As the holiday season draws closer, we’ve put together a list of the best board games sure to liven up your parties.
Board games have long been a fixture of the holiday season, with family members gathered round the table in an annual ritual of forced socialisation. Most of us will have grown up with a battered copy of Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble in the house, for example. But surely we can do better?
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In spite of the popularity of gaming consoles and smart devices, the tactile pleasure of a great board game means tabletop is still a thriving industry, with new, increasingly sophisticated games appearing on a regular basis.
So with this increasingly wide range of choice, for beginners and experienced players of all ages, which one should be the next entry in your own games library? We’ve selected seven of our favourites to help make the choice easier.
2 of 8
- Age: 10+
- Players: 2-7
- Gaming time: 40-45 minutes
- Price: £36.95
A Cluedo-esque murder mystery, with the players attempting to identify the location, weapon and culprit following a slaying, Mysterium offers a supernatural twist on the classic formula.
One player (the ghost) takes on the role of the murder victim, attempting to communicate the circumstances of their death to the other players from beyond the grave. The players’ psychic investigators must interpret these clues over the course of seven turns in order to assemble a complete picture of the murder.
Once this is complete, the players must vote on whose deduction they feel is correct. If they succeed, they win the game. So far so good…
The twist is that the ghost is unable to communicate directly to players, and instead must send them clues via dreams and visions, which take the form of a series of lavishly illustrated picture cards. These surrealistic images are the real highlight of an already beautifully designed game, with plenty of scope for interpretation, depending on the players’ and the ghost’s personalities.
This means games can vary considerably depending on the group of people involved and their respective levels of weirdness, adding much by way of replay value and leading to plenty of genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
While it’s advisable to have one person who’s already played the game act as the ghost until everyone is familiar with the turn sequence, the inclusion of multiple difficulty levels means that it’s relatively easy for anyone to jump in.
This make Mysterium a great option for family gaming sessions and committed tabletop aficionados.
3 of 8
- Age: 12+
- Players: 1-8
- Gaming time: 2-4 hours
- Price: £39:59
Originally released in 1987, Arkham Horror has enjoyed something of a renaissance since its re-release in 2005, with a number of expansions and ongoing online support via Fantasy Flight’s website.
Like most of the best board games, the premise is a simple one: players take on the role of investigators in HP Lovecraft’s famous Massachusetts town, working to prevent one of the Ancient Ones from awakening and bringing about the end of everything.
Each turn, the players explore the town, combat monsters and move through other worlds in an attempt to close their gates. Oh, and try to avoid dying or going insane while doing so (it is Lovecraft, after all!).
If enough gates open, the Ancient One awakens, and the players must make a last-ditch attempt to beat it face to face. If all the gates are closed, calm is restored and the players win. That’s the simple version…
Arkham Horror has acquired something of a mixed reputation among tabletop fans for its perceived complexity and length of playing time. Being brutally honest, it isn’t altogether undeserved. There’s definitely a steep learning curve involved – something not helped by a slightly disorganised-feeling rulebook – but the potential rewards are great.
Lovecraft fans will adore the various encounters, monsters and characters that draw on the mythos he and his acolytes created, ranging from the well-known to the obscure.
In more practical terms, this is definitely a game that rewards collaboration and strategic thinking, as players must coordinate their actions and establish how to best utilise their investigators’ different abilities to their fullest extent. This is something that will come with practice, although the range of monsters and investigators in the core game alone means there’s lots of replay value here.
While this probably isn’t one to break out with the grandparents, consider giving this a go and investing the time to fully explore it. You might be surprised…
Lords of Waterdeep
4 of 8
- Age: 12+
- Players: 2-5
- Gaming time: 2-4 hours
- Price: £39:99
Monopoly has probably been responsible for more shattered friendships and familial bonds than any other board game in history. That’s why I’m a great fan of this alternative, which offers a more sophisticated simulation of cut-throat capitalism, set in the popular Dungeons & Dragons universe.
Players take on the role of the eponymous Lords – aspiring rulers of the city of Waterdeep. Each turn, players work to acquire gold and real estate, which will allow them to hire a number of different adventurers (wizards, rogues, clerics, warriors, and so on) to complete quests on their behalf. Points are gained through completed quests, buildings purchased, and each Lord’s individual goal. At the end of eight turns, whoever has logged the most points wins.
It’s an elegant rules system that most players should pick up very quickly. However, while it’s easy to learn, mastering it takes longer. Lords of Waterdeep is all about deception and misdirection – completing your own goals while hindering your opponents.
This might involve the use of intrigue cards (which are used to represent the ever-present skullduggery in Waterdeep), or acquiring the quests or buildings your opponents need before they do.
As each Lord’s identity is kept concealed until the final tally of points, it’s necessary to watch your opponents closely in order to establish their long-term goal, while simultaneously ensuring your own actions don’t reveal your hand too early. In other words, success or failure is determined by strategy (and a good poker face!) rather than the roll of the dice.
If you’re sick of the annual arguments over the Monopoly board, I’d strongly recommend this as a grown-up alternative.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
5 of 8
- Age: 12+
- Players: 3-6
- Gaming time: 1 hour
- Price: £28:99
We’ve looked at both collaborative and competitive games in this article, but Betrayal at House on the Hill offers a third option: a collaborative game that morphs into a competitive one part way through.
