5 of the most punishingly difficult board games
Whether you’re going head-to-head or working collaboratively, some board games are fairly easy affairs, providing a relatively relaxing space to play or a just-tough-enough challenge to overcome. The most difficult board games, however, are deliberately designed to punish the player, putting them up against seemingly impossible odds or brutal puzzles that can take multiple attempts and all your strategic brain power - and luck - to crack.
Like solving a tricky riddle, sweating through a hot sauce or finally surviving a boss run in Dark Souls, the joy of the best difficult board games comes from overcoming this adversity. The potential hours of frustration and effort eventually pay off in the knowledge that you finally got one over on the game and its creator by pulling off the perfect play, proving your tactical mastery or simply gaining the luck of the dice.
Most difficult board games
- Eldritch Horror
- Dead of Winter
- Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
- Ghost Stories
- Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
Of course, difficult board games aren’t for everyone - and that’s okay! Many board games allow you to select different difficulties, allowing you to ramp up the challenge alongside your own knowledge and skill. Others, however, throw you in at the deep end and expect you to learn to swim.
If you are up for a true challenge, these extremely challenging board games are ridiculously difficult to surmount. Prepare for spice - and salt.
1. Eldritch Horror
Confront cosmic horrors in a seriously tough fight to save the world
Nobody ever said saving the world would be easy - much less so when what you’re saving the world from is something as terrifying and foreboding as a slumbering elder being who has just begun stirring. You won’t like them when they’re asleep and you’ll like them even less when their nap has been interrupted.
When playing Eldritch Horror, your goal is to make sure these little bundles of terror stay asleep. If not, a battle of epic proportions ensues. Just like with a real baby, I assume.
In order to keep these monstrosities from wreaking havoc upon the world, the players take up the roles of investigators who travel the world searching for clues and preventing disaster. This might make sense for The Fed, The Explorer or The Martial Artist but perhaps less so for The Magician, The Musician or The Gravedigger. Regardless of who you are playing, each investigator brings something important to the table.
Despite being seemingly prepared, there are an onslaught of obstacles for you and your teammates to contend with. These include, but aren’t limited to, monsters and epic monsters for you to try to surmount, gates for you to close in order to remove these monsters from the board, clues for you to find, and rumours for you to investigate. All of this certainly sounds hard enough, but you also have a smorgasbord of penalties that could hinder your journey - such as injuries, restrictions and madness conditions that will make your life a whole lot harder.
All of that challenging nonsense is wrapped up in a neat little package, counting down the clock until the Ancient One awakens: The Doom Tracker.
If you’re wondering what the goal of this game is mechanically, it’s to solve mysteries unique to each terrifying Eldritch being, being impeded by a new Mythos each round. Are these Mythos cards ever-escalating in challenge level? You had better believe it!
With all of that in your way, you’re going to need to get your best investigators on the case.
Buy Eldritch Horror on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
2. Dead of Winter
As difficult as surviving a real-life zombie apocalypse?
Although I love this board game for its difficult win conditions, it’s not always a thrilling ride of close calls where you pass or fail by a heart-poundingly close margin. Sometimes it’s just plain miserable.
Similar to Eldritch Horror, Dead of Winter likes to stack the odds against you with mechanics that trip you up at every turn. Your survivors at the safe-haven known as The Colony aren’t able to simply hunker down for the winter and hope for the best.
While attempting to complete your main objective before you are overrun by the zombie hoard, you are also put up against a crisis for the round that will result in dire consequences for you and your team if you don’t complete it. Make sure to complete this objective without depleting The Colony’s morale, by the way - otherwise it’s game over.
Nestled in the dark heart of the game’s mechanics is the Exposure Die, which you must roll when you want to visit any of the in-game locations housing the tools and supplies you will need to survive the harsh winter. The rolling of the Exposure Die will result in one of four things: nothing, a wound, frostbite or a zombie bite. That’s a risky trip to your local corner shop.
To top it all off, nothing can push you further from accomplishing your main objective like a betrayer in your midst. Dead of Winter pushes your paranoia to its limit by leaving you unsure of whether or not you’re being sabotaged by a fellow player. At the start of the game, each player draws an objective card that they keep secret, which may or may not name you as a betrayer. So either this player will break the game or you might self-sabotage it by exiling a perfectly innocent player who could have helped you reach your objective.
There are all sorts of pitfalls ready to set you back during Dead of Winter and, just like Eldritch Horror, a lot of it comes down to luck. If you’ve got rotten luck, these difficult board games just might trip you up.
Buy Dead of Winter on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
3. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
Cracking the master investigator’s cases won’t be easy
Though this is a delightful and intellectually challenging tabletop game, it has been nicknamed ‘Sherlock Holmes: Insulting Detective’ due to its, frankly, absurd expectations. Yes, we understand that Sherlock is the world’s greatest detective. That doesn’t mean that he gets to be mean about it.
In Consulting Detective, players take up the role of what ultimately comes down to Sherlock Holmes’ interns, hoping to take up the mantle of super sleuths when he decides it's time to hang up his Deerstalker. Which looks tacky, by the way.
A case comes about and Sherlock will send us off on our own to take a stab at it. We’re not entirely sure if it plays out like that in his head, though - he probably sees it as patting our soft little heads, packing us a lunch and watching us toddle off out the door.
