The best co-op board games

Is your board game group butting heads over one too many crushing victories by a dominant player? Are certain players uninterested in competitive miniatures or wargames? Well, here are the best cooperative board games you can play right now, balancing the old with the new. These are the ones that hit the table over and over, begging you to come back for just one new strategy, one more round, and one notch higher up the difficulty scale.

There’s bound to be some crossover with our best board games list, if you’re interested in a more general view of what’s going on in tabletop. 

Mechs vs. Minions

Released: 2016 | Players: 2-4 | Playtime: 60-90 minutes | Riot's Webstore

Designers: Chris Cantrell, Rick Ernst, Stone Librande, Prashant Saraswat, Nathan Tiras

Continually a surprise, it’s fitting to kick off this list with the League of Legends board game Mechs vs. Minions. It’s a clever game of programmed movement and action that sees players blowing up hundreds of adorable little League minions. It’s fun and quick for its size, even including setup time. It comes with scads of miniatures and premium components. The icing on the cake is that it’s actually played as a story driven campaign, so it has staying power among groups that meet regularly. I’d most recommend it as a three or four player game for a regular group.

Mysterium

Released: 2015 | Players: 2-7 | Playtime: 42 minutes | Amazon

Designers: Oleksandr Nevskiy, Oleg Sidorenko

One player’s a ghost, the others are psychics trying to discover who was behind a decades-old murder. Storming out of Ukraine in 2015, this game was being played untranslated and unlocalized at gaming conventions and local game stores before an English edition even made it to the shelves. The ghost player must tell players what happened to them using nothing but cards with surrealist images. The players are on a clock to narrow down the pool of suspects, murder locales, and murder weapons. It’s a hilarious game of deduction and reasoning with a dash of creativity and the kind of play that generates in-jokes and memes every time. (Though it’s not quite the same, Mysterium is also on Steam.) 

Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Released: 2016 | Players: 1-4 | Playtime: 60-120 minutes| Amazon

Designers: Nate French, Matthew Newman 

A fast, clever, mechanically sound adaptation of long-in-the-tooth, sprawling cooperative staple Arkham Horror, this living card game is a darling of tabletop players. Players create custom decks of cards to defeat Cthulhu mythos monsters and unravel mysteries. The decks represent their characters—equipment and talents, and also harmful flaws. It has the same roleplaying-lite adventure experience as the original Arkham Horror, but the tension as you draw cards and move each turn is far more palpable. The core set plays with 1-2, but combining two core sets ups the maximum player count to 4.

If you like the theme, but don’t like card games or want a higher player count, try Eldritch Horror instead. 

Pandemic & Pandemic Legacy

Released: 2008 | Players: 2-4 | Playtime: 45 minutes | Amazon

Designer: Matt Leacock

An undisputed classic of cooperative gaming, fighting a worldwide disease outbreak in Pandemic isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The classic game still holds up, a masterpiece of prioritizing action and thinking up clever solutions to hard problems, but there are several flavors now. Pandemic: Iberia is a great twist on the original game, with a new map, historical setting, and new diseases to fight. Pandemic: Legacy is the long-term version, a game that has you fighting diseases in an evolving legacy campaign that sees cities annihilated, characters killed, and deadly diseases given permanent, silly names. It’s now in a second season, so you can play some 24 games in your own, evolving world. 

Forbidden Island

Released: 2010 | Players: 2-4 | Playtime: 30 minutes | Amazon 

Designer: Matt Leacock

For a lighter version of the Pandemic experience, check out Forbidden Island. A race against time to recover artifacts on a sinking island, it uses the same kind of mechanics as Pandemic but in a much simpler, and faster, fashion. Players shore up the island with sandbags and dash from place to place snagging artifacts before escaping on a chopper. If you like it, there’s also the more difficult Forbidden Desert with Forbidden Sky coming this year. 

