Being better at board games is a huge driver for many people to play more games. Playing board games is fun whether you win or lose, but winning feels really good.
It sucks to lose all the time. Maybe you’re fed up of losing more often than you’d like. Or maybe you’re quite competitive and track every win and loss and you just need to get your stats up! Before we dive into the practical tips, here’s a bit of a theoretical, scientific explanation of what makes a player more likely to win at board games.
How can you be better at winning board games? Winning a board game is influenced by a player’s skill at learning from experience (heuristics) in two aspects of gameplay. 1) Positional heuristics – analysing the state of the game and their position. 2) Directional heuristics – comparing options and choosing the best one for their goals.
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All the tips in this article take positional and directional heuristics and translate them into things that you can actually do in a board game to win.
1. Focus on the game
How many times have you played a game on auto-pilot? Maybe it’s a game you know really well so you aren’t paying attention. Maybe it’s because you’ve been talking to friends you haven’t seen for a while, instead of looking at what’s going on in the game. I know I’m guilty of this.
Chatting and having fun are why I love board games so much. But if you want to get better at a game, you need to pay attention to it and analyse what is happening and what you are going to do. Train your brain to focus on the game and not get distracted, at least until you know what you’re going to do on your turn.
2. Play to win, not for fun
This sounds very obvious but there are plenty of times I’ve played for fun, not to win.
When you play to win, every turn you take is focussed on getting closer to winning. Every. Single. Turn.
By playing to win, you don’t need to turn into the alpha gamer and dominate the group. You can play to win and not be a jerk.
3. Don’t cut your friends any slack
If your best next move is to go after your best friend’s territory then go for it. Do not cut your friend or partner any slack because of your relationship with them. It’s a game. And you want to win.
4. Know how you can win
Games often have multiple ways you can win. Be clear on all of them. Then figure out the steps you need to take to get to the long term game goals. These steps become your short-term game goals.
If you need to have the most buildings, then figure out how you build them. What resources do you need? How do you get them? That is what you need to do in the short term.
When you have figured out how to get the resources, then focus on your long term goal of making the buildings.
5. Don’t go after personal goals
While it might be nice to try and conquer all the regions in one corner of the map in Small World, don’t let it blind you to better game decisions.
Ignore your personal goals and instead play for what will give you the most points? What will put you in the strongest position? What will give you the most points on this turn and future turns?
Don’t play for what is in your mind, play for what will get you the points needed to win.
6. Know when the game ends
What causes a game to end is just as important as knowing how to win. Is it the number of turns? When someone gets to a certain number of points? When the draw deck runs out?
You need to know what causes a game to end so that you can take that into account for every decision you make. For example, in Carcassonne, the game ends when the last tile is played. So you need to be prepared for that. There’s no point having meeples not working for you during the last few turns. You might as well play them and earn some points wherever you can so that every turn counts.
Start seeing the number of turns in a game as just as important as the other resources at your disposal.
7. Watch the other players (especially the best player)
Pay attention to what everyone is doing. There are two main reasons for this.
You know your position in the game
By watching what other players are doing you can see who is winning, who is behind and where you are in relation to everyone else.
If you want to make a move that slows down the leader, first you need to know who the leader is.
You can learn from them
Try to figure out what strategies other players are using. If they are consistently gathering one type of resource try to figure out why. Is it to create scarcity and inflate the prices?
Are they using their units defensively or aggressively? Why? Is it advancing them closer to the goal? If there are multiple ways to win, which way are they aiming for?
When you’re figured out what is working well for them and why you can try it yourself.
By paying attention to other people’s strategies and analysing their effectiveness it’s like you’re playing the same game 3 more times and trying out different strategies.
8. Play the same game with different people
Playing the same game over and over with the same people may not be as beneficial to your learning as you think it might be. A lot of people use the same strategies every time they play a particular game.
To become a more experienced player with more strategy ideas, play the same game with different people and watch what they do. You’ll pick up a wider variety of strategy ideas.
9. Learn the rules by playing on your own
This is more than learning the rules, it is learning them and applying them to see how they work in context. You will have a much deeper understanding of how the game systems work together.
Playing on your own is a great way to try out different strategies. Set the game up for 4 players and choose a different strategy to try out for each player.
