Games have been around much longer than gaming systems. Decades and even centuries before computers ever came on the scene, people spent their evenings sitting around a table with their friends and family members, playing games of all kinds – from cards, to checkers, to charades. And even in this modern, high-tech world, these old-fashioned games are as much fun as ever.
If the only way you’ve ever played a game is sitting in front of a screen, then you’re missing out on a whole world of possibilities. Tabletop gaming offers a huge variety of choices, including board games, card games, and role-playing games (RPGs) – some of which don’t require any equipment beyond a pencil and a sheet of paper. There are small-scale board games you can play with just two people, and big party games you can play with all the friends you can fit into a room.
With so many types to choose from, tabletop gaming offers something for everyone.
Even in an age of sophisticated computer games, board games are undergoing a renaissance. Not long ago, the only board games for sale in big-box stores were classics like Scrabble, Risk, Monopoly, and Clue. Today, the game aisles in those same stores are bulging with an ever-growing assortment of games, including new imports from Germany and Japan. Even chain bookstores now devote a significant chunk of their floor space to games.
These new games aren’t necessarily cheap. Many of the newer German-style games, which focus on high-quality craftsmanship with wooden pieces, cost $50 or more – about the same price as a console video game. But spending this much on a board game can be a better value because, unlike a video game that you’ll likely play through once to the end and then put aside, a good board game can provide unlimited hours of play.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Cheapass Games. Along with its full-priced games, this publisher offers inexpensive “white box” games that are deliberately made with low production values, using cheap cardboard and leaving out extras many people already have, such as pawns and dice. It even has a page of completely free games on its website, where you can download rules and printable boards and cards for more than 30 different games.
Here are several games that contributors to BoardGameGeek.com recommend as good choices for new players:
- Ticket to Ride by Days of Wonder, in which players compete to travel between different cities on the map by railway. There are several different versions of the game featuring maps of different areas, including the United States, Europe, Germany, and Scandinavia. Price: $30. Players: Two to five players, ages eight and up. Time to Play: 30 to 60 minutes.
- Carcassonne by Z-Man Games. In this German game, players create the game board by laying down tiles to form a landscape, then place their pawns – also known as “meeples” – on the board to lay claim to roads, cities, fields, and so on. Price: $35. Players: Two to five players, ages eight and up. Time to Play: 30 to 45 minutes.
- King of Tokyo by IELLO, a free-for-all between giant monsters all vying to destroy Tokyo – and each other. Price: $40. Players: 2 to 6 players, ages 8 and up. Time to Play: 30 minutes.
- Dixit by Libellud, a game of creative guesswork featuring exquisitely illustrated cards. Score points by guessing which of the cards played matches another player’s description, or by getting other players to guess your card. Price: $30. Players: Three to six players, ages six and up. Time to Play: 30 minutes.
- Catan (formerly The Settlers of Catan) by Mayfair Games, the game that triggered the resurgence of board games when it first came out in 1995. It’s played on a randomly generated map of an island, where players compete to accumulate resources and build settlements and cities, all while avoiding the dastardly Robber. Price: $28. Players: Three to four players, ages 10 and up. Time to Play: One to two hours.
A standard pack of playing cards costs less than $5, and you can use it to play hundreds of different games. Pagat.com provides the rules for hundreds of card games, which you can sort by name, number of players, region of the world where they’re played, or general type, such as trick-taking games or draw-and-discard games. The site has one large section dedicated solely to poker, which covers the standard ranking of poker hands, the betting process, history, strategy, and rules for hundreds of different variations of the game.
Currently, the five most popular games at Pagat.com are:
- Spades. The standard version of Spades is a trick-taking game for at least two sets of partners. In each round, one player puts down the first card, and others must play cards of the same suit, with the highest card taking the trick (all the cards played that round). However, if you don’t have a card of the suit that was played, you can instead play a spade, which is a trump card – so the highest spade played on a turn wins the trick. The goal is to successfully predict how many tricks your team can take in total.
- Rummy. The object of this game is to get rid of all the cards in your hand by using them to form sets (groups of cards with the same number or letter) and runs (groups of three or more cards in a series, such as 7-8-9 in any suit). Players take turns picking up a card from the deck and then laying down sets and runs from their hands or adding to those already on the table. The basic game is for two to six players, using a standard 52-card deck. The site also provides rules for dozens of variant versions.
