Best board games 2020: For adults, families, two players, and more

Kelly Kaliszewski

In case you missed it, board games have gotten really good recently. And with the limited choice in activities these days, board games are a good choice. With so much of our lives mediated through screens, it’s refreshing and humanizing to play face-to-face with people. Millions of people have taken the step from the tedious Monopoly and Life of their youth to modern gateway classics such as The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Cards Against Humanity, but where do you go from there? What is the best board game?

We’ve hand-picked this list of fantastic games to suit a wide range of players and interests, showing off just a sample of the most fun and interesting games that have been released in the last few years. Since you have likely been stuck at home for weeks, these might be just the thing you need for some new activities to do with the family.

Top board games

More board games

Mastermind

Genevieve Poblano/Digital Trends

Ah, the simple pleasure of laying down tiles to build a bustling French town. What could be better? How about squatting on your friend’s plot of land and claiming it as your own, turning all their hard work into sweet, sweet points for yourself? That magical feeling can be yours in Carcassonne, a game that looks charming and simple, but hides a competitive core. Gameplay in Carcassonne is straightforward: When it’s your turn, you draw a tile at random and then place it next to one of the already-placed tiles that make up the growing landscape. Connect roads to roads, fields to fields, cities to cities, and then place your workers down to claim these features as your own. If two different areas eventually collide, the player with the most pieces there will end up scoring all the points in the end, so you have to decide whether to build in isolation, watching from afar as you friends bludgeon each other over prime land, or get in on the action yourself.

Mastermind

Mastermind

Modern board gaming isn’t just about zombies and elves and space marines. Sure, there’s a ton of that, but every year the range of possible tabletop experiences grows by leaps and bounds. Enter Fog of Love: a romantic comedy board game for two. Both players create their own fictional character and work through one of several scenarios with fixed chapters and randomized scenes, charting the course of their relationship to its happy (or unhappy) ending. It’s an elegant game that strikes an incredible balance between mechanics that create an interesting puzzle to solve while keeping story and character forward, instead of getting lost in abstract min-maxing.

Fog of Love’s genesis speaks worlds about its revolutionary place in the industry. Designer Jacob Jaskov played and loved hundreds of board games, but his wife was never interested in any of them. For all the industry’s growth and diversification in the last several decades, games still almost exclusively focus on external conflicts, and never on internal, character-driven stories. Jaskov developed Fog of Love for this uncompromising audience of one, and the result is an exquisitely sharp application of some of modern gaming’s best design practices and ideas, while also totally defying industry convention. Its Walmart-exclusive distribution deal in the US hopefully speaks to a radical diversification of the mainstream board gaming industry in the near future.

Walmart

Azul -- 2-8+ players

Some games are built entirely around a single idea or theme, with every mechanic designed to serve it. For others, a “theme” is just a thin aesthetic veneer over its crunchy, abstract systems. Azul, a game about laying beautiful tiles for the Portuguese royal palace, is squarely the latter. Players compete to build the most complete and aesthetically-pleasing square of colorful tiles. Drafting tiles from a shared pool, combined with rules for how to lay them or save them for future rounds, makes for a satisfying puzzle that’s easy to learn, but hard to master and plays well (and differently) at its full range of two to four players in just about half an hour.

When building a game collection, it’s important to have a range of weights and interaction-styles. Azul is a fantastic “opener” for a game night, since it plays quickly and provides a constant stream of interesting decisions without ever overwhelming players into “analysis paralysis.” It also features a pleasant level of passive-aggressive interaction (through denying tiles to other players), making it important to keep up with what your friends are doing without ever putting you into direct clashes, which can be the perfect, congenial tone that some people like to set for an evening of laughter and conversation around the table, with games as the excuse to get there.

