Board games are super fun, but they were for years buried under a bit of a stigma. Most peoples’ introduction to this style of game was Monopoly, or children’s games like Candyland, neither of which are excellent representations of the genre.
Worse, it’s hard for people to get into the hobby only because it requires a lot of people to also be into it. Most board games are made for four to six players in practice if not in the name (any game that says it’s for two to four players means it’s for four players, and three only if you can’t find a fourth guy and still really want to play). Finding a group of likeminded people willing to meet up in a physical space to play games is something that gets harder and harder as you get older.
Enter: the digital space. There exist quite a few board games that exist either as adaptations of physical board games or are built from the ground up to be a digital experience, and many are very fun to play. What’s best is that most digital board games automatically do the set up for you, increasing the time you get to play and cutting out the tedious bits! In no particular order, here are some of my favorites.
Gremlins is a game I love. It is also a game I hate with a burning passion. It will make you hate your friends, and they will hate you back. In other words, it’s great fun.
Gremlins is a mix between Monopoly and Mario Party except instead of minigames you skip straight to the parts where RNG screws over everybody involved. You play as one of 12 characters, each with unique abilities like the Thief (who always goes last in a turn, but gets bonuses while in Jail, plus some other things). The Damned (who exists to sow Chaos among the board, fighting people to gain points and accruing the negative stat Malice for positive benefits), and the Secret Agent (who highly values keeping cards in their hands Secret, and can escape from conflicts by sacrificing their money).
These characters fight to collect a predetermined number of points, typically 20 by playing cards in appropriate locations. Each card requires the expenditure of some resource; money, votes, other cards, or just some kind of opportunity cost.
The “fun” comes in when you get cards that directly interact with other players. You can send them to jail, steal their money, hit them with random Misfortunes (sometimes this happens regardless of anyone’s actions), targeted Misfortunes, steal or delete their points, or otherwise prolong the game and increase your chances of victory.
Winning a game of Gremlins can feel like an ordeal, but it is often rewarding to triumph over the grasping claws of your former friends finally.
Armello is a game that combines exploration with quests, combat, and standard board game elements. It’s a hodgepodge of mechanics, but somehow it all works.
The basic concept is that the king of the land (a lion) is going mad from the influence of some dark creature. You must find a way to finish the game by saving the king, killing him, or merely waiting for him to expire (he takes damage every turn, and so acts as a sort countdown to the end of the game).
The game can be won through conflict, diplomacy, or questing (or any combination of the above), and each of the colorful animal cast has unique affinities and advantages towards one tactic or another. Predators tend toward aggressive strategies, while prey favor guile and omnivorous animals can be a grab bag of abilities, though none of these are hard and fast rules.
Similar to Gremlins, you can often screw over other players in their moment of triumph, but unlike Gremlins, it usually doesn’t feel as deliciously spiteful; it’s just how the game is played.
While still in Early Access, Gloomhaven shows much promise. Based on the hit board game, it involved delving dungeons, fighting monsters, and otherwise performing feats of derring-do (or at least benign mercenary work) to amass treasure and defeat evil or harness its power.
Gloomhaven is an interesting middle point between a tabletop RPG (think Dungeons and Dragons) and a board game, with an insane number of options to choose from in both the varied cast of characters and abilities they can use, based on their own innate power or items you collect in the game.
Gloomhhaven is firmly in the “games to keep your eyes on” category, as its Early Access is somewhat limited (singleplayer only, and no story mode yet), but offers a lot even in that context with encounters and exploration galore.
100% Orange Juice
I have never played another game from publisher Orange Juice, and so have no emotional attachment to the collection of fun characters that populate this game (representatives from each of the developer’s other games).
Still, the game is a blast. It’s simple compared to some of the others here. You roll dice to move around the board, you get cards you can use to interact with some aspects of the game, and there are only two win conditions: gather enough stars (sort of a currency you can use to activate other cards) or win enough fights with random encounters or other players to win.
Each character has one minor special ability, and a unique card only they can use. And that’s about it.
On the surface, this game is simple and would get old quick, but the hectic and fast-paced nature of the game and how swiftly you can swing a losing situation into a commanding lead with good plays leaves every game feeling fresh and new. As a bonus, the game is super cheap.
Slay the Spire
For people with the bug who want something to play alone in their off time, Slay the Spire is an excellent game. It’s a deck-building adventure game with the ultimate goal of reaching the top of the spire.
