The provinces and duchies you need to win only slow you down in your quest to get more of them. A deck-building game where cards you buy get cycled into your deck and reused later. The cards available for purchase change.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P. Time: 30 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 2.37 (goes up with expansions).
Positives: A lot of strategic depth and replayability as you play with only ten of however many cards. It’s relatively easy to learn since the core mechanisms are the same from game to game.
Negatives: The downside to the strategic depth is that games that are fun for the most experienced players tend not to overlap with games that are fun for newbies. For experienced players, you also need to buy multiple expansions.
Best when: You have a group of players that wants to explore the same game together on a regular (weekly / biweekly) basis.
Caveat: The sets of Dominion we own are currently at a few friends’ apartment (pooled together with their expansions), so we either play there or online.
Description: You are explorers trapped in a cursed temple. You must escape before the 10-minute timer runs out and the temple collapses. To do all of your actions, you must be constantly and continually rolling and rerolling a set of dice to explore, move, collect gems, and complete sidequests.
Stats: Players: 1P, 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P (w/expansion). Time: 10 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.48.
Positives: An exciting and fast-paced cooperative game with an intense soundtrack to amp up the drama. The real-time component means that unlike some other cooperative games, no one can dominate the whole game and everyone is essential. Easily repeatable with many expansions to add variety.
Negatives: Can be too stressful for some people. The soundtrack and dice-rolling is very loud, so not a great game for late at night when neighbors might be sleeping.
Best when: The night is young, energy levels are high, and you feel like watching a thriller, except in board game form.
Fish Eat Fish
Description: A deep strategic bluffing game disguised as a game for kids. And the disguise works: Kids love this game. But there’s still enough in it for adults, as you compete to eat each others’ fish by playing each of your cards only once — do you use that shark card early, or save it for another battle late?
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P. Time: 30 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.37.
Positives: Great if you like to try to read people or try to be strategic unpredictable. Short and sweet with everyone in the game most of the time. As I said, kids love it, and their unpredictability helps.
Negatives: Can be frustrating when another player reads you well. Limited strategic depth, as it’s basically a series of similar interactions throughout the game.
Best when: You either have a group of kids who want a simple game or close friends who want to try to guess what each other will do.
Variant: If you have six players, have one player act as the “judge” and determine winners without revealing cards. Keeps some mystery as to what was played.
Description: You are a bunch of fireworks engineers who accidentally mixed up all of your wires. You need to set off a fireworks display in the correct order, but time is running out. You each hold a hand of cards, but facing away from yourself so everyone else can see your cards but you. You need to play them in a particular order (with some redundancy built in) in order to execute the show, but you can only give particular clues to each other.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P. Time: 25 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.70.
Positives: Builds empathy, as you need to think about what another person knows. A cooperative game that needs everyone to chip in because of the incomplete knowledge everyone has.
Negatives: When conventions break down or differ between groups, the resulting miscommunication can be super frustrating. Grace and I have had probably half of our fights in our relationship over this game.
Best when: You have a group that regularly plays together using the same conventions.
Variant: In “Silent Hanabi,” instead of giving a hint to one player, you give the same hint to all players but don’t tell them what it is. Especially difficult in two-player, but Grace and I have successfully achieved the maximum score (with rainbows)!
Description: You are two restaurant owners trying to attract performers to your restaurant. To get them, you need to collect more of their favored object than the other player. The twist is how you acquire the objects: You have a hand of them, but from that hand, you have to offer the other player the option of which cards they want to get some for yourself.
Stats: Players: 2P. Time: 15 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.67.
Positives: It’s a simple, short strategy game with a few very interesting mechanisms.
Negatives: It can be hard to figure out the right strategy — there are some individual tactics we’ve identified, but the game is chaotic enough that it’s hard to plan too much ahead. And Grace gets really sad when the performers choose me over her.
Best when: You have two players who want to play a short and simple strategy game. Sometimes two of us will even play it on the side of a slower game.
Isle of Skye
Description: You are Scottish chieftains looking to expand your territory and build the best kingdom. The metrics rotate every game and only some of them apply each round. In the most interesting mechanism, players privately set prices for tiles of territory they draw and then once everyone is done have the opportunity to pay each other for tiles they want at the prices set.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P. Time: 60 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 2.27.
Positives: It’s essentially a simultaneous bidding game that doesn’t end up with two players going back and forth forever. The main challenge is figuring out what the market will pay for different tiles of land, as well as the best way to connect your territory together to maximize your score.
