When talking about games we use all kinds of different board game terms and definitions. We often talk about various board game types or game categories and we lump groups of games together due to having similar features or mechanics.
Previously we attempted to define all of the various board game mechanics. In this article, I try to take the next step by listing all of the various types of board games and all of the board game styles that are out there.
Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What is the difference between a board game type, a board game mechanic and a board game theme?
This topic of board game types is inspired by a question we got from one of our earliest fans, Shadzar, who asked this question during one of our first live streams:
“I would like to see a show defining game types. Like what is a Dexterity game, what is a legacy game? I want a The Tabletop Bellhop guide to types of games.”
This sounds like an easy enough question, but it’s not as easy as you might think. The problem we ran into when discussing this on The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast Ep 121 Styles and Types of Board Games is figuring out what exactly we mean by a type or category of game and how is that separate and different from board game mechanics or board game themes.
Themes are pretty easy to separate out. They are the story that is applied over the mechanics. The theme is the background of the game and is something that’s easily detached from it. Without the theme, you can still play a game. While some mechanics are tied well to the theme, none of them depends on the theme to function. Some common boardgame themes include Fantasy or Sci-Fi or Napoleonic. I think the concept of board game themes, and the various themes out there, are pretty clear and don’t really need an article discussing them (though if that’s something someone wants us to cover, hit us up, as it seems like a nice easy future topic if people are interested).
I covered board game mechanics as part of The Giant List of Tabletop Game Mechanics. What I didn’t really do there is define a mechanic. To me a mechanic is what makes a game work, it’s the actual actions you take while playing in order to play the game. Mechanics are the meat of the game, the things that the players interact with in order to play.
The problem then comes from figuring out how that’s different from a board game type. To me, a board game type is a useful, short descriptive term used to communicate with another person about a game. It’s a way to give someone else an idea of what mechanics and themes a game use. It’s a way to place games into buckets so that when we are talking about games we have common terms to be able to describe them and compare them. I also think type, category and style are pretty much interchangeable here.
Now we get to the messy part. I think many board game mechanics are also board game types. The difference is that a board game type may be made up of games that use a number of different mechanics whereas mechanics are stand-alone things. A board game category is a group of games that have the same mechanics and play similarly due to this. They have commonalities and can have a similar feel though they may be very different games. Some games though only really feature one mechanic prominently and thus are best described just by using that mechanic.
Finally, just like a game can be built using a number of different mechanics, a single game can fall under multiple game types. Power Grid for example is a rather abstract, math based, economic game that features bluffing, engine building and territory building.
How many different types of board games are there?
Well, I’ve got over forty different types listed in this article, and that doesn’t count game mechanics as board game categories.
What I’ve tried to do on the list below is to not repeat the mechanics already listed in our Giant List of Game Mechanics, but be aware that a game can be defined just by a mechanic and that each mechanic could be a board game category on its own.
What are the different types of board games?
Abstract – Games with little to no theme, and no storyline. If there is a theme it can be easily ignored, removed or changed. Abstract games feature simple designs and mechanics and usually feature perfect information with little to no elements of luck or randomness. These games are all about player skill and feature a high level of strategy and/or tactics.
Examples: Chess, Go, War Chest, Onitama and our personal favourite The Duke.
Bluffing – Games where a part of the game is lying to the other players. Bluffing games feature some type of hidden information and can include elements of deduction. This category also includes games with hidden turn planning and hidden movement, where players don’t know the other players’ intentions each turn.
Examples: There are a lot more bluffing games out there than you would think. The obvious ones are social deduction games like Werewolf, but planning your move in Star Wars X-Wing and programming your robot in Robo Rally also involves bluffing, as do many games featuring auctions like Power Grid.
Card Games – Games that use cards almost exclusively. The line where a game swaps from card game to board game with cards is a thin and wavy one. Some card games can feature a board, but to me, that board just has to be a place to put cards for it to qualify as a card game. If you are doing other things on the board, then you have a game that uses cards and not what I would call a card game.
Examples: The obvious card game examples here are classic card games played with a deck of playing cards, my favourites of which are Hearts and Spaces. For hobby games, you have a huge number of deck-building card games like Marvel Legendary and Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure. This category also includes Euro card games like Race for the Galaxy and The Castles of Burgundy The Card Game.
