As the title says, these are our picks for the best mass-market games from yesteryear. By mass-market we just mean that these games have all been marketed to the general public, and not specifically to board game or other tabletop game hobbyists. These are the sorts of games that could be found in the toy section of Target or the board game section of Toys ‘R Us before those stores started carrying some light Eurogames. By yesteryear we mean games that have been around a while. The newest game on this list is 11 years old, and its a lot younger than any of the others. We’ve also limited ourselves to one party game since party games that are worth buying deserve a top ten list of their own.
Consider this a what’s hot guide for
the next time you go garage saling or stop at a thrift store. A lot
of the games on this list can be picked up for a couple dollars
secondhand if you’re lucky.
Like many old board games, most of Careers' gameplay is centered around its roll-and-move mechanic. Unlike those other board games, Careers is frickin' awesome. People who get into board gaming as a hobby as teens or adults tend to shun and snob all the classic board games they played as kids. Careers is the exception to that trend. It's a game that even the biggest Eurogame fans and the most intense grognards still usually talk about affectionately. It's just that good. The best description I've ever heard of Careers is that it's like the Game of Life, if the Game of Life didn't suck and was fun to play.
In Careers you start by choosing your life goals. You have 60 points to distribute across money, fame, and happiness. You can go for a balanced life and put 20 in each, or you can be all about the Benjamins and put all 60 into money, or any other combination you want. Strategically its best to be a little diversified and have at least 10 points in each, but there's enough luck involved in the game that no matter what you decide, it's not going to hurt or help you all that much.
Players then roll to move across the board, and occasionally they get the opportunity to take an alternate route down a career path. Career paths are the main way players earn money, fame, and happiness. There are also cards to be drawn and a couple of ways to screw over your opponents. Careers isn't a great game, but for a roll-and-move game it's a lot of fun to play.
Careers has a lot of different versions. It's been reskinned a lot, and from the very beginning the standard game has been updated every few years to better reflect modern times and popular careers. If you ask a fan of the game what their favorite version of the game is, it's usually the one they played as a kid. I've played a few different versions, and I've never come across a bad one. I prefer the earlier versions with wooden pieces, but that's just because mass-market games were made with higher quality pieces back then.
In recent decades, quite a few party games have hit the shelves that are almost as well liked by hobbyist board gamers as they are by the general public. Games like Wits and Wagers and Apples to Apples. One party game that came out just a little bit earlier than those games, and we feel never gets enough love, is Scattergories.
Scattergories is pretty straight forward. All players are given the same list of 12 categories from a pool of a dozen or so depending on the edition. A 20-sided-die is rolled for a letter, and then players try to figure out a word that fits into each category before time runs out. Players score a point for an answer that isn't duplicated by other players, and extra points for alliteration.
Scattergories is so much fun, and it can easily be fan modded by making up new category lists to fit any theme imaginable. It demands a bit more thought and creativity, and less socialization, to play it well than most party games, which is probably why it rarely tops anyone's list of favorite party games, but in our opinion those are the sort of qualities that makes Scattergories even more appealing to board game hobbyist.
8. Monopoly Deal
Monopoly is probably the most popular board game in all existence. Among board game hobbyist, it's probably the most hated-on game ever. Among the general population, its also probably the most hated-on game ever. For a game that's been a consistent best-seller since it was first released, it's amazing how many people completely detest it. Monopoly has had a tremendous amount of versions, reskins, updates, and spin-offs, and they all suffer from the same issue, no matter how much you try to spruce these games up to make them appealing, they're still Monopoly games.
And then there's Monopoly Deal.
Monopoly Deal is the game of Monopoly condensed down into a card game. Every turn you draw cards and then play cards from your hand, and the goal is to be the first player to get three complete monopolies (all the properties of the same color, or four railroads, or both utilities). Cards can be properties, or they can be used as cash, or they can do things like swap properties with other players, steal properties from other players, or force players to pay you rent, which can be paid either in cash or in property.
Monopoly Deal is a frantic game of players stealing and swapping properties back and forth, it perfectly fits its Monopoly theme, and it plays in about fifteen to twenty minutes, so unlike its older brother, it never overstays its welcome.
