Top 10 Best Sci-Fi Board Games
For this week’s Roll the List, we’ll be discussing our top ten science fiction board games. The beauty of science fiction is that it encompasses an incredibly broad range of settings. For the purposes of my list, I’ll be going with Robert A. Heinlein’s definition:
“Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of ‘almost all’) it is necessary only to strike out the word ‘future.'”
Since that leaves this pretty open, my list varies from spaceships to zombies and everything in between. If you need a science fiction game to check out, these are my favorites!
- Forbidden Desert
Forbidden Desert is a steampunk adventure game in which adventurers have crashed their legendary flying machine in a desert and must find all the pieces of their ship and repair it before the desert storms bury them alive. Forbidden Desert is fully cooperative and each player is given an adventurer who has a special power that can be used to aid the team. During each turn, players will be given three actions that they can use to move around the board to try to find clues about where the ship parts are located, clear sand by excavating. Players must be careful however that they don’t find themselves trapped out in the sand with no water or the desert will claim another victim. As the turns pass, the storms ratchet up in intensity and it becomes a race for survival against the sand.
It’s admittedly a bit of a stretch to include Forbidden Desert in here but given that it involves a steampunk flying machine, I’m counting it anyway. I’m a huge fan of cooperative games because I honestly don’t think there’s any better way to hang out with friends than playing board games. Forbidden Desert has been voted as one of the best kids games but make no mistake, it can be punishing. If the adventurers don’t work together with a plan, they’ll end up buried alive and the constant storms can get brutal. The dangers of Forbidden Desert make it an exciting adventure that’s difficult to put down.
- King of New York
I will admit that I am easily entertained. I will happily watch movie monsters battle it out for hours of entertainment and King of New York appeals to the little kid in me that loves that. King of New York has players picking over-the-top movie monsters whose goal is to rampage through New York City and fight both the Army and each other for dominance of the city. Each turn, players will put their monster in one of the boroughs of NYC and roll six-sided dice that determine how many buildings or other monsters they may attack, any health that they can recover and the amount of fame that they can use to purchase upgrades for their monsters. The goal of the game is to either defeat all other monsters through battle or to gain fame by controlling Manhattan long enough to reach legendary monster status (basically gaining Godzilla-like name recognition).
King of Tokyo is not a gain of immense strategy, it’s all chance and risk because your monster’s survival may depend entirely on how well your opponents roll. For this reason, it isn’t everyone’s favorite game. But if you want to have epic monster battles with your friends, there are few games that give you the entertainment and mayhem that King of New York does.
- Specter Ops
Nazca Games & Plaid Hat Games
Specter Ops is a fun, futuristic corporate espionage game that pits one player as a rogue agent against a team of genetically modified hunters who must prevent the agent from stealing company secrets. The agent’s player is invisible and has a number of powers to aid in escaping detection while each of the hunter’s has abilities that will aid the team in tracking the agent down. The agent keeps track of his/her movements via a private map and the hunters must use their characters’ abilities to set traps based on where they believe the agent will be.
Specter Ops is an epic game of cat and mouse that gets even more challenging the greater the number of players. There is a betrayal mechanic where one hunter is secretly on the side of the hunter if you get enough people to play and this can make the game even more difficult. It requires a great deal of strategy and teamwork to find and eliminate the agent before he/she escapes but the exhilaration in doing so more than makes up for the difficulty.
- Arctic Scavengers
Rio Grande Games
Arctic Scavengers is a deckbuilding game that takes place in 2097 when climate change has resulted in the Earth being plunged into a new ice age. Each player leads a tribe of survivors and must build their pools of resources and allies in order to build the largest tribe and secure victory. Similar to many other deck builders, players will start with a small group of tribal members and uses resources like medicine, food and tools to draft stronger survivors and eliminate the competition. Each round, players may contribute cards towards a contested resource which, if won, can help their tribe become the biggest. However, putting resources towards this big fight can be costly if your tribe doesn’t come out on top for that round.
What makes Arctic Scavengers great is that there isn’t one way to victory. Each player must decide what they want to focus on between hunting, scavenging or battling the other players and different strategies can pay dividends depending on the group. You can even bluff your way through the battles for contested resources by convincing other players not to bother fighting for them. It’s also very thematic and really makes each game feel like a post-apocalyptic struggle for survival against each other and the wasteland.
