Best Board Games of 2020
Ticket to Ride takes our award for best overall board game due to its balance of strategy, simplicity, and replayability. In this travel-based game, players collect cards of different colors to build and connect railroads between major North American cities. Longer railroads earn more points, and connecting cities on the destination cards earns bonus points. But be careful, if you choose a destination card and don't manage to connect your railroad, you can lose major points. There are several different strategies players can take, so you have to pay attention to everyone else and make sure no one blocks your railroad. It takes a lot of strategy, but isn't overly complicated, which we appreciate.
One downside is that the games can last a long time, so make sure you don't have anywhere to be when you start. It takes a little while to understand the rules and gameplay, but once you figure it out, it's fairly straightforward. There are also several hundred pieces, which makes setup take a little while, and you have to be careful not to lose any of the train pieces, as the numbers must all be even. Overall, it's a great game that can keep any game-lover entertained time and time again.
A game of intense strategy and planning, Settlers of Catan is a favorite among many players. The game is won by buying and trading goods with other players in order to purchase materials to build and expand your settlements and cities faster than the other players. The nature of the game requires some focus, and is therefore better suited for quiet game nights rather than loud group environments. Although it may take a few rounds for a new player to get the hang of it, it's good for hours of entertainment from your group of 3 or 4 friends. The strategic nature of the game requires players to always be thinking a step or two ahead, making each playing experience unique depending on the strategies players bring to the table. The different, randomized board setup each round also ensures that each time playing is a totally different experience.
One caveat is that this game is difficult to learn. The rules can be somewhat complicated for new players, and therefore rounds take some time to really get going. Also, if you aren't paying attention to what the other players are doing, there's a chance you'll miss some critical strategies that could affect your turn. It's not for everyone, and some players can get frustrated with the learning curve. It's more of a slow burn than a quick and intense game — although some trading rounds can get quite heated.
Codenames is a fun and repeatable game that is different every round due to the billions of possible board setups that are randomly determined at the start of each game. To play, everyone splits into two teams, and one player on each team must give hints to get teammates to guess specific words on the board; the more words you can get with a single hint, the better. Although anyone can play, Codenames may be better suited to older kids or adult players who are able to strategize by coming up with multiple ways to hint at certain words on the board.
Although we like that Codenames can be played with as few as two people, it is significantly more fun with at least four. The game also works best with even teams, as teams with more people have a slight advantage when it comes to guessing hints. Finally, the logic intensive aspect of the game is both rewarding, and challenging for some players. Codenames is certainly for less casual play since it requires some focus and attention.
Telestrations, a silly game of drawing and guessing, was a favorite for relaxed nights with big groups of friends. Our testers haven't laughed as hard as they did while playing this game in a while. The way the game works is that each player has a sketchbook with 8 pages. Everyone is then assigned or gets to choose a secret code word. Each player alternates drawing and guessing the code words, only seeing what the player before them drew or wrote. The reveals of how each word changes through the round will have you cracking up non-stop at some creative and impressive art, as well as some silly and hilarious guesses. While the game is more about fun than winning, we like that the rules include two scoring systems: one which prioritizes fun and laughs, and one which rewards accurate drawing and good guesses.
This game works with 4 or 5 players, but we found it to be much more fun in groups of at least 6, where the whole room can fill up with laughter. You definitely have to be in the right mood for Telestrations; it's not what you want for a strategic night of gaming. Although there are scores and a winner, it's best to go into this game without competitiveness. As the rules say: if you had fun, then you won.
While some board games can get pretty pricey, our favorite game for a great price was Bananagrams, the winner of our Best Buy award. This game is very similar to the classic and well-loved Scrabble, but with a couple unique twists. One big difference between these two is that Bananagrams does not come with a board and allows players to create their own arrangement of words. The second major difference is that rather than taking turns, players work independently of each other at the same time, each trying to connect enough words to use up all of their allotted pieces. The first one to use up all their pieces first wins. The game is super easy to travel with, since all the pieces fit neatly inside the cute banana-shaped pouch that comes with the game. Bananagrams can be played by any age and is a great learning game for any younger players wanting to practice their vocab. However, for this same reason, Bananagrams is more fun with players who can get creative with their word choices.
Bananagrams is fun and fast-paced, but not what you want to play when relaxing over a cup of tea. The "racing" element of the game makes it quite intense, as each player works to use up their tiles before everyone else. The game also works best if players are generally around the skill level; otherwise, rounds may end quickly if one person is significantly faster than everyone else.
