Throughout the centuries people have enjoyed games. From simple ones to pass the time to more complex ones that use strategy and challenge the participants to compete intellectually and have been called mental sports. Man’s love of competition and play has evolved over recent decades and there are far more choices now than ever before. For the list I have skipped video and online games, sticking with those that have actual physical pieces. No exclusions were made based on whether they are better with 2 or multiple players. In the 17th and 18th century, being a great gamer was admired as often top military leaders played wargames to determine different scenarios and plan attacks.
Today gaming is simultaneously more popular yet often considered as nerdy. Hopefully this list will inspire some people to try out new games or dig their old ones out of the closet.
The game features bones (tiles) with a number of pips on them. Players match them up trying to empty their hands by matching one of the numbers with one of the free numbers on the table. Dominoes are also noted for being able to stand on end in long rows so that when one is knocked over they all fall in a row. A popular pasttime is lining up hundreds or thousands of dominoes to make designs when they fall.
3000 BCE Persia
This popular game among children features discs which move along an 8×8 grid jumping opponent’s pieces to remove them from the game. It does feature pure strategy and no luck (outside of tournament play) but tends to be simplistic by today’s standards. In the 1930s Tournament play began reducing the number of draws by introducing random starting moves.
1935 Darrow/Parker Brothers
The world’s most popular and imitated boardgame features players as landlords trying to buy properties, build houses and hotels, and monopolize areas for higher prices. A trading aspect is popular. The game has undergone criticism as being too simplistic but is still considered a classic by many and is a great game for kids. The economic aspects are highly balanced however and common rules variants such as collecting money while landing on free parking tend to remove the strategy turning it into a luck based game.
1938 various manufacturers
The game played on a 15×15 grid features players spelling out words for points. The game features areas with double or triple letter or word score and letters have more points if they are less commonly used. Fanatical players have actually gone as far as memorizing all the acceptable words from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Be warned, if someone you don’t know offers to play you for 10 cents a point as they might be able to win by many hundreds of points.
This game has undeservedly remained relatively obscure since its creation but is on par with the best in the world. The game is played on an unusually designed board of 7 interconnecting rings made of triangles, squares and hexagons. One of those games that takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. You place pieces each round trying to control areas and you do have the option of moving opponents pieces to areas of your choosing.
Versions of this game have been popular ranging as far back as 3000 BCE in Egypt, Persia, and Rome. The game involves some luck with dice rolling and some strategy with planning moves. It has been very popular since the 1700s as a strategy/gambling game. Today there are a number of clubs devoted to it and a world championship held each year in Monte Carlo.
1957 Parker Brothers
The original mass produced world conquest game has each player send their armies into battle to take over continents and finally the world. Play has a large random element with dice rolls, a good amount of strategy, and is fun for the making of alliances and the
eventual backstabbing when they no longer suit you.
1959 Games Research
Similar in some ways to Risk this world conquest game has a unique twist. Before each round players go off in pairs with each other making deals. “If you send troops to attack him here I will attack him here”. They negotiate this way with each other. “He is planning to move to attack you here so fortify it and he will be weak here so I will attack him there” After everyone has made plans this way they write down on paper what they actually do which can range from anticlimactic to shockingly unexpected.
Developed about 2500 years ago in ancient China this game (not to be confused with the Mah Jong solitaire game which has been a popular video game in different versions) caused a sensation when introduced into the west around 1920. It became a fad among the middle and upper classes and today vintage sets from that era are sought after collectibles, however be warned many had tiles made of ivory and ownership can be illegal in some areas.
1958 Avalon Hill
The original Tactics published in 1954 was a predecessor to this classic. Avalon Hill was known as THE wargame company and produced strategy “chit based” games on virtually every major battle in history. This was the one that started the entire wargame genre and without it there likely wouldn’t have been many of the newer games on the list.
19th century developed from earlier games. This is the king of trick taking card games. Teams work together to try and make books after bidding on how many they expect to take and the suit to be considered trump. Not as popular as it once was, there are still a number of fans and newspaper columns devoted to the strategy of the game appear in many newspapers on a regular basis.
1981 Avalon Hill
The opposite of the conquer the world type games this is about developing societies through trade and cooperation with other players. You need to help your fellow players in order to advance your own societies and the game has a good moral lesson as well as being highly fun to play. An online version of the game has been remarkably successful as well.
