When you hear the term “board games,” you might think of things like Candyland and Life. But board games have come a long way from the days when they were mostly for kids. To pigeonhole board games like that ignores the fact that the majority of board games on the market today are deep, demanding, and definitely designed for grown-ups.
So whether you're into 2-player board games, party games, or even solo board games, here are our picks for the best board games for adults to stretch your grey matter and provoke some interesting discussions.
TLDR: Best Board Games for Adults
- Spirit Island
- Brian Boru
- Dune: Imperium
- Gloomhaven | Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
- Terraforming Mars
- Mind MGMT
There’s no better place to start this list than with one of the most popular and engaging games of the last few years. Wingspan is often sold as a family board game but in truth, it’s a little too complex and challenging for kids. It is pitch-perfect for adults, though, with a perfect weave of tactics and strategy together with a winning theme as you try to attract birds to a nature reserve. Different birds need different foods and habitats but will contribute to your growing ecosystem which becomes a kind of engine, generating resources to allow you to play bigger and more beautiful birds.
A lot of cooperative board games are very family-friendly, but Spirit Island is different. It’s deep and demanding, for one thing, with a commensurate sense of strategic satisfaction when your group pulls off a victory. For another, it boasts a thought-provoking theme of anti-colonialism, with players taking the roles of elemental gods working together to repel a colonizing invader. Winning means using a combination of your native worshippers and your special elemental powers to plan a way of predicting the path of invasion and throwing them back into the sea.
The titular Brian was a famous king of medieval Ireland, whose campaign of military, social and economic might to unify the island is replicated in this fascinating trick-tacking game. After drafting their cards, players compete in tricks to win control of towns on a map of Ireland, but losing cards net critical resources to use in marriage, supporting the church or seeing off Viking invaders. Failing to balance all these elements can cost you the game, while other players will be competing to steal your tricks away or usurp you on one of the game’s supporting tracks. Check out our Brian Boru review for more details about it.
Dune was one of the movie events of 2021 and it just so happens it’s very well supported with board game spinoffs. Among them is Dune: Imperium, where players are the nobles of the Dune universe, each building their own deck of cards representing their resources, influence and personnel. These can then be played to board spaces to intrigue with other factions or do battle on the planet’s surface, or held for an extra effect on a “reveal” turn. It’s a potent, spicy mixture, forcing players to keep tweaking their deck builds and strategies as the drama unfolds. See our Dune: Imperium review for more.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Topping the “best of lists” of many gamers and critics, Gloomhaven is an extraordinary cooperative marriage of story and strategy board game. You’ll run an ever-changing party of characters through a huge narrative campaign, equipping and upskilling them as they experience events and encounters. Exploration and combat unfold via challenging, tight tactical engine driven by multi-use cards where failure and death are constant threats for the unwary. If the length and price of the original put you off, you can still get most of the pleasure from the cut-down prequel Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.
If none of the other games on this list tickles your fancy, then Terraforming Mars’ cross-genre blending might be what you need. In your quest to civilize Mars before your competitors you’ll need to juggle hand management, resource gathering and positional play on the planet’s surface, all these factors tying together into one neat package. Best of all, for a game of this style, they also help conjure a real sense of humanity coloniing the red planet, inch by dusty inch. The different corporation powers and card deals make each game feel new and stop there from being a guaranteed path to victory.
From the box art, you might assume this is a kids’ game about cute woodland animals. In fact, it’s a fascinating and multi-layered exploration of the meaning of power for different groups in society. There are four factions in the game: the traditionalist birds, the industrialized cats, the oppressed woodland folk and the lone Vagabond. Each has its own set of rules and goals to bring to this highly asymmetrical game where you’ll marshal troops and cards to build up your resources, fight and advance your goals. And if the layered strategic puzzle isn’t thoughtful enough, you can discuss the political and philosophical ramifications of the game’s model afterwards.
You might never have heard of the psychic espionage comic series on which this is based, but that won’t keep you from enjoying its sublime blend of strategy and surrealism. One player, the recruiter, moves in secret on a hidden map, trying to visit enough recruiting locations to win. The other players work as a team, using a limited pool of actions to try and gain clues to the recruiter’s movements and objectives so they can corner and capture them. A fun new puzzle of bluff and deduction on every play, Mind MGMT is brilliantly enlivened by a series of closed boxes containing extra game elements you can open and add at your leisure. See our complete Mind MGMT review for more info.
Worker placement, where you have a limited pool of pieces to assign to actions on the board, is a common mechanic in mid- and heavy-weight games. Anachrony takes it to the next level by allowing you to “borrow” workers and resources from your future turns as part of its time-traveling theme. Failure to pay back your loans when that turn rolls around has predictably dire consequences. Atop the usual business of juggling the resources you need to climb one of the game’s paths this makes it feel fresh, complex and challenging while also evoking a classic science fiction theme.
For more ideas, take a look at our picks for the best board games to play in 2023 or take a look at the best board games for kids for family friendly options.