We spent 54 hours researching 115 board games and playing 13 top contenders with 18 people to find some of the best board games for adults. In the process, we consulted Wirecutter staffers, surveyed seven game experts and enthusiasts, and interviewed four board game experts: a clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher turned owner of board game café The Brooklyn Strategist, a ludology professor at Columbia University, a board games and learning researcher at West Virginia University, and the team behind video-series maker The Rules Girl.
Board games are for everyone, so we have picks for new gamers, more advanced players, those looking for party or two-player games, and those who prefer cooperative play to competition. This guide is a starting point to find games that are fun, interactive, and challenging, and our picks are a great introduction for anyone looking to get more into games. We didn’t include old-school classics (like Monopoly) or challenging enthusiast fare (like Scythe), but our Competition section lists many other notable games. For more ideas, we encourage you to explore board game forums and to visit your local board game café, store, or bar for personalized recommendations based on your skill level and interests. (Board game publishers print games in limited runs, so if you can’t find one of our picks at a major retailer, a local shop may have it to buy or play.)
Although our picks are geared toward adults, most are family friendly. If you’re looking for board games designed with preschool and elementary-school kids in mind, take a look at our guide to board games we love for kids.
Great games for new gamers
We think these intro-level options are some of the best to show new gamers the joys of board games: They require lighter strategy and are quick to learn, but they involve enough exciting decision making to engage adults. Many of these games are kid friendly, and several have expansion packs to accommodate more players or to add complexity.
Fast-paced gem collecting: Splendor
How it’s played: Splendor is a Renaissance-themed resource-collecting game. Players act as gem merchants, using tokens to purchase gem-mine cards and to attract the attention of nobles later in the game to gain even more points. Each turn, each player chooses between drawing gem tokens, buying a card, or reserving a card for later purchase and taking a gold joker token. As players stockpile gem-mine cards, they can use those cards as discounts on other card purchases. The first player with 15 prestige points (earned by purchasing higher-level gem cards and winning over nobles) wins the game.
Why it’s great: Splendor’s rules take about 15 minutes to learn, which means more time to play several rounds—and you’ll probably want to. After we played Splendor with three new gamers, everyone requested it again. This game was first recommended by Wirecutter staffers, but our experts also told us they liked its balance of luck and intro-level strategy. Splendor isn’t as interactive as some of the other games we played, because players don’t share a board or have to barter with one another, but it was simple enough that we could chat with friends while playing and still pay attention to other people’s actions. We enjoyed playing with the eye-catching gem coins and cards, and we appreciated that this game was easily portable for game nights or trips. “You can take Splendor out of the box and put it in a gallon Ziploc,” said Wirecutter writer Alex Arpaia.
Splendor was a 2014 Spiel des Jahres nominee, and currently it has a 4.7-star rating (out of five) across 1,481 reviews on Amazon and a 7.5 rating (out of 10) across 37,000 votes on Board Game Geek. It’s in Ars Technica’s board game guide, as well as in Popular Mechanics’s roundup.
An intro-level strategy game: Carcassonne
How it’s played: Carcassonne is a city-building Eurogame that involves strategically placing tiles and workers. It’s a little easier to learn than Catan, with light strategy and a shorter play time. Players draw and place a random tile each turn to build medieval fortifications including roads, cities, cloisters, and farms, and place their followers on those locations to gain points. Scoring depends on the size of completed developments with followers placed on them. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
Why it’s great: Since all players build the map together, Carcassonne is very interactive. The rulebook is easy to navigate for players of all skill levels—Wirecutter writer Doug Mahoney recently played a game with his 9-year-old, who had no problem catching on. Turns go quickly, and we enjoyed playing the game with three and five players. (We didn’t play it with two, the minimum.) Although developing a peaceful French countryside is a less striking theme compared with some other games we tested, the included optional River and Abbot modes add complexity once you’ve mastered the basic game.
