Board game types explained: a beginner's guide to tabletop gaming terms

How to tell your roll-and-writes from your roll-and-moves.

Getting into tabletop gaming as a beginner can be a challenge. From knowing the best board games, working out what to buy first and finding others interested in playing them with you, through to understanding the conversation when you meet these peers, there are all sorts of potential barriers to even the friendliest of pastimes.

Board gaming, as one of humanity’s oldest hobbies, can be one of the most welcoming activities around. You can start anywhere and with anyone - you can learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E in a board games shop or café, crack out the best party board games down the pub or at home and pick up tips on how to play Magic: The Gathering with an established club, or simply enjoy playing around the kitchen table with your existing friends or even all by yourself thanks to the growing number of solo board games.

But like everything that a lot of people spend a lot of time on, a whole specialist language has built up around board games, not least of which is the various genres that tabletop games get grouped into. What’s a deckbuilder compared to a deck construction game? What makes a living card game different to a trading card game, and is that the same as an expandable deck game? What do you actually do in a worker-placement board game?

Fear not; to help those of you who haven’t yet had a proper chance to learn your roll-and-writes from your roll-and-moves, Dicebreaker has put together the following beginner’s guide to the different types of board game types and what they mean.

Bear in mind that many of these board game types aren’t exhaustive or exclusive, and many board games will fall into more than one of these categories - or might be something else entirely. However, the following board game terms represent the most common types of games on the tabletop, so they’re a good place to start next time you’re wondering if something really is a Eurogame, or just happens to have a farmer on the cover.

Shobu abstract strategy board game photo
Shobu is an example of a modern abstract board game.

Board game types

Abstract

Board games with no theme at all, or what theme is offered is so disconnected from the actual experience of playing that it might as well not be there. Draughts and Go are the purest examples of abstracts, while chess - with its set of named pieces and suggestion of historical warfare - is relatively thematic by the standards of the category.

Examples: Draughts, chess, Go, Tak, Shobu, Hive, Santorini, Azul and its sequels.

Area control

Board games with some form of map or board defining a space that players compete to dominate, usually through adding their own pieces to regions or areas or removing opponents’ pieces. Sometimes the control can come through denying access to areas rather than taking them yourself - it could be argued that Scrabble is an example of the genre!

Examples: Small World, Risk, Nanty Narking, Blood Rage.

Campaign/legacy

Campaign board games are defined by individual plays following a series of connected scenarios, where the actions and outcome of one scenario will usually affect the next. Legacy board games are a specific type of campaign game where your choices and actions cause you to make permanent (often physical) changes to the game and its components, such as applying stickers to the board or tearing up cards, often providing a one-time experience.

Examples: Gloomhaven, Pandemic Legacy, Charterstone, Betrayal Legacy.

Deckbuilder

Each player starts with their own identical deck of cards, but alters it during play, with more powerful cards being added to the deck and less powerful ones removed. Deckbuilders are sometimes conflated with deck construction games such as trading card games, with the difference being that in deckbuilders the act of creating and customising your deck is part of the core gameplay experience, instead of something that usually happens away from the table between plays.

Examples: Dominion, Star Realms, Undaunted: Normandy, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle.

Deck construction

A type of board game where the players use different decks of cards to play, constructed prior to the game from a large pool of options, according to specific rules. There are two main distribution models: trading or collectible card games sell booster pack products with a randomised set of cards in each, while living card games and expandable deck games provide a fixed set of cards in each expansion. (Living card game applies specifically to such games produced by Fantasy Flight Games, which has trademarked the term.)

Examples: Magic: The Gathering, Android: Netrunner, Marvel Champions, Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

Dexterity

Board games involving physical skill, whether using the whole body as in Twister or just the fingers for moving things about, as with removing blocks in Jenga. This can include flicking discs or other objects with your fingers like Flick ‘em Up, balancing things in games such as Beasts of Balance or even throwing objects around, like Dungeon Fighter.

Examples: Cube Quest, Catacombs, Flip Ships, Flick ‘em Up, crokinole, Beasts of Balance.

Drafting

Drafting is a mechanic where players are presented with a set of options (usually cards, though sometimes dice) from which they must pick one, leaving the remainder for the next player to choose from. The selection may be made from a shared central pool of choices, or from a hand of cards passed between players. This can be a small part of a game, such as selecting an ability for use during a round, or the entire decision space for a game.

