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The 15 best online board games on PC

Roll 'em high

It's 2021, so we're probably past the point that we need to tell you tabletop games - known to many as board games - have had a renaissance in recent years. Getting around a table, throwin' them dice, eatin' them maize-based snacks... what a way to spend an evening! But equally undeniable is the fact that it's been hard to, you know, gather in groups in recent history. Luckily, the board game revolution has reached video games, and you can get some cracking digital PC versions of your physical favourites.

There are many other advantages to digital board games. First of all, you don't have to unpack a bunch of tokens and cards from a box, only to find that they do not fit back in the same box two hours later. Another big benefit is that a digital game takes up a lot less space, and generally costs a lot less. Why drop £100 on 15kg of plastic miniatures and enough cardboard to crush a Honda Civic, when you can add a dozen new games to your Steam library for less than the same price? If you like them enough to play with friends around the table, the option to go out and pick up a physical copy is still there, after all.

As is our way with our lists, this is by no means exhaustive, but we've taken a broad view to collect our favourites and give you varied options. You might find that your own favourite board game game isn't in the final 10, which of course means that it was number 11. Why not head to the comments to give an impassioned speech in its favour? You might convert some readers to your team, and muster enough to break down the door of the treehouse and force us to include it when we update the list.


15. Magic: The Gathering Arena

Magic: The Gathering is the biggest trading card game in the world. It's been around for decades and taken a few stabs at crossing over to the digital world in that time, but it was only with 2019's Magic: The Gathering Arena that it felt like it really hit its stride on PC. Arena is the same MTG you know from the tabletop, but translated into a fast-flowing, visually impressive app that sees it step up to the likes of digital-only card games such as Hearthstone. Arena also lets you unlock some of the physical cards you buy in the game for free, so you don't need to buy everything twice to keep your collection across paper and pixels. With plenty of popular Magic: The Gathering formats from the original collectable card game, as well as some new formats exclusive to the digital version, and the chance to play upcoming sets a little ahead of their release, Arena proves MTG isn't going anywhere but up for a while.


14. Through The Ages

Civilisation games were born on the tabletop, with the first - 1980's Civilization by legendary designer Francis Tresham - serving as inspiration for Sid Meier's Civilization series on the PC (which then inspired board games based on the PC games based on the board game; it's a whole thing.) Through The Ages takes the classic genre in a new direction, seeing players build up their empire using little more than a bunch of cards. You draft technology, leaders, wonders and more from a shared queue of cards, making sure to keep your people happy and fed while also fending off attacks from your neighbours. The tabletop version of Through The Ages is a grand creation that takes hours to play and quite a bit of effort to keep all the cards in the right places. Having all the cardboard admin handled by your PC means you can focus on the game itself - which is a cracker.


13. Ticket To Ride

Ticket To Ride has become a modern classic of board gaming since it first chugged out of the brain of designer Alan R. Moon in 2004 - and for good reason. There's a simple pleasure to spending matching sets of coloured cards to link up locations on the map with sets of dinky train carriages, aiming to complete your secret tickets by the end of the game. The original version starring the map of North America has been followed by numerous expansions and spin-offs that see the players travel everywhere from Europe to India. They also bring new features to the experience, with ferries, tunnels and more taking the trains on an epic worldwide journey. Ticket To Ride remains a joy in cardboard, and its PC version is just as delightful. Plus, you get to hear it go "Choo choo!" every time you take a turn in the app; good luck resisting the urge to do your own Thomas the Tank Engine impression after a few rounds.


12. Colt Express

Sure, building railways in Ticket To Ride is great. But have you ever wanted to rob a train instead? If so, you should probably find a new ambition, but Colt Express will let you live out your fantasies of being like Jesse James by rootin', tootin' and shootin' your way through a Wild West train heist. Everyone chooses an action to take each turn in secret, before they all play out in the order they were played - leading to inevitable chaos. You might go to blast a rival only to find they've scarpered onto the roof of the carriage, or make a move to grab some loot just as somebody pinches it right in front of you. Meanwhile, the marshal is on the hunt for the outlaws and will fill you full of lead if you end up in the same carriage, making it harder to draw a decent hand on future turns. On the tabletop, Colt Express already packed a visual punch thanks to an impressive 3D cardboard train - on PC, it looks just as stylish thanks to some slick animation and strong cartoon artwork. Hop on board and have a blast.