Children’s Game – Games designed specifically to be played by children. Many children’s games are intended to be educational as well as entertaining, teaching anything from basic concepts like taking turns or counting to games meant to teach players about a specific topic. Thankfully, as time has progressed designers have gotten better and better at making these fun for adults as well as kids. Just because a game is made so that children will enjoy it, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a bad or boring game.
Examples: Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters remains my favourite children’s game of all time (and I just reviewed The Haunted Cellar expansion for it). Other children’s games my family has enjoyed include King Me! and Hey, That’s My Fish! When my kids were younger we also enjoyed Monza and Gobblet Gobblers.
City Building – Quite simply, games about building a city. City building games are usually all about efficiency and are almost always also Economic games. They can be about building the most attractive city, the biggest city or the most lucrative city, or could be a combination of all of that.
Examples: The main game that comes to mind here is Suburbia, but this also covers more abstract games like the card game Citadels.
Civilization Building – Games that have you incrementally develop a civilization over a large span of time. While most civilization-building games start in ancient times and continue on into science fiction territory, others focus on a specific, smaller time frame. This time frame is still not short though, always spanning decades at least. These games usually feature some form of technological advancement system as well as a system for warfare. Negotiation is another common aspect found in civilization building games.
Examples: While Through the Ages a New Story of Civilization is considered by many to be the best Civilization game this category also includes games like Gentes that focus only on ancient civilizations.
Collectable – After getting the core game, you can add content to the game by purchasing additional modules. Unlike a regular expansion, a collectable game includes a large number of modules, often released at a set schedule, and there are often reasons to purchase multiple copies of each module. In addition, collectable games often have competitive organized play elements. With these, in order to stay competitive, you need to keep up with the new releases. Some of these games feature random packs and a rarity element to their expansion packs.
Examples: Magic the Gathering is by far the most well-known collectable game but this also includes any game with waves of expansions like X-Wing or Marvel Champions.
Deduction – Games where players need to come up with some form of answer or answers based on information presented in the game. What they do with these answers will depend on the game. Finding the answer may be the entire point of the game or it might be just part of the game. There are a wide range of different deduction game types from social deduction bluffing games to cat and mouse hide and seek games as well as hidden traitor games.
Examples: Clue is the most widely known deduction game, Codenames is a popular deduction based party games and I recently discovered the Chronicles of Crime series which you can read about in my Chronicles of Crime 1400 review.
Dungeon Crawler – In these games, players explore some form of a dungeon, fight monsters and accumulate treasure. Dungeon crawlers can be episodic or campaign based, cooperative or competitive. The competitive games usually feature one player playing the adversaries and competing against the other players, each controlling one or more characters. Most dungeon crawlers feature RPG elements including things like character advancement and improvement.
Examples: One thing to note here is that the “dungeon” doesn’t have to specifically be a fantasy style, in the ground, stone-walled dungeon. Imperial Assault is one of my favourite dungeon crawlers and it has a Star Wars theme. For a more traditional dungeon-crawling board game check out Descent: Journeys in the Dark.
Dexterity – These are games that rely on the physical skill of the players. This could involve stacking, building, placing, balancing, flicking or tossing something during play. Note this doesn’t include games where you aren’t penalized for failing. A game where you are required to stack things but if you knock them over while trying to do so you just re-stack things and it doesn’t impact the game is not a dexterity game. In a dexterity game, you win or lose based on your ability to complete the required actions.
Examples: I’m a huge dexterity game fan, favourites include Pitchcar, and Hamsterolle.
Dice – Games that use dice as their primary mechanism. Similar to Card Games there’s a thin wavey line that determines when a game swaps from a dice game to a board game with dice. One of the things that I think sets dice games apart is that the dice need to be rolled and used as a random element in the game. Most dice games feature a way to re-roll some or all of the dice each round. More tactical dice games include elements that mitigate this randomness by letting you modify your rolls in some way.
Examples: Yahtzee is probably the most well known, but I prefer Farkle as far as traditional dice games go. For hobby dice games, look at Istanbul the Dice Game or Roll for the Galaxy.
