The best cheap board games are great things that are fun right away and can be played anywhere. They’re usually easy to play, quick to set up, and easy to learn, which is important if you’re trying to entertain kids who don’t like to wait. They’re also usually quick, so you don’t have to set aside an entire day to enjoy them.
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Many of the games on this list are shorter than the best board games overall, but they are also a lot cheaper and just as interesting and new. And for the same amount of money you’d spend on a single board game, you can get a lot more variety by buying several cheap ones.
Most of our picks are good for people of all ages, and we’ll let you know if a game isn’t good for kids. If you’re looking for games that are good for kids, we’ve made a guide just for that: the best board games for kids. And while some of these games can be played by just two people, we also have a guide to the best board games for two players if that’s what you’re looking for.
TICKET TO RIDE NEW YORK
What a well-thought-out, small gaming package! This is a smaller version of Ticket to Ride, one of the most popular board games ever, but it doesn’t feel less fun to play. It’s just shorter and, in some ways, more competitive because of that.
The game is easy to learn and play. You get points by using your colour of taxi to claim routes through New York. You’ll get cards that show two places, and if you can link them, you’ll get a lot of points. You’ll lose a lot of points if you can’t. The problem is that other people are trying to make connections all over the board at the same time, and if they claim a route you need before you do, you’ll have to go the long way around… or you might just be full.
You claim routes by collecting cards. If you want to claim a pink route, you’ll need a full set of pink cards. But you can only take two cards at a time, and everyone can see what cards are available. If you pay attention, you can try to guess what other people are doing.
The most important thing is how tight the board feels. There’s not nearly enough room, so it feels like people are slowly adding cards until all of a sudden there’s a mad rush to claim the routes you need before they’re gone. You have to use sharp elbows to get a good network. It’s fiercely competitive without feeling like you’re being targeted or mean.
And it’s all over in about 20 minutes, with a happy ending! Our full Ticket to Ride New York review explains why you’ll want to clean up the board and play again and again.
This is a word-making and deduction game that you play with other people. Because it’s a cooperative game, it mostly avoids one of the biggest problems with word and spelling games, which is that some people find it easier than others to pick a complex word out of a bunch of letters. In Letter Jam, you still have to make a word out of a jumble of letters, but because you’re trying to come up with words that other people have to guess, longer or more difficult words don’t help you.
Setup is a little hard to explain, and you’ll need to be patient when teaching others, but here’s the gist: each player has five cards in front of them that spell out a word. The goal of the game is for each player to be able to say what their word is without ever looking at the cards.
The way to do this is for each player to have one of their five cards face up and visible to everyone else at the table during each round. Then, one player uses the letter cards they can see to spell out a word by putting down tokens that show where each letter is in the word (1st, 2nd, etc). This word then gives all the other players a hint about what the letter in front of them might be. For example, if you can see that I spelled a word that starts with “CR” and the third and final letter is the card in front of you that you can’t see, you can be pretty sure it’s a “Y.” But a third player has the letter “C” in front of them, so they can see a three-letter word that ends in “RY” and wonder if the first letter is a “C,” “T,” or “D.” But that’s okay, because in the next round, we’ll make a new word that might make it clear which of those two options it is.
This is what we mean when we say that the game isn’t about who can make the best anagrams or has the most words in their vocabulary. Sometimes, the best word is the simplest one, as long as it helps people figure out what their letter is.
When you’re sure you know what the letter in front of you is, you can put it back down and look at the next one, writing down what you think each one is as you go. The game is hard because the group can only guess a certain number of times. When you run out of cards, everyone has to guess what word their cards spell. You don’t have to have worked on every letter, of course.
We love this game because it really is a team effort. At any given time, no one has all the information they need, so they have to rely on others to help them out. People with strong personalities can’t take over the game like they can in some other group games. You can also change the length of the face-down word in front of each player to make it harder or easier.
Love Letter has a very thin storyline about people who want to marry a princess. This may be because it wouldn’t be as interesting to show what the game is really about: a series of brutal two-minute knife fights.