11. Twilight Struggle

Set during the Cold War, Twilight Struggle is almost as tense as the period that inspired it. Two players each take control of the US and USSR, working to exert their influence over the rest of the world as the nuclear threat simmers over to boiling point. Each card is based on actual historical events, with particular actions increasing the DEFCON level and driving either side closer to the brink of nuclear war. While the rules aren't complicated by themselves, play gives way to a deep level of strategy that will keep you trying to outplay your opponent throughout. The political tug-of-war has long been considered one of the greatest board games of all time on the tabletop, and its digital adaptation does it ample justice. How many other games have the chance of ending in mutually-assured destruction?


10. Splendor

Splendor is a gem of a game about gems. You're aiming to collect the most valuable cards by buying them using a combination of gem chips in various colours - which you can pick up each turn - and cards you've bought on previous turns that are worth permanent gems in your collection. As you buy more cards, you can afford even more expensive cards from the grid, giving the game a satisfying sense of momentum. Add in the race to collect bonuses for claiming certain sets of cards, and the passive-aggressive nature of reserving cards your opponents may want to stop them cashing in, and you can see why Splendor's one of the best quick(ish) board games of the last decade. If you're looking for something to pick up after the likes of Catan and Carcassonne, start here.


9. Pokémon TCG Online

A card battle in Pokemon TCG Online - in this case, a Shroomish card vs a Swanna

Remember being a kid, clutching your deck of cards in your sweaty hand, trading them on the playground and getting so het up about them that eventually your school banned Pokémon cards from the premesis because the children were all taking it Too Seriously? Having that laminated folder with the space all ready for a Shiny Charizard? You can still play Pokémon with physical cards, of course, but now there's an offical, easier alternative. Pokémon TCG Online: I choose you!

This has all your standard Pokémon stuff, but in digital form. You can trade cards, fiddle with your custom decks, and battle against friends and strangers in tournaments or quickie battles, all in a swish digital arena. Very little of the magic is lost in this version, and in fact it's better in some ways because you don't have to deal with that whole thing where someone "accidentally" knocks the damage tokens and then spends ages arguing about how many HP their Gastly actually has left...


8. Railroad Ink Challenge

A screenshot of a gameboard, criss-crossed with unfinished railway lines, in Railroad Ink Challenge

Railroad Ink Challenge is a streamlined version of a popular board game called Railroad Ink (and there's a physical version of both the original Railroad Ink and of Challenge too, if you like what you play). It's a rip-roaring good time, combining speed and expansion with the need for careful planning.

Games of this go quickly: you only have seven turns, building as much of your transport network out as possible. You need to connect exits around your particular board, and get points for growing your network with motorways, bridges, stations, that kind of thing. But you also lose points for any connections you leave unfinished at the end, which is where that careful planning comes in. And as ever, there's the addition of random chance with dice rolls - though Railroad Ink Challenge also throws in timed optional challenges to keep you on your toes. The quick way games play out gives this the "Just one more!" flavour of Pringles or a bag of popcorn, so it really blends the best of board games with all the advantages that a digital game offers.


7. Scythe: Digital Edition

Set in an alternative 1920s dieselpunk Europe where mechs are the latest innovation in war machinery, Scythe is an immersive strategy game where five different factions are all looking to stake their claim to the land around a mysterious city-state known as The Factory. Each of the factions has different starting abilities, but all can invest in their workers, mechs and buildings during the game to gather more resources, traverse the land and drive off their rivals in combat they have full control over. With numerous ways to build your strength and amass points, Scythe opens up into a fascinating 4X experience with the lore and story of its world delivered through events and player decisions as they explore. Little wonder that artist Jakub Rozalski's evocative 1920s-ish setting - which serves as the engrossing backdrop to Scythe - has since been expanded with video game Iron Harvest.


6. Flash Point: Fire Rescue

Flash Point is the hottest board game on the tabletop - literally. Players are firefighters tackling burning blazes together, moving their squad of extinguishing experts through different buildings to put out flames and rescue survivors trapped inside. Like in co-op board game classic Pandemic (which we haven't included on this list because frankly its PC version sucks), the players' characters have different unique abilities to help them triumph. It's how you use your team's talents - from smashing through walls to reviving unconscious survivors - and coordinate your plan that'll decide how you fare, though don't expect it to be easy.