Carcassonne also has an expansion pack to add a sixth player and some extra mechanics to earn points (without overly complicating the game). Carcassonne was a 2001 Spiel des Jahres winner, and currently it has a 7.4 rating (out of 10) across 76,000 votes on the Board Game Geek forum, the most votes of our picks besides Catan. It also has a 4.7-star Amazon rating (out of five) across 670 reviews.
A standout train-themed game: Ticket to Ride
How it’s played: Ticket to Ride is a train-themed, cross-country adventure game. Players use cards to claim railroad routes and travel to cities across North America, and gain points by connecting destinations and creating longer routes. Players can cut each other off, forcing competitors to take longer routes. Once a player is down to two (or fewer) trains after using the other 43 to claim routes, the other players get one more turn and then the game ends. Players tally their points and subtract the value of any uncompleted routes from the total; the person with the most points wins the game. (Ticket to Ride comes in several variations if you want more advanced options; Wirecutter writer Alex Arpaia recommends Ticket to Ride Europe.)
Why it’s great: Both Wirecutter staffers and our experts recommended Ticket to Ride as an accessible game that’s fun to play again and again—like Catan, Ticket to Ride has become a game-night staple. The concept is easy to grasp, but we felt challenged to keep track of our routes and complete all of our destinations before running out of trains. This game doesn’t have as much interaction as games that involve trading, but everyone builds on the same board, and we were delightfully frustrated when other players thwarted our plans. We like the compelling train-traveling adventure narrative, and the brightly colored pieces and board are fun to look at (although the board is quite large on a table). With two players, the game took 45 minutes, though Wirecutter staffers reported that rounds could drag on with more players.
Ticket to Ride was a 2004 Spiel des Jahres winner. At this writing, it has a 4.7-star rating (out of five) across 4,021 Amazon reviews—the highest number among our finalists—and a Board Game Geek rating of 7.5 (out of 10) across 54,000 votes.
Next-level strategy games
These games have more-complex strategies, and more of them—and, accordingly, more-complicated rules—but their underlying mechanics are simple. We think they’re great next-step options for most people (not super-serious gamers) looking for more of a mental challenge. These games also tend to have longer playing times and cost a bit more.
A ubiquitous classic: Catan
How it’s played: Catan is a civilization-building game in which players collect resources to create settlements, cities, and roads to earn points. They gather those resources if a dice roll matches the numbers on tiles where they’ve built settlements or cities, and by bartering with one another. Players also get points by creating the longest continuous road or having the largest army, won through development cards that can be purchased with resources. If someone rolls a seven, a robber pawn moves to block players from collecting resources, and players can strategically build settlements to block others from building next to them. The player who is first to reach 10 victory points wins.
Why it’s great: Catan is known for popularizing Eurogames, which require more strategy than luck and don’t boot players out of a game. It’s strategic, interactive, and fun to play. It was one of the first challenging board games I personally tried years ago, and I still get together with friends every few months to play it. The rules are more involved than those of our entry-level picks, so this game is much easier to play if someone who is familiar with it can coach other players. And the play time is longer than that of Splendor, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride—rounds can sometimes drag on, so we recommend having snacks on hand (and beer, if you’re into that) and setting the group’s expectations from the start. Several Wirecutter staffers reported that Catan could be divisive because of its competitive play. “Catan led me to reevaluate a friendship,” said Wirecutter editor Tracy Vence. But it’s so iconic, we couldn’t leave it off our list.
Catan was the 1995 Spiel des Jahres winner, and it currently has a Board Game Geek rating of 7.2 (out of 10) across 76,000 votes and a 4.7-star Amazon rating (out of five) across 2,258 reviews.
Catan has multiple expansion-pack options to change up the game and extend player counts. If you want more people to barter with and plot against, we recommend the 5-6 Player Extension, which adds replay value and more interaction. Joe Wasserman recommended the Cities & Knights expansion to add more options and resources, and the Seafarers expansion for more variety (these expansions seem to be fan favorites as well).
