Bond with loved ones over some of the best fantasy board games around -- all tested and approved by our experts.
James BricknellSenior Editor
James has been writing about technology for years but has loved it since the early 90s. While his main areas of expertise are maker tools -- 3D printers, vinyl cutters, paper printers, and laser cutters -- he also loves to play board games and tabletop RPGs.
Expertise3D printers, maker tools such as Cricut style vinyl cutters and laser cutters, traditional paper printersCredentials
6 years working professionally in the 3D printing space / 4 years testing consumer electronics for large websites.
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Pulling out a board game is always a great way to bring loved ones together, especially if you have kids who are often glued to their devices. And playing games in real life doesn't have to be boring. Over the last decade, board games have evolved beyond Monopoly and Clue. The best board games offer something for everyone in the family, including games with epic fantasy scenarios.
A few of these qualify as "high fantasy," with knights and wizards and the like, but we've picked a variety of subgenres of the best fantasy board games, as well as different styles of gameplay. Some even work well for a solo game night. If you're in need of some analog entertainment, gather around the table and dive into one of these fantastical worlds.
What's the best fantasy board game?
In any list of board games, Gloomhaven is going to be close to the top of the list. For the fantasy board game genre, though, it has to be No. 1. It's a huge game that changes as you play, and every playthrough is something amazing.
I love Gloomhaven so much that I tend to associate it with all of the good things in life. Sunshine, dessert, a good night's sleep, Gloomhaven -- these are the basic necessities of happy living. And seriously, I can't think of a better activity if you're stuck at home and in the mood for a cooperative fantasy board game adventure.
You take on the role of mercenaries in Gloomhaven, a decrepit and dangerous town. In each game session, you and your friends traverse a dungeon and fight dangerous monsters. You'll make decisions along the way that can help Gloomhaven thrive or drive it over the edge of destruction -- yes, Gloomhaven is a legacy game, meaning the world changes as you play. Your characters will also level up and get more powerful as you go, and the scenarios get more interesting the further you venture into the story.
I've invested literally hundreds of hours in this game and I'm still not sick of it. The basic combat balances simple mechanics with deep strategy. The story is engaging without feeling like a game-ified novel. Gloomhaven is my favorite board game. I recommend giving this great game a try.
Gloomhaven is currently out of stock in many places but if you absolutely can't wait for a restock, you can grab one on Amazon for $800. You can also get a taste of the original game with Gloomhaven: Jaws of The Lion, available for $35.
Before I found out about Gloomhaven, Legacy of Dragonholt helped fill my desire for a good story-driven fantasy game. Even though Gloomhaven exists, Legacy of Dragonholt deserves a place on your shelf, especially if you want more story and fewer components and combat mechanics.
Dragonholt streamlines the legacy gameplay experience to be almost entirely about the story. The game includes a stack of storybooks, character sheets, maps and more to help you get immersed. You can play with up to six people, and everyone will be called on to make tough decisions, both within combat and when trying to solve the problems of this fantasy world. As you progress, you check off certain boxes on a tracker, which lock and unlock more sections of story based on your choices. The game even accounts for the passage of time. You might miss your chance at a rescue mission if you don't move fast enough.
If you don't want to deal with the setup of Gloomhaven, grab one of the storybooks of Legacy of Dragonholt and jump into an adventure.
There are a ton of different versions of this series of popular board games. Whether set in a prison, a hospital or a 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 app for iOS and Android that can handle all the card-shuffling and inventory, leaving you free to focus on strategic thinking and filling the game board with plastic zombies.
If you want more of a Walking Dead vibe, there are also several excellent Zombicide games set in modern times, such as Prison Outbreak or Rue Morgue. There's a brand-new standalone Zombicide game for iOS and Android, too, which is a fun game for subway rides where setting up a giant game board would be frowned upon.
Small World is one of my favorite games of all time, simply because this tabletop game feels like a different type of game 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, which is 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.
If you like detailed and inventive miniature-based games, Blood Rage might be for you. It's a Norse mythology-themed conquest game, but unlike many others of the type -- where you just want to control the board -- Blood Rage encourages players to try different play styles.
You can win by conquering regions with the aid of giant monsters, for example, or by letting your warriors die with glory and ascend to Valhalla, or by completing special quests to please the gods. The result is a mind-expanding experience that forces you outside of the usual live-or-die dichotomy that dominates conquest games. Plus, the fantasy game world is just badass.
Civilization-building games are an investment, to say the least. One of the biggest fights of my marriage came only minutes after finishing a five-hour game of Clash of Cultures -- a game that I lost by a single point. But Terra Mystica is surprisingly accessible, once you move past the overwhelmingly complicated first impression of the player boards.
It's a game in which you spread across territories on a shared game board, but you also develop your own economy of gold, workers and magic on your personal game board. This leads to the ability to build structures, terraform the world and cast spells. The game is wonderfully balanced and indirectly competitive. You're not fighting evil forces like in many conquest games; you're blocking construction plans, researching the occult in temples and gaining the most victory points.
If you want a great civ-building game to dive into, Terra Mystica is a perfect place to start.
Lots of cooperative games can fall victim to "quarterbacking" -- where one person who knows the game can dictate the actions of the group. You're not really cooperating if one person is making all of the decisions. Magic Maze takes this off the table with a simple rule: You're not allowed to talk while you play.
While it sounds strange to play a game with friends and not be able to talk to those friends, Magic Maze works beautifully in practice. You're wizards in a shopping mall, trying to steal supplies. That's pretty much it for the story. Basic premise aside, the game works well with up to eight players. You're all simultaneously controlling four characters, but you might only be able to move the characters north, while the person on your left can only move them south and someone else can use escalators and move them east. The game forces fast-paced collaboration as the time ticks away.
You can talk briefly when you enter certain spaces, but most communication takes the form of gently (or aggressively) tapping a little communication pawn in front of other players. When the game is done, you'll make up for your period of silence as you breathlessly recount your narrow escape.
Spirit Island twists colonizing games on their head. You play the role of magic spirits, and your job is to work with the native population to fend off the colonizers who would inevitably destroy the land. A fresh take on an old theme aside, Spirit Island builds tension well as your powers grow and the colonizers move across the land. You need to work together with other players as you only have so much energy to spend each turn and you need to mitigate a lot of damage to keep the colonists at bay and potentially scare them off of the island.
The board game escalates danger well. You can't be sure where the invaders will land next, but once they do land, they build in predictable fashion, giving you time to prevent the worst of the damage and forcing you to make tough decisions about what to save as the problems mount. Spirit Island includes a few different scenarios with variable enemy behaviors and increasing difficulty to keep the game feeling fresh. Plus, the different spirits have distinct abilities and play styles so you can continually find a new way to play.
The learning curve on Spirit Island is a little steep, but once you're familiar, most of the rules are intuitive and you can focus on unleashing the full power of your spirit on those dastardly invaders.
As you can imagine, board game testing is a grueling and often stressful experience. I'm kidding; testing board games is awesome. It is, however, subjective in a lot of ways. I tend to look at certain criteria as to what makes a board game "good."
Are the board and pieces of good quality?
Are the instructions clear?
How long does it take different age groups to learn?
How long does the game take to play?
How fun is it? (This is incredibly important.)
Can you replay it and have it still feel fresh?
Because board gaming is a team sport, my family's opinions are used to help me average out testing. While I may like a 5-hour-long game with 1,000 pieces, my 17-year-old son may not feel the same. Getting a good spread of opinions helps me find the best overall games in each category.