Early on, we’re in relatively familiar territory, rules-wise. Players choose their investigators, then spend each turn exploring the rooms of a haunted house, collecting items and having the inevitable spooky encounters.
Rather than a board, Betrayal utilises a selection of room tiles that are put into play as players enter new rooms. This means that the playing area is completely different each time, which may prove to be to the players’ advantage or detriment. Warning in advance: I’d recommend as big a table as possible for this one, as the playing area can become crowded very quickly as new rooms open up.
The game’s real beauty reveals itself when the unique ‘traitor’ mechanic comes into play. After a certain number of omens (for instance, supernatural events initiated by specific rooms) occur, the ‘haunt’ comes into play and one player is revealed to be the villain of the piece.
At this point, the newly designated traitor leaves the room and consults their handbook, while the other players review their own set of instructions. Once this is done, the traitor must prevent the players from completing a set objective. If they do, they win; if they don’t, the players win. The haunts themselves are great fun, drawing from a wide range of sources that fans of classic horror (like myself!) will no doubt appreciate.
It’s this surprise element that makes Betrayal a great choice for parties. The traitor mechanic, tile-based play area, and 50 haunt options mean it’s one you won’t be getting bored with any time soon.
The only potential downside is that certain haunt objectives aren’t communicated as well as they could be, which means the flow of the game is held up while everyone attempts to work out what they need to do next. In such situations, a little patience and common sense will usually solve things, but it’s something to consider if you’re playing with people who are easily frustrated.
6 of 8
- Age: 8+
- Players: 2-4
- Gaming time: 45 minutes
- Price: £27
Personal opinion: there aren’t enough cooperative board games out there. Nevertheless, we do have some excellent choices available to us, such as the venerable Pandemic.
Although numerous expansions and sequels for this game have been released over the years, the original has stood the test of time and remains popular among tabletop fans. It isn’t hard to see why. Pandemic would definitely be my pick if you’re looking for a ‘best of all worlds’ game that will suit both new and experienced board gamers.
The players take the role of different specialists (dispatcher, medic, scientist, researcher, or operations expert) tasked with preventing global outbreaks of four different diseases. This means curing infections (represented by colour-coded cubes) as they occur in different areas of the gaming board. If more than three disease tokens are placed on a city, an outbreak occurs, and the adjacent cities are infected. If seven or more outbreaks occur, the players lose. If all four diseases are cured, the players win.
Like Arkham Horror, this is a game where collective strategy is the order of the day. Players must coordinate their movement around the board, share resources, and utilise their special abilities in a complementary fashion to avoid being overwhelmed by infections. The core mechanics are essentially simple, but definitely reward a sophisticated approach.
Pandemic’s main selling point remains its speed and accessibility. It’s a fast-paced game that’s easy to learn for players of all ages, but offers enough of a challenge to keep seasoned players happy. I’d strongly recommend keeping it to hand in your collection of games for those times you don’t feel like devoting hours to a session, or are playing with people who aren’t necessarily board game fans.
7 of 8
- Age: 8+
- Players: 3-6
- Gaming time: 45-60 minutes
- Price: £16.49
Among the ‘old school’ family board games, Scotland Yard remains somewhat underrated. Which is a shame, since it combines a familiar ‘all ages’ approach with a surprising amount of sophistication.
As the name implies, the players take on the role of Scotland Yard investigators, pursuing ‘Mr X’ around London via the public transport routes that residents of our capital will be well familiar with. The player acting as ‘Mr X’ moves around the board invisibly, surfacing at predetermined points in the turn sequence. The only clues the other players have is the specific mode of transport (bus, taxi, or tube) he utilises for each move. Their goal is to land on the same space as ‘Mr X’ before the turn limit is reached.
A beginner’s option is included in the rulebook, which can be helpful if you want to include younger children in the gameplay, but the full game can still present a challenge for even the most seasoned gamers.
Rather than complex rule mechanics, this game challenges players through logical deduction, memory, and fast thinking. It would therefore be a great choice if you’re looking for a family game to play with relatives who have outgrown their ‘kid-friendly’ games, but aren’t quite ready for the likes of Arkham Horror. Its price is also a big advantage, coming in at around half the cost of more sophisticated games.
Consider this one if you’re looking to delve deeper into the world of board games, but don’t feel quite ready for more complex rules sets – or if you’re looking for a more affordable option. As a starting point, you could do far worse.
8 of 8
- Age: 7+
- Players: 1-5
- Gaming time: 15-20 minutes
- Price: £69
Beasts of Balance is an addictive toy-stacking video game that brings the whole family in on the action. You’re all the creators of a new world, bringing beings to life by stacking them on the game’s plinth. Each of the stackable beasts has an NFC chip built in, and by touching the icon on the beast to the icon on the plinth, you can activate it, then carefully stack it on the platform. As the game goes on, the beasts build up, and the world inside the app gets more complex and intriguing.
What looks like a simple game of stacking up a bunch of colourful critters is actually a game of nerve, poise, smarts and strategy. The colourful beasts are beautifully designed and made, with a well-designed app and enough compelling game elements to keep both kids and grandparents hooked from start to finish.
A couple of extra beasts are available separately, but forthcoming add-ons include a space whale, unicorn, dragon and more.
There’s even an expansion pack on the way that’ll enable turn-based battles via a card system, which should add a whole new dimension to this beautiful game.