Designer: John Yianni
Artist: John Yianni
Publisher: Gen42 Games
If I’ve written about Hive before, it’s only because it’s one of my all-time favorite games. I cannot tell you how many times a supposedly “certain” outcome for a game of Hive has been turned totally on its head, with a ten-minute game suddenly becoming an hour or more, just because of one change in the strategy of a player.
Players compete using a white and black set of hexagonal pieces that can interlock on any side, thus allowing play to take place anywhere, free from the confines of a board. This also leads to lovely patterns forming over the course of play. Each piece moves in a different way and opens up a floodgate of strategic options. This isn’t a game of luck at all, but wholly a game of skill.
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Roland MacDonald
Publisher: GMT Games
I’ve written about an old favorite of mine, Battle Line, before, but the awesome re-themed version also needs some love. Not only is it an easy-to-carry card game, but it’s also one of the best quick-to-play card games around, using simple yet innovative rules to provide a sense of depth and strategy.
The goal is simple: capture nine territories by using certain combinations of cards. Your cards are pitted against your opponents, with higher number cards beating lower numbered cards… except in the case of a card combination that matches one of the special “formations”. Thus, the tactical side of the game takes on additional depth, as it becomes important to manage your cards, perhaps keeping good defensive formations in reserve, or even playing a poorer move on one turn in the hopes of drawing a better card later that could fulfill the requirements for a formation.
Finally, the tactics cards upend certain elements of the rules. Players can draw and play a tactics card instead of a normal card, and these tactics cards allow you to alter some aspect of the rules, switching things up in surprising ways and making it a lot harder to simply predict what your opponent’s card combination might be.
Designer: Antoine Bauza, Bruno Cathala
Artist: Miguel Coimbra
Publisher: Repos Production
As the ruler of an ancient city, can you compete with your neighboring city-state for supremacy? Will your city stand the test of time, flourishing through three ancient ages to become cemented as a beacon of culture, military might, commercial success, or scientific and philosophic exploration?
This is one of those games that hits the magic trifecta of “deep, compact, and easy to learn,” and I absolutely love how much there is to do during play. It’s a two-person game, and as such plays pretty quickly, but the range of strategic options is huge. Even after playing the game multiple times in a row, I’m always ready to set it right back up again and see what the next round ends up as. Any time I’m traveling this is one of the games I’m certain to bring along.
Designer: James Ernest
Artist: Pete Abrams, Gerald Brom, Larry Elmore, Phil Foglio
Publisher: Cheapass Games
One of my absolute favorite games, Button Men is an extraordinarily simple probability game that manages to be a huge amount of fun for something that could be boiled down to just a handful of dice and a few penciled-in stats. Players “fight” by rolling dice based on stats marked on their sheet (or button), and whoever wins takes dice from their opponent. It’s so simple that it can be played in under two minutes and lends itself well to “best two out of three” style sessions.
Originally designed in 1999 as a collectible game, players were supposed to wear the actual buttons around to conventions so they could challenge one another and locate other players. It’s such a great concept, but I’ve never encountered anyone randomly who played. Still, the official buttons aren’t necessary, the basic concept only requires some dice and something to write stats for the different characters down on.
I do highly recommend grabbing the newly released card version of the game, however, since the artwork is rad and that just helps make things even more fun.
Designer: Scott Almes
Artist: William Bricker
Publisher: Gamelyn Games
I love, love, love space-themed board games, and having a simple and portable board game with a space-empire aesthetic was pretty much guaranteed to be a winner with me theme-wise. As it happened, Tiny Epic Galaxies also won me over with its mechanic as well. There’s a lot of direct player interaction, the mechanics back up the theme really well, and the artwork is totally gorgeous.
Players roll dice to accomplish actions, move counters along various tracks to gain more dice. The dice are used to accomplish various things, like moving ships from your “galaxy” card to a specific “planet” card — and that’s actually one of the things I love the most about Tiny Epic Galaxies: it creates the feeling of expanding through space without using any board what-so-ever!
