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The Most Challenging Board Games Ever Created

Sometimes an easy, straightforward game like “Life” or “Candy Land,” one where you just roll the dice and move along, is what you need on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Other times, your brain craves something a bit more complicated. Over the centuries, games have evolved from simple stick games to intricate contests of wit and skill. If you’re looking for the best of strategy and gameplay, here are some of the most challenging board games ever created.

Go

Go board showing huge collection of white and black stones placed in action
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Go is one of the oldest games in history, dating back to at least the 2nd millennium BCE. It was first played in East Asia and quickly spread across the continent and eventually the world. While it might not be the hardest game to learn, it is one of the most challenging games to master.

The object of the game is to capture territories. Both players take turns placing small black and white pieces, called stones, on a grid-lined board. You capture territories by surrounding regions of the board with your colored stone. If you completely surround your opponent’s stones, they’re captured as “prisoners.” When the game is finished, players get one point for every empty space in their territories and one point for every “prisoner” they’ve captured. Whoever has the most points wins.

Chess

Chess board showing multitude of wooden carved pieces moving against one another
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Chess, like Go, is another globally popular board game that was created thousands of years ago. The exact origins of the game are hazy, but game pieces have been found throughout Europe dating back to the 7th century.

The object of chess is to capture your opponent’s king. It doesn’t matter if all or none the pieces are still on the board — whoever captures the opposing king wins. What makes chess so difficult to learn is that each piece has its own unique way of moving around the board, and some even capture differently than they normally move. In addition to keeping track of all the different piece movements, you have to use strategy to get around your opponent’s defenses. All in all, it’s a lot to think about, and ever since the first international chess tournament was held in 1851, there have always been plenty of enthusiasts and professionals vying for the chance to be named a master of chess.

Shogi

Person moving a board game piece on a shogi board
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If the rules of chess are too straightforward for you, then shogi might be your game. Shogi is believed to have originated in India around 500 years ago. It eventually spread to Japan where it gained immense popularity.

Like chess, shogi is a two-player strategy game that’s played on a checkered board, but instead of a 64 by 64 grid, shogi is played on an 81 by 81 grid. All the pieces move in unique ways, many of which are similar to chess, but most pieces aren’t allowed to move backward. Once a piece reaches the end of the board, or the opponent’s territory, they are “promoted,” similar to how checkers pieces get “kinged.” Once promoted, pieces can move in even more ways.

Captured pieces can also continue playing. Instead of being removed from the board like in chess, captured pieces can be “dropped” and replayed by the player who captured them. Since pieces are recycled, shogi hardly ever ends in a draw from lack of pieces. The object of the game is the same as chess: to capture your opponent’s king.

Cribbage

Up close view of colored cribbage board with deck of cards and plastic pieces nearby
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Cribbage is a popular two-handed game that involves cards as well as a game board. It was invented in the 17th century by a poet named Sir John Suckling. It’s mostly played as a two-player game but can also be played with three or four players.

Players take turns drawing cards to reach 31 points in their hands. Each card is worth its face value in points; face cards are worth 10. Extra points are earned for pairs, runs, and flushes. Players can’t exceed 31 points in a hand. Pegs are moved around the game board based on the number of points, pairs, runs, and flushes in a hand. The first player to go around the game board twice is declared the winner.

Cribbage isn’t challenging because of the strategy involved, like in chess or go. Instead, it’s the complexity of the rules and the math required during gameplay that can be daunting for many players.

The Campaign for North Africa

Globe showing the African continent set against large map background
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While most challenging board games make gameplay difficult because of intricate strategies or complex movements, the notorious "Campaign for North Africa" board game takes all of that and includes physical exhaustion. A single playthrough of the game takes roughly 1,500 hours to complete!

Everything about the game is excessive. It requires 10 players, the game board is 10 feet long, the rulebook is about as thick as a novel — and just as complicated — and there are thousands of game pieces. Players have to consider everything from supply chains to soldier morale. In one of the more famous rules, affectionately called the “macaroni rule,” if you don’t give your Italian troops extra water rations to boil their pasta, they’re more likely to desert. It’s designed to be the most in-depth war strategy simulation ever created.

The game is inspired by the World War II fighting in North Africa and follows the history of that campaign to excruciating detail. It’s about as close to commanding an army as you can get without joining the military. “The Campaign for North Africa” is so challenging in every aspect that even the creator of the game has never finished a playthrough.

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