Camel Up, with its vibrant imagery and 3D board setup, is a fun and rather unique gaming experience for any age. This game, which involves "betting" on which pieces will traverse the board and cross the finish line first, takes about 30 minutes to complete. The instructions are rather straightforward, and each round progresses quickly as players take turns predicting what pieces will move based on die rolls, and then betting on said pieces. The unique setup of this game, which involves forwards and backwards moving board pieces, is refreshingly new and different from any other games we've had the chance to play. The board pieces, such as the dice dispensing pyramid and stacking camels, are both decorative and functional, which adds to the fun!
One thing to note about Camel Up is that it is less about strategy and more about luck. Although some thoughtfulness is required in later rounds, much of the outcome is dependent on the roll of the dice. Setup takes some time, and learning the game requires a thorough review of the instructions, but after the board is set up, the rules are pretty easy to follow.
Qwirkle is a similar setup to Bananagrams, which allows players to freely place board pieces based on how the colors and patterns align with one another. Points are awarded for matching pieces in lines up to 6, and players continue until the pieces run out. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Strategy tip: since there are no more than three of each type of piece, players can count which pieces have already been played in order to predict the next best move.
The simplicity of this game makes it super easy to learn and start playing right away. However, for that reason it can get a bit repetitive over multiple rounds. Some of the shapes on the pieces also look similar and can be confusing with only a quick glance. Therefore, although the game is simple, it still requires some thought and anticipation in order to successfully maximize your points. Finally, one mistake we made upon first playing was not mixing the pieces well enough prior to starting the game. The bag that comes with Qwirkle is a little small to properly mix up all the pieces, so make sure to give it a few good shakes before playing.
Monopoly is a true classic, and for good reason. This game of capitalism involves players buying property and earning money as they travel around the board, attempting to drive other players into bankruptcy. It is easy to learn and quick to start, since most people are already familiar with the rules. For younger players, this game can even have some real-world relevance, as the structure of the game is modeled off of the most basic concepts of capitalism. The game can be very fun for a while, as each player races to gain the financial upper hand.
One negative about Monopoly, however, is that it gets boring quickly. There isn't a lot of strategy involved, and it's not uncommon for one player to get lucky and get way ahead. It is also quite difficult to win Monopoly quickly, which means that games tend to take a long, long time. Some of our players had definitely lost interest towards the end. One final caveat is that cleaning up can take some time if, like us, your friends at game night aren't super organized with keeping track of all their Monopoly money.
Why You Should Trust Us
Ben Skach led our team of game-loving testers for this review. Ben comes from a family of avid board game players; both of his siblings as well as his extended family serve as a constant source of game reccomendations. Growing up, he played many of the classics, and since then he has continued to try new games. The holidays never go by without Ben giving or receiving a new board game as a gift, so learning and playing new games is right up his alley. In college, Ben became particularly engaged when he and his friends started a tracker to calculate each other's statistics over a semester of playing nearly a hundred games of Settlers of Catan.
After considering countless games while researching for this review, we looked at existing metrics and user reviews to determine our top picks for testing. We purchased 9 of the top games, rounded up out testers for multiple evenings of fun. Starting at the beginning, we learned the rules and evaluated how complicated each game is; this included both how difficult it is to learn and how hard it is to teach to others. After learning, we assessed other aspects of the game and asked our friends and family that joined us for their input into what they liked and disliked about each game. In the end, we were able to develop a well-rounded assessment of each game.
Analysis and Test Results
To accurately assess the pros and cons of each of these games, we held several game nights and had our friends and family play each of these back-to-back to compare. We came up with the following metrics to assess the different merits and weaknesses of each of the games: Entertainment Factor, Strategy Factor, Replayability, and Simplicity.
In the world of board games, the entertainment factor is a big one — if not, what would be the point of playing? We found that the games that rose to the top in terms of fun tended to rank highly in most other categories, but always hit the mark for entertainment factor. This metric evaluates just how fun each game is to play, once it is all set up and running.
Ticket to Ride ranks high among our list for entertainment factor. The game is a nice blend of strategy and ease of play, making it easy to pick up but also challenging enough to hold players' attention. Settlers of Catan also ranks high on our list for entertainment, although a bit lower, since it's not for everyone, and some of our testers found the strategy a bit overwhelming.
Camel Up also scores well in the entertainment factor. With its unique board setup and gambling style of play, it sets up the perfect game environment for friends to get competitive in their bets against one another. When it comes to smaller groups, Qwirkle and Bananagrams are great options, since they can still be fun with only two players. The unique way you build the board in both of these games also helps make them more fun.