A fast and fun civilization-building game: 7 Wonders
How it’s played: 7 Wonders is a civilization-building card-drafting game. Players randomly draw an ancient city, and they have three Ages—a total of 18 turns—to develop their civilization and earn points. Cities can produce resources, which give discounts on future purchases (much as in Splendor) and can be traded with neighbors (without the tense negotiations of Catan). Using those resources, players can also build their civilizations’ might by earning coins, expanding their military, building Wonders of the Ancient World, exploring science, creating guilds, and building civilian and commercial structures. The player with the most points at the end of the three Ages wins.
Why it’s great: The high strategy level of this game means it can take a few rounds to master, but the rules are easy to grasp and the rounds don’t drag on—with only 18 turns, the game is true to its 30-minute estimate. We thought this game was fun with the maximum players, as well as with four players. It adapts for two players as well, but we think the game is more entertaining and interactive with more people. Even though 7 Wonders is competitive, it’s not divisive: “The rules encourage you to scuttle cards that your neighbors might want, but they won’t know you’ve done it, so it doesn’t encourage board-game-night fights,” said Wirecutter editor Kimber Streams. And while trading can get heated in Catan, neighbors cannot refuse a trade in 7 Wonders, and it doesn’t consume their resources—both parties benefit. Scoring can be tricky, but as Wirecutter writer Alex Arpaia noted, “The game includes some handy scorecards for the purpose, and a step-by-step guide in the rulebook.” Alex said she frequently referred to the guide and the smaller cheat sheet when playing.
7 Wonders was a 2011 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner and was recommended to us by Wirecutter staffers and Joey Lee, lecture professor and director for the Games Research Lab at Columbia University. It currently has a 4.3-star rating (out of five) on Amazon across 1,415 reviews, and a 7.8 rating (out of 10) across 60,000 votes on Board Game Geek.
Our favorite party games
These games are quick to learn and play, highly interactive, and designed to get a large group involved—they can help break the ice with strangers or make for a fun family activity. Many games can be party games, but in this category we looked for games that could accommodate at least six players—the more, the better.
An interactive card game for all ages: Dixit
How it’s played: Dixit is a storytelling picture card game. A turn starts when one player (the storyteller) describes a card chosen from their hand using one word or phrase, and each of the other players chooses the best-matching card from their hand to submit secretly. All the submissions (including the storyteller’s card) are shuffled and revealed, and players vote on which card best fits the storyteller’s prompt. Players earn points for correctly guessing the storyteller’s card or for having other players guess their card. If at least one player, but not all, guesses the storyteller’s card, both the storyteller and that player gain more points, encouraging clues that leave room for interpretation.
Why it’s great: Dixit is a unique, family-friendly party game similar to Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity. It takes minutes to learn, so it feels very low pressure compared with Secret Hitler or Sheriffs of Nottingham, which have more complicated rules. Although Dixit’s strategy is light, you can earn points by being clever and creative. And the art is gorgeous: I played with several adults who took Instagram stories of the cards. Plus, multiple expansion packs keep the game interesting and let you gape at more ethereal cards—check out the spooky Daydreams pack or the bold and colorful Memories option.
Wirecutter editor Tim Barribeau said, “I love Dixit for intergenerational play, as long as everyone has an imagination.” Dr. Jon Freeman, founder of The Brooklyn Strategist, called Dixit a “brilliant social clue-giving game.” Dixit was a 2010 Spiel des Jahres winner, and at this writing it has a 7.3 rating (out of 10) on Board Game Geek across 36,000 votes, and a 4.6-star Amazon rating (out of five) across 763 reviews.
Players: 3 to 6
Duration: 30 minutes
Rules: Website (PDF)
A spy-themed word-affiliation game: Codenames
How it’s played: Codenames is a word-guessing game where players divide into two teams. One player from each team acts as the spymaster and provides one-word clues to get their team to figure out which word cards on the table conceal their team’s own agents. When guessing, players must avoid cards that represent the other team’s agents, bystanders, and the assassin (which causes an instant loss). Only the spymasters have access to the key card that reveals which cards correspond to which characters. The first team to locate all of their agents wins.
