It is a truth universally acknowledged that board games are better in person. However, getting your gaming group together on a regular basis - or at all, recently - can sometimes be a frustrating and complicated affair of juggling calendars, travelling and carving out enough time to play something from start to finish. Luckily, there are now hundreds of great online board games that can be played over the internet, allowing you and your group to overcome some of the traditional barriers to enjoying a regular gaming session no matter how far apart you are.
Best online board games
- Catan Universe
- Android: Netrunner
- Secret Hitler
- Forgotten Waters
- Board Game Arena/Tabletopia
While board game apps offer a dedicated experience you can take with you on your phone or PC, many online board games don’t require you to download anything at all, providing a slick and polished experience you can load up in your internet browser and start playing in a matter of seconds. Many also handle the hard work of remembering the rules and making it easy for new players to join in and learn to play. Even better, many of them are available for free, too!
Whether you’re looking to bring your gaming group’s favourite online during lockdown, find a new group to play with or try something you’ve yet to play, these online board games will let you jump straight in and get playing.
The hit word-guessing game heads online
Minesweeper meets Taboo, Codenames has become a fixture of board game collections for hobby newcomers and veterans alike since it first burst onto the scene in 2015. If you’ve somehow missed the instant modern classic, it’s a game of picky phrasing: teams take it in turns to guess words on a grid of cards, guided carefully to their hidden spies - and away from their opponents’ - by their clue-giver’s one-word hints. Trying to gesture at multiple answers with a single clue is key to winning, trying to find the perfect thing to link up “forest”, “bee” and “sun” (Nature? Flower? Yellow?) or “Olympus”, “planet” and “Big Bang” (Jupiter, perhaps? Or is that too much of a stretch?).
Codenames’ simplicity makes it the perfect choice for a board game to play online, helped by the release of an official browser app developed by creator Czech Games Edition. The free online version includes word packs from multiple Codenames games - including two-player spin-off Duet and multiple bonus packs - and various languages, with a slick interface that makes tracking previous clues and the number of spies left easy. All you need is to send your friends the link to your room and start guessing away.
Player count: 2+
Play Codenames online at Codenames.game
Lie to your friends across the internet to conquer Europe in a strategy classic
Diplomacy is a classic of the grand strategy genre, emerging in the 1950s as a game of devious plotting and brutal betrayal. Players attempt to lead their European nation to victory by conquering the map and forming uneasy alliances to get ahead. Teaming up is necessary to force opponents’ units out of regions, but actions are submitted in secret and all resolved at the same time, with players promising to help each other out one moment, only to turn traitor and invade them the next. No wonder it’s considered a real-life friendship-wrecker.
Lying to your friends for real in person - even in the context of a board game - can understandably make some feel uncomfortable. Luckily, free browser-based Diplomacy clone Backstabbr offers a way to engage with the game’s tense tactics and social strategy with an added layer of separation. The gameplay is exactly the same as on the tabletop, but players’ direct interactions are confined to ‘press’ communications - presenting the chance to lean into roleplaying your early 20th-century leader and address increasingly passive-aggressive missives to “My dear Czar”, “Fellow Europeans” or “Unwelcome neighbour”. The stretched timeframe of the online game also allows the political machinations to feel less intense, with turns playing out over days and weeks rather than minutes and hours.
Backstabbr offers a way for more people to experience a timeless classic with some of its pricklier aspects softened - just enough to make it fun rather than infuriating, anyway. The social strategy epic continues to stand up as a board game like no other, and its online counterpart might well be the best way to play today.
Player count: 2-7
Play Diplomacy online at Backstabbr.com
Draw and guess your way to sidesplitting miscommunication in this Telestrations-a-like
Online board game library Rocketcrab brings together a number of popular party games in mobile-friendly form, offering a browser-based hub for favourites from social deduction game Spyfall to third-party spins on group games Wavelength and Just One.
One of the standout games available to play for free is Drawphone, a game similar to hit board game Telestrations - itself based on the delightfully-titled public domain game Eat Poop You Cat. True to its name, Drawphone plays like a game of Telephone, but with drawings: each player draws something, then passes the ‘paper’ to their virtual neighbour, who guesses what the previous person drew, before the guess becomes the clue for the next doodler - and so on until everyone has contributed to the chain of pictures and guesses.
