Making friends is hard, let’s face it. Unless you’re in elementary school, at which point you just pick out whoever openly shares your interests and is/isn’t smearing mud and boogers all over their own face (depending on if that’s your scene or not) and pray that they enjoy stuff in the same way you do. Because you’re a child, critical thinking isn’t really a skill you’ve developed, so the idea of liking something different from someone else is sick. Sick and wrong. There’s a simplicity to the whole thing.
After elementary school, however, the only part harder than making friends is keeping them long-term. But sometimes, SOMETIMES, you do it. You manage it. You thread the needle and you find a new friend, even a GROUP of friends, a sort of…FRIENDGROUP, that you have a lot in-common with: you’re all supportive of each other’s goals, you all like one another’s significant others, you tolerate one another’s families, and the friendship grows and blossoms into one of the most important relationships in your life alongside your partner, your beloved pets, and your massive collection of incredibly expensive boardgames that you’ve REALLY meant to get around to and you swear if you can just get everyone together, it’d be the MOST FUN EVER!
And then it happens. You’re 30. Then you’re…over 30 and drinking brings consequences, as hangovers become harsher. So you need something to do mostly-sober while being consistently fun and stimulating enough that the ever looming existential dread doesn’t fully creep in and tear your minds apart. To that end: there are at least nine games that become infinitely more fun once those bonds of friendship are secure and solid!
(Note: I often encourage you to make your own “house rules,” and I stand by altering a game to make it more fun for you personally, however that should come with the caveat: play each game at least twice before tweaking it, unless doing so would actively exclude someone. Games are often VERY precisely designed a certain way, and even though something might SOUND more fun, so long as everyone can play by the printed rules, do so a couple of times just to see how it is.)
Making the list on a technicality because it’s so damn good: Nemesis is a game extremely inspired by both Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s takes on the H.R. Giger-designed Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise, but just distinct enough to avoid copyright law. Part of what makes that work is the distinctly Alien tone the game takes: grit and neon replacing the diesel-and-sweat of the movies, but what remains intact is the “one-or-many” terror the insectoid aliens can bring. The players are trying to ensure a base doesn’t fall apart around them while either escaping or clearing it, but the twist comes in that every player has a secret objective ranging from “Collect a certain number of samples from dead aliens” to “Be the only survivor.”
Because the game can be competitive or cooperative, it doesn’t climb higher on this list, but if everyone’s feeling like just being friends, the secret betrayal objectives can easily be culled from the deck, keeping the overall randomness and making sure that, while everyone might not be on the same page, they are at least reading the same book. Except Tyler, who wants us to think he’s reading American Psycho but is clearly just quoting the movie a lot. You’re an idiot, Tyler.
#8 Omega Virus
Hard to find new, but easy to find cheap in auctions or garage sales in working condition, this famously chatty board game plays against you as a virus has overrun a space station, and it’s up to the players to stop it. Victory can be achieved by any one player, but if the time limit runs out, everybody loses. So while there are mechanics for attacking one another, they are also entirely optional, and honestly a good way to ferret out someone who’s maybe fun to hang out with, but doesn’t need to come to every game night. Shooting someone in the back to steal the glory is funny once, it’s maybe even funny twice, but come on, Susan. We agreed to a co-op game, and this is getting old…just like you, Susan. Just like all of us. Yeah, I said it! No, it’s not the wine talking!
#7- Arkham Horror
H.P. Lovecraft’s work in fiction is as influential as it is deeply problematic. At some point any friend group that’s going to get into board gaming has probably come to terms with the fact that cosmic horror and the terror of realizing one’s own insignificance can be enjoyed without the dated-even-for-its-time views on race and especially interracial marriage (which, seriously, he thought Italian and Anglo-Saxon was ‘race mixing,’ the dude was born with syphilis and not mentally well) and for those who want to take the next step to interactivity: Arkham Horror is the perfect gateway. It’s all “horror of the unknown and living within a system that doesn’t care about your survival,” and none of… that other stuff.
