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Best new board games you should try, ahead of PAX Unplugged

PAX Unplugged, which comes to Philly this weekend, is one way to find your next favorite game, and a new way to defeat your friends and family.

At PAX Unplugged, you can play thousands of games, both familiar and new.
At PAX Unplugged, you can play thousands of games, both familiar and new.Read morePAX/Penny Arcade

It’s game day in Philly this weekend, but you can put down the sports gear and pick up the cards and dice. For the third year in a row, board game expo PAX Unplugged takes over the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

PAX Unplugged is run by Penny Arcade, which also hosts a series of video-gaming expos called PAX. But its analog board-gaming offshoot has been growing in popularity, much like the games themselves.

Who doesn’t love game night? Think Dungeons & Dragons, Settlers of Catan, or even Monopoly — games meant to be played at a table with friends and family, as you pore over puzzles and dilemmas to claim victory. Lately, games have grown more compelling, and many are beautifully designed, perfect for hours of warmth and comfort (or intense competition).

For exhibitors, PAX Unplugged is an opportunity to show off some up-and-coming games most of us haven’t yet heard of. For players, it’s a chance to try thousands of games, meet makers from near and far, watch tournaments, and make new friends (or enemies) in the process. (You can also find out what it takes to make your own game.)

If you go: PAX Unplugged

Friday through Sunday, Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch St., $35 for one day pass, $70 for all three days, $10 for kids (Sunday only),

But PAX Unplugged isn’t the only way to get into board games. There are lots of spots in Philly where you can tap into the new gaming zeitgeist and reignite your passion for victory. An increasing number of local game cafés such as Thirsty Dice, the Basement, or Queen & Rook will let you try out games, and experts on-site can teach you how to play.

We asked the experts at Philly’s best board game cafés for some of their favorites. Whether you’re looking for a holiday gift or just a way to spend time with friends and family, here are some new classics for your game night, and where to try them locally to see if you’ve found a winner.

Old-school board games

Whether it’s Monopoly, Life, Sorry!, Trouble, or the like, these games have colorful and unique boards, combining elements like dice rolls, cards, tiles, and more to create family-friendly experiences.

Classic fave: Monopoly

Game to try: Ticket to Ride. This train game has grown in popularity, slowly becoming a modern classic. Build your own train lines between destinations: the longer your route, the more points you earn.

Try it out: Thirsty Dice, Queen & Rook, the Basement

$44.99, 2-5 players, 1-2 hours to play

Resource Games

Certain games take on the world at large, or at the very least, a huge chunk of it. Manage cities, run a government, build an army, hoard resources, and exercise either diplomacy or brutality — all in the name of fun, of course.

Classic fave: Risk

Game to try: Tapestry. As a 2019 release, Tapestry is making a play to bring denser civilization-building games back into the mainstream. Players go from the beginning of humanity all the way to the far future while building and telling the story of their civilizations. Choose to focus your world on science, technology, exploration, or the military, or find a balance.

Try it out: Thirsty Dice

$99, 1-5 players, 90-120 minutes to play

Abstract Strategy Games

Not every game has to resemble real life; these games use colors and shapes in a spatial strategy game; think chess and checkers.

Classic fave: Connect Four

Game to try: Azul. A relatively new game with some dazzling artwork, Azul has players collect colorful tiles and place them on a 5-by-5 grid that represents a palace. Points come from where you place your tiles; bonus points come from making patterns and completing sets.

Try it out: Thirsty Dice, Queen & Rook, the Basement

$39.99, 2-4 players, 30-45 minutes to play

Fact-filled Games

These games’ worlds are filled with facts, whether geography, biology, or general trivia; if you don’t know enough about these topics, you certainly will (after you lose a few times).

Classic fave: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Game to try: Wingspan. You’re playing a bird enthusiast (if you aren’t one already), and you’re trying to attract birds to your network of wildlife preserves. Draw bird cards, extend branches for other birds, encourage your birds to lay eggs. Wingspan won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award, which goes to the top “expert game of the year.”

Try it out: Thirsty Dice, Queen & Rook

$60, 1-5 players, 40-70 minutes to play

Drawing Games

Forget game pieces; how about some sketch paper? These games usually start with prompts and involve some kind of cooperation as players guess just what these fine pieces of hand-drawn art are supposed to be.

Classic fave: Pictionary

Game to try: Telestrations. Telestrations is basically Pictionary meets telephone. Sketch a picture based on a word and a die roll, then pass it to another player, who will guess the word, then pass that word to the next player to draw. The best guesses and sketches win points. And, for a racier game, there’s an After Dark variation for adults.

Try it out: Thirsty Dice, Queen & Rook

$19.99, 4-8 players, 30 minutes to play

Cooperative games

These role-playing games have a focus on building worlds, creating characters, and group storytelling. Role-playing games are usually run by someone who takes the party through a cooperative adventure experience where they encounter monsters and all kinds of dangers.

Classic fave: Dungeon & Dragons

Game to try: Dungeon & Dragons: Stranger Things Starter Set. Dungeons & Dragons has achieved some mainstream popularity, thanks in part to the Netflix show Stranger Things. Play as your favorite character and work together to defeat the dreaded Demogorgon.

Try it out: A number of board game cafés host D&D events. Try them out Tuesday nights at Queen & Rook, or every other Tuesday at Thirsty Dice.

$24.99, 2+ players, 15+ minutes to play

Dice Games

A lot of games include dice as an element, but rolling dice is the main activity in these games. Winning may come down to luck, but there are still choices to make depending on what you roll, so strategy is important.

Classic fave: Yahtzee

Game to try: King of Tokyo. It’s essentially Yahtzee, but with giant monsters. Fight for supremacy in King of Tokyo while playing as different types of kaiju. Roll dice to earn power, health, attack abilities, and points; the first monster to 20 points, or the last one standing, is crowned the winner.

Try it out: Thirsty Dice, Queen & Rook, the Basement

$39.99, 2-6 players, 30 minutes to play

Card Games

Forget about hearts and clubs; the cards in these types of games play by their own rules. These games can involve color coordination, matching, simple math, and quick reaction time; just be sure not to lose any cards from the deck.

Classic fave: Uno

Game to try: Ramen Fury. Players mix and match cards to create noodle-filled bowls for points, but watch out as your opponents will be slapping the table to steal your ingredients. It’s a quick, energetic, easy family card game. Bonus: the game’s packaging looks just like a bag of noodles.

Try it out: Thirsty Dice

$9.99, 2-5 players, 30 minutes to play