Since I have the bad habit of collecting board games in much the same way that the Collyer brothers collected newspapers, people sometimes ask me to recommend board games. Often they want a recommendation of something to buy for their non-board-game-playing friend. That’s a hard question to answer. It’s like saying, “My friend doesn’t really watch movies. What movie would be best for him?” It depends on the friend’s tastes in other entertainment, what kind of genres (if any) they like, and more. There is no one “best” game that will, without fail, entertain everyone.
That said, there are a lot of good games that even non-board-gaming people might enjoy. Your average person, if they’ve played games, will have played ones like Monopoly, Uno, or (heaven help us) Candyland. There are far and away better games to play, I swear. You can find lots of them on BoardGameGeek. The site’s stuffed full of reviews and information, but going to it for game recommendations can be like going to Pitchfork to find new music. The BoardGameGeek audience is self-selected for people who really really really love board games, and they dislike games that involve a lot of luck. If you were just to pull from their list of top-rated games you run the risk of buying your friend a copy of Advanced Squad Leader, and no one wants that.
That’s why I’m here to help. Instead of giving you a list of top games, I’ve listed several by genre and type of gameplay and described a bit of what they’re about. I’ve also leaned towards simpler games where possible.
Random games: Fluxx. Fluxx is one of those games that non-gamers like a lot more than gamers because of its randomness. It’s a card game in which you try to collect the right cards (like Chocolate or Love) to win. However, you also play cards that change what cards you have to have to win, how many cards you draw each turn, how many you discard, and more. Because the rules keep changing you can’t develop a long-term strategy, but you still get to make meaningful choices. Fluxx games are fast-paced, don’t take too long, and because it’s a card game it’s easy to carry around.
Games that you should play instead of Monopoly: Acquire. Like Monopoly, Acquire is about making money off of hotels. Unlike Monopoly, Acquire is fun to play and can be completed in fewer than seventeen hours. You play tiles that represent a growing hotel chain and you buy shares in the various hotel chains. Eventually separate chains merge and the stockholders of those chains get bonuses in the form of cold, hard fake cash. The person with the most money at the end wins.
Social games: Apples to Apples. As party games go, this is a good one. Each player has a bunch of cards with nouns on it, like “lawyers”. One player, acting as judge, draws a card that has an adjective on it like “handsome”. The remaining players then choose one of their cards that they think best matches the adjective and play it face-down. The judge goes through the played cards to decide which is the best match, according to whatever criteria the judge chooses. It’s all extremely subjective, of course, but can be a lot of fun with the right group. (Other similar games: Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow, in which the group tries to decide who among them are werewolves and most everyone dies.)
Traditional board games with a twist: Kill Doctor Lucky. You know how, in Clue, you’re trying to find out who killed Mr. Boddy? Here everyone is vying to kill off Doctor Lucky. You can only try to kill him when no one else on the board can see you, and other players can block your attempt by playing Failure cards. Eventually everyone uses up their Failure cards and someone wins. It’s a nice inversion of the Clue scenario, and who doesn’t love a game that embodies the Prisoner’s Dilemma?
German-style land grab games: Ticket to Ride. Most people think of Settlers of Catan in this category, and it’s a fine game in its own right, but Ticket to Ride is much simpler and is a hell of a lot of fun to play. Everyone’s competing to build train routes between US cities. Each route you build nets you points, with longer routes worth more points. You also get points at the end of the game if you have the longest continous set of routes or for meeting certain destination goals, like building routes linking Dallas and Seattle. Highly recommended. (Other similar games: Settlers of Catan)
Family card games: Bohnanza. Plant beans; trade beans; harvest beans; win the game. Bohnanza has a number of nifty and unusual features, like how you have to play cards in the order that they’re in your hand with no rearranging. Because of the no-rearranging rule you have to make longer strategic decisions, but those decisions are never so complex that you feel overwhelmed. You also manage what’s in your hand by trading cards with other players, making this a very social and interactive game. (Other similar games: Space Beans)
Cooperative games: Pandemic. Not every game pits you against your friends. In some you have to work together, so that everyone wins or loses as a team. In Pandemic you and your buddies race around the world trying to find the cures to four virulent diseases before they kill everyone. Pandemic has some truly outstanding game mechanics and yet isn’t too difficult for non-gamers to start playing. This is one of my favorite games of the past several years. (Other similar games: Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot)
Tile-laying games: Carcassonne. Carcassonne is one of those rare games where you build the board during play. Each turn you draw terrain and place it next to existing ones, making sure that roads, cities, and fields line up. Then you can stick one of your followers on a tile to claim a road, cloister, city, or field. Once all of the tiles are played, you get points for every map feature you control. The game is fast, the rules are simple, and the play is elegant. As a bonus, it’s an excellent two-player game. (Other similar games: Blokus, which is like a competitive sideways version of Tetris, and Galaxy Trucker)
Two-player games: Dominion. Since it came out in 2008, Dominion has become exceedingly popular. It’s like a collectible card game in that you build up a deck of cards, but you build up your deck during play and you don’t have to spend all of your allowance on hot new cards to have any hope of winning. While it’s designed for more than two players, Dominion works excellently as a two-player game. (Other similar games: Lost Cities, Carcassonne)
Auction games: Modern Art. Buy and sell paintings in one of the best and most definitive auction games ever. Everyone plays the part of an art auction house (beret not included) and takes turns auctioning off paintings from various artists. Anyone can buy the paintings, including the auctioneer. As soon as five paintings by any one artist have been offered, the round is over. Everyone then sells their paintings to the bank, with the paintings by popular artists (those who had more paintings bought during the round) being worth more. Popularity is cumulative over four rounds. At the end, the person with the most money wins, just like in real artistic endeavors. (Other similar games: Ra)
German-style resource management games: Puerto Rico. Now we’re getting into games with deep, crunchy gameplay. You develop plantations in Puerto Rico, deciding what crops to grow such as sugar and tobacco. You use the proceeds from the crops to build buildings which net you gameplay bonuses and victory points. You also gain victory points for shipping your goods back to Spain. Oh, and don’t forget to manage the influx of colonists, because without them you can’t harvest your crops or man your buildings. The game is complex, but for that complexity you get great gameplay and a lot of flexibility. There’s no one best way to play Puerto Rico, and that’s a large part of its appeal. (Other similar games: Agricola, which is Latin for farmer, so the game is not, as you might expect, about harvesting Pepsi cans.)
Sprawling rules-heavy games: Arkham Horror. Now we’re at the game for people who love complexity and miss how Avalon Hill’s games had rules with numbers like “188.8.131.52.4”. You and your friends cooperate as investigators fighting against the Lovecraftian horrors flooding the streets of Arkham. If you don’t close portals fast enough, eventually one of the Old Ones awakens and probably kills everyone. I like Arkham Horror a lot, and it’s a blast to play, but the game is complex enough that someone on BoardGameGeek made a flowchart to help lead you through the game. And if that’s not enough for you, there are some six expansions that add even more cards and additional boards that abut the original. Have no fear, though: the flowchart will lead you through the expansions as well.
Okay, Mister Smarty, What If I Only Want To Buy One Game And Not Think Too Hard: Ticket To Ride.