The only way we’d be in more of a board gaming golden age would be if Monopoly money were suddenly declared legal currency. The tabletop epoch of the past four or five years has brought an abundance of quality and variety: wonderful standalone miniatures games, experimental digital/physical hybrids, party games that genuinely teach you something about your friends. And Kickstarter, as it has for some independent PC game makers, has become a launchpad for new franchises like Zombicide or interesting licensed stuff like Ghostbusters.
To express our enthusiasm for what’s happening in board gaming right now, and to give you some recommended entry points, I’ve collected some of our favorite current games. I’ve tried to tailor this list to suit the tastes of most PC gamers—high-quality, deep, systems-driven games that don’t take two hours to unravel and set up. If you’ve got suggestions of your own, drop ‘em in the comments.
$50 on Amazon
Old Risk can be a huge time commitment—a minimum of two hours, assuming you’re playing with a sober, decisive group. Risk Legacy, the best version of the game, amends these issues with two novel, transformative twists: the board itself is permanently rebalanced as more games are played, and global domination isn’t the lone victory condition.
Those changes make Legacy a persistent strategy game. Players apply stickers like defensive bunkers and “ammunition shortage” to the board over time, each of which have corresponding bonuses or penalties. In game seven of our board, Wes stuck a biohazard scar (-1 troops per turn) to Venezuela to make an attack on Central America even tougher. As a reward for winning game five, I renamed Australia “Terrifyingly-Large Spiderland,” which granted me and only me a +1 troop bonus atop the usual +2 continent bonus in all future games.
I love the way Legacy scales in complexity over time like this--you don’t have to spend two hours absorbing every rulebook nuance before you can start rolling d6s to crush your friend’s HQ in Central America. Together, it’s the most clever rework of a classic board game ever conceived. At the end of 15 games, you’re left with a kind of war artifact, a board that chronicles the time you and your friends spent around it.
$55 on Amazon
Our GOTY 2014 has a pretty great, recent deckbuilding game, as it turns out. If you’ve played Dominion, you already know the basics: players “buy” cards, integrating them into their decks to create as much synergy as possible. From that foundation, though, Legendary Encounters departs from Dominion as a template: it’s cooperative, it’s more complex, you control individual characters, and you do combat. For contrast, if you’re unlucky enough to add a Facehugger to your discard pile, when you pick it up again, it reads “When you draw this, you suffer extreme pain and die.” Not exactly all Festivals and Jesters, then.
Unique to Encounters, too, is the ability to order its objective cards in a way that mirrors the plot of any of the four movies in the Alien series. Pretty neat. Legendary also has a worthwhile Marvel version that’s simpler but absolutely satisfying, as well as a Villains variant that flips the where you play as Magneto, Doc Ock, Loki, and other big bads. A tiny strike against Legendary that I’d level, though, is that its 500-600 card sets come mostly unsorted, and can take almost an hour to collate.
Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game
2-X players (usually 2)
$32 on Amazon
If our bodies didn’t require sleep and our loved ones didn’t require love, I’d have room in my life for lifestyle-level tabletop games like Warhammer 40,000. For those of us who are subject to reality, X-Wing is an amazing alternative that preserves everything that’s good about miniatures while mercifully compressing the time it takes to finish a battle.
Scalability is a huge asset to X-Wing. Like 40K, every ship, pilot, and upgrade has a point value associated with it, so you can knock out a four-ship skirmish in half an hour or settle in for a massive, multi-part campaign with capital ships like the Tantive IV and assign squadrons to four or five different players.
What makes X-Wing work most, though, is its FlightPath™ system. Within this movement system, pioneered by WWI flight sim Wings of Glory, players commit movement orders in secret, then reveal them all simultaneously. Is your opponent’s TIE Bomber going to sprint right at you, or barrel-roll behind an asteroid? Trying to out-guess and out-maneuver your opponent takes real strategic thinking, but doesn’t burden X-Wing with a billion rules.
The base set is fairly cheap, but building out your fleet will mean shelling out for expansion ships, most of which hover around $25 on Amazon. At least the pre-painted models look terrific—good enough to display on a desktop. Fantasy Flight’s also made an effort to make organized, competitive X-Wing tournaments accessible worldwide, if you fancy that.
Star Trek: Attack Wing
2-X players (usually 2-3)
$32 on Amazon
Attack Wing earns our enthusiastic recommendation because it shares X-Wing’s elegant FlightPath™ system for movement, as well as its simple-but-deep mechanics for lock-ons and evasion. A big difference, of course, is that the ships you’re controlling aren’t fighters—they’re bulkier Galaxy-classes and warships. That gives Attack Wing a more naval feel: you’re loading up a Romulan Warbird or the space boat of your choice with tons of upgrades and crew and trying to broadside your opponent’s space boat before they torpedo you one too many times.
