The great outdoors; beyond the vineyards of Viticulture and the city walls of Carcassonne lies a beautiful world that invites you to throw a blanket on the ground and relax with your companions. It’s a breath of fresh air, but it doesn’t need to be an escape from tabletop gaming! I’ll be exploring five vibrant, portable and entertaining games that are great for throwing into your picnic basket and enjoying in the sunlight with your friends and family.
It appears that the tabletop industry has truly embraced using birds as a game theme. Stonemaier Games’s heavy hitter Wingspan took everyone by surprise and successfully caught the worm thanks to beautiful artwork and components along with a solid engine building foundation. 2018 also saw Lookout Games’s Piepmatz take to the skies with an interesting premise of queuing birds at a bird feeder in order to collect sets.
One game that has perhaps yet to establish a voice for itself is Songbirds. This game was originally designed in Japan by Yuo. However, it was published in Europe this year by Daily Magic Games. It serves satisfyingly well as a portable, simple, yet thinky abstract strategy game with appealing artwork.
Players take turns playing bird cards from their hand onto a 5x5 grid on the table. Each bird is one of four different colours, and is numbered one to seven. Each row and column is worth anywhere from five to 15 points, and is represented on a berry token. The colour with the most presence, determined by adding the numbers on each bird card in that row/column, earns the points.
The trick that defines Songbirds is how the colour of the bird on your last remaining card in-hand is the only colour you score on. Therefore, your strategy is constantly changing depending on the board state as you determine which colour has the strongest chances of scoring high.
There is also an element of counting cards as the grid fills up. There are always plenty of surprises as players try to narrow down which cards their opponents are holding onto. Two colours with equal presence in a row/column also cancel each other out and can cause a colour with much less presence to claim the prize. So, clever manoeuvres can be very much rewarded if you see the opportunity to block an unwanted colour from scoring.
The game can be played with one to four players. The four-player version of the rules includes multiple variants depending on which of the two double-sided starting cards is used. If ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ games sing to you, then this definitely a game well worth checking out.
This game is often described as 'Uno meets Fluxx'. Red7 is a 2-4 player game from Asmadi Games. This game is fundamentally simple, yet fascinating to play. The developer, Carl Chudyk, is no stranger to creating games with unique concepts and mechanics. His catalogue includes games like Innovation and Glory To Rome. Red7, which he co-created with Chris Cieslik, is no exception to the rule.
Red7 comprises of a 49-card deck consisting of seven colours, with each colour having cards numbered one to seven. There is one golden rule: You must be winning at the end of your turn, or you're out of the round.
However, the criteria for determining who is ‘winning’ is constantly changing. This is because players can play a card from their hand to the middle of the table to change the rule that defines how the winner is determined. Each colour has its own rule associated with it. For example, blue cares about how many different colours each player has in front of them.
Players start the game with seven cards in hand and one card in front of them. They have three possible actions during their turn in order to stay in the game:
- Play a card from their hand in front of them.
- Play a card to the middle table as a rule change.
- Do both of the above.
Being unable to play any card(s) that puts you in a winning position, or simply having no cards in your hand, immediately knocks you out of the round. As a result, being conservative with your cards is crucial to surviving.
The game comes with three main variants. The intermediate variant adds a mechanic that lets you draw a card if you play a card as a rule that has a number on it that’s higher than the amount of cards in front of you. This variant substantially improves the game in my opinion. Despite prolonging the game slightly, it can mitigate the impact of drawing a weak hand at the start of the game.
The advanced variant gives a special power to all of the odd-numbered cards in the game when played. Personally, I find the intermediate variant to be more elegant when teaching the game to newcomers, even if the card-drawing rule is a little confusing at first.
Two games of Red7 never play out the same and clever tactics are often rewarded. This has helped it to become a staple portable card game in my personal collection. It also rarely overstays its welcome, with games usually wrapping up in less than 10 minutes. This makes it perfect as something you can quickly teach and play. By my rules, I consider it to be a winner.
Ticket to Ride: New York
It’s hard to beat a classic game. Ticket to Ride, winner of the 2004 Spiel des Jahres, has firmly established itself as the gateway game of choice. The series hasn’t lost steam despite it being over a decade after the original game’s launch. There are numerous spin-offs and map expansions that take players to various locales across the world. Great examples include the Nordics, the Old West and, most recently, central London.
When Days of Wonder unveiled Ticket to Ride: New York, many were sceptical. New York would be a streamlined version of the much-loved game, lasting around 10-15 minutes. Fortunately, the game has proved itself as a fun variant of the original game.
New York trades trains for taxis and boasts great production quality and immersive artwork. It's also very portable and suitable for travelling.
