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Every Board Gamer Needs a Good Short Game

I think every board gamer needs to have a good short game. No, I’m not talking about golf putting. I’m talking about a category of small board games. I’m a sucker for small games. I break these games down to a few categories, though many of them overlap. Games that take up a small amount of space on the table, games that take up a small amount of space when stored, and games that play in a short amount of time (30 minutes or under is where I set my threshold). There’s something I’m fascinated by when it comes to a game designer packing a lot of game play in a small package or short timeframe. My first introduction to the category was the “Tiny Epic” series of games by Gamelyn Games. I love the tiny epic series and have most of them. I’m not going to talk about them in this post because I’m focusing on the short aspect of the category, and these games exist on the outside edge with a play time of 30 to 45 minutes (or 30 to 60 minutes in a couple of cases).

One of the reasons I like these games so much (especially the short variety) is a common issue that occurs at game nights, and in fact has happened to me at Salt Con more than once. You have a couple of tables going, and one game finishes before the other. The question comes up, do the players at that table start up another game, or do they wait for the other table to finish so that there’s more opportunity to play with different people? That leads to the question, “how long do you guys have?” That question seems to break the momentum of the game, so I hate asking it, but I definitely don’t like getting locked into playing games with just one group of people. Enter the short game, a game that can play in 30 minutes or less, or one that is easily interruptible is a great fit in this scenario.

One of my go-to’s in this situation is Love Letter (or one of its many varieties). This is a game that is super quick to set up, very easy to explain to new players, and each round plays in under 10 minutes. You can easily interrupt between rounds and declare a winner, so it’s a great game to play while you are waiting for another game to finish. In Love Letter, you are playing a potential suitor to the Princess, and are attempting to send her a letter to gain influence with her. Each round you are seeking to find the most influential path to get your letter to her so that it is received favorably. The deck is shuffled and one card (or four cards in a two player game) is removed face down from the deck to give some mystery as to the contents of the deck, then each player is dealt one card as their hand. On their turn, players draw one card, then discard one card. Each card has some special text on it that indicates an action that is taken when the card is discarded. There is player elimination, but that lasts only for that round. A round ends when the deck is empty, or if there is only one player remaining. In the case where there is more than one player, all the players reveal the card in their hand, and the highest valued card is the winner for that round.

Another great game for this scenario is Jump Drive. Jump Drive is set in the Race for the Galaxy universe (yes Dave, it is in fact a race for the galaxy). In this game (as in Race for the Galaxy), cards are both things you want to put into play, and the currency that you use to pay for those cards. This mechanic is one that I struggle with, because I’m an optimist, and have a hard time letting go of what I might be able to play so that I can actually play something right now. Cards come in two varieties: developments and worlds. Worlds are divided into military and non-military. A round is played by each player simultaneously choosing one or two cards to build (two cards can be built by choosing to build one development and one world). If only one card is built, you get an additional benefit: a cost reduction of one for developments, or drawing a card for worlds. Some cards may also reduce the cost of playing other cards, or provide other benefits. Military worlds must be conquered. You don’t pay a card cost for them, but you must have enough military power to equal or exceed the cost of the world. After placing cards, each player counts up the points that are provided by the cards in their empire and takes those tokens, then counts up the number of cards that the cards in their empire lets them draw, and draws that many. Play continues until one or more players have at least 50 points. Then points are totaled. The player with the most points wins.

I’m going to throw in a couple of honorable mentions here. The first is The City, which is the game that Jump Drive gets its mechanic from. The City plays almost identically to Jump Drive with a different theme. The only reason it gets an honorable mention is that it isn’t generally available. It got some new life with a Kickstarter expansion in 2019, but it is still out of print, so you pay a premium getting it from those retailers that still have it. The second got a mention recently on the Meeple Nation podcast. The game is Septet. In this game, each player has a hand of two cards. Each turn, they draw a card and play a card. Some cards have an optional discard mechanic that allows you to perform an action when you choose to discard the card rather than play it. Most cards are played in front of the active player, but some wild cards are played into other players' suits. Each time a player plays a card, you total up the points of each suit in play. When a suit reaches seven points, you begin scoring, and the suit or suits with the highest total is scored. Any players with those suits put the cards belonging to the suits into their scoring pile (along with any wild cards played on that suit). All other suits in play are discarded, and play continues with the next person. The game ends when a randomly inserted game end card is encountered. Then each player totals up the cards in their scoring pile, and the player with the most points wins. The game has not yet been published, so that’s why it gets an honorable mention.

Love Letter is a great short and small game, not taking up much table space or storage space, with Jump Drive taking up only a little more table space and occupying a pretty small amount of shelf space. But neither of them are great for the next scenario: waiting in line. The issue with this scenario isn’t just that of time or space, it’s that the space needs to be mobile. Neither of these games is particularly mobile. Both of them require some table space in front of each player, and a draw pile. Andy has mentioned a great small game that seems tailor made for this situation: Pass the Pigs. Astoundingly, I have never played this game, even though my grandparents had a copy when I was a kid. It’s been around for a very long time, since 1977. It has elements of press your luck and roll and write, making it ideal to pick up and move. The game consists of a score pad and pencil, and two pig shaped dice. Each player rolls the pigs, scoring points based on the way the pigs land, with some combinations causing the player to lose their point and forfeit their turn, or lose all the points they’ve scored in the game. The game is played until one player has scored 100 points.

Now, with all the love I’m throwing short and small games here, players need to be aware that there are trade-offs involved in creating a game that plays quickly, that takes up a small amount of table space, or a small amount of shelf space. Most often the thing that is on the chopping block is complexity. These games lack the depth that longer or larger games contain. In the case of Jump Drive or The City, there are really only a few valid strategies, and your starting hand can have a significant impact on how competitive you are going into the end game. I wouldn’t plan a whole game night or session around playing short games, they are best as a filler game between longer games, or for occupying small amounts of time between other activities. I do enjoy figuring out what the trade-offs were in the game, and figuring out how to work with the limited set of resources or actions, or looking at the edge cases of the rules. Rules are also where some of these games struggle. The minimal set of rules often results in a less than complete rule book, oddly enough, so there can be some debate on how an action should be accomplished.

I guess it’s time to close out with my typical closing question. What short games have you played and enjoyed? I’d like to improve my short game list.

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