Why it’s great: This party game is a cinch to learn and very interactive. As a Bananagrams and Scrabble enthusiast, I love this game, and all the groups I’ve played with have caught on quickly and enjoyed playing several rounds; they also took more risks as they got more comfortable with the gameplay. It’s flexible, too—it can accommodate a few more players beyond the eight-person limit (though bigger teams means debating may take longer), and the rules also include two- and three-player variants. Wirecutter writer Signe Brewster said, “Codenames is the best cross-generation game. I can play it with my parents or with nieces and nephews. It’s also fairly easy to pack up into a baggie and take on a trip.”
(The Rules Girl’s team also recommended Codenames Duet as a two-player or cooperative version, with a slightly different setup [PDF] but similar mechanics. You can also add the word cards from Duet to the base game for more word choices.)
Both Columbia University’s Joey Lee and The Rules Girl recommended Codenames. It was the 2016 Spiel des Jahres winner, and it’s the top-rated party game on Board Game Geek with a 7.8 rating across 41,000 votes; at this writing it has a 4.8-star Amazon rating (out of five) across 1,914 reviews.
A great cooperative game
Cooperative games let players work together toward a common goal instead of competing against one another. This style of game is especially great if you want to keep the peace during a family function, or if you have that one friend who gets too cutthroat during competitive board games.
Collaborate to save the world: Pandemic
How it’s played: In Pandemic, players collaborate to save the world from a rapidly spreading epidemic of deadly diseases. Players draw cards and use four actions per turn to help cure diseases by building research stations, treating diseases, sharing knowledge, or discovering a cure. Players can also draw epidemic cards, however, which increase the speed and scope of disease proliferation. By curing the four diseases, players win. They lose if they can’t contain the diseases—by allowing too many outbreaks, running out of cards in the player deck, or running out of disease cubes to put on the board.
Why it’s great: Pandemic is an intense cooperative game that challenges players’ thinking. As Wirecutter editor Tim Barribeau summed it up: “Three ways to lose, one way to win.” It’s a highly interactive game because players work together to choose actions. “Pandemic is a great introduction to stressful co-op games that are easier to lose than to win,” said Wirecutter producer James Austin. You can increase the game’s difficulty—the rulebook lays out Introductory, Standard, and Heroic modes, with the harder modes adding extra epidemic cards—so you can grow with the game as you master it. A 2009 Spiel des Jahres nominee, Pandemic has a 7.7 rating (out of 10) across 72,000 votes on Board Game Geek, and a 4.7-star rating (out of five) across 2,224 reviews on Amazon.
A great two-player game
Most modern board games are designed with larger groups in mind, and although many include two-player rules, those modes can be convoluted and less fun than the original. For this category, we looked for games that shone with only two players and weren’t checkers, chess, or Go.
Best for two players: Patchwork
How it’s played: Patchwork is a strategic two-player puzzle game, similar to Tetris but with a sewing theme. Players move around a shared time-track board to collect buttons, and then use them to buy fabric pieces to construct a quilt on their individual gridded boards. On each turn, players can choose to move their piece along the track to gain buttons or purchase one of three patches laid out in a circle to add to their quilt. Players win by gaining the most buttons and filling in as many spaces on their personal quilt boards as possible.
Why it’s great: Patchwork’s rules are simple, but the game challenged our pattern-recognition skills even as we played multiple rounds. Trying to knit our pieces together as tightly as possible without overlapping was a unique, surprisingly complex challenge. Play time is relatively short at around 30 minutes, so we were able to play several rounds, and there isn’t a lot of downtime between turns since this is a true two-player game. The order of the quilt pieces can vary, and the pieces are two-sided, so the game is highly replayable—you have countless ways to construct your grid. For trips or game nights, we love that Patchwork is small and portable; you could easily pack the tiles and pieces in a bag. Even though we aren’t quilters, we thought this calmly themed game with beautiful pieces was delightful to play.
The Rules Girl team originally recommended Patchwork to us, and it was a 2015 Spiel des Jahres recommended game. At this writing, Patchwork has a 7.7 rating (out of 10) across 30,000 votes on Board Game Geek, and a 4.6-star (out of five) rating across 433 Amazon reviews.
