The Best Board Games For Developing Valuable Real-Life Skills

The Best Board Games For Developing Valuable Real-Life Skills

Playing board games is a whole lot of fun, but some of the more difficult and complex games can also help you learn things. Whether you’re trying to speed up your maths skills or become a stronger negotiator, here are a few skills you can build (and the games that help you build them).

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

Master Basic Arithmetic On the Fly

Arithmetic is a valuable skill no matter what you do for a living, and the quicker you can do it in your head, the better. Learning to add, subtract, and divide quickly makes it easier to work with your finances, add up prices in the store, and solve basic problems in day to day life. Most card and board games involve some form of maths, but some games require you to do arithmetic lightning fast, forcing to think on your feet.

Smash Up is a card game where you select two 20-card decks that belong to different factions (like vampires, wizards and zombies), and then shuffle them together into a 40-card deck (zombie/wizards, for example). Your goal is to play your cards that are assigned a point value on “base cards”, which are usually silly locations like a castle or haunted mansion. The base cards have a number cap assigned to them, and once the combined value of all the cards played at that location reaches the cap, the person with the most points there captures the base. As the game goes on, you are constantly doing calculations in your head to determine how many points you and your opponents have on a base, and it gets more and more complicated as the game goes on because their are always multiple bases in play. It’s non-stop adding, subtracting, and dividing during every single turn. Doing some bad maths in your head can cost you the game, but after you get the hang of things, you’re calculating and plotting your turns ahead of time like a mathlete.

The game plays in a similar way to collectible card games, like Magic the Gathering, where an emphasis on good mental arithmetic is present. Smash Up has a distinct advantage, though, because everything you need to play comes in one box, just like a board game. Instead of buying endless amounts of new cards as they’re released, you have everything you need in one box. You also don’t have to ever worry about getting bored with it because the number of possible deck combinations and matchups is astronomically high. You need two to four people to play and it can take up to an hour for a full game.

Learn to Cooperate with Others

Learning how to communicate with others and recognise people’s strengths and will only benefit you. Cooperative board games have all of the players on the same side, working toward the same goal. In most cases, if you can’t find a way to work together, everybody loses, so working together is as necessary as the game board itself. Playing these types of games basically forces you to start thinking like a team player (as opposed to many games, which are purely competitive).

Escape puts you and the other players in a cursed temple that’s falling apart, and you must find a way out. The game is played out in real-time, with a countdown timer, and everyone frantically rolling their dice to move throughout the temple. Escape provides a number of opportunities for you to help your teammates, but there’s a risk associated with every move you make. The more time you spend helping someone else out, the less time you have to escape yourself. Everybody has to make it out together, however, or everyone loses. Because of that, communication is extremely important. Many groups will even develop a shorthand language after a few games to streamline the whole process. Escape requires two to five players, but will always only take 30 minutes to play because of the timer.

Hanabi is a cooperative card game, challenging you and your teammates to launch the best possible firework display. Here’s the catch, though: you can’t see what cards are in your hand, but everyone else can. You hold your cards facing the opposite way and can only make plays based on the information your teammates communicate to you. Instead of your turn consisting of you thinking what to play next, it’s a discussion about how to make the best play for everyone. Just like a team at work, giving bad information hurts everyone involved. As you play, you begin to learn the importance of being straightforward and as clear as possible. You’re not in a time crunch like with Escape, but again, bad communication means everyone walks away a loser.

Foster a Sixth Sense for Reading People

Knowing how to identify people’s body language and listen for tells in their voices can help you size up people better in real life. Some games make that the crux of their whole experience, and they can be a lot of fun. Getting better at reading people will mean that you’ll have a better idea of when someone is lying, you’ll be able to feel out whether someone is interested in talking to you or not, and you’ll be able to see people’s intentions a little more clearly.

In One Night Ultimate Werewolf, learning to read people is central to the gameplay. Everyone is randomly given a card to identify who they are in the game. Nobody else knows who you are, unless you choose to reveal it. At least one person is a werewolf, and it’s the job of the other players to find out who it is. Things get pretty complicated, however, because everyone who isn’t the werewolf has a job to do, and their job can make it easier, or harder, to identify who the werewolf is. Some players have a vested interest in hiding who the werewolf is, and others want to help everyone figure them out. No matter what your role is, though, you’re constantly trying to guess who is who by asking questions, listening to the way people talk (or don’t), and watching the way they act. It requires at least four people to play, but it’s a lot more fun with six to 10 people, and each game only take about 10 minutes. (Which means you can play over and over again and get a chance to try out all the different roles.)

