On the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade or two, let us quickly inform you that the best card games have come a long, long way. They’ve moved far past the family ‘fun’ of UNO and Happy Families, and have evolved into firmly adult experiences, ideal for parties, trips to the pub, coffee meetups, and all other kinds of sophisticated social gathering.
Card games can often be the simplest games to teach and play, making easy card games a great gateway to the world of tabletop gaming as a whole. At the same time, the right card game can provide some of the most brain-taxing fun you’ll find, without requiring you to lug about stacks of miniatures or worry about keeping everyone entertained during a lengthy setup process.
There is a staggeringly wide variety of card games in existence, offering every kind of play experience – and to reflect that, we’ve made sure to look far and wide when selecting the best card games for this list. Here you’ll find trading card games (TCGs), bluffing card games that put Poker to shame, and party games that’ll get everyone laughing.
With our help, it won’t be long before you’re a hardened card sharp, smirking as you slam down the perfect play to make everyone else at the table groan, then trying out a funky new shuffling technique and accidentally spraying your deck all over the floor. So, without further ado…
The best card games for adults are:
- Magic: The Gathering
- Love Letter
- The Fox in the Forest
- Pokémon TCG
- The Crew: The Quest for Planet 9
- Summoner Wars 2E
- Arkham Horror: The Card Game
- Cockroach Poker
- Exploding Kittens
Magic: the Gathering
The distinguished paterfamilias of trading card games, Magic: the Gathering sits at the metaphorical head of the table here for good reason. Simple to learn, but unfathomably difficult to master, Magic is a game with history behind it, one that can be appreciated as much for its beautiful artwork and interesting storytelling as for its tight gameplay and challenging deckbuilding.
The great thing about MTG is the sheer variety of experiences it has to offer, from the constantly shifting meta of Standard to the exciting, over-the-top turns of Commander. From lean, mean aggro decks; to infuriating, opponent-stymying control decks; to absurd jank decks that only come together 10% of the time, but when they do are things of beauty; Magic’s a fount of diverse experiences.
Yet despite all these options, the most popular way to play is still “kitchen table” Magic – just duking it out with your friends using whatever cards you happen to own – and that’s heaps of fun too.
The best card games for adults don’t need to have a weighty deck packed with countless different options to provide a good time. In fact, Love Letter proves that they only need 16. That’s all that’s inside this uber-light, uber-fun classic, which is ideal for the tabletop gamer on a budget (or who’s running low on cupboard room).
Love Letter has a charming premise. The players are each suitors, trying to send letters to a princess by selecting the right court member as courier, while intercepting their rivals’ wooing efforts.
This translates to a fast-paced game of canny social deduction, where you must figure out which cards your opponents have in their possession, and eliminate them using your own.
Simple to teach and dead easy to jump into, Love Letter makes for a brilliant warmup game. Also, because rounds are so short and cards move around so quickly, you’re never holding the same hidden hand for long, making this that rare thing: a social deduction game that’s still enjoyable for the virtuous among us with no fibbing skills.
Monikers is based on a folk game so old that no one knows where it came from. It might have been invented by a particularly enterprising velociraptor, who can say? And listen, as I explain the premise, it’s going to sound an itty bit like Charades, but trust me, with the right group of people, Monikers is a riot.
In Monikers, players take turns describing a series of characters to their team. In the first round, clue-givers can say anything they want, except the character’s name. In the second round, they can only utter one word (or noise) for each character, and in the third, they can only mime. Cards range from the mundane (Bob Ross, Marie Antoinette) to the seriously outlandish (Doge, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or just ‘Nobody’).
Sounding like an impossible challenge so far? Well, it kind of is. The frustration is half the fun, but the other half comes from the fact that the same deck is used across each of the three rounds, meaning in-jokes form and your group develops a kind of – very silly – shared language. A party game with a higher hit rate than most, if your goal is goofy entertainment, there’s no better funny card game for adults than Monikers.
The Fox in the Forest
A trick-taking two player card game, The Fox in the Forest has a lovely fairy tale theme and adorable artwork – the cutesiness perhaps belying the meaty, satisfying puzzle that lies within. It’s a great couple’s board game.
A game of The Fox in the Forest is played across 13 tricks. In each of these, the leading player will lay a card. The following player must then play a card of the same suit, if they can, and any card from their hand if they cannot. The player with the highest card in the leading suit, or the highest card in the trump suit, determined at the start of the game, wins the trick. The winner then becomes (or remains) the leading player for the next trick.
It’s all about when to expend resources, then, as you want to win tricks by as little as possible, saving your best cards (many of which have special functions) for when you really need them. One very clever rule transforms the experience from enjoyable to exceptional: the scoring mechanism.
You see, you want to win as many tricks as possible, but if you triumph in 10 or more of the 13, you are punished for your greed and don’t win any points. That means at any time, your opponent might switch from trying to best you to trying to throw away winning tricks in spectacular fashion. It adds a whole new layer of sneaky tactics to an already pretty fiendish little game.
The Pokémon TCG is easy to learn, particularly for a long-running collectible card game: these things tend to accrue new, more complicated rules over time the way we wargamers accumulate plastic tat.
Pokémon is a TCG with a very satisfying loop of playing creatures that you power up and evolve as matches go on. Understandably, given its source material, it has a unique emphasis on the monsters that make up your deck. Keeping them alive – sorry, un-fainted – while knocking out your opponents’ is not just a means to an end, but the game’s main victory condition.
It’s frankly surprising what a great job this card game does of emulating the feel of Pokémon battles, while using entirely different mechanics. If you’re a fan of Pocket Monsters (the chances are good, it’s literally the largest media franchise in existence) and you haven’t tried the card game, you owe it to yourself to give it a whirl. It’s free to play online too, so really you’ve got no excuse.
