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The Best Board Games Of 2021

by Matt Miller on Dec 27, 2021 at 05:00 PM

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Whether getting together with old friends or settling down for a weekly family game night, great tabletop games bring people together and ­create lasting memories. Even during a year that many game nights had to be put off or canceled, game makers continued to release some remarkable new projects.

Here are 10 of the best games of 2021, from cooperative party experiences to challenging asymmetric strategy competitions and everything in-between.

For more on some of the best tabletop games of recent years, head to our Top of the Table hub and explore its recommendations. And don't miss this feature's companion article, with our listing of the 10 best tabletop RPG product releases of 2021

7 Wonders Architects
Publisher: Repos Production

The original 7 Wonders is phenomenal, but its manifold strategies can intimidate newcomers. Architects simplifies and streamlines without losing the core fun. Players work to build a wonder of the ancient world using a straightforward card selection as the central mechanic. Attractive cardboard pieces represent the landmark as it takes shape. Add in the playful art and cleverly designed components, and Architects claims a spot as one of the best new gateway games in years. 

That gateway experience will be a perfect way for enthusiasts to invite new players into the thematic board gaming scene. And since the game plays so fast, you don’t need to worry that inexperienced players will lose focus. Architects is an elegant and engaging release; it doesn’t replace the larger and more complex 7 Wonders – it’s better than that since Architects perfectly complements its older sibling.

Ankh: Gods of Egypt
Publisher: CMON

Following on the heels of its myth-focused predecessors, Blood Rage and Rising Sun, this sumptuous strategy game casts players as Egyptian gods, struggling to remain relevant as the old ways of worship fall away. Asymmetric powers, non-random combat, and a tense, tight area control map lead to fierce confrontation. The fantastical artwork and immaculate miniature sculpts capture the imagination in a way few other games can.

While Ankh isn’t exactly a great entryway into board gaming, its subtle, tight strategies and exceptional production values easily win over veterans. One particular feature – the way players in the back of the pack eventually merge and begin to work together – is a perfect encapsulation of the game’s thematic drive, where we see old gods dying off, combining, and changing as the epochs pass. Thoughtful and beautiful to look at and play, this one is not to be missed.

Descent: Legends of the Dark
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Don’t be fooled by the name; the massive new entry in the Descent franchise is a standalone dungeon-crawling experience, separate from earlier games. Featuring 3D tile setups and a digital app that doubles in function, running the game and telling the story, this is an impressive cooperative fantasy adventure filled with combat and upgrades, perfect for groups looking for a months-long gaming night go-to.

Fantasy Flight has toyed with app-aided design for years now, but Legends of the Dark is the company’s most comprehensive and rewarding implementation of the concept. That reliance on a digital element may rub some players the wrong way, but if you embrace its potential, the art and storytelling weave back and forth between the physical and digital aspects to create something magical.

Machi Koro 2
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games

Small but essential changes update this popular family-friendly city-building game. Players compete to build a city of bakeries, stadiums, and gardens, establishing landmarks and setting each urban center apart. Brisk playtimes and easy-to-learn rules make it an easy pick-up-and-play experience, but one with a significant luck factor. Pre-game strategy and greater replayability than the original make this the definitive version and an easy choice for a light night of gaming.

The randomized cards for each game make a massive difference in giving this renewed take on Machi Koro a new lease on life. If you’re an established player of the original (and its expansions), you have a tough decision in front of you. Machi Koro 2 represents the logical revisions the game needs and makes it a more robust overall play experience. But whether you’re ready to abandon the familiarity of the original and its quirks is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.

Merchants of the Dark Road
Publisher: Elf Creek Games

One of the most innovative releases in recent months, Elf Creek Games’ newest release is a fantasy adventure in which intrepid merchant caravans must brave the night, deliver goods, and recruit heroes between isolated cities. Players need to balance prestige and money acquisition to win the game, and success demands you always think three steps ahead. Richly imagined and lavishly illustrated, this is an excellent fit if you’re looking for a novel new twist on tabletop strategy, awash in fantasy styling.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the game is its use of action dice and its interaction with how you can move your wagon around the board. There are a lot of distinct play mechanics at work in any given game of Merchants, but there’s unique fun in seeing the way they all tie together, especially to fuel your travel to new locations. For many, it’s the innovative connections between different gameplay systems that will be the chief draw here, but for players who prefer a more straightforward gameplay experience, Merchants of the Dark Road has the potential to overwhelm.       

