8 of the best historical board games for history lovers
Move over, Monopoly! For history fans, there are plenty of board games that use the past for inspiration, from quick card games to multi-hour, world-saving epics. Here are eight that we've enjoyed the most
Much like the best history books, board games can take you pretty much anywhere in history – from ancient Greece and the Roman empire all the way through to the Cold War – if you look beyond the (un)holy triumvirate of Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk.
With the festive season approaching and the prospect of even more time indoors, we've picked out some of the historically themed modern board games we've enjoyed the most, so you don't have to resort to backgammon (unless you like the idea of ancient board games, in which case, definitely check out backgammon).
2+ players, ages 8+
A simple concept, in equal measure fiendish and frustrating, Timeline is all about historic dates and whether you can place notable events from the past in context.
There’s no board with this one, just cards, each of which is double sided. On one side is a notable moment in history – a royal birth perhaps, or a discovery, an invention or a turning point. On the other side is the same event, this time with the date it happened.
Each player is dealt a hand of cards so that the dates can’t be seen, and then each in turn places on card into the communal ‘timeline’ where they think that event happened. First to successfully place all of their cards wins.
This simple premise belies that placing your cards is as much about intuition as it is about knowledge. It’s all well and good when you have cards about history’s big hitters, like the battle of Hastings or the night of the gunpowder plot, but how confident are you about when the pencil sharpener was invented, or whether that happened before or after Brits started eating potatoes?
The answers, when you do flip over a card to see if you are right, are often startling. Expect Monopoly-worthy groaning but without the board flipping.
Pandemic: Fall of Rome
1–5 players, ages 8+
If the background to Z-Man Games’ popular, pestilence-themed Pandemic feels a bit too close to home in this coronavirus world, good news: you can enjoy almost identical player-vs-the-board mechanics in the rather more escapist Pandemic: Fall of Rome.
Whereas Pandemic has you flitting around the world, snuffing out four unnamed nasties as woefully virulent as the Spanish Flu and the Black Death, all while hunting for their vaccines, this time the action is limited to Europe, where the Roman empire is beset by five ‘barbarian’ tribes.
Each player takes on an individual role that confers a special ability – for instance the consul, one of the key figures in the Roman republic, can almost conjure up legions – but your collective aim remains the same: work together to quell rebellions (while hoping to avoid any losses as dire as Teutoberg Forest), until you can either annihilate the ‘barbarians’ or forge alliances with them by collecting the requisite cards.
As with the original, it is far easier to lose than it is to win, either because you run out of cards in the main deck or repeated ‘sackings’ – where a city is overwhelmed – cause the empire to decline so precipitously it brings about the fall of Rome. With some irony, considering ancient Rome has been laid to waste several times, you also lose automatically if the Eternal City is sacked.
2–5 players, ages 13+
Set in the time of the ancient Greeks, Cyclades is a civilisation-building game that sees up to five factions fighting for territory, with the winner being the first to build (or conquer) two metropolises.
It takes place with the Aegean island group of the same name, though it draws less inspiration from the Peloponnesian War (the multi-decade conflict between the city states of Athens and Sparta, which spilled over into much of the region) and more from the pantheon of mythology.
Playing to the trope that the ancient Greek gods were more capricious than they were benevolent (just consider how they partisan they were believed to have been in the Trojan War), each round sees players outbidding each other to make the best offering to their chosen god and win his/her favour. Which is ultimately important because each god lets you build a different structure for your metropolis.
To make things even more chaotic, you can wreak havoc by summoning a number of creatures from the mythological bestiary, including Medusa, the Minotaur and a sphinx.
2–8 players, ages 14+
Quick, simple and addictive, Chronology is another game to test your knowledge of dates and events. In contrast to the Timeline series of games (above), in this case you use your knowledge to build your own timeline of cards, rather than contributing to a group one.
Players take turns to read details of an event to another player – some are more obscure than others, which can sometimes be a little frustrating, though most can be worked out with some context! If the player guesses correctly where the event occurs in their timeline (ie was Magna Carta sealed before or after the Great Fire of London?) they earn the card. If the first player fails to guess correctly where the card fits, another player gets the chance to guess correctly and earn it, and so on. First to complete their timeline wins.
Plan B Games
2–4 players, ages 8+
Azul is a game based upon the tiles that decorated the palaces such as the Alhambra (from which a young Catherine of Aragon penned love letters to her bethrothed, Prince Arthur Tudor) in Southern Spain. Each player – assuming the role of a tile-laying artist – places tiles to decorate the Royal Palace of Évora, a former royal residence of the kings of Portugal, with the various patterns earning points.
In terms of historical knowledge, you won’t need any to play, but Azul is a beautifully designed package that transports players into the grand palaces of Moorish design, with the small playing pieces echoing the azulejos (decorated ceramic tiles) that entranced Portuguese king Manuel I in the 15th century.
2–4 players, ages 10+
Another in the list that needs little historical knowledge to play, this strategic gem-and-card acquisition game has players assume the roles of merchants in an unspecified location during the Renaissance.
During your turns, you aim to acquire wealth through gem mines, shops and transportation (though these elements are largely visual, and not as important as the gem values shown on the cards).
While the action might start off slowly as players eye up the offerings on the board, the game quickly ramps up as coins accumulate and players can afford to spend on bigger value cards. A fun mixture of luck and strategy that has endless variations.
2 players, ages 14+
First things first – if you’re after a casual party game or something to mindlessly pass the time while watching Strictly, then you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’ve got four hours set aside, a suitably competitive opponent and the willingness to tackle an extraordinarily long instruction manual, then this epic battle for Cold War global dominance sure is engrossing (and infuriating in equal measure).
In this elaborately plotted war of attrition between capitalism and communism, one player takes on the role of America, their opponent the USSR. The game unfolds in three sessions – early, mid and late war – progressing as the players each draw cards invoking events of the Cold War, from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the formation of NATO to Flower Power and Nixon’s visit to China.
The competitors attempt to spread their influence across the globe, on a board very reminiscent of Risk, through exacting political influence or instigating military coups. It’s a game where there’s a hundred different ways to win (don’t forget about the Space Race!) and just when you think you’re racing ahead, your whole plan could be about to come crashing down.
All the while, the DEFCON level is degrading, threatening mutually assured destruction. That’s if one of you doesn’t flip the board over in anger first…
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
1–8 players, ages 13+
Delve into the murky underworld of Victorian London with this co-operative game that takes inspiration from the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. In each game, you are presented with a mystery to solve: who murdered two lions in Hyde Park? Who stole paintings from the National Gallery? Who murdered Oswald Mason – and what was their motive? Working either alone or with friends, you will embroil yourself in the intricacies of each case before setting about to solve it. Along the way you will interview suspects, explore various locations in 19th-century London, and scour numerous newspapers, maps and phonebooks for evidence and contacts that may help you solve the case (beware the many red herrings!)
This is not a board game in the traditional sense; there is no dice and no board. If you’re old enough to remember the ‘choose-your-own’ adventure books that were popular in the 80s and 90s, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective employs a similar principle. There is a fair amount of reading required as you get to grips with the details of each mystery and the characters involved, and your decisions about which leads and clues to follow will have a direct impact on how the story develop. Wherever your detective instincts take you, this game will test your deduction and logic while providing an enriching Holmesian tale. The game developers reportedly conducted extensive historical research to give the game an authentic feel – and the results speak for themselves.
There are a number of different versions of the game: The Thames Murders & Other Cases, Carlton House & Queen’s Park, Jack the Ripper and The Baker Street Irregulars. An immersive experience for those wanting to play either alone or with friends.
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in December 2020