Play to Learn: 20 Board Games to Challenge Your Skills

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“It’s just a game.”

You’ve heard that dismissal before. Games are trivial distractions, right? Nothing more than that.

While once the prevailing wisdom of some, science now tells us otherwise: Games are good for minds both young and old. Envisioning future moves, finding patterns, managing resources efficiently, and listening to others, these are just a few of the skills demanded of gamers—and of their brains. With board games, players also get to enjoy visually stimulating, tactile game components and interact with others face to face in a lighthearted, fun, social setting. And don’t we all need that!

So, play board games and sharpen your skills, add some knowledge, and give your noggin a workout. We look at games that feature Programming, Language, History, Economics, Deduction, and Teamwork.

Below, you’ll find information on great board and card games released in the last few years. We group them by the type of skill or knowledge they stimulate and provide a broad range of three or four games in that category. For each game listed, we note difficulty (easy to play to
hard ),
cost (inexpensive to expensive ), number of players, the length of the game (once all participants are familiar with rules and play), and the publisher’s suggested ages to play (with veteran gamers’ counter-suggestion in parentheses).

Lastly, we offer a link to the game on Amazon.com or at the publisher’s website.

Have fun! And enjoy giving your mind a workout while slaying some boredom.


PROGRAMMING GAMES

Programming games require players to think ahead, to plan for the future, to anticipate what the state of the game might be at a certain point or where and when they might need to move. So call on your inner futurist and imagine how it all plays out—before it actually does.

Colt Express

Colt Express image
# of Players: 2–6
Length: 30–40 minutes
Suggested Ages: 10+ (8+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Colt Express @ Amazon.com

Yee-haw! This western train robbery game pits players as bandits looting a multi-car, three-dimensional train. Run, punch, climb, shoot, loot, and attract the marshal—but you must be clever, because other players are planning their moves too, and that punch you just took knocked you into another car, and there’s no loot there! The 2015 winner of the top prize in family board games, the Spiel des Jahres, Colt Express is rootin’-tootin’ family fun.

Robot Turtles

Robot Turtles image
# of Players: 2–5
Length: 15 minutes
Suggested Ages: 4+ (3+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Robot Turtles @ Amazon.com

While turtles in real life don’t have a knack for listening to instructions, the turtles in this game will follow the plans you design for them as they help you achieve your mission to retrieve jewels. And when mistakes happen, you can “debug” the instructions. The most-funded board game on Kickstarter, Robot Turtles will help even the littlest children learn the fundamentals behind computer programming.

Lords of Xidit

Lords of Xidit image
# of Players: 3–5
Length: 90 minutes
Suggested Ages: 14+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Lords of Xidit @ Amazon.com

Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin you are, fighting off vile creatures and ghastly hellspawn, roaming the monster-plagued towns of Xidit, and recruiting villagers of various skills to assist you in your quest. Oh, Sir Mix-a-Lot got here first and killed the beast? And Lady Ga-Ga made off with the Battle Mage, and you’re stuck with a lowly Peasant with a pitchfork as your new minion? Guess you should have better planned your six actions on the cool action dial. Better luck next time in scoring some bards singing your praises, building your guild hall for sorcerers, or raking in all the gold thankful villagers would otherwise have rained on you. Huzzah!


LANGUAGE GAMES

Combining letters, communicating ideas simply, and recalling that one perfect vocabulary word that ties everything together make up the gist of these games. Yeah, that weird word you stumbled across last week in The New Yorker, you should have looked it up in the dictionary because it’s right in front of you now.

Tapple

Tapple image
# of Players: 2–10
Length: 30 minutes
Suggested Ages: 8+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Tapple @ Amazon.com

Your daughter just pressed down the “D” lever on the game and said “dragon” for the category of "6-Letter Words", and now you’re holding this darned Tapple thing in your hands that threatens to gong you if you can’t come up with a six-letter word that begins with the only key not pressed, the “O,” in 10 seconds. Tick, tick, tick, you feel a little panic coming on, think, think, c’mon you can do this, even if it feels a little harder to breathe and you’re low on oxygen. Surely, you can think of something that begins with “O” and has six letters. Boy, do you need that oxygen to get to your brain right now, and…BONG.  Maybe you’ll do better next round when the category is “Elements.” Or not.

