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Free and Inexpensive Tabletop Games to Play During Social Distancing
As many of you know, one of my lifelong hobbies has been tabletop gaming — board games, card games, storytelling games and so forth. If it involves gathering people around ta table to spend time together and play a game together, I tend to enjoy it.
This affinity has come in great handy during this period of social distancing. Our family has been spending a lot more time at home, which means that we’ve had a lot more time to play some of the many games we’ve collected over the years.
The truth is that tabletop games can be a really inexpensive and very social hobby. The key is to lean into playing games over and over rather than playing them once or twice and discarding them or hauling them off to Goodwill.
What follows are some suggestions on how you can inexpensively dip your toes into this hobby, potentially just with the items you already have in your home.
There are almost infinite games to be played with a standard deck of playing cards.
A standard deck of playing cards is the single best value in tabletop games. There’s a nearly infinite array of games that can be played with a pack of 52 cards, and the nice part is that most houses have a deck of playing cards (or two) stowed in a drawer somewhere, so you don’t need to buy anything to start playing.
A good resource for delving into the possibilities of what can be played with a deck of cards is the database of card game rules available from Bicycle. Since it manufactures playing cards, it adds a lot of value to its product to share as many card game rules as possible in a clear and easy-to-find way, and the company certainly has done that with its site.
Here are five games from their site that I particularly enjoy.
Texas hold’em poker is probably the most popular variant of poker in the world thanks to the heavy coverage of the game on ESPN over the past two decades. It can easily be played by two or more people and you can use coins or whatever other items you have on hand as chips for betting.
Gin rummy is my favorite variant of rummy. Gin leans heavily into bluffing and reading the other players and offers some interesting play choices, such as when to go for a “knock.”
Bridge is a wonderfully deep trick-taking game. The rules are simple, but once you start playing frequently, you begin to realize how many choices you really have in the bidding and in the play. This is probably my favorite game of all time with a deck of cards, but it takes some willing partners and quite a few games to really appreciate it.
Euchre was my preferred trick-taking game when I was in high school and is often played in the area where I grew up. It’s a simple, light trick-taking game that uses only a subset of the deck.
Spades, on the other hand, was my preferred trick-taking game in college. I spent many, many hours in the lounge of my freshman dormitory playing endless games of spades with a rotating group of people. It’s another light trick-taking game; I highly recommend the “bag” variant listed in the “How to Keep Score” section to make the bidding a little tougher.
Again, there are almost infinite games that can be played with a deck of cards. I encourage you to use the Bicycle database to find games that match your player count and the type of game you want to try.
If you also happen to have some dice and some coins at home, the number of games you can play grows substantially. I’d strongly encourage you to look at two books which may be available from your library or can be picked up inexpensively in e-book form if you want to try some very interesting and unusual games just using dice, cards, paper, and counters you have laying around the house.
The first book is an older book entitled Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson, which includes the rules for 38 games using household components. Some of these are amazingly good with a great combination of simple rules and depth, and several of them wound up being professionally published. For example, Focus merely requires a checkers set (or you can make one yourself from a piece of paper and some coins) and that game wound up being published on its own and won several awards.
The second book is a newer book entitled New Tactical Games with Dice and Cards by Reiner Knizia, which offers the rules for 50 more games that can be played using household components. Again, many of these hit that perfect mix of simple rules and depth; Decathlon is particularly good (and only requires eight dice).
There are many surprisingly good games you can print and play using your home printer.
If you have a printer at home, there are countless good options for games that can be printed using your home printer. Here are three that really stand out to me.
Monikers is basically a clever variant on games like charades and Apples to Apples. Each card describes a person, place or thing, and gives a point total. The game is played over three rounds. During the first round, you can use any words you want to describe what’s on the card so that your teammates guess it. During the second round, you can only use a single word. During the third round, you have to use gestures — no words. The part that makes it fun is that you use the same set of cards each round, so you rely on what was guessed in earlier rounds to figure out the crazy gestures people are making. You can print the cards and rules here.
Blooms is a two-player abstract strategy game with simple rules along the lines of go or chess, except that the end result of the game is a beautiful multicolored pattern on the board. I’ve played this many times with my oldest son and it’s one we often come back to. The rules page provides three different versions of the board — the six spaces per side version is a mind-bender.
If you have some card stock to use up in your home printer, Karmaka is a strategic card game for two to four players, played over a series of hands. It offers some really interesting choices; for example, if you play a card in one hand that’s really good, it will likely be taken by another player and set aside for their own future hand to be played against you. You can download the full print-and-play here.
