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Best board games to play in quarantine, according to experts

From Catan and Carcassonne to Ticket to Ride and Wingspan, widely popular and highly-rated board games can help you unwind — and keep you entertained.
To help you find your next board game, we consulted BoardGameGeek's news editor W. Eric Martin, who also wrote “The Infinite Board Game."
To help you find your next board game, we consulted BoardGameGeek's news editor W. Eric Martin, who also wrote “The Infinite Board Game."Amazon

Spring is here, temperatures are rising and vaccines are rolling out, but many of us are still spending lots of time at home. To pass the time, your first instinct might be scrolling through your social media feeds, reading more or bingeing something new on Netflix. But there’s an argument to be made for getting even more analog with your entertainment: Opting for a board game, be it a puzzle, tabletop board game or card and dice game. Spending as little as 15 minutes playing a board game could go a long way in refreshing your day, especially during work hours. Besides, board games can be incredibly fun — if you find the right one for you.

“Your specific taste in games might differ from everyone else's, so try to watch a video overview of the game or download and read the rules ahead of time to see whether the game might be ideal for you,” says W. Eric Martin, author of “The Infinite Board Game.” Martin is also the news editor at online gaming resource BoardGameGeek, home to a database of more than 115,000 tabletop games and two million registered users who rate and review games, upload game images and more. To spare yourself some frustration, Martin recommends watching a full rules tutorial before investing time or money into a game, such as those by Rodney Smith of the YouTube channel "Watch It Played," which partners with BoardGameGeek.

How to choose the best board game for you

Given the ever-expanding world of video games and gadgets, board games might sound a little outdated on paper (or rather, on your table). But the statistics show otherwise: Market research from Arizton found the board game industry is expected to reach a global value of $12 billion by 2023, a 9 percent uptick from 2017.

BoardGameGeek favorites

If you’re new to the modern game scene, Martin recommends consulting BoardGameGeek’s yearly gift guide, a curation of BGG staff picks and volunteer game experts. Their 2019 collection, for example, features “go-to choices for someone curious about what games are like these days.” The games in that guide, Martin said, came out between 1995 (Catan) and 2010 (7 Wonders), “so they're far newer than the mainstream games with which most people are familiar. Those mainstream options won’t surprise you: Monopoly, Scrabble and The Game of Life are some examples — and there’s nothing wrong with those, Martin reminds.

“They're also old enough to have proven themselves as excellent choices for gamers of all types,” he said.

BoardGameGeek and its weight

When choosing the right game for you, it might be worth it to consult its weight. It’s a five-point scale BGG uses to loosely assign a level of complexity to a particular game. Weight levels include:

  • Light: 0.1 to 1.0
  • Medium Light: 1.1 to 2.0
  • Medium: 2.1 to 3.0
  • Medium Heavy: 3.1 to 4.0
  • Heavy: 4.1 to 5.0

BoardGameGeek notes, however, that weight is a subjective term. Users vote on a game’s particular weight by factoring in elements like the complexity of a game’s rulebook, how much luck is involved and how long it takes to play the game — you can consider it a board gamers’ equivalent to a Goodreads review.

To help guide your journey to a new board game, we consulted Martin on the best board games to consider right now, noting BoardGameGeek’s guidance on how many players it supports (board game expansions often allow for additional players), how long it’s likely to take and how users weigh it, on average.

Best board games to play 2021

1. Carcassonne

To build an entire town one tile at a time, grow and complete roads, grasslands, cloisters, monasteries and more by positioning your tiles on the board, which features southern French landscape. You have the option of widening the scope of your own territories or placing your token in your opponents’ way to shield them from dominating the map, too — and you can form alliances. “Sometimes, you can combine forces, though, and each profit at the expense of other players,” says Martin.

2 to 5 players | 30 to 45 minutes | Weight: 1.92

2. Ticket to Ride

Think of Ticket to Ride as the Monopoly of the railway system — with a lot more tension. Collect the most points by placing a like-colored set of train cards on the board to connect cities, building longer routes via Destination Tickets throughout the game and boasting the longest continuous railway system at the end of the game. “[It’s] our go-to recommendation, especially for new gamers,” says Lincoln Damerst, the director of media at BoardGameGeek. “It has the slimmest rule book — at only four pages (half of which are illustrations) — that is super easy to digest and it has an Amazon Alexa skill to teach you and play along with you.”