Well, Mr. Holmes, I’ll have you know that we solve cases thoroughly and we solve them well! For example, in that one case where there was a murder and it was clear who the murderer seemed to be, we knew it wasn’t actually them and then figured out it was actually another person with a clear motive!
Sometimes a case can be extremely rewarding and resolves with a relatively happy ending. There are other instances, however, in which Sherlock does some mental gymnastics that simply do not make sense and suggest that we’re utterly imbecilic for not seeing his answer after visiting two leads.
It follows this kind of format: There’s a murder. Sherlock visits his tailor - and the victim’s mum’s cat - and figures out that the murderer was actually a scorned ex-lover with a collection of fine silks who is currently hiding out in her brother’s attic, living as a bat full time. The game should really be retitled ‘Sherlock Holmes: Kinda Psychic’.
Even when you expect to rock back up to 221B Baker street having solved the case in full and finally get that sweet recognition, it’s never going to be that easy.
Buy Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
4. Ghost Stories
Fend off hellish spectres in this scarily difficult board game
Ghosts typically come in one of two flavours. You’ve got your friendly, ‘please avenge me and/or be my living friend’ spirits. Think the Caspers of the (after) world, the pottery-loving Patrick Swayze of Ghost or the silent spectre from Mysterium trying to help solve its own untimely demise.
More often than not, though, ghosts tend to be a bit of a handful. There’s the homewreckers of Paranormal Activity, the troublesome targets of Phasmophobia and phantoms who approach chatting on an ouija board with all the decorum of throwing a bag of Scrabble tiles into a washing machine. In other words, they’re mean-spirited (ha, ha) and in need of a good bustin’.
Ghost Stories’ ghosts absolutely fit into this second category. Led by the lord of hell, Wu-Feng, they’ve decided to haunt the absolutely bejeezus out of a town and its unfortunate inhabitants in an effort to bring their undead ruler back to life. Standing in their way are a group of Taoist monks - the players - who must work together to exorcise as many of the phantoms as they can before dispatching Wu-Feng himself.
Obviously, taking on the lord of hell and an army of the dead is no easy feat. While creator Antoine Bauza is most famous for beginner-friendly games such as 7 Wonders, Tokaido and Hanabi, the designer’s Ghost Stories has earned a reputation as one of the most difficult board games ever made, with the odds seriously stacked against the players from the word go.
The players must move between locations in the village, rolling dice to banish ghosts off the board. Except the ghosts keep coming - every turn, a new ghost appears, making it an endless task to fight off the waves of wraiths. That’s if you’re lucky enough to roll what you need to get rid of one of the ghosts to begin with, with even helpful Tao tokens only going so far to make up for the luck of the dice.
The players can gain the help of villagers to improve their chances, but they’re countered by the ghosts’ own abilities to curse players, haunt helpful locations and just make an already difficult task even harder.
Even on its standard difficulty, Ghost Stories is ridiculously tough - and that’s before you get to the higher levels, which add multiple incarnations of Wu-Feng to the mix.
First released in 2008, Ghost Stories was remade a couple of years ago as Last Bastion, which swapped the spooky setting for a more generic castle-defence game. While the change of theme to Yet Another Fantasy World is arguably a downgrade, Last Bastion did tweak the game’s rules to make things a little easier for players to claim victory. Still don’t expect to win on your first try, though.
Whether you’re able to find a copy of the original Ghost Stories or its reboot as Last Bastion, be prepared for one of the toughest co-op experiences any board game has to offer. Winning is dead hard - but if you ever pull it off, you can know that no other board game will ever seem that difficult again. Good luck, you’ll need it.
Buy Last Bastion on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
5. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
Try to survive a deadly island - and this board game
Surviving on a deserted island is a gruelling, difficult challenge - so it makes perfect sense that a board game inspired by the most famous castaway of all time would be one of the toughest games on the tabletop.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island shipwrecks players on their own isolated dot of land and tasks them with a simple objective: stay alive. Achieving that is much harder than it sounds, though, as players will need to search for the materials and food they need to last long enough to complete each scenario’s goal while dealing with the many dangers around them.
Among the many, many threats you’ll face are unforgiving weather and roaming animals who may decide their own survival depends on turning you into lunch. As you explore the island, you’ll eventually be able to craft weapons, tools and shelters out of resources you discover, helping you eke out another day. Survive long enough and you might even find yourself constructing a settlement, getting comfortable enough at not dying to, well, literally anything to allow you to delve into some of the island’s mysteries and hidden treasures.
If you’re playing as a group, teamwork will be essential to making it through, while if you decide to go it alone in the single-player mode you can benefit from the company of Friday and a canine companion. You can also use the welcome companions to help make games with friends a little more forgiving, with the Cursed Island living up to its name when it comes to really putting your castaways through the wringer.
Powered by a chunky deck of event cards - and a dense rulebook that’ll feel like reading a novel the first time through - Robinson Crusoe lives up to its epic namesake in terms of adventure and adversity. It won’t go easy on you the first - or fiftieth - time around, but if you’re after a true challenge and the satisfaction of triumphing in the face of hardship, you’ll find one here.
Buy Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island on Amazon US and Amazon UK.