Board games come in every shape, size and type imaginable. Whether you want to play fun family games, cooperative games or even single-player games where the other side is automated, there’s a game for everyone. My personal favorites are those games that go a little deeper. The ones that pit you against other players and make you think, not just one move ahead, but two or three instead. These games are often referred to as strategy games.
But isn’t every game a strategy game?
Strategy board games are games in which players’ critical decision-making affects the outcome. That’s a pretty broad definition, I know, but modern strategy games come in all sorts of subgenres, often delineated by their central gameplay mechanic:
- Worker placement
- Deck– or tableau-building
- Dungeon crawler
- And many more
Many times, these games are organized into larger categories, such as wargames (which center on a conflict between players’ forces), American-style (which prioritize direct player conflict and have elements of luck) or Eurogames (which largely avoid chance-based elements and usually depend on planning and resource management).
The most important element of strategy board games, though, is, you guessed it, strategy. While there may be small instances where luck plays a part, the overwhelming mechanics of the game need to rely on the player’s ability to think strategically and to outmaneuver the other players on the board.
Despite all the games on the market, few have the perfect balance of replayability and satisfying gameplay, even if you lose. So after testing dozens of the best games on the market, I’ve put together the best strategy games available in 2023.
In Gaia Project, players seek to expand their alien race’s control over a galaxy, making planets habitable to their race, building structures on them, gaining knowledge and furthering research. This strategic board game has a fairly steep learning curve for those unfamiliar with Eurogames, but once you get into your first game, you’ll understand the basics within a round or two. But the strategy is deep: You can play as a dozen different races, with unique abilities and research bonuses; the modular board means the galaxy you’re colonizing never looks the same; and many of the scoring and construction bonuses are randomized each game, so the same strategy won’t win every time. Gaia Project is a masterclass in game design, and a complete joy to play.
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Windward isn’t as heavy as some of the games on this list but has garnered a lot of love since its release. You play a boat captain who sails the skies of a planet looking to capture giant space whales called Crestors. There is a small amount of luck in the amount of damage you take, but because the wind direction controls your movement, there’s a lot of strategy around how you move and making sure you don’t encounter other players.
My gaming table enjoys Windward as our first strategy game of the night, as it’s relatively light but gets you in the mood for something deeper.
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Small World is one of my favorites, simply because this conquest game feels so different every time you play it. Essentially, players are vying for control of a Risk-like board with too few spaces to accommodate everyone, hence the name. You bid for one of dozens of fantastical creatures, each randomly paired with an additional special ability — which can lead to hilarious combinations like Were-Will-o’-the-Wisps or Peace-loving Homunculi. Then you spread using your special abilities, collect coins based on the territory you control and leave that race behind for a new one. It’s an addictive gameplay loop, often equal parts funny and competitive, and you can learn and play it in under two hours.
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Twilight Struggle, set during the Cold War, balances the strategic complexity of a “big” game with the simple mechanics of a traditional conquest game like Risk. One player takes the role of the US, and the other plays as the USSR as you struggle for presence, domination or complete control of various battleground regions around the world. Both sides race to put a man on the moon, degrade the DEFCON status through military operations, while carefully avoiding the devastation of nuclear war (an instant loss) and spread their influence across the globe in a tug of war for global power.
If you’re looking for a two-player strategy game with a little less heft to it, 7 Wonders: Duel is a great alternative to Twilight Struggle. The gameplay integrates more creative gameplay mechanisms, so the learning curve is slightly steeper for newcomers, but once you’re familiar, it’s a perfect, short strategy game for two.
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Agricola is one of the best board games ever designed, and it’s one of the best examples of worker placement mechanics, too. The concept is simple: Players each use their farmer and wife (both called “workers”) to complete various actions as the seasons progress, such as gathering wood or vegetables, upgrading their farm house, building pens, buying animals, having children and much more. Over time, players have children (more workers to use) and expand their farm. The problem during all this, though, is scarcity: Agricola is a harsh game. Even without an opponent blocking you from certain actions, it often feels like you’re just scraping by — getting just enough food to feed your family for the winter. Players often end up with very few (or negative) points in their first game, but when you start to learn, it feels incredibly satisfying.
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Many of the best strategy games take a couple of hours to play, but satisfying strategy need not take all day: The Castles of Burgundy is a perfect example of a great game that usually only takes about an hour to play — often less, once you know how to play — and is surprisingly replayable. Each turn, players roll dice, the numbers on which allow them to pick up certain land tiles from a central board or place them on certain spaces on your player board as you expand your kingdom. The central rules can be learned in a matter of minutes, compared to some of the larger Eurogames above, but Castles of Burgundy will keep you making tough choices about how to respond to a dice roll that’s out of your control.
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If you have a full day and want to play a long, rewarding game, you can’t do better than Food Chain Magnate — an incredibly deep game of building and staffing restaurants, designing menus, paying for advertisements and collecting money. What makes Food Chain Magnate so enjoyable is the sheer scope of it: You can hire dozens of different kinds of employees, sell dozens of different kinds of food and use half a dozen types of ads, all with unique effects on your franchise, the customers in the city and your opponents. This fun game is an investment, especially if you get the expansions, but it’s one of the most enjoyable and unique takes on the strategy board game format in years.
It’s currently in limited stock on Amazon, but it can be purchased from the original website.
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Star Wars: Imperial Assault largely avoids the roleplaying elements of dungeon crawlers like Gloomhaven, opting instead for solid combat mechanics that pit the imperial player against the rebel players. While different missions have different setups — the modular board keeps things fresh — players will get better as they understand the bonuses of certain groups, the ways they can play off their allies and the decisions of when to find cover and when to charge into battle.
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Conquest games have come a long way since Risk, and one of the best is Rising Sun — a game in which players vie for control over the various regions of feudal Japan, using their samurai and other miniatures to spread. What makes the game interesting is the untraditional means and ends of conflict: Alliances lend opponents more power, but betrayals can damage your honor; points can be won by winning in battle, but committing ritual suicide, taking hostages and employing historians to write off your warrior’s honor can actually net you a larger victory.
What could be a straightforward game about conquering regions becomes about the development of your clan, preservation of their honor and strategic partnerships with your enemies. If you want a game with tons of conflict — but where that conflict is rarely straightforward or obvious — Rising Sun is a perfect game for you.
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What’s a good place to start?
For good introductions to modern strategy games, I would be remiss not to mention Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. While most people who catch the board game bug quickly move past these more basic economy and tile-laying games, they are great ways for people to be introduced to the genre.