There are many, many worthy games we didn’t mention in this guide—we started with 115 well-reviewed and widely loved games, but it obviously wasn’t possible to include them all here! If you’ve played our picks and are looking for even more games, following are some of our other finalists:
Azul: Azul’s strategy and theme are unique—you’re a Portuguese artisan decorating the walls of a palace, and you gain points based on tile placement. Once you master the slightly tricky rules, the game is easy to play, with short rounds, and it has beautiful art. We enjoyed working our brains while playing Azul, and it won the 2018 Spiel des Jahres award, but it’s not interactive, and we don’t think it prepares players for next-level strategic Eurogames as well as some of our picks.
Santorini: Our previous pick for a great two-player game, Santorini is fun and easy to learn. Wirecutter editor Kimber Streams described the strategy as a “mash-up between checkers and Connect Four.” Although god cards can add oomph after you’ve played a few times, this game has a short play time and light strategy, and if more than two people are involved, players can get knocked out early on.
Kingdomino: Wirecutter editor Kimber Streams played this 2017 Spiel des Jahres winner and likened it to Carcassonne—in Kingdomino, you build a map and gain points by grouping land types together, but on your own board. Although it’s fun, Kingdomino is less interactive than our picks, and the rulebook is less straightforward.
Sheriff of Nottingham: Recommended by several staffers, this bluffing party game is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it, but it takes longer to master than our picks. I played with a group of four, and while we enjoyed a second round, it took me more than 20 minutes to explain the rules—not ideal for a party game.
Clank: This deck-building game came recommended to us as a more fun and accessible alternative to the popular Dominion. But it took us far longer to play than the estimated time on the box, and players can “die” with zero points and then have to wait out the rest of the game.
Photosynthesis: We were excited to try Photosynthesis, which has stunning art and a rare theme that doesn’t center on capitalism. Unfortunately, the game was extremely slow and not very interactive.
Secret Hitler: This deduction-based party game has complex rules and a difficult learning curve. Although it was fun once our eight players understood how to play, we also dismissed this game because of its potentially offensive theme.
King of Tokyo: Wirecutter writer Liz Thomas loves this game, which has a host of wacky characters, from zombies to aliens, that battle players to become the King of Tokyo. But we cut it because players could get eliminated early on.
Kingdom Builder: We dismissed this tile-laying, settlement-building game because our experts said there were better games in this genre, and it has a weaker Board Game Geek rating—7.0 out of 10, across 15,000 ratings—than similar games like Carcassonne and Catan.
The following games came up in our research, were recommended by experts, or were mentioned by Wirecutter staffers, and will likely be fun, too:
Camel Up isn’t as popular as our picks, and reviews report that the directions can be confusing.
We like Qwixx a lot, but dismissed it in favor of party games that could accommodate more players.
How we picked and tested
To find the best board games for adults, we polled Wirecutter staffers about their favorite games and considered nine roundups and reviews of board games, including those from Ars Technica, Popular Mechanics, Vulture, and Smithsonian.com. We also checked out the recipients of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres board game award, and we scoped out the best-selling and most popular games on Amazon and Board Game Geek, a prominent gaming forum.
Because so many amazing games are published each year, I asked several professionals for recommendations and to help us establish criteria for what makes a great game. I spoke in depth with Dr. Jon Freeman, a clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher turned founder of the board game café The Brooklyn Strategist; Joey Lee, lecture professor and director for the Games Research Lab at Columbia University; Joe Wasserman, a board games and learning researcher at West Virginia University; and the team behind The Rules Girl, a rules-explainer video series. I also asked the following game experts and enthusiasts to weigh in on our finalists: Melissa Rogerson, a doctoral candidate in the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at the University of Melbourne; Crymson Pleasure, Vanri The Rogue, and AnnaMaria Jackson-Phelps from the Real Women of Gaming forum; Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower game podcast; and David Miller, the executive editor of game news site Purple Pawn.
You can categorize board games in many different ways, organizing them by skill level, player count, or play time. You can group them by the types of play pieces, such as dice or tiles; the theme, like trains or military; or the mechanic. A game’s mechanic is “the verb of the game, or the action that a player does repeatedly, whether it’s betting, singing, throwing, bidding, trading,” said Joey Lee.
