Welcome fellow board gamers! Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the tabletop looking for a recap or a fresh-faced newcomer feeling those first urges toward the joys of analogue gaming, this guide to board games will keep you afloat in this growing and often overwhelming hobby.
Packed with tips, tricks, and useful starting points, our ultimate guide to board games will lead you through your first potential purchases, introduce you to some of the hobby’s terminology, and summarise some of the most popular types of games from the leading publishers.
But, with so many to choose from, we can’t refrain from including a section on common game mechanics! Having a knowledge of particular rules and how certain parts of games fundamentally ‘work’ will give you a sense of what you might like, as you see these mechanisms arise in subtly different ways from game to game.
Likewise, certain themes may appeal to you more than others. Perhaps the classic tropes of dungeon delving sparks an interest, or something more subdued in the form of a good Euro-style game. We talk through how the best games create a perfect marriage of theme and gameplay, weaving stories through their mechanics and evocative art.
Whilst the sudden explosion of popularity the board game industry is experiencing marks an excellent time to join in the fun, gaming as a whole is nothing new. With that in mind, we’ve put together a brief history of board games and bridged the gap between an ancient pastime and the blossoming hobby we see today, complete with a section on the phenomenal success of board games on crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter.
Aside from building up your knowledge and making the hobby more approachable, we hope that this feature has a more personalised reach in helping the true gamer in you to emerge. The vastness of the hobby caters to all forms of taste, and with this guide you should swiftly be able to discover what type of gamer you are.
Whilst this piece is intended as a brief guide to the hobby, if you’re looking for further information on any of the topics or games, just click on the links provided. Whichever path your adventure takes, Zatu has you covered!
History of Board Games
The ideas of play, competition and strategy inherent to board gaming can be traced back through thousands of years of humanity. Whilst the hobby has certainly hit a high point recently, it's worth taking a look back to see where it all began and realise how the simple act of playing games seems intrinsic to human nature.
A few years ago, archaeologists uncovered the remnants of a board game thought to be nearly 5,000 years old. These 49 intricately carved tokens and dice discovered in Turkey have helped reinforce the popular theory that board gaming originated in the Middle East. Furthermore, earlier this year the best-preserved wooden playing board was found in a tomb in Slovakia, complete with glass playing pieces. Whilst the rules are still unknown, scientists have determined that the game was transported to Slovakia, likely as a gift, from somewhere in the Middle East.
Some early named examples of these ancient board games include Senet, Mehen, The Royal Game of Ur, and Backgammon, all dating back to around 5,000 years ago.
Board gaming eventually began to spread through different cultures, with the Roman game of Ludus Latrunculorum appearing in around 1300BC. Differing from the luck-based board games played in ancient Egypt or Iraq, where ideas of fate were intertwined with the roll of a dice, Roman games often relied on military inspired strategy.
This grid-based strategic approach to gaming was expanded upon much later in Europe with the birth of Tafl games. Played by the Vikings in around 400AD, these Tafl games simulated Viking raids, often with varying sized boards and different numbers of playing pieces. At the centre of the board would be a King and his army, surrounded by an opposing larger army.
This idea of opposing forces facing off across a grid evolved into the Indian game Chatarunga, later to be modified and exported back to Europe as Chess in the 9th century.
Crossing into the 20th century, board games began to creep into consumer culture. A key example of this would be 1903’s The Landlord’s Game later, which would become Monopoly. Designed by Lizzie Magie, one of the first American game designers, The Landlord’s Game aimed to educate the public on the greed and inequalities prevalent in matters of property. Parker Brothers acquired the game in 1935, changing the name to Monopoly and securing their legacy as prolific producers of family games for years to come.
Board games began to take on a new form over in Europe shortly before the 21st Century. Termed Euro Games, these new tabletop experiences worked to reduce luck elements and direct player conflict. Often seen as the most important game in expanding the popularity of Euro Games, Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan has sold over 22 million copies since its release in 1995, influencing players and designers all over the world. Other landmark Euro Games include Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Agricola.
Following the turn of the century Euro Games became ever more popular, influencing American designers across the pond. The more thematic and luck-based American style games began to share aspects of Euro Game design and vice versa, resulting in the wide variety of hybrid games we see today. Joined by abstract, strategy, and party games, the board game market soon reached our currently thriving golden age.
These echoes of humanity’s gaming past perhaps shed some light on the continuing popularity of board gaming, and the enduring importance of ‘play’ to people the world over.