Rummikub is best described as a rummy variant played with dominoes. In fact, I can't think of anything else to say about the game beyond that. It's quite a bit of fun, easy to pick up if you already know how to play rummy, and it's a staple of family camping trips and backyard BBQs. Secondhand copies are everywhere, and they routinely sell for $1 or $2. Rummikub is a cheap and solid game to pick up.
6. Clue: The Great Museum Caper
Clue, Cluedo to non-Americans, is one of those staple board games that we were all given as a birthday or Christmas gift as a kid. It's a simple deduction game that also needs to use a roll-and-move mechanic for some reason, and despite dripping with an awesome theme, its never been a lot of fun to play. The last time I played, a player won on their third turn after a single lucky guess, and everyone else at that table vowed we would never play that abomination of a board game ever again.
Due to its age, popularity, and iconic status as a child's board game, Clue has had numerous reskins, spin-off games, and the occasional advanced version released over the years. All of the games branded Clue are just another take on the lackluster gameplay of the original, or occasionally they're their own mediocre game meant to target children with the Clue brand slapped on. Then there's Clue: The Great Museum Caper, a game so good that Hasbro took it out-of-print and refuses to re-release it lest it put a blemish on the mediocre gameplay the Clue brand is known for.
The Museum Caper is an asymmetrical game. One player is the thief, and they have to steal paintings while avoiding detection and ultimately escape the museum. The other players are the detectives, and they have to catch the thief before they get away. The thief's movements are hidden, that is unless a detective spots them, in which case their player piece is put on the board for all to see, and the detectives begin a frantic chase to nab the thief before they can escape. A rules variant has multiple games played, with each player playing the thief the same amount of times, and the winner is the player who manages to escape with the most paintings. This adds a press your luck mechanic to the game where the thief has to decide if they should try for one more painting to raise their score, or if they should just leave while they're ahead.
The Great Museum Caper uses roll-and-move mechanics and there's a good deal of luck involved in the game. This isn't the greatest game ever, and it isn't particularly revolutionary, and its definitely not worth the $70+ I've seen some people try to sell it for. However for something that says Clue on the box, The Museum Caper is pretty fun, and it's definitely worth picking up if you see it in a thrift store or at a garage sale, or if Hasbro ever puts it back in print.
Inkognito is a four player game (with three and five player variants that aren't as good) about spies in Venice. Players are split into teams of two, and each team has to complete their mission before their opponent does. Completing the mission usually involves players moving their pieces on to the correct spaces. I know, so far it doesn't sound like much of a game.
The catch is that you start the game not knowing which pieces belong to the other players, and which ones are decoys. You also don't know the identity of the other players, or who your teammate is. You don't even know your mission, because you only have half of it, and your teammate has the other half. Inkgonito is a game about managing secret information. The game is won by gathering information and deducing what the truth is, while being careful about what information you disseminate to your enemies.
The game's mechanics fit perfectly into its theme, and it plays just like being a character in a complicated spy novel. You can't be sure who your enemies are, who you can trust, or even what the hell is going on, and if you ever figure all that stuff out, you've won the game. If you can trick your enemies into thinking they have it all figured out when they don't, you can win that way too.
4. I'm the Boss
Syd Sackson was out there creating designer board game before designer board games were a thing. I've only included two of Sackson's games on this list, because otherwise this list would turn into a list of Syd Sackson games you should play. I'm the Boss was one of Sackson's final designs, and it's largely considered his swan song.
Playing best with five or six players, I'm the Boss is all about making deals. Players move a shared piece around the board, and when it stops they have the opportunity to draw some cards, or attempt to put together a deal. Deals become worth more and more money as the game goes on. Each player begins the game connected with one investor, and deals are made by bringing the right investors together. The person putting the deal together has to convince other players to come in on the deal with them and bring their investors along, and they do this by offering them a part of the deal. There's no rule about how much of a deal a player can get, and the boss can give away as little of it as they can get away with, or as much as they're willing to part with up to the full amount.