In the same vein, Resistance assigns everyone a secret identity, but there’s only two sides. You’re either a member of the corrupt government or part of the resistance. Both sides are trying to complete missions and sabotage the other team, but the trouble is, nobody knows who is on what side. You’re trying to work cooperatively with players that might want to ruin you, so you’re required to watch and listen carefully in order to make good judgements. One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Resistance are simple enough to be played at parties, but they require you to pay attention to every word and action from the other players. For a more involved challenge, the Battlestar Galactica board game works with the same concepts.

Learn to Negotiate Diplomatically

Disagreements, either personal or professional, are usually best settled through diplomatic means, where both sides get something and in turn, give something up. Being able to recognise those opportunities in real life can help you avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict. Good negotiation skills can help you land a better job, get a raise, make a sale, and even haggle for a better price at the market. Many board games make great use of these skills because you can’t win unless you use them.

The Settlers of Catan has become a worldwide favourite because of its simple rule system and the fact that every game is different. You plot out roads, build cities, and collect resources to earn points and make your empire the best. You’re sharing the land with other players, however, so you’ll need to trade for resources and strike deals to expand your settlements. If you refuse to be diplomatic, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to win. At the same time, you realise as you play that good negotiation skills will help you make better deals for yourself and convince other players that they’re making the right decision to help you out. You can play with three or four players and games take about an hour.

If you want something a little more intense, A Game of Thrones is a board game that pits three to six players against each other in the popular fantasy world. It’s similar to the classic board game Risk, where you move armies around the world map, but there’s no way to conquer the whole world on your own. You have to engage in diplomacy and negotiation to make allies, knowing full well that they could turn on you at any time. This sense of danger, makes your political tactics far more important than the strength of your armies. With A Game of Thrones, you either win or you die, and it all comes down to how good you are at striking a deal. This game requires three to six players to play, but the downside is this game can take a very long time to play (several hours). If you’re looking for good two-player game with the same type of skill building, Twilight Struggle plays out the Cold War with one player being the Soviets and the other player being the Americans.

Promote Better Time Management and Prioritising

Time management is something a lot of people struggle with. You only have a limited amount of time to get things done every day, so getting the most out of that time is important. With better time management you learn to plan ahead and make every action count. You learn to stop wasting time and start identifying the most efficient ways to complete tasks. Good time management can turn a seemingly stressful workday into a well executed workflow.

In some board games, there’s no time to procrastinate or waste turns away because it could mean the difference between victory and defeat. In both the Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror games, you and your fellow players must work together to stop nasty monsters from H.P. Lovecraft stories destroying the world. You only have so much time, though, because things get worse and worse every turn. Eventually, time runs out and the players face almost certain doom if they don’t use the time they have wisely.

Obviously you’re probably not fighting monsters or saving the world at work, but the same strategies apply. You have a deadline and you need to figure out the most efficient way to meet that deadline. Every move you make has a benefit and a cost, so choosing to take on one task means that another task is going untouched. Just like real life, you have to prioritise how you spend the precious time you have in order to be efficient. Escape is another good example of a game that uses time management as a game mechanic, only it’s played in real time. For everyone to win, you have to prioritise on the fly.

Gain Leadership Skills for Your Personal and Professional Life

Leadership roles in the workplace may not be something you’re interested in, but good leadership skills are still important for everyone to have. They help you take charge of your own life, your own tasks, and allow you to step up to the plate competently when you’re needed. Leadership skills help you identify the tasks you are capable of handling yourself so you can delegate the rest to others. Developing leadership skills involves a lot more than doling out orders, though. You have to learn to see the utility in everyone on your team, know when to fight issues or back down, and understand how the roles of others mesh together. Essentially, you are the glue that is keeping things from falling apart.

Space Cadets puts each player in a different role on a Star Trek-like spaceship. One person, however, takes the role of the captain and must make the decisions that could ultimately decide whether everyone wins or loses. This game is great for teaching leadership because it avoids a common problem with cooperative games known as “quarterbacking.” This is when one player knows more about the game so they basically end up trying to do everything and telling everyone what to do on their turn. It can make fun cooperative games a drag, but Space Cadets makes it so each role can only do certain things, and no one person can do everything. Without teamwork and a strong leader, your space exploits will not take you very far.