There are only 16 cards to play with, and a random one is taken out of the game after each round. Every card has a value and a picture of a court figure on it. Each card also has a special power of some kind, which is usually meant to help you get rid of other players or keep yourself from getting rid of. Everyone starts with one card, and when it’s your turn, you draw one new card from the deck and choose which of the two you want to play right away (using its power) and which you want to keep for your next turn. The goal is to be the last person standing when everyone else has been eliminated or to have the highest-value card in your hand if more than one person is still playing when the deck runs out.
The best part of the game is how well all the powers on the cards work together and how scary easy it is to lose. The most common card lets you guess which card you think someone else is holding, and if you’re right, they’re out of the game. Other cards let you see what card someone else has or force them to throw away their card and draw a new one. This isn’t a big deal, except that if someone is holding the Princess card, which is the best card to have at the end of the game, they are immediately knocked out.
To finish a game, you play a number of really quick rounds. It’s a quick game of deduction, cleverness, and some luck, but you can play it over and over again and it will always feel new. Everything in a tiny box.
This is a great little package for two people. It’s small and tight, and the main puzzle never gets easier to solve, so every time you play it’s different. The idea is that you need to collect goods of the same kind to sell, which gives you points. There’s a market of cards in the middle that both players can see. When you take something, it’s replaced with something new, so even if your opponent takes a lot of cards, you’ll still have plenty to choose from.
The problem is that you don’t know how long to wait before turning your goods into points. If you trade in a certain type of card first, you get more points than if you did it later. But you get extra points if you can trade in more cards at once. So the game always makes you want to wait a turn or two because maybe, just maybe, you could get the higher first-mover points and a bonus for selling a lot of cards. If it works, you’ll have a good time. But it’s likely that your opponent will start with a small sale of that kind of card, get the most points, and then move on to something else.
It’s fun and fast-paced, and we like how flexible it is when it comes to changing strategies. You can take every card in the market at once if you want, but you have to replace them, so you can basically throw away your whole hand and take some good cards from the middle if you think that will be more successful. Read our full review of Jaipur to learn more about why we like it so much.
PANDEMIC: HOT ZONE NORTH AMERICA
Pandemic is a cooperative game that has become a modern classic. It pits your team of emergency experts against the spread of four diseases around the world, which keeps getting worse. Will you have enough time to find a cure before it’s too late?
This is almost exactly the same game, except there are three diseases over North America and games only last about 30 minutes. Other than that, it has the same strategy and tough choices, which makes it a great, cheap, and small package.
The thing that makes Pandemic so good is that it never lets you settle down. On your turn, you have four options. You can use coloured City cards to move around, remove diseases from the board, or trade City cards with other players. You’ll need matching sets of cards to find the cures you need. Then you draw new City cards, giving you more options for your next turn. But after each player’s turn, more disease cubes show up on the board, usually in cities that have already been hit.
If there are too many disease cubes in one place, the disease will spread, sending more cubes to cities nearby. This could cause an outbreak in one of those other cities, which would start a chain of bad things. If there are too many outbreaks, you lose, but so does running out of disease cubes. And if the deck of City cards runs out, you lose. Since there is a time limit, you can’t just focus on getting rid of disease and not doing research.
So, you all work together to decide what you can do this turn to prevent disaster and which cities you can leave in a dangerous state because you’re running out of time to trade cards and find cures. It’s a great way to spend time with other people, and here’s a game you can win in half an hour.
It doesn’t have as much variety as the full-size Pandemic, and the optional Crisis cards, which are extra negative cards that are supposed to make your game more unpredictable, don’t really fix this, as our full review of Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America explains. But do you know what else it doesn’t have that the full-sized version does? The more money. This is a great way to get over being bored.
TIMELINE IS A FAST AND FUN HISTORY LESSON
In Timeline, each player is given four cards that show certain events. These events can be as small as when 50 Cent’s Candy Shop came out or as big as when electricity was first used. Players put down cards one by one to try to make a timeline that isn’t wrong. If a player does something wrong, they get a new card. The game is won by the first person to correctly place all of their cards and get rid of their hand.