It’s all fun and games to drop $100+ on that fancy new Kickstarter, but every now and then I have to remind myself that some of my favorite moments gaming have come from some very small boxes, often containing nothing more than a deck of cards and a few tokens. Given the current economical situation many of us may find ourselves in, I thought it might be appropriate to bring to light some of my favorite bargain board games. All of these are games that play quickly, are easy to teach, and always result in a good time. If you are on a budget but still have that itch to purchase a new game, I recommend you start with one of these.
Few games can invoke as many sarcastic remarks as No Thanks! I recommend just pulling it out onto the table as opposed to asking others if they’d like to play it (if you know what I mean). No Thanks! is a press your luck game, with multi-layered levels of luck pushing goodness. Each round a card from a deck of numbers from 3-35 is flipped face-up, after which players participate in a backwards bid of sorts. On a players turn they have the option of refusing to take the card but adding a -1 chip to the card, or they may take the card along with any previously placed -1 chips. A new card is flipped up and play continues with the player who took the previous card.
This game is quite different than most others, players want to score the least amount of points possible. Each card you take scores the value print on it…unless you can create some sort of run, in which case you only score the lowest value in the run. In addition, every -1 chip you’ve taken during the game is subtracted from your score. The twist is nine random cards are removed at the beginning of the game, so you can never quite be certain the card you need to complete your run is in the game. Between the playing chicken for the cards and hoping to complete runs, this game will have you laughing and cursing simultaneously.
Zany Penguins (or Arboretum)
One of the most sought after card games of about 5 years ago was Arboretum. It has since been reprinted and is very much available now, and still a game I own and highly recommend. I considered putting it on this list, but it may be a little too long and complex for this list. A great alternative is Zany Penguins. Yes, the theme is quite silly but the game is full tension and tough decisions. The games deck is made up of 5 different suits of cards each one represent a different location the penguins are fighting to control. Within each suit there are penguins numbered from 1-9. At the beginning of the game each player receives a personal deck of cards from which they will be adding to their hand at the start of each round.
The game is played simultaneously, with players drawing cards, passing one to the opponent on either side and then playing a card facedown before revealing it. As the game plays out, both the player’s tableau of and their hand of cards will to grow. There are a few special cards that trigger when they are revealed but all players have the same objective…control the various suits. At the end of the game the player with the highest total of played cards in a each given suit will get to score all the remaining cards of that suit left in their hand, while each other layer with at least a single card played of the given getting to score the lowest card of the suit left in their hand. There is a lot of interesting decisions to be made as you struggle to control a suit while also maintaining cards to score.
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
I am a big fan of trick-taking games. These games have their roots in classic card games played with a regular deck of cards like Hearts and Spades. Modern games have added themes and tweaked the mechanics a little, but few have dared to try something as bold as The Crew. You see, this is one of the few cooperative trick-taking games out in the wild. Players play as a, well, “crew” of astronauts on a lengthy mission in space. The game is broken out into 50 smaller missions/scenarios. Each one will task players with certain requirements necessary to walk away victorious and continue on their voyage in space.
Sounds fairly simple, right? Well, like many coop games, there’s more than meets the eye. First and foremost, players are not able to verbally communicate as to what cards they actually have in their hands. The do have the opportunity to share one little piece of information each game from which other players will have to infer the information and apply it to their decisions. Throughout the game players will be required to win tricks containing certain cards, possible in a certain order. It truly requires all players to share a level of focus and determination that few games cram into such a short amount of time.
A classic bargain game is Sushi Go. It’s a quick little drafting game that has players trying to draft the assortments of sushi that will score them the most points. The game was so popular that a sequel, Sushi Go Party, was made that expanded not only the playercount, but also added a board and new combinations of cards. Last year a somewhat similar game hit the market called Point Salad. While it may seem funny someone created a game around the phrase used to describe games with multitudes of ways to score, this game really does drive the point home. All the game contains is 100 or so vegetable cards each with a different score condition on the back.
Each turn a player may select from an assortment of vegetable cards or the scoring card that serves as the top card of the few vegetable decks. That’s it, couldn’t be simpler, right? Well as the game progresses and you collection of scoring cards and vegetable cards grows it may not be so obvious which vegetable will actually net you the most points in the long run, will it be the one that scores 1 point a piece? Or will it be the one when paired with the other two required vegetables scores you 5 points? What’s more players can easily see the vegetable that is on the back of each their score cards, with the option to permanently flip it from the scoring side to the vegetable side, hopefully in an effort to increase the number of points they can score.
Who hasn’t dreamed of being a real estate mogul? Ok, probably not most people, but we’ve all dreamed about being rich, right? In For Sale players start with a little cash and will need to wisely invest it into potential real estate properties, all so they can turn around and sell those properties for a huge profit. The driving mechanics behind the game are two different styles of auctions, one for the first half of the game and the other for the second half.
During the first half of the game each round will reveal on property per player, valued from 0-30. Players will then go around the table bidding to get the best property. If a player does not wish to raise the current bid, they mush pay half of any previous bid and then take the lowest valued card. The player who wins the bid gets the high card but pays their full bid. After all cards have been purchased a number of checks equal to the number of players are flipped face up. Players will now simultaneously select a property to bid on these checks. After revealing their cards the highest valued property gets dibs at the highest check while the lowest value card could wind up with the $0 check, so bid carefully. The game is a lot of fun when with careful timing you can get more for your sewer manhole than the player to your right got for their lakefront property.
There really are so many great little card games out there. It’s a real shame that they don’t get the praise and attention they deserve. A few of my other favorites and recommendations are Skull King, Red7, Illusion, The Mind, Silver & Gold, Kingdomino, That’s Pretty Clever, and Coloretto. What are you’re favorite small box bargain buy games?