- Gin Rummy. This two-player variant of rummy is one of the most popular versions of the game. Each player gets 10 cards, and each card has a value – either the number shown on the card or 10 points for a face card. When you go out (lay down your last card), you score points for the total value of the unmatched cards in your opponent’s hand, minus the value of unmatched cards in your own. The winner is the first player to get to 100 points.
- Spit. The object of this two-player game is to get rid of all your cards as fast as possible. Each player gets half the deck and deals out five “stock piles,” with only the top card visible in each pile. Players then move cards as fast as they can from their stock piles to two shared “spit piles,” with the rule that the discarded card must be next in sequence to the top card of the pile, either up or down. The challenge of the game is to play one of your cards to an open slot before your opponent does.
- Cheat. This game is usually called Cheat in Britain or I Doubt It (or a less polite name abbreviated as “BS”) in the U.S. The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards by discarding sets of cards, face down, and calling out their rank – for instance, “Three sevens.” The catch is that the ranks must be played in order, starting with aces and going up to kings before starting over. Since cards are played face down, you don’t actually have to have the cards you claim to be playing. However, if another player calls your bluff by saying “Cheat,” or “I doubt it,” you must pick up the whole pile. On the other hand, if the challenger is wrong, they must pick up the whole pile.
In addition to the games played with the standard card deck, there are numerous games played with specialized decks, such as Uno and Love Letter by Funagain Games and Fluxx by Looney Labs. Because they require only cards to play, these games tend to be cheaper than commercial board games – usually $15 or less.
Part of the fun of computer gaming is being able to jump into the life of another person who lives in a world different from yours – a soldier, a superhero, or a sorcerer. However, even the most sophisticated games are limited in this respect. You can steer the character’s actions, but only in ways the game commands allow, and you can’t really affect the character’s personality and beliefs.
With live role-playing games (RPGs), these limits don’t exist. In an RPG, you can dive completely into your persona, experiencing adventures through the character’s eyes. And you have a group of other players at the table who are all working with you to meet the challenges of the story, whether that’s fighting monsters, solving mysteries, or plotting a revolution. So playing an RPG with your friends is far more of a bonding experience than playing a board game in which you’re all working against each other.
The best-known RPG is Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy adventure. However, there are countless RPG systems and settings, from cyberpunk, to film noir, to the Wild West. What all the systems have in common is improvisation – using your imagination to decide how your character will deal with the challenges of the game world. Most systems also use dice to introduce an element of chance, so you never know ahead of time whether a strategy will succeed or fail, which helps keep the game exciting and suspenseful.
- Dungeon World. This combines the fantasy setting of Dungeons & Dragons with a simpler set of rules. The entire description of each character’s abilities fits onto two pages, so there’s no need to interrupt play by flipping through rule books. Players attempt tasks by rolling two six-sided dice, but a failure isn’t a dead end – it just leads to new complications that spice up the story. All you need to play the game is a copy of the basic rules – available as a $10 digital download at DriveThruRPG – and some ordinary dice.
- Savage Worlds. This system’s strengths are easy character creation and a fast, flexible combat system that can be used for anything from a punching match to a full-scale war. There are many books available for this system, providing a huge variety of adventures and settings. However, all you need to get started is the 24-page “test drive” PDF, which you can download for free from the publisher, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, along with a variety of other free resources for players and GMs.
- Fate. Most RPG systems rely on a “game master,” or GM, to direct the story. In Fate, by contrast, the players have a lot of control over the story line, and the GM’s main job is to create situations for the players to explore. This system offers easy-to-follow rules for building characters and worlds and advice for players and GMs on how to develop an interesting story. PDFs of the basic rule books are available on a pay-what-you-want basis from Evil Hat Productions. The game system also requires a set of special dice, known as Fate Dice or Fudge Dice, which cost about $15 for a starter set.
- Fiasco. The object of this game is to create a story that is bound to end in disaster. Fiasco has no GM at all; instead, the players work together to create a scenario and a set of characters with high ambition and poor impulse control. They take turns setting scenes, acting them out with each other, and deciding whether each scene ends well or badly for the characters. The basic rule book, which can be downloaded for $12 at DriveThruRPG, contains several different “Playsets” you can use to create stories. You can also download a free preview version of the game, including one complete Playset, at Bully Pulpit Games.