There are many great board, card and storytelling games under $30 that you can have delivered to your home.
If those options aren’t enough for you, it’s worth noting that there’s been an enormous sea change in the quality and variety of published board games, card games, and other tabletop games in the last 30 years and particularly the last 10.
Today, games come in an almost infinite variety of lengths, themes and complexities. Many are cooperative, meaning the players work together rather than against each other. There are many great games that play very quickly, as well as strategic epics that take an entire afternoon. There truly has been a sea change in tabletop game design.
Here, I’ve listed five different board and card games that can be found for under $30. (Please note that any games I link to here had a $30 or lower price when I initially linked to them. Amazon uses variable pricing, so the price may be slightly above $30 when you check.) Each of these can be played under an hour and has approachable rules, and each of these work well for two to four players.
Splendor is a game with beautiful poker chip components that you gradually accumulate over the course of the game and then spend on victory point tiles and tiles that give you discounts on future tile purchases. Do you invest your chips in future discounts, or do you go straight for the points?
Dominion is a wonderful deck-building game, which means that you start a game with your own small deck of cards from which you draw hands, and as you play cards from your hand, you use their value to purchase better cards which are then added to your deck. It’s a great game with a ton of variety.
That’s So Clever is what I would describe as “next level Yahtzee.” The gameplay is similar to Yahtzee in that you roll dice and try to use the results to fill in your score sheet, but the dice have different uses based on their color and the other players get to use the dice you pass on.
Carcassonne is a wonderful tile-laying game where players gradually build a medieval city and countryside. On your turn, you simply draw a tile and add it to the “board” which is just a growing layout of tiles, and then optionally add one of your tokens to your new tile to score points based on the board layout.
Castles of Burgundy is a game I would feel remiss without mentioning here, as my wife and I have probably played this one more than any other as a couple’s game, often ending date nights with a game of this. In this game, you’re trying to build a small duchy for yourself out of hexagonal tiles and are restricted by which ones you can add due to dice rolls and other players sometimes taking the tiles you want.
Here are some games that work well for two players specifically.
While most of the games above work really well for two players (and three and four), there are a lot of great games designed specifically for just two players. Here are five of those, sticking with the under-$30 rule noted above.
7 Wonders Duel is a card selection and set building game where both players are competing civilizations trying to create a great military and cultural legacy. The game is loaded with decisions where you’re deciding whether to take a good card for yourself or take way a great card from your opponent that might not be as good for you.
Patchwork is a spatial game in which you take turns choosing Tetris-style pieces to add to your quilt, where your goal is to make the biggest perfect square quilt you can with no holes in it. If you like games like Tetris, you’ll love this one.
Lost Cities is a game where players try to play cards of different suits in ascending order, taking advantage of other players’ discards and the luck of the draw to make their own runs as valuable as possible. If you enjoy games like rummy, this is a great step up.
Morels is a card game in which you’re attempting to collect sets of mushrooms that will make a delicious dish together, while avoiding poisonous mushrooms. You choose cards from a row, trying to complete small sets and avoid being forced to select poisonous mushrooms. This is a great game if you like setting up traps for your opponent.
Star Wars X-Wing is something completely different. It’s a two-player game in which each player commands a small fleet of spaceships that battle against each other in a skirmish. The ships themselves are miniatures and the board is actually just the dimensions of the table. If you like Star Wars and a bit of complexity in your game, this one’s a lot of fun.
Many software options allow you to play board games remotely with friends.
What if you’re in a situation like myself, where you sometimes have game nights with your friends but you’re now all separated by social distancing or by actual distance? You can actually play a lot of popular board games on your computers, using separate voice or video chat tools so that you can talk to and see each other.
There are two different popular systems for playing games online that simulate the feel of actually being at a table with your friends – Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator.
Tabletop Simulator has an up-front cost for the basic software, which comes with a number of titles. There are many, many more board game titles available for free (however, it is worth noting that many of them just involve the graphics for the components on the table and offer no rules enforcement), and you can also buy DLC that includes really well-executed versions of different games (usually including rules enforcement, which helps guide you toward legal moves).
Tabletopia uses a different approach. The basic software is free and offers a few games, but Tabletopia relies on a subscription model, where a small monthly fee ($5 or $10) gives you access to a much wider array of titles.
Another less-costly option is to play board games in your web browser for free. There are quite a few board games available for free play in web browsers. My two favorite options in this category are Board Game Arena and Yucata, both of which offer an enormous array of board games with full rules enforcement within your web browser. On both sites, you can play a live game there while enabling voice or video chat with friends using another service, as described above.