This is an extremely clever and fun portable game and is absolutely a winner in my book. Oh, and if it’s not portable enough for you already, check out Ultra-tiny Epic Galaxies which come with specialized super-mini components.
Designer: Darwin Kastle
Artist: Kaile Dutton, Sarah Pinansky
Publisher: Your Move Games
There are about five million World War-themed board and card games out there, some of which become so complex that they’re more simulation than board game, and certainly aren’t accessible to the average gamer. But, when it comes to a combat-themed game that hits the sweet spot of being a lot of fun, allowing for some deeper tactical decisions, and being easy to teach and learn, The Battle for Hill 218 is way ahead of its peers.
Players each have a deck of cards representing different forces on a battlefield (tanks, special forces, paratroopers, etc.) and they take turns placing these cards on the placing space. Cards generally can’t destroy cards in one go, they need support from other cards, and so the strategies of Hill 218 become all about moving cards into the right position at the right time, providing the support you need to destroy enemy cards while defending your own territory.
Until 2012, computers could not beat live players at Go (when played at a handicap, mind), and it was only between 2015 and 2017 that the AlphaGo AI managed to consecutively beat master Go players at the full version of the game. So complex is Go, that it required developing into a whole new system of advanced Machine learning to give the machine's victory over humanity.
I am not at all concerned that this might be the precursor to the Skynet AI that eventually dooms us all to nuclear annihilation, so siree, not at all.
Go has long been one of my favorite games, offering what might be considered a true “beautiful game” experience. Sure, the objective is to beat the opponent and get more points, but what makes Go so much fun is how that objective is completed, through the acquisition and control of negative space on the board.
I cannot stress enough: this is one of my all-time favorite games, even if I have found it extremely difficult to find people to play it with. Whereas Chess has a big following in the West (and I’ve never liked it much), Go has a smaller footprint in the Zeitgeist, probably in part because it’s a far more subtle game. That doesn’t mean that it’s not fun, however — honestly, I find it to be a lot more engaging than Chess, and for an abstract game, it almost always sits at the top of my “best of” list.
Also, since Go is just a board and the pieces, it’s easy to take with you!
Designer: Ryan Laukat
Artist: Ryan Laukat
Publisher: Red Raven Games
This is a phenomenal little game, with a lot of possible strategic possibility, a great area control system, and a bunch of clever oppositional mechanics. Players purchase cards that allow for different actions, such as placing soldiers or cities, and players can also move their soldiers to different parts of the island-themed map. Players are awarded points for the different areas of the islands that they control, so vying for dominance of the map is the central aspect of the game.
The theme and artwork are a blast, the game is extremely easy to learn, and the whole design is really well-thought-out. Honestly, I don’t think there is another area control game that manages to capture this much depth with this amount of simplicity.
Designer: Kris Burm
Artist: Kris Burm, lu'cifer
Publisher: Don & Co.
It’s not every game where the design requires sacrificing your pieces to win, but that’s exactly what ZÈRTZ is all about. An abstract game, ZÈRTZ also plays on a steadily shrinking board made up of discs on which marbles of different colors sit. Every time a marble is placed, the board shrinks. Since the goal is to capture marbles of any color (regardless of who placed them), interesting strategic situations arise with regards to how a player might want to place pieces on the board.
The game is really clever with a lot of tactical and strategic options, and the combination of a shrinking board with the checkers-like “jump to capture” mechanic makes it super easy to learn. Since it’s just a collection of the board tiles and the marbles, too, it’s ultra-portable!
Designer: Thomas Lehmann
Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, Mirko Suzuki
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
While not one of the easiest games to learn, mostly due to its terrible rulebook Race for the Galaxy offers a deep tableaux gameplay experience in a small package. Players take on the role of leading their galactic civilization to supremacy. The only downside to this game is that, in the base game, there’s basically no player interaction. You can react to what other players do, but it’s pretty much a solo race to galactic dominance.
