Board gaming is great in part because of the varitey of options available nowadays. You’ll find plenty to choose from, whether you’re interested in family board games, strategy board games, or anything else. But just because modern games are the best they’ve ever been, that doesn’t mean older games are bad. For the best ones, there’s good reason they’ve been popular for a long time.
Modern games are mostly the product of a design trend that dates back to the mid-nineties. So it’s of particular interest to go digging for gold in the years prior to that explosion. Here, in chronological order, are some gems you might have missed.
Go (~2200 BC)
We’re not including well-worn abstracts like Chess on this list. Go is huge in Japan and China, where it originated, but it’s a little more obscure in the West. And that’s a shame because Go is a thing of staggering genius. On your turn, you place a stone of your color atop an intersection on a grid of lines. If you can cut off all four adjoining spaces for a stone of the opposite color, it’s removed. That’s pretty much the entire game, yet the strategy beneath is so deep that only very recently has an AI challenged a top human player. Place one stone and you could be playing for a lifetime.
Playing Cards (~900 AD)
These also originated in China, and are also a game you can play for the rest of your life. Because, of course, it’s not one game but thousands. Many you’ll already know: Poker, Bridge and other popular titles constitute hobbies in their own right. But there are equally fun games played with slightly different decks across the world. You can play them fine with a standard 52 card deck: Jass, Scopa and dozens more. There are modern designers working with the deck to create new, strategically rich games like Ambition. Get a deck, get to Pagat.com, and it might be the only gaming equipment you ever buy.
Perudo / Liar’s Dice (1800)
You’ll see this sold under various branded names, but the game is always the same. Everyone shakes some dice in secret, under a cup. Then they have to bid a certain number of a particular value they think the combined dice hold: seven fours, for example. Next player either ups the bid or calls their bluff. This straightforward setup disguises a wealth of statistics, guesswork and outright chicanery. Making a bid high enough to put the next player in a quandary is a wonderful moment. Being in a quandary, calling the bluff and finding the fates have rolled in your favor is better.
Of all the many and varied dexterity games in the world, Canada’s Crokinole holds the crown. Boards aren’t cheap but they’re lovely objects in their own right. Particularly nice specimens can be mounted on the wall as a talking point. And when you get it down to play, you’ll find out what all the fuss is about as you navigate its treacherous mix of flicking skill and tactical positioning. Your goal is to get your disks into the highest scoring zones possible, but the catch is you have to flick them off existing disks to count. It’s all about trying to rack up the points while also hiding your disks behind the board pegs or other disks.
Othello / Reversi (1883)
This is often presumed to be a classic two-player ancient abstract like Chess and Checkers. In fact, it’s much more recent and, bizarrely, two different men took credit, each rubbishing the other’s claim. On your turn you place a disk of your color, black or white, onto a grid space. The aim is to fill the grid with your color. But the disks are reversible. If you can bookend a line or diagonal of your opponent’s color with yours, all the disks flip to your side. Cue a fiendish battle of wits that can suddenly swing, even late in the game.
Yes, this well-known word game does take a bit too long between turns, especially with more players. But it’s a fascinating and brilliant balance between vocabulary and spatial play. Sure it helps to know a lot of words when you’re finding ways to lay out your seven random letters. But a player that can sneak a ten-point letter into an awkward bonus space will scoop the prize every time. And it’s so well-known that it’s easy to find people willing to play. Grab your phone between turns, and get gaming.
Roll and write games, where you scribble in the results of dice or card draws, are very much in vogue right now. But let’s not forget their mass-market progenitor, Yahtzee, which is far more fun than you may remember. Sure, you’re in the hands of fate when you’re rolling the bones. But filling in the grid takes a lot more skill and statistics than many realize. There’s nothing worse than crossing in a blank and then getting the right rolls down the line. Fast, furious and family-friendly, get the pencils out and take this classic for a roll.
Wrecking friendships for over 50 years, Diplomacy is divisive in a way a few other games are. Designed by a historian to examine the political geography of 19th century Europe, the game has no randomness. Players struggle to conquer the continent, with one unit simply eliminate another in combat. It’s designed so that you can’t win alone: you need allies to prosper. Yet only one player can claim victory, so betrayal and backstabbing is inevitable. Its clever catch is that movement is simultaneous. You write orders down in advance, and all players reveal them at the same time. So you don’t know who’s kept their promises and who’s turned against you until it’s too late.
Some credit this game, by virtuoso designer Sid Sackson, as the progenitor of much of modern gaming. In an era where there were only mass-market titles and war games, Acquire was something new. It’s a game about creating, merging and investing in companies. On your turn, you place a tile onto the grid, representing a company stock. If your placement joins two existing companies, the larger absorbs the smaller. Then, you can buy shares in any of the companies which you’ll sell later for a profit, depending on the size. The result is a masterful mix of fiendish spatial challenges and economic wiles that remains fresh and thrilling to this day.
Can’t Stop (1980)
A second Sackson classic, Can’t Stop is an easier and more raucous game. It’s a race to reach the top of three of the eleven columns on the board. Each column matches a possible roll of two dice and the more likely the result, the longer the column. You roll four dice, make two pairs and move two markers. Then comes the kicker: you can keep rolling, or end your turn. If you carry on and fail to roll a match, you lose your progress. It’s a constant, agonizing temptation to balance luck and skill. Play it as a board game, or try the excellent mobile version.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (1981)
A bizarre blend of board game, whodunnit, and choose your own adventure, this sleuthing title was years ahead of its time. Pick a scenario and head out onto the foggy streets of Victorian London as the agents of fictions’ most famous detective. Players must work together to uncover clues, solve riddles and try and piece a solution together as efficiently as they can. Do it better than Holmes himself and your group wins. Atmospheric writing elevates these scenarios into an engrossing fiction in its own right. And if you manage to solve them all, there are loads of expansion packs to puzzle through.
El Grande (1995)
Despite, or perhaps because of, its alarmingly phallic King piece, El Grande has remained gracing tables since its release, winning board gaming’s top award, the Spiel des Jahres, in 1996. It’s an easy to learn area majority game where you’re seeking to control the most regions across a map of Spain. But it’s not just a simple matter of pushing pieces around. Instead, you’ve got to bid for turn order from a dwindling supply of one-use bids, then choose one of the random selection of action cards for that turn to add or move pieces. It’s all about squeezing everyone else at the edges, eking out majorities by the slimmest margins and generally losing friends in the best possible way.
Settlers of Catan (1996)
A modern classic, now known simply as Catan, this game has fallen a little out of favor. But we shouldn’t forget what a revolution it was in its time. Its mix of clever dice mechanics, trading and route planning as players competed to colonize an island was like nothing we’d seen before. In its native Germany, games like this weren’t quite so novel, but its import in English kickstarted the whole modern gaming scene. It’s worth playing for its historical value alone. Luckily, it remains worth playing to recall how addictive its sweet blend of luck and strategy can be.
Power Grid (2004)
At almost twenty years old and still popular, it’s probably fair to assign classic status to Power Grid. Players are running power companies, trying to supply electricity to cities across Germany or the US, depending on which map you choose. There’s a tight auction for different kinds of power plants to plug into your network and a brilliant simplification of real-life supply and demand economics when it comes to buying fuel to power them. But beware: if you can’t afford the fuel you need to run your network, you won’t get paid. Requiring a constant balance of spatial and economic priorities, energy supply has never been so energizing as with Power Grid.
For more board game suggestions, check out our roundups of the best board games for adults or the best two-player board games.