Like so many others, my partner and I watched an embarrassing amount of Netflix at the beginning of the pandemic. Unable to go out at night, too frayed to concentrate for long on reading our books, we knew we needed another outlet.
Fortunately, we discovered board games.
As a kid, I played the classics: Monopoly, Life, Risk. Before the pandemic, I’d also played some “modern” classics like Catan and Ticket to Ride. But as we got into the hobby, we discovered that a whole new generation of designers and enthusiasts had ushered in a board game renaissance over the last decade. Hundreds of innovative, beautiful, and, most importantly, fun board games are released every year, giving players countless options beyond the stale games of our youth.
Whatever your level of engagement or affinity for games, there’s a board game for you. Want something light with just enough to keep you engaged? Check. A cooperative game so you won’t have another thing to fight with your family about? Check. A deeply strategic game with dozens of pieces that takes hours to finish? Oh yeah.
Even if you live by yourself or with people who have no interest in board games, it’s easier than ever to play online. The free site Board Game Arena has a large library of games and matches you with friends or strangers. There are ways to play certain games, like Drawful, over Zoom. Though the controls are a little clunky, Tabletop Simulator will allow you to play nearly every game in existence.
The appreciation my partner and I have for board games really flourished over the summer, when we shacked up for several weeks with her brother and sister-in-law, who have been longtime board game enthusiasts. We played a game almost every night, and looked forward to playing during the day. The combination of mental challenge, social nature of games and low-stakes outcomes make it the perfect COVID hobby.
I’m going to recommend a few games that we’ve enjoyed below, though keep in mind that we’re still relatively new to the hobby and our collection is relatively small. If you want to dig even deeper into what’s out there, you should check out Board Game Geek (the “Wikipedia” for board games) or the entertaining YouTube channel Shut Up & Sit Down.
A delightful two-player game where you construct a quilt out of colorful tiles. And you pay for them with buttons! Could that be any more thematic or twee?
For what it does, this game is practically perfect. It’s easy to learn and quick to play. But it still gives you an interesting decision on every turn. Do you spend all your buttons on that big tile? Or do you take one that’s not as valuable to deny your opponent a tile that slots perfectly into their quilt?
I cannot recommend this game enough, especially as a gateway game into the hobby.
I describe this game as “medieval urban planning.”
Two to five players take turns placing a tile — on an ever growing map that they create together — which will contain one or some combination of a field, road, monastery or castle. You then have the option to place a citizen (or “meeple”) on one of those features, giving you control of it. But later, other players can create connections to these places and challenge your control of them. Each feature has its own way of scoring points, which get added up at the end when all the tiles have been placed.
Carcassonne is also quick to play and easy to learn, but has tons of depth. There are so many unique and satisfying ways to expand a field or curve castle walls to your advantage. First released in 2000, it’s the oldest game on this list, and has staying power for a reason.
I was a little reluctant to add this game to the list since it’s better with a higher player count (four or more). So while it’s more appropriate for families or households with roommates, it’s so fun I had to include it.
In this card drafting game, everyone gets dealt a hand. They then select one of the unbearably adorable food items — like nigiri, sashimi or tempura — and pass the rest of their hand to a neighbor. Usually you’ll want to create sets of cards, but each food has its own way of getting you points, and often you’ll want to deny someone else a card they really need. Each game takes about 15 to 30 minutes.
I recommend the “party” version since it has more food items to mix and match your decks to vary how the game plays.
Great at any player count (two to four), this abstract tile-placement game has you building a ceramic “wall” made of colorful squares. The more columns, rows and sets you create, the more points you get.
At the beginning of the game, it seems you really can’t make a bad choice. But as you build up your wall and lower the number of free spaces, your options decrease. So you not only have to carefully select tiles for your own wall, but watch out for which ones your opponents want — or don’t want. Because when a player is forced to take tiles they don’t have room for, they can lose a lot of points.
It looks like a fun and light strategy game. But it lets you be deviously cruel too, with no lasting hard feelings.
Now we’re getting into games with a bit of heft to them.
In this beautifully illustrated game, players build out an aviary with birds, placing them into one of three habitats. But the birds aren’t just pretty to look at; they also have special powers that make your turns more powerful, like getting you extra food, eggs or points. And the abilities are thematic in a clever way: hawks eat smaller birds for points, crows scavenge for food, and, okay, some are exotic and just get you a bunch of points.
Even though each game ends with a winner, Wingspan is less competitive than others on this list. You’re mostly building your aviary in isolation, the cards are incredibly pretty to look at (and have facts on them) and there’s even a decent solo mode.
This is a great option for those that want a more serious and involved gaming experience.
Players assume the role of corporations vying to do the most terraforming on the Red Planet. In one turn you might launch an asteroid onto the planet’s surface to generate heat. On another you might add lichen to the surface to help increase oxygen levels. Or build a city. Or import pets — because even colonists need furry companions to deal with the desolate and cold climate.
Similar to Wingspan, you’re building an economic engine: doing things that help you do other things better. At the beginning of Terraforming Mars, when your corporation is poor and inefficient, you can’t do much on a turn (which is called a “generation” because making Mars habitable takes a long freaking time). But as your engine gets up to speed, you’ll be doing multiple large actions per turn.
The game lasts two to three hours and takes a bit of time to learn. But we’ve had a lot of fun playing it and definitely think it’s worth the investment.
A few more favorite games from the Detour crew:
My family’s latest addition to game night is Legendary Forests. Players build tile forests and compete to win the most points by closing their forests or adding tokens. It’s easy enough that our first-grader can play with a little help but it’s usually my husband and I dueling for bragging rights long past bedtime. -Ash
If your household is more Euchre than Monopoly, Rummikub is in the sweet spot between board and card game, played with tiles and a logic similar to the game rummy. All you have to do is get rid of your tiles by putting them on the table in sets organized by color and numbers, and it’s easy to set up and learn. But the longer the game goes on, the more options you have and the harder it gets to plan out your turn, meaning the two- to four-person game can fill a good chunk of time. For a quicker, rowdier tile game — where speed is key — Bananagrams is also worth a try. -Kate
My kids are convinced that I didn’t know anything about memes and got me this for Christmas to prove them right — which it did. I still don’t really know what a meme is after playing this game –they say — but I did have fun selecting the most inappropriate caption for random photos, which is basically the objective. For those of you trying to prove your coolness to your Gen Z kids, it won’t work. But you’ll have some fun in the process. -Nina
Get ready for emotions to explode. As the name implies, this could be a volatile game. Alliances are key and backstabbing is common and to be expected. If you’re looking for something to bring your family closer together during this time of cold and darkness this may not be it. If revealing your family’s true feelings about each other sounds irresistible, this might be the ticket. This game is a lot of fun, but you may not make a lot of friends in the process. -Nina
So, this isn’t a “board game” per se, but it is a game that allows you to shout wildly at your housemates and giggle uncontrollably at their inability to prompt you to say the word “nose” without saying “face,” “smell” or “ear.” Also, it’s a game that could totally work over Zoom. A newer twist on this game is Culture Tags, in which you have to guess the meaning of hashtags that go hard on Black Twitter. -Courtney
Have a favorite board game that’s getting you through the cold nights? Tell us why it’s worth playing here.