What makes this so cool is that a unique component of the gameplay combines the economics and resources onto the cards themselves, dramatically reducing the number of components in the box that a player needs to carry with them! At first, this might look confusing, but the designers did a great job setting up the graphics to make learning easy (just avoid relying on the rules booklet for your first game and instead watch a video).
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
One of the games that took the gaming community by storm a while back was Ra, an auction-centered game themed with an Egyptomania aesthetic. Its simpler sibling, Ra: The Dice Game manages to do something that not many “dice game” sequels succeed at: being just as much fun without all the complications.
The goal is simple: score into one of four scoring areas, Pharoes, Culture, Boats, and Ra. You accomplish this by rolling dice and deciding on where on the board to place colored marker cubes. Players need to try and get more points than the other players through three “epochs”, and there’s enough strategic depth here to make that experience a lot of fun.
The whole game has really high-quality feel to it, too. If there’s a downside, it’s just that there are a lot of little cubes to keep track of. Still, it’s just a board and a small bag for the dice and cube counters, making it a great travel-sized game.
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
A superb little area-control game that follows in the footsteps of the original Samurai game. The game consists of a village deck and a deck of samurai cards for the players, and the main goal is to capture villages while also gaining extra points from nearby villages, all of which are represented by the cards on the table.
Doing away with the board from the original Samurai was a pretty ingenious move in terms of portability, as the cards themselves now create the playing field. There are some other downsides in terms of depth, but those are made up for by how much easier this card version is to learn and play.
Samurai: The Card Game has enough tactical depth to reward players with a lot of replay value, but it manages to also be simple to learn and play, and also small in size! A winner all around.
Designer: Satoshi Nakamura
Artist: Mariano Iannelli, Yoko Nachigami, Satoshi Nakamura
Publisher: Yuhodo, Inc., Z-Man Games, Inc.
A really simple card drafting game with gorgeous artwork, Fairy Tale is a quick-to-play game that pretty much anyone can pick up, comprehend, and have fun with within just a few minutes. For those longer bouts of traveling, ease of play is really a necessity, and this game features exactly that.
The game is all about picking cards during the drafting round that will combine best with the other cards (the Dwarves and the Sky-Dance Dragons get a lot of points if they’re bot played next to each other, for instance).
One of the best things about this game is that it works with up to five players, something that not all small games manage to do, so it can provide some quick entertainment for the whole family.
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Michaela Kienle
Publisher: Bard Centrum Gier, Devir, Fantasy Flight Games, Green Board Game Co.
Just like in the original version of the game, the goal is to place different shapes and colors next to other shapes and colors to win points. The big difference is that the game has been scaled down to a small two-person version, making it perfect for travel.
Players don’t get points for the tiles they place in this game, but rather only for the tiles that they connect to in a straight line, making it a great choice for those who are visually orientated players because it’s very much a puzzle deciding where to place a piece to gain the most points for yourself without opening up obvious trajectories to victory for your opponent (who can use the tiles you place to get points next turn).
Designer: Susumu Kawasaki
Artist: Peter Gifford, Atha Kanaani, You Satouchi
Publisher: Cube Factory of Ideas
Who will successfully deliver the most goods? Who will be the most successful trader in Japan? The goal of this game is to gather goods in Edo and sell them in Osaka, with players attempting to gather and sell more than the other player while avoiding the storms that can sink trade ships (or insure goods against such a disaster). At its core, this is a set collection game, with players aiming to collect different-colored sets to gain achievement tokens.
This game has a few more pieces to it than most travel games, but it remains highly portable. The board is small, the pieces are high-quality, and the bulk of the game’s mechanics take place through the card deck. It’s a great, light, and fun game to play!
Designer: Matthew Inman, Elan Lee, Shane Small
Artist: Matthew Inman, Elan Lee, Shane Small
Publisher: Ad Magic, Inc.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of Matthew Inman’s The Oatmeal, a seriously hilarious comic strip that manages to contain some of the most helpful and profound content I’ve ever encountered (in-between the somewhat juvenile humor). There’s something great about the way the irreverence of his comics accentuates the meaningfulness of the more serious strips.