If players are in the mood to get silly, Telestrations ranks very highly because it never failed to make us laugh. It's pure entertainment for everyone, plain and simple, even it doesn't take much strategy or skill. Codenames, with the right group of people who are willing to really focus, can be incredibly fun and heated. Finally, Monopoly will always be the classic board game that everyone is already familiar with, and racing to take the lead is incredibly fun, even though the fun dies down quickly after the start.
While many games can be fun without requiring much strategy, for many players, strategic thinking and planning are what make board games so great. While some games thrive purely based on fun, we found that most games benefit significantly from nuanced strategy. Settlers of Catan ranks high in our list for strategy, and with good reason. Although it takes some time to get used to the long list of complicated rules, true understanding of the game makes it quite addicting, as players try out new strategies and trade, collaborate, or manipulate their way to victory.
Similarly, but not quite as complicated, Ticket to Ride requires players to think ahead in order to connect their train routes and win the game. We like that both Catan and Ticket to Ride have multiple strategies that allow you to win. This means that you can choose a different strategy each game, but you also must watch out for what other players are doing to avoid competing for the same goal.
Another game that requires a different, skillful use of strategy is Codenames. In this game, there is a lot of in-depth thinking to maximize the number of points you can win in a single turn. You must consider not only the connections between your own words, but your opponents words, how your teammates might think, and the assassin word, which you lose if your team guesses. It's a unique type of strategy that makes this game very difficult to master, but incredibly fun.
Other games like Camel Up and especially Telestrations required very little strategy, but in those cases, it didn't take much away from the game. Camel up relies on guesswork and risk-taking, so the lack of strategy is part of what makes it so fun. Telestrations has practically no strategy involved, but that's not a problem at all. In this case, the game is purely about fun and laughs, so we didn't find ourselves missing strategy at all.
For this metric, we measured two factors of replayability: the number of times you can play in a row without getting bored, and the amount of times you can play a game over time. Many games scored high in one category, but it was rare for one to score high in both.
Telestrations ranks high in this category, for its ability to be played multiple times in a row, as well as multiple times over a longer period of time. This is due to the inherently humorous nature of the game, which makes it fun for repeat play with a group of friends. Because players generate their own words to guess and charade in Telestrations, this game is also good for repeat play over time, since each round will have different words.
In terms of short term replayability, simpler games such as Qwirkle and Bananagrams, are great. Rounds are short, and don't require too much strategy, so players won't feel burned out after only one or two rounds. Ticket to Ride, on the other hand, is tough to get through more than once in a day since the games are so long, but it was fun to return to it after taking a break. This was largely due to the ability to switch things up each game and go for different routes and destinations.
For long term replayability though, Settlers of Catan ranked the highest. This is a rare game in that it actually gets more fun the more experienced players get at playing it. Because much of Catan is reliant on strategy and not chance, players have the ability to improve their performance and evolve more complex game plans over time. In addition, the board is completely different each game, which helps keep things diverse. Catan games tend to take anywhere between 45 minutes and 2 hours, so for this reason, it's usually not great for playing many times back to back.
We evaluated the simplicity of each game by considering how difficult it was to learn for first timers, as well as how difficult it was to teach and play. We also took into consideration how long the games took to set up and break down, since all of these factors contribute to how easy it is to play each game. Not surprisingly, simpler games such as Bananagrams and Qwirkle ranked highly, thanks to their simple rules and setup. Bananagrams also comes in a small package and is very transportable, making it even more convenient for traveling or on the go game nights.
Monopoly is a convenient game to play, since most players are already familiar with the rules, and setup is quite simple. Telestrations is also incredibly straightforward, especially since there is no strategy or learning curve, it's all about fun. Camel Up on the other hand, comes has many pieces and parts that can take some time to get organized, and it takes a little while to learn the rules from scratch. However, once you figure it out, it's relatively simple to play and teach new players.
Ticket to Ride strikes a nice balance between complexity and convenience. While it takes some time to learn the strategy, the rules and gameplay are actually not too complicated. Settlers of Catan is the most complicated game we tested. The game setup is rather slow due to all of the various aspects and customizable board, and the nuances of different strategies can take a long time to get the hang of. It takes a while to understand the rules just from reading the instructions, and even experienced players can struggle to explain the rules to new players.
Board games are always a great way to bring friends and family together. The games that we tested made us laugh, smile, and get in the occasional argument as well. There are countless options out there, but this selection should cover the bases for anyone looking to try out a new game the next time you get together for a game night.
— Ben Skach