Spirit Island

Released: 2017 | Players: 1-4 | Playtime: 90-120 minutes | Amazon

Designer: R. Eric Reuss

Where many board games have players as explorers or colonizers, Spirit Island takes a different tack, having players take on the role of powerful magical spirits defending their island’s native people against aggressive, violent occupiers. It’s a game of the Pandemic school, asking players to optimize their turn’s actions in order to take down the invaders. It’s a complex game, definitely high strategy, but the asymmetric player roles as different spirits really cinch it thematically: A fire spirit races across the map in blazing trails where an earth spirit is slow, but nearly impossible to dislodge.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Released: 1981 | Players: 1-8 | Playtime: 60-120 minutes | Amazon

Designers: Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, Gary Grady

Still great nearly 40 years later, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective’s latest incarnation, The Thames Murders & Other Cases, deploys the same fun as any other edition. This is a cooperative game where players, equipped with newspapers, maps of London, and books of case files, attempt to solve murders as well as Sherlock Holmes himself. It’s a unique game structure that’s somewhere between interactive fiction and regimented, turn-based board game. Time is the players’ real resource, with each action in an investigation taking more of it. Take too much time and Holmes will solve the case days before you. (I have never beaten Sherlock, but I still love this game.) This is definitely one that you can get non-board gamers to play—pretty much anyone who likes mystery TV or detective novels will enjoy this.

Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island and First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet

Released: 2012 & 2017 | Players: 1-4 | Playtime: 60-120 minutes| Amazon & Amazon

Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek 

This duo of similar, but not quite the same, board games is a narrative and mechanical barrage. Complex and deeply interlocked, they have the same idea at their core: Survive. These are games all about finding the tools of survival, managing food or power meters, and shouting at dice when they don’t do what you want. They’re both driven by books of scenarios, each with unique stories and narrative twists, but the core game is much the same either way. Robinson Crusoe is generally regarded better than First Martians, but the space theme will prove irresistible to some.

Codenames Duet

Released: 2017 | Players: 2-4 | Playtime: 15-30 minutes| Amazon

Designers: Vlaada Chvátil, Scot Eaton 

Codenames is simple: Give the other player a one-word clue to guess certain words on a grid, but keep them from guessing certain other words. You say Wet 3, hoping that the other player will pick Snow, Fish, and Clouds. Slap yourself in the head when they guess Snow, Fish, and Soup. It’s a word game all about being clever, efficient, and developing a bond with another person. You figure out how they think, how they guess, and how they build relationships.

Zombicide: Black Plague

Released: 2015 | Players: 1-6 | Playtime: 60-180 minutes | Amazon

Designers: Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, Nicolas Raoult

Big box o' miniatures Zombicide never really took off with me until Black Plague was released. For whatever reason, slapping a medieval fantasy theme replete with necromancers and the pox was enough for me to suddenly care about the popular zombie-fighting franchise. That and three years of iterative development over the original. This is a miniatures game at its best, all about wading through hordes of zombies, throwing fistfuls of dice, and making tactical choices. Oh, and you can throw bottles of dragon bile like molotov cocktails.

XCOM: The Board Game

Released: 2015 | Players: 1-4 | Playtime: 60-120 minutes | Amazon

Designer: Eric M. Lang

Putting you and your friends into the command chairs around the XCOM Geoscape, this is a real-time game that sees individuals taking on roles like command, science, squad leadership, and air command. It’s all driven by an app, also on PC, that deploys aliens and challenges for the players to overcome. It’s a perfect example of how a new game based on an existing game doesn’t have to try and mimic that property—instead, it can give you an entirely new experience inside that world.

Gloomhaven

Released: 2017 | Players: 1-4 | Playtime: 60-120 minutes | Amazon

Designers: Isaac Childres

Our best board games of 2017 list called this the gorilla in the room, and it’s a gorilla that has only gotten larger, perhaps doubling to a 1,000lb/~450 kilo gorilla as its popularity grows. Gloomhaven is a mega-huge dungeon crawler with a non-linear fantasy campaign and persistent, legacy-style elements that change the game world as you play. And lots of miniatures. And dungeon tile boards. And cardboard standees. Okay, look, it has everything that’s popular in board games right now, just crammed into one (giant) box and driven by a neat combat system that doesn’t rely on just throwing down lots of dice. Right now, it’s the ultimate game for a consistent board game group to play together. (Oh, and it’s expensive, and ping-pongs in and out of print, so make sure you’re paying at or close to MSRP on this one.) 

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