“You should come over for game night; I’ve got a great new Social Deduction/Area Control RPG with added Deck Building and Worker Placement mechanics. But with a bit of a Commodity Speculation twist. You’ll love it!”
We are lucky enough to live in The Golden Age of Board Games, which are Trendier Than Ever. Whatever type of game you’re looking for, there’s something fun and creative out there for you. There are probably dozens or even hundreds of new games vying for your attention in any given category.
It can get a bit overwhelming, especially when trying to describe a game to a friend. Was it an Area Control Game or an Area Enclosure Game? What’s the difference between a Deck Building Game and a Card Collecting Game, anyway? The lines can get blurry, to say the least.
It’s easy to divide and sub-divide these categories to an incredibly detailed level of nuance. Some people separate Game Mechanics from Game Themes or Categories, and there are valid reasons to do that. Not on this list.
Here at Nonstop Tabletop, we like simplicity. That’s why we’re providing you with a definitive list of the types of board games that all tabletop players should be familiar with. No fat, no filler, just a distilled list of the major board game categories.
What Are The Major Board Game Types?
Roll and Move Games
Roll and Move Games involve rolling dice (or spinning a wheel or drawing cards) to determine the number of spaces you may move in a primarily linear direction. Players may be racing from a start point to a finish line or moving to control resources. Either way, what you roll plays a large role in whether you win or lose.
Think the majority of the “Classic” Board Games: Monopoly, Clue, Sorry!, Candyland, The Game of Life (shudder). This type of game has fallen out of favor in a major way in recent years, in large part due to luck playing a much larger role than strategy. Though there are still some excellent recent examples of this category, such as Camel Up or The Magic Labyrinth, think of this one as the silent film of the Board Gaming world: it may be fun to revisit from time to time, but times have changed and overall quality has simply improved.
Who Will Love Roll and Move Games
Mainly non-gamers who remember these games fondly from childhood. They can still be great early Gateway Games for kids, as the heavy reliance on luck means that they always have a chance to win without adults pulling any punches. See Should I Let My Kid Win At Board Games? for more insight on this issue.
Notable Roll and Move Games
Monopoly, The Game of Life, Clue, Candyland, Sorry!, Camel Up, The Magic Labyrinth, Xia: Legends of a Drift System, Zombies!!!, Talisman.
Worker Placement Games
Think of this one as a slower and more strategic game of musical chairs. There are only so many spaces out there, and you need to get to yours before someone else does. Except you’re not the one jumping into the chair, you’re sending a dedicated worker, toiling away to help you accomplish your objectives, and instead of a chair, it’s usually a territory on a board.
In Agricola, for example, players take turns placing their family members on action spaces in an attempt to grow more food, raise more animals and generally acquire more resources than their competitors. Getting to the prime real estate results in choking your competition off, leading to some strategic blocking.
It’s a result of this strategic blocking that Worker Placement Games can get quite competitive and heated. This is definitely a style that could set off one of the Ten Types of People Who Ruin Game Night.
Who Will Love Worker Placement Games
Notable Worker Placement Games
Agricola, Keydom, Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Mint Works, Le Harve, Cytosis, Raiders of the North Sea, Viticulture, Charterstone.
In stark contrast to the cutthroat dynamics of Worker Placement Games, Cooperative Board Games are all about teamwork. Everyone works together as a team and either wins or loses; it’s that simple.
As we outlined in our Definitive Guide to Cooperative Games, though there were early examples of Cooperative Games such as Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings, it was really Pandemic that skyrocketed this tabletop category into the mainstream.
In Pandemic, and most of its many spinoffs, players work together to save the world from a series of deadly diseases that threaten to destroy the world. Each character has a unique role and skill set, and it takes every ounce of coordination you can muster to avoid an extinction-level event from destroying the human population.
Who Will Love Cooperative Board Games
Non-competitive types. This is the game category for the enthusiastic optimists of the group and highly social players. There can be some lively debates on what course of action to take, so influence and persuasion play a definite role. Watch out for the State Debate champion of 1998 attempting to relive his glory days.
