With so much to choose from, picking your next tabletop investment can be an intimidating process. To help you find your next game night mainstay, we’ve curated a list of the best board games available to buy and play right now. Regardless of genre, player count, theme or mechanics, these are the board games that we think deserve a spot on anyone’s shelf. Of course, you might have a preference when it comes to the specifics - after all, not everyone likes board games about worldwide disease outbreaks - but there’s sure to be something to take your fancy here.
From co-op games that bring players together in a shared goal, party games that inject some energy into a gathering to deeper experiences that test the mind, our picks of the top board games contain a suitable title for any number of situations. Plenty of themes are accounted for too, with board games based around high-fantasy adventure, space exploration, espionage, cosmic horror and birdwatching - to name but a few.
Best board games 2021
- Azul: A simple but competitive board game about creating beautiful mosaics using tiles.
- Cosmic Encounter: The ‘70s game about galactic warfare continues to be a beloved classic.
- The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine: Players become astronauts in this recent acclaimed co-op card game.
- Wingspan: Attract a bevy of birds into different habitats in order to gain the most points possible.
- Gloomhaven: An epic adventure board game with a challenging combat system and expansive world to explore.
- Codenames: This party game sees players becoming spies exchanging secret messages through word clues.
- Root: Choose a faction and take control of the forest in a board game about woodland warfare.
- Pandemic Legacy: Season 0: Set during the Cold War, the final entry in the co-op series ends - and begins - things with a bang.
- The Resistance: Avalon: A social deduction game that pits the Knights of the Roundtable against the forces of Modred.
- Eldritch Horror: Save the world from the return of the Old Ones in this co-op game based on the Cthulhu Mythos.
With the number of quality tabletop tiles increasing year by year, this list will be periodically updated to include newer examples of excellent board games, remaining a solid indication of what’s worth getting your hands on at the moment. Luckily enough, all of these games are widely available, having seen multiple reprints and a healthy amount of stock at various outlets. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the best board games available in 2021.
Can you create the most beautiful mosaic and score the largest amount of points?
If you’re new to board games, sometimes the best place to start is with something that teaches its players some fundamentals of tabletop gaming. Azul is a perfect beginner board game because it doesn’t give players an awfully large amount of elements to manage, but still requires them to pay attention and think a few steps ahead.
The setting for the game is a little on the dry side - players are artists creating mosaics for the Portugese monarch King Manuel I - but there are certainly other board games with far duller themes than this one. In terms of gameplay, Azul sees players taking turns to choose tiles from a shared pool before placing them onto their mosaic. Each round, tiles are taken from the bag and randomly distributed onto factory boards. Whenever a player wants to take tiles from a certain factory, they must take all the tiles of the same colour. These tiles are then placed in a row of the player’s choice next to their mosaic, with the aim being to completely fill the row and add the matching tile to their wall.
If players are clever with how they align their coloured tiles, they can score points by making certain patterns or collecting certain sets. Whichever player has the most points by the end of the final round is the game’s winner. Azul moves really quickly, has a very accessible set of rules and yet still has the potential to challenge even the most seasoned players. This beautiful tile-laying board game is an absolute must for any tabletop gamer.
2. Cosmic Encounter
Make and break alliances to dominate the galaxy in this weird and wonderful sci-fi game
Originally created way back in 1977, Cosmic Encounter has since been revitalised for the modern era - and it’s not hard to see why. In a similar fashion to fellow classic Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter sees players making temporary alliances to further their own ambitions, with the aim of the game being to control as much territory as possible. However, Cosmic Encounter provides a much more exciting experience than Diplomacy ever could, thanks to its collection of weird and wonderful alien species.
Rather than controlling warring nations, the sci-fi game has players commanding fleets of spaceships representing an ambitious alien empire. These spaceships can be used to invade other players’ planets, with a stand-off between the involved parties determining whether the original owner retains their control. Playing friendly with your opponents and convincing them to send some of their own spaceships to help you attack or defend can give you a significant advantage during the game. However, the different powers held by each species means that players might give certain alliances a second thought. There are a huge variety of species in Cosmic Encounter and, whilst some have fairly unremarkable abilities, others are decidedly more wild. (For example, the Loser species needs to lose the entire game in order to win.)
This is exactly what makes Cosmic Encounter so special. If you’re not a fan of randomness or unbalanced elements, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get along with this game. However, if you enjoy board games with incredibly strong themes and some goofy mechanics, then Cosmic Encounter is an excellent choice for any groups with larger player counts and a taste for chaos.
3. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
Complete a series of space missions without saying a word in this unusual co-op card game
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine is a trick-taking card game; players take turns to play cards during a round, with the winner of each round - or ‘trick’ - being whoever played the highest card of the suit first played or that round’s trump suit. Usually, trick-taking games are a competitive affair. However, The Crew stands out as a co-op experience.