While this one barely qualifies on the physical pieces requirement it has to make the list based on originality and long lasting appeal. In 1974 Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) a small company that produced wargames produced this based on their chainmail game of wargame rules. The longest lasting and most popular of the RPG (Role playing game) genre has each player create a fantasy (typically middle ages style) character while a DM (Dungeon Master) creates a story scenario. The players then work as a team to solve the created problems such as battling monsters, negotiating with NPCs(Non player characters run by the DM), disarming traps, and rescuing damsels in distress. The role playing part can range from minor bad acting out of fantasies to seriously talented (I’ve seen a few people who could be on the stage with their skill) but the strategic part is what interests many players. There have been several editions over the years with different rules so be sure your group uses the same set that you do. The game suffered a bad reputation in 1982 when an exploitive TV movie was made about a teenage player using the game as a way to plan the murder of his stepfather.
Settlers of Catan
1995 Klaus Teuber/Mayfair Games
The game that established Germany as the most innovative game nation of the last decade has had tremendous worldwide popularity with many different versions (Seafarers of Catan/Starfarers of Catan). One of the cooperation/resource trading games genre it features gathering of the resources you have access to such as wood, grain, wool, and brick and trading extras to other players so that you can each build your areas. Played on a board of interconnecting hexagons, it can be rearranged for each new game creating different strategies each time.
2000 Hans Im Gluck/Rio Grande Games
This German game won the 2001 game of the year award and has been extremely popular worldwide with a number of optional expansion sets. Square tiles are drawn and feature a puzzle like design. Placed together in different ways the game board is built as you play as you try to build cities, roads, fields, and cloisters scoring points both along the way and at the end. One of the fun aspects in multiplayer is that no one gets eliminated along the way and has to sit and watch the surviving players.
Axis and Allies
c 1980 Nova Games. 1984 Milton Bradley
The ultimate world conquest game has been called “Risk on steroids”. Highly in depth rulebook and attractive playing pieces have made this THE World War II game. It features in depth strategy and even though it is dice based a minimal luck factor. Some players even eliminate the dice and just determine results of attacks based on odds. The original features the entire world war while later versions have been produced concentrating on Europe or the Pacific. A highly addictive game for many be warned to have enough time as games can take quite a while. I once played from 7pm to 6am, although 4 hours is usually enough time. Optional expansions both licensed and unlicensed have been produced.
1982 Steve Jackson Games
The ultimate game for conspiracy theorists and just silly fun for others. This game features cards for various groups and players work to each build their own conspiracies through them. Perhaps the FBI is controlling the Ford Motor Company, or the Semiconscious Liberation Army has secret plans regarding the IRS and Cattle Mutilators. Do South American Nazis really run the Nanotech Companies? Along with a traditional method of winning each player also has an individual victory goal which makes the game highly challenging. Special rule… cheating is both allowed and encouraged (other than stealing from the bank while collecting your normal income) as long as you don’t get caught.
From about 2000 BCE Japan and China.
Former world chess champion Emanuel Lasker once said “although chess is probably confined to Earth, if there is intelligent life on other planets, surely they know Go.” Each player has stones of either white or black and take turns laying them on intersections of a 19×19 grid. Simple rules and infinitely complex strategies make this one of the greatest games ever.
(Predecessors from 600 BCE) India. What can be written about chess that hasn’t been? One of the most popular games worldwide for over 500 years this game has had more clubs devoted to it, more books written about it, more computer versions (one theory suggests computers were invented mainly to create chess programs) than any other game. The game masters the art of removing luck and leaving it purely at skill.
The origins of the game are lost to history today but variants such as the French Poque have been around for 300 years. The most popular strategy game in the US and probably the world today is played regularly by tens of millions in the US alone. The game is about mastering luck in which the random element of the cards dealt is compensated for by the skills involved in betting, bluffing, calculating odds, and trying to figure out what your opponent has and will do. Poker has experienced an explosive growth in popularity over the last 6 years as televised matches among the top players have been very popular. Although there are many variants such as 7 card stud and Omaha High-Low, one of the lesser known ones worldwide, No Limit Texas Hold-em has been the most televised and seen the biggest boost. The World Championship held each year in Las Vegas is open to anyone with $10,000 to enter and often features celebrities (Don’t underestimate them! some like Gabe Kaplan, Sully Erna, Jennifer Tilly, and Montel Williams have had some notable results) and poker professionals, online players, and amateurs.