Economic – Games all about generating income in some way and trying to be the player with the best finances at the end of the game. Economic games usually include some form of market system, which could be straight-up stock trading but could also include trading between players or buying and selling from a central market. Note this income doesn’t have to specifically be money it could be any resource realistic or abstract.
Examples: For an example of an economic game that’s not about money look to Terraforming Mars and for one of the best games about having the most money by the end check out Brass.
Educational – Games that are meant to teach the players something while playing. For a long time, educational games seemed to have more of a focus on teaching than on making the games actually fun in addition to teaching something. Thankfully, this has shifted in recent years. It’s worth noting that not all educational games are kids games, there are plenty of hobby board games out there that can teach you something. I mention many of these in my Fun Historical Board Games for History Buffs of All Types article.
Examples: Robot Turtles is a great introduction to coding. The Timeline series of games is a great way to teach some history. For a hobby board game for adults that is also used as a teaching tool in schools look at Freedom the Underground Railroad.
Engine Building – Games where you start off with almost nothing and use the little you have to build up slowly to something more. By the end of the game, you should have a system that generates whatever it is you need to win the game. Some form of permanence between turns is required for this system to grow and evolve during the game.
Example: For a deep dive into exactly what I mean when I say engine building game, check out this article that defines engine building and highlights sixteen of the best engine builders including Terraforming Mars and Splendor.
Exploration – Games that involve some form of discovery during play, where hidden information is revealed. Exploration games will have you search out new things and reveal more aspects of the game as it goes on. This could be exploring a map, revealing cards from a deck, flipping to different sections of a book or unlocking new chapters of a campaign. The goal and focus of an exploration game is discovering this new content.
Examples: Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island has you exploring a deserted island and Betrayal at House on the Hill is all about exploring a haunted mansion.
Farming – Games where players build up some form of farm and farmland. This usually involves growing some form of crops and also often includes animal husbandry. Many farming games also focus on improvements done to the farm and buildings on the farm. Managing resources and gradual improvement are important elements of farming games.
Example: I don’t know what it is with board game designers/publishers and farming but there are a lot of great farming games. Personal favourites include Agricola, which is probably the most infamous farm game, and Takenoko, a game about farming bamboo.
Fighting – While fighting games have been very popular in the world of video games for a long time now, fighting board games are still a relatively new thing. These are games about close-quarter combat. Fighting games differ from wargames in the fact that they are about personal combat. This category doesn’t include every game with conflict in them but rather games specifically about the fights themselves.
For a board game version of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat check out the BattleCON series of games and for something involving more than two players and a team of fighters look for Spartacus A Game of Blood and Treachery.
Gamebooks – While people may debate whether Gamebooks are board games or not, I’ve decided to keep them on the list due to some modern examples. What we are talking about here are the various games that have been released in book format over the years. These involve the player or players by having them read off a story and then flip to different parts of the book or books to continue the game. Many of these are adventures that tell some sort of story and many have the player make a character to take on that adventure. There are other forms of gamebooks as well which have players competing against each other with each player using their own book.
Examples: The Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks put this style of game onto the map. Legacy of Dragonholt is a modern take on these style of games as is Adventure Games The Dungeon.
Humourous: These are games that are meant to be funny and get players laughing. Humorous games include a wide number of party games but this category can also apply to heavier games with humorous elements in them as well.
Examples: Telestrations is a game that always ends up with a ton of laughter. Whereas Munchkin is a more series game with humorous themes.
Legacy – Games that add some form of permanence to the game, where the game changes over time with each progressive gameplay. This could mean unlocking new content or it could mean modifying or destroying existing content. Either way, what you do during one game affects all future plays of that game.
Examples: Risk Legacy was the first legacy game and is where the name for this game type comes from. Gloomhaven is currently one of the most popular legacy game out there.
Math Based – Games with a significant level of math required to play and where playing well is based on using math skills and doing calculations. The level of math involved varies from simple counting to more advanced calculations. If you find you want a calculator while playing a game, it’s a math-based game.
Examples: Math heavy games can be lighter fair like Robotech Force of Arms which we recently reviewed, medium weight games like Power Grid or real heavy beasts like Arkwright.