You can also play boardgame apps on your smart device. Lots of classic games are available in app form with online play, like chess (iOS, Android) and Scrabble. Here are three more reasonably priced apps that are well worth trying.
Ticket to Ride (iOS, Android) is a beautiful implementation of this modern classic board game for two to five players. Players compete to complete routes across the country matching their private goals by collecting sets of identically colored cards. This works great as a pass-and-play game, which our family sometimes do on family evenings when we’re watching a familiar movie.
Star Realms (iOS, Android) is my favorite simpler example of a deck-building game, in which each player starts with a small deck of cards that they’ll draw from throughout the game, reshuffling from their own discard pile when they run out, and adding better and better cards as the game goes on. It plays quickly and offers nice pass-and-play and online play modes.
Brass is one of my favorite board games of all time, so I’d feel like I would be missing something if I didn’t mention this excellent app version of the game here. A game that self-describes as “Monopoly for grown-ups,” Brass involves players building an economic network in Industrial Revolution-era Britain, using clever cardplay and good prediction of what the other players might do. It has a learning curve, but it’s great, and the app works wonderfully in pass-and-play mode and with online play with others who have the app.
Expand your horizons a bit with roleplaying and storytelling games.
Perhaps your family is less into board and card games and more into things like telling stories or making up adventures together? The idea of something like Dungeons and Dragons seems intriguing, but the learning curve seems steep and you might not want an ongoing adventure or an all-day session, and maybe you’d like some variety beyond flavors of fantasy.
You might want to consider some of these options. Each of these games is very inexpensive (usually just requiring a single paperback book or an e-book along with some paper and pens and maybe a few dice), easy to learn, and focuses much more on telling stories and creating characters than competing and solving puzzles.
Here are five examples I’ve played myself that are easy to learn and perfect for families (with some caveats). All cost less than $25, and most of them have a PDF or e-book version available for a fraction of that. All of these can be played in a single session and you can figure out the basics with just a few pages of reading, and they span all kinds of different genres.
Fiasco is a storytelling game in which three to five players take on the role of a character trying to deal with, well, a fiasco — some kind of scenario where everything goes haywire. These settings come from all kinds of fictional situations, from high fantasy to bank heists to music festivals. The players create the story as they go and the goal is to create an entertaining and engaging one. Be aware that some of the suggested scenarios deal with mature themes, so you may want to stick to teenagers with this one and review the scenarios before you play.
Microscope is a game I used with my kids to create a world in which I told them bedtime stories for years; I basically ran the entire game and let them contribute ideas. Basically, Microscope is a game for three to five players where you create a world together, one with a distinct history, people and key events. The goal is to create an interesting world, and if you love what you create, you can use it as a setting in other games or simply make up stories within that world you’ve made.
Dialect is a game for three to five players about isolated communities where the people create their own language and words for things unique to their experience, like people shipwrecked on an island or people who are the first to reach a livable planet outside of our solar system. The game comes with a system for making up these words, sharing them, and using them to tell stories. In my experience, the words make up in games of Dialect sometimes actually pop up in conversations between the players later on outside of the game, keeping the game alive in a fashion. This is a great game for a family with thoughtful teenagers who enjoy reading and wordplay.
Fate is what you want if you want a simplified version of D&D-style gameplay. (You don’t actually need the mentioned Fate dice, just use normal ones from another game and pretend 1 and 2 are -, 3 and 4 are blank, and 5 and 6 are +.) The basic rulebook is free and it plays very smoothly with three to five players with one player as the gamemaster (who will need to read the rules and select a scenario in advance). While the system works well for fantasy, you can use the same rules in many other types of settings like superheroes or science fiction.
If you want to try a game like this with just two players, I highly recommend Inhuman Conditions (which has a free print and play version). It’s a two-player game where one person is the interrogator trying to figure out if the other person is a human or a robot. The other player, regardless if they’re secretly human or robot, is trying to convince the interrogator that they’re human. Humans have no restrictions in this, but robots have some kind of glitch that slightly restricts what they can say. If the interrogator at the end mistakes a human for a robot, both players lose. If the interrogator mistakes a robot for a human, the robot wins. If the interrogator is right, the interrogator wins. It’s a really wonderful short game!
Gaming is all about having fun around a table with people whose company you enjoy.
Some people thrive on games that make them think strategically, while others seek out games that encourage creative thinking. Some people like to think logically, while others love to create stories. There are inexpensive games that scratch all kinds of itches, and with these resources, you can try lots of different games and find ones that work for you.