The 4 Best Strategy Board Games of 2023 | Reviews by Wirecutter – The New York Times

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Modern tabletop games are wonders of design and narrative, running the gamut from cooperative dice-rolling adventures to elaborate setups that allow for tense negotiation over resources. But sometimes you want to walk away from the table knowing that your carefully considered decisions (not fickle chance or fast-talking negotiation) are what led you to sweet victory (or, more often than I care to admit, crushing defeat). This is where strategy games shine.
We spoke with board-game experts and retailers, and we spent 40 hours researching and 37 hours playing 13 different games with 17 people to find the best options for players looking for a deep and rewarding strategic experience.
Whether you prefer exploring the ruins of a lost civilization, building a logistics network in turn-of-the-century England, waging a war to control a woodland forest, or just building a really nice zoo, these games provide the framework for hours of fun while you try to outthink your friends.
Before we could test strategy games, we had to face the tricky task of defining what they actually are. It turns out there isn’t an agreed-upon standard for what makes a game a strategy game, even within the tabletop gaming industry. As a result, categorizing them often means relying on some combination of mechanics and perceived complexity, plus a general gut feeling.
This “I know it when I see it” vibe made it difficult to gauge which games we wanted to test. So we spoke with the manager of The Brooklyn Strategist, a Brooklyn board-game shop and café, and Eric Yurko, a board-game reviewer and committee member for the American Tabletop Awards. Armed with their expertise and our own research, we chose to focus on games that heavily emphasize decision-making skills, are more complex than the picks in our guide to beginner board games, and usually take between 45 minutes and two hours to play.
After vetting expert recommendations, reading dozens of Board Game Geek entries, and analyzing reviews from sources like IGN, Wargamer, and Shut Up & Sit Down, we ended up with a shortlist of 13 strategy games to test.
We made a special effort to include a mix of games with different mechanics and genres—economic games, war games, engine-building games, and even a deduction game. We also looked for—and were pleasantly surprised to find—games that had rules for solo play. This is a great option, considering how hard it can be to get players to the table for some of these games. Strategy games can be intimidating for some game groups because they ask more from players (in terms of time, concentration, and energy) than more-casual games do.
We played each game at least twice, with different player counts in each instance. We included players with a wide variety of gaming backgrounds and experience, including friends and Wirecutter colleagues. As we played, we took notes on things like play time, how easy it was to teach and learn the game, what the game was like to set up, how the pieces felt, and (most importantly) how fun the overall experience was. We also tried to find the context—meaning vibe, number of players, and situations—in which the game might fit best.
Finally, we talked about the gameplay experience as a group and incorporated everyone’s thoughts into our notes. One thing we didn’t do was test every game with the same group of people. This was partially because it’s more fun to bring as many people as possible into the process. But it was also to ensure that our testers weren’t jaded: If we’d played all of the games with the same group, we’d have lost the perspective of a less-experienced player by the end of the testing process.
Root is an asymmetric war game that provides immense strategic depth and a delightful theme, once you learn how it all works.
How it’s played: Root is a devilishly tough and layered asymmetric war game disguised as a fairytale romp. It pairs an intricate ecosystem of mechanics, strategic decisions, and narrative with great artwork featuring adorably anthropomorphized woodland creatures.
Players assume the role of one of four factions—each with unique abilities, restrictions, and goals—in an attempt to rule the woodland map they share. For instance, the Marquis de Cat wants to build and defend as many outposts as possible, expanding and building rapidly throughout the forest. Meanwhile, the Woodland Alliance’s mice spread sympathy among the residents of the forest, fomenting uprisings that burn down the Marquis de Cat’s industries and sabotaging the other players whenever possible.
The factions compete to control the different clearings in the forest, earning points by fulfilling their individual goals. The game continues until one player reaches 30 points or completes the demands of a “dominance” card—essentially a unique victory condition that asks the player to gain and retain control of a number of specific forest clearings.
Why it’s great: Root offers a unique ecosystem of conflicting and contrasting goals, powers, and win conditions. And that makes it different from similar war games like Risk or Small World, which are more straightforward to learn and play but provide fewer opportunities for alliances of convenience and surprising play. Because its factions’ abilities and goals are so distinct, playing and teaching a game of Root can feel a bit like playing and teaching four separate games. But the genius of this game design is in what happens when you throw these disparate factions together on the cramped game board. The opaqueness of the other factions’ motivations means you spend less time trying to stymie the other players and more time focused on how you can expand your domain and gain points—leading to consistently surprising interactions and interesting clashes over the course of a game.
