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Best traditional Chinese board games

From Mahjong to Pai Gow, these are the best traditional Chinese board games – many of them ancient but more than worth playing.

Tabletop games are beloved worldwide, and many of the most popular and long-lived titles around are Chinese board games. From Go to Mahjong, these traditional Chinese board games are giants of the abstract strategy genre. For this guide, we’ve chosen a range of rewarding games for lovers of light-hearted afternoon fun and brain-bending strategic decisions alike.

The best board games stand the test of time, and plenty of traditional Chinese board games endure after hundreds or even thousands of years. Most of today’s greatest strategy board games share core DNA with games designed in China centuries ago – and classics like Go and Chinese Checkers are arguably as good as any board games for couples on sale these days.

These are the best Chinese board games:

Chinese board game Go

Chinese Go game

The best Chinese board game

This is a game that’s been played by Chinese nobility and Japanese Samurai alike. Go is considered the oldest board game in existence. While no one can say for sure when it first originated, it’s estimated to be over 2,500 years old. Go isn’t too difficult to learn, but with a 19-by-19 grid for a board and an enormous amount of possible plays, mastering it is complex indeed.

Every game of Go starts with a blank board. Players take turns placing stones, which they aim to use to create ‘territories’ by surrounding blank spaces on the board. Stones can only be played on vacant spaces, and they can’t be moved – though they can be captured if they’re surrounded on all sides by enemy stones. At the end of the game, a captured territory or a captured stone is worth one point.

Board for Chinese chess, one of the best Chinese board games

Chinese chess

The best Chinese strategy board game

‘Xiangqi’, or Chinese chess as it’s known in English, is one of the most popular board games to come out of China. Like Western chess, the objective of the game is to ‘checkmate’ your opponent’s king by moving various pieces across the board. You’ll have everything from generals to elephants at your disposal to win the day, each with its own methods for moving and capturing other pieces.

Chinese chess is also like other chess games in that you could read entire books on its various strategies. If you already know how to play chess and love to dive deep with strategy gaming, this is a great classic game to try next.

Tiles from Mahjong, one of the best Chinese board games


The most famous Chinese board game

Mahjong is a Chinese board game that looks a bit like Dominoes and plays a bit like the classic playing card game Rummy. Players take turns picking up and discarding tiles, trying to create four sets of three tiles and a pair. Once you’ve got a row of winning tiles, you shout ‘mahjong!’ and claim victory.

There are several different versions of Mahjong to try, so this is a Chinese board game to pick up if you’re looking for variety and replayability. Mahjong is also easy to play online – there was even a time when you could find a solitaire edition of it on Microsoft computers everywhere.

Tiles from Pai Gow, one of the best Chinese board games

Pai Gow

The best Chinese domino game

If you want a game that’s even closer to Dominoes, there’s Pai Gow, which actually predates the game we’ve come to know as ‘Dominoes’. This ancient tile board game is popular in casinos worldwide, but you can just as easily chew on its strategic gameplay from home.

The game begins with eight stacks of four tiles, shuffled and placed face-down. Players place their bets, and each player is handed a stack. They must split this into two hands, the low-value ‘front’ hand and the more valuable ‘rear’ hand.

Pai Gow features several named pairs with different associated scores, and pairs always score higher than a hand with no pairs, which has a score equal to the number of pips on the tiles, minus any tens digits.

If the player’s front and rear hands beat the dealer’s, they win, and they lose if neither beats the dealer. If their front beats the dealer but the rear loses to the dealer (and vice versa), the player would get back any money they bet.

Chinese checkers, one of the best Chinese board games

Chinese checkers

The best non-Chinese Chinese board game

This entry is a strange one, as Chinese checkers wasn’t invented in China. It’s actually a German adaptation of a game called Halma, invented in the USA in the late 19th century; the ‘Chinese checkers’ name is little more than a marketing ploy. Despite this, its popularity is immense, and it did make its way to China eventually (where it’s known as ‘Tiaoqi’).

If you’ve ever owned a collection of classic board games, you might recognise the board for Chinese checkers – the grid is star-shaped and filled with various brightly-coloured marbles. This is a strategy game for up to six people, where players compete to move their marbles to the opposite side of the board from where they started. This can be done with single-space moves, or by creating ‘hop’ chains where marbles jump over other marbles.

At Wargamer, we’ve created guides to the best tabletop games in a whole load of different styles and genres – from historical classics like these to the latest releases, and even (for players aged 18+) the best sex board games to try out with a partner. If you’re widening your collection, you might consider investing in a better play surface – for that, our guide to the best gaming tables can help.