5. Wingspan

Wingspan has been shouted out on RPS before, once making it into our Steam Fest best demos list as well as turning up in our Indies Uncovered streams. Matt Cox (RPS in peace) described it as an engine-building game, "where you start with nothing and wind up with a beautiful, point-spewing machine". In Wingspan's case this machine is made of birds.

Wingspan's cardboard version won awards, so you know it's worth a look. A card game at heart, Wingspan encourages you to both plan for long term gains and take advantage of opportunities on the spur of the moment. Bird and egg cards are the meat of your game, earning you victory points but also giving you abilities that might undercut opposing players. And like birds themselves, you'll need to quickly adapt to a changing environment, as your nests and abilities keep pace with what your opponent is up to. It's a game where you can be pipped to the post by the luck of the draw at the very last moment.


4. The Lord Of The Rings: Adventure Card Game

Less a perfect digital recreation of the excellent co-op living card game The Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game and more a game of its own that takes heavy inspiration from its tabletop cousin (not to mention more than a splash of Hearthstone's visual style), LOTR: Adventure Card Game sees players' own fellowship braving the monsters of Middle-earth on a number of quests. You get to customise your deck of cards with characters, abilities and more, before seeing how it stacks up against the forces of darkness controlled by the computer's Sauron. The game nails the sense of adventure from Tolkien's books, journeying through different locations and throwing up a variety of objectives for players to complete along the way. It's also bloody tough; Sauron doesn't mess around.


3. Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven is a big hit in its physical format, so no suprise that the digital version is - even though it's still in early access. Gloomhaven marries tactical RPG elements with dungeon crawling (everyone's favourite hobby), and does so in some style.

Take control of your squad of weird and wonderful mercs to clear trade routes, open up the fantastical world again, and make loads of money in the process. There's a range of different characters to choose from that stick with the RPG, D&D-esque classes you might be used to, but add unique spin. You've got the Soothsinger, which is a bard class, and the Scoundrel for fans of rogues, but then you also have classes like the Cragheart, an incredibly diverse class that can be specced for support, ranged attack or even a bit of tanking.

Your squad dives into dungeons to face off against various beasties and monsters in strategic combat that involves drawing cards, playing abilities, and keeping an eye on your exhaustion level, lest you have to force a retreat before you're ready. Digi-Gloomhaven is nearly its full release, and has added online co-op and new monsters to contend with. Things have never looked gloomier!


2. Hive

With its stark black and white pieces, Hive instantly brings to mind chess. And, honestly, it wouldn't be too much to say it should go on to become as much of a classic. Similarly a battle of abstract strategy between two players, Hive challenges each side to surround their opponent's queen bee by manoeuvring their creepy-crawly pieces around the connected tiles. Each bug moves in a unique and specific way made easy to remember by the insect pictures - the spider crawls an exact number of spaces, the grasshopper jumps over pieces, the beetle crawls on top of other pieces. and so on. It's an intense challenge of careful planning ahead and outwitting your opponent that you'll want to master.


1. Root

A screenshot of the woodland map in Root, with a network of clearings where the player can recruit warriors

Root is so popular as a board game that whenever a new run of it is released into the wild, it quickly goes out of stock again. Thankfully the digital version exists to give us all a chance to conquer the forest. It's a strategy game for 2-4 players with a bit of an asymmetrical tilt. Each player is controlling a faction trying to gain control of a vast woodland wilderness. The Marquise de Cat, the kind of Saruman-esque baddie harvesting the forest to feed industrial expansion, is up against the coalition of the Woodland Alliance, and The Eyrie Dynasties of big birds who ruled the forest before the Marquise took over. And then there's the Vagabond, who's mostly out for himself... unless he isn't?

Each side gains victory points in different ways, and has different advantages and disadvantages in play. The dice rolls and cards you use to win fights and make different plays mean there's a delicious edge of random chance that could tip things in anyone's favour. There have been updates to the base game as well, with the most recent Riverfolk DLC adding two new factions to the mix. Root is so good that whenever you mention it to someone who plays it, they look away from you, eyes unfocused, and go: "God... Root is good though."


For more board game and tabletop recommendations, reviews, news and video playthroughs, head over to Rock Paper Shotgun's sibling site Dicebreaker.

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