Codenames

Codenames image
# of Players: 2–8+
Length: 15 minutes
Suggested Ages: 14+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Codenames @ Amazon.com

Currently a worldwide phenomenon, Codenames may be the hottest party game ever to come out of the Czech Republic. Two teams of spies try to guess the identities of fellow spies on their team by their codenames. You’re a spymaster trying to communicate to your team with a single word and number that will clue them into the seven or eight other fellow spies on your side found among 25 codenames before you. If they guess wrongly, the other team’s spies may claim that spy as their own. Or, your team may be assassinated. Oops! Better make sense of what your spymaster just whispered! Nominated for the 2016 Spiel des Jahres award.

Paperback

Paperback image
# of Players: 2–5
Length: 45 minutes
Suggested Ages: 8+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Paperback @ Fowers Games

Let’s face it, Scrabble is old and busted. Paperback is the new hotness. Build words by drafting a set of letters cards and using them to buy better letters and letter combos to add to your ever-expanding deck. Keep building and combo-ing until you can lay them down and go all M-E-D-I-E-V-A-L on your foes’ K-E-I-S-T-E-R-S. Not only is the basic ruleset of this game fantastic, but it includes several variants as you gain skill, and it even offers a cooperative play mode if going medieval on your 12-year-old kid would only earn you your spouse’s A-C-R-I-M-O-N-Y.


HISTORY GAMES

Historical games may be rich with themes from our past, simulate well-known events during game play, or require players to know their historical trivia. They’re like having your own table-top time machine.

Timeline: Inventions

Timeline: Inventions image
# of Players: 2–8
Length: 15 minutes
Suggested Ages: 8+ (8+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Timelines: Inventions @ Amazon.com

Think you know the year the laptop computer debuted? Or eyeglasses? How about computer storage cards? Did that come out before or after the laptop? Actually, the laptop was 1981 and the storage card 1974. Eyeglasses? 1299. In this game, you play your cards along a timeline, before or after the existing cards in the timeline. Get the year right on the timeline? Your card stays down. Otherwise, discard your failed guess card and draw a new one to add to your existing hand. First player to an empty hand wins.

The great thing about Timeline: Inventions? It’s just the first in a series: American History, Americana, Discoveries, Diversity, Historical Events, and Music & Cinema. Plus, you can mix and match decks. Hey, each set is inexpensive, too, so collect them all. No matter how you play Timelines, you have fun and learn about the origins of the items, music, inventions, and history that you encounter every day.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Freedom: The Underground Railroad image
# of Players: 1–4
Length: 60–120 minutes
Suggested Ages: 13+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Freedom: The Underground Railroad @ Amazon.com

In 2020, Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, will be the new face of the $20 bill. That Underground Railroad was neither below ground nor on steel tracks. Instead, it was a hidden pathway to freedom from slavery in the pre-Emancipation-Proclamation South. Tubman and her fellow abolitionists risked their lives to guide and house slaves en route to freedom in Canada. This game recreates their story.

You work as a team of abolitionists to raise money for the cause and to help fugitive slaves elude the slavecatchers sent to retrieve them. Will you succeed in garnering enough support? Can you shuttle enough slaves to safety in time? Or will your cause go down in the flames of Civil War?

Encounter the people, places, and events of the Underground Railroad as they play out in this tense, cooperative game. Acclaimed by gamers, it’s a true, emotional experience.

Lewis & Clark: The Expedition

Lewis & Clark: The Expedition image
# of Players: 1–5
Length: 120 minutes
Suggested Ages: 14+ (12+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Lewis & Clark: The Expedition @ Amazon.com

Play as one of the teams in the Lewis & Clark expedition as you race other expedition teams to be the first ones to the Pacific Ocean. Recruit additional members to your team, and enlist the aid of the native tribes you meet, using their skills to propel your team across rivers and mountains to your goal.

This game contains gorgeous artwork, and each lavishly illustrated card represents an actual helper or member of the expedition, using that real life historical figure’s true skills as part of the game play. The manual for the game includes bios of each person and information about the adventure. Lewis & Clark: The Expedition is a fun lesson that brilliantly incorporates history into the game’s mechanics.

Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle image
# of Players: 2
Length: 180 minutes
Suggested Ages: 13+ (14+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Twilight Struggle @ Amazon.com

For many years the #1 strategy game on BoardGameGeek.com, Twilight Struggle locks you in the icy embrace of the Cold War, from 1946–89, as the Soviet Union and the U.S. dance around nuclear annihilation. World events cards such as the Vietnam War and Cuban Missile Crisis push each superpower player closer to The Button, and the threat extends even toward the stars, as the Space Race adds extra tension. Who controls whom? And how will your stunning play mess with your opponent’s mind? You choose the fate of the world as you play out the real life brinksmanship and events of that nerve-racking era.