With no real points on offer, the reward is seeing how close (or far) the final guess came to the original prompt. Not particularly, as it often turns out - which makes the compounded misunderstandings and misinterpretations even funnier.
Player count: 4+
Play Drawphone online at Rocketcrab.com
4. Catan Universe
Settle an island while surfing the web
Catan is everywhere, from official shoes and notably-less-official beer cans to the tables of Hollywood stars and (at some point) even the silver screen. It’s only natural, then, that the board game classic has a firm presence on the internet, too.
Catan Universe brings Klaus Teuber’s trading-and-building hit to PC and phones as an app that replicates the original Catan, as well as several of its many expansions from the last 25-plus years and even some unique variants.
Players can challenge their human friends or AI opponents to games, with the free version of the online board game offering a tutorial, up to three-player matches and access to Catan card game The Duel.
Catan remains a steadfast game for those new to the hobby for a reason - and its digital version makes enjoying the classic whether you’re new or have been playing for decades a cinch.
Player count: 3-4
Play Catan online at Catan Universe
5. Android: Netrunner
An online rebirth for the beloved living card game
Android: Netrunner has had a heck of an afterlife. Despite the beloved living card game about hackers and the megacorporation systems they crack into being officially cancelled in late 2018, it’s managed to live on in physical form thanks to community-led Project NISEI and in suitability digital fashion with online version Jinteki.
Jinteki offers up Netrunner’s full catalogue of cards for players to build digital decks and try out in two-player matches, as well as in a selection of different formats available via the browser-based app.
While Jinteki’s online interface and deck construction tool means that it’s best for Android: Netrunner players who are already familiar with the card game, it also offers a chance for those who missed the chance to play the game in person to find players to take on and learn how to play.
Player count: 2
Play Android: Netrunner online at Jinteki.net.
Deckbuilding goes digital
The original deckbuilder - and still able to hold its own against many newer entries in the genre it spawned - Dominion starts players with a small stack of cards and allows them to build up their deck by acquiring new cards each turn, which are added to their discard pile and eventually cycle back around into their hand.
It’s a game of constant momentum, as you build up your stock of more powerful cards to acquire more points and more currency in order to acquire more powerful cards… and so on. Part of the appeal of Dominion - and the many, many expansions released for Donald X. Vaccarino’s influential core game since 2008 - is the ability to combine together a different selection of cards each game, both in the shared marketplace and in your own deck, offering huge amounts of customisation and replayability each time you play.
Dominion’s online counterpart offers the base set for free - itself featuring enough cards to mix-and-match for hours of varied gameplay - but also presents the chance to experiment with more than a dozen of the game’s expansions for a relatively small monthly subscription fee. There’s the chance to look through a card database and mark up cards you’re familiar with, or particularly like or dislike, and create custom tables with friends or take on strangers across the internet.
Like Dominion itself, the online board isn’t most flashy of experiences, but it offers a thoroughly solid digital version of a game that continues to stand the test of time. Whether you’re dipping into deckbuilders for the first time or looking to return to a classic, it’s a great way to play.
Player count: 2-6
Play Dominion online at Domain.games
An unofficial way to play the unique deck game online
While Keyforge may not be as big a name as designer Richard Garfield’s other competitive card games - Magic: The Gathering and Netrunner - it’s no less groundbreaking. Handing every player a set of cards picked by an algorithm to ensure that no two decks in the world are alike, the ‘unique deck game’ sees players race to forge three keys by collecting Æmber and slowing their opponent down by attacking their monsters and using special abilities.
Alongside its clever decks - which can’t be customised or changed, to ensure their one-of-a-kind nature - Keyforge offers a smart way of allowing players to always do something on their turn. Each deck is made up of three houses, or factions. On their turn, each player chooses one house and can play as many cards as they like from that faction - rather than having to spend mana or another limited resource as in other card games. As such, Keyforge is a game where you can always do something to try and win, rather than sitting by and waiting for the right card draw.