2 to 5 players | 30 to 60 minutes | Weight: 1.85

3. Pandemic

In keeping with the times, this cooperative game forces you to join intellectual forces with other players in order to eradicate a widespread disease. Each player assumes a role — be it scientist or medic — and collaborates to devise new treatment strategies. Taking place throughout cities all across the globe, you’ll collect cards to treat outbreaks in various hotspots. Martin says the game has a cinematic feel since you’ll be playing as “an unlikely hero who has to see whether you can find the solution to the problem — whatever that might — be in the nick of time.”

2 to 4 players | 45 minutes | Weight: 2.42

4. Azul

Azul is for design lovers as much as it is for thrill seekers. Each player uses their individual game board to decorate a Portuguese palace with tiles from a shared supplier. Earn points for collecting tiles that contribute to a cohesive design, such as rows and columns of the same color. While it’s fairly straightforward, Damerst says Azul gets tricky when you have to draft tiles you don’t need, which gives you negative points. To that end, Martin adds, “You want to grab exactly what you need to complete tasks so that you can reopen that workspace again next round, ideally stealing tiles from others or forcing extras in their lap so they're penalized.”

2 to 4 players | 30 to 45 minutes | Weight: 1.77

5. Wingspan

Wingspan is the ultimate way to gain a bird’s eye view of nature, thanks to what Damerst calls “fantastic art and production value.” Here, you’ll be responsible for a mini ecosystem, forced to allocate varying supplies of food tokens found in a bespoke bird feeder dice tower, eggs laid via mini colored eggs and birds found on unique playing cards to build a chain of wildlife preserves across four habitats. “Each species has its own needs and special abilities, and you want them all to live together as harmoniously as possible,” says Martin.

1 to 4 players | 40 to 70 minutes | Weight: 2.38

6. Catan

Formerly known as Settlers of Catan, players expand their territory on settlements, roads and cities using resources like wood, stone and brick that may or may not yield a return on investment. Success in the game relies on trading and negotiating with other players. Damerst notes the rule book is a bit intimidating but gameplay is simple and straightforward. “The player interaction through the trading of goods and on-board interplay with no conflict was like nothing we had seen before,” he says, noting that after playing it the first time he was eager for a second round.

3 to 4 players | 1 to 2 hours | Weight: 2.33

7. Codenames

Scattegories heads, this one’s for you. Each team’s “spymaster” provides clever one-word clues to assist their teammates in identifying the secret word that belongs to their team in a field of seemingly random words that include those of the other team. For example, you’ll need to think of a single code word that inspires players to guess words like “check” or “trip.” The goal is to guess words in your team’s color while avoiding the other team’s cards.

2 to 8 players | 15 minutes | Weight: 1.30

8. The Mind

Ever played a card game of Kent during recess at school? The Mind — which Damerst calls one of his favorites — takes this type of stealthy card game to another level. Play cards from your hand to the table in ascending order (one card on the first round, two cards in the second and so on). If you’re in a bind, use the card that lets everyone play their lowest card, or forfeit a life in order to continue playing in order, explains Damerst. The catch is that you can’t talk to each other or indicate in any way what you have in your hand, and you can only intuit when to play. “In practice, The Mind feels like a magic trick that you're playing on yourself. You can't imagine that you can possibly do this, yet you surprise yourself again and again,” says Martin.

2 to 4 players | 15 minutes | Weight: 1.09

9. Dominion

In this Medieval-themed card-drawing game, you’ll begin with nothing but a hand of 10 copper and estate cards — the latter of which you’ll eventually want to get rid of. The goal is amassing ever more victory and treasure cards, which allow you to buy even more valuable expensive cards. Cards allow you to interact with the hands of other players, for better or worse. Martin calls the game “akin to the story of the man who started with a paperclip and traded his way to a house.”

2 to 4 players | 30 minutes | Weight: 2.36

10. 7 Wonders

In each of the three “ages” of the game, players collect cards to help them build one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which have either immediate or latent benefits. While the goal is for your civilization to reign supreme, you can still collaborate with players directly next to you, selling resources like clay, wood and glass, buying resources they produce and sharing insider knowledge and research.

2 to 7 players | 30 minutes | Weight: 2.33

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