The Crew: The Quest for Planet 9
Another trick-taking game, but this time cooperative – in The Crew: The Quest for Planet 9, players are astronauts on a mission to the final frontier. To succeed, they’ll need to ensure the right players win the right cards in order to complete individually assigned tasks.
But, uh-oh, a complication! There’s a cosmic communication jam caused by space dust or angry Martians or something, which means you have to play in silence, or at least not discuss strategy. You can only describe your hand to your companions with the help of radio tokens, which indicate whether a card you’ve laid is the highest, lowest or only card of its suit that you’re holding.
That means you really have to pay close attention and get into a shared headspace to figure out what each other’s clues mean. It’s easy to go wrong, but, as with another silent board game, Mysterium, misunderstandings are usually funny. You can always yell at your bumbling teammates once the game is complete.
In terms of bang for your buck, the Crew certainly delivers. Packed in its compact box you’ll find 50 scenarios, allowing you to change the game up each time, and face increasingly nightmarish missions. Good job we can’t hear you scream up there!
Summoner Wars 2E
The best strategic card game to play if you’re not into the whole collecting thing and just want everything to come in one box, Summoner Wars, originally released in 2009, was conjured again this year as a second edition, replete with new art, updated rules, and brand new factions to lead into battle.
Whereas, in most combat-focused card games, the fight takes place in an undefined space, in Summoner Wars the battlefield is a board you can slide cards around on. That shakes things up significantly. Structures can be built on your side of the field and creatures can, and often do, get in each other’s way. It’s more turn-based tactics game than standard strategy card or strategy board game.
Another twist is that, instead of your player avatar being a defenceless pile of hitpoints squatting behind its mates like a big chicken, the summoners in charge of these wars are unafraid to get stuck in and bash some heads. This adds a nice bit of tension – you want to make use of your summoner and also keep them out of harm’s way.
But where Summoner Wars really shines is its asymmetrical factions, from the boost-based Savannah Elves, to the construct-building Polar Dwarves. Each one has its own distinctive playstyle, and with six in the Master Set alone, there are endless memorable matchups to try out.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
One of our favourite Fantasy Flight games, in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, you play a group of mystery-solving paranormal investigators, finding clues and then figuring out how to deal when those clues sprout tentacles and spiky teeth.
Full of co-op – or, optionally, single player – campaigns, it’s genuinely impressive how well Arkham Horror manages to create that big campaign experience (obviously somewhat condensed) using just a few decks of cards.
Tweaking the decks that determine your investigators’ powers, equipment and even their fatal flaws is highly rewarding, and the narratives, though linear, are strongly thematic – with some good twists, turns, and touch choices.
There are plenty of adventures to be found in the base game and loads more available as expansions – as well as new investigators to try out. If you’re a fan of Lovecraftian spookiness and you haven’t mined this particular seam of hobbyist fun yet, it’s well worth giving it a go!
There’s no better lie than a shared lie, that’s what they say… Or is it? Perhaps we made that up. Anyway, it’s definitely true that vermin-themed bluffing card game Cockroach Poker is stupendous fun. Scout’s honour!
Cockroach Poker is all about handing your mate an animal and, with great audacity, declaring it to be something it isn’t. So you might say a cockroach is a rat, for instance. They can then either make a call on whether you’re lying or not, or pass the card on to the next player.
If they opt for the latter, they look at the card, and then pass it on, either agreeing with your claim (“Yes, that’s one whiskery rat all right”) or coming up with a new one, which just like your own, could be true or false (“Actually, it’s a bat!”).
So, you might end up passing a card all the way down the line, until the last player is forced to untangle this web of utter twaddle and settle the matter of what the damn card truly is once and for all. At which point everyone else, who already knew the answer, collapses in a fit of giggles. It’s absurd, but it’s also absurdly enjoyable.
In Jaipur, players are Indian merchants, trading the finest spices, cloth, gold and camels, all in a tug-of-war to become the wealthiest. On your turn you’ve got just two types of moves to consider: you can buy wares, or you can sell them.
While bonuses are awarded for selling goods in large quantities, each type of good decreases in value as the market becomes flooded. That means there’s a fine balance to strike between selling early and waiting till you have more to sell.
You can also buy all the camel cards in one go, which reveals new, valuable resources your foe can snatch up, but gives you greater purchasing power, as you can trade these even-toed ungulates in later for whatever’s sitting on the shelves.
Jaipur is a game of risk taking, knowing when to push your luck. It’s a great two-player card game because you soon realise that following your opponent’s moves is more important than planning out your own. You’ve got to get a read on what they’re collecting, how much of it they’re likely to have, and the size of their camel fleet. And then you can create a plan of action for screwing them over.
As economic card games go, Jaipur is simple but effective. It’s a quick and easy card game to jump into, and incredibly moreish.
Ever wished Russian Roulette was a little more family friendly? Alright, maybe Exploding Kittens is still a pretty grim mental picture – but at least it’s the kittens exploding, not you. The way you play this card game is simple. Take turns drawing cards, and the first person to draw an exploding kitten is out. The winner is the last survivor, the one person who managed to avoid encountering spontaneous feline combustion.
Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities to push probability in your favour (or screw an opponent over). Other cards in the deck allow you to check what cards are coming up, force other players to draw cards, or even shuffle the deck entirely – so no one knows where the next exploding kitten will come from.
Exploding Kittens may sound a bit simple, but the tension as the deck slowly depletes – and the chance of an exploding kitten grows – will leave you breathless. This is one of the biggest selling board game Kickstarters ever, and the millions of people who’ve picked up a copy can tell you its a worthy buy.