The Modern-Day Industry
Since the modern age of board gaming began to take shape at the turn of the millennium, the industry has grown at a remarkable rate. Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower estimated that over 4,000 brand new board games were published in 2017 alone, which is a remarkable number for an industry that is still considered to be outside the mainstream.
With so much to keep track of, it’s hard to summarise the key events that have shaped the industry in recent years. Many games have made their mark over time, including the Euro Games mentioned in the previous section, card games like Magic The Gathering and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. These games and many more have blazed trails for others to follow.
The modern industry has also been shaped by media. The Dice Tower started in 2005 as an outlet for Tom Vasel to publish game reviews. Now it has grown into an internet media network with multiple hosts, a flagship podcast and YouTube channel. Many others have also found success in this way, which has led to more information than ever before being available about the hobby and the games that are out there. Channels like this mean that gamers can discover more board games than they can find on the shelves of their local game store, which allows designers to publish titles that appeal to a more niche audience in the knowledge that that audience will find them if they promote them in the right places.
And what discussion of modern board gaming would be complete without a mention of Kickstarter? Ever since Exploding Kittens’ $8.8 million campaign in 2015, the crowdfunding platform has allowed many games to hit tables that might never have been published otherwise. Board games now make up about a quarter of all of Kickstarter’s successfully funded products and, love it or hate it, it’s undeniable that the industry would look very different without it.
This guide will hopefully explain many terms that you’re unfamiliar with, but it’s still helpful to have a starting point for those terms that are unique to this hobby:
- Game Mechanics - The systems that make a game play the way it does. These could include rolling dice, negotiating with other players or moving around a board.
- Game Theme - The creative identity of a game that influence its artwork, story and, sometimes, mechanics.
- Game Weight - This refers to how complex a game is, with ‘heavier games’ being those that are harder to learn and master. If someone refers to a ‘heavy’ game or a ‘light’ game they are talking about complexity.
- Family Games - Family games are not necessarily games that are only suitable for kids. This term describes games that could be played with families and often have a very wide appeal.
- Mass Market Games - Games that you could find in non-gaming stores (like John Lewis). These are the games that have crossed over into the public consciousness, like Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk. More modern examples include Codenames and Ticket to Ride.
- TCG/CCG - Stands for trading/collectible card game. This is a type of tabletop game popularised by Magic The Gathering in the 90s, where players continually expand their collection with random booster packs.
- RPG - Stands for role-playing game. Made famous by Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), players assume the role of their characters and make decisions in a rich, varied adventure story usually led by a dungeon master.
Board games that allow new players to get into the hobby are often referred to as ‘gateway games.’ These games are perfect if you’re looking for somewhere to begin or you’re introducing non-gamer friends and family to the hobby. They tend to be easy to buy and easy to learn, but that’s not to say they don’t have depth. These games are great for showing players what board games have to offer and help them to work out what kind of games they might like to explore further.
The Settlers of Catan (or just, ‘Catan’) is a classic gateway game and continues to draw people into the hobby, just as it did in the 90's. The game features a randomly generated board, on which players aim to build roads, towns and cities to gain access to resources and earn points. It’s easy to pick up and great to play multiple times.
Another popular gateway game is Ticket to Ride, in-which players collect cards to help them build train routes across a map. As with Catan, many of the mechanics in Ticket to Ride show up in other games, which makes it a great starting point.
Other gateway games to mention are 7 Wonders (which is a little meatier but still great fun for new players), the adorable Takenoko, Sushi Go: Party and, if you have a large group, party games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Codenames.
The right gateway game for you or your friends will often be determined by how many players you have available. Catan is perfect for three and four players, but you’ll want a game like Takenoko for the lower end of the scale and 7 Wonders or Sushi Go: Party for more than four.
Mechanics are the bare bones of any game and make it play the way it does. They’re the terms for common gameplay features. When you’re familiar with a lot of mechanics, it’s easy to get a sense for how an unfamiliar game plays. There isn’t the space to cover every mechanic here, but these are a few that are particularly helpful to understand:
- Area control - This is where the board is divided into multiple areas or territories. Players compete to control them, often through combat. This is a common mechanic for games where war is a prominent theme and Risk is a classic example.
- Worker Placement - In games with this mechanic, players place ‘workers’ (or tokens) down to gain resources or actions. Players can often block each other from certain spaces and gain more workers over the course of the game. Agricola is a good example of a worker placement game.
- Drafting - This is an all-encompassing term for mechanics that involve players choosing something like a card from a selection of cards, before the next player makes a choice from the same selection. Card and dice drafting games are both common. 7 Wonders is a well-known card drafting game.