You see how different hands, board positions, game roles and circumstances affect which strategies work best at any given time.
Not everyone will know, remember, or care what special actions and rules are in the game. If you’re the one that does, you’re at an advantage.
10. Play many different types of board game
There are two main reasons that this is helpful and they both work together.
Easier to learn new board games
The more different types of games you play, the easier it is to learn similar games in the future. Then you can use your brain space on finding ways to win, rather than remembering the rules.
For example, I recently played 7 Wonders for the first time. But because I had played Sushi Go! I understood how a game built around the mechanic of card drafting works so I could focus on how to win.
Easier to find winning strategies
Continuing with the 7 Wonders example, I knew that looking at what everyone else was playing, especially the players to my left and right, was key to winning. I needed to prevent the player on one side from getting the cards they wanted. I also needed to choose a different strategy to the player on the other side so they didn’t collect the cards I needed to win before they reached me.
It was also described as an engine building game so I knew there would a be phase where I focussed on creating resources and a phase where I focussed on getting points. By selecting all the production cards earlier in the game, and then building and advancing later in the game I could afford pretty much everything in the later ages.
Unfortunately, we had to cut the game short before scoring, but we agreed that I would have won. Not bad for my first playthrough of a new game.
11. Play an asymmetrical game in the minority role
Games like Mysterium and Never Alone have a role where one person takes on the role of the Ghost or the Planet, respectively. Try taking on that role yourself.
A key part of that role is to analyse the turns of the other players to either help or hinder them. It is a fantastic way to make you better at those games and sharpen your ability to analyse other players.
12. Play a co-operative game
Games like Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulhu are co-operative games where everyone works together to defeat the game. By winning or losing together, everyone discusses strategies and what is best for the team.
You can learn a lot by listening to the rationale of other players and how they weigh up the different options in a co-op game.
Think about how the strategies to win in one game might apply to another game.
13. Play how you wouldn’t normally play
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
It could be that the way you naturally play just isn’t right for the type of game you’re playing. So try a different play style.
For example, I am naturally a castle builder type of gamer. I play defensively and focus on my thing until I’m ready to go after victory points. However, in games like Small World, this strategy just doesn’t work very well. So now I play very aggressively and I win far more games.
14. Learn the vulnerabilities and tough moments
What can cause you to panic a little and wonder how you will ever get back on top? How can you make sure these things never happen?
For example, in Small World you want to hang onto territories for as many turns as you can so they keep producing gold for you. But you know that the other players are going to try to conquer them for themselves. What do you do? Place most of your units at your borders with the biggest vulnerabilities.
In King of Tokyo a common way that people lose is by staying in Tokyo for too long and being wiped out by a player who rolls 5 or 6 hits on you. Make sure that you never stay in Tokyo for long enough that a single player can wipe you out on their turn!
15. Discuss strategy at the end of the game
In my regular gaming group we always talk about the game at the end.
We reflect on what we do differently next time, how and why we won or lost, and what was the turning point in the game.
We are quite analytical and objective and give feedback to each other on the way we played and what mistakes we think each other made during the game. For example, if one person makes a very silly move during a game which led to their loss or gave another person an advantage, we will tell them.
It’s a really great way to learn from everyone else and discover strategies to try next time.
16. Ask a good player to give you feedback
Before the game, ask a player who you know is good at the game to watch your turns and to give you feedback at the end of the game. They will probably be quite flattered that you asked them and be more than willing to help you if you tell them that you are trying to improve.
After all, they will have a better competitor to play against in the future.
17. Look up strategy guides online
Learn from players who have played the game countless times and understand what works and what doesn’t. Even though the best moves vary every single turn in every single game, there are overarching strategies which will help you to win.
A couple of really good tips from experienced players can be the difference between winning and losing.
BoardGameGeek has strategy guides for a lot of popular games. Just search for the game you want a strategy for in the forums.
18. Analyse yourself
Look at your personal strengths and weaknesses. It may not be your ability at the game that’s getting in the way of you winning.
Are you not feeling confident? Do you panic when feeling overwhelmed and make a poor move?
How about your skills? For example, I don’t like bluffing about anything at all. So bluffing games make me feel really uncomfortable even when I’m not trying to fool anyone. It often looks like I’m bluffing when I’m not. But now that I know that, I can turn it into an advantage.
