Sometimes there's just no better way to unwind from a tough day than a nice, relaxing board game with friends. Other times, you want something meatier from your board games, something you can really sink your teeth into for the long haul. Something that’s difficult to master and challenging enough to beat that you absolutely must keep playing just one more turn - just one more, “Guys, I know it looks bad, but we got this," turn.
For those times, or for those individuals who don’t mind losing if they’re having a good time, we bring you our current favorite challenging board games.
Best Board Games to Challenge You & Your Friends
The granddaddy of punishing games, Pandemic puts you in the shoes of a member of the CDC.
As a Dispatcher, Medic, Researcher, Scientist, or Operations Expert, you and your team are tasked with containing numerous pathogenic outbreaks across the globe before they erupt into a worldwide – you guessed it – pandemic.
Pandemic takes the standard "something bad happens at the end of every turn" and ratchets it up to eleven on a scale of ten. Infection rates keep increasing, disease cubes keep multiplying, and the Outbreak gauge keeps climbing to the ever-ominous skull-and-crossbones, the universal symbol for 'Game Over Man, Game Over.'
What's worse, every time a disease spreads across continental borders it has a chance of triggering outbreaks in other countries, causing a bad situation to rapidly spiral out of control. Time is always against you, and it's against you in a big, bad way.
Pandemic requires precision and leaves very little room for error in managing your actions per turn. But no matter if you win or lose, you'll have had a lot of fun.
Just be sure to wash your hands.
A juggernaut of an 'oldie but a goodie' from Games Workshop, the makers of Warhammer, Talisman casts players in the role of characters from classic role-playing games, such as stout Dwarves, evil Wizards, sanctimonious Priests, shadowy Assassins and monstrous Trolls.
What makes Talisman challenging, however, is not only the fact that you are competing against your fellow players for the shiniest loot, the most powerful spells and ultimately the fabled Crown of Command at the center of the board. Nor is it the multitude of challenges like monsters and special (often disastrous) events the game throws at you.
No, what makes Talisman especially difficult is this one particular rule: your character must roll dice to determine how many tiles they can move, and you must move that many tiles.
This makes planning any sort of strategy especially difficult without formulating at least two or three other background contingency plans, and then backup contingency plans for the contingency plans.
Is your character a mere 3 tiles away from that wish-granting Fountain? Oops, too bad you rolled a 5, landing you instead in the hut of a wicked witch who transforms your hero into a helpless frog.
Luck and strategy intersect in a big way in Talisman, but no matter if you win or lose, everyone will have experienced an adventure worthy of a Peter Jackson film trilogy.
Rarely has so much complexity been wrapped up in such a condensed, strategy-rich package.
In Forbidden Island, players are treasure-seekers who have just discovered the island ruins of a lost city. They must race against rising floodwaters to capture 4 sacred relics of a lost civilization, and make it back to their chopper at the helipad before the island is forever lost beneath the waves – with them on it!
Players must coordinate their special abilities and limited actions per turn to trade clues to the location of the sacred relics, while at the same time traveling across the island to the relics' locations.
And the waters are always rising – tiles become flooded, and will eventually sink beneath the waves, literally disappearing from the game.
Not only does this remove the tile from play, but it also forces players (except the Diver, who can swim across sunken tiles) to make lengthy detours to reach an important location that they'd thought was just within reach.
And if that weren’t enough, if the helipad at Fool's Landing sinks – it’s an instant game over!
Compared to its predecessor Forbidden Desert, there are actually fewer ways to lose in Forbidden Island, but it's also a tougher, more intense and faster-paced experience. Yet Forbidden Island's core gameplay is simple and elegant enough to be played by kids, winning it the distinction as a Mensa Select favorite.
For me, part of the ideal board gaming experience is not to win, but to have a good time. Sure, there's no better rush than winning, triumphing against gruesome odds, and beating a particularly grueling challenge, but some of my favorite board games are still my favorites even though I've never come anywhere close to winning them.
And that's the beauty of our top challenging games: they weren't designed to be easy, but they made sure you and your friends had one heck of an adventure even though you lost.
So whether you're fighting the Swine Flu or rampaging dragons or the ever-rising floodwaters around your helipad, remember that it's all in good fun, and don't be afraid to lose - because you will.