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Tabletop Tutor: Little Games, Big Experiences

By Loyd Case

Board games can take up a lot of spaces--shelves full, if you're a collector. But here are some smaller games that you can throw in a backpack or handbag and play at a moment's notice. But don't let the size and low cost of these games fool you; many are real gems.

Board games take up space. They take up a lot of space. The hundred or so games in my collection take over three eight-foot bookcases, and I’m always looking for more room. Taking board games to local gaming cons or meetup groups means I have to choose three or four, because lugging them around takes substantial effort. Unpacking and setting up some games can take a good half-hour. Play time can take an hour or three.

Not all games are like that. Some take up very little space, can easily be thrown into a backpack or handbag. They can be pulled out at a moment’s notice, set up in a few minutes and give you a substantial tabletop gaming experience before your lunch break is over. These little games often cost much less, but don’t let the size and low cost of some of these games fool you. Many are real gaming gems.

I generally sort these games into a couple of bins in my mind. One bin are small filler games that take only a few minutes to play and can be a precursor to other games. Most people think of these filler games when they think of small games, but not all little games are filler. The other bin are more substantial games which happen to be physically small and easily transportable, but give you a more robust gaming experience. Let's go over some of my favorite small games that offer big experiences.

Quick and Dirty Games

Dice.

Lots of dice.

Variants on a push-your-luck theme

Zombie Dice and Martian Dice are the lightest of fare. A single round, even with five or six people, only takes a few minutes. A complete game, which can take a few rounds, wraps up in 15 or 20 minutes. With the right group, these games can also get pretty raucous, so they’re great to bring out in restaurants, bars or other parties, where being a little loud is just part of the landscape. In both games, you roll a bunch of dice. The die faces show good or bad outcomes; good outcomes can score points, but bad ones are often set aside. You then decide whether to keep the points and stop rolling, or keep going. If you’re ever beaten by the negative outcomes, you lose all the points for that round. The key decision point is simple: to you stop, and collect your points, or go for higher scores?

At first glance, Dungeon Roll seems similar to Zombie Dice or Martian Dice. First, there’s the handful of custom dice. Second, there’s the push-your-luck element. Third, you can play an entire game in 20 minutes.

The similarity really ends there, however. Dungeon Roll condenses a miniature dungeon crawl into a handful of dice and a bunch of cards.

Dungeon Roll captures the essence of a dungeon crawl in this small, treasure-shaped box.

I love me a good dungeon crawl, but games like Descent or Arkham Horror can take hours and take up a lot of table space. If you’ve got a half-hour, a couple of rounds of Dungeon Roll can be very satisfying. Each round is called a “dungeon delve”. The player to the left of the active player represents the dungeon lord and rolls a number of black dice depending on dungeon level; each face represents a type of monster or a treasure. The active player rolls the white dice; the outcome of that roll represents his party companions. Certain companions can kill certain types of monsters more easily. As dragon faces come up on the dungeon dice, they’re set aside until there are three dragons, whereupon the party fights the dragon.

The push-your-luck element comes about as you decide how deep into the dungeon you want to delve. But there’s more to that. You have a character card, and the card has two facings. You flip the card over to level the character up when you get five experience points (collected during the delve.) Play continues until all players have completed three delves. If you ever are defeated by the dragon, your party flees the dungeon and gain no points.

Dungeon Roll offers strategy elements beyond the pure push-your-luck of Zombie Dice and Martian Dice. It’s by no means a deep game, but is nevertheless satisfying.

Love Letter, a Mini Game

Love Letter is an amazing game. It’s often called a mini-game, which makes sense given that the game components consist of just 16 cards, four reference cards, 13 tokens and the small, but cool velvet bag which holds all the components.

Physically, there’s not much to the game. But it’s deeper than it looks…

The theme is one of courtly deception and bluffing. You’re trying to win the hand of the princess, but she’s not taking visitors, so you need to work through her entourage (represented by the cards.)

Gameplay mechanics are really simple, and quickly learned after just one round of play. Your hand is one card. You draw a card, discard a card. You earn tokens of affection (cubes) whenever you win a round. The first player to win a set number of tokens wins the game; in a four player game, it would be the first player to win four cubes. You can get eliminated from a round, but the rounds are pretty short, so you won’t suffer much downtime.

Doesn't seem very deep, right? The cards are the key. Each has a special ability and a strength. The strongest card is the Princess (rank 8), but if you’re ever discard it, you’re automatically out. The weakest card is the Guard (rank 1), but you can force a player out if you correctly guess what card that player is holding. On the other hand, if you play the Handmaiden (rank 4), you can ignore any other player’s card effects for a turn. Other cards force players to discard, secretly share hands and so on.

Note also that each round changes slightly, because you remove a card at random prior to the start of the round.

