8 best strategy board games for 2021

This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2020, CNET’s gift picks with expert advice, reviews and recommendations for the latest tech gifts for you and your family.

Of all the many types of board games — from your standard family game to a party game or cooperative game — my absolute favorite kind is strategy. Sure, clawing down Godzilla-like Kaiju in the dice-rolling game King of Tokyo can be fun, and tricking the opposite team into executing one of their own allies in the bluffing game The Resistance is entertaining as hell, but nothing beats the satisfaction of outmaneuvering your fellow players in a game of pure wits.

Despite all the games on the market, though, few capture that 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 2021.

Wait… isn’t every game a strategy game?

Strategy board games are games in which players’ critical decision-making affects the outcome — think Chess or Go. 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: tile-laying, worker placement, deck– or tableau-building, dungeon crawler, conquest, dice rolling and more. Many times, these games are organized into larger categories, such as wargames (which center on 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).

To understand strategy board games, though, it’s important to realize what they aren’t: They aren’t about bluffing, speed, persuasion — and most importantly, they aren’t about luck. That doesn’t mean they can’t involve those elements: diplomacy is often an important element in asymmetric wargames; subtle forms of bluffing can dramatically change the outcomes of card-playing games; understanding or even controlling the pace of a game can be crucial to winning victory points when it matters most. But in all of these instances, strategic understanding and optimization of the game’s central mechanics come first. Some great strategy games can come down to a die roll, but if they do, it probably means you haven’t played as well as you could’ve.

In short, it is possible to win strategy games through pure strategy; it is not so through full dependence on the social or chance-based elements of the game.

The games I’ve chosen to focus on in this article are board games (as opposed to war or card games), and they tend to center strategy. That means narrative-heavy legacy games like Gloomhaven don’t make the cut. Like chess or Go, these are games you can play a hundred times and always enjoy, even though the mechanics stay the same each time. They also aren’t cooperative, as playing against an automated foe almost never will develop strategy like human opponents (co-op games, like Pandemic or Dead of Winter, usually have an “ideal” way to play them, and the strategy largely drops off once you’ve gained more experience with them).

So without further ado, here are the best strategy games for 2021.

David Priest/CNET

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.

David Priest/CNET

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 of your warrior’s honor can actually net you a larger victory. What could be a straightforward game about conquering regions becomes about 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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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 United States, 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.

Twilight Struggle won’t be for everyone — it’s a time investment and your brain may feel like mush after playing it the first time. But few games on this list feel as satisfying to play, win or lose.

Mayfair Games

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 very few (or negative) points in their first game, but when you start to learn, it feels incredibly satisfying.

Ravensburger

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 role 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.

Splotter

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.

David Priest/CNET

Star Wars: Imperial Assault largely avoids the role-playing 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.

The rest of the field

While the above games are my picks for the best games for their type, your favorites for game night will often come down to your particular taste. I’ve played dozens of other great games in these categories, and if you’re looking for something a little different, there are options.

Some of the games above, like Gaia Project and Rising Sun, represent iterations on previous classics from the same developers — Terra Mystica and Blood Rage, respectively. Terra Mystica is fantasy themed, rather than sci-fi themed, and has a slightly less demanding learning curve, too. While I prefer Gaia Project because of how its increased mechanics add depth to the game, Terra Mystica might be a slightly more accessible first Eurogame.

Rising Sun is a little further removed from its predecessor, the excellent Viking-themed Blood Rage. Rising Sun has slightly more chaotic conflict, between betrayals and a bluff-heavy combat system. If you prefer less direct conflict, and fewer social elements, Blood Rage might be the better game for you.

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.

For good introductions into 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.

Finally, one of the most interesting board game mechanics in modern games is “worker placement.” That’s the driving mechanism behind Agricola, my personal favorite game on the above list, and a slew of other excellent games, like Viticulture, Caverna and A Feast for Odin. All of them are great options, if their themes speak more to you: Viticulture focuses players on cultivating a vineyard and making wine; Caverna positions you as a Dwarven cave farmer; A Feast for Odin turns you into a Viking leader, exploring, whaling, pillaging and more on their way to preparing a feast for the god Odin.

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