If you’re looking for a board game that offers something different to Monopoly, Cluedo et al, then here’s a whole bunch of recommendations.
Every year, I try to recommend some very simple but very good board games, the kind of thing you can play with pretty much anybody. It’s a weird year, though, so I’m going to emphasise a) two player games, b) small games and c) cheap games. I’ve also found a home for it on the Film Stories website too.
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My first recommendation is The Crew, or The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine if you must. Games buffs already know it – it won some big prizes – but this game can, and really should, have huge crossover appeal. It’s a co-op card game in the ‘trick taking’ style (ie. Whist, Spade, Trumps) and you’ll learn the rules in 45 seconds.
The Crew checks two of my major boxes for 2020 recommendations: it’s cheap and very accessible. On the other hand, you really want at least three players to get the best out of this. Playing with two needs special rules and it just isn’t the same at all.
Cheap, small and explicitly for two players is Volterra. I’ve not had long with this game yet but I liked it immediately and it does one of the things I love most about games: it’s very simple rules open up huge possibilities.
Volterra‘s pieces are comprised entirely of wood, which fits the classic groove perfectly. Somehow, though, the gameplay reminds me (in some ways) of 1980s computer game The Sentinel. Anyway, this is a great “one more game!” that can be as thinky as you like.
Taking a break from newer games that seem like they’ll stick around and be classics, here are some options that have already passed the test of time. While Gloom might not get mentioned much these days, I still adore it.
You can play Gloom as a simple, fun and fast ‘tableau building’-ish card game, or you can (if you’re so inclined) play it as a kind of storytelling game, with each card played inspiring the next twist in the tale. The Gorey/Addams style see-through cards are just lovely.
Players take it in turns building a medieval landscape, tile by tile, and compete to score points for its roads, cities, abbeys and so on. It’s the bed rock for so many ’tile laying’ games that followed. My wife and I find it especially relaxing, and have played it more than any other game.
The clever design of Flamme Rouge has resulted in a fun, endlessly replayable game that somehow packs the feeling and strategies of real cycling into a cardboard box.
I’m not hugely convinced by a lot of ‘staples’ like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit (the board bit gets in the way of the trivia) but there’s a lot to be said for Scrabble, I think. But it’s not the only word game. My favourite example of the genre is Paperback. There’s a sequel called Hardback but they’re quite different – Paperback is the wordier one, rewarding better words more, while Hardback is more about card play, ‘deck building’ and strategy.
I’m delighted that Pandemic, with its co-operative play and message of global collaboration, is one of the best-selling board games of recent years. There are genius ideas in the design that escalate its thrills brilliantly. If you’ve never played a co-op game before, start here. My single most beloved board game of all is Pandemic Legacy: Season One, a ‘serialised’ version of Pandemic that you can only play 12 to 24 times.
It’s a board game with a plot, packed with twists and surprising ideas. If you’ve played Pandemic a half-dozen times, go here next. Why can you only play it 12 to 24 times? Because as the plot unfolds, the board changes, new pieces and new rules come into play, the game mutates, the story advances – and eventually, you reach the big climax. After Season 1, Season 2 and new prequel Season 0 await.
2020 saw the (topical) release of Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America. It’s Pandemic in a smaller box with a shorter playtime and cheaper price tag. It adds a couple of new challenges but I don’t think it quite matches the original. I’m glad to have a quick-play option, though.
Back to newer games that I’ve taken to heart very quickly and Silver & Gold, a ‘flip and write’ game that comes in a small box and seems extremely simple. If you’re hardcore, however, there’s a wealth of strategy to be unlocked here. Silver & Gold is similar to a few other games, especially Cartographers and Patchwork Doodle but I’d say it’s the one that best strikes the balance of ‘learn in a minute, play for a lifetime.’ This is not surprising from designer Phil Walker-Harding. That’s usually his thing.
Phil Walker-Harding games also include Cacao and Bärenpark. I’ve been recommending his game Sushi Go! (and the bigger Sushi Go Party!) for years. They’re the games where he distilled the idea of ‘card drafting’ down to irresistible essentials. Classics.
His new game is Cloud City. It has the most elegant rules and is a totally fuss-free way to get right into fun, inventive gaming within seconds of opening the box. An even simpler tile-laying game than Carcassonne and, if you like to just play for fun, every bit as relaxing.
From games with elegant rules to a game where you might want to ignore most rules and just play it (or at least score it) however you want (or not at at all). In Just One, players come up with clues to a word but if multiple people come up with the same clue, it’s not given.
Warning: you can’t play Just One with less than three players, and you probably want at least four. It’s better with five, and best with six or seven. A really great, extremely moreish alternative to parlour games like Charades, Botticelli or anything like that.
Sherlook has a daft pun title but it’s a great ‘spot the details’ game. Messy cartoon crime scene cards are covered in evidence and players rush to count inconsistencies. It’s fast paced, loud and can feel quite intense – though if your eyesight isn’t good, you might struggle.
Another game that rewards visual acuity is Illusion. It’s basically the gamification of optical illusions, in which players attempt to rank images based on what proportion of each is comprised of a certain colour. I like this one a lot, especially when it messes with my head.
The ‘quick reaction’ games in the Geistes Blitz/Ghost Blitz series work well with even young players from about 5 years up. I prefer these to Dobble, and I like Geistes Blitz 5 vor 12 best – you can play it in easier and trickier modes. In each fast-paced round, a card is flipped and will reveal which of the wooden items on the table is the odd one out. The first player to grab that item scores the point – grab the wrong one, though, and you’re penalised.
Three or more players
Perhaps the simplest, loudest and most raucous game in this vein is Happy Salmon. You’ll need three players and probably want four or five, as well as the ability to stand and rush about. It’s ridiculous. Brilliantly ridiculous. Get two sets with different colour cards for more players.
While we’re discussing super-streamlined games for three or more players, here’s Skull. It’s an absolute board game essential and it’s also simple enough to learn before you even know you’ve learned it. If you’ve got 2 to 5 more people to play with, you need this game. Promise.
There’s so much flavour of the classic Universal horror movies in Horrifiedthat it simply looks and feels great. It also plays nicely too, though there are obvious debts to Pandemic and Thunderbirds (yes, that Thunderbirds, which was from Pandemic‘s designer Matt Leacock).
The game is variable in a neat way, with different combinations of Universal monsters providing different challenges for the players to overcome together. I was also delighted that Abbot and Costello (or at least their characters Chick and Wilbur) show up too. Nerdy. Delicious.
Another game just rippling with movie nerdiness, though no official tie-in status, is Caper, formerly known as It’s Mine. This is a card game dressed up like a heist caper (funnily enough) and is for two players with (not great) variants for three and four. Stick to two!
The other great heist game is Burgle Bros., from Paperback‘s designer Tim Fowers. It’s slightly more complex than most of the games on the list but it’s co-operative so you can help one another and make sure you’re doing things right.
I could go on. To wrap up, some games you might already know but which deserve a quick mention because they are well-honed, long-lasting classics. Dixit (3-6 players/12 if you get Dixit Odyssey). Dominion(2-4 players) Ticket to Ride (2-5 players) and Splendor (2-4 players).
Leave your own suggestions in the comments!
Lead image: BigStock
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