Mastermind

Gloomhaven -- 1-4 players

In Gloomhaven, two to four players team up for a co-operative fantasy adventure campaign that spans hundreds of hours, with over a dozen, unique characters to unlock. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a video game, but no, Gloomhaven is the latest massive dungeon crawl board game to blow up on Kickstarter. Players assume the role of wandering adventurers in a persistent world full of treasure to find, monsters to hunt, and dungeons to clear, accruing new items and abilities as they go. It’s standard video game fare, but Gloomhaven has set the board gaming world ablaze for how elegantly it distills that experience into an analog format.

Fantasy dungeon crawl is a crowded genre in board games as well as video games. Historically dungeon crawls fall under the “Ameritrash” lineage, with their mechanical excess, focus on simulation, and a heavy dose of randomness. This tracks from poorly aged classics like Hero Quest to Gloomhaven’s immediate Kickstarter precedent, Kingdom Death: Monster. While similar in the broad strokes as ponderous coffin boxes, laden with ridiculous amounts of monsters and loot, Gloomhaven takes a more restrained and thoughtful approach than KD’s maximalism, with tighter mechanics reminiscent of European-style board games

$115 from Amazon

Mastermind

Fantasy Flight Games

There are big board games, and then there’s Twilight Imperium. Fantasy Flight’s signature strategy game of galactic diplomacy and conquest is famously massive, hosting four to six players in a galaxy that takes up an obscene amount of table square footage, pounds of plastic miniature spaceships, and up to eight whopping hours of playtime. Every player assumes the mantle of a unique alien civilization, competing to be top dog in space in the wake of a galactic empire’s collapse. Whether you want to be savvy traders like the Ferengi, haughty imperialists like the Centauri, or a hive mind like the Formics, the expansive mechanics and broadly sourced archetypes of TI allow for basically whatever flavor of space opera tickles your fancy.

TI’s first edition released in 1997, making it ancient by the standard of contemporary board games. Several iterations have tightened up and streamlined the rule set towards more elegant, Eurogame-style mechanics and a vastly more appealing visual presentation. The 2017 fourth edition incorporates 20 years of player feedback, making a surprisingly smooth and refined version of a game that by all rights should be massively unwieldy. There are myriad, more focused versions of the TI fantasy now available in board and video games (from Eclipse to Stellaris), but nothing quite matches the maximalist grandeur of TI 4th Edition when you want to go all-in on a day of pretending to be on Babylon 5 with your friends.

Mastermind

Mastermind

As the themes and mechanics of modern board games grow increasingly elaborate, sometimes you just want the simple thrill of beating someone to the finish line. Flamme Rouge is a brilliant bicycle racing game that elegantly distills the real-world mechanics of team cycling into a fast, fun, strategic, and family-friendly board game. Each of 2-4 players controls two racers (a “rouleur” and a “sprinteur”), each with a corresponding deck of cards with the numbers 2-9 (the rouleur has an even spread of 3-7 while the sprinteur has a more boom-or-bust deck with twos and nines in the mix). Every turn each player draws four cards from each deck and chooses one for each of their riders to determine how far they move down the two-lane, modular track. Drafting and exhaustion mechanics encourage you to stay in packs and end with exactly one space (but no more)  between you and the next rider in a rule set that is remarkably easy to teach because of how cleanly it distills real-world cycling.

Racing games are as old as board games themselves — Snakes and Ladders traces all the way back to ancient India as a meditation on karma and morality. Note “meditation,” however: the “roll and move” mechanic at the heart of Snakes and Ladders was random and non-interactive by design, but in modern gaming “roll and move” has been relegated to children’s and “Ameritrash” games. Flamme Rouge’s card-driven racing mechanics keep some of that randomness, but temper it to put skilled decision-making front and center. As the general complexity of board game rules goes up, Flamme Rouge is an excellent reminder for the value of elegance and simplicity.