ECONOMIC GAMES

Economic games ask players to manage resources, build stock portfolios, expand markets, bid on items for auction, and buy, sell, and trade goods. Channel your inner robber baron or be the benevolent philanthropist. Just keep your eyes on the prize.

For Sale

For Sale image
# of Players: 3–6
Length: 20 minutes
Suggested Ages: 8+ (8+)
Difficulty:
Cost: regular / travel

For Sale @ Amazon.com

So what IS the value of that three-bedroom home? Or that island resort? Or that…what is that? An outhouse?! In this classic game, you and the other players decide how much you think a property is worth, bid on it, and then see if you can later pass it off for more than it’s worth. The Donald has got nothing on you, right? Art of the Deal indeed!

A great exercise in maximizing value and making something from nothing, For Sale is a wonderful, little auction and selling game that shows how flexible value really is. What will the market bear? You decide. And like a lot of real estate deals, the player with the most cash at the end wins. Has a convenient travel version too.

Airlines Europe

Airlines Europe image
# of Players: 2–5
Length: 75 minutes
Suggested Ages: 10+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Airlines Europe @ Amazon.com

Like stock games? Love Monopoly? If so, Airlines Europe is the game that will have you crying, “Where have you been all my life?” Say goodbye to the ground and get up in the air instead as you buy shares in airlines in 1930s Europe, build out air routes, and try to push your holdings to their maximum. Buy in, cash out, and make your competition a little bit crazy.

Everyone who plays this game loves it, from the colorful pieces to the gamer in-joke airline names, but most of all for its Monopoly-killer gameplay. Really, this is the stock game to have in your collection.

Concordia

Concordia image
# of Players: 2–5
Length: 100 minutes
Suggested Ages: 13+ (12+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Concordia @ Amazon.com

The ancient Roman Empire encompassed the known world and created a network of markets that powered the nation/state. In Concordia, you leverage your growing trade in grain, tools, bricks, wine, and cloth to expand across the world and colonize it by land and sea, all the while earning favor from the gods that will win you the game.

“Elegant” is a word not often associated with board games, but players of Concordia often describe this game with such rare praise. The easily understandable rules combine with deep decisions and smooth flow of play as players trade goods, spread across the map, and expand capabilities through the cards they choose to collect and play. With multiple maps of the Old World and further powers available through expansions for the game, replayability is high. One of the best games of its kind of the last five years, it’s a joy to play and see on the table.

Viticulture: Essential Edition

Viticulture: Essential Edition image
# of Players: 1–6
Length: 90 minutes
Suggested Ages: 13+ (12+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Viticulture: Essential Edition @ Amazon.com

Ah, the romance of running your own winery! The fresh air, earthy fields, and a glass of your own vino at the end of the day. But then comes the management of properties and workers, the swarms of tourists and critics, and the timing of harvest, crush, and bottling. Whew! Where’d the time for romance go?

Viticulture is a beautiful game of timing choices, the shrewd movements of workers, and the production of one of the world’s finest beverages. From the gorgeous wood pieces to the nail-biting rush to beat your rivals to market, it’s one of the best economic games to debut in the last five years and has won near-universal praise for replicating the feel of vintner operations. Plus, this version includes expansions for enhanced replayability. A solid game that adults will enjoy.


DEDUCTION GAMES

Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Players of these games must uncover hidden information, speculate about whodunit, interpret mysterious clues, and piece together disconnected facts. Think Shaggy and Scooby, but without the…well, you know.

Hanabi

Hanabi image
# of Players: 2–5
Length: 25 minutes
Suggested Ages: 8+ (10+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Hanabi @ Amazon.com

Imagine yourself as the crew of a massive fireworks display for the Emperor. The success of your show relies on communicating with the team and making sure your timing is perfect.

In this cooperative game, the trick is that you can’t see your own fireworks cards (in red, white, yellow, green, and blue, in numbers 1 to 5), only the cards in other players’ hands. Communicating only in colors or numbers to each other, you and the others must successfully remember and lay down sequentially in separate stacks by color, and ordered from 1 to 5, all the cards you each hold as a team. One too many bad plays—or run out of time—and kaboom!

