Multi-million pound kickstarters, big box games for £100+, accessories that cost as much as the game. You would be forgiven for thinking that boardgames are a luxury hobby, only for those with a wad of disposable income. It is the unfortunate face of the hobby. It isn’t all like this though.
You don’t need all these things to be ‘into’ boardgames; 100s of games, metal coins coming out of your ears, games that eat a day of your time.. There are loads of games out there that can fit a smaller budget and we would like to take you on a tour of some of our faves, each one £20 or under.
Iain McAllister's Favorite Budget Games
One of the first games my wife played with me, Patchwork is a game of brutal quilt making. You heard me right. Faced with a blank canvas, a bunch of polyominoes and two ticking resources to manage, this is a game of agonising decisions, terrible choices, and just a touch of improvisation. Patchwork is for 2 players only.
What I love about Patchwork is that it is very simple to teach, but every turn you have an important choice to make: which tile do I take, can I block my opponent from getting on with their quilt, how do I get the resources I need to win? It looks gentle and simple on the surface, but underneath it is a cut throat game that will leave you cursing each other. If you would like to read more about it, you can find a full review here.
Also now available in an express form and roll & write, neither of which I have tried.
If I told you this was a snap turned up to 11, that would probably not interest you. How about the fact that you get 7 other games in the tin, each one fun its own way. How about all this for £12. Sold? I hope so, because if you need a game to take out at the drop of a hat to keep the kids, and adults, entertained then look no further than this box of wonders.
Full of games of pattern matching, buck passing, and stressful moments as you try to find the matching symbols, why can’t you see a Snowman, THERE’S THE SNOWMAN, JAMIE GOT IT FIRST, THAT MONSTER!!!!! Yeah, it goes like that a lot. Dobble is one of those designs I greatly admire as it seems so simple, but is absolutely refined to be sharp as a tack. Brilliant.
Don’t let the theme of this velvet pouch deceive you. Although ostensibly about getting letters of romance to a princess, Love Letter is actually a game of deduction, timing, and bold plays.
Another one of those simple to teach, hard to fathom games, Love Letter sees you only ever holding 2 cards in your hand, and every turn you will play one of them. The game has a fixed number of cards in it each round, but one of the cards out of the deck is removed at the start of each game. This means despite knowing how many of each card are in the game, thanks to a handy guide each player has, and what has been played, there is always that small nagging doubt that you don’t have the full picture. It sits at the back of your mind, making you doubt your plays. It’s brilliant, and evil.
Rethemed any number of times, this game is a firm favourite for many to carry around, much like Dobble above.
Jamie Adams' Favorite Budget Games
Cute and tense reverse Jenga.
Oh, you want more? Very well.
From a sturdy-ish card base, a tower of cards arises. Wall cards are placed in line with the silhouettes on the card on the top, then a roof card is placed on top of that, creating a new floor. The floors might not be too stable, there might be a noticeable lean to the structure, but still it climbs ever higher. And perched there is the mighty Rhino Hero meeple- small enough to require some careful dexterity to position it on top of the tower, light enough to not be too much of a hindrance just heavy enough to be a hindrance.
The aim of the game is to get rid of the roof cards in your hand- UNO style. Some of them have special abilities- skip a go, reverse play or place the Rhino Hero Meeple for example. But all that takes a back seat to the joy of this mighty cardboard edifice growing ever higher and more rickety. Its table presence also cannot be overstated. Heads will turn, breaths will be caught, and toes will be tipped depending on the stability of the table or floor where you are playing the game.
The game ends one of three ways: One players gets rid of all their cards (they win); the tower falls (the collapser loses, the player with the fewest cards wins) or all wall cards are used up (everybody wins). And all this for under £10 and in a highly portable box.
A lot can be said for Rhino Hero Super Battle, the big brother of RHino Hero, which turns the game into more of a ‘King Of The Hill’ game with individual player pieces, bigger starting floor tiles, wider floor cards, higher wall cards, hanging spider-monkeys and battling dice. It is also under £20, but I would say for the pure simple thrill and portability, go for the original and watch that edifice wobble.
Nasty things. No one wants nasty things, do they? I wouldn’t want to give you a nasty cockroach. Or would I? Sixty-four creatures (eight different animals, with eight cards each) are entirely dealt out to the table, and on your turn you simply select a card from your hand, slide it face-down over to another player and state what is on the other side. That other player can choose to accept your statement, or say you are lying it. Because you might be lying. But why would you want to lie? Because every mis-guessed answer means a card face-up in front of the player who guessed wrong. Get four of the same suit, and you are the sole loser. I slide a card across to Iain and say “This is a scorpion.” Iain thinks for a second, seeing the two scorpion cards in front of him, and says “Yes it is.” He flips the card and… it’s a scorpion! I sadly take the card back from Iain and place it in front of me.
But wait! There’s more! As well as agreeing or challenging, the proffered player could choose to take the card, look at what is underneath, and pass it on to another player who has not seen it. They are under no obligation to repeat what was said to them, and the new proffered player can choose any of the three actions (unless they are the only person not to have seen the card, in which case it’s agree or challenge).