This deep strategy is expertly paired with gorgeous, playful art that reinforces the fiction of the war-torn world, which feels like a gritty remake of the Redwall books. And all of this comes in a well-organized box that is surprisingly compact considering the complexity of the game.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Even compared with the other games we tested for this guide, Root is an intimidating game for newbies. In an unusual (but certainly not unwelcome) move, the creators tried to ease the barrier to entry by providing three sets of instructions, each with a different level of granularity and hand-holding. They range from a traditional rulebook that reads like a law text to a scripted, two-round, turn-by-turn walkthrough with explanations for why factions would take certain actions as they happen. Regardless of which instructions you follow, the first game is usually a dry run as players learn the basics. But because of the game’s relatively short run time (we found the published playtime of 60 to 90 minutes to be accurate), the prospect of a learning round followed by a competitive game is a bit more bearable.
Some of the factions are more strategically punishing than others, which may lead to frustration for first-time players who choose their squad blindly. For example, the Eyrie Dynasty’s unwieldy decree system can be thrilling when it’s played effectively. But if you can’t fulfill its demands by the end of your turn (causing your government to “go into turmoil”), you lose points and effectively have your hands tied behind your back as you try and rebuild your government. If this happens multiple times in quick succession, it becomes much more difficult to claw your way back into the game, which can be disheartening.
Players: two to four
Duration: 60 to 90 minutes
Rules: website, how to play (video)
Digital version: multiplatform
Brass: Birmingham is a satisfyingly complex logistical puzzle of production and consumption.
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How it’s played: In Brass: Birmingham, players take on the role of British capitalists during the Industrial Revolution. The game covers a 100-year span, divided into the Canal Era and the Rail Era, indicating which form of freight travel was more prominent at the time (did I mention this game was about economics?). Over this time, players establish supply networks and build factories. Some of these produce consumable resources like coal, iron, and beer, while others pump out items the player can sell, such as textiles, manufactured goods, and pottery. Either way, making and getting rid of these items is what gets you points.
Why it’s great: An economic puzzle that will take over your mind and have you thinking about building canal networks in your sleep, Brass is an abundance of riches for folks who love to obsess over finding efficiencies and advantages over other players. There are so many things to keep track of in a game of Brass: resources to be gathered, networks to build, and goods to be sold. But all of these interlocking resources are created and fought over by the players at the table. If you want to build a pottery factory, you’re gonna need iron. If you want to produce iron, you’re gonna need coal. If you want to eventually sell that pottery, you’ll need beer. And to get any of that, you’re gonna need a network to move it all around.
What really makes Brass stand out is that you don’t necessarily need to produce all of that stuff by yourself. If another player has an iron foundry, you can use some of the iron they’ve produced. But the more iron—or beer or coal—you take from others, the more points they rack up for themselves.
This dance of producing and consuming and networking is the core mechanic that drives Brass—and, you know, capitalism—like the pistons of a coal-fired freight engine. And trying to figure out how to navigate this dense thicket of incentives better than the other players is what makes it so satisfying to puzzle out.
The game is also just a beautifully produced object. The art is evocative and moody, the box is slim, and the player boards convey a surprising amount of information quickly and effectively—once you learn how to read them.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: A full game of Brass tends to be on the long side, especially if one (or more) of the players suffers from analysis paralysis (a common side effect of the tangled web of possible actions available each turn, and how much each action can matter to your long-term strategy). There are instructions for an “introductory version” of the game, which adjusts the scoring and takes players only through the first-round Canal Era. But the game loses some of its depth when you’re playing that version.
Players: two to four
Duration: 60 to 120 minutes
Rules: website, how to play (video)
Digital version: Steam
Ark Nova is an intimidating game to unbox, but its clever action system makes it surprisingly easy to navigate.
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How it’s played: A colorful mix of Tetris and Zoo Tycoon, Ark Nova is a game about building a great zoo. To do that, players build enclosures and fill them with animals that will attract the most attention and make their park the most money. But to win Ark Nova, players must also make sure their zoo has a positive impact on the environment by networking with other zoos, gathering sponsorships, and participating in conservation projects. Players do all of these things by using a constantly shuffling queue of action cards, which become more powerful the longer you wait to use them.
