When we talk about board games as a type of tabletop game, it’s actually a whole series of game subtypes that should be included under that umbrella. It also matters how you define a board game. Many tabletop games that I would not think of as board games make use of elements we associate with board games. These can include game pieces or some sort of board.
The only real criterion for something being a “board game” is that it involves the movement of game pieces on a pre-marked board. That would exclude games like D&D or miniature wargames, for sure. Apart from that, however, the game design can really be anything. Any two board games may have nothing in common in terms of their design other than the main criterion. Nonetheless, there are some categories you can use to guide you, and in this article I want to talk about the way we classify board games.
Systems of Classification
As far as I can tell there isn’t really a globally-recognized classification system for board games. Rather, a few people have tried to make sense of the sheer diversity of game designs and premises with different levels of success.
For example, the guys over at Nonstop Tabletop have classified games by their major mechanism. So they have “roll and move games”, which include games like Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly. Area control board games are strategic games like Risk. Secret identity games have people figuring out who the bad guy is. Deck building games let you, well, build a deck of cards as you go along to play with.
It’s a decent attempt, but too many games fall into multiple categories so I’m not too crazy about it.
Two academics, Piet Notebaert and Hendrik Cornilly published an article on their own adaptable system for game classification. What I don’t like about their system is that it merges tabletop and board games, with card games being separate. In the end, their six categories are too complicated for me and I think most people don’t want that much granularity.
Instead, I quite like the system the community came up with on Board Game Geek’s wiki. Not only is it pretty straightforward, it’s also the result of board game fans working together toward a simple classification system. The main downside is that it has a category which is basically everything which doesn’t fit the other categories, but this is the best solution so far in my opinion. So I will be using the Board Game Geek system here. If you like a different system, well, nothing is stopping you!
The first broad category is the mainstream board game. I think this should be pretty self-explanatory, but these games are made for a mass audience. Think Candyland, Monopoly, chess, and so on. They aren’t hard to buy. You can get them at any sort of general store. Most supermarkets carry games like Monopoly in their toy sections, for crying out loud.
They are designed to be easy to learn. Usually the age range is quite wide for these games and everyone can join. These games also tend to be self-contained. Instead of expansions, companies usually release a special edition of the whole game instead. There are four broad categories of mainstream games according to the BGG system.
This one should also be pretty obvious. Family games are board games that usually accommodate up to four players at least. These are games that both children and adults can have fun playing together. This means that games aimed only at children shouldn’t really count, but for the sake of simplicity we can throw them in here too. After all, as adults we play children’s board games with them anyway.
It goes without saying that these games are also generally without any adult content. The artwork tends to be bright and inviting too. Family games are for everyone, although they might not be the most exciting of games.
These would be board games that have an element of dexterity to them. Yes, technically there’s some dexterity when trying to influence a dice roll, but that would be cheating, people. Think of games like Operation or Hungry Hungry Hippos. Games like mini air hockey would also count. There are games where you have to flick or slide game pieces, try to hit a target, or do other feats of small-scale physical prowess. Some people count Jenga as a dexterity game, but to me it does not meet the main criterion to be a board game, since it has no board!
Party games are a special class of board game for sure. These games are designed to get a party going and keep it going. The rules are simple enough that even mildly-inebriated guests can learn them quickly. These games try to involve lots of people at once, but are also designed to be entertaining to watch.
Trivial Pursuit is a game I personally think falls in this category, but there are of course many more.
The counterpart to mainstream games are the so-called “hobby” games. These games are much more expensive on average than mainstream games. They are not sold at supermarkets, but instead at specialty stores that sell either board games only or other products in the same wheelhouse, such as tabletop games in general.
Hobby games are meant for people who take tabletop games more seriously. It’s not just something fun to do with the kids when the cable goes out. This is one of their primary hobbies and so they are willing to put more money into it. That means the games themselves reflect higher budgets and much more depth. These games may have rules that are way more complex than mainstream board games. It can take a long time to master them, but often there is a community of players who get together to play specific games.
These games are also a long-term investment. So apart from having lots of parts and pieces, the quality is much better than mainstream games. It’s typical for these games to cost more than $100 for the base game. I say the “base” game because the companies that make these games will usually release an expansion or two for them. These are additional rules, pieces, and other components that let you do new things with your base game. This way, the game can be built up into something more deep, versatile, and complex over time.
Thematic games are, as their name suggests, games that focus strongly on a specific theme. This theme is usually explored with a lot of depth. Characters, settings, lore, and deep worldbuilding are all hallmarks of a thematic game.
Thematic games are not always balanced, or at least not balanced in the way that a game like chess might be. Let’s say that you’re playing a thematic game dealing with cowboys and Indians. The cowboys faction might have very different abilities and rules compared to the Indians, which means that each player has to play differently in order to prevail. These games are also typified by player versus player gameplay rather than a central goal everyone is competing for. It’s common for players who lose to get knocked out until there is only one player left.
The War of the Ring game I mention in the rare and valuable games article is a perfect example of a thematic game. These games often incorporate a significant amount of luck, compared to skill.
Eurogames stand somewhat in contrast to thematic games, which are seen as a more American take on hobby board games regardless of whether a specific thematic game was made in America or not. These games usually don’t let players battle it out against each other directly as thematic games do. Instead, the players around the board are competing for resources. A direct battle mechanic isn’t unheard of, but it doesn’t really fit this genre well. Players don’t get knocked out of these games and usually everyone is in it until the end.
These games also have a distinct classiness to them. They prefer wood as a material over plastic and even metal. While these games have a general theme (trains, geography, etc.) the actual gameplay and the theme are at best loosely connected. Settlers of Catan is probably the best-known example of this type of game.
Not to be confused with miniature wargaming, wargame board games take place on a game board. They are usually based on a very specific time, place, and conflict. Deep levels of information and game mechanics are common. The idea is to recreate accurate battles on the board, which tends to have an effect on how rules-heavy the game is. Having rulebooks that edge toward 100 pages is not far fetched.
The problem is that no one can agree on the exact definition of a wargame and not all of them are rules-heavy. I don’t recommend you start a topic on a board game forum about this. Trust me.
Speaking of poorly-defined terminology, “abstract” games are board games that have virtually no theme and tend to be pure strategy games where you can see everything that’s going on and there’s no random chance involved.
Chess is the perfect example of an abstract game. So is Go. Then again, poker has no theme but does have quite a lot of chance, and by definition you don’t know the exact state of play.
While these categories for board games are far from a complete taxonomy of board games, it’s a good broad framework for getting started. It comes nowhere near reflecting the true complexity if these games. If you should wander onto a board game forum there’s always a fierce debate going on about how exactly games should be sorted. There are many different new words that have been made up to describe certain subsets of games. In a way, board game genres are a lot like music genres. They keep multiplying and the line that divides them is constantly getting fuzzy. On paper it doesn’t always make much sense, but once you get into it you’ll find that you know what genre a game should go in when you see it.