You choose one of three characters: the Ironclad, Silent, or Defect and set off, ascending one level at the time and fighting horrible monsters and bosses along the way.
Each character has unique mechanics and playstyles to fiddle with, and you gain new cards on each floor. The game does an excellent job of keeping a distinct feel for each character while staying within the basic framework and optimal strategies of the deck-building game: efficiently cycle your deck to keep the cards flowing smoothly to accomplish your goals.
There’s no better time to get into the game than now either. Soon a fourth character will be released (the Watcher) who so far feels like a great, distinct character as well.
Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep is an interesting game. It’s based on the primary setting of Dungeons and Dragons, the Forgotten Realms, where Waterdeep is a major city. Instead of playing an adventurer (the usual assumption for a D&D game), you play as one of the titular Lords of Waterdeep, who hires said adventurers to complete goals in their name.
It’s a resource management game, in some ways similar to Settlers of Catan or Seven Wonders, where you amass resources of a specific type to build things and complete goals, with quests that need doing (or people paid to do it and resources provided to finish the job) and alliances to be made.
It’s all great fun and something I highly recommend giving a shot whether you’re a D&D fan or not.
Ahh, Pandemic. I have a lot of fond memories surrounding this game. The original board game version of this is what got me back into board games years ago, and got me a job at the now-defunct Marbles: The Brain Store company (long story).
The quick and dirty of it is you play as a collection of CDC operatives who are looking to stop the spread of a global pandemic that could wipe out humanity, by trying to synthesize a cure. Every turn the disease spreads, so you must juggle slowing its spread with making progress on eliminating the disease lest the world be engulfed in disease.
But, to be honest, set up and play for Pandemic is a ridiculous pain. Lots of little fiddly pieces and multiple actions per round that can be used for different specific things, along with special character abilities it can be a lot to keep track of with the max number of players.
The digital version thankfully fixes all of that, making an already great game better.
If you haven’t experienced the original Pandemic, I highly recommend it, or at least its spiritual successor Plague Inc, which is the same game in reverse.
For the King
This game is not technically marketed as a board game (digital or otherwise), nor do many people recognize it as such. Nevertheless, I’d say it qualifies.
Gameplay-wise it’s a lot similar to the Dark Souls board game and its spin-offs but without the repetitiveness. You explore hexes and dungeons, engage in turn-based combat with your party of heroes, collect loot, and try to save the kingdom in one of several game modes. It can be played alone or with up to two friends, and there’s a lot of randomly generated Rogue-lite goodness to be had.
It has its flaws (the Frost Adventure is ridiculously brutal in what feels like very wrong ways, for example) but I thoroughly enjoyed the time a friend and I spent with it, and it’s still fun alone.
It’s the kind of game that builds a lot of stories off of it, emergent gameplay creating beautiful scenarios for your friends to reminisce on later, which is something I highly value in a game. Give it a look.
Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is a game that can be credited (along with Catan) for rekindling board gaming as a hobby for thousands of people to enjoy.
It is, honestly, also not my favorite game in the world. It’s fun, mind you, but I find its gameplay gets repetitive after a few games, and it leads to scenarios where games sometimes feel decided as soon as the first few moves are made when you’re playing with the same group of people often enough.
Still, it’s also a game I feel I got my money’s worth out of for sure, and it is in many ways a vital game to at least know about, since so many imitators are out there, along with game son this list that was inspired by it.
For a quick synopsis: you are trying to build the best rail line there ever was. You complete missions, lay rails, and try to outmaneuver your opponents to have the most points at the end of the game, which is determined by how good and long your rail line is and suffers for each mission you did not complete.
It’s easy to pick up just from reading the rules and with the setup time remove din the digital version; it’s easy to pick up and play. Great for beginning board gamers.
This entry is “cheating” in that Tabletop Sim is more of a board game platform than a board game itself. You can download mod packs with almost any game you could imagine, some automated for easy setup and some not. Some people even use it to play D&D, though it’s not my favorite platform for that.
It is somewhat of a controversial game given that the mods essentially mean you get a lot of board games for free, and developers see no profit at all from it, but that makes it perfect for someone just getting into board games.
It can be an expensive hobby starting; many games cost between $30 and $40, and there’s no way to tell if you’ll like it before you try it, with return policies on board games often being strict to the point of draconian due to reselling them being difficult.
My advice with Tabletop Sim is to use it to try games, and then buy the full version if you like them, basically using it as a demo machine. Or use it for games you already own the physical copy of and want quick setup or the ability to play with other people who aren’t physically near you.