Science fiction and fantasy elements have been invading board games for almost as long as there have been board games at all. It’s not hard to see why—if you’re going to play a game, wouldn’t you rather be a medieval knight or a space rogue than a banker? Sorry, Monopoly, but it’s true.
There’s definitely no shortage of good sci-fi and fantasy games available at your local game store, but seeing as you practically need a second mortgage to buy board games these days, trial and error probably isn’t the best way to find a good one. But never fear: we’re here to help with an essential list of great sci-fi and fantasy board games.
We’re limiting the list to board and card games that come in one box. That means no pen-and-paper role-playing games and no collectible card games allowed, so don’t expect to see Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering on here (but you already knew about those anyway, right?).
1. Descent: Journey in the Dark
This board game/role-playing game is semi-cooperative, with two or more players taking control of heroes and battling a player in charge of the evil “overlord.” It’s a dungeon-crawler, complete with traps, bad guys, and more. Many fans consider this the prototypical tabletop dungeon-crawler—and some consider it the best in the genre. When you play it, it’s not hard to see why.
2. Exodus: Proxima Centauri
Exodus: Proxima Centauri balances fun with complexity. It plays a bit like the popular Twilight Imperium (more on that game in a moment), but isn’t quite as confusing or time-consuming. Exodus fans say this makes the game even better than Twilight Imperium. It’s easy to see their point: Exodus features a balance of fun and complexity that rewards hardcore gamers without taking up the whole day.
This late 1980s Milton Bradley game tried to capitalize on the Dungeons & Dragons craze—and created a classic. HeroQuest is an early role-playing board game, and it’s still as fun as ever. The only problem for modern gamers is that getting your hands on a copy has gotten pretty tough. You’ll have to track down a used version (try: eBay, Craigslist, Amazon), and then you’ll end up paying top dollar for it. But once you have it, you’ll be the biggest star of game night.
Kemet has earned high praise from board game geeks for its innovative play style, which divides turns into “night” and “day.” Players take control of armies in Ancient Egypt and battle for supremacy. The fantasy elements come courtesy of magic and divine intervention—you’ll have to get some help from the gods of Egyptian mythology to get to the finish line. In the world of board game geekery, this one is considered a must-own.
5. King of Tokyo
King of Tokyo might be the simplest game on this whole list, but that doesn’t make it boring. The clever game design (Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield came up with this one) lends itself to quick, fun, and exciting games. The colorful board and gleeful tone help the game stand out from the legions of somber, serious science fiction fare in your local game store. This is a great one to pick if you’re playing with more casual board gamers—or if you’re just tired of eight-hour-long quests.
6. Shadows Over Camelot
Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game with a twist—there’s a chance that one of your teammates is actually working to sabotage your quest. Gameplay is relatively straightforward, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble convincing your pals to go a-questing with you, even if they’re not board game geeks themselves. On a pure fun level, it’s hard to beat Shadows Over Camelot.
7. Star Wars: Imperial Assault
Star Wars: Imperial Assault plays a bit like Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Multiple players can control heroes as they accomplish various objectives on different maps, and one player is in charge of the opposition. There’s a ton of replay value here, because each time you play, the story builds on your previous missions. Imperial Assault uses its Star Wars branding well, and fans of the original trilogy will likely love the story and the feel of the game.
8. Twilight Imperiu
Twilight Imperium is legendary among sci-fi board game fans, and it has earned that status thanks to its complexity and challenge. Be prepared to spend some time at the board—Twilight Imperium games can last for four hours or longer—but expect to be rewarded with one of the best science fiction board game experiences of all time.