- Action points - Many games include an action point allowance, where players have a certain number of points to use on the actions they take in their turns. Sometimes every action will be one point, meaning a player just chooses between a set number of actions to take (also called ‘action selection’. At other times, some actions may cost more than others, which allows a designer to include more powerful options. Pandemic is a great example.
These are just a few examples of the many, many board game mechanics out there. See our ever-growing mechanic guide for more.
A level up from mechanics are genres - broader categories of games that have something in common. We’ve already mentioned Euro Games, which are characterised by low randomness, no player elimination and simple components. Euro Games are often seen as the contrast to American style games, which feature more randomness, a more direct player interaction and more elaborate, plastic pieces.
In reality, there isn’t such a big divide between the two genres anymore, as many games feature elements of both. However, they can still be helpful as broad categories, and you’ll still hear them both mentioned.
Other genres exist, but they’re hard to pin down and even harder to define. For more precise definitions of games, it’s easier, and arguably more helpful, to focus on mechanics and themes.
A board game’s theme is often what brings it to life - it’s all the creative elements beyond the game’s core mechanics. A good theme drives the artwork, the components, the story behind the game and the core experience.
Variations on classic science fiction, fantasy imagery and stories are common in the hobby, but there are popular games with all kinds of creative themes. Games depicting historical events are commonplace, as are real-world themes like the food supply industry, TV networks, railways and sushi restaurants.
The best themes will complement the mechanics of their game, whether through directly inspiring them or through providing an attractive backdrop. Some games are more ‘thematic’ than others, which means the theme has more of a bearing on the gameplay, but a good theme doesn’t have to dictate the mechanics.
Magic The Gathering is a huge collectable card game with examples of heavily themed mechanics and mechanics where the theme was retrofitted to make sense. In both cases, the theme and story behind the cards have a great track record of drawing players in and making the game more accessible, but there’s no discernible difference between the quality of ‘top down’ designs (where the theme came first) and ‘bottom up’ designs (where the mechanics came first). The same is true for tabletop games more broadly.
Taking a step away from the board games themselves, it’s important to understand what you like as a gamer if you want to get the most out of the hobby. The sooner you can work out which kinds of games you and your friends enjoy, the easier it is to buy board games that you’ll get a lot of play out of.
As with anything that involves people, everyone is different. Some gamers have very broad tastes, liking lots of games, while others focus on particular niches. Even if a gamer is happy to play a wide range of games, there are likely to be particular subsets that they’re more inclined to seek out and spend money on.
There are a few different ways to understand what kind of gamer you are. One is by ascertaining what makes a game fun for you. Is it the chance to explore great themes and do lots of cool stuff? Is it that certain games give you a chance to be creative and express yourself? Or do you find fun in winning and playing a game as well as possible?
Another scale to put yourself on is a confrontation scale. Do you like games with high interaction and confrontation, where players can mess with each other a lot? Or do you tend towards games with low interaction where players are left to their own devices? There’s no right or wrong answer and there are plenty of games out there that cater for all points on the spectrum, but it’s a helpful question to ask if you’re trying to work out what sort of game is right for you and your game group.
We mentioned it earlier, but Kickstarter has changed the face of the modern board game industry. Three of the platform’s top 10 most successful campaigns ever, Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5 ($12.4 million raised), Exploding Kittens ($8.8 million raised) and 7th Continent ($7.1 million raised) were tabletop games. More broadly, tabletop games make up around 25% of the site’s successfully funded projects.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding tool. It allows game designers and publishers to accrue money for their project and gauge interest before the launch. Many games have been made thanks to Kickstarter that would never have received sufficient funds by going through the conventional channels. This is one of the major advantages of the platform and has undoubtedly contributed to the exceptional variety of games we see in the hobby today.
However, there are downsides to Kickstarter. The first is that it requires you to put your money behind a game you haven’t played, leading to the potential for disappointment. It has also contributed to hype in the board gaming community and the spread of the ‘cult of the new’ - where a game is only worth talking about if it’s the latest thing. The relentless pace of Kickstarter campaign releases means that it can be harder for conventional publishers to build up the same kind of momentum for their releases and can cause truly great games to be passed over completely in the public eye.
Overall, Kickstarter cannot simply be pigeonholed as a completely good or bad thing for the hobby. It has its pros and cons, but like it or not it has undeniably and possibly irreversibly shaped the industry as we know it now. Whether you back a game per week or never make a pledge at all, it’s worth a look at the very least.
Along with the growing number and diversity of games, there are a growing number of publishers. There are many small companies with just a single game on their books that sit alongside the industry giants that publish a deluge of games every year.