Simple, inexpensive, family-friendly, and a nail-biting experience in teamwork, it’s no wonder Hanabi won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2013 for best family game.

Mysterium

Mysterium image
# of Players: 2–7
Length: 42 minutes
Suggested Ages: 10+ (8+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Mysterium @ Amazon.com

You were murdered—horribly—and so you haunt the castle, a ghost, until a team of paranormal investigators arrive, and you see your last chance to be avenged. Through dreams , you send wild, weird images that communicate information to the investigators about the killer, weapon, and place of your demise. Together, they try to make sense of your silent imagery as you help them solve your murder and help yourself find eternal rest.

Lush illustrations, combined with genuinely odd, haunting, and ethereal dream imagery cards, make Mysterium lovely to behold, fun to play, and a cooperative adventure into the unknown that renders Clue passé.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective image
# of Players: 1–8
Length: 60–120 minutes
Suggested Ages: 10+ (12+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective @ Amazon.com

Can you outwit the world’s greatest detective? So what if he was a heroin addict; he’s still great. But are you greater? Well, are you?

With each case in the game, work through clues, interview witnesses and suspects, check maps, papers, and more to unlock the key to the case before Sherlock does. For fans of deduction, it’s all handed to you; you just need to use your mental prowess to make it make sense.

In print since 1981, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective has been continually updated and revised. Its longevity speaks to how great a game it truly is. A must for fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero.


TEAMWORK GAMES

Your mom’s admonition to “play nice with your brother and sister” has never been more true than in these cooperative games, where everyone wins or loses as a team. Communication, fair play, listening, and valuing the opinions of others matter here. In these games, “everyone wins” is actually awesome.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Escape: The Curse of the Temple image
# of Players: 1–5
Length: 10 minutes
Suggested Ages: 8+ (8+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Escape: The Curse of the Temple @ Amazon.com

Indy. As in Indiana Jones, one of the silver screen’s most iconic characters. Remember that opening scene? Now imagine a game that crams all that temple exploration madness into 10 minutes of crazy, dice-rolling, team play as the soundtrack—yes, this game has an eerie soundtrack on CD (or downloadable)—peaks in frenzy and the temple doors threaten to lock you inside forever. Get in, get the jewels and artifacts, and get out alive as a team. In 10 minutes. Boom.

Did I mention the curses? Yeah, there are some hilarious curses that affect the cursed player. You’ll just have to get the game and experience them yourself.

It’s fast, it’s fun, and the game has several expansions that add loads of traps, pits, and more. A frantic game for the whole family.

Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert image
# of Players: 2–5
Length: 45 minutes
Suggested Ages: 10+ (8+)
Difficulty:
Cost:

Forbidden Desert @ Amazon.com

You wander the desert, searching for the remains of a legendary airship. Drinking water running low. The shifting sands hide the pieces of the flying machine, your only means of escape. Will the next set of bleached-white bones be yours?

Between the shifting pieces of the board, the depleting water, and the general sense that players won’t make it out alive, Forbidden Desert proves a tense game of managing all the good and the bad together. Working with your team to move, explore, and survive will require all your diplomatic skills and cunning. A 2013 Mensa Select winner, this one is a gem.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

 Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 image
# of Players: 2–4
Length: 60 minutes per session
Suggested Ages: 13+ (12+)
Difficulty:
Cost:


Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (Red box) @ Amazon.com

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (Blue box) @ Amazon.com

Earth is doomed unless you and your team can stop the rampage of viruses that threaten to sicken and kill everyone on the planet.

Maybe you’ve seen this before, in the game Pandemic. But what you haven’t seen is the Legacy version of Pandemic. The Legacy system has you tear up cards, throw away pieces, add pieces from specially sealed boxes, and permanently change features on the board. The choices you and the other players make in one play of the game actually change the game and the rules for all subsequent plays. Your team not only wins or loses a game, you can win or lose the entire 12–24 session campaign.

Many experienced gamers consider Pandemic Legacy the greatest game ever made. In fact, it’s the #1 Thematic, #1 Strategy, and #1 Overall game at BoardGameGeek.com. Plus, it’s up for the 2016 Kennerspiel des Jahres, the most prestigious complex game award.

Pandemic is a game. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is an experience.


Have fun gaming! And if you buy or play any of these games, let us know what you think of them. Your comments are appreciated.

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