The best places to play board games free online

There are an awful lot of board games out there; in fact, according to BoardGameGeek, more than 60,000 titles (and that’s probably a conservative estimate). Worse still, this is a golden age for board game design with a thousand or so being published every year – so how on earth do you get a handle on that?

There are some basic rules: read reviews, watch videos, play games at clubs, look at ranking on the Geek (above) etc. The best option is playing with friends – but if that’s not an option, how else can you try before you buy? Or, for the more experienced, how do you get your fix when there are no friends around?

The websites in the main section of this post will see you playing, either live or otherwise, versus real opponents – there’s no AI here, this is the real thing against real players.

Apps and computer games

Many of the more popular board and card games now have their own phone/tablet apps, while others have versions available on PCs and consoles. I’m not going to cover those here, as I intend to do a specific post on those in future, but here are a couple of lists that may be of use in the meantime:

If you have any other sources I can add to this list, please post them in the comments below – they’d be much appreciated.

The best turn-based/play-by-email board game websites

These websites allow you to create a free account and then play various board games for free through your web browser (most will work on PCs, tablets etc). Many people will play a ‘live’ game, but it’s not compulsory; many other players make a single move in each game (perhaps in a lunch break) and then log off again – then the next hour/day etc they come back and take their next move.

This is a great way to learn a new game, as you’ll always have a link to a PDF of the rules and have all the time you need to plan your every move.

  • Yucata: My personal favourite, (German, English) now boasts almost 100 board games on its roster. These range from classics such as Othello and Nine Men’s Morris; more modern classics including Carcassonne, El Grande and Stone Age, and modern favourites Hawaii, Thunderstone, Voluspa and A Few Acres of Snow. You can play ranked or unranked, with a rating system and basic chat implemented too.
  • Boite a Jeux: Equally good is (French, English, German). Again free, it also includes basic chat implementation. All games are ranked, but this is purely a matter of pride. The site has less game than Yucata (around 40) but has some absolute gems, including Agricola, Alhambra, Dixit, The Castles of Burgundy, Dungeon Petz, The Boss and Trajan. Implementations tend to be slightly fancier than at Yucata, with some more complex games.

Feel free to invite me to a game on either one – I’m ‘hairyarsenal’ on both sites. And please suggest other sites I can add to the list in comments (below).

The best live (real-time) play board game websites

If you’d rather get something closer to the real life experience, there are some equally great free websites that let you do just that. Also free to subscribe to a play on, you’ll be expected to only join a game if you intend to sit down and play it there and then, in its entirety. Not doing so will result in a loss of reputation, while slow play is also graded and will see you less likely to be accepted into created games.

For obvious reasons, this is not a good environment to learn a new game – unless you really, really like to learn the hard and humiliating way!

  • Board Game Arena: With almost 50 games online, including hot new releases, (in 24 languages!) is a fantastic site. There are usually hundreds of players online at a time, meaning you won’t have a problem getting a game, and what a choice you have: from Yahtzee and Hearts; through Race for the Galaxy, Puerto Rico and Caylus, through to Tzolk’in, Seasons and Spyrium.
  • BSW: The original and some would say still the best, (in 18 languages) has more than 40 real time play games available. There are some great classic offerings including Backgammon, Catan, Carcassonne and Tichu, plus great modern games such as Trans America, Kingsburg, Kingdom Builder and Power Grid. The Java applet feels old fashioned now, but there’s life in the old dog yet.

This isn’t a format I personally enjoy very much, but these sites seem more popular than the more sedate style ones. Each to their own – and of course, do let me know any good ones I’ve missed.

Lighter board game websites

These are sites that should appeal to even the greenist gamer, featuring very simple games as well as tutorials and varying levels of computer AI challenges, as well as sometimes including the option to play other people.

  • Happy Meeple: As well as the website linked here, Happy Meeple is also accessible via Facebook. It only currently includes five lighter abstract games, but they’re good titles – three from top designer Reiner Knizia (classic Lost Cities, plus two versions of Keltis) alongside Finito! and Level X. The AI is reasonable, you can play versus other people too, while it has a light village building element to gain various bonuses.