So a lot of the game is bluffing. I’ve seen players win holding the Princess for the entire round by simply bluffing or fading into the background with careful card play. I’ve seen players forced out at the last minute, just when you think they might win the round. It’s a fabulous little psychological game that’s extremely portable and takes relatively little time to play. But when you’re done, you feel like you’ve played a pretty substantial game. Love Letter is well worth the $10-12 it typically costs.

Big Games in Small Packages

Some games attempt–sometimes with mixed success–to build a big game experience into a small package that can also be played in a fairly short time.

Eight Minute Empire seems overly ambitious, promising an area control, set collection and bidding game in under a half-hour. However, it mostly delivers, although randomness can be a problem.

The game board is a compact 8-1/2 x 11 inches when unfolded. It’s also double-sided; each side offers different strategic challenges. Six cards are laid out above the board, with each card representing both a good you collect and an action you play. Players start with eight gold pieces, but the gold is used to bid on turn order but only at the start of the game! Turn order is fixed for the remainder of the game after the initial bidding round. You also get 14 armies (cubes) and three city tokens (disks.) Play then proceeds clockwise from the winning player.

Don’t bid all your gold, though. As first player, you get first pick of the cards. But depending on how the cards came out, the cost for a card can range from free to three gold, and if you bid too much gold, you’re limited to the low cost or free cards. Since you only see the first round of cards face up, winning first player isn’t necessarily all that great, unless a really good card comes up right away. So if the card you want most is free, you can bid higher. As the cards are picked up, new cards come out in random order, so good cards may be free, or not, depending on when and how they come out, and who picks up which card.

Each card has an action. Actions include:

  • Removing other player’s armies

  • Moving armies (sea movement and land movement are different)

  • Putting down a city (but only where you have an army)

  • Creating armies (but only in the starting location, or where you have cities)

Each card also has a good on it: food, minerals, etc. Collecting sets of these give you additional points at the end of the game. The game ends when each player has a set number of cards (seven for a five player game.) Points are also gained by controlling a region (by having the most armies there) and controlling a continent (by owning the most regions.) So you’re faced with a balancing act: go for more cards or conquer territory. Going for cards can be a challenge, because your starting gold is all you get during the game. So that often means you’ll try to wait for a key card. But on the other hand, you can’t move or build unless you get the card you want. Choosing cards has real ramifications.

And it all plays out in a half-hour. You can go for best two out of three if you like. It’s an impressive little game, and for $20, you should get a lot of game play.

Another classic game that’s compact and easy to carry is Citadels. Ostensibly a game of city building and role selection, the actual heart of the game is the backstabbing metagame. The different character roles give you different abilities, many of which allow you to seriously screw with the other players. However, the game plays out in numerical order (each character card has a number.) Since the assassin is character number one, and can eliminate another character from the round…

Try to build your city district while preventing other players from building theirs. It’s fun. Really.

The trick here is that each game round consists of a character draft. While each character is chosen in secret, you have a sliver of advance knowledge, in that two are placed face up, but aren’t used. So you know something about what characters aren’t in play.

As the game proceeds, you’re building your city by playing cards down from your hand. Your character gives you some abilities, like swapping cards with another player, stealing gold, destroying buildings in play, and so on. The net result of all the character abilities is a high degree of chaos, as players directly or indirectly attack each other while trying to build the city. Just remember, it’s a game, and don’t take anything that happens during the game personally.

The Resistance is another compact card game of hidden information, bluffing and deduction. You want a least five players, and up to ten are supported. The idea is similar to Werewolf, in that there are two factions, the Resistance and the Spies. The Resistance is trying to complete three missions, while spies are trying to prevent those same missions from being completed. Spies know each other, but the members of the Resistance don’t know who the spies are. The fun is in trying to complete missions as the Resistance, while trying to figure out who the Spies are.

It goes a little deeper, though. Each mission consists of a team-building phase in which the Leader (initially chosen at the game start) builds a team for each mission. Not everyone can be on a team, and the entire group votes on who can be on a specific team. Note that five failed voting rounds means the Spies automatically win that round.

Next up is the mission phase. Each player on the mission team votes to support or sabotage the mission. If three missions succeed, the Resistance wins. If three fail, the Spies win. After each mission, the Leader is passed to the next player.

While the spies have a big advantage – they know who they are – they have to play somewhat judiciously, or the members of the Resistance will figure out who the spies are – and there are always more Resistance players than Spies. It’s a great game for parties and casual groups, but as with Citadels, don’t take anything that happens during the game personally!

No Excuses

Now you have no excuses. These compact games travel easily, play in relatively little time and can often engage people who aren’t really board gamers. They’re also relatively inexpensive, unlike big box board games, so you don’t need a huge monetary investment to acquire quite a number of these little games. So pack any one or more of these games into your backpack, briefcase or handbag and you’ll have the ability to suck people into a game wherever you are.

Drop a note in the comments and let us know what your favorite small scale games are.