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Board Games That Look Friendly But Are Fiendish

Arboretum = board games

The aesthetics of board games are one of the first things that draw you in. Like many, I love cute visuals and sweet little characters that populate a game. There are lots of games that look sweet and are actually saccharine; you support your friends or peacefully build your own tableau without a care (or fear) that somebody else could ruin it. However, this feature is not about those games, but games that look harmless and friendly but will have you internally (or externally) screaming at your friends for ruining your carefully laid plans or realising they’d been scheming against you the whole game. Don’t let the graphics fool you. In the end, something’s got to teach the kids that life isn’t fair.


Arboretum is a nice tree game where you place lines of trees to create paths that start and end with the same colour of tree. If all your trees are the same colour, you get double the points. Sounds like a relaxing, mindful experience. Anybody who’s played Arboretum knows this couldn’t be further from the truth. You think you’re making lots of paths of nice trees, but at the end of the game you realise that you shouldn’t have been so naive. I don’t know why this game has a score pad as usually when I play we average scores of 0 or 1.

One of the key (and best) features of Arboretum is that you have to earn the right to score the points of the trees you have in front of you. Therefore there’s the game you can see and the game you can’t see as you earn the right to score based on the cards in your hand. If you have the highest score of a certain type of tree in your hand, you can score the points! The issue is if all your purple trees are on the table, you can guarantee that other people are stashing purple trees in their hand to prevent your glory. It doesn’t help that since everyone can see your trees, they know what cards to keep as leverage so there can be limited advantage to building a beautiful path of trees in front of you. Then there’s the dynamic of 8’s being worth 0 if someone else has a 1 in their hand so there’s a lot to think about. Cause you think you’re safe with your 8 but then someone else has a 1 and it’s all over. And you begin trying to remember what cards have and haven’t been revealed and you try and guess what cards people have in their hands. You also get paranoid if people keep taking cards from your discard pile, especially if you know it’s a tree in one of your paths. It’s all about the mind games in Arboretum. But one thing’s for certain, your trees are not safe. For a game that looks so simple and calming, you’d be surprised at how quickly you begin plotting against your opponents.


Many have a love-hate relationship with Calico for as sweet as it looks, many headaches have been induced by this adorable game where you’re creating the best quilt to attract cats. The issue with the cats is that they’re very particular about what patterns they like and the amount of said pattern. The other tricky thing is that you have design criteria where you score more points for meeting said criteria, but you’re often trying to meet a lot of goals at once and that normally means you don’t do anything properly. And that can be a painful thing. Whilst your friend may not have intentionally taken the perfect tile you needed to complete all your design goals, it doesn't make it hurt any less.

Don’t let the cats fool you, there’s AP on the way. Placing your tiles is one of the hardest parts of the game as you know that meeting your design goal might sabotage your meeting with Tibbit (best cat name). The hidden depth of Calico is one of the great things about it, making it a game for all the family though it will probably cause different levels of frustration for different members of the family.

Dog Park

Dog Park is a drafting game where you walk certain types of dogs to have the best reputation in the Dog Park. Some might think Dog Park is a strange choice for this list, you’re collecting dogs and walking them and everyone’s having a great time with the dogs. But I have to say I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off whilst playing Dog Park. Every time we went into the Walking phase I couldn’t help but think ‘We’re entering the toxic environment of the Dog Park’, cause you’re taking other people’s dogs and stealing toys and treats from the floor. Maybe that was just me, but it did make the game more entertaining to add these problematic attitudes to the game. Also the fact you only need to walk a dog once and that’s enough for the rest of the game sat a bit weirdly with me. Maybe I’m thinking too deep into this.

You can also hate draft in this game, admittedly there’s less incentive to do so than other games as you are ultimately hampering your own kennel because you don’t get that many dogs. But after stealing other people’s things from the park the least you can do is look after your dogs. While some people may be able to overlook these things in Dog Park, I can’t help but feel a dark undercurrent to the game.

Iberian Gauge

Iberian Gauge is a train game, one that takes inspiration from the 18XX titles, which have been known to be tricky and competitive. Iberian Gauge is iterative of these ideas but can hide its meanness in its simplicity. There are train companies and you’re working with your friends to help them succeed. If you make more connections with your trains, you all get ever-increasing payouts. This is where you would be mistaken. You definitely can play the game like this, everyone getting money and building nice rails together. But that’s not how you get the upper edge in games or in life. As you recognise that unless you do something about it, your friend who has triple the shares than you in the Blue company, they’re going to be making a lot of money. This is where you decide to build an expensive rail into the mountains that leads to nowhere to deplete the company’s funds.

Iberian Gauge will be polarising to those who play it, some people will not be very happy that everyone isn’t working together. Whilst others will get a twisted thrill from sabotaging their friend’s carefully laid tracks. As your company fails you don’t get the payouts or the increase in stock price, and that could definitely frustrate some people. While Iberian Gauge looks harmless and nice train fun, before long you’ll know how mean it is and you better figure out who your friends are while playing.

Sushi Go Party!

I love Sushi Go as it’s such a great game to learn drafting as a game mechanism. You take one and you pass the rest on to optimise your meal. You can also be the person who memorises cards but I can’t live that way. Of course Sushi Go is adorable and is so accessible because of cute sushi, and everyone loves sushi (Right? Surely). While Sushi Go is a great game to learn drafting, it’s also a great game to learn how to hate draft (once again, the kids have to learn somehow).

I may be the worst person to play Sushi Go Party! with as I am one to hate draft. Anyone beside me should be concerned. Oh you’re going to complete your three sashimi? I’ll just take the last one even though it’s of no benefit to me. It’s a unique joy to take something someone else wants to those who enjoy hate drafting. Sushi Go Party! is particularly great as it not only has more sushi, but also tailored menus and you have to go with the Cutthroat Combo menu. The risk of the Miso Soup and tipping someone over the edge with too much Tofu (cause there is such thing as too much tofu) is so fun to play with. This is the point of insanity, but we love it. It doesn’t get much cuter than Sushi Go Party! but that doesn’t stop it from being potentially brutal.

I don’t know what it says about me that sabotaging my friends is one of my favourite things to do in games. It’s even better when it’s wrapped up in a pretty package. If you’re that kind of person too, you definitely should be playing these games.