With so many social activities curtailed over the past 18 months, classic tabletop gaming has experienced a huge revival, even with the PS5, Xbox Series X and the new OLED-screen Nintendo Switch competing for gamers’ attention.
The industry has undergone a creative renaissance in recent years, with increasingly sophisticated tabletop games capturing a surprisingly mainstream audience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the themes of the most popular board games are often focused on zombie attacks, sci-fi battles, Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy and Lovecraftian supernatural hijinks. Some popular board games, such as Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth, combine map tiles, miniature figures and a polished iPad app that handles some of the card and combat management for you.
Personally, I love games that have a video game tie-in, either a tabletop adaptation of a video game, or a video game version of a tabletop game — both have become increasingly common. I’m also a fan of 3D printing my own accessories to enhance games, from token holders to improved monster miniatures. If you want to get into that whole 3D printing universe, get started here.
Amazon/Screenshot by CNET
With Dune-mania sweeping the land, it’s a great time to go back to this newly revised and updated version of a classic 1979 board game. In Dune different factions, including powerful families and guilds, fight over control of the planet Arrakis. This will appeal to gamers looking for a game with diplomacy and politics, rather than action and combat.
The go-to game for many Lovecraft fans, with amazing narrative storytelling built around nothing but cards and a few cardboard tokens. The game involves laying out location cards on the table and exploring them for clues (while fighting monsters). It’s a “living card game,” which means there are regular releases of card packs with new characters, missions and enemies. The newly released revised core set bundles pre-made decks for the main characters, which makes it much easier to get playing faster.
Get those “gonna need a bigger boat” jokes out of your system now. This clever new two-part strategy game is asymmetrical, which means one player is the overpowered super shark, and the other players are hapless humans, who need to combine their strategic thinking, skills and resources with the goal to survive and win. The best feature is the game board, which flips from the beaches of Amity Island in the first half, to Quint’s boat in the second half. (Spoiler alert: It gradually gets eaten by the shark.)
I keep this on the list with every update because it’s easily my favorite “modern” board game, with tons of floor tiles you can use to create a haunted mansion, plus dozens of plastic miniatures for investigators and monsters. The vibe is definitely classic Lovecraft and this board game actually requires you to use its companion app, which creates the layout, spawns monsters and even adds sound effects.
The original and more expensive trailblazer is featured below. But Jaws of the Lion is a streamlined version for more mainstream audiences at a fraction of the price, and was easily my favorite new game of last year. The cleverest part is that all the map tiles are replaced by a spiral-bound book of pre-made maps. The under-$40 price doesn’t hurt, either.
Read our first impressions of Jaws of the Lion.
Any discussion about tabletop gaming has to include Gloomhaven, the (almost literal) 800-lb. gorilla of the genre. It was originally released in 2017 and is still one of the most talk-about tabletop games. Why? Because it comes in a huge 40-pound box, usually costs around $120 and can take months to play. Get started now and your party might be done by the time next Christmas rolls around.
If the big box version of Gloomhaven feels like too much, you could get the new video game version, which does a surprisingly excellent job of compressing most of what makes the game great into a $35 PC game, available on Steam. The PC version feels like an expansive puzzle game — it’s a combination of choosing the right ability cards to play and pressing your luck by drawing more cards from a random virtual modifier deck. It’s brutally difficult at times, but also immensely satisfying.
Fantasy Flight Games
It’s time to get the fellowship back together. Another board game with a tech twist, it starts with tons of cards, map tiles and miniatures, but it also uses a free iOS, Android and PC app, which adds extra narrative content, and tells you how to lay out the map and which monsters to fight.