The Crew goes one step further and combines its co-op trick-taking with enforced silence. While playing, players are forbidden from communicating in any way outside of specific in-game methods. This might seem a bit odd, but it makes perfect sense when you consider that The Crew is a game about astronauts completing missions in space - and in space, no-one can hear you… at all. Each mission in The Crew has players fulfilling certain requirements, whether that’s winning tricks with a certain card or playing cards in a particular order. A little like that other co-op card game, The Mind, players in The Crew must use their natural intuition to judge the right time to play certain cards.
Unlike in The Mind, luck is less of a factor in The Crew. With fewer cards in play, players can better judge the best time to play by observing what’s in the discard pile and what’s currently in their hand. Successfully completing a mission in The Crew is a beautiful thing, and even the most inexperienced of players will soon find themselves witnessing that wonderful moment of victory.
A relaxing board game about appreciating birdlife
Wingspan proves that not all board games need to feature thrilling chases, epic shootouts or tense stand-offs. Sometimes, there’s nothing better than kicking back and feeding a few birds once in a while, which is exactly what Wingspan is about. Packed with fascinating facts about fowls, Wingspan sees players attempting to coax a litany of feathered friends into their chosen habitats. Known as an engine-building game - in which players gain and upgrade actions designed to combo with one another - Wingspan is an especially satisfying game to play thanks to its accessible but deep gameplay mechanics.
Players have three habitats they can place birds into, with each habitat having its own associated action. In order to attract birds, players need to pay the right amount of food by rolling and selecting dice results from the bird feeder. Playing bird cards into your habitats doesn’t just get you points - depending upon the value of the bird - but can also produce bonus effects that can lead to obtaining more points. Each of the game’s three rounds has its own random bonus that grants players points if they successfully fulfill its requirements. You can also gain points by having the birds in your habitat lay eggs.
Once you get into the flow of playing Wingspan, there’s nothing better than taking an action and having that action lead perfectly into the next action - which is the true joy of engine-building games. Wingspan isn’t just a delight to look at, it’s a pleasure to play, making it one of the best board games out there regardless of your ornithological knowledge .
Become immersed in an epic world filled with quests, danger and treasure
Fantasy-themed board games are a dime-a-dozen, but there’s something special about Gloomhaven. Perhaps because it skillfully straddles the line between roleplaying game and board game? Or maybe it’s the ability to take on a variety of different quests at any one time? It could even be the world’s dark tone and oppressive atmosphere. For these reasons and more, Gloomhaven instantly captured the hearts and minds of the tabletop gaming community when it released in 2017, and it continues to captivate audiences almost four years after its launch.
The game sees players becoming adventurers seeking their next big job in the city of Gloomhaven, taking on various quests that take them into dungeons invested with - what else? - hordes of monsters. As players explore the game’s world they’ll encounter scenarios where they’ll have to make narrative decisions as a group, with the potential to change the direction of the story. When talking isn’t an option, players will have to work together to fight whatever enemies block their path. Gloomhaven’s combat has players taking turns to play cards to perform their character’s actions, with each character having their own unique set of abilities and playstyle.
Being able to make choices - whether inside or outside of combat - is quite possibly what makes Gloomhaven most appealing to its players. The world-building is undoubtedly impressive, the combat system is challenging and the loot is certainly desirable. But it’s the freedom to make decisions that makes Gloomhaven feel like such an epic co-op experience.
Clue your teammates into picking the right words in this beloved party game
Combine espionage with word interpretation and you get Codenames, a party board game that sees players becoming spies attempting to secretly communicate with their fellow agents. Codenames works because it’s incredibly simple on the surface, but there’s plenty of potential to get really clever with it. Players are split into two teams, each with their own clue-giver at the helm. The clue-givers then take it in turns to provide their fellow team members with a one-word clue that relates to the word cards laid out on the table.
These word cards are arranged in a grid, with both clue-givers having access to a card that shows which of the word cards each team needs to guess correctly in order to win. The clue-givers can attempt to connect as many word cards as they can with their clue, but they must make it clear how many word cards they’re referring to whenever they voice their clue. Once they’ve received their clue, the guessers must select which word cards they think relates to the clue one at a time. If a team ever guesses a word card they’re not supposed to, their turn ends instantly - with the potential to hand a point or even instant victory to their opponents.
Codenames is an undeniably accessible board game. Its rules are straightforward and there are no challenging barriers for less experienced players. However, it’s definitely a game that’s more enjoyable to play with people you know. Giving what should be a nonsense clue, only to share a knowing look with one or more of your teammates, is truly a wonderful thing and a major part of what makes Codenames such a great game.
Ally yourself with one of four possible factions in this epic asymmetric board game
Root is a prime example of how modern board games have made deep strategy more approachable than their predecessors. It’s far from the simplest tabletop experience out there, taking a few playthroughs to really get to grips with. However, Root’s unusual theme, surprisingly engaging lore and variety of gameplay styles has made it a very popular board game for people who like to test their minds - and rivalries.