Why it’s great: Sometimes with strategy games, sprawl and scale is the point. Sometimes you want to play a game that comes in a giant box, with hundreds of pieces, and a table presence that could overwhelm even the grandest of dining room surfaces. In that sense, Ark Nova delivers. There are multiple player boards to choose from, with different zoo layouts that each come with their own advantages and disadvantages. There are three different point tracks to advance on (two of which travel in different directions and bestow victory points based on the delta between them at the end of the game). And there’s a stack of 255 unique cards that tower over the shared boards (there are two) like an animal-filled Empire State Building. This game is, to put it simply, a lot. But the way the game guides players through all of this—via its action card queue system—is remarkably elegant.
Five actions are available to players at all times, but here’s the wrinkle: These actions are represented by cards arranged underneath each player board, and their effectiveness depends on where in the queue they are when you play them. For example, when the Cards action is at the left end of the queue (at level one), it allows a player to draw one card and discard another; at the far right (level five), it lets you draw three and discard one. Whenever you play a card, regardless of its current level, it goes back to the leftmost side of the queue, making the rest of the cards more powerful.
Waiting for the card you want to play to power up can feel limiting, but in a game this sprawling, limitation is really a gift. It helps you focus on building a strategy based on where cards are in the queue, without being overwhelmed by the scale of the broader game going on. And though there is certainly a lot to chew on in Ark Nova, the turns are fast-paced, so you rarely have to wait too long before it’s time to make another move. The game also has a surprisingly engaging solo mode, which has been tense and exciting every time I’ve broken it out for testing.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: This game takes a long time to play. Even a solo playthrough took around 90 minutes, and with four people the game can easily go over two hours. But in our testing, the turns clicked by at a satisfying pace. It’s also an intimidating game in terms of setup and complexity, so introducing it to new players can be a bit overwhelming at first. Finally, some folks may have issues with the semi-realistic theme from a moral perspective, since the impact of zoos on animals isn’t unequivocally positive.
Players: one to four
Duration: 90 to 150 minutes
Rules: website, how to play (video)
Digital version: N/A
Lost Ruins of Arnak is a peppy and pulpy adventure that utilizes the greatest hits of modern strategy game mechanics.
How it’s played: In Lost Ruins of Arnak, players take on the role of expedition leaders trying to learn more about the civilization that used to populate the mysterious island of Arnak. Players build decks that let them take actions like exploring ruins, overcoming wondrous ancient guardians, obtaining items, and researching the secrets of the island; all of these earn different amounts of victory points. The turns are snappy, with each player getting to take one “Main Action” (one of the activities mentioned above) and any number of “Free Actions” (usually spending resources to get other resources). This continues until all players have passed, which ends the round. After five rounds, whoever has the most victory points wins.
Why it’s great: Arnak is probably the easiest game to jump into of all our picks, and it’s fascinating because it melds a wide array of common game mechanics—like deck building, set collection, worker placement, and exploration—into a cohesive whole. Its various actions and mechanics are a smorgasbord of modern game design’s greatest hits, giving players a small sample of each without overburdening them with too much detail. And since your choice of actions per turn is so limited and your deck is small, you’re able to quickly prioritize your moves based on what resources are available to you that turn.
The game proceeds at a well-modulated pace: The first few rounds pass quickly as players scrape together what they can with their low-powered decks and limited resources. But they build to a final round that—at least in our playthroughs—lasted almost as long as all the other rounds combined. In this deciding round, players are able to use the items and powers they’ve accumulated over the course of the game to draw extra cards, gain more bonuses, and attempt more strategies before running out of options. This is true no matter how many people are playing, with the solo variant being particularly challenging and exciting.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: This is the simplest of our picks for a newer gamer to get into, but by extension it isn’t as strategically deep as the other games in this guide. There’s still plenty to chew on, though, so even experienced tabletop gamers will enjoy playing alongside novices. And even though the designers seem to have tried to keep this game out of culturally insensitive territory, it still traffics in many of the tropes of the pulp adventure/explorer genre, which some may want to avoid. Finally, the huge box lacks any internal organization, save for a small horde of plastic bags. This makes packing and unpacking this game more of a chore than it really should be.