While we don’t want to unfairly spotlight some publishers over others, there are a few that it’s worth mentioning here (along with a couple of notable games) due to how prevalent they are.
- Asmodee - Mage Knight & Blood Rage. Note: Asmodee owns a lot of smaller companies, including some of those also on this list.
- CMON - Rising Sun & Arcadia Quest.
- Days of Wonder - Ticket to Ride & Five Tribes.
- Fantasy Flight - Star Wars: Rebellion & Arkham Horror: The Card Game.
- Plaid Hat Games - Dead of Winter & Summoner Wars.
- Renegade Game Studios - Clank! & Raiders of the North Sea.
- Stronghold Games - Terraforming Mars & Great Western Trail.
- Z-Man Games - Pandemic Legacy & Terra Mystica.
Following publishers can be a great way to find out about new games, but if your focus gets too narrow, you might miss a game you could really love.
There are countless titles out there that could be considered franchises. It’s now commonplace for designers and publishers to support successful games with one or more expansion and the biggest titles often receive re-themes and reboots over the years.
Mass market games are examples of how this can work, with Monopoly and Cluedo being two well-known franchises. However, within the hobby there are many titles that have also seen considerable success with multiple related games.
Catan and Ticket to Ride are surely two of the biggest franchises. Each one has multiple titles under its umbrella and has gained widespread recognition in the hobby and beyond. Carcassonne - a tile-laying, points-gathering game - and Munchkin - a highly interactive card game - are two further examples.
All of those games are considered lighter, gateway games that appeal to people outside the hobby, however, popular franchises exist that have been inspired by heavier games (though their appeal is not quite as far-reaching). Terra Mystica is one that we’ve already talked about. Although it doesn’t have as many offshoots as those mentioned above, it’s popular and it’s spawned a second popular game: Gaia Project.
Terraforming Mars is another recent title that caught the community’s imagination, with multiple expansions published and a deluxe edition planned.
Hints and Tips for the Best Experience
Board gaming is a social hobby. This is one of its great strengths, but it can make it tricky to play games as regularly as you might like. Here are some ideas for how to make sure you get to enjoy your games:
Play with a Regular Partner
It’s much easier to arrange a two-player game than any other player count, and many players get to play regularly with a significant other or a particular friend.
Play with your Family
Parents, spouses and children can all make great gaming partners or groups. If they’re not gamers already, remember to choose games that they’ll be able to understand and enjoy, and try not to get too competitive!
Play with a Regular Group of Friends
If you have a group of friends who all enjoy board games, you could commit to meeting regularly and even share the cost of buying new games with each other.
Work nights can be a great way to get a good-sized group together and introduce new people to the hobby. We wrote more about it a dedicated article.
Introduce Non-Gamers to the Hobby
This is a blend of the three tactics above, but you should seize any opportunity to bring new gamers into the hobby. Remember that the experience needs to be fun for them, so be patient and choose gateway games that they’ll enjoy.
Play at Local Stores and Events
The hobby has grown to the point where many stores or local groups will put on events. If you have a local game store or cafe, put out feelers to see what kinds of things they run and whether there’s something you could enjoy getting involved with.
We hope that this guide to board games has encouraged you to get more involved in the hobby, but where do you go next? The Zatu blog has all kinds of reviews, features and interviews that spotlight different board games, hot topics and the people of the industry. It’s a great place place to find out more, discover new games and get more involved in the hobby, but it’s not the only place.
Board Game Geek is the hub for board game info and stats. The site is part database, part social media and part news hub. It contains reviews and rankings of thousands of games and forums where all manner of gaming topics can be discussed. It’s definitely worth checking out next time you have five minutes.
If you want something a little more accessible and entertaining, there’s a wealth of board game media out there. The Dice Tower is the hobby’s biggest media network. Through their site you’ll find a whole host of YouTube content and a network of fantastic podcasts. If you have time to kill on a commute or you like to unwind by watching something, you’ll learn a lot by checking out their associated channels.
However, you like to consume content, there’s going to be an outlet for you in the hobby. It won’t take you long to find something you love!
And there you have it! Our guide to the board gaming hobby condensed down in to manageable chunks!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this feature and that it has helped determine your tabletop journey. Don’t forget, if you’re looking for further information on any of the topics or games, just click on the links provided. Zatu Games is brimming with insightful and timely articles, previews, and reviews so be sure to delve in to the rest of the site.
From all of us at Zatu, we wish you all the best in your tabletop escapades. Game on!