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. Lovers of lighthearted afternoon games and brain-bending strategic decision-making alike will find these games rewarding.
Some of the world’s greatest classic board games and strategy board games came from China. The best board games stand the test of time, and plenty of traditional Chinese board games endure after thousands of years.
Despite their age, there’s still no bad time to learn how to play chess or how to play checkers – their Chinese variants, that is. These two are among our top choices for Chinese board games, but there are plenty left to explore.
These are the best Chinese board games in 2023:
- Chinese Go game – the best Chinese board game
- Chinese chess – the best Chinese strategy board game
- Mahjong – the most famous Chinese board game
- Pai Gow – the best Chinese domino game
- Chinese checkers – the best non-Chinese Chinese board game
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.
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.
The most famous Chinese board game
Mahjong is a Chinese board game that looks a bit like Dominoes and plays a bit like 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 find as an online board game – there was even a time when you could find a solitaire edition of it on Microsoft computers everywhere.
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.
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.