What are you particularly good at? Which games do you win sometimes or come close to winning?
You might be really good at mental arithmetic so would be great at calculating the number of points each player will get at the end of a Eurogame. You might be great at storytelling so you would Once Upon A Time. Or you might be great at seeing when someone isn’t telling the truth so you’d be great at Werewolf. Think about what your natural skills are and look for games which call on these skills.
19. Be adaptable
You might choose your strategy for a game based on what has worked well for you in the past. Which is not necessarily a bad approach.
But not all games play out the same.
What worked for you in one game might not work so well in another one because the gamestate is completely different. It’s affected by so many variables – decisions other people have made, the type of cards you’re drawing or how lucky you have been with your dice rolls.
Have a few different strategies up your sleeve and be prepared to change your approach to take advantage of the situation you are in.
20. Pick your favourite game apart
What is your favourite game? It doesn’t matter if you win everytime you play it or not.
What you’re looking for is a game that you love so much that you don’t mind playing it over and over again to find every possible way to win.
Pick the game apart and get to know it better than anyone else. The more you know about the game and all the different ways to win, the more adaptable you can be when you play it.
21. Pick one strategy and go for it
If there are a lot of different ways to win a game, it can be difficult to know which one to go for. But at the start of the game, just pick something and go for it. It will be one of the potential ways to victory. It may not work out for you in this game, but you will learn a lot.
You will learn how to play that strategy better next time, you’ll discover it’s strengths and weaknesses and in which situations it would be effective.
It is much harder to analyse how a strategy worked out for you if it was actually a mish-mash of different approaches.
Be prepared to lose the game where you are going all in on one strategy. As you get more experienced with the different strategies you can use in a game you will find it easier to shift directions part way through.
22. Try board game puzzles
To improve your logical thinking and ability to analyse how a game works, you could try a board game puzzle. Board game puzzles are created by the board gaming community and challenge players to think really carefully about game’s rules and mechanics to solve the puzzles.
There is a fantastic thread on BoardGameGeek for board game puzzles. For example, one puzzle is for Dominion which is, ‘How many possible ways can you buy a province by turn 3?’
23. Plan for several turns ahead
Chess masters are renowned for their ability to do this. They are able to think several turns ahead and consider what is likely to happen based on what their opponent might do.
This comes down to having a short term and a long term plan to win. If you know what you are aiming for overall, you’ll be much better at taking turns which fit into your overall strategy. You’ll also be much better at identifying vulnerabilities and opportunities which affect you when they come up.
24. Use the theme for clues to how to play
Some people dismiss game themes and argue that they get in the way of understanding how a game system works. I disagree. I find themes really helpful for figuring out how I should play, especially for a game that’s new to me.
25. Play to the strengths of your characters
If your game has characters, species or locations with different statistics and abilities, then play according to the strengths of the role, rather than how you want to play.
Each unit combination in Small World has its own specific qualities and needs to be played in the way which maximises the use of those qualities to give you an advantage.
In 7 Wonders each board has its own special attributes for building each stage of the wonder and a particular resource that it can produce. See what your specialisms are and use them.
26. Properly weigh up your options and risks
Actually analyse what you are going to do. Think about the probability and likelihood of something playing out the way you want it to.
What do you need to happen for your strategy to work? How likely is it to happen?
Use logic to figure out what might happen for each option available to you. If I play this, then this might happen and that player might take this action. Then figure out what the probability is for each of those things happening.
If you really need to roll a 6 for your strategy to work, how likely is that to happen? Will you be in bad position if it doesn’t happen? Is taking the risk on that dice roll worth it?
27. Use your resources effectively
In a typical game there will be some resources which are easier to get than others.
There will also be some resources which you need for pretty much every action in the game.
You want to make sure you are finding ways to get more of the resources which give you more options and flexibility in the game. And only spend the rarer resources on things which are really worth it.
Remember that the number of turns is a resource too.
Some games have a limited number of turns before they end. Make sure you’re spencing your turns wisely.
28. Play a learning game
If it’s the first time you’ve played a game then ask your group if they would be happy to play a learning game with you. It’s one of the key tips in my 15 Step Guide – Teaching Board Games to New Players.
