What do we mean when we talk about an “all time” great in any genre? It’s got to be something that’s stood the test of time, like all our picks for the best classic board games. But at the same time we need to steer away from titles that have become diminished by over familiarity and stray into new and exciting territory. We also want to include things that have been acclaimed as top of their particular tree at one time or another, to give some historical perspective.
That’s the steer we’ve brought to the list below, a mixture of board games once seen as the best ever, together with some close pretenders that have earned their spot through novelty or popularity. They’re all great in one way or another, so whatever you pick you can’t go wrong. Here are the best board games to play in 2023.
TLDR: The Best Board Games
- Cosmic Encounter
- Gloomhaven | Jaws of the Lion
- Pandemic Legacy Season 1 Red Version | Blue Version
- Twilight Struggle
- The Castles of Burgundy
- Lord of Waterdeep
- Ticket to Ride
- Summoner Wars
Don't have time to scroll? Here are all the games you'll find below.
Lots of games that revolve around grabbing territory tend to involve the kind of tentative alliances and festering enmities that mimic real-world diplomacy. Back in 1977, the designers of Cosmic Encounter had a brainwave: why not get rid of the territory and cut to the chase? The result is this hilarious game of shifting alliances where every player has a game-breaking alien power to leverage in the race to win colonies on five of your opponent’s planets. Crammed with variety, tactical decisions and more dramatic reversals than a prime-time soap opera, Cosmic Encounter may be the only negotiation game you need.
The current king of the board gaming pile got that way through an ingenious bit of genre-blending. If you like old-fashioned dungeon crawls with a strong narrative, well, the 95-scenario campaign of fantasy adventure has you covered. If you’re a sucker for tactical combat then its cunning, card-driven face-offs against a staggering variety of foes will thrill you. But if you want heavyweight strategy then deck-building and resource gathering over the campaign plus the in-scenario exhaustion mechanic gives you plenty of meat. Truly all things to all gamers — even fans of the best solo board games — Gloomhaven deserves its staggering level of acclaim. And if the cost is a bit much, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion offers a smaller campaign at a much smaller price tag. And not for nothing, both of these iterations also made it on our best board games for adults list as well.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
If combat-based narrative campaigns aren’t your thing, how about working together to purge the world of infectious diseases? Building on the success of the original Pandemic, this introduces “legacy” concepts to the game, in which components are added or removed as you progress through the game, based on your decisions, successes and failures. After a few plays, your copy will be a unique record of your group’s play. So in addition to offering a very personal tale to engage you, Pandemic: Legacy also individualizes your strategic experience. It’s a magical combination that has spawned two further seasons, creating an epic arc of story and strategy to enjoy with a gaming group or even as one of the best family board games.
Billed as a cold war simulation and with bullet-pointed rules, Twilight Struggle can appear daunting to the uninitiated. But there’s a reason it was widely acclaimed as the best game of all time after its 2009 release. Players have hands of event cards that replicate key moments from the conflict, keyed to either their side or their opponent. If you play an opponent’s card you can still make moves on the board but their event also occurs. This makes every hand a thrilling, tactical dance of play and counterplay as you try to move your plans forward while also nullifying enemy events. In addition to the superb strategic workout, you might even learn some history too with this war board game.
Another game that spent its time in the “best game ever” limelight is this unlikely game about farming. Stepping back from the theme, however, growing a family to work on a family farm is a dead ringer for the popular Worker Placement mechanism. As a result, Agricola conjures a real sense of growing and developing your humble plantation into a thriving stead, with plenty of interesting strategic bumps to navigate along the way. Its particular genius is its huge decks of cards, only a handful of which are used in each game, which ensures lots of strategic variety and allows you to tailor things like complexity and interaction to your group’s tastes.
The Castles of Burgundy
Coming into this game of estate-building in medieval France you could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the options to grow your castle. Fortunately, it’s a dice-based game where the roll each turn limits your choices of where you can take actions. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a random game: rather, the dice are there to keep throwing you curveballs you have to dodge around as you build a strategy. A classic case of having too much to do and too little to do it with, every action of every round feels weighted with impossible priorities, keeping you stretched right up until the points are tallied.
