Best Board Games of 2021
If you are looking for a fairly simple, strategic game that is quite replayable, Ticket to Ride is a great choice. This travel-based game has players collecting cards to build and connect railroads between major North American cities. Players can take multiple different strategies to build longer railroads and connect the cities on destination cards while blocking other players' railroads. We particularly appreciate that while this game takes a lot of strategy, it isn't overly complicated.
One potential drawback of this game is that it can last a long time, but if your evening is completely free, that might not be a major issue. It also takes a little time to understand the rules and gameplay, but once you figure it out, it is pretty clear-cut. Game setup can take a little bit of time due to the several hundred pieces involved, and you'll need to be careful not to lose any of the train pieces since that could affect gameplay. Despite these minor annoyances, it is a great game that will keep the game-lovers in your circle entertained each time you play.
While some board games can get pretty pricey, our favorite inexpensive game was Bananagrams. This game is very similar to the classic and well-loved Scrabble, but with a couple of unique twists. One big difference between these two is that Bananagrams does not come with a board, instead allowing players to create their own arrangement of words. The second significant 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 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 same skill level; otherwise, rounds may end quickly if one person is significantly faster than everyone else.
A favorite among many players, Catan will definitely tap into your strategy and planning skills. The goal of the game is to build and develop your settlements and cities faster than other players, which is achieved through buying and trading materials. The game's nature tends to require some focus, making it better suited to quiet game nights over raucous environments. While it might take a few rounds for new players to get acclimated, it can provide hours of entertainment for your group of 3 to 4 friends. Each round is unique, as different players may bring different strategies in different situations, and the board can be randomized each game.
A source of potential frustration is that this game can be difficult to learn, with sometimes complicated rules, that might slow down your game if you have new players. Also, you'll find yourself needing to pay close attention to what other players are doing to avoid missing critical strategies that could affect your choices. The game tends to be more of a slow burn, though some trading rounds can become quite intense.
With billions of possible board setups, Codenames is a fun and repeatable team game that will be different every time you play. In two teams, players take turns giving hints to help their teammates guess specific words on the board; the more words you can get with a single hint, the better. Since it does involve some strategy to create multiple ways to hint at words, it can be better suited for older children and adults, but really anyone can play.
If you have a super small game night, Codenames is playable with two people, but we think it's much more fun with at least four. The game tends to work better if you have an even number of people to avoid giving an advantage to a team with more people and, therefore, more brainpower for guessing. The game is logic-intensive, which some players may find challenging but also rewarding, and since it requires a bit of focus, it may not suit a more casual play environment.
A silly game of drawing and guessing, Telestrations was a favorite for relaxed nights with big groups of friends. Our testers laughed harder than they have in a while playing this game. 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 and some silly and hilarious guesses. While the game is more about fun than winning, we like that the rules include two scoring systems: one that prioritizes fun and laughs and one that rewards accurate drawing and good guesses.
This game works with 4 or 5 players, but we found it much more fun in groups of at least 6, where the whole room can fill up with laughter. Telestrations is not what you want for a strategic night of gaming — you have to be in the right mood for it. 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.
Camel Up is a fun and unique gaming experience for any age, with vibrant imagery and a 3D board setup. 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 relatively 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. This game's unique setup, which involves forward and backward 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.
Similar to Bananagrams, Qwirkle 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 they 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 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 to maximize your points successfully. Finally, one mistake we made upon first playing was not mixing the pieces well enough before starting the game. The bag that comes with Qwirkle is a little small to mix up all the pieces properly, 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 real-world relevance, as the game structure is modeled off of the most fundamental concepts of capitalism. The game can be entertaining for a while, as each player races to gain the financial upper hand.
However, one negative about Monopoly 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 challenging to win Monopoly quickly, which means that games tend to take a long time. Some of our players had lost interest towards the end. One final caveat — if, like us, your friends at game night aren't super organized with keeping track of all their Monopoly money, clean up can take some time.
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; his siblings and extended family serve as a constant source of game recommendations. 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 Catan.
After considering countless games while researching for this review, we looked at existing metrics to determine our top picks for testing. We purchased 9 of the top games and rounded up our testers for multiple evenings of fun. We learned the rules and evaluated how complicated each game is, including how difficult it is to learn and how hard it is to teach others. We then assessed other aspects of the game and asked our friends and family who joined us for their input into what they liked and disliked. In the end, we were able to develop a well-rounded assessment of each game.
Analysis and Test Results
To accurately assess each of these games' pros and cons, we held several game nights and had our friends and family play each of these games back-to-back to compare. We came up with the following metrics to assess each of the games' different merits and weaknesses: 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 entertainment factor mark. This metric evaluates just how fun each game is to play once set up and running.
For its entertainment factor, Ticket to Ride ranks high on our list. The game is a nice blend of strategy and ease of play, making it easy to pick up and challenging enough to hold players' attention. 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. Its unique board setup and gambling style sets up the perfect game environment for friends to get competitive in their bets against one another. When it comes to smaller groups, Bananagrams and Qwirkle 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, as it never failed to make us laugh. It's pure entertainment for everyone, plain and simple, even if it doesn't take much strategy or skill. With the right group of people willing to focus, Codenames 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, strategic thinking and planning make board games enjoyable for many players. While some games thrive purely on fun, we found that most games benefit significantly from nuanced strategy. 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, a 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 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 approach each game, but you also must watch out for what other players are doing to avoid competing for the same goal.
Codenames is another game that requires a different, skillful use of strategy. 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 also your opponent's words while also taking into account 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 minimal 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. 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 replayability factors: the number of times you can play in a row without getting bored and the number 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.
For its ability to be played multiple times in a row and multiple times over a longer period, Telestrations ranks high in this category. This is due to the game's inherently humorous nature, making 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 suitable for repeat play over time since each round will have different words.
Simpler games, such as Bananagrams and Qwirkle, are excellent in short-term replayability. Rounds are short and don't require too much strategy, so players won't feel burned out after one or two rounds. On the other hand,Ticket to Ride 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, mostly due to the ability to switch things up each game and go for different routes and destinations.
For long-term replayability, though, Catan ranked the highest. This is a rare game in that it gets more fun the more experienced players get at playing it. Because much of Catan relies on strategy and not chance, players can improve their performance and evolve more complex game plans over time. In addition, the board is entirely 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 each game's simplicity by considering how difficult it was to learn for first-timers and how difficult it was to teach and play. We also considered 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, games such as Qwirkle and Bananagrams 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.
Since most players are already familiar with the rules, and the setup is quite simple, Monopoly is a convenient game to play. Telestrations is also incredibly straightforward, especially since there is no strategy or learning curve — it's all about fun. On the other hand,Camel Up 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, it's relatively simple to play and teach new players once you figure it out.
Striking a nice balance between complexity and convenience is Ticket to Ride. While it takes some time to learn the strategy, the rules and gameplay are actually not too complicated. Catan is the most complicated game we tested. The game setup is relatively 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. 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