Modern board games are great, but they are not cheap. In some ways it's a miracle of global supply chains that they don’t cost even more than they do - shipping pallets of big, heavy boxes all over the world, filled with hundreds of perfectly-machined and printed components is not an easy business to be in.
Still, when “board game curious” audiences see that the ever-popular Gloomhaven is $100, the well-liked Pandemic Legacy is $60, and buzzy Terraforming Mars is $55, it may turn them off from the hobby entirely. All three games are worth their asking price, but that’s a lot for someone to drop on a product they may not even like.
Luckily there’s a wide variety of excellent games with a much lower barrier to entry. Importantly, these games are not cheaply made or full of cut corners. Some games demand the inclusion of expensive components and multiple decks of cards to fulfill that game’s vision. And other games don’t. I’ve never once felt short-changed by Codenames or Kingdomino and wished they contained “more.” They’re perfectly-sized just as they are.
In fact, when I first had this price point in mind, I was concerned I may have set it too low. Were there enough good $20 and below picks? Maybe I needed to set the bar at $25 or $30. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of my favorites from the last several years fall into this price range!
With that in mind below are my picks, in no particular order, for the best board games you can buy for under $20.
Kingdomino - $20
Kingdomino won a prestigious board game of the year award, and for good reason. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t enjoy it. Build a mini kingdom using domino matching rules, competing with your fellow players to always keep the perfect piece for yourself.
Codenames - $11
Codenames might be the greatest word game ever devised. You must give one-word clues that match multiple words on the board. What single-word clue would you give to connect shark, tree, and diamond? Hmmm….
The Crew - $15
The Crew is a trick-taking game like Bridge or Spades, but instead of competing, all players are working together to complete each mission and win. With limited table talk allowed, you have to try to communicate to your teammates what cards you have and what you should play next.
Cartographers - $21
Using pencil-and-paper, create the map of a land of trees, rivers, farms, and towns. The trick is that you have to fit these Tetris-like shapes into your map as efficiently as possible. It’s relaxing and fun just building out your map. The thrill of a perfectly-shaped piece being flipped over to be added next is just an added bonus.
Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza - $10
A perfect pick for kids, but less relevant for adults. A very simple party game I’m including here because I think this the single greatest value-for-$$ purchase I’ve personally ever made. My young kids ask to play almost every night!
Button Shy Games - $12
Button Shy Games has an entire line of “wallet games” for sale for $12. Even though the games consist of just a few cards they all punch above their weight. City builder Sprawlopolis is widely considered the best (and is my favorite of the ones I’ve played) but lots of other options are also very appealing.
Monopoly Deal - $5
Don’t laugh. Often found online for literally $5-$6, Monopoly Deal is a card game that fixes everything wrong with Monopoly. It’s very fast-playing, with rounds lasting only 15 minutes. Play cards to steal properties from your opponents, wheel and deal…. Monopoly Deal is a surprisingly fun casual game.
Resistance / Avalon / Werewolf - $20
Anyone that ever has people over should spend $20 to have a social deduction game like Werewolf, Resistance, or Avalon on their shelf. You draw a card that tells you what your secret role is. If you’re your group’s traitor, you have to do everything in your power to convince the other players the traitor is actually someone else. Trust no one!
Silver and Gold - $13
A fast-playing game that requires players to fit Tetris-like shapes into a space as efficiently as possible. One of the most-played games in our house from the last several years thanks to its ~20 minute play time and fast setup.
Star Realms - $12
I almost didn’t include Star Realms because it has a billion expansions that drive up the price. But the ultra-cheap base set is still a very well made, satisfying deck building game. Both players start with the same basic deck and buy more and more powerful cards to add into and customize their decks in an attempt to get the upper hand.
Sushi Go Party - $22
Probably the best casual card drafting game ever made. You have a hand of cards and pick one to start building the highest-scoring sushi platter you can. After you pick, you hand the cards to the player next to you, and you get handed another set of cards in turn. Everyone keeps passing until all the cards are used.
Love Letter - $11
Can you get your love letter into the hands of the princess before the other suitors? Love Letter is the ultimate distilled-down game of deduction. Rounds last just a couple minutes, but are always full of dramatic twists and turns.
Well-Liked Options I Haven’t Played
As usual, I’ve played a lot of board games, but not all of them. Yet. These are further options with great user reviews and great overall reputations that I don’t have firsthand experience with:
Hanabi - $9
Another game of the year winner. You play with your cards backwards. You can see everyone else’s hand of cards… but not your own. Work together to play the right cards in the right sequence.
Targi - $20
High strategy, low luck, low conflict strategy game for two. A somewhat rare combination of characteristics.
That’s Pretty Clever - $20
A dice-rolling game a little bit like Yahtzee, but more clever and involved. Roll dice to trigger scoring opportunities and combos. One wrinkle: Any dice you roll and don’t use your opponents get to have to score points with on their own.
Just One - $20
From the game description: a cooperative party game in which you work together to discover as many mystery words as possible. Find the best clue to help your teammate.
Hive Pocket - $18
Hive has been around since 2000, but has been having a breakthrough moment the last few years. A chess-like 1 vs. 1 game where you place hexagonal pieces to surround your opponent’s queen. Each piece (each different bug) has its own rules on how it can move.
Arboretum - $18
I’m not too familiar with Arboretum but I love the beautiful, eye-catching cards. Looking at the rules, it looks like a clever card drafting game with a compelling, relaxing theme.
Any other inexpensive board games you love? Leave further suggestions in the comments!
Kingdomino is so satisfying and has such great push-pull mechanics from turn to turn.
I thought Codewords was fun but my wife despised it and put it into the Goodwill box the very next day.