Negatives: There’s a bit of luck in which tiles you draw; generally good tiles will either help you a lot or net you a big return on investment.
Best when: You want an interesting but still relatively light strategy game. If you like the geometric aspect of Carcassonne, you’ll love this game.
Description: Claim valuable land and expand your territory through five different terrain types. In Kingdom Builder, you get a card of one terrain type to play and must expand into adjacent territory, if it exists. If it doesn’t, you get to plant a new colony and expand from there. Various tokens you can collect give you additional powers to place or move settlements and achieve the best kingdom according to a different set of victory conditions each game.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P. Time: 45 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 2.07.
Positives: The different victory conditions and bonuses make this game decently replayable. The houses, hexes, and differing terrain types evoke Settlers in a game that takes half the time.
Negatives: An good play early on can singlehandedly win the game for one player. The serial turns can bog down, especially if someone takes a long time to think through all the combinations of moves they can take on their turn.
Best when: You have four players looking for a short strategy game that doesn’t take long to teach.
Variants: We’ve found it less luck-driven to give every player two terrain cards to choose between each turn. This also lets players potentially plan ahead to their next turn.
Description: Build up your kingdom through buildings to increase your output, soldiers to defend your castle against the hordes that strike every winter, and special abilities that can bale you out in a pinch. The gameplay consists of rolling dice and combining dice values to claim “advisors” in a worker-placement sort of way (each advisor can only be claimed by one player). Use the advisors to collect resources, pay for buildings, which can be built on several different tracks of increasing cost and benefit.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P. Time: 90 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 2.43.
Positives: The only worker placement game I can tolerate, since there are often alternative options if you get blocked from something you were going for. The building tracks allow for a variety of strategies.
Negatives: There are probably only 2-3 viable strategies for winning the game, as some buildings seem severely underpowered. Sometimes someone can get far enough ahead by the third or fourth year that it’s clear they’ll win.
Best when: You want to settle down for a long-ish game with interesting choices throughout.
Description: You are setting up a lantern festival by placing lanterns around the lake and collecting favor as a result. Whenever you play a tile, everyone gets a lantern, unless the lantern piles are depleted. You aim to collect either four of the same lantern, three pairs, or one of all seven colors, and exchange those for points.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P. Time: 30 min. Age: 6+. Weight: 1.58.
Positives: The game is simple and often ends up fairly close in the end. The best strategy often consists of going for the least popular set.
Negatives: When the lantern piles are depleted, denying someone else a lantern can feel like a personal attack.
Best when: You have exactly four players and want to play a light strategy game that doesn’t need much explanation.
Description: Someone has died, and only their ghost knows how. Everyone else is a psychic that the ghost can communicate with through a series of visions, on cards depicting surreal and often chaotic scenes. The psychics each construct a story through these hints, and at the end, must determine which was the true story.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P. Time: 60 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.94.
Positives: A good casual cooperative game for everyone except the ghost. It’s fun to work together discerning clues given through limited information, but everyone is ultimately responsible for interpreting their own clues correctly.
Negatives: It can be stressful to be the ghost. Fortunately, there is frequently one person who wants to do it, so everyone else can relax and discuss together.
Best when: You have a large group and want to play a casual cooperative game with interesting imagery and nonobvious connections.
Description: You are Portuguese nobles seeking to expand your influence in the exciting Age of Discovery. Sail ships to new lands, build colonies to collect the sugar, gold, and spices, and go to market to sell or process each of those goods. In the end, you’ll also want to promote your workers into the king’s court to increase your payoff in the categories you’ve specialized in.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P. Time: 90 min. Age: 12+. Weight: 3.09.
Positives: Two unique mechanics make this game special: A realistic market, where prices drop when you sell raw goods and rise when you process them, and a rondel for determining your next action, like sailing, building colonies, and so on.
Negatives: Players choosing to compete with you in your area of expertise can lead to kingmaking of a sort, but there is frequently enough time to develop into an unclaimed area.
Best when: You want to play a Euro-style game with some new and interesting mechanics.
One Night Werewolf
Description: Like mafia, but so much better. During the single night, villagers each wake up in turn and mischievously look at or swap each others’ identities. During the day, you must find who the werewolves are. But wait, your identity might have been swapped, so do you tell the truth about what you did during the night?
Stats: Players: 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P, 9+P. Time: 10 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 1.41.
Positives: A great game of social deduction, taking place in just 10 minutes per round (far faster than mafia!). The expansions have been good and added some interesting variants.