- Forbidden Stars
Fantasy Flight Games
Forbidden Stars is set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with the long lost Herakon Cluster finally being open to domination by the various races after years of being hidden by warp storms. Up to four players pick from the factions: the Ultramarines chapter of Space Marines, the Eldar of Craftworld Iyanden, the Evil Sunz Ork clan, or the World Eaters Warband of the Chaos Space Marines. Players must navigate the warp storms which change every round as well as fighting to win the objective tokens for their faction. Whoever gains their objective tokens first will win the Herakon Cluster. Since the objective tokens are placed by the other players, you will need to build massive armies and resources in order to take the planets which hold your objectives and which are likely to be defended by at least one of the other players.
What creates the strategy and challenge of Forbidden Stars is the three phase structure of each round. In the Planning phase, each player places order tokens in turn order face down on the planets in which they intend to gather resources or fight and the orders will occur from the top down. This means that players can block each other from completing their orders in the way they’d like and ensure their own victory. In the Operations phase, the order tokens are revealed in order and are resolved. And then in the final Refresh phase, players gain resources from those places they control and the units they have there. I’m generally not a huge fan of strategic war games so the first time I played this game I felt a bit intimidated. Thankfully, Forbidden Stars does a fantastic job balancing bluffing and tactical and diplomatic planning so that it never feels overwhelming and gives players the ability to advance their armies by building better units. It’s one of the few strategy games that I would universally recommend and one I’d happily play anytime.
- Android: Netrunner
Fantasy Flight Games
I’m stretching the definition of board games to include my favorite cyberpunk game because Android: Netrunner belongs to the Living Card Game genre rather than strict board games. Given that we’re talking about science fiction games though, it’d be a crime not to include this one. Netrunner is the game which introduced me to the cyberpunk genres and forever will be a favorite because of that. Netrunner is a futuristic cyberpunk game which pits one player as the hacker or “Runner” against the other player who is controlling the Corporation. Each player builds a deck of cards which contain different abilities that will allow them to complete objectives. The Runner’s goal is to steal objective cards from the Corporation by hacking into their systems via “runs” on them. The Corporation’s goal is to prevent the Runner from stealing objectives long enough to either score their own or take out the Runner via other means.
Given the recent news about corrupt companies gaming the system, Netrunner perfectly plays to the theme of the lone hacker against the corporate machine and gives players a number of options when choosing which type of Runner or Corporation deck they want to build. Each type has its own strengths and weaknesses and as an LCG, there’s no randomness involved. Getting the core set and then any additional data packs will always give you the same cards and it’s up to the player to determine how they want to structure their deck. The game involves a lot of risk vs reward choices and requires a lot of bluffing and strategic play on both sides. Few games so perfectly align with their theme and Netrunner is a game that any fan of hacker or cyberpunk themes should pick up immediately.
- Star Wars: Imperial Assault
Fantasy Flight Games
The beautiful thing about being a Star Wars fan is that these days it’s omnipresent. Best of all, Fantasy Flight has given us Imperial Assault, a strategic board game for 2-5 players which pits the Imperials and the Rebels against each other in strategic battles to see who will emerge victorious. There are two modes to the game: campaign and skirmish. In the campaign mode, one player controls the Imperial forces and the other players control an elite squad of Rebel operatives attempting to break the Empire’s hold on different objectives and planets. As the campaign progresses, each side gains experience and abilities as they win or lose battles and really makes it feel like a new Star Wars story to obsess over. The Skirmish mode offers a direct, head-to-head combat experience for two players with one as the Empire and the other as the Rebellion. Both modes incorporate tiles specific to the battle and a number of miniatures which they use to navigate and fight through the spaces.
Given the current popularity of the Star Wars universe, it isn’t surprising that there are a number of games out there for fans. None of them come close to Imperial Assault in terms of capturing the epic, galactic feel of the universe. I fell in love with the campaign mode of the game the very first time I played it, despite the fact that it can be downright brutal to play as the Rebellion. Given that the Imperials control almost limitless resources, Rebel players must work together to overcome the challenges that the Imperials will throw at them and win a hard fought victory. If you love Star Wars, Imperial Assault is absolutely a must-play!
- Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
Dead of Winter is the ultimate zombie game. I know some people probably don’t consider zombies to be science fiction but given that it’s a potential future for us, I’m counting it as such. Dead of Winter is a board game for 2-5 players and set in a zombie apocalypse in which survivors are battling not only the zombies but also each other for survival. At the start of the game, players select a scenario they need to complete and these vary from just eliminating zombies in the area to gathering certain items to working on a cure for the zombie plague. Each scenario gives the survivor a certain number of rounds that they must complete the objectives in and a morale tracker. If the morale ever drops to zero, the survivors lose. Each player also has a secret objective that they receive at the start of the game and must complete in order to win. If the survivors win but you don’t complete your secret objective, you still lose the game. And as if this didn’t make things hard enough, there is also a chance that one of the other players is a traitor. The traitor has their own secret objective that incorporates having the other players lose but also has some other element that they must complete. Dead of Winter is often brutally difficult for the non-traitor players and they must work together while still being selfish enough to complete their own objectives.
Zombies are currently just about everyone’s favorite monster and there are a number of games out there that appeal to any zombie lover. However, none of them hold a candle to Dead of Winter. This game truly captures the desperate struggle for survival that you would expect and exacerbates it by giving each player motivation to look out for themselves above all. While other zombie games might give you the terror of zombies and the thrill of running or destroying them, only Dead of Winter pits you against the other players and your own self-preservation instincts as much as the zombies.
- Battlestar Gallactica
Fantasy Flight Games
Battlestar Gallactica is the game of intrigue and betrayal that started it all for me. This board game is based off of the remake of the old sci-fi show and it feels literally just like it. Fantasy Flight knows how to capture the feel of a theme better than just about any game company I’ve seen. For those who haven’t seen the show, Battlestar takes place on giant ships that are that’s left of humanity. After creating a race of artificially intelligent machines named Cylons which then decided they weren’t too keen on being slaves to humanity, humans are in a desperate struggle to survive against machines that look just like them. The players each select a character from the show to play as and at the beginning are given a role of either Cylon (machine) or human. After each person’s turn, there will be a crisis which must be resolved and all players can contribute cards and resources to. These are contributed face down so that any Cylon players can secretly screw over the humans. The human players must find the Cylons before everything goes wrong. What makes it even tougher is that the potential for another Cylon occurs halfway through the game. This atmosphere of betrayal turns players against each other and makes you question everyone’s motives. It perfectly captures the feel of the show as only FFG can.
As the game that got me into playing board games, Battlestar will always have a special place in my heart. It’s a game that I’d only play with close friends and people that I know won’t freak out if things go wrong because Murphy’s Law absolutely rules this game. You can never trust anyone’s motives but the terror and excitement of it make Battlestar an incredibly fun game to play. If you can handle games that test your relationships, Battlestar is one of the very best out there.
Gale Force 9
Anyone who knows me had to know that Firefly would be number one on this list. Firefly based on a television show of the same name, Joss Whedon’s western/science fiction cult favorite and the follow-up movie, Serenity. The base game supports 1-4 players but each expansion adds another ship and the ability for another player. Each player controls a ship and a captain, all of whom are characters from the show. Then the players can select a scenario to complete and these vary widely. Each scenario will have objectives for the players to race to complete and often this includes doing jobs for various groups from the show in order to earn money and crew members and special abilities. It’s a competitive game that perfectly captures the feel of the show and honestly what’s most brilliant about it is that many of the scenarios feel like they could be episodes to a show that never got to tell all its stories.
I will admit that part of my love for this game comes from my intense love of/obsession with the show. Firefly is a cult favorite for a reason and the greatest thing about the game is how much it feels like the show. Not only are the characters pulled from it, but it does an excellent job of making you feel attached to your crew and worried about both the Alliance and the nasty, murderous Reavers causing problems for you. Before the Blue Sun expansion, the game lacked the terror that dominated the show and the movie anytime the Reavers showed up. But now that they’ve given us all these expansions, it truly feels like the most amazing space epic. I loved all the games on my list but Firefly is the one that I could play for hours on end and never get tired of. It will always be my favorite board game.
And that’s my list! Hope you enjoyed it and that I’ve convinced you to give any of these brilliant games a try. As always, I’d love to hear your favorites and check out Kyle’s list too!