Root presents a world in which four factions - the Marquise de Cat, Eyrie, Woodland Alliance and Vagabond - are butting heads with one another over who gets to control the Great Forest. Each of the four factions provide players with a completely different approach - both ideologically and gameplay-wise. For example, the Marquise de Cat is all about mass production and dominance, meaning that whichever player takes control of the faction can expect to be tackling resource management and area control. Whereas the Woodland Alliance is more invested in recruitment schemes and protests, requiring the player controlling them to think carefully about unit placement and building toward crucial board actions.
The process of learning the ins-and-outs of each faction makes Root such an engrossing board game to play. With every game of Root your knowledge and understanding of your chosen faction improves tenfold, to the point wherein you’re anticipating each move in advance - which is an incredibly satisfying feeling. For a game that tests and rewards in equal measure, consider giving Root a try.
8. Pandemic Legacy: Season 0
Experience the finale - and origins - of one of the most well-regarded tabletop series in modern history
The year is 1962. The world is in the grips of the Cold War. A team of special operatives find themselves caught in the crossfire between the US and the Soviet Union. This is the stage that Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 sets for its players: a battle of subterfuge and secrets where the world is under threat from a rumoured bioweapon created by Soviet scientists.
Starting with Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 in 2015, many of the series’ features, such as having players permanently alter the game’s board and cards, are now considered defining aspects of legacy board games. Season 0 is the last entry in the trilogy and despite staying true to the fundamentals of the series - travel around the world to complete objectives before too many outbreaks or an empty player deck cause the game to end - it manages to introduce plenty of new aspects, particularly when it comes to theme and story. Season 1 and 2 both had elements of storytelling to them, but they weren’t the primary focus of the experience. In his review of the game, Matt argued that the story and characters of Season 0 - a prequel to the previous games - are arguably the main draw to the game and make it incredibly easy to get invested in the adventures of the players’ chosen spies.
As players progress through each month of the co-op board game, they’ll find themselves having to make decisions that affect the narrative of their particular playthrough. Having the power to change the direction of Season 0’s plot gives players a real sense of agency, making them care about the fate of the game beyond just winning or losing. With players able to start the game without even having played the first two, it’s also a potential jumping-off point for your legacy game experience.
9. The Resistance: Avalon
Root out the traitors in your midst and save the kingdom from evil forces
Inspired by Arthurian myths and legends, The Resistance: Avalon is a social deduction game set during medieval England, where players become key members of the king’s roundtable. It’s up to the players on the side of good to find and stop the sorcerer Modred’s various allies and minions from causing the downfall of the kingdom.
Though all players may present themselves as being noble knights of valour, at least some of these people will be lying about their real identities. Whilst players on the side of good will be attempting to carry out King Arthur’s requests, the traitors will be attempting to sabotage their opponents in secret. Each round of Avalon sees players voting on the current leader’s choice of companions, with the chosen team deciding whether the task at hand will succeed or fail. If the majority agrees with the leader’s choices, the participating players secretly choose to play a succeed or fail card, with the fate of the mission resting on the shoulders of the group.
Three successes and the good side win. Three failures and the evil side is victorious. Each side has a selection of role cards with unique powers, such as Merlin - who has the ability to correctly identify Modred’s agent, but is forced to speak in riddles throughout the whole game. What makes Avalon work really well as a social deduction game is that it doesn’t drag because players have a set item to vote on - who’s going on the mission - and can acquire information through the result of these missions, making it an ideal pick for large groups with little patience.
10. Eldritch Horror
Embark on an epic journey as a group of investigators intent on saving the world
There are a lot of board games inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, but Eldritch Horror stands out as one of the best. A co-op game for one to eight players, Eldritch Horror provides its players with a truly epic experience as they globetrot their way across the world - and beyond - in search of clues to solve a series of mysteries. Players in Eldritch Horror can choose between a host of different characters, each with their own unique set of skills and backstories, whom they’ll pilot through seedy backend streets, freezing tundras, hidden temples and alternative dimensions.
Depending on which Old One you decide to face, you’ll have to solve a number of mysteries before the game’s doom track reaches zero and the god awakens - with apocalyptic results. Mysteries are solved by collecting a certain number of clues, before successfully completing a unique event. At the end of each player’s turn, the group must carry out the mythos stage - which sees the Old One spreading chaos across the world by spawning monster-spewing gates, recruiting cultists or enacting its will in equally awful ways. Take too many hits or fail too many skill checks, and players can expect to see their characters suffer or even be removed from the game entirely.
Eldritch Horror draws its players in by making them feel like the plucky underdogs who continue to chase a seemingly small speck of hope. Despite the threat of beasts, cultists and incomprehensible beings, the players’ characters continue to struggle on to find that next clue or acquire that next valuable piece of equipment. This feeling does a lot to help keep players invested in a game of Eldritch Horror - ensuring that they won’t forget their experience with it anytime soon.