Best cooperative board games for 2020 – CNET

Between a pandemic, political controversy and general holiday-season stress, many families have enough friction to heat a house in winter. So why add to the conflict with competitive board games? Luckily, a growing number of games are purely cooperative. Players band together to overcome other obstacles, whether that’s a time limit, like in Magic Maze, or an evil sorcerer or dragon, like in Gloomhaven.

If you’re looking for the perfect games to keep the holidays fun and the family happy, these board games are the best around.

Read more: Best 2-player board games for the 2020 holidays

Sit Down! Games

Magic Maze is about four wizards shoplifting from a mall, while trying to avoid being caught. But two problems get in the way of a simple escape. First, players can’t talk. And second, players don’t control individual wizards; they control individual movements. For example, I might be able to make any wizard “turn left” and my wife might be able to make any wizard “walk forward.” But if I’m not paying attention to a wizard facing the wrong direction, the whole caper can go awry.

Players aren’t without any form of communication, though. A single pawn is allowed to be passed around, though its meaning is fluid. It could mean a player needs to pay attention to a wizard one moment, or perhaps they need to stop moving so someone else can take over. It’s a clever dynamic that’ll stop your family from talking for 30 minutes, only to have them discussing the cooperative victory for hours afterward.

Greater Than Games

Spirit Island twists colonizing games on their head. You play the role of magic spirits and your job is to work with the native population to fend off the colonizers who would inevitably destroy the land. A fresh take on an old theme aside, Spirit Island builds tension well as your powers grow and the colonizers move across the land. You need to work together with other players as you only have so much energy to spend each turn.

Spirit Island includes a few different scenarios with variable enemy behaviors and increasing difficulty to keep the game feeling fresh. Plus, the different spirits have distinct abilities and play styles so you can continually find a new way to play with teammates. The learning curve on Spirit Island is a little steep, but once you’re familiar, most of the rules are intuitive and you can focus on unleashing the full power of your spirit on those dastardly invaders. – Andrew Gebhart

Czech Games

In Letter Jam, players receive a series of cards with letters on them, but they cannot see which letters. Instead, everyone sets up a stand facing away from them, so their teammates can see what they have. Then, over the course of the game, players take turn spelling words with the letters they can see, forcing other players to guess their own letters through a clever game of deduction.

For word lovers, this is a great game with endless replayability. And you get to show off your verbosity, to boot.

Dan Ackerman

Mansions of Madness was one of the first board games I truly fell in love with. I always gravitated toward Clue, growing up, and then I found this complex, narrative-driven, Lovecraft-inspired mystery game that comes with a booklet of varied narratives to play. The problem was, the first edition of Mansions of Madness required intense setup and one player had to be “the keeper,” a sort of dungeon master playing against everyone else. Now, however, with the game’s second edition, players can cooperate in every mission with an app filling the role of the keeper. Whether you’re investigating a disappearance in an old mansion or interrogating townspeople to find the one is secretly attempting to summon an ancient evil, Mansions of Madness remains one of the best mystery games ever released — and yes, I think it tops Clue.

Plaid Hat Games

The best zombie movies have one thing in common: The biggest threat comes from the other humans. Zombies just serve to bring that distrust to the forefront. Dead of Winter nails this dynamic. It’s a zombie game in which you work together to head out into town, gather supplies and defend your colony against the growing hordes of undead looking for a snack. You’re constantly faced with tough decisions about how best to use your resources. Do you use that fuel you just found to keep yourself safe while you’re traveling or add it to bolster the dwindling defense of the town? You control a couple of villagers with unique abilities, but one wrong step could send any of them to their doom. On top of all of that, you need to constantly look at your fellow players with a suspicious eye. Everyone has a secret objective that they need to accomplish, but one person in the group might be an outright traitor. The result is a wonderfully tense battle in which you’re paying close attention to everyone’s turn to look for that telltale sign of betrayal, while doing your best to keep your own underhanded intentions hidden. – Andrew Gebhart

Dan Ackerman

We’ve written extensively about Gloomhaven already, and for good reason: it’s one of the best board games to fuse RPG elements, dungeon crawling and classic board game mechanics. You and your friends or family can pour well over a hundred hours into Gloomhaven, exploring a vast world and unlocking nearly two dozen playable characters — each with impressively deep skill development. And it’s all facilitated by a game made of cardboard and paper. Of course, if you add the app, it makes the gameplay even smoother than before. And if you really want to play the most accessible version, it’s worth checking out Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, which gives a well-written and accessible taste of the full game’s rich world to players hesitant to commit to such a massive game.

Space Cowboys

If you think a huge game like Gloomhaven might be a bit much for a week or two of vacation, an episodic narrative game like Time Stories might be more up your alley. 

Time Stories is a wonder of a game. With a simple deck of cards, the game catapults you across dimensions and spacetime, guides you through beautifully rendered settings and brings you face-to-face with Lovecraftian monsters — and that’s just in the first campaign.

In Time Stories, players investigate mysteries in settings ranging from ancient Egypt to zombie-infested suburbs. The stories change with your decisions, and your ability to solve the given mystery depends on your cooperation with teammates, your problem-solving skills and your ability to adapt to new elements introduced on the fly by the game.

Time Stories isn’t perfect: you can find plenty of chat boards online with fans debating which stories are best, and which could have been better balanced. But even small unbalances ultimately stem from the game’s massive ambition, and it’s hard not to feel swept up by that ambition every time you sit down to play.

For more great games, check out our favorite board games to gift to friends and family this holiday, the best two-player board games for the year and the best family games for the holidays.