Essential Strategy Board Games 201903 Aug 2019 0
Video games are great. But sometimes you want to break out of that digital bubble and spend some time face to face with friends. That doesn't mean the gaming has to stop, though: Strategy board games are enjoying a huge renaissance right now.
That's partly because modern designs have become so good. Learning from the sometimes patchy designs of yesteryear, current titles are deep and challenging yet often easy to pick up and with huge replay value.
If you weren't aware of this recent evolution, there's no better time to dip your toe in and find out. With board games enjoying huge popularity right now, the release schedule is packed. This is a 'living' list that'll change from time to time to keep up with the pace.
Many candidates for this list are also available in digital versions. As such, we've deliberately left them off this list: you can find them on our break down of the best digital board games instead.
So here are some top recommendations of places you might want to start…
Imperial (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Rio Grande Games / PD-Verlag
Imperial looks and reads a lot like a capitalist version of the (great) grandfather of modern strategy, Diplomacy. It's got the same First World War theme, production centres and one to one elimination of combat units. But since the players represent international investors, there’s a whole new economic layer where you can literally buy control of countries out from under other players.
The interlocking of these two layers creates a dizzying decision tree wedded to a brutal competition for both money and map space. There's a third cog, a rondel to limit your action selection, which adds another dimension. The ultimate aim is profit, not territory, creating some cynical plays of running countries into the ground to scoop off their tax. If it's all a little too close to the bone there's also a sci-fi version, Imperial 2030, with a different map.
Anachrony (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Mindclash Games
Worker Placement, where you take games actions by assigning a limited pool of worker pieces to spaces on the board, is a very popular subgenre. And Anachrony is a great example of it. In place of the often po-faced themes, there's a cool sci-fi skin to enjoy. And the resource management and worker specialities ensure there's plenty of tactical depth.
But where Anachrony earns its spot is with its innovative time-travel feature. See, if you're ever short of workers or resources, which you are all the time, you can risk "borrowing" them from the future. But woe betide if you don't have them spare to hand when that future turn comes, else you'll create a paradox that could doom your civilisation. Not only is this a fantastic twist on the formula but one that adds an extra layer of strategy, too.
War of the Ring 2nd Edition (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Ares Games
Franchised games often fall into the uncanny valley between telling a familiar story and handing power to the players. Which is why War of the Ring is such an astonishing game, succeeding not on one but both levels. And with the most well-loved licence in all of fantasy, at that.
The heart of its success is that it's two games in one. The huge board of Middle-Earth is for a grand strategy wargame of the free people versus the Shadow. The former have no hope of victory, but clever play will slow the forces of darkness while the second part of the game plays out. That is the toil of the fellowship to dunk the ring into Mount Doom before all is lost. Each play tells a believable yet novel version of the story, with card and dice-based actions adding strategic meat to the narrative bones.
Brass: Birmingham (BoardGameGeek)
Publisher: Roxley Games
Brass is often considered the best game from one of the best game designers, Martin Wallace. Like many of his titles, it's a heavy economic game which demands close attention from its players. The incautious or profligate can end up in an endless negative loop of taking loans to pay off earlier loans. Some unintuitive rule concepts add to the jagged learning curve.
Those awkward mechanics, though, offer an insight into the real industrial revolution. This makes Brass a game that rewards on every level, both strategic and thematic. Re-released in a spanking new print called Brass: Lancashire the game also has a new sibling. Using the same basic concepts, but with added beer Brass: Birmingham might be even better than the original.
Alchemists (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
At first sight, Alchemists is a traditional 'point salad' game in which players must balance various possible routes to victory. They are researching the potential uses for mystical ingredients. So they hire apprentices to fetch, test and sell reagents in a classic worker placement setup.
Where it gets brilliantly weird, though, is the deduction game of working out what ingredients brew which potion. This is an actual logic puzzle of elimination, the parameters of which change every game. Further points can then be earned presenting findings to the Alchemists Guild. In a fine satirical twist on actual academia, you can do better out of being first than being right.
Star Wars: Rebellion (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
If one Death Star wasn't enough, this is the game for you. There are plenty of great Star Wars games around, but none this epic in scope. One player takes the Empire and the other the Rebels as the whole iconic Galaxy Far, Far Away unfolds on your tabletop. Dice, cards and plastic models come together to retell your own version of the trilogy, with plenty of special strategic sauce.
Surprisingly simple for a game of this size, the depth comes down to a clever detail. Your character pieces can either lead armies into battle or undertake heroic missions for their cause. But not both. And, of course, the two halves of the game weave together, meaning a clever sabotage mission might undermine a mighty space fleet. Between them, they offer a vast sweep, sprinkled with tiny detail.
Root (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Leder Games
Cute forest critters might not seem the best disguise for a vicious wargame that models hard versus soft political power. Yet that's exactly what's beneath Root's charming, characterful wooden animals and iconic art. Two mighty armies, Cats and Birds, clash over the leaf-litter. But their conflict leads to a guerrilla uprising of ordinary woodland folk and offers profit potential to a rogue raccoon.
Each faction has its own distinct rules, making for a tight yet balanced asymmetric game with huge replay potential. Victory requires mastery of board space, resource management and negotiation. With ever-shifting strategies and allegiances, it's a tooth and nail fight until the last scrap of fur flies.
Orleans (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: DLP Games
In 2008, card game Dominion launched a whole new genre of games in which you build a deck of cards as you play. Most of its ilk are fast and fun but other designers used the concept as a springboard to heavier fare. Orleans, which swaps the deck of cards for a bag of tiles and adds a map and player boards, is the best of them.
Reaching into the bag is the black hole at the heart of proceedings. You'll pull out workers that you have to allocate to a dizzying array of actions. But naturally, what you've pulled limits your choices, leaving you to try and make the most of what you've got before all your opponents do. It's a clever and addictive fusion of different ideas, far greater than the sum of its parts.
Spirit Island (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Greater Than Games
Co-operative strategy titles, where all the players work together to overcome the game, are rare in the digital space. But they're a popular subgroup on tabletop. Meatiest and mightiest of all is Spirit Island. Here, each player takes the role of a titular elemental Spirit who must help native islanders repel the threat of colonists.
It's complex to learn, but all those rules help it overcome the inherent issues with the genre, which somehow has to play like an AI without one. You'll have to utilise a plethora of magical powers to both scare the colonists and buff the natives in their fight against oppression. A variety of scenarios helps both replay value and the wider sense of a worthwhile political message.
El Grande (BoardGameGeek) (Amazon)
Publisher: Z-Man Games
In the deluge of quality products from skilled designers and publishers, it's easy to forget how good older games can be. There are few better reminders than playing El Grande. It's an area control game, where you score for having the most pieces in each space on the map, stripped to its bare and brilliant essentials.
The rules are easy but leave players stewing in a soup of impossible decisions. You constantly need to balance having pieces ready to add to the board with those in supply. Plus there's the added mystery of the Castillo, a secret space where no-one can see the number of pieces. Random action cards strike a fine line between giving players control and keeping them on their toes. A well-regarded classic for a good reason.
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Here are a few extra suggestions. Most of these are either a little too light for real 'strategy' fare or a little too cumbersome for frequent play. But you might want to check them out, nevertheless.
- Quartermaster General WW2
- Here I Stand
- Twilight Imperium 4
- Railways of the World
- Modern Art
- Cosmic Encounter
What are you favourite strategy board games? Let us know in the comments!