If you’re not the captain, however, there’s still a lot to learn from the game. As a subordinate, you have to recognise what you are capable of and relay that information to the captain. You also have to learn when to speak up and when to only follow orders. You can learn a lot about leadership just by working with a leader because you get a feel for what it’s like on the other side, and you can see where they go wrong and learn from it.

There are even more skills you can develop playing board games, which makes getting together to play with your friends even better. You can keep your games feeling fresh by playing with new people, and trying different rules variations too. Obviously, not every great board game could be represented here, so if you have suggestions for a great board game that teaches a valuable skill, feel free to let us know below!


    • I just bought that game for a little boy. I’ll watch for the boy headlining the news in 15 years.

  • try Sheriff of Nottingham for negotiation skills and reading people

    I love board games and game regularly, and watch a lot of board game reviews and play throughs on line, but I absolutely can’t stand tabletop. Can’t do it. Am I alone in this?

    • I’m a keen boardgamer, but unfamiliar with the term tabletop in this context.
      Can you explain how a tabletop boardgame differs from a non-tabletop one so I understand? 🙂

      • They are talking about the Wil Wheaton show Tabletop – A YouTube show where Wheaton gathers random groups of ‘geek’ celebs and gets them to play boardgames with them.

    • No, BUT:
      Tabletop is fantastic for the hobby. I do not have a bad word to say about it. Good on Mr Wheaton et. al. It’s much like Catan for me; it’s part of the journey, not a destination.

  • I think the most important skills a child can learn from boardgaming are:
    Losing gracefully
    Winning gracefully.

    Sadly, these seem to be optional skills when learning sports.

    The best game for learning this is chess.
    There’s nobody to blame when you lose at chess.

    Anyway, boardgames aren’t just for kids, and I want to share some boardgames I discovered recently:

    You play warring Egyptian gods. Negotiation is not an option, killing is. There are three winning mechanics:
    1: Tech up (Egyptian tech, e.g. hire a sphinx to rampage with your grunts, build a big-ass pyramid, train up your priests to pray more enthusiastically).
    2: Control important locations.
    3: Win battles as the attacker.

    Because a won assault is a victory point forever (while holding locations can be transitory, and pyramids captured) the game encourages gratuitous aggression. Most techs are powerful but unique, which makes for cut-throat teching too.

    Space Alert
    A co-op game which takes place on a sitting-duck class spaceship.
    Each game is different, mediated by one of sound-tracks of various difficulties which tell1 you when events occur, and cards which determine exactly what events.
    Actions consist of cards played face down while the calamities keep coming. There’s much yelling, ‘e.g. “I’m gonna run out of power for middle guns, can someone throw a rod into the reactor by turn 5?”. “Is someone handling that rogue AI in the torpedo room?”

    Once the 15 minute sound track has finished you work out what actually happened.

    Plays in 30 minutes. Great for all, including experienced gamers, gaming newbies, and kids.

    Honorable mentions:

    Terra Mystica – Awesome, medium weight, original, slightly more position-dependent than I like.

    Castles of Burgundy – Medium, German-style / suits family too.

    In the Year of the Dragon – You’re a Chinese prince, it’s going to be an ‘interesting’ year, the peasants will suffer more than you 😉

    Troyes – Hardout gamers only. The first play will ruin your brain, the second will fill you with wonder at this marvelous game.

    The Abyss – Fun, light, full of original mechanics.

    • * Abyss, not “The Abyss” (different game).

      Completely agree with you. I have friends that have stayed away from board games because their experience with them revolved around someone trash-talking for a few hours as they slowly and painfully lost a game of Monopoly. Modern games tend not to have player elimination, direct conflict, roll-and-move/completely luck-based, or bore the pants off you for hours.

      And that’s the fantastic thing about modern games. I cannot stand Space Alert – I will never play it again – but that’s fine! It’s not a BAD game, it’s just not for me. I’ll go play something else in my 150 title collection. 🙂 is the definitive site for board gaming. The UX is a bit meh though.

  • What about Diplomacy—the board game Henry Kissenger played? No dice, nothing left to chance, just 100% negotiation to determine the sole victor.

    • Most games of Diplomacy boil down to a popularity contest.
      In which case, why not just have a popularity contest…

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!