We live in the golden age of board games, but one of the downsides of lavishly designed modern board games is that they tend to be expensive – and many of them come in massive boxes, too. If you’d rather have something that won’t break the bank and can be easily chucked in a bag, your best bet is to go for a card game instead.
Card games tend to be simpler, lighter, cheaper and quicker to play than their board-based cousins, but that doesn’t mean they lack depth or quality: the ones in this article are all strategically rich and beautiful to look at.
In truth most board games involve cards of some kind (Cosmic Encounter, Pandemic and Celestia are all based around them) but when putting together this guide we chose to restrict ourselves to ones where cards are the only significant component. A few of these come with tokens to tally scores or money, but that’s it – no pieces moving around a board (no board, for that matter), and no dice.
Finally, note that we’ve ignored traditional card games here, simply because they are too immense a subject. But a standard 52-card deck is the most cost-effective purchase of all.
There’s more than a touch of Poker about this game, from the starting deal (two cards to each player) to the I-don’t-believe-you-oh-no bluffing/challenging mechanism.
It’s super-simple in concept. The deck contains only 15 cards: three each of ambassador, assassin, captain, contessa and duke. On your turn you can take any one action (such as swapping your cards, or assassinating another player), many of which can only be taken if you’ve got a specific card – but you can lie about what you’ve got. Many actions can be blocked by certain cards, and you can lie about that too.
The only downside to all this lying is that if you get challenged and caught, you lose one of your two lives. If you get challenged and were telling the truth, your challenger loses a life.
And the result is a tense and mind-bending game where you spend half an hour or so climbing inside each other’s heads and driving yourself mad, in a good way.
2. Love Letter
Love Letter is simple, and pure, and pretty much perfect for short gaming sessions and for warming up before something more demanding.
Here’s what you get: 16 cards; a handful of counters; the rulebook; and a little red bag to store it all in. But from these ingredients an exceptionally compelling game has been cooked up – one which can be grasped by drunks in 10 minutes, but keeps revealing new depths and subtleties for months after.
The aim of the game is to end the session with the highest surviving card (the highest of all is the princess, whom everyone is trying to woo) but there are numerous sneaky ways to knock out your opponents before it gets to that point. Brilliant stuff.
(We’re currently very fond of the Adventure Time version of this game, which has virtually the same rules but adds some cute artwork.)
3. Lords of Scotland
Across a series of skirmishes, you pick up, play and collect cards depicting fierce Scottish clansmen, and use these to assemble an army. At the end of each skirmish, everybody adds up the numbers in their army (and doubles the score if it’s entirely made up of a single clan) and the winner gets the most victory points.
That sounds simple, but there are lots of complications. You can play cards face-down for secrecy, but if you play them face-up you may be able to invoke that clan’s special ability – allowing you to steal other people’s cards, draw extra cards yourself and so on. And often the best option is to deliberately lose an early skirmish where the rewards are less exciting, simply in order to put together a killer hand for later on.
This is one of the harder offerings here – we find the terminology a little confusing, so pay careful attention to what everything is called – but we found it highly rewarding once we got the hang of it. Just be prepared for the inevitable First Game Where Nobody Knows What’s Happening.
4. Sushi Go
An antidote to the stressful brain workout of something like Coup, Sushi Go is a gentle collecting game with a touch of strategy to keep things interesting.
The (beautifully illustrated) cards each show sushi or related food items: sashimi, wasabi, maki rolls, dumplings and whatnot. You’re dealt a hand of these cards and have to decide which one you want to add to your collection – and then pass the rest of the hand on to the player on your left.
Complication one: the value of each card varies depending on what else is in your and others’ collection. Some items only give you any points at all if they are part of a set, for example; some are competitive – whoever has the most gets the points; and some are never worth points themselves but modify the value of (certain) others. So your decisions call for prediction and risk assessment.
Complication two: because of the passing-on of the hands and the fact that others players’ collections are visible, canny players quickly build up information about the sort of round it’s going to be: the card types that are rare or common, and the ones that are likely to be snaffled by other players.
It’s potentially quite a deep game, really, but there’s still room for players like me who always collect the same thing, and constantly refer to themselves as the “dump-king”.
5. Cards Against Humanity
Cards Against Humanity is not a game you would want to play with younger children, but marketing itself as “a party game for horrible people” is perhaps taking things a step too far. We’d suggest Cards Against Humanity is a game for people who have a wicked sense of humour, and who are not easily offended.
There are various rules you can use, but in Cards Against Humanity’s simplest form each player takes 10 white cards (answer cards), picking up another card for each hand they play. You then take it in turns to read out a black card (question cards), starting with the last person to go for a number two (an interesting question in itself).
Having heard the question you match what you think is the funniest answer you have to hand, then the ‘Card Czar’ chooses their favourite and it gets an Awesome point. Whoever gets the most points wins the overall game, which can go on for as long as you like.
The catch is these aren’t the sort of questions and answers you might hear in pleasant company. When presented with a question such as ‘What’s that smell?’ it’s up to you to judge the temperament of the group and decide whether to select something like ‘Grandma’s knickers’ or ‘A pyramid of severed heads’ as your answer.
(We went for a third option in the most recent game we played, but our choice was far too distasteful to publish on Tech Advisor. And yes, we did win the point.)
The standard deck costs £20, but you can also buy expansion packs. Should you find the cards too lame it’s worth knowing you can also create your own deck: Cards Against Humanity is available for free under a Creative Commons licence. You can download the rules and blank question and answer cards from the website.
If you like collecting gold and looking at anthropomorphic drawings of beans, this is the game for you.
The aim is to plant beans of a single type – chilli bean, dancing bean, coffee bean – in a ‘field’ (ie a row of cards on the table) and then swap them for pieces of gold when it gets numerous enough. The rarer the bean type, the better the exchange rate you’ll get.
The problem is that you can only have two fields at once (at the start – it’s possible to buy a third later), and you must play your cards in the order they were dealt. Which means that if you’re unlucky, or plan badly, you could find yourself constantly having to plough up and discard fields of beans that haven’t yet hit the payout point, so that you can free up the area for a new type that you need to play.
So it’s partly about thinking ahead, and there’s a surprising amount of depth to this. But it’s also about convincing the other players to make an exchange at a key moment, which is often the only way to avoid disaster.