In the last few years, the number of board games being released has exploded. This can be overwhelming for new players looking to pick up a few games or start a collection. Do you go for the tried-and-true ‘classics’ or something more modern? Once you’ve broken that shrink rap, you want to know you’ve made a good investment.
We’ve been playing games for about four years and are by no means a gaming authority, but we remember what it was like going into the games shop and seeing row after row of strangely titled eurogames, big box fantasy epics and weird card games. Here’s some of the games that we think have real staying power – the games we’ve introduced to friends time and again.
We’ve avoided a couple of the giants of the hobby like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, in part because they are so prevalent but also because we think there are better experiences out there for new players.
Let us know your favourite introductory games in the comments!
Published: 2015 Designed by: Vlaada Chvátil
Players: 2 – 8 Best with: 4 – 6
Time: 20 mins Price: £15
I’m not a huge fan of word games generally. I much prefer strategic or tactical thinking over games that rely on knowledge or education. Codenames has won me over though, in large part due to seeing the sheer joy and tension it creates for larger groups at our events. In fact it’s often so in demand and easy to learn that I rarely get to play it!
How it works: Players divide equally into teams, with each team nominating a spymaster. The opposing spymasters sit together, sharing a decoder which only they can see. The decoder identifies their agents in the field, which is a 5×5 grid of words. They have to communicate the location of the agents to the rest of their team by giving clues that include a word and a number, that correspond to words in the grid.
For example, in the photo above, the spymaster could give the clue ‘Cinema, 2’. My teammates might guess ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Bond’. But they might also choose ‘Crash’, as a film title, which I hadn’t intended. For the guesses that correspond to an agent of their team’s colour, the word gets covered over with an agent tile. An incorrect guess like Crash, might take out an innocent bystander (ending your team’s turn), reveal an enemy agent (helping your opponent) or, worst of all, reveal the assassin and lose the game immediately. Provided the assassin is safely avoided, the first team to reveal all their agents wins.
Why it’s great: Codenames features both cooperation in teams and competition between them, aligning it closely with classic party games like Pictionary. This makes it a great one for the collection because it can be played with family at Christmas, or with friends who maybe aren’t into games. It also contains the perfect amount of tension in the race to reveal your team’s agents before your opponents do and a hilarious dissonance between the intentions of the spymaster and the interpretations of the team members. It also plays quickly, often leading to cries of “just one more game!”.
Watch: Codenames on Watch It Played [YouTube]
Next up: If you enjoy Codenames, why not give Codenames: Pictures a go.
Published: 2000 Designed by: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede
Players: 2 – 5 (6 with expansion) Best with: 2 – 4
Time: 45 – 60mins depending on player count Price: £25 -30
In the world of ‘designer’ board games, Carcassonne is a geriatric, originally published way back in 2000. This was the second game we added to our collection and the reason it’s endured for so long is because nothing has really surpassed it. It’s a great game to introduce to new players because it’s very different to what many people think of when they hear ‘board game’, yet is easy to learn and plays in a breezy 45 minutes.
How it works: Players draw tiles and add them to an ever-growing arrangement of tiles, which together form a landscape of medieval cities, roads, monasteries and fields. The tile must fit logically with the tiles already placed in this jigsaw-like arrangement: city walls must join up, roads have to connect etc. Once you’ve placed your tile, you can ‘claim’ a feature on it with a follower, as long as another player hasn’t already claimed it. Once you complete a claimed feature you score points for it.
Why it’s great: What keeps Carcassonne relevant as a gateway game is that it offers a completely different experience to family games, while only taking a couple of rounds to grasp. There’s quite a lot of interaction with other players, especially if they place a tile you were hoping to pick up, or they muscle in on your biggest city. While you are competing for features, you’re also working together to build this sprawling pastoral idyll, which is really satisfying.
Watch: How to Play Carcassonne in 3 Minutes by The Rules Girl [Youtube]
Next up: If you enjoy Carcassonne, I recommend you expand it. The first two expansions Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders add new strategies and make the game ever so slightly more adversarial. Your mileage with the other 400 or so expansions may vary.
Published: 2014 Designed by: Uwe Rosenberg
Time: 30 mins Price: £15
Thematically, Patchwork is one of the cutest games around. The currency is buttons for goodness’ sake. Underneath its paisley and plaid exterior lies quite a cutthroat two player game that is perfect for couples.