Anyway, Matt also designs board games, with the Russian Roulette Exploding Kittens being his first released game and a heck of a ton of fun to play. It’s easy to blast through this one in just a few minutes, with the goal being to tactically play cards in such a way that your opponent (and not you) draws the Exploding Kitten (which causes them to lose). It’s fun, silly, and quite delightful (oh, and there are a bunch of expansions). It’s tops for travel!
Designer: William Attia
Artist: Arnaud Demaegd
Publisher: Ystari Games
As one of the master architects contracted to build Caylus Castle, prestige can only be yours if you can put your unique stamp on the castle’s construction! By building up the town of Caylus you gain access to resources that will help you build the castle… just be careful not to give your rivals an unintentional boost!
Caylus Magna Carta is a deep game in a small package, offering a powerful combination of resource management and tableaux construction. As players place cards on the table (creating the “town”) all players get more access to resources, but the collection of resources and the construction of the town buildings needs to be weighed against building up the castle before your rival. There’s a lot of strategy here for sure.
There are a lot of little tokens and counters for all the resources, but the main game is nothing but cards. It does take up some space on the table but not much at all in the traveling bag.
Designer Paolo Mori, Francesco Sirocchi
Artist Karim Chakroun
Publisher Pegasus Spiele
This is a great little game that feels high quality as well as being fun. It’s simple, not the most complex wargame, but the simplicity factor can be a great introductory battle game. The goal is to create different groups of unit cards and put them down in front of you in different locations depending on the type of card it is. Players then take turns giving orders on which units should attack and if any units need to be redeployed, based on what forces their opponent has across from them.
Probably the biggest factor of the game is actually building up your army and preparing for the battle, rather than actually fighting your opponent. There is a slightly asymmetric quality to this one, with the Romans and the Celts having different strengths, but that can lend itself well to some strategic variation.
It’s a game with a huge amount of value for such a tiny package, though it does require a rather large playing area once all the cards are laid out. Still, it definitely makes for an ideal travel game.
Designer: Richard Garfield
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Magic: The Gathering is probably the best-known trading card game of all time, with millions of players worldwide, and untold expansions available to extend the range of the game.
Taking on the role of a Planeswalker, players vie for control by casting spells, summoning powerful monsters, and trying to overcome their opponent’s unique combinations and strategies. The players themselves have “health” which can be decreased via attacks that manage to make it past their defenses, and this immersive quality within the game lore is one of my favorite aspects of MTG.
Worldwide professional leagues exist for this game, which makes sense since MTG is an extremely complex card game with a huge tactical depth. The trading card aspect remains as well, however, and the rarest cards can even sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
The best part? All you need to play is a single deck. Carry one with you so you’re always ready for a game should you happen across a fellow MTG player!
Designer: Günter Burkhardt
Artist: Jürgen Martens
There are some great bidding games out there, like Power Grid and Ticket to Ride, but these games always come with a bunch of components that make them non-friendly to travel. That’s where Vom Kap bis Kairo comes in. It’s a card-based game, so that makes for great portability, but there are some clever mechanics at play that really make this a blast.
Players secretly bid on different terrain cards and then build their railroads across those terrain cards, keeping track of bids on a separate sheet of paper. Balancing the bidding with the income from tracks is vital, and there’s a surprising amount of depth in the game despite its overall simplicity. It’s a great one for travel because it offers some deep play while being simple to learn and play, and retaining a lot of portability.
One of the most classic games in existence, Chess has gained worldwide renown and acceptance as one of the most fundamental board games of all time. Relatively easy to learn but difficult to master, Chess rewards players who go beyond simply memorizing the potential moves and strive to misdirect their opponent’s strategy. Countering your opponent’s most likely moves becomes an almost esoteric exercise for the masters in this classic of classics.
