In an age of plastic bling and Kickstarter extras costing hundreds of dollars, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of splendid cheap board games too. In truth, local game stores are packed with hundreds of high-quality, small-box, cheap board games that ensure tabletop gaming can be an affordable hobby – if you look in the right places. Here are Wargamer’s expert picks for the best board games under $30.
In fairness, a lot of these are technically card games rather than pure board games: not having to offer a thick, mounted board and pieces to put on it results in a big saving. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less fun: look at all the awesome playing card games you can play with just a standard 52-card deck, for starters. Sure, some of the best board games are heavyweight dungeon crawlers or strategy board games costing $100 or more – but make no mistake: these affordable gems can offer just as much fun in a smaller package.
The best cheap board games are:
Lots of games encourage you to collect sets, but, in Cockroach Poker, you’re trying to avoid getting four of any one of the game’s revolting cast of critter characters.
On your turn, you offer a face-down card to another player, and tell them what type of creature it is, although you don’t have to tell the truth. That player can either accept the card and attempt to call your bluff (with you getting it back if wrong) or attempt the same bluff on another unfortunate target.
This is misdirection at its most pure and simple, a deck of cards resulting in an almost infinite amount of angst and recrimination. The art is delightfully unpleasant, too, with every card having a different representation of its revolting pest.
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
You may be familiar with trick-taking games, but chances are you’ve not seen one quite like The Crew: Mission Deep Sea before – in which you’re working together to win tricks instead of competing.
One of our absolute favourite coop board games, The Crew consists of a series of missions which escalate in difficulty. In most cases, you’ll get a series of goals that require particular players to win particular cards or combinations of cards.
If you could tell everyone what’s in your hand, it’d be easy – but, naturally, you can’t; you’re only allowed a limited number of vague communications to help your fellow players along. The result is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of strategic risk-taking which quite possibly offers the best bang for your buck even among other cheap board games.
Players lay out a grid of word cards and then each team nominates someone to give clues. That player gets a secret card indicating which of those cards their team needs to identify, and then needs to give one-word clues to try and tie as many of those cards together as possible.
Cue a round of frantic deliberations over the texture and nuance of every utterance, as you try to root out your target cards without accidentally gifting some to your opponents – or, worse, uncovering the one killer card that’ll lead to an instant loss.
Azul is an actual cheap board game, and it’s a looker, too with its big bag of chunky, colourful embossed tiles. You lay out a number of these in piles each round, and players select all identical tiles from one colour to place on their boards. They’re trying to complete lines, which must also be of identical colours but the catch is the length must be exact. If you get too many tiles to complete a line, you take the rest as a penalty.
The ultimate aim is to translate your lines into patterns which score points as your tiled wall develops. It’s a brilliant challenge, full of variety and lurking gotchas, as you try to build your wall to your best advantage while forcing other players into situations where they have to overfill their lines.
Roll and write games where you get a random result from dice or cards, decide how to use them and pencil them on a scoresheet, like the classic Yahtzee, are enjoying a big renaissance right now. And that’s great, because most of them are available at bargain basement prices.
Cartographers, where the card draws depict terrain symbols you have to draw into a grid map of a fantasy world, is our pick of the bunch. You’re aiming for different scoring conditions each round and the variety is fantastic. But watch out for monster attack cards, where another player will draw in an awkward block of point-penalty invaders to disrupt your growing kingdom.
Dominoes remain popular in many parts of the world but have kind of been forgotten in parts of Europe. You can bring them back to your table with Kingdomino, a delightful implementation where the pieces represent different kinds of terrain that you’re trying to line up, as contiguously as possible, in a tight grid.
The spatial puzzle is pretty fun on its own, but what elevates this is the turn order rule: if you take a good domino in one round, you’ll be further down the pecking order for the choice next time. This creates a much more dynamic game where you’re forever hedging bets and weighing up jam today against the promise of jam tomorrow.
Sushi Go: Party
The excellent Sushi Go: Party is another cheap board game with an actual board, although the meat – or perhaps raw fish – of the game is card drafting. Everyone gets a hand of cards, joyously illustrated with happy food items, from which they must select one and pass the rest on.
The goal is to try and make sets of items, each of which needs different combinations to score.You’ll spend a half hour tensely passing the cards around, trying to balance what you’re collecting against denying your opponents their combos, while attempting to remember what on earth is in each hand that’s circling round.
Public Service Announcement: Peckishness is also a risk, so accompanying snacks are highly recommended.