With our experts’ notes and feedback from Wirecutter staffers in mind, we decided to divide games into new-gamer, next-level strategy, party, cooperative, and two-player categories, and we determined that all our picks should meet the following criteria:
• Easy to learn: The rules should be easy to learn, even if a game’s strategy is more complex. We favored games with straightforward, clearly written rulebooks, though you can consult many online rule-explainer videos, and many games also have accompanying apps. We used Board Game Geek’s community-reported complexity ratings combined with expert input and our own testing to compare how difficult our competitors were to learn. We didn’t include any games that were harder to learn than Catan, but you can find many great, more-challenging games if you’re ready to progress beyond our choices.
• Interactive: We looked for games where players had to engage with each other throughout the game, whether cooperatively or competitively, to trade, build, and more. Additionally, we determined that a game shouldn’t eliminate players from a game early on and force them to wait for everyone else to finish.
• Strategically balanced: The best games strike a good balance between luck and strategy, and have multiple strategies for players to learn rather than one dominant approach. Dr. Jon Freeman named Monopoly as an example of a game with a dominant strategy that can wipe out other players (by buying the most properties, which is based on luck). He said that the best strategic games are “easy to get into but take a lifetime to master.”
• High replay value: The best games are those you come back to again and again, so we looked for this attribute when reading reviews and asking Wirecutter staff for notes on games. (We also found that strategically balanced games were fun and engaging to play repeatedly.)
• Scalable player count: We preferred games that were fun and engaging with different numbers of people. (Although we didn’t test expansion packs that adapted games for more players, many games have these as options; we included notable ones for our picks.)
• Player reviews: We considered each game’s Amazon and Board Game Geek ratings and reviews. But Freeman advised us to regard reviews with a grain of salt—if you’re a seasoned gamer, an Amazon review might not provide sufficiently in-depth information, whereas if you’re a newer enthusiast, Board Game Geek ratings might shine favorably on an extremely difficult game.
• Game length: Board Game Geek has user-submitted average play times (which can vary drastically from what’s on the box). We also considered feedback from our experts on how long it actually took to play games, and we played a few ourselves to test the play times.
Aesthetics weren’t a crucial determining factor, but we did consider games with compelling, beautiful art (especially for more-expensive games). And although a companion smartphone/tablet app wasn’t a testing criterion, it is a bonus for most of the games on our list.
We narrowed our list of 115 games to 16, reading the rules and watching explainer videos to understand how the games were played. We then asked seven board game enthusiasts, reviewers, and experts to rank each game based on our criteria. Additionally, Wirecutter editor Kimber Streams and I each played 13 different games from our final list, with 18 people.
1. Dr. Jon Freeman, founder, The Brooklyn Strategist, phone interview, January 4, 2018
2. Dr. Joey J. Lee, lecture professor and director of the Games Research Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University, email interview, January 8, 2018
3. The Rules Girl team, creators, game-rules explainer videos, email interview, January 8, 2018
4. Joe Wasserman, board games and learning researcher, West Virginia University, phone interview, January 10, 2018
5. Melissa Rogerson, doctoral candidate, Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at the University of Melbourne, email interview, February 5, 2018
6. Crymson Pleasure, Vanri The Rogue, and AnnaMaria Jackson-Phelps, staff, Real Women of Gaming, email interview, February 5, 2018
7. Tom Vasel, host, The Dice Tower podcast, email interview, February 5, 2018
8. David Miller, executive editor, Purple Pawn, email interview, February 5, 2018
9. Aaron Zimmerman, Nate Anderson, and Tom Mendelsohn, Ars Technica’s ultimate board game buyer’s guide, Ars Technica, December 8, 2017
10. William Herkewitz, The 50 Best New Board Games, Popular Mechanics, March 1, 2018
11. Rachel Kaufman, The Ten Best Board Games of 2017, Smithsonian.com, November 21, 2017
Read the original post on The Best Beginner Board Games for Adults.