The tabletop world is still undergoing something of a revolution. Though many families know board gaming as a somewhat reluctant pastime, only indulged when distant family members visit for holidays or special occasions, the fact is that tabletop gaming can be just as immersive and exciting a narrative medium as movies, books, or video games.
In particular, the 1990s were a boom time for tabletop games, with the medium expanding and finding wider audiences. Many of the greatest tabletop experiences of all time were created in the 90s; you’ve almost certainly played some of them yourself. Here are the best board games from the 90s, in no particular order.
You might know Catan better as The Settlers of Catan (or just The Settlers). It’s one of the tabletop games that defines the loose genre of “Eurogames”, which are board gaming experiences designed largely around resource management, territory expansion, and trading. Catan was one of the first games of its kind to enjoy widespread popularity outside Europe, and particularly Germany, where Eurogames hold court. Catan’s iconic hexagonal board makes it instantly recognisable, even to those who don’t play a lot of board games, and its theoretically infinite replayability makes it a great option if you’ve got guests coming over and they don’t want to play Monopoly (and who would?).
Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield has a lot of clout in the tabletop gaming world. Nowhere is that more evident than in Netrunner, his now-out-of-print 1996 cyberpunk CCG (collectible card game). Netrunner takes place in the stock dark dystopian cyber-future, and it’s distinguished by its fascinating asymmetrical multiplayer in which each side has completely different agendas and must use different cards to achieve said agendas. Netrunner isn’t available anymore, but Wizards of the Coast renewed its trademark in 2021, so anything is possible. Hopefully, we’ll see a revived Netrunner sooner rather than later.
Magic: The Gathering (1993)
Speaking of Magic…This one’s Richard Garfield too; much of his youth was spent in Bangladesh and Nepal, and he didn’t speak any of the native languages, so he would use cards and other non-verbal games as a means of communication. That led to the design of Magic: The Gathering, which was also inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. Magic is still being played today thanks to its complex, labyrinthine ruleset, endless combinations of card decks, and oceanic gameplay depth. Magic is not an accessible game; it takes a long time to learn all of the different interactions between cards, but once you do, it’s an immensely rewarding experience.
Twilight Imperium (1997)
Designer Christian Petersen’s game was one of the first to show audiences that it was possible to make an immersive, narratively satisfying experience in the tabletop medium. Twilight Imperium was heavily inspired by the worlds of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica; it presents a universe inhabited by all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures and asks audiences to immerse themselves in said universe, engaging in strategy on a massive scale in order to emerge victorious. It’s essentially like a board game version of Sid Meier’s Civilization, only set in a science fiction-themed world and arguably even more comprehensive.
Pokemon Trading Card Game (1998)
In the late 90s, Pokemon mania was at its absolute peak. Since Pokemon is still the world’s highest-grossing media franchise, it could be argued that Pokemon mania never stopped, but it’s undeniable that the late 90s was a great time to be a Pokemon fan. The introduction of the Pokemon Trading Card Game was a delight for fans who loved the anime and had played the games to death; it presented a simplified take on Magic: The Gathering, with gameplay revolving around energy costs. Many people still play this iconic trading card game today; it’s testament to the game’s longevity that children would often collect these cards without ever actually playing the game!
Space Crusade (1990)
Space Crusade only just counts as a 90s board game, as it debuted at the outset of that venerable decade. It transposes the action of the iconic 80s HeroQuest board game to the dark, grim Warhammer 40,000 universe and lets players take on the roles of tough, no-nonsense Space Marines. You can think of Space Crusade as a cross between the more guided experience of a traditional tabletop game and the freeform role-playing of a Dungeons and Dragons session; one player controls all of the enemies in the game, while the others must complete their mission and try to foil the de facto GM. It’s a great game to play if you’ve got friends over who are RPG agnostics.
Tichu has been somewhat unfairly forgotten by history, which is a shame, because it’s one of the best games you can play from the 90s. At its core, this game is extremely simple; it’s a cross between poker and mahjong, with players racing to play as many cards from their respective hands as possible. Leaving cards in your hand means your opponents will gain points, but you’ve also got to think about special cards and combinations into the bargain. The rules for Tichu can feel a little convoluted, but the core gameplay is pretty straightforward. Just remember that this isn’t a game to play if you and your friends are looking for something easy to master!
These are just a few of our favourite board games from the 1990s. There were so many games released during this period that we’re bound to have missed a few. Which games did we miss? What’s your favourite board game from the 90s?