Single title board game websites (not real-time)

I expect there are hundreds of these; sites often set up by fans as programming projects that allow you to sign up for free and play games of one particular title. I’m going to keep this brief now, as its Friday night and I want to relax with a glass of wine, bit here are a few I’ve personally used and really enjoyed: more to follow as people point me to and recommend them!

  • Brass: Probably the finest title by one of modern board gaming’s finest designers, Martin Wallace, Brass is a real brain burner. While its a pretty dry game with an even drier theme (building canals and train tracks in northern England, anyone?) it’s also a wonder of intelligent game design. This offers a less than beautiful implementation, but more importantly it’s clear and works perfectly.
  • Diplomacy: ‘Destroying friendships since 1959’ is the boast – and its a fair one too. This classic game of deal making and breaking as you try and take over the world has been causing rows for more than 50 years – and now you can do it online through a very pleasing interface with all the bells and whistles you should need. All you need is six friends you don’t mind upsetting.
  • Through the Ages: One of my firm favourite games, Through the Ages is ace designer Vlaada Chvatil’s magnum opus; a card-driven civ game that is truly epic. This can be hard for me to get to the table, as it plays three hours plus, so it’s a perfect choice for an online implementation. This version dispenses with the layout you may be used to but works perfectly – and even has a Czech expansion.

As you can see, if you want to get your game on, there are plenty of options available. All you need to do now is send me an invite! Happy (online) gaming.

Getting back into board and card games: helpful links

I’ve put a new ‘page’ up, where I’ll be linking a series of posts about how to get back into the board and card game hobby. I’ve posted it here.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be linking a group of posts to it, which I’ve listed by title below. I’m also adding a few links here now so that if you find this post before I’ve got round to writing the full article for each section, you’ve got a head start.

  • Where to buy (on and offline)
    Online, my first port of call tends to be Board Game Guru. I will also check Amazon, mainly for special offers, and The Works as it has had some fine games at crazy cheap prices of late (but also some tat – check reviews first!).
  • Websites (to play on)
    My absolute favourite is Yucata, a play-by-mail style site where you take your turns in as many games as it’s your turn in, then log off again (or you can stay online and try to play someone real time, if they hang around long enough). Boite Jeux does the same thing just as well, but with less games and a slightly less friendly interface. Both are FREE and I’m ‘hairyarsenal’ on both.
  • Websites (for research)
    There is one ahead of al others in terms of depth of content and that’s the not helpfully titled Board Game Geek. However, it’s ridiculously daunting for a new visitor and not very user friendly (there is  revamp of the site ongoing though – fingers crossed).
  • Podcasts
    There is a surprisingly large amount of good board game podcasts, but I think two stand out for newer gamers because they tend to talk a lot about simpler and popular/newer titles in an accessible way. These are The Dice Tower and The Spiel. Both are also on iTunes.
  • Smartphone, console and tablet apps
    Some of the bigger games that are great for getting people back into playing tabletop games have amazing online versions and apps. Whatever your console, phone or home computer you should be able to find Settles of CatanCarcassonne, or Ticket to Ride. All on on Xbox, Apple and Android devices for a small fee, while Catan and Carcassonne are both on BlackBerry too.
  • Video channels
    Definitely check out the new premium (but free) YouTube show TableTop, with Wil Wheaton. For individual game reviews, once again The Dice Tower is great has it seems to review the most games; but my favourite are the reviews of UvulaBob are my favourite, as they’re always genuinely funny.
  • A great game to start with per genre
    I won’t go here yet, although the three titles above under ‘Smartphone, console and tablet apps’ are a good starting point for the hobby in general: they’re really big sellers, have stood the test of time and I’d expect the majority of board gamers had one of these help them get back into the hobby.

If you found a particular game or resource helped get you back into the hobby, I’d love to hear about it.