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
Publisher: Leder Games

Leder Games is known for asymmetric game design, where each player can leverage different abilities to win. Oath charts the course of a sprawling empire, and each player takes on a role in that complex mix, from the ruling chancellor to exiled revolutionaries looking to topple the regime. In a fascinating twist, the results of one game establish the start-up conditions for the next playthrough, sometimes even introducing new cards and situations. 

It’s that final dynamic that sets Oath apart. This is not a legacy game by most measures of what that descriptor means, but it is a game that develops a history and a literal chronicle of events as you invest more time and sessions into it. That’s an appealing possibility for playgroups who are willing to return to the same game multiple times, instead of moving on to something else. If your gaming cadre is willing to invest the sessions to see the empire develop, there’s a fascinating sense of continuity that begins to bubble up.

Sleeping Gods
Publisher: Red Raven Games

This stunning campaign game follows the crew of a 1929 steamship as it navigates mysterious lands and waters, all the while vanquishing monsters, tracking down hidden totems, and trying to find a way home. A spiral-bound atlas book is the board, opening up new vistas with each session, while an accompanying storybook fills out a rich narrative. Even after playing through a whole campaign over many sessions, subsequent campaigns could play out entirely different – with over a dozen possible endings.

It’s hard to overstate the fun in store for storytelling enthusiasts. Sleeping Gods features some wonderful writing alongside clever twists and narrative developments. Echoing the theme of a boundless sea voyage, your explorations in a given campaign playthrough always tease that there’s something else to discover and learn just over the horizon.

So Clover!
Publisher: Repos Production

Sometimes the simplest concepts are the most rewarding. So Clover! is a breezy cooperative party game of word association. Players arrange a selection of cards with random words onto a four-space grid, and then write down clue keywords that link specific terms seen on the cards. Other players work together to try and arrange the grid in the correct orientation. Simple but surprisingly nuanced, this is one of those easy staples you can bring to the table whenever and please everyone.

While comparisons aren’t always the best way to articulate a game’s identity, it’s worth mentioning that So Clover! fits in a very similar place to other Repos games like Concept, Just One, and the hit game Codenames. All of those games lean heavily on word association, deductive reasoning, and emergent ways of thinking, but in simple ways that any player, young or old, can grasp. So Clover! is another success story in that style of play, and quite frankly, it’s one you should feel comfortable adding to your library without hesitation.

Publisher: Orange Nebula

Sci-fi fans should take note of this incredible new game of exploration and survival, in which all players work together to confront the dangers of deep space, discover new worlds, chart mysterious anomalies, and advance science. Unsettled features a core game system and connected “planet boxes” that plug into that framework, each offering a standalone and unique experience. This is a cooperative adventure for experienced players looking for an engrossing thematic and complex play.

Like your favorite sci-fi TV show, Unsettled finds its success by establishing some baseline parameters and expectations. Those expectations are then challenged as individual planet boxes throw surprises at you, and the explorers encounter new threats and discoveries. There’s a lot of joy in how the game has your group effectively crafting its own rich science fiction narrative. If you’re up for the complexity it takes to put all the figurative pieces together, you’ll be delighted with the results.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Publisher: Z-Man Games

The Pandemic games have a winning blueprint that has stood the test of time. In this new cooperative twist on the formula, the board gaming juggernaut franchise aligns with its first licensed partner, transporting players to Northrend and into the roles of Azeroth’s heroes as they stand against the Lich King. A fun questing system demands teamwork, and each hero brings awesome unique powers to the table, leading to a climactic battle atop Icecrown Citadel to end Arthas’ reign. 

Especially for players familiar with both Pandemic and this classic World of Warcraft expansion, you’ll be surprised at how smoothly the concept and mechanics combine to capture the epic conflicts described. The other thing that is likely to blow you away is the lovely components and card art that fill the game. Z-Man has nailed the vibe here, and brought one of MMO gaming’s most memorable periods into uncanny focus.

2021 was filled with any number of other remarkable tabletop games to discover, and you’ll find at least some of those highlighted in our Top of the Table hub. If you’d specifically like to delve into the backlog of selections for the year’s best, you can jump straight to the best tabletop games of 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017.