Attack Wing also lends itself to more objective-based play, where multiple players are competing to beam resources off a planet or a Federation player has to protect Deep Space Nine from Dominion or Borg enemies until Vulcan or Ferengi (sure, why not) allies arrive. Your takeaway here should be that FlightPath makes these games work—WizKids even has a D&D variant that swaps spaceships for dragons.
$39 on Amazon
The progenitor of modern secret identity games, seven-year-old Battlestar Galactica remains essential regardless of your level of attachment to Edward James Olmos. Everyone on the Galactica has to work together to put out various, constantly raging fires: food shortages, Cylon ship attacks (a dogfighting minigame that plays out on the edges of the board), even elections that strain loyalties and trust as everyone tries to figure out who’s an evil Cylon working against the group. The possibility of sleeper Cylons complicate that further—a player can push through the first portion of the BSG as a helpful human, only to learn later that their goals are now flipped. Making that adjustment without revealing yourself takes incredible social gymnastics.
You can augment BSG with Pegasus, Exodus, and Daybreak, expansions that add characters, secondary boards, planets, new objectives, and generally more accusations and uncertainty to ruin your friendships.
XCOM: The Board Game
$53 on Amazon
One of two games featured here with a required digital component, the tabletop version of XCOM models the geoscape side of an XCOM campaign—science, ground combat, dogfighting, management and economy—and distributes those tasks across four discrete roles. These roles each operate a portion of the board that they’re responsible for: the Squad Leader, for instance, plays a kind of symbol-matching game as they allocate troops to defend the XCOM HQ. As a cooperative experience, it's vaguely similar to stuff like Pandemic. XCOM is turn-based, however, the app (which stands in a printed manual, and can also run off a browser) forces players to respond in real-time to events like base attacks and UFO arrivals. The sum is incredibly tense: you're dialed-in to the quadrant of XCOM you're responsible for, but get to feel the impact of every dice roll on your campaign at large.
The Witcher Adventure Game
$42 on Amazon
The only game on this list with a digital port available on Steam, The Witcher’s board game is a simple but entertaining spin-off with an unusual focus on storytelling, sort of like Ticket to Ride with more monster fighting. If you’ve played Talisman or Arkham Horror, dial down the complexity and length and you’re in the neighborhood. The rules are fairly easy to absorb, and after that it’s a straightforward fantasy race between the four characters—Geralt, Triss, Dandelion, and Yarpen the dwarf, each with different proficiencies in magic, fighting, and diplomacy. A no-brainer for Witcher fanatics.
$56 on Amazon
An interesting experiment (and 2013 Kickstarter) from Jordan Weisman, otherwise known as the father of MechWarrior and Shadowrun, Golem Arcana is a hybrid digital, miniatures, and board game. Arcana’s approach is to throw the rulebook into a deep, gator-filled river and use a Bluetooth-connected wand in unison with “smart” tiles and figurines and a tablet (or phone) app to handle movement and combat actions. It takes a moment to wrap your head around, but once you adapt to the rhythm of using the light pen and app to check spells and terrain effects, it becomes a system that eliminates the need for a rulebook and funnels the complexity found in other miniatures games without sacrificing tactical depth.
Other games, reader suggestions
There’s a bunch of worthy board games not mentioned in this list. I wasn’t able to get my hands on everything I was curious about, but I’ll look to update this article later this year if I’m able to spend time with these. Leave a review of a game you’d recommend in the comments!
Android: Netrunner, beloved cyberpunk LCG from the creator of Magic
Lords of Waterdeep, based on Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons Dice Masters: Battle for Faerûn, built on the terrific Quarriors system
Machi Koro, a quick city-building game with charming art
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a fascinating single- or multiplayer mystery-solving game
Twilight Struggle, designed by Ananda Gupta, Lead Designer on XCOM: Enemy Within
Heroes of Normandie, a “heroic,” “bloody” WWII strategy game
Pictured in our Risk Legacy photos, Chessex's dice are splendid—if you’ve visited a PAX you’ve already seen their massive, multicolored display. You can get a pound of their assorted multisided dice from Amazon.
$25 on Amazon, varies
If your tiny breakfast nook is the only surface you have to play games, consider the benefits of rolling vertically. Etsy has a selection of handmade ones, too.
A note on affiliates: some of our stories, like this one, include affiliate links to online stores. These online stores share a small amount of revenue with us if you buy something through one of these links, which help support our work evaluating components and games.