Arkham Horror is at once complex and simple: save the titular town from the rise of one of five selectable Great Old Ones, each with its own ability and cultists dedicated to awakening them. Great Old Ones are beings that defy human logic or reason but don’t have our best interests at-heart, so them being summoned is generally considered a Bad Thing and foiling it is the fastest way to victory. Sounds simple, but the game is designed for the players to lose more than they win. It’s incredibly challenging, and unfortunately very based on luck-of-the-draw mechanics first, and strategy second.
However, since it’s entirely co-op there’s nothing that says house rules/bending rules can’t be easily introduced and integrated to ease things (having everyone start with an additional piece of equipment they select is a great first house rule, giving at least some structure to the luck and a base of everyone being able to do SOMETHING rather than trying to burn through their cards to find the one that allows their character to function), Eventually, when the Old Ones don’t seem so great anymore, the game has innumerable expansions, introducing more player characters, locations, adversaries, and equipment. There’s even a card game version that’s a great deal more compact and straightforward and every bit as expansive, but nowhere as expensive. And yeah, Bobby’s a little weirdly obsessed with ‘roleplaying’ his character, but admittedly: him subconsciously checking his neck for gills after any dangerous encounter is pretty endearing, isn’t it?
Once the holy grail of cooperative board games, due to both its rarity and the sheer surprise of a collaboration between Milton Bradley and Games Workshop (you know, the Warhammer people that half your paycheck goes to if you play it), the heavily Dungeons & Dragons-inspired game got a recent modern re-release, and it’s a glorious way to wile an evening away enjoying a dungeon crawl without the agony of trying to corral your group of loveable cats into once place at one time more than once per blood moon. Heroquest is more stats-and-play-driven than Dungeon & Dragons’ character/narrative framework, and the game comes complete with a number of prefabricated campaigns as well as the ability to build your own. So, if you’re craving a bit of long-term storytelling to go with all the dice rolling and loot gathering, that’s entirely possible here, and even encouraged. And yes Tamra, it is very funny that you keep naming every Big Bad after a word for penis. Seriously, no sarcasm, Tamra’s hilarious and I’ll always remember the time we fought Lil’ Johnson the Gargoyle.
While the Dark Universe extended universe that never came to be feels like it happened as a joke in a parody movie about the folly of starting a “cinematic universe,” the monsters still have their undeniable appeal that has endured for decades, and sometimes centuries, and that’s what this game pits your crew of villagers against. The Big Names, you know them: Dracula, The Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the rest, each with their own iconic miniature, each with different powers and defeat conditions, each hungering for human flesh and blood, and that can only be stopped by your own personal Scooby Gang. Yes, Cho, we’re the Scooby Gang, not the Buffy gang, no one wants to hitch their trailer to the Whedon truck.. not anymore. I’m sorry to tell you. Also, Firefly doesn’t hold up like you think it does, and one season of it was plenty, okay? There’s even a mid-century American version with all your favorite cryptids making an appearance if Bigfoot, the Mothman, and Jersey Devil are more your speed than old fuddy-duddy horrors like Karlov’s mournful eyes behind Frankenstein’s monster, less-sexy Shape of Water in a stifling rubber suit, and Bella Lugosi’s heroin addiction. Either way though, this flawed but lovable crew will most likely remind you of your own in some fucked up way.
#4 -What Next?
A slight departure from the previous entries, as this is a card game first-and-foremost, but rather than simply drawing and playing cards, this one tells a nonlinear, choose-your-own-adventure-style narrative that requires actual dexterity checks. And I don’t mean rolling dice with advantage and adding bonuses, I mean “balance this card on your nose while catching a red ball thrown by another player.” Consequences for failed skill checks can be disastrous, but are always hilarious, and the game’s sharp-yet-whimsical scenarios are even replayable as success or failure often determines the direction the strange, winding tale will take. Elegant in its simplicity, and far more on the “party game” side of things, it’s nevertheless a great deal more interesting and unique than another supposed “social engineering” game that just ends with “JK Rowling’s dirty diaper” again, or whatever moment in pop culture people thought it would be brilliant to enshrine forever in a game.
