As we shut ourselves inside and try to find things to do, many have turned to the world of tabletop gaming to find comfort and distraction (and something to do that scratches that social itch in the era of social distancing). But if you’re looking to pick up another board game (or six), you might as well justify it to yourself by saying...you’re getting them as art pieces?
We’ve given you tons of recommendations for games to play alone, in groups, online, or even just ideas for gaming-adjacent reads. But if you’re looking for a game to pick up that’s both great to play and great to just gawp at, here are a few of our favorite sci-fi and fantasy board games that have us smooshing our faces up against the box in adoration.
You probably shouldn’t do that unless you’re planning to wipe them down afterward, though.
The sheer amount of information splatted on the board itself might, for the uninitiated, throw you off with its intimidating color-coded miasma the first few times you play Scythe. But it says a lot that you can overlook that on the sheer strength of the art that powers its steampunky mecha world of industrial firepower clashing against agrarian beauty.
Artist: Jakub Rozalski
A game of supernatural mediums encountering ghosts in the glitz and glamor of the roaring ‘20s, Mysterium is driven by its minimalist, image-focused design. So it’s good news that the cards are gorgeous to behold, representing the abstract, haunting, and frequently beautiful visions of the beyond your team of mediums have to interpret.
Artists: Igor Burlakov, Xavier Collette, Oleksandr Nevskiy, and Oleg Sidorenko
The normal edition of King of Tokyo is a colorful, comical explosion befitting its loving homage to kaiju movies, full of bright and kooky monster designs. Paul Mafayon’s art in this collector’s release, however, is stark, haunting, and downright gorgeous, with minimal color being deployed against a spartan, almost greyscale look.
Artist: Paul Mafayon
You would expect a collaboration between Restoration Games and the noted lovers of art at Mondo to be gorgeous. But god, Unmatched—a miniatures combat game that mashes together public domain legends like King Arthur or Sinbad against Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) or Medusa, with Mondo’s licensed might sprinkling in expansions featuring the likes of Bruce Lee and Jurassic Park’s raptors!—is incredible to behold. The models themselves are simple but aided by a stark ink wash that elevates them despite being otherwise unpainted. You’re here for the decks that drive each character’s abilities, though.
Artists: Oliver Barrett
Planetarium’s universe of planetary-shaping elements is aided by some suitably spacey card art, but what really shines is its stunningly rich, yet minimalist board, a spherical spiral representing orbiting paths of a newborn star your planetoids are orbiting. It’s spartan but effective.
Artists: Dann May and Greg May
An esoteric collaborative storytelling game, Fall of Magic makes for an incredible social experience simply by how much of it is driven by what you and your fellow travelers put into it. But just look at that cloth scroll. That’s the “board” that charts your journey, slowly being unfurled as your story progresses, the canvas for you to put your equally beautifully crafted tokens on.
Artists: Taylor Dow and Doug Keith
Space Park is a game with few pieces, but each of those pieces is truly sublime. The retro-rocketship player tokens look great as they are out of the box but if you’re a dab hand with a brush, they can be customized to your own liking. Also, the faux-retro destination posters representing the interstellar locals your rocket is landing on in its mission of exploration are just perfect.
Artist: Brian Edward Miller
Root made waves for its adorable take on fantastical animal warfare, and for good reason: Just look at it. From the wooden pieces depicting your fuzzy, anthropomorphic armies to the sumptuous board, it’s like you’re playing a fantasy storybook come to life. I don’t know what else to say. Look at it!!!!
Artist: Kyle Ferrin
Space is beautiful. It’s also so incomprehensibly vast and full of the unknown that trying to contemplate that beauty can be frightening and intimidating in equal measure. High Frontier’s massive board redesign in its recent third edition captures that strange mix of feelings perfectly, depicting its ginormous complex playing field of the galaxy atop a backdrop of warm tones.
Artists: Phil Eklund, Antonio Pinar, and Nick Stevens
Inspired by Celtic folklore, Inis is a game of strategy that plays out on a truly striking board, not just beautiful for the art on each tile that is laid out to form a new landmass to vie for control over every game, but for each loosely triangular piece’s jagged, puzzle-like edges to slot into each other. If that wasn’t enough, the cards you draw to play are likewise bursting with vivid, Celtic-inspired art.
Artists: Dimitri Bielak and Jim Fitzpatrick
The original Dune is an icon of board games, and known for being almost overwhelmingly intimidating as much as for its jaw-droppingly addictive mechanics of deception and strategy that root you right into the political games of Frank Herbert’s classic story. Gale Force 9's recent release maintains the mechanical depth and intrigue that has made Dune an icon, but it does so in a strikingly pretty package too, minimalist yet sprawling.
Artist: Ilya Baranovsky
Quacks’ cartoony medieval fantasy art may not be for everyone, but there’s something purely gleeful about its silly aesthetic as you attempt to mix lavish potions without poisoning or blowing yourself up in the process. It helps that each player board depicting your swirling, bubbling potion pot and your bag of tokens to shuffle about it lends a great, manic tactile vibe to the game, too.
Artists: Dennis Lohausen and Wolfgang Warsch
Like several of the sci-fi board games on this list, Sol finds beauty in spherical design. In this case, it’s the vivid, burning embers of a dying sun that your players orbit at they attempt to harvest data that could let them flee the solar system before said sun goes supernova. It’s a beautiful, tragic field to play your game out on, and really effective theming.
Artist: Jon Mietling
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