Notable Cooperative Board Games
Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror, Mole Rats in Space, Mysterium, Spirit Island.
Invented and popularized by Dominion and its endless stream of expansions, Deck Building Games have players start with a set number of cards (or resources) that grow, change and upgrade through the course of the game.
Buried within these decks is usually a reusable currency that can be used to purchase additional, more powerful cards. Players focus on building and optimizing their deck to gain maximum value and utility out of each hand. This process is known as Engine Building.
Games typically move briskly and have a pleasant sense of acceleration and achievement as play progresses and the real fun comes from figuring out how different cards interact with one another to come up with a winning, finely tuned strategy.
(Note – This is technically a subset of engine-building games, but we’re using the better-known term Deck Building to encompass the entire category. Don’t want to go too far down the nuance rabbit hole. See Above and Below, which can fit into at least three different genres).
Who Will Love Deck-Building Games
Strategists who love optimization. If you are a Six-Sigma Blackbelt, this is the Board Game genre for you. Collectors will also love the endorphin rush of getting the latest and greatest card, then immediately begin lusting for the next one.
Notable Deck-Building Games
Dominion, Roll for the Galaxy, Clank!, Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, Mage Knight, Concordia, Star Realms, Above and Below.
Area Control Games
Do you remember when you were a kid and you drew a line in the middle of your bedroom that your sister was not allowed to cross? Okay, maybe that was just an episode of Full House, but it’s an apt illustration of the idea of an Area Control game. That land is yours, and no one else can have it.
The most-well known example is probably Risk, but there have been countless refinements in the decades since. Twilight Struggle, for example, throws out the World War combat dynamics of Risk in favor of Cold War-era influence peddling and political intrigue with no outright conflict (unless of course, the nukes come out and then everybody loses). Carcassone forgoes any sort of overt conflict whatsoever in favor of leisurely control of a quaint medieval countryside.
Who Will Love Area Control Board Games
Territorial types. If you’re the sort of person who loves to man-spread and claim as much elbow room as possible on an airplane, you’ll love Area Control Games. You’re probably already clearing out your territory on the tabletop in preparation of your glorious campaign of domination.
Notable Area Control Board Games
Risk, Star Wars: Rebellion, Twilight Struggle, Blood Rage, Scythe, El Grande, Eclipse, War of The Ring, Carcassone, Smash Up.
Secret Identity Games
You trust your friends, right? Well two of them are working together, lying to your face in attempt to crush you right now. Deception is the name of the game in Secret Identity Games.
There has been a giant surge in this game genre with the likes of Secret Hitler, Coup, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf becoming immensely popular over the past few years.
Perhaps more so than any other game genre, Secret Identity Games have been aided by technology. What used to cause either excessive memorization of rules and scripts or sacrificing a potential player to the role of the narrator can now be solved with a simple app. Skynet may still be coming someday, but at least we can have technologically supplemented fun with these games until then!
Who Will Love Secret Identity Games
Poker players and flexible debaters can take any side of any issue. Also, people take joy in lying to their friends for pleasure in the pursuit of meaningless glory.
Notable Secret Identity Games
Secret Hitler, Mafia, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, The Chameleon, Code Names, Battlestar Galactica, Two Rooms and a Boom, The Resistance, Spyfall, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31, Donner Dinner Party.
Rip up those cards. Write on the board. Open a secret envelope. Things change in Legacy Games. Permanently. The most exciting and controversial new game genre in memory, Legacy Games have only been around for a few years, but they have dramatically altered the possibilities available in a board games. We wrote a dedicated feature on the thrilling rise of the Legacy Game.
Long-term storylines become possible, characters live and die and actions have serious consequences. There are emotions accessed through this form of storytelling that simply can’t be with any of the other tabletop genres in this article. Someday there will be a board game released that qualifies as a tear-jerker, and it will be a Legacy Game.
Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy took existing game templates and catapulted them to unimaginable heights. Seafall may have suffered from sky-high expectations, but represented what was possible with a brand new IP designed from the ground up around the Legacy concept. Charterstone put a cute, fun worker placement twist on the concept. There’s a ton of innovation here, so expect big things from this genre in the years to come.