Lords of Waterdeep
By marrying the sensibilities of Dungeons & Dragons with the mechanics of modern board games, Lords of Waterdeep made a smash hit to last down the ages. Players take the roles of power brokers in the Forgotten Realms’ biggest city, hiring adventurers to defeat perils threatening Waterdeep while building new facilities in the town. It’s these additions that take this unusually thematic worker placement game to the next level, with the new buildings entering play ensuring that new strategies are required each time. Throw in a modicum of minor “take that” cards to spice things up and you’ve got a brilliant game with very wide appeal.
Ticket to Ride
One of the few hobby board games to cross over into full mainstream sales, Ticket to Ride is a steaming success story. It’s a combination of familiar concepts with players collecting cards, like a Rummy game, in order to try and claim matching routes on a map of the US. But beware: it’s a tight board with relatively few potential connections between the cities that you’ll need in order to complete your allotted routes. And if another player gets there first, you’ll lose potential points instead of gaining them. Easy to learn and exciting to play and with a wide variety of versions and expansion maps, Ticket to Ride is great fun for all ages. It also works well as a two-player board game, or with a group.
While conquest games involving ancient Rome are ten a penny, Concordia instead has you manoeuvring a noble family to gain wealth and contacts during the height of empire. Play is conducted using a deck of action cards that you can expand, using wealth from your trades, as the game progresses, allowing you to tailor your strategy accordingly. But the kicker is that your final scoring is also depending on those cards, with different cards earning you points in different ways, from goods in your storehouse to colonist pieces on the board. This creates a fascinating, rich, wheels within wheels layer of strategy, while the resource management elements also let you mess up your opponent’s plans while advancing your own.
Summoner Wars 2nd Edition
Collectible games wax and wane in popularity and print status, which makes even classics like Magic: the Gathering hard to include in this kind of list. Summoner Wars, however, with its clever blend of card and board-based gameplay has an evergreen sense about it and, best of all, its collectibility comes in packages. So if you tire of facing off the six included factions against one another, you can just add more to your collection. By forcing players to use cards both as units and currency, it keeps everyone making knife-edge decisions as they maneuver round the board and roll off against opposing units in their quest to kill the enemy summoner, right up until the on-board death.
Blasting onto the scene in 2015, Codenames changed the face of party games forever. In place of trivia quizzes or trivial tasks, it challenged players to come up with clues to interlink a series of apparently unconnected words. So you might link “Trip”, “Rome” and possibly even “Embassy” with the clue “Holiday”. The concept proved so accessible and addictive that it launched an entire new genre of synonym-based word games, each giving different spins on a similar formula. But for ease of teaching and wideness of enjoyment, the original is still the best.
Looking for more ideas not covered herer? Check out our rundown of the best board games for kids.
What to Consider When Shopping for the Best Board Games
There’s so much choice in modern board gaming that picking a game can be overwhelming, not to mention expensive! So to help winnow down the selection, here are a few things to look out for when making your picks.
Perhaps the most important one is whether it’s likely to see much play. Aspects of this are fairly obvious: whether it appeals to your friends, what’s the target age, if it’s a long game, will you have time for it, and so on. But there’s still more to these facets than may be immediately apparent. You may feel comfortable learning a very complex game, for example, but will your fellow players, and will you be able to teach it? Do you want a game to play with your partner, or your wider family, or does it need to be flexible enough to cater for both crowds?
Even then, these are often vexed questions. The play times listed on box sides are often hopelessly optimistic. Similarly, a game’s advertised player count can be very different from the ideal. A good tool to clear this up is the game information database boardgamegeek.com. If you search on a game there then, at the top of the page you’ll find, beneath the player count, a “best” suggestion for the optimal player count according to the site’s users.
There are other many other considerations. Some games take up a lot of table space, for example, which is no good if you play on a coffee or card table. Others can take a long time to set up and put away. These issues are often mentioned in a review if they’re problematic. And they can stack: you may be able to play a much longer game, for example, if you have space to pause and leave it out on the table to resume later.
Some genres of game require greater research than others. Increasingly, games are being released as lifestyle choices with a steady stream of expansions and new content. Which is great if it appeals to you, but you need to know what you’re getting into. Other games merge into miniature modelling which is a whole other hobby in it’s own right. Editions and versions are another thing worth checking out as many modern games come in standard and deluxe editions or may, in fact, be reprints of older titles.
You also need to think about how a game might fit in with your existing collection, both aesthetically and physically. For the former, consider what makes it different enough, mechanically or thematically, from games you already own to make it worthwhile. For the latter, remember that board games are big, and you’ll need to find space to store it!
Collecting and playing board games can be a very enjoyable and rewarding hobby. Good luck!