Gone are the days where a board game required you to get the whole family together for three hours at Christmas. There is so much variety in the games that have been produced over the last 10 years that there is a game for every situation.
Nowadays, whether you have a group of eight people to entertain or you're looking for something to pass the time when you're on your own, there's a game for you.
The point of this article is to give you a flavour for the different ways that you can play board games. Some of them cater for different player counts, while others give you a sense of the different experiences a game might give you. My hope is that after reading this, you'll see that anyone can have fun with this hobby.
As a quick note, I haven't included regular multiplayer as its own section. This is because it's the one way to play that I'm confident that everybody knows, whatever their experience of board games!
Publishers are increasingly coming to the realisation that many players like to play games on their own, or at least like their games to come with that option. If you like the thought of playing great games even when you can't gather a multiplayer group, have a read of Simon's excellent solo gaming guide. He's already covered the topic in more detail than I could here!
For many players, myself included, their partner is their primary gaming companion. I think it's safe to say that the majority of new board games cater for two players, though I would suggest doing your research before you buy. Some multiplayer games claim to be two-player, but really just fudge the rules a bit and add in some extra stuff to accommodate the low player count, making the game much worse.
However, many games get it right: Yamatai is one that I consider a perfect example of a 2-4 player game that works excellently at two.
A subsection of two-player games, duelling games are made specifically for head-to-head play and normally involve each player trying to eliminate the other. They are often aggressive and highly interactive, but tend not to feel too mean as both players are trying to beat each other.
In my experience, a lot of card games work best as duelling games, even if their boxes say they're 2-4 players. Star Realms is one of the most popular games in this category. These game's can be close and competitive if both players play them a lot, but one drawback I've noticed is that, if one player is significantly more practised, they should run away with the game - there are no other players around to keep them in check.
Co-operative games are worthy of a whole article. Many of the most popular board games in the modern industry are co-operative: Pandemic, Gloomhaven, Arkham Horror and many more. They're also one of the best kept secrets of the the hobby. I've heard many people object that they don't like how competitive board games can get, often referencing particularly vicious games of Monopoly. Co-op games are the perfect solution!
Rather than playing against other people, you work together to beat the game, just as you would in many video games, where the concept is more familiar. However, the best co-ops are often the ones that give players something to set them apart from each other. Having your own character or abilities helps to keep everyone involved and stop one 'Alpha Player' from dominating the game.
This is one of those ways to play that, for some people, is all they play. Others will barely touch co-ops at all. Whatever you think about them, I recommend trying one if you haven't already. The experience can be so different to other ways to play and highly rewarding.
One vs Many
One vs many games are a natural follow-on from co-ops. In these games, multiple players compete against one other player and each side will often have their own win conditions. For the players on the 'many' side, the game is essentially a co-op, though they have a human opponent to beat rather than the board.
The concept is best illustrated with a real game example. Emerson Matsuuchi's Specter Ops is a game that pits one agent against at least two hunters (which can be controlled by a single player if you want to play head to head). The agent is trying to reach three objectives on the board, but the majority of their movement is tracked on a secret sheet of paper. The hunters have to work together to track them down on the physical board and they win if the agent is defeated or if they can't complete their objectives in a certain number of turns.
These games work best at higher player counts, with the 'many' team normally requiring two to four players. The experience feels very different to regular multi-player games, but will only work well if the person on the 'one' side is happy to have multiple opponents trying to bring them down.
I wasn't sure whether to include this as a sub-section of co-op or one vs many, so I'll leave it hear as a short section after both. Hidden traitor games, like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Dead of Winter, are unique in that the game is essentially co-operative, but one player will secretly be out to betray the others and make them fail. In a game like Betrayal this is guaranteed, which feels more like a one vs many game, but in Dead of Winter a traitor is only possible, so it feels more like a very tense co-op.
The traitor has to stay hidden, which means that they need to be able to bring the team down without raising suspicion. Not everyone will enjoy the secrecy and tension, but for some groups that kind of thing brings an excitement to the game that's hard to match.
Many modern games make each player different, with some going as far as to give each player a unique way to win. By my definition, a game is asymmetrical if players start with differences. On a scale, you have a game like Catan, where everybody starts with the same options, through Scythe in the middle, where each player has their own combination of actions and special abilities to play the game, and ending at Root, where every player controls a completely unique faction with their own rules and way to win.
Asymmetric games inject a lot of variety into a game and mean that the process of discovering how to play it is extended. You'll have to play the game with each different faction or character at least once before you've tried out everything, not to mention how games involving different combinations of factions can feel very different. I recommend looking at this type of game if you want to get a lot of value for money.
I mentioned that we'd cover games for big groups and party games make up the majority of that category. Sure, some strategy games, like 7 Wonders, allow for large player counts, but if you want to entertain eight or more people this is where you need to look. Defining party games is hard, but they tend to be low-strategy, fun games that draw on pop culture, common knowledge or physical actions. Many mainstream games that you'll find on the high street are party games; it's the kind of thing you'd play with the whole family at Christmas.
I don't own loads of party games but of the ones I do own or have played, my personal favourites are Telestrations (a drawing version of Chinese Whispers) and Articulate, a team game where you have to guess words that a teammate is describing.
Games for Kids
Our final way to play is less about the number of players and more about who the games are appropriate for. The wealth of games out there means that there are plenty of options for both children and adults to enjoy. Once a child gets above six or so years of age, many of the games labelled on Zatu as 'family' start to become appropriate and even more will work when the child is a couple of years older than that. In fact, many of the most popular lighter games on the market work well. I've seen multiple stories of young kids enjoying games like Ticket to Ride and Clank.
For younger audiences, some designers and publishers do make games aimed specifically at kids that are meant to be enjoyable for adults. Catan Junior, Ticket to Ride - First Journey and even My Little Scythe (which I'm desperate to play) are all great examples. No one knows your kids better than you, so do your research first and make a judgement call on whether or not you think your child will enjoy a game. Just remember that you don't have to limit yourself to 'children's games.'
Play Board Games
I hope that this article has inspired you to try something new and find even more ways to enjoy playing board games. If you're looking for more information on the hobby, our Ultimate Guide to Board Games is the place to go to get info on all kinds of board gaming topics.