Some people play board games as a way to unwind or spend time with friends and family. For others it’s all about the challenge. Board games can become a way of life; something you spend all your free time on. These players want complex games or ones that require immense mental powers. They are hardcore players looking for much more from this hobby than just a way to have fun and kill time.
I can’t claim to be quite that intense myself, but there are some games out there that carry a reputation for being hardcore. If you want to play these games on a serious level you need to be prepared for some sacrifices. These aren’t just forms of entertainment, but serious challenges only the hungriest of minds can deal with.
I’ve split these hardcore games into two main categories. The first are games with easy to learn rules. However, becoming a master at these games takes decades of your life. The other category involves games that have so many rules and systems, mere mortals have a hard time even conceiving of them all, let alone applying them correctly to an active game.
So if you think you’re ready, let’s get down to it.
Easy To Learn, Impossible to Master
These are the board games that pit you against other opponents in strategic battles. The rules are usually short enough to fit on a small piece of paper. You can usually learn them very quickly. This is, however, deceptive. These simple rules combine to create a massive number of potential situations and incredible, emergent gameplay. The best players in the world pick their game and then keep at it for years, hoping to become masters. Meet your lifelong obsessions.
Chess is a game that almost everyone reading this has heard of. It’s one of the most famous board games in the world, after all. Although no one is actually sure of the exact origins for this game, most historians agree that it came from India before the 7th century. It’s an ancient game that has stood the test of time for more than a millennium.
The game is played on a board divided into a checkered pattern of white and black squares. There are 64 squares in total, arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. Each player has sixteen game pieces arranged along the board’s two closest rows at the start of the game.
Each individual type of piece has its own abilities. Pawns (of which there are eight) can only move straight ahead and capture pieces that are one diagonal space away. Rooks (of which there are two) can only move in straight lines, but as far as they like. Each remaining type of piece (King, Queen, Knights, and Bishops) have their own styles. With the exception of the King piece, all other pieces can capture each other by moving into the same space. The object is to put the other player’s King in a position where it cannot escape capture, known as “check mate”. Doing so is easier said than done, since you also have to protect your own King from the same fate.
Chess is a game with an amazing set of possibilities. If you limited the possible number of moves and game states that are legal and make sense to use, then there are ten to the power of forty possible Chess games. That’s 10 followed by forty zeroes – an insanely large number.
So it makes sense that books and books have been written documenting opening gambits and strategies for the game. Chess is like an Olympic sport, with national endorsement and official titles such as “grandmaster”. Speaking as a former Chess team captain, this rabbit hole goes deep but it can be very rewarding!
Shogi (Japanese Chess)
The game of Shogi is rather unfairly referred to as “Japanese Chess” by some in the West, but I can totally understand why. Like Chess, Shogi happens on a board using pieces that have different roles and abilities. While Shogi belongs to the Chess family of games, it’s evolved into something uniquely Japanese and is absolutely worth looking at as an alternative. It’s a much newer game than Chess, though. In its present form the game dates back to about the 16th Century, with a close variant recorded in the year 1210.
Shogi uses a nine-by-nine grid outlay. Unlike in Chess, black plays first. You have a King, a Rook, a Bishop, Gold Generals, Silver Generals, Knights, Lances, and a bunch of Pawns – nine, to be exact. Like Chess, Shogi has a piece promotion system. However, the promoted status is reflected in writing on the reverse side of the piece itself.
The object of Shogi is the same as it is for Chess. You want to checkmate the opposing King while protecting your own. However, the expanded board, variety of pieces, and promotion system means that this is a very, very different game. Another unique aspect of Shogi is the fact that you can take pieces you have captured from the other player and use them for yourself! If you thought the strategic possibilities of Chess are endless, wait until you try Shogi. Of course, like Chess, becoming any good at this game takes a lifetime of play. Pretty hardcore, if you ask me!
Xiangqi (Chinese Chess)
Yes, this is another member of the Chess family. Xiangqi is one of the most popular games in China and is again wildly different from the other games in the Chess family. The object here is to capture the other player’s general, but of course there are many other pieces in each army meant to stop that from happening.
The board layout of Chinese Chess is very different from Western Chess. It has different zones (such as the “river”), which change the way some pieces move. Another striking difference is the fact that the pieces don’t move along the rank and file spaces. Instead they move from the intersection to intersection of the lines. This means that each space offers four spots for a piece.