Players: one to four
Duration: 60 to 120 minutes
Rules: PDF, how to play (video)
Digital version: Board Game Arena
If you like your economic games with a side of auctioneering: Power Grid (now being sold as the “Recharged edition”) is a classic. This engine-building economic game has you play as a utility company trying to power the most cities in either Germany or the USA. Players have to balance buying power plants, paying for fuel, and expanding their network across the board, all while competing with the other players over these shared resources. This interconnected system makes the auction portion of the game sizzle, as each player tries to assess how valuable any particular power plant is to each player, and how they can make them spend more money than they otherwise would have. With this mix of contentious auction jockeying peppered in between bouts of intense strategic management, Power Grid ends up providing a ton of excitement and tense moments—more than you might expect from a game where a phase in each turn is called “Bureaucracy.”
If you’re looking for a deep strategy game that you can explain in five minutes: Give Small World a shot. One of our favorite board games, Small World is essentially a sped-up version of Risk, populated with fantasy species instead of world powers. It’s an area-control game with 14 different factions all competing to dominate a space that’s way too small for the 14 of them. Each faction comes with its own unique power. But they’re also randomly paired with an ability that gives them an additional perk (for instance, one power provides extra points for controlling forest sections, another piles on extra money, and one even comes with a dragon), and this keeps the game fresh for each playthrough. Small World is also quick and easy to explain while still remaining strategically satisfying.
If you want something that’s completely different: Cryptid is a game of strategic guesswork. The players are cast as cryptozoologists, competing to see who can be the first to discover proof of a cryptid (essentially a mythological creature, like sasquatch) in the North American wilderness. At the beginning of the game, each player gets one piece of information about the cyptid’s habitat (like “the habitat is within one space of a mountain tile” or “the habitat is within two spaces of a bear territory”). And over the course of the game, they try to suss out what the additional clues are by asking other players to confirm or deny that it’s possible, based on their clue, that a given space could contain the cryptid. It’s a bit like Minesweeper, which sounds dry but is tense and exciting in practice as each question reveals a little more information.
Cascadia was very popular in our testing, and many testers who describe themselves as casual players enjoyed its straightforward but fun tile-laying puzzle. It also was named the best strategy game of 2022 by the American Tabletop Awards and won the prestigious 2022 Spiel des Jahres. But compared with our picks, it didn’t provide the strategic depth or complexity that we were looking for.
Furnace is a quick and fun economic engine-building game with a counterintuitive but interesting auction system at its center. It’s quick to learn and satisfying to play, but we think Power Grid offers a more complete experience.
Living Forest won the 2022 Kennerspiel des Jahres (the world’s premier award for more-complex games), and it was fun when we played it on the online game engine Board Game Arena. Unfortunately, it sold out everywhere shortly after the award was announced. Hopefully it will come back in stock soon and we can get our hands on a copy to test properly.
Scythe is one of our favorite games—and our longest-running game recommendation—for a reason. It’s complex and evocative, with wonderful layers of strategy and tactical decisions wrapped up in a steampunk theme that is a joy to immerse yourself in. But specifically in terms of its being a strategy game, we think Root takes better advantage of similar asymmetric strategy ideas, Brass has more involved and satisfying economic choices, and Arnak presents a fresher mix of mechanics and theme. Scythe is still a wonderful experience, but we think our picks are better examples of modern strategy-game design.
Terraforming Mars is one of the better-known games we tested. Its card play is similar to that of Ark Nova (and it comes with an even larger deck), and its engine-building feedback loop is very satisfying. But we found Ark Nova to be more enjoyable in our testing.
Wingspan is also among our favorite games. But even though we love it, we don’t think it’s as strong of a strategy game as our picks. The engine-building game offers a wonderful, relaxing time, and it really took off (get it?) when it was released in 2019. Wingspan is a great introduction to the board-gaming hobby, but it lacks the depth of the similarly environmentally themed Ark Nova.
This article was edited by Ben Keough and Erica Ogg.
James Austin
James Austin is a staff writer currently covering games and hobbies, but he’s also worked on just about everything Wirecutter covers—from board games to umbrellas—and after being here for a few years he has gained approximate knowledge of many things. In his free time he enjoys taking photos, running D&D, and volunteering for a youth robotics competition.
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