Examples: 7 Wonders, Sushi Go!, Villagers.

Dungeon-crawler

Players take the roles of characters making their way through a location, often depicted by a map with a square grid or a page in a book, defeating enemies controlled by another player, a companion app or the game system itself.

Examples: Gloomhaven, Mansions of Madness, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Mice and Mystics.

Engine-builder

Over the course of an engine-building board game, you’ll build an “engine”: something that takes your starting resources and/or actions and turns them into more resources, which turn into even more resources, which - somewhere along the line - will usually turn into a form of victory points.

Examples: Res Arcana, Century: Spice Road, Race for the Galaxy.

Eurogame

Often shortened to just ‘Euro’, these are strategy-focused board games that prioritise limited-randomness over theme. Usually competitive with interaction between players through passive competition rather than aggressive conflict. Named for the fact many of the early games of this style were developed in Europe - particularly Germany - in contrast to the more thematic but chance-driven “American-style” games of the time. (Sometimes referred to as 'Ameritrash' by those who dislike the high luck element.)

Examples: Agricola, Paladins of the West Kingdom.

The Quacks of Quedlinburg board game box and components
The Quacks of Quedlinburg - a game in which pushing your luck leads to victory (or everything blowing up in your face).

Push-your-luck

Board games that invite you to take ever bigger risks to achieve increasingly valuable rewards - or to decide to keep what you’ve got before you lose everything. Think the card game blackjack or deciding whether to give an uncertain answer on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Sometimes also called press-your-luck.

Examples: The Quacks of Quedlinburg, Port Royal, Deep Sea Adventure.

Roll-and-move

Board games where you roll one or more dice and move that many spaces - commonly on a looping track of spaces, or a path with a start and finish. Often landing on certain spaces will trigger specific actions or offer the player certain gameplay options. Simple as that.

Examples: Monopoly, The Game of Life, Snakes and Ladders, Formula D.

Roll-and-write

Roll some dice and decide how to use the outcome, writing it into a personal scoring sheet. Each decision impacts your options for the rest of the game, so even in games where everyone uses the same dice, slightly different choices at the start can lead to very different end results. Some games twist the name by replacing the dice with something like cards for a ‘flip-and-write’ (Welcome To…) or the writing with something like placing miniatures for a ‘roll-and-build’ (Era: Medieval Age).

Examples: Yahtzee, Railroad Ink, Ganz Schon Clever, Corinth.

Social deduction

One or more players around the table have a secret, and the rest of you need to figure out who! Expect lying, bluffing and wild accusations all round. Players are often secretly assigned hidden roles that only they know, and must achieve their own objectives - commonly either finding the odd one out, or hiding the fact that you are the odd one out yourself.

Examples: Blood on the Clocktower, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance.

Storytelling

Board games with a focus on narrative and description that is directed or fully created by the players. This could be an overarching story lasting the whole game - or across a campaign of multiple sessions - read from pre-written passages, or a sequence of vignettes as players are tasked with inventing and describing something prompted by a single card.

Examples: The King’s Dilemma, Tales of the Arabian Nights.

Worker-placement

Board games where you choose actions from spaces on the board by assigning your pool of “workers” - often thematically actual workers in your employ - to them. Usually Eurogames, with player interaction created because actions one player has taken often can’t be taken by or come with a cost for anyone else.

Examples: Charterstone, Agricola, Caverna, Lords of Waterdeep.

Wargame

Players pit armies against each other, represented by collections of miniatures or tokens on a map, with a grid or actual measured distances for movement. Eliminate the opponent’s figures or achieve objectives to win, with combat usually dictated by dice rolls or card play.

Examples: Warhammer 40,000, Memoir ‘44, Risk, Axis & Allies.


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Simon Castle

Contributor

Simon has been playing board games since Talisman and its expansions filled his bedroom floor as a kid. While his preferred games these days are a bit more strategic, some take up even more space. He has playtested expansions for Tash-Kalar and Trickerion, and once made the top 16 in an Android: Netrunner UK Nationals tournament. He can frequently be found on BoardGameGeek answering rules queries.

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