I always play a learning game with new players. It’s a safe place for new players to learn the rules and ask for input and advice from other players on what the best moves to make would be.
29. Practice playing games online or with apps
Yucata has a nice asynchronous time option where you don’t have to be online at the same time as the people you’re playing against. You log in, take a turn and log out. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over your turns to figure out different strategies. In a live game, other players will say you have analysis paralysis and maybe rush your turn just to keep the game moving.
Many games also have apps available so that you can practice playing against real players or the computer AI. Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Small World and Carcassonne all have apps.
30. Know when to switch tactics in engine games
If you’re playing an engine building game, there is always a phase in the game where you spend your turns building the engine that will help you get victory points later in the game. 7 Wonders is a good example of this.
The trick with engine building games is knowing when to stop building the engine and start building the points. To figure this out watch what the best player is doing and pay attention to how many turns you have left in the game. Don’t leave it too late to reap what you’ve sown.
31. Use your position to your advantage
If you are obviously in the lead, other players will go for you more than anyone else. If you are running behind people will generally leave you alone.
Whenever you’re in the lead, find ways to keep it hidden.
We recently played Villainous for the first time. I played in the role of Jafar. I figured out that a great tactic for Jafar is to cycle through his deck quickly to find the magic lamp. I wasn’t hugely interested in messing up other people or playing allies.
To the other
See if you can draw attention to other players when you are actually in a good position to keep the focus away from you.
32. Do the unexpected
Always assume that the other players are watching how you are playing and are trying to predict what you will do so that they can choose what they should do. Every now and again, do something that is at odds with your current strategy just to throw them off.
33. Use your best moves at the best moments
If you have a great move that can really mess things up for other players, use it at the best moment to maximise its impact.
I know when I get a great (usually instant, play anytime) card I am excited to use it and throw it down too quickly. I’m learning to hang onto these until they most sense instead.
34. Mess up other people’s plans
Doing what is best for you is important, but so is stopping other people from doing what is most important to them.
turnsit may be worth delaying your own progress to mess up the progress of someone else.
This comes down to watching what other players are doing and figuring out their strategy. What would you do if you were in their position? Assume they will always make the best move for themselves and try to stop them from doing that.
If they are clearly collecting all the green cards in Ticket to Ride and they take their turn after you, collect greens just to mess up their plans.
If you play with the same people regularly you might find that they usually adopt the same strategy every game. You can use the knowledge to mess up their plans.
35. Teach some games
To teach a game well you need to understand it. That means you pick it apart and figure out how it works.
When teaching people will ask you what moves would be better. It forces you to think more deeply about the game and what is better for players at different times. See my 15 Steps Guide – Teaching Board Games to New Players for some teaching tips.
36. Get good at mental arithmetic
You don’t need to be the best mathematician in the world, but being able to quickly calculate everyone’s current score is a good way to know your position.
It’s also helpful for games like Munchkin where you need a certain number of points to defeat or boost a monster. Maths will help you play only the cards you need to rather than using higher point cards and overkilling something. You can save those higher point cards for when you really need them.
37. Notice which cards or tiles have already gone
In some games, it really matters which cards or tiles have already been played. For example, if you know that all the Stables cards in 7 wonders have already been played, then a card which gives you a free Stables is not as valuable.
Fluxx is another game where paying attention to which cards have come through is really helpful. It won’t help you very much to play a goal card which needs a Keeper that’s in the discard pile.
Of course, it means you need to be a little familiar with the number of cards or tiles in a game, but you will learn this almost intuitively the more you play it.
38. Read and understand what the cards say
Cards often have specific instructions on them about a special ability that they perform. King of Tokyo power up cards
Make sure that you understand what they all mean. You can guarantee that another player around the table knows what they mean and will use that to their advantage.
If you don’t know then ask for clarification, even if that means revealing a card in your hand to another player. Yes, you are giving a competitor insight into what you might do next. But that’s better than making a sub-standard move because you didn’t know what the card meant.
Plus, the next time you play, you’ll know what it means and won’t need to ask again.
39. Find players who aren’t as good at board games
Maybe you won’t get better at the game, but you’ll probably win!
The winner takes it all
Hopefully, the tips in this article help you to win more board games. Remember that they all relate back to two main things – analysing your current position in the game and then making the best move to win.