Mature/Adult – Games featuring adult themes, usually explicit humour and/or depictions of adult situations.
Examples: While it’s easy to dismiss this category as simply crude humour, like Cards Against Humanity, there are a number of games that approach adult themes in a more mature way such as Star Crossed or Time Stories.
Maze – These are simply games that feature mazes or that feature maze-like elements which require players to navigate a path. This path may be obvious or it may be hidden. Hidden paths might be revealed slowly through play.
Examples: The Magic Labyrinth is a unique take on this style. Robo Rally is my favourite maze-based game, while Quodd Heroes is another, more recent, favourite.
Memory – Games where players are required to remember things revealed in the game and use that information to make decisions later. Memory games are often deduction games as well though not always.
Examples: Hanabi is a good modern example of a memory game and my kids love The Magic Labyrinth, a game that fits for the last category of maze games as well.
Miniature Games – Here we are talking about miniature battle games, games where the miniatures are the main components of the game and the game board or scenery on the table represents the physical area around the miniatures. Similar to card and dice games, every board game with miniatures is a miniature game. Many miniature games include hobby elements like miniature assembly and painting and scenery building.
Examples: Games Workshop and their Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar games are still the most popular but there are a number of different miniature games out there. I personally recently fell in love with Gaslands which is a Car Wars style game that uses Hot Wheels.
Murder Mystery – These are games all about investigating a murder, where players are trying to figure out the details of the crime and who the perpetrators are. All murder mystery games are also deduction games, though the opposite isn’t necessarily true. Some murder mystery games will require players to have a good memory, while others will allow for note taking or some other way to continue to reference clues after they are found.
Examples: Check out my Chronicles of Crime 1400 review for a look at a murder mystery game we’ve been enjoying. The various Murder Mystery dinner party games like A Taste for Wine and Murder also fall into this category.
Negotiation – Games that feature players making deals and alliances with each other. Many negotiation games also feature the “inevitable betrayal” when those deals and alliances are broken. This category includes a number of military and war based games but also includes games where players are trading goods and commodities.
Examples: Diplomacy is probably the most famous negotiation game and a great example of a military-based one. Chinatown is a great example of a game about trading properties, businesses and money.
One Vs Many – Games where one of the players is competing against the rest of the players. These games include games with a Dungeon Master style player who controls the game and the bad guys as well as Hide and Seek style games where one player is trying to hide from the others.
Examples: Fury of Dracula is a very popular one vs many hide and seek style game and Star Wars Imperial Assault has the Empire player competing against the other players who control the Rebels.
Party Game – These are games that allow a high number of players to play at once, where social interaction is both the key aspect and the main goal of the game. Party games are usually very easy to teach, featuring simple rules and very accessible gameplay. They also often have shorter playtimes.
Examples: Some of my favourite party games include Codenames and Concept.
Point Salad – Games where there are multiple different ways players can score points with no one way particularly better than any other. Stefan Feld is famous for designing point salad-style games. While there is no exact amount for the number of potential scoring paths in a game for people to consider it a point salad, it has to be more than a couple.
Examples: Our favourite Feld’s include: Amerigo, Trajan and Carpe Diem. Eclipse is an example of a non-Feld point salad.
Print & Play – Games where you are meant to print out the game components yourself or combine printed components with stuff most people have readily available like dice and pawns. Some print and play games are only “published” in digital form, you can also find traditionally published games in Print & Play format. Finally, many published games feature Print & Play expansion content.
Examples: We recently reviewed the roll and write Roll for Lasers which is a print and play game.
Puzzle Games – These are games where players must solve a puzzle. Puzzles games can be cooperative games, where everyone is working together to solve the puzzle. There are also competitive puzzle games, where it might be a race to see who solves the puzzle first or winning might be based on who manages to use the pieces to achieve the best score.
Examples: The Exit series of escape room games, which you can read more about in my EXIT The Haunted Roller Coaster review, is the first example that comes to mind, but this category also applies to polyomino games, such as Patchwork, and games that include puzzles within them, like Mansions of Madness.
Racing – The goal in a racing game is to be the first player to reach some end point. This end point could be a finish line on a track or a set number of points. This means that racing games include games about car or horse racing as well as many Euro-style games that end when players collect a set amount of points or resources.