Mastermind

Mastermind

Espionage and associative vocabulary have never gone so well together. Codenames is a spy-themed party word game where two teams compete to locate all of their agents first. Random words are laid out in a five-by-five grid. Both teams’ spymasters can see a card that tells them which words are for each team, which are neutral, and which one is the black assassin word. The spymasters take turns saying one word and a number. Their team has that many guesses (plus one) to find the words associated with that clue. Pick correctly and the word gets covered with their color and they continue. Guess wrong and the turn passes, unless they picked the assassin word, which means they lose immediately. The first team that finds all of their words wins. It’s extremely simple and easy to teach, but the granular variability of the words makes it an interesting and challenging puzzle.

Few games have been so rapidly embraced by the community as classics as Codenames was in 2016. Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil has become a notable auteur of modern board gaming; his games, which include Space Alert, Dungeon Petz, and Galaxy Trucker, vary widely in terms of mechanics, but are generally unified by being side-splittingly hilarious. In addition to the original Codenames, the publisher has subsequently released a visual version with Codenames: Pictures and a naughty, Cards Against Humanity-inspired version called Codenames: Deep Undercover.

Mastermind

Mastermind

Like Battleship, but in real time and with teams, Captain Sonar is a thrilling game of dueling submarines designed for up to eight players. It begins with two teams setting up on opposite sides of the table and dividing into different roles. The captain, for instance, charts their course on a transparency with a marker over the map and decides when to fire torpedoes, while the engineer works to maintain the sub’s systems as it takes damage. Players can also take on the role of the radio operator, who must listen to the other team’s chatter to deduce their location. It’s a tense battle of wits that requires teamwork, quick thinking, and clever deduction.

We’ve seen team-on-team duels with interlocking mini-games like this before — just take a look at the excellent Space Cadets or its spin-off, Space Cadets: Dice Duel — but combining it with hidden movement and deduction like in Letters from Whitechapel or Fury of Dracula is an absolute stroke of genius. The game also comes with five scenarios that have different maps and special rules, along with a turn-based variant for more methodical play, adding more replay value to an already great base game.

Mastermind

Pandemic Legacy -- 2-4 players

The world is being wracked by four horrific diseases. A team of experts must race around the globe to find cures before society descends into chaos. First released in 2007, Pandemic is a tense, fun, and challenging cooperative game for two to four players. Easy to learn and hard to master, it is widely considered a classic and an excellent introduction to what modern games have to offer.

Pandemic Legacy uses that foundation for one of the most exciting and surprising games we’ve ever played. Like 2011’s Risk Legacy before it, Pandemic Legacy ties each individual session into a larger campaign, with the events of one game having permanent effects on the board and subsequent games. Each game represents one month of the year and you can play each month a second time before moving on if you fail the first attempt, with the challenge modulating up or down based on how you are doing. Every month adds new mechanics from a veritable Advent calendar of boxes and compartments full of stickers, cards, and components that alter the game in both small and sweeping ways.

All at once it would be overwhelming, but the game’s gradual evolution keeps the challenge fresh and creates a gripping and twisty narrative. Over the course of the year, cities will irrevocably fall, characters will form relationships and develop post-traumatic scars, viruses will evolve, and within even just a few games your copy of Pandemic Legacy will be unique. Don’t research too much because surprise is part of the fun; this is easily one of the best games in years.

$68 from Amazon

Mastermind

Skull_

Supposedly popularized by biker gangs, this game played with coasters is perfect for playing at a bar. Everyone has three roses and one skull, laying them face down one at a time in front of them until one player bets on how many they can flip without finding a skull. Everyone else goes around either raising or folding until someone finally has to test their luck. Succeed twice and you’ve won the game, but find a skull and you lose one of your cards at random.

It’s like poker, but with much simpler math. Skull is a beautifully stripped-down game of bluffing and bravado that is as tense as it is easy to learn. The game is so simple that once you know the rules it’s easy to just make your own copy with a stack of coasters and a marker, which is great in a pinch at a bar, but the artwork and components are so nice that you’ll want to own the official edition.

Mastermind