#3 Samurai Spirits
You know what would have made Akira Kurosawa’s unassailable classic film Seven Samurai, about disparate samurai defending a small village from an invading horde of bandits, even better? If those samurai could shapeshift into badass animal forms with ripping guitar solos! YEAAAAAAAH!!!
While you’ll have to provide your own musical accompaniment, Samurai Spirits provides the rest: a nails-tough, truly challenging game of trying to juggle priorities while sending your surprisingly fragile beast-samurais to curtail the invading barbarians. With old standbys like a fox, a tiger, and a bear to more unusual fare like a raccoon, boar, and a monkey (and of course a wolf, OF COURSE a wolf), the game is well known for its brutal challenge, partially owing to a frankly lackluster instruction booklet. Thankfully, there are numerous tutorial videos that can better encapsulate what players should be striving for, but for those who learn by doing, the game rarely takes more than an hour to complete. After a few sessions, it becomes far clearer in terms of moment-to-moment goals and how tactics and priorities are the actual focus, rather than the badass shapeshifting warriors. They’re great though, don’t get me wrong. A great addition to any group down for a truly repeatable challenge, and sometimes the tragedy of an unwinnable card draw. Plus, Jeff’s back on Adderall, this time with an actual prescription, so his brain’s processing 29 scenarios at once and he might just have the one where we win stored in there. There’s only one way to find out. ONE! MORE! GAME!
#2 Pandemic Legacy
Well…this one certainly hits different in 2023, doesn’t it? Pandemic is a boardgame all about playing as emergency service workers (the real heroes of the world, if you can remember that thing from three years ago) as they struggle against a self-playing plague that is sweeping the world. Juggling movement, resources, and special abilities against an ever-growing tide, and an ever-dispassionate population, the game is famous for starting easy and suddenly tailspinning as a run of bad cards can truly turn things around at a moment’s notice, but it rarely feels like the game got a “cheap” win. The ‘Legacy’ version expands upon the original, creating a world that just can’t seem to catch a break as the board state changes permanently with each game played. Thrilling, strategic, and requiring everyone to actually work together, it’s one of the best examples of the genre, and if any one in the group keeps making those “humorous” antivax comments (Yeah Gunnar, we’re all gonna check out this one YouTuber who’s “just asking some questions…”)? Well, it’s always nice to have someone fail a test they didn’t realize they were taking, I guess.
#1 Sentinels of the Multiverse: Definitive Edition
If your gaggle of geeks enjoys superhero media, this is a no-brainer. Based on the early musings and worldbuilding of a pair of best friends (Christopher Badell, and Adam Rebottaro, who also host the glorious in-universe Letters Page podcast that talks about the extensive lore behind each and every single card. Not just the characters…Every! Card!), Sentinels of the Multiverse takes place in the fictional world of Sentinel Comics Publishing, a “definitely real comic book publisher that exists in our world” that has been in-operation since around the 1930s, and has produced decades worth of stories about various superheroes, all of which you can play out in this approachable-yet-complex card game. 1-5 players take control of a hero deck or two (or any number if you’re soloing, and repeat after me: It’s NOT sad, it’s learning the game better while having fun), many inspired by old favorites, all with fresh, new takes on the genre, and all do battle against a self-playing villain deck. The villains are vastly more powerful than individual heroes, and they must therefore synergize and work together, alongside an environment deck that can help or hinder (often both from one turn to the next) to overcome the threat. The original version is still available, but in my opinion the more recent Definitive Edition is just that. It’s more balanced, more approachable, and while it sacrifices a bit of the sheer variety of the original build, it replaces it with reliability of far more ways to draw and play cards, so tactical thinking is at the fore, even in a game where the player must still contend with the luck of the draw, and players are rarely left with a turn where they can “do nothing” or at least not build to doing something cool on a subsequent turn. Because, truly, there is nothing more satisfying than watching Shy Laura go from barely confident enough to play a card without asking first to her declaring, “Wait, I think I have this…” and then suddenly unleashing a cascade of cards and effects that does 17 damage and pulls a victory over a villain on Ultimate difficulty for the group. YOU’RE THE HERO, LAURA! YOU WERE THE HERO ALL ALONG!