The game is complicated by the cards. Cards give players access to other investors through their family members. They also let you cancel out other investors, steal investors from other players, and then there's the all-powerful I'm the Boss card, which lets you take over someone else's deal.
I played this game a few times with people that weren't all that into it, and they played the game like any other board game, collecting just enough cards to get a slight edge and then racing towards a deal, and those games were boring and uneventful. I've also played this game with people who were super into it, who spent most of the game's first half collecting giant hands full of cards, and near the end we'd have twenty minute deal sessions where right when it seemed like a deal was finally put together after tons of backstabbing and switching alliances, that one excluded player would throw down an 'I'm the Boss' card, and the whole process would start over from scratch. When I've gotten to play the game like that, it's been a blast.
I'm the Boss is one of those games that requires the right group of players to really shine. If you have a group of players that are just looking to have some fun playing a lighter more socially focused game, I'm the Boss can be one of the greatest board gaming experiences you'll ever have. If you have a group that prefers heavier, more strategic board games, that's up for playing something lighter for whatever reason, they'll probably just slog through this waiting to play something better.
3. Scotland Yard
For a short period in 2011, Letters From Whitechapel, an asymmetrical game where a group of players try to hunt down a single opponent playing as Jack the Ripper, was all the rage. That game's mechanics were largely inspired by a much older game with a much more family-friendly theme, Scotland Yard.
Like Letters From Whitechapel, Scotland Yard is an asymmetrical game of hidden movement. One player is the criminal, Mr X, who has to move across London without getting caught, and the other players are detectives, all on the same team, who have to catch him. The detectives win if one of them ends their turn on the same space as Mr. X, or if Mr X ends his turn on a space one of them are on, and Mr X wins when all the detectives can no longer make legal moves. Players use move tokens to travel by taxi, bus, and the London underground across 199 different spaces on the board. The detectives all move their pieces on the board for all to see, but Mr. X's location is hidden and he moves in secret. A logbook is used to track movements to prove no cheating occurred at the end of the game.
Scotland Yard won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award when it was first released in 1983. There are some minor differences between the original UK and US releases, and several alternate editions taking place in different cities around the world have also been created.
Syd Sackson created dozens of games, and many of them are masterpieces. Acquire is his magnum opus.
Acquire is the classic game of stock market manipulation. Players draw tiles that can be placed on specific spaces on a grid. When two tiles are put down next to each other, it creates a new company, and players can start buying stock in that company. Putting tiles adjacent to a company grows the company and its stock prices, and if two companies ever touch the larger company takes over the smaller one, giving shareholders the opportunity to sell their stocks or trade up for stocks in the larger company.
Acquire is lots of fun, scales well with any number of players, and has short easy-to-learn rules. With experienced players, a game of Acquire typically takes less than 45 minutes to play, making it a great medium-light game to fill the time waiting for another game to end or for other players to show up.
The current editions of Acquire published by Hasbro's Avalon Hill imprint are made as cheaply as possible with cardboard pieces. The older 3M bookshelf editions with plastic pieces, which are a staple find in thrift stores and garage sales, are the versions most sought after by fans of the game. Avalon Hill also released an updated edition in 1999 that featured beautiful plastic pieces, but that edition went out of print a few years later, and due to demand secondhand copies can be quite pricey.
Children play Risk. Presidents and diplomats play Diplomacy. Former president John F. Kennedy, US diplomat Henry Kissinger, and journalists Walter Cronkite and Michael Portillo are numbered among Diplomacy's early fans.
Diplomacy takes place in pre-WWI Europe with players each taking on the role of one of the major European powers. Players move their forces across the board attacking their enemies while forging alliances with other powers. There are no luck based mechanics in the game and nothing is left to chance. Instead players secretly choose their actions and then reveal them and simultaneously take their turns. Negotiation with other players, or rather diplomacy, is the key mechanic used to win the game. As important as creating mutually beneficial alliances is to victory, the other well-known feature of the game is the importance of backstabbing and betraying your allies at key moments to steal the win. Because of this, the game has a not-completely-undeserved reputation as a friendship killer.