The Crucible Online offers an unofficial online version of Keyforge that can be played in your browser against other people from around the world. The app features the ability to import decks you have registered on Fantasy Flight Games’ official Master Vault app to try them out online, as well as the option for different formats or to spectate other players’ games and pick up some tactics. While it’s a fan-made offering, it’s fully-featured, capably bringing the card game online.
Player count: 2
Play Keyforge online at The Crucible Online
8. Secret Hitler
The social deduction hit sneaks its way online
While Secret Hitler’s pseudo-historical framing of pre-WWII Germany may not be for everyone, there’s no doubting that the game of liberals and fascists battling over legislation - while trying to assassinate or accelerate the rise of the evil dictator - is one of the best social deduction games in years.
The two factions vote to pass or reject various laws, with the liberals trying to weed the hidden fascists from their ranks before they can gain too much power and bring Hitler to power. With two players elected chancellor and president each round, the table is set for heated debate and speculation over who voted for or against fascist policies. Making it harder are governmental powers that the fascists will be able to deploy as they gain strength, with the liberals trying to claim their own dominance by passing their laws first - or taking Hitler out to halt the threat.
The browser-based Secret Hitler offers a simple way of playing the game over the internet. With most of the focus on discussion, the website provides the game boards that track each faction’s standing and any available presidential powers, as well as automating parts of setup and round gameplay. Whether you’re jumping into a game with strangers or just looking for a way to play with friends when you can’t be together, it’s an effective way or bringing the debate and discussion online.
Player count: 5-10
Play Secret Hitler online at Secrethitler.io
9. Forgotten Waters
Play your copy of the pirate board game across the waves
While different in nature to the other online board games listed above, Forgotten Waters deserves a place on this list as one of the most impressive solutions to playing board games over the internet. Whereas the games above are all standalone versions of their physical counterparts that don’t require owning the original games, Forgotten Waters offers a remote play assistant that allows a copy of the pirate board game to be played with other people across the internet.
The remote assistant is used in addition to Forgotten Waters’ mandatory browser-based companion app that provides randomised Crossroads events, narration and choices for players to make as they sail the high seas together on a pirate ship. The remote assistant effectively proves all players with a way to track their ship’s status - including available supplies, crew and hull damage - as well as replacing the flipbook used to represent different locations found while exploring the world. This presents players with various actions to take each round, sending their pirates off to explore, trade and even do battle as they progress through each scenario.
One player serves as a moderator who adjusts the various tracks and resources, while the others are able to largely play as if they were sat in the same room. The only thing you may want to do is point a webcam at the map board to show the ship’s current location, and each player will need a unique player sheet - which can be downloaded for free - to track their character’s unique story and traits.
Forgotten Waters’ remote assistant is an impressive addition to an already impressive experience, meaning that no matter how many oceans lie between you and your crew, you’ll be able to play together over the internet.
Player count: 4-7
Play Forgotten Waters online using the Remote Assistant app
10. Board Game Arena/Tabletopia
Hundreds of board games in your browser
While we’ve listed many of the best board games available online already, there are hundreds more. Many of these can be found on two websites: Board Game Arena and Tabletopia. While the two websites are similar, they also have several differences - and offer different selections of online board games - that make both worth checking out.
Board Game Arena and Tabletopia both offer the ability to play board games in your browser without the need to download a separate app as with Tabletop Simulator. Tabletopia offers an experience more akin to Tabletop Simulator, presenting a virtual 3D environment in which players can freely move cards, tokens and other pieces around - although that means you’ll also have to do the work of remembering the rules and playing properly yourself.
Board Game Arena, meanwhile, flattens things down to a simplified interface. A major benefit is that many of the board games in its library feature automated rules that add up points for you, inform you what you can do each round and stop you from accidentally (or deliberately) breaking the rules.
Both Tabletopia and Board Game Arena have large libraries of official games approved by publishers, and have the option to play some games for free or pay a relatively small monthly subscription to unlock premium features. While some games work better than others, they’re one of the best ways of gaining an instant collection of online board games to play with your friends when you can’t be together.
Player count: 1+