Examples: Catan is a race to ten points, Pichcar is a race to the finish and Camel Up is a betting game featuring camel racing.
Real-Time – Games where players are meant to do something within a strict time limit. This can involve simultaneous play with players trying to complete something before the other players or games with timers where players must stop playing or are penalized when time runs out.
Examples: Fuse is a very stressful cooperative real-time game, Galaxy Trucker is one of my favourite competitive real-time games, and Captain Sonar turns Battleship into a real-time strategy game.
Role-Playing – When talking about roleplaying games here, I’m still talking board games and not pen and paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. Roleplaying board games have players take on the role of a specific character and make decisions based on that character. These kinds of games often feature some form of advancement system where the player’s characters grow over time.
Examples: Gloomhaven is one of the highest rated roleplaying board game right now but there are lots of board games with roleplaying elements.
Sandbox – While no board game is a true sandbox because all games are limited in some way by the scope of the rules and the game components, a sandbox game is a game where you are presented with a large number of options and ways to play the game. These include point salad games and games with multiple ways to win.
Examples: Xia Legends of a Drift System is one of the most open sandbox games I’ve played. Fallout is more restricted but also another great example of a sci-fi sandbox.
Take That – Games featuring a high amount of negative player vs. player interaction. In take that games players take actions that hinder their opponent’s progress in the game in some way.
Examples: Munchkin is one of the most popular take that board games. Unfair is a more recent game featuring take that elements.
Territory Building – Games where players are attempting to take over a specific area of a map, or as much of the map as possible. These games often use area control and area majority mechanics or could be about making an enclosure.
Examples: Most Folk on a Map games fit here. Personally, I dig El Grande for area majority. Territory building also includes tile-laying games like The Castles of Burgundy. While Go is the most classic example of an enclosure game.
Trains – Trains is another mechanic along with Farming that board game designers can’t seem to get enough of. There are any number of games based on railroads, rail routes and rail vehicles. These range from very simple to extremely complex.
Examples: A well-known simple train game would be Ticket to Ride, Steam falls in the middle as far as complexity. then you’ve got the 18xx games at the top end of that scale.
Transportation – Games about moving something from one place to another to score points. Almost every train game is a transportation game but there are non-train transportation games. Most of these games feature a pick-up and deliver mechanic.
Examples: Brass is one of the best transportations games ever made. Another personal favourite is Keyflower.
Travel – Games where you move about on a map or grid. travelling to different locations. Travel games may, or may not, include exploration. Most travel games will reward a player based on the number of destinations visited.
Examples: Travel is an element of one of my favourite games, Orléans (even more so once you add in the Trade & Intrigue Expansion which I’ve reviewed) and is also a big part of Coimbra.
Trivia – These are games that test a player’s knowledge about a particular subject or range of subjects, often focusing on interesting but unimportant facts.
Examples: Trivial Pursuit is probably the most well-known trivia game, though personally, I prefer Wits & Wagers. For a unique twist on this genre check out Chronology.
Wargames – Games that attempt to recreate military action. These exist for pretty much every historic timeline but also exist for a variety of sci-fi and fantasy themes. This category covers anything from small unit engagements to epic battles and multi-year wars.
Examples: Commands and Colours Ancients is my current favourite historic wargame, Star Wars Rebellion is probably my favourite non-historic wargame.
Word Game – Games where players are challenged on their vocabulary and knowledge of words and their interactions. Almost all of these are very language dependant.
Examples: Scrabble is by far the most well-known word game. Letter Jam is my most recently played word game and one I enjoyed quite a bit.
Well, that’s it for my list of board game styles and types. While I tried to be as inclusive as possible, I’m sure there are some that I missed. I’m looking forward to you letting me know what those are in the comments below.
I write an educational column for a local newspaper to inspire parents to help their kids learn. I try to review tech matters, but want parents to know that board games are still around and you have mentioned so many new ones that I was not aware of. I really don’t think you could have missed any.
Thanks for your help. Congratulations on such a great job!
There’s no way I can mention them all, there like 5000 new board games released every year and that’s just in the hobby market, but I do try to point out the best ones worth checking out.