Who Will Love Legacy Board Games
People who love a good story, non-OCD types, and social gamers with a tight, dedicated group of friends. You’ll play these games over and over again with the same people, but the experience will be brand-new each time.
Notable Legacy Board Games
Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy Seasons One and Two, Seafall, Gloomhaven, Charterstone, Ultimate Werewolf Legacy, Android: Netrunner, First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet, Quickfight: A Legacy Game.
Admittedly, Party Games feature far more overlap than most of the genres on this list. We’d go so far as to grant most Secret Identity and Roll and Move games almost automatic entry into the Party Game category. Throw in Trivia and Word Games and this genre casts a wide shadow.
Perhaps the most important elements of a party game are simplicity and accessibility. It has to be fun, easy to understand, and humorous. And your drunk friends need to understand it with minimal explanation and lots of distractions.
Though some may criticize their simplicity, Party Games serve several important functions. First, as gateway games, they draw many new players deeper into the world of the hobby we love. Second, they make great appetizers ahead of a more serious experience. Finally, they’re fun! So lighten up.
Who Will Love Party Games
Social gamers, social non-gamers, and introverted people need a game to make a social encounter more tolerable. Pretty much everyone except people who can’t stomach a simplified gaming experience and solo gamers who just don’t want to be around others.
Notable Party Games
Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity, Trivial Pursuit, Scattegories, The Chameleon, Joking Hazard, Secret Hitler, Coup, Telestrations, Code Names, Mysterium, Dixit.
Who needs a story? Puzzle games are about numbers, pattern recognition, combinations and arranging things. And they’re awesome.
While most games have some sort of puzzle mechanic buried under the surface of story, theme and other mechanics, puzzle games are like the nudists of the board game world. They don’t need any fancy dressing up, they’re ready and confident to strut their stuff in the buff.
Tabletop players love to debate the merits of Eurogames (all about mechanics) vs. so-called Ameritrash games (all about theme, luck and conflict). Puzzle games fall on the European side of the coin, but with more emphasis on the joy of optimizing and solving problems and riddles.
Who Will Love Puzzle Games
Math nerds, engineers, and strategists. If you couldn’t put a Rubick’s Cube down until it was solved as a kid, you’ll probably suffer a similar obsession when you pick up a good puzzle game.
Notable Puzzle Games
Sagrada, Qwixx, Labyrinth, Patchwork, Azul, Potion Explosion, Q-Bitz, Santorini, Torres.
Though some may be tempted to lump these into other categories like Simulation, Strategy or Action, we think it’s best to keep things simple. Combat Games pit you against another player or group of players. You attempt to defeat one another. Usually with weapons.
Players typically have some form or health or quantity of troops that are directly under assault by other players. You run out, you die. Often combined with Area Control and various other game mechanics, Combat Games represent competitive hostility distilled into its purest form.
Without a doubt, there’s huge overlap here with Area Control Games. After much debate and deliberation, we made the call that they are not dependent upon one another and are two very distinct categories, one based mainly on inflicting harm, the other competing for what piece of land your meeples get to inhabit. The problem is that those meeples keep warring with each other, so the lines get blurry.
Who Will Love Combat Board Games
Ruthless competitors. The kind of people who would stay up until 4 a.m. in middle school just to destroy their best friend in Risk. The kind of people who would go down in a kamikaze blaze of glory just to make sure that the same friend didn’t have a shot at first place. The kind of people who remember the person who betrayed them during the last game night several months ago and have been plotting a brutal revenge every night since then. Otherwise known as Diplomacy players.
Notable Combat Board Games
Risk, Diplomacy, King of Tokyo, Chess, War of the Ring, Checkers, Stratego, Paths of Glory, Star Wars: Rebellion, Coup, Twilight Struggle.
(Editor’s Note: We left out Role-Playing Games, Card Collecting Games, and Miniature Games. Though all immensely popular and share many similarities, we feel that these fall outside of what most people think of when they use the term “Board Game.”)