A famously intense game, professional chess players have known to become utterly enraged at an ill turn of fate heralding a loss. Perhaps the most famous (anecdotal) incident of chess-induced violence is when the French Emperor Charlemagne, enraged at the Prince of Bavaria for repeatedly beating him, broke the chessboard over the Prince’s head and killed him.
These days, things are more civilized at the chess table, but the game still inspires great fervor from players around the world. It’s great for travel since it’s easy to find magnetic sets designed for just that purpose.
Designer: Seiji Kanai
Artist: Kali Fitzgerald, Andrew Hepworth, Jeff Himmelman, John Kovalic
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
It’s somewhat difficult to find a game that is smaller than Love Letter, which clocks in at a grand total of just 16 cards (and one delicious velvet carrying bag). The goal is to try and get a letter of love to the Princess, bypassing her guards and family members (or winning them to your romantic cause).
Each card has different effects that allow you to interact with the other players directly, going back and forth and trying to guess what the other players have in their hands. There is a massive amount of second-guessing and clever strategy that can arise in one of these games, offering a surprising amount of fun in such a tiny portable package.
Designer: Daniel Val
Artist: Edigrafica games, Francisco Goya
Publisher: Gen-X Games
This is a wonderful asymmetric war game in a small and compact package, themed after the Spanish rebellion against Napoleon’s French occupation forces. Each player has a hand of cards as well as several tokens on a map of Madrid, with the outnumbered Spanish forces having a few powerful bonuses that can give them a chance to survive against the more powerful French army.
Players write down different movement orders in secret and then reveal those orders. At that point, the orders are resolved at the same time, with the French forces and the Spanish forces trying to destroy one another to control the city. This is a really fun little game, requiring a fair amount of strategic thought to play: it’s a rewarding experience as long as you like strategic wargames, and since it’s portable it sits in the rare field of compact wargames that are also a lot of fun.
Designer: Peer Sylvester
Artist: Richard Stubenvoll, Andreas Töpfer
Political intrigue is always a great theme for a board game, so Thailand’s quiet internal power struggle while under the threat of a potential colonial-era British takeover was guaranteed to be a winner.
The strategic depth of this little game is one of the biggest draws; you literally need to keep the end-game in mind from the very start or run the risk of being cornered and devoured by the other factions (or overwhelmed by the British who are always looking for the chance to hop in and take control).
A wonderful mix of historical authenticity and deep-thought strategy game, König von Siam hits me where I live, while also being small enough to take with you on long trips.
Designer: Johnny O'Neal, Chris O'Neal, Christopher O'Neal
Artist: Beau Buckley, Francisco Coda, Katrina Guillermo, Kyle Merritt
Publisher: Brotherwise Games
Boss Monster is great because it flips the script: instead of playing the hero trying to raid the dungeon, you’re playing the boss of the dungeon trying to lure in and defeat the hero! It’s like playing Bowser instead of Mario, and it’s a total blast. Since it’s a card game, the physical components you need to carry with you are quite compact, though it does take a little bit of a playing area because of how you lay the cards out.
The artwork is a total blast with a lot of fun nostalgia behind it. It’s also a relatively simple game, making it great for kids who are still learning the basics of gameplay. The premise is sort of like setting up a puzzle: you’re creating a series of obstacles to slow and defeat the adventurers coming into your dungeon, so once you’ve set up the “trap” the game almost plays itself. For this reason, it might become a bit dull if played at home, but it makes for a great on-the-road game.
If you want a deeper experience, too, grab the expansions! Those add a lot more depth to the gameplay (though they make it less portable).
Designer: Andreas Pelikan
Artist: Julien Delval, Harald Lieske
Publisher: alea, Ravensburger
A tricky treat of a game, Witches Brew is a game of trickery and cunning. You’re trying to get the most benefit out of one of the cards you pick, with the catch being that if any of the other players have picked the same card they get all the benefits instead! Do you pick the main benefit, do your pick the secondary benefit? Do you pass? Trying to trick the other players is really at the forefront of this game, making it a great social game.