Getting Started With RPGs
If you’ve never played an RPG and would like to give it a try, ask friends who play if you can join them for a game session. Even if you don’t know of any people who play this kind of game, try asking around anyway – you might discover that a classmate, a coworker, or a relative is involved with a gaming group.
If you don’t know anyone at all who plays, then visit your local game store to see whether it ever hosts RPG events for newcomers. You can also find groups in search of new players online, through Meetup or specialized sites such as RPG Game Find, Find Gamers, or NearbyGamers.
If you can’t find an existing group to play with, you can round up three or four interested friends, choose a game, and dive in. All you need to get started playing an RPG is a copy of the essential rules and a set of dice. For most games, these basic components will set you back anywhere from $15 to $40. In many cases, you can find a free, simplified version of the rules online that you can use to try out the game before deciding whether to buy the full version.
One problem with many commercial board games is that they can only handle a limited number of players. For entertaining a big group of people – say, eight or more – a better option is party games. These are boisterous, silly games, often played in teams – and many of them are completely free.
Popular party games include:
- Telephone. This funny, non-competitive game is common at kids’ parties, but it can be great fun for adults too. One person writes down a phrase or sentence, then whispers it into the ear of the person seated next to them. That person, in turn, whispers what they heard – or what they think they heard – to the next person, and so on, until the sentence has passed all the way around the room. The final person says the sentence out loud, and then the first person reveals the original sentence or phrase – which almost always is nothing like the final version.
- Charades. To play this game, all you need are some pencils, slips of paper, and a big bowl to put the paper in. Have all the players fill out slips with quotations or titles from movies, books, TV shows, and songs, and mix them all up in the bowl. Then players take turns drawing a piece of paper and trying to act out what’s written on it without saying anything. You can play this game in teams, with each team getting points for every entry it guesses correctly – or, if you prefer, you can forget about keeping score and just play a free-for-all version with everyone guessing at once.
- Fictionary. For this game, you need pencils, paper, and a dictionary – preferably a big, unabridged one – from which players can take turns choosing unfamiliar words. After making sure no one knows the word, the person who chose it writes down the dictionary definition, while all the other players make up fake definitions. The reader mixes up all the definitions and reads them out loud, and players have to vote on which they think is the real one. They get 1 point for guessing correctly, plus one additional point for every other player they fool with their fake definitions.
- Apples to Apples. This boxed game contains two types of cards: red cards with nouns on them, and green cards with adjectives. Players take turns choosing a green card and reading out the adjective, such as “smooth.” Then other players pick cards from their hands that they think are a good fit for that description, such as “leather,” or “Sean Connery.” The judge decides which of the red cards is the best match for the adjective, and the player who put in that card wins the round. Unlike the games listed above, Apples to Apples isn’t free, but you can find it for $25 or less at just about any store where games are sold.
- Cards Against Humanity. This game is like an R-rated version of Apples to Apples, featuring lewd, violent, scatological, drug-related, and ethnic humor. Its makers call it “a party game for horrible people,” and various reviewers describe it as “edgy,” “absurd,” “hilarious,” “snarky,” and “unforgivable.” It’s definitely not family friendly, but it’s hugely popular among adults who aren’t easily offended. The basic game, with 600 cards, costs $25, and there are several expansion packs available for $5 to $20 each. You can also download a PDF of the basic card set and rules for free and print out your own copy.
Tabletop gaming is a completely different experience from computer gaming. When you play a computer game, you’re sitting in a room by yourself, pitting your skills against the computer or against other players sitting by themselves in other rooms far away. By contrast, tabletop gaming is a social experience – something you do with a group of friends together in the same room. The fun of the game comes at least as much from the people you play with as from the game itself.
Tabletop games make a great activity for all kinds of social occasions. You can make them the entertainment for a holiday party, a family reunion, an office retreat, or any kind of casual get-together. And the best part is, no matter how many times you’ve played a particular game before, each time is a whole new experience.
What are your favorite tabletop games for different groups and occasions?