How it works: Each player takes an empty patchwork board, which is a 9×9 grid. The objective of the game is to cover as many squares of their board with ‘patches’, which are tetris-like shapes (polyominoes). These shapes are arranged in a circle around the time tracker board. Players take it in turns picking up patches (restricted by the placement of the ‘spool’ piece), placing them on their board. Just like in Tetris, pieces can be placed to interlock and rotated as the player sees fit. Many of the patches feature buttons, which are scored every time the player passes the button icon on the time track, and a time cost, which advances the players token on the time track. When both players reach the final central space of this track, the game ends and scoring takes places.
Players add up the number of buttons they have accrued and subtract two points for each empty space on their patchwork. Highest score wins. It’s possible to score minus points.
Why it’s great: Don’t be mistaken; Patchwork can be a fierce head-to-head competition. You can see time slipping by on the tracker, inducing panic as you realise you haven’t got enough buttons to fill your quilt, AND your opponent just took the piece you desperately needed. Patchwork can be ruthless, in the best possible way. And yet, it’s a great solo puzzle too.
Next up: Games featuring ‘polyominoes’ have become all the rage since Patchwork was released. Designer Uwe Rosenberg has put his name to a few including Cottage Garden and the epic A Feast for Odin. If competitive 2 player-only games appeal, we’ll be publishing another post of our favourites soon.
Published: 2010 Designed by: Matt Leacock
Players: 2 – 4 Best with: 4
Time: 30 – 45 mins Price: £15-20
Forbidden Island is our go-to co-op for new gamers. Matt Leacock is one of the best-known board game designers of recent years, most famous for the Pandemic series of cooperative games. Forbidden Island takes a lot of cues from its bigger, more complex sister game in terms of design, but presents it in a distilled and sometimes more exciting form.
How it works: In Forbidden Island, the players are a party of adventurers, in search of lost treasure on a mysterious island. Problem is, the island is sinking. The group have to collect four treasures and all make it to the helicopter (located at the wonderfully named ‘Fool’s Landing’) before the island sinks completely, the locations of the treasure disappear underwater, a player’s location gets cut off, or too many ‘Water’s Rise!’ cards are drawn from the treasure deck. In short, there are lots of ways to lose this game.
Once players have taken their actions (moving, ‘shoring up’ submerged locations, exchanging treasure cards) and drawn from the treasure deck, they then draw from the ‘flood deck’, which flood tiles, causing them to flip. If already submerged, the tiles drawn go out of the game. Draw a Water’s Rise! card and all previously drawn cards in this deck get shuffled and placed back on top of the deck, significantly ramping up the tension.
Why it’s great: Forbidden Island is a classic because it pulls the players together to triumph over adversity, of which there is plenty. It’s a great game to pull out for friends whose memories of games involve Christmas trauma, family rifts and poorly designed house rules. This game was a revelation to us a few years ago and we have many fond memories because of it.
Century: Spice Road
Published: 2017 Designed by: Emerson Matsuuchi
Players: 2 – 5 Best with: 2, 3 or 4
Time: 30 – 45 mins Price: £30
As the board game hobby has exploded in the last few years, so has the ‘hype’ that surrounds many new releases, especially those with lavish components and artwork. Century: Spice Road is one such game released this year, but I believe it’s got real staying power. Players are merchants, travelling along the famous spice road, delivering cinnamon, saffron, turmeric and cardamom in return for fortune and glory. It was much a much bigger deal than going to Aldi for something to put on your wedges.
Spice Road is the first in a trilogy of Century games that can be played separately or combined together. It’s going to be interesting to see how the series grows!
How it works: On your turn, you simply take one action. This could be playing a card from your hand to gain spices (aka cubes), taking new cards into your hand (by placing spices on all the cards to the left of the card you want in the trade row), or fulfilling a trade, by exchanging your spices for victory point cards. You can only play your cards once; to play them again you need to take the ‘rest’ action, which lets you take all played cards back into your hand. You can also keep an eye on your opponent’s spice trading and perhaps deny them the cards they might want.
When a player buys their fifth or sixth victory point card (depending on player count) the game ends and the player with the most victory points from cards, coins and remaining spices wins.