I love the artwork of this one, which is stylized and cartoonish and yet also really well done. Since the game is all about bluffing and misdirection, having a fun aesthetic to beef things up a bit is pretty important and I think the designers handled it well.
The only con is probably that the game is OOP (out of print), but there are still plenty of copies floating around used on the net.
Designer: Stefan Dorra
Artist: Óscar Aguado
Publisher: 2 Pionki
A great little real-estate game, For Sale is a fun and simple game for the whole family, fast-paced and super easy to learn. There’s some nice simple bidding strategy involved, and the game features combine well to make each decision feel connected to other aspects of the mechanics go over great.
Players get a chunk of money and during various rounds, face-down cards are turned over, each representing a property available for rent. Players bid their money on these cards, trying to claim a bid on the best of these properties. Players then use the properties they have to gain more money, once again via a bidding mechanic, which means that everyone competes to get the largest amount of income possible.
I cannot recommend this game enough! It plays ideally for around five to six players and is fast, approachable, and lots of fun!
Designer: Stefan Dorra
Artist: Eckhard Freytag, Clément Masson, Ian Parovel, Renate Seelig, Markus Wagner
It’s no secret that I don’t really love competition-heavy games. I prefer cooperative games through and through, and in competitive games, I prefer it if there’s some facet of the mechanics or theme that helps nullify some of the back-bitiness that is inherent in the style. Ordinarily, therefore, Intrigue might not be high on my list. However, because the rules ensure that everyone must betray everyone else, the emotional weight of being betrayed by your friends is exonerated and can even lend itself to some fun moments.
The point of the game is to send scholars to work at different players’ castles, and try to bribe or threaten other players into kicking out the current scholar-in-residence to get their own in the job. As a game for around five people, this can be a lot of fun, but a session really needs to be prefaced as “this shall be a friendly competition!” so everyone is reminded not to take things too seriously.
Designer: Richard James
Artist: Richard James
Publisher: Evertide Games
If you’ve read or watched Game of Thrones then you’ll understand the mechanic behind Court of the Medici, which is all about stabbing the other players in the back (and the front/side/bottom/top as well). It’s a politics and intrigue game based on the political struggles of Florance Italy during the Renaissance period. Players attempt to gather prominent nobles to their house in order to gain influence while reducing their opponent’s at the same time.
Since this is a two-person card game, it’s easy to carry with you wherever you go, but the strategies inherent in the game are varied and pack a punch; it’s a great classic competitive card game to play over lunch.
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan
Keltis has an interesting history, having started out as Lost Cities but, due to a hitch between the English-speaking and German-speaking markets, ended up getting rebranded with a Celtic theme, re-released as a board game, then re-re-released as a card game of that board game. What a run-around! And yet, the short of the long is that Keltis is a really superb little game with a lot going for it, and its tiny size makes it ideal for carrying on long trips.
The goal is simple: play cards from a suit and try to build up a maximal number of cards from that suit because, if you fail to reach a certain number of cards once you’ve opened a suit, then you’ll actually lose points at the end of the game.
This is definitely a good game to pull traditional card players out of their 52 card deck and into something a bit more themed and fun.
Designer Mike Fitzgerald
Artist Christine Conrad, Virginijus Poshkus
Publisher U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
So, everyone’s probably heard of Rummy, right? It’s one of those classic card games that has a long playing tradition behind it. But the key problem for me is that I usually prefer themed games to abstract ones (especially card games, I don’t mind abstract strategy games so much). That’s where the Mystery Rummy series comes in, but adding some great themes and some clever rule changes that make the whole thing a lot more engaging to play.
Just like in Rummy, you have a deck of cards and a discard pile and at the start of your turn you must draw a card, and the goal is to play “melds” or sets of matching cards. The catch in Jack the Ripper is that melds can’t be played until a “victim” card has been played. Since the whole goal of the game is to track down the vile murderer known as Jack the Ripper, this makes for a really fun-themed mechanic, allowing for some immersion in an otherwise very traditional game system.