What do we mean when we talk about an “all time” great in any genre? It’s got to be something that’s stood the test of time, like all our picks for the best classic board games. But at the same time we need to steer away from titles that have become diminished by over familiarity and stray into new and exciting territory. We also want to include things that have been acclaimed as top of their particular tree at one time or another, to give some historical perspective.
That’s the steer we’ve bought to the list below, a mixture of games once seen as the best ever, together with some close pretenders that have earned their spot through novelty or popularity. They’re all great in one way or another, so whatever you pick you can’t go wrong.
Lots of games that revolve around grabbing territory tend to involve the kind of tentative alliances and festering enmities that mimic real-world diplomacy. Back in 1977, the designers of Cosmic Encounter had a brainwave: why not get rid of the territory and cut to the chase? The result is this hilarious game of shifting alliances where every player has a game-breaking alien power to leverage in the race to win colonies on five of your opponent’s planets. Crammed with variety, tactical decisions and more dramatic reversals than a prime-time soap opera, Cosmic Encounter may be the only negotiation game you need.
The current king of the board gaming pile got that way through an ingenious bit of genre-blending. If you like old-fashioned dungeon crawls with a strong narrative, well, the 95-scenario campaign of fantasy adventure has you covered. If you’re a sucker for tactical combat then its cunning, card-driven face-offs against a staggering variety of foes will thrill you. But if you want heavyweight strategy then deck-building and resource gathering over the campaign plus the in-scenario exhaustion mechanic gives you plenty of meat. Truly all things to all gamers — even fans of the best solo board games — Gloomhaven deserves its staggering level of acclaim. And if the cost is a bit much, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion offers a smaller campaign at a much smaller price tag. And not for nothing, both of these iterations also made it on our best board games for adults list as well.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
If combat-based narrative campaigns aren’t your thing, how about working together to purge the world of infectious diseases? Building on the success of the original Pandemic, this introduces “legacy” concepts to the game, in which components are added or removed as you progress through the game, based on your decisions, successes and failures. After a few plays, your copy will be a unique record of your group’s play. So in addition to offering a very personal tale to engage you, Pandemic: Legacy also individualizes your strategic experience. It’s a magical combination that has spawned two further seasons, creating an epic arc of story and strategy to enjoy with a gaming group or even as one of the best family board games.
Billed as a cold war simulation and with bullet-pointed rules, Twilight Struggle can appear daunting to the uninitiated. But there’s a reason it was widely acclaimed as the best game of all time after its 2009 release. Players have hands of event cards that replicate key moments from the conflict, keyed to either their side or their opponent. If you play an opponent’s card you can still make moves on the board but their event also occurs. This makes every hand a thrilling, tactical dance of play and counterplay as you try to move your plans forward while also nullifying enemy events. In addition to the superb strategic workout, you might even learn some history too.
Another game that spent its time in the “best game ever” limelight is this unlikely game about farming. Stepping back from the theme, however, growing a family to work on a family farm is a dead ringer for the popular Worker Placement mechanism. As a result, Agricola conjures a real sense of growing and developing your humble plantation into a thriving stead, with plenty of interesting strategic bumps to navigate along the way. Its particular genius is its huge decks of cards, only a handful of which are used in each game, which ensures lots of strategic variety and allows you to tailor things like complexity and interaction to your group’s tastes.
The Castles of Burgundy
Coming into this game of estate-building in medieval France you could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the options to grow your castle. Fortunately, it’s a dice-based game where the roll each turn limits your choices of where you can take actions. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a random game: rather, the dice are there to keep throwing you curveballs you have to dodge around as you build a strategy. A classic case of having too much to do and too little to do it with, every action of every round feels weighted with impossible priorities, keeping you stretched right up until the points are tallied.
Lords of Waterdeep
By marrying the sensibilities of Dungeons & Dragons with the mechanics of modern board games, Lords of Waterdeep made a smash hit to last down the ages. Players take the roles of power brokers in the Forgotten Realms’ biggest city, hiring adventurers to defeat perils threatening Waterdeep while building new facilities in the town. It’s these additions that take this unusually thematic worker placement game to the next level, with the new buildings entering play ensuring that new strategies are required each time. Throw in a modicum of minor “take that” cards to spice things up and you’ve got a brilliant game with very wide appeal.
Ticket to Ride
One of the few hobby board games to cross over into full mainstream sales, Ticket to Ride is a steaming success story. It’s a combination of familiar concepts with players collecting cards, like a Rummy game, in order to try and claim matching routes on a map of the US. But beware: it’s a tight board with relatively few potential connections between the cities that you’ll need in order to complete your allotted routes. And if another player gets there first, you’ll lose potential points instead of gaining them. Easy to learn and exciting to play and with a wide variety of versions and expansion maps, Ticket to Ride is great fun for all ages. It also works well as a two-player board game, or with a group.
While conquest games involving ancient Rome are ten a penny, Concordia instead has you manoeuvring a noble family to gain wealth and contacts during the height of empire. Play is conducted using a deck of action cards that you can expand, using wealth from your trades, as the game progresses, allowing you to tailor your strategy accordingly. But the kicker is that your final scoring is also depending on those cards, with different cards earning you points in different ways, from goods in your storehouse to colonist pieces on the board. This creates a fascinating, rich, wheels within wheels layer of strategy, while the resource management elements also let you mess up your opponent’s plans while advancing your own.
Summoner Wars 2nd Edition
Collectible games wax and wane in popularity and print status, which makes even classics like Magic: the Gathering hard to include in this kind of list. Summoner Wars, however, with its clever blend of card and board-based gameplay has an evergreen sense about it and, best of all, its collectibility comes in packages. So if you tire of facing off the six included factions against one another, you can just add more to your collection. By forcing players to use cards both as units and currency, it keeps everyone making knife-edge decisions as they maneuver round the board and roll off against opposing units in their quest to kill the enemy summoner, right up until the on-board death.
Blasting onto the scene in 2015, Codenames changed the face of party games forever. In place of trivia quizzes or trivial tasks, it challenged players to come up with clues to interlink a series of apparently unconnected words. So you might link “Trip”, “Rome” and possibly even “Embassy” with the clue “Holiday”. The concept proved so accessible and addictive that it launched an entire new genre of synonym-based word games, each giving different spins on a similar formula. But for ease of teaching and wideness of enjoyment, the original is still the best.
Looking for more ideas not covered herer? Check out our rundown of the best board games for kids.