Boardgame Basics: Game Categories

Games come in all shapes and sizes, from all over the world and from all points in history, with drastically different target audiences and philosophy of design.  And even within the boardgaming industry and hobby, there is no clearly-defined or agreed-upon taxonomy used to group games.  So all I’m trying to do here is to give you a basic framework to understand the breadth of games that are out there, and to see how they may relate to each other.

Maybe this can give you a good starting point as you think about which kind of games might appeal to you.   It might also help to give you a perspective on how the games I cover here at relate to games that you may be more familiar with.  As always, feel free to leave comments or questions here or email me at

Classic Games

Chess_SmallThese are games which have survived through the ages.  Most all of these are hundreds or thousands of years old and have little or no theme to speak of.  In some cases, they have been studied extensively, and you can find libraries of theory, research, and advice which have been written about them.  Their rules tend to be relatively easy to learn, but they can still be pretty intimidating to get into because of this wealth of study and experience that many players have about them.

  Chess, Go, Backgammon, Mancala

Traditional Games

This is where I lump together all those games that we all played in our childhood.  While there are varying levels of skill involved, most of these rely heavily on luck as a balancing factor.  Despite many being very mediocre designs, these continue to be reprinted over and over simply because of their name/brand recognition.

Examples:  Monopoly, Candyland, Sorry, Scrabble, Risk, Clue

Party Games

W_WThese games can handle large numbers of people, and tend to be very approachable by pretty much anyone.  Winning is often not as important as the experience of having a good time.  In fact, some of these games don’t actually work very well if you play to win.  Some are purely social in their gameplay, while others rely on specific skills (dexterity or vocabulary, for example) or knowledge (trivia).

Examples:  Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, Catch Phrase, Wits & Wagers, Apples to Apples, Say Anything, Tapple, Anomia, Telestrations, Concept

Abstract Strategy Games

These are games that are often very intense and strategic.  The main thing that differentiates them from the categories below is that they have no real “theme” or setting.  Your pieces on the board aren’t representing anything other than pieces in a game, and you aren’t pretending to take on a role other than as a player of the game.  Most of these have simple, wooden or glass pieces and boards filled with geometric shapes.  Play times tend to run from a few minutes up to an hour or so.  Many of the Classic Games above also fall into this category.

Examples:  Chess, Checkers, Go, YINSH, Hive, Pente, Blokus, Ingenious

Family-Strategy Games

pic187388_tHere you will find games that are designed for families to play together.  They usually have family-friendly themes, and their rules are relatively easy to understand.  Play time usually runs 45 minutes or less.  Unlike the Traditional Games mentioned above, these games usually require far more thought and skill to play, but it is still on a level that children 8 or so years old can process.

Examples:  Ticket to Ride, Zooloretto, 10 Days in the USA, Thebes, Sorry! Sliders, Forbidden Desert, Gulo Gulo, Mice and Mystics

Advanced Strategy Games

IMG_4134_edited_1And finally, these are the main games that I tend to enjoy.  While being similar to Family-Strategy Games, these take more effort to understand and often play longer.  Not all of them have complicated rules, but figuring out how to best play them can take some insight and practice.  They take more thought, and often run longer than the Family-Strategy Games.  One of the most important things that I like about Advanced Strategy Games is that they often have more than one strategy that you can try out.  This depth makes them very entertaining and gives them a lot of “replay value” (which basically means that you can play them a lot without getting tired of them).

Examples:  The Princes of Florence, Agricola, Tigris & Euphrates, Settlers of Catan, Tribune, Arkadia, Puerto Rico, Letters from Whitechapel

Boardgame Basics

Part 1: An Introduction to Modern Boardgames
Part 2: Game Categories
Part 3: Theme and Setting
Part 4: Game Mechanics
Part 5: The Role of Luck in Games
Part 6: Conflict and Competition


  1. Britt

    Would wargames, such as AH’s Squadleader and Third Reich, fall into the same category as Advanced Strategy?

  2. Chris Ingersoll

    I think they should have their own category, really.

    There are a few other games that don’t really fall into these categories (neatly). RftG, for example, is less complicated than Puerto Rico but more advanced than what I would really consider a “family strategy” game.

  3. Chris Norwood

    These are really broad and fuzzy categories that are mainly aimed at outsiders to the hobby.  In general, I think that Wargames would be a huge sub-category of Advanced Strategy games. 

    And I totally agree that there are lots of games that blur the lines between Family and Advanced Strategy (Pandemic, for example).  Mainly, if I ever open my own game shop, these would be the big section headers that I would have in the store. 

  4. Britt

    Scott Nicholson has an interesting thread on what constitutes “Narrative Boardgames”(also derogatorily known as Ameritrash games) at BGG. (This is part of a series of classes that he is teaching to libraries/librarians.)

    Perhaps this can supplement your lists, Chris:

  5. Chris Norwood

    That seems pretty cool.  I’ll have to check out the youtube link later (like, when I’m not at work and can get to it).

    As far as the “narrative” category of games goes, I’m going to get into that in the next “Boardgame Basics” article I’m writing, which will be about Theme and Setting.  A significant portion of the rest of these articles will focus on different aspects found within the Family Strategy and Advanced Strategy categories defined above.  In a way, you could look at them as delving into some of the subcategories that you most commonly find (like the two you’ve mentioned, wargames and “narrative”/Ameritrash games, among others).  

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