Negatives: Some people don’t like that this game encourages you to lie to not get caught. If everyone is lying, it can be frustrating to try to figure out what happened.
Best when: You have a large group of close friends late at night.
Description: Uses its own 49-card deck with seven numbers (1-7) and seven colors (the colors of the rainbow). At the end of your turn, you must have the strongest palette according to a rule in the middle. On your turn, you can either change the rule or add a card to your palette, or both. But you’ll run out of cards more quickly that way…
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P. Time: 20 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.67.
Positives: Simple and easy to explain. Very quick, so makes for a nice filler game.
Negatives: Having the highest card in the game often gives you a big leg up on everyone else, since it wins all ties it’s part of. The range of strategies is not particularly wide; the game is more about tactics.
Best when: You have 20 minutes to spare waiting for others to show up.
Variants: A standard expansion gives special powers to the odd cards, but makes some (1’s and 3’s) a bit over-powered. In Red Seven Wonders, you draft your initial hands in the same way as 7 Wonders (without revealing, though). Red Seven Poker is played with the same deck.
Description: Players take turns picking a question that they want everyone else to guess their answers to. Everyone else writes their answer on little white boards and the original player secretly picks the most correct answer. Everyone else guesses which answer was picked; the correct answer-giver and anyone who guesses it correctly get points, and the most points in a certain number of rounds wins.
Stats: Players: 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P. Time: 30 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 1.10.
Positives: The open-endedness of the answers makes this party game fun, but without the pressure to think of something super creative like in Balderdash or Cranium.
Negatives: With the wrong crowd, people apparently often pick the most dicey question and get a lot of inappropriate answers.
Best when: You want a light party game between people who either know each other well or want to get to know each other better.
Description: A fast-paced game that can be played several ways. The main feature is a deck of cards with eight symbols each, such that every pair of cards shares exactly one symbol in common. (It’s a projective plane, if you know what that means.) All variants are based on recognizing the symbol in common on pairs of cards faster than other players.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P, 9+P. Time: 15 min. Age: 4+. Weight: 1.04.
Positives: Very fast-paced and exciting.
Negatives: Some people are a lot faster than others, and those who are slower can feel bad about it.
Best when: You just finished eating a meal and need a game to get your blood pumping.
Sushi Go Party!
Description: You are going on a progressive dinner to a series of three sushi restaurants, trying to have the best meal at all three combined. Play consists of every player simultaneously choosing a card from their hand, then revealing and passing the rest of the hand around the circle. Sushi Go Party! is an expansion to the original Sushi Go! that gives you several options for the cards that you play with each time.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P. Time: 20 min. Age: 8+. Weight: 1.28.
Positives: Very replayable with the different types of cards. A good mix of strategy and party game feel. The cards are also very cutely illustrated.
Negatives: If cards of different average values are in play, it can become a matter of luck as to who gets the better cards. To mitigate this, Grace and I often decide before choosing cards whether the game will be high-scoring, low-scoring, or medium-scoring.
Best when: You have a large group of up to eight players who want to play a light strategy game.
Description: The Resistance is about to undertake a series of missions, but their ranks have been infiltrated. They need a certain number of people to go on each mission, but if a spy is chosen, they have the choice of sabotaging, or letting it succeed to make themselves look better. But first, everyone will vote to decide on the team to go on each mission, after much discussion.
Stats: Players: 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P, 9P, 10P. Time: 30 min. Age: 12+. Weight: 1.63.
Positives: The closest actually playable game to mafia. No one is eliminated (although some spies might be effectively outed), and there is much more information coming from players’ votes. The plot cards expansion included in the game also increases the amount of information available to deduce who the spies are.
Negatives: Can be quite tiring, especially the versions (7-player, 10-player) with many spies to try to figure out.
Best when: On a retreat or similar circumstance, you have a large group of close friends who want to play an intense social deduction game.
Description: A super simple geometric game about staying on the true path without being forced off the edge of the board.
Stats: Players: 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P, 6P, 7P, 8P. Time: 15 min. Age: 6+. Weight: 1.26.
Positives: The rules are very simple; I’ve even played with people without explaining anything about how to play and they’ve picked it up.
Negatives: Not a ton of strategic depth or replayability if you’ve played before.
Best when: You have a large number of people but more might be coming so you want to play a quick game. Alternatively, many people are milling around.
Variant: In Möbius Tsuro, the board is a Mobius strip, so if you go off one side, you end up on the other side, reversed. (The other two sides are still actual edges you can lose if you fall off.)