This game has no promotion system, but once some pieces cross into the enemy half of the board, they do gain additional movement abilities. This game takes the scope and complexity of Chess and then multiplies it into something qualitatively different.
OK, I realize that every other game in this category has been some variant from the Chess family. In my defense, those games might have a common origin, but they are today so different that referring to them collectively as Chess games doesn’t have much practical meaning at all.
Go is not from the same family as Chess. In fact it might be the oldest game still being actively played today at 2500 years of age. The object of Go is to surround more territory than your opponent. It doesn’t have a variety of pieces like Chess, but simple black and white stones. Like Chinese Chess, these pieces are placed on the line intersections rather than within spaces. One interesting aspect of Go is the fact that board sizes can vary. Beginners can play in smaller boards until they are more proficient. The standard board size these days is 19×19.
The rules of Go are incredibly simple. Each player takes a turn to place a stone. You capture an opponent’s stone by encircling it. Unlike Chess, there is no clear ending to the game. When both players don’t see any reason to continue, the game ends and the score is tallied. This involves counting up stones and territory. The player that goes second (white) also gets a small point handicap to balance the game.
Although the rules for Go are so simple they fit into a few lines, the game itself is insanely complex, and mastering Go is a monumental achievement.
Rule Book? Try Rule Bible!
On the other side of the hardcore boardgame divide we have games that are complex not because of emergent possibility, but because they have rule books as thick as War and Peace. These games require you to act as a sophisticated computer, applying rules on the fly while also playing the game with an eye on winning. It takes a special kind of OCD player to embrace the madness these games represent, but those who love them will never let them go.
This game has a reputation for being one of the most complex board games in existence. In recent years video game versions of the title have become available and, frankly, most people will be far better off letting the computer handle the titanic rules set of EU.
There is something to be said for the majestic sight of the game in play using its analog form. The rule book has 72 pages. Then there are 52 pages of scenarios and 48 pages of annexes. You get two huge maps and a staggering 1412 game counters to use on them.
This is a game of strategy and diplomacy, spanning 300 years from 1492-1792. The full-version campaign needs six players and will take up an enormous chunk of your life, but luckily there are variations which are shorter and will work with fewer players – scaling the game down from titanic to merely hefty.
Advanced Squad Leader
This is yet another game that leads the pack when it comes to complexity. Believe it or not, it’s an attempt to make the original Squad Leader game more accessible. Although the game has a hardcore, dedicated fanbase, it’s become a bit of an in-joke among tabletop gamers. You see, ASL has a rule for EVERYTHING. If you have a question like what effect ill-fitting shoes will have on the mobility of a German soldier, there’s probably a rule in the binder to tell you. Every possible military factor seems to be included, which means players spend a lot of time simply with their nose in the rule book.
A typical game lasts between two hours to eight hours. So you better have some comfortable chairs!
Campaign for North Africa
This is another infamous game that falls into the wargame genre. It doesn’t have quite as many rules as Europe or ASL, but what it does have is a MASSIVE 10-foot map. While the rules might not be as dense, the game makes up for it with an insane amount of detail. That huge map isn’t just for show. It has to accommodate the tracking of every aircraft and pilot over the three-year span in which the campaign is set. You also have to manage ground units, supplies, and more.
This is a team-based game with a recommended five-to-a-side setup. Each person on the team has a specialized job, acting as commander of various military functions such as strategy and logistics. The game makes painstaking use of logs to keep track of every little detail.
Officially, it takes 1200 HOURS to complete a game with a full complement of 10 players. That’s 50 straight days if you don’t sleep. In practice, the game can take up to 1500 hours. This is without a doubt one of the most hardcore board games/war simulators ever made. It’s also a prized collector’s item, so don’t bargain on just going out and buying a copy.
You Don’t Have to be Mad to Work Here, But it Helps
I’m fully aware that even today tabletop fans are still a bit of a minority fringe, by which I infer that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. However, you have to admit that the games highlighted here go beyond simple entertainment.
Sure, the Chess and Chess-like games can be played casually, but it’s hard to do that when the endless emergent expanse of play possibilities beckon to you.
If you want something that’s more than just a game, this crazy collection could hold something that appeals to you.