SUMMER IS A time for over-the-top amusements — roller coasters, big boats, blockbuster movies. But sometimes its most profound pleasures are in the little things, like beach reads and fresh vegetables from the garden. My small, somewhat nerdy summer joy is long, hot nights playing board games, a throwback to the old days when Scrabble was the only cure for preteen boredom on family vacations in sticky Sarasota, Florida. In fact, though summer’s more exciting pursuits are undeniable, the beauty of board games is as a wholesome escape from the sensationalism, FOMO, and distraction of modern life. It’s a chance to put down the phone, turn off the Netflix, step away from the teeming crowds, and focus on something tangible and intimate right there in front of you. Picture it: a small quiet cabin in the woods, crickets chirping, a glass of white wine with an ice cube in it, good friends, Monopoly. What could be better?
There’s only one problem: Board games aren’t what they used to be. I remember the textured feel of the wooden tiles from the ancient Scrabble set at my grandpa’s house, where I learned to play. I open up a version now to find flimsy plastic. Same for Monopoly. Its now cheap-feeling pieces were once weighty battleships, thimbles, Scottie dogs, and top hats that felt like silver tokens — appropriate and evocative for a game in which Gatsby-esque robber baron capitalism is the conceit. Like with so many things, what was once made with care is now made without. And unfortunately, a flimsy board can shatter the nostalgic, heartwarming illusion of a good game of anything, from chess to backgammon and on up.
Never fear. There is a smattering of companies out there faithfully keeping the fantasy alive, making fancy-schmancy versions of board games so beautiful you’ll be proud to display them on your coffee table. My suggestion? Put down the more excessive diversions, take a break from the clamor of summer, and, if only for a night, pick up one of these gorgeous sets made for the discerning board-game geek.
The dream in life — at least my dream in life — is a house decked out with random bits and bobs from Hermès’ elevated, extravagant homeware: gorgeous porcelain plates covered in illustrated horses, modernist wooden tissue boxes, an art deco (I kid you not) watch winder. But I’d start with their playing cards, which turn something everyday into a fun and fashionable flex. Most playing cards look more or less the same, but Hermès gives you something special. They are made in France, edged in silver, beautifully illustrated, and boxed in a signature shade of Hermès orange. Which is to say: If you’re not quite ready for a horse saddle, here’s a humbler way to bring a little Hermès into your home. SHOP
The Holy Grail of luxury board games, this infamous chess set was designed in 1920 by Surrealist visual artist Man Ray. Chess is the one game with no shortage of beautiful boards, but Man Ray’s is timelessly, quietly cool, with unusual — but light and elegant — geometric pieces, like the head of a violin for a knight. Playing chess on a board like this makes you feel exactly how you want to feel when playing chess: smart, a bit old-world, and slightly opulent. My boyfriend keeps his out on the coffee table in the living room, and I never don’t get a little bit of happiness out of just looking at it. SHOP
Played since the seventeenth century, mythic backgammon deserves a stately setting. This is it. Brunello Cucinelli’s board is handmade in Italy, a smooth, dark board you imagine using while sipping sambuca with three coffee beans in the glass — a symbol of wealth, health, and happiness according to Italian legend. This is the Lake Como of backgammon boards: impossibly luxurious yet natural, warm, and authentic to the touch. SHOP
The MoMA Design Store is super good at finding products that turn everyday items into fun art objects, like the Dusen Dusen tissue box holders that somehow make Kleenex seem cool. Scrabble is my absolute favorite board game, and its nerdy nature demands a smart board like this one. For starters, it’s intelligently built — the board itself has a cabinet to hold the many loose pieces so they won’t get lost in the cardboard game box. It rotates too, allowing every player on every side of the table to have a good view. Best of all? The tiles are real wood, just as I remembered them. SHOP
Yes, there are about a million puzzle options out there, ranging from super easy to nearly impossible 1,000-piece sets, from Gauguin paintings to watercolors of cute cats. But c’mon — there’s something incredibly swaggy about having a Louis Vuitton puzzle in your game collection. It’s a 200th-anniversary puzzle, with an embossed box and a plexiglass board, meaning this is a game you’ll be as proud to show off on your coffee table as any true objet d’art. SHOP
Alex Frank Writer
Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.