Why it’s great: Century: Spice Road refines the mechanisms of previous ‘engine building’ games into something elegant and easy to learn but with enough depth to keep you coming back. The high production values of the oversized cards, spice bowls and metal coins add to its appeal too, highlighting why the tactile nature of board games can deepen our engagement with them.
Watch: Century: Spice Road on Watch It Played [YouTube]
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Published: 2014 Designed by: Ted Aslpach & Akihisa Okui
Players: 3 – 10 Best with: 6 – 10
Time: 10 mins per round Price: £20
One night Ultimate Werewolf has become our favourite party game, as the wear and tear on the character tiles above shows. It simplifies hidden role games like Werewolf and Mafia into 10 minute rounds, optionally run by an atmospheric phone app that narrates each round meaning everyone can join in. Players are residents of a medieval village and have to figure out who amongst them may be a Werewolf, while any player who finds themselves in wolf’s clothing has to avoid detection.
How it Works: Three more cards than the number of players are selected and the characters chosen are selected in the app. Two of the cards will be werewolves. Each player is dealt a face down character tile at random, which they look at but don’t reveal to anyone. The three remaining cards are placed into a central display. Some villagers, like the Seer, have special powers of divination; while others, like the Troublemaker, throw uncertainty into the decision making.
Once everyone has looked at their card, the app is triggered and all players close their eyes for the ‘night’ phase. In turn, the app will ask some of the players to open their eyes, interact with the cards on the table and then close their eyes again. For example, the Seer can look at another player’s card or two from the centre, while the troublemaker swaps the cards of two players with one another, without looking at them. The Werewolves wake up and look for other werewolves, allowing them to conspire in the next phase if they have the company of another lycanthrope.
Once the app has narrated through the night phase, all players ‘wake up’ by opening their eyes and have five minutes to figure out who amongst them who is a werewolf. They aren’t allowed to look at the card in front of them. Players then vote on which character to hang. If the werewolves are hung, the villagers win.
Why it’s great: There are few feelings better than lying to your friends’ faces, right? With the movement of the cards in the night phase, a player can’t always be certain that the role they started with is the one now in front of them, adding to the internal tension. While you’re trying your best to keep it together and hoping that the troublemaker didn’t swap your innocent villager card for a werewolf, the werewolves will be trying to subtly undermine your position as an upstanding member of this community.
ONUW really shines once everyone has a grasp of the characters and can, for example, pretend to be the seer when really they are a werewolf (or a tanner, who is suicidal and wants to convince the other villagers that they are a werewolf). Not all characters are included in each game, which means that you can switch things up by mixing in different cards.
Lords of Waterdeep
Published: 2012 Designed by: Peter Lee & Rodney Thompson
Players: 2 – 5 (6 with expansion) Best with: 3 – 4
Time: 70 – 120mins depending on player count Price: £30 – 35
Lords of Waterdeep is set in the Forgotten Realms, the world of Dungeons & Dragons. However there’s not a d20 dice, Dungeon Master or character sheet in sight. LoW instead casts players as powerful movers and shakers in the ‘city of splendors’, growing their influence over the city’s businesses and populace through effective resource management.
How it works: Each round, you send your agents out into Waterdeep’s prime locations, where they recruit adventurers (aka cubes) which can be used to complete quests, which score you victory points. Putting it like that, it sounds a bit dry. In reality it’s a tense scramble to get the resources you need to complete quests before your opponents use the location you need.
As the game progresses, more buildings can be purchased by players, expanding your options and accelerating the pace at which you complete quests. There’s also a bit of direct interaction between players in the form of mandatory quests, which can be played on your opponents. They have to complete these before carrying on with their business – slowing the progress of their underground empires and causing them to hate you a little bit.
It’s also worth mentioning the wonderfully-named expansion Scoundrels of Skullport, which adds new locations, quests and ‘corruption’ – a kind of currency that enables you to get ahead of your opponents. But be warned: get too greedy and it could lead to a big fall.
Why it’s great: It’s a fantastic introduction to heavier ‘worker placement’ strategy games; easy to learn but with a decent amount of depth. The presentation is a real draw, with a vast board that luxuriously sprawls across the table, especially with higher player counts. It’s a great centrepiece to an evening or Sunday afternoon. Even the box has an interesting design.
Watch: Lords of Waterdeep on Tabletop [YouTube]