Step away from the Monopoly board. Put down that game controller. There’s a new breed of increasingly popular board games that ditch the tired mechanics of Life, Sorry, Risk or other stodgy throwbacks. Many take just enough of a cue from modern video games to include companion apps that run on phones, tablets or laptops, handling much of the stat-counting, card shuffling and other minutiae that can scare people off from tabletop gaming.
The themes are, not surprisingly, often focused on Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy, zombie attacks, sci-fi battles and Lovecraftian supernatural hijinks. Lots of the latter, with eldritch monsters and ancient evils forever poking their way through the veil into 1920’s New England.
Here are some favorites, any one of which can turn game night into an epic multihour adventure. Got your own suggestions? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault, $89
The best Star Wars game I’ve played in years isn’t a video game, it’s this tabletop strategy game, where rebel heroes fight through various skirmishes with Imperial forces. There’s a fantastic companion app that not only teaches you how to play, it handles the storytelling and enemy placement, too. The miniatures are fantastic, and include a giant AT-ST, and sold-separately add-ons and expansions can add dozens of new figures.
Mansions of Madness, $89
One of my favorites, this is another giant-box-game, because it includes tons of floor tiles with which to create a haunted mansion, plus dozens of plastic miniatures for investigators and monsters. The vibe is definitely old-school Lovecraft, and this board game actually requires you to use its companion app, which creates the layout, spawns monsters and even adds sound effects.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game, $25
A stripped-down version of the Lovecraftian game subgenre. This is strictly a card-based game, so no map tiles or plastic figures. Even so, it has amazing narrative storytelling and laying out location cards on the table gives players a clear picture of what’s going on and where.
Zombicide: Black Plague, $51
There are a ton of different versions of this popular game series. Whether set in a prison, hospital or ruined city, they all have the same basic theme — an ever-growing bunch of zombies chase your crew around a map as you race for the exit. This version is the universal favorite, taking the action back to medieval times. There’s a handy iOS/Android app that can handle all the card-shuffling and inventory, leaving you free to focus on filling the game board with plastic zombies.
Five Minute Marvel, $11
A great card-based game for playing with kids, as each round has a hard 5-minute limit. Various Marvel heroes go through a giant villains deck, matching symbols and playing special cards, all in real time against a 5-minute timer. I liked that besides the usual Spider-Man and Captain America gang, it also included up-and-comers like Spider Gwen and Squirrel Girl.
Deep Madness, $130 and up
You’ll have to hit eBay or a resale shop to find this giant game. So far it’s sold through two printings on Kickstarter, but there are no plans for a retail release. Trapped in an underwater research station, one to six players avoid flooded rooms and, you guessed it, Lovecraftian monsters. Derivative, but great atmosphere and art direction.
Read more: The best gifts for 2018