Is it deep? In as much as there are complex layers of bluff and counter-bluff with individuals around the table, it's a fairly basic bluffing game with the added-on mechanic of ‘can also look and pass on’ but that brings another layer of risk.
Is it portable? All it is is sixty-four cards, only slightly more than a regular deck of cards. Very portable.
Is it fun? Yes. I believe so.
Note: The box says you can play with two players, but that boils down to you each having half the deck and it’s just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when offered a card. Not that fun, much better with four or five.
A game that straddles the £20 mark depending where you purchase it from, Biblios has you collecting cards from different sets. Whoever has the most of that set’s value wins the victory points for that set. You’ll also need money cards to buy potentially useful cards at auction. Be warned however: the victory point totals of sets can shift up or down throughout the game thanks to Church cards. Your opponent is clearly hoarding Scribe cards? Make the bottom fall out of the Scribe points and watch them panic whilst you sit there and hope no one does the same to you…
The splits nicely into two stages: Gift and Auction. In the Gift Stage, one player at a time you draw cards one at a time equal to number of players plus one. One card must go into your hand face down; one card must be placed face down to auction, the other(s) go face up for the other player(s) to choose in clockwise order. This continues until the initial deck is split between players and an auction deck.
In the Auction Stage, the cards from the auction deck are shuffled and (shock horror!) auctioned off one by one. This half is a simple auction. You can buy non-gold cards (scoring cards and cards that change the value of the dice, therefore changing final victory points) with gold cards, and you buy gold cards with non-gold cards. There is no change given, and money is worthless at the end except in ties. Simple, right?
The tactical nature of this quick game surprised me at first, and the devious machinations of manipulating the values of each set makes things nicely cut-throat. Though the theme feels slightly pasted-on (collecting scribing equipment for your monastery libraries), the card art gives it a nice feeling, and the game comes in a box that looks like a book and has a part-magnetised lid.
Iain Chantler's Favorite Budget Games
Valley of the Kings
Deckbuilders are a strange mix. It’s a genre I love, despite a potted history of games that really don’t work and lots of wheel reinventing. Valley of the Kings is the stand-out: a game packed with so, so many great design decisions it creates a sharp, neat game every time.
In Valley of the Kings you’re a Pharoah, throwing priceless rubbish into your tomb so that when you die, you’ve got the best stuff. Cards in your hand and your deck don’t count for scoring at the end of the game; only cards that you’ve binned to your tomb. This creates a wonderful tension where you’ve got to choose every turn whether to keep and use your best cards, or throw them away before the game ends. An emphasis on trashing keeps personal decks small too, so you rattle through new combinations and neat discoveries every turn. A real treasure.
Which version should I get? The expansions are stand-alone and excellent: buy any! I love mixing all three games together for a chaotic time.
Game of Thrones: Hand of the King
This abstract game is simple: lay out a 6*6 grid, then move a token once a turn, either horizontally or vertically. Choose a house, and pick up any tiles matching that house that you’ve passed over. When the grid is empty: game over! Most tiles in a house secure it for your side, most houses wins the game.
Boring. Abstract. No emotion. Right?
The game’s simplicity is key to its success at evoking feelings of courtly machinations and manipulations. There’s no chance or unpredictability, so players who don’t plan several moves ahead will be left dead in the water. Trick your opponent with a hefty move that leaves you in place to seal the game in five moves’ time: that’s the real Game of Thrones, distilled into ten minutes of viciousness.
NB: The box says 2-4 players. I find this game mediocre at 3 and terrible at 4.
Here is your 9*9 grid. Each turn we’ll reveal two tetris-like shapes on cards, you’ll pick one and draw it. Most filled grid wins.
That’s it! Frankly, it doesn’t sound like there’s much actual game. The first few shapes you choose slot in easily and the choices initially feel meaningless. And then, just a few shapes later, you realise you’ve ruined it. You’ve put everything in the wrong place, and now this new shape won’t fit. What a terrible mistake! How could you?
Slow tetris means the mistakes players make are all their own fault, and that’s hilarious. I’ve never played a game with so much tension when the cards are revealed: everyone needs something different, and everyone starts cursing their wretched grids within minutes. Then it’s time to play again!
Bonus: this game works really well over zoom. One player reveals cards to the webcam, and each player just colours in their own grid at home. What a treat in lockdown.
Although our focus is mostly board and card games we are also keen roleplayers and there are loads and loads of games out there you can get for under £20. My personal favourite, Blades in the Dark, can be purchased for $20 for the pdf. I know that PDFs aren’t everyone's first choice, but I find them a really good way to run games, and much easier to reference during play. Check out Drivethrurpg for all your pdf choices, you can also get some games direct from publishers that gives them a bit of extra money.
There you have it, a few games you might want to check out, across a wide range of genres and themes, all for a really good price, and usually in a very small box. What are your favourite budget games? Any we should check out? Let us know!