The New York board is considerably smaller compared to the other Ticket to Ride games. Each player begins with only 15 taxis. Therefore, being too adventurous with destination tickets may set you back during scoring. You must be mindful of how many taxis you have remaining.
It’s possible to go out of your way to block people off their routes in New York. However, it's nowhere near as prevalent as other maps like Pennsylvania and Nordic Countries, leading to a more wholesome experience.
Bonus points can also be scored at the end of the game. You can achieve these points by connecting tourist spots like Times Square and Central Park. This adds a nice incentive for certain tickets requiring those areas to be connected. Most of these tourist spots have double lines between them. This means that there is always room for two players to place their taxis there, given there are at least three players playing.
New York has defined itself a great portable edition of the well-loved series. It does so whilst retaining the same feel as its sister entries. I haven't played London yet, however I believe it shares very similar DNA with New York. Like this title, London is streamlined for a shorter game experience. So, if you don’t own either yet, feel free to choose your destination.
An Uwe Rosenberg classic has made the list, but most likely not the one you’d expect! Originally released over two decades ago (1997), Bohnanza is still an incredibly unique card game for 3-7 player. It emphasises clever trading, negotiation and card-counting in order to bring in bountiful harvests and score plenty of points.
The goal is to make trade deals with other players to obtain and plant matching bean cards. You can then harvest them and score points. Beans come in different varieties, with some appearing more often throughout the deck. However, the more frequent beans are valued less, and vice versa. For example:
- The highest-valued bean in a regular deck is the Garden Bean. This is worth two coins if you plant two, and three coins if you plant three. However, there are only six of them in total. This results in a risk/reward situation for players. Of course, this is avoided if you can assure that you'll be able to obtain one or two as there can only be one bean type in each of your two field slots.
Bohnanza has a few clever design tricks up its sleeve that helps keep the game remain relevant. The most defining mechanic is how your hand cannot be rearranged at any point during the game. When you draw new cards, they must go to the end of your hand. They must also stay in the order you drew them in. To manipulate your hand, you need to try and trade unwanted cards to other players. Often, this creates interesting scenarios and very enticing trades for your opponents.
Another challenging mechanics is how the bean cards you harvest double as points. You keep these face-down every time you harvest a field. This makes the game especially interesting. These bean cards are essentially removed from the deck, and affect how often that bean type will appear in future reshuffles. With the aforementioned Garden Bean, if you harvest three of them, all three become flipped over to represent points, meaning there’s only three Garden Beans left in the deck.
Bohnanza is incredibly portable. The regular deck consists of 104 cards, which is all you need to play. Recent versions of the game (Rio Grande) include several new bean cards which can be added to the game. There include:
- The Four-of Cocoa Bean.
- The 22-of Wax Bean.
- The 24-of Coffee Bean.
If you haven’t had the chance to play the game that established Uwe Rosenberg a decade before Agricola and Le Havre, I’d highly recommend it. The quirky artwork might seem a bit off-putting at first, but it’ll grow on you. You’ll find yourself truly appreciating the game’s design and feel. It's one which few modern games have managed to plant and harvest for themselves.
Antoine Bauza’s 2013 Spiel des Jahres winner is truly a co-operative experience like no other. Hanabi is a conceptually simple 2-5 player game that’s surprisingly challenging in practice. Your memory and teamwork skills will be put to the test if you want to put on a show to remember.
The goal is simple in Hanabi. Each player must work together to play firework cards numbered one to five in order, in five different suits (or colours), to the middle of the table. You must hold your cards so that the fronts face the other players. Also, you’re not allowed to look at what the values and suits of the cards you’re holding are.
You’ll be relying on clues from other players to know what cards to play. A player can spend a turn to use up one of the eight starting clue tokens and describe what’s in someone’s hand. The clue-giver must point at and describe either the suit or the value of one or more cards in a player’s hand, and all cards that match the description must be pointed to. “These two cards are red” is a valid clue if that player has exactly two red cards in hand.
If you don’t know what to play during your turn and you want to regain a clue token back, you’ll need to spend your turn discarding a card. If you know nothing about your hand, this can be especially dangerous. There is only one of each of the five cards in each suit in the deck, and completing a suit gives you the bonus of regaining a clue token, so you want to avoid discarding them at all costs.
The game’s biggest asset is its table atmosphere. The game is at its best when players aren’t fully confident about what’s in their hand. Games of Hanabi are especially memorable when a moment of misfortune occurs. It’s entirely legitimate to play the game with the mindset of mini-maxing towards the perfect score of 25 and not giving off any social cues in between turns. However, from my experience it enhances the game when people helplessly discuss to themselves their troubles remembering what their hand comprises of and what they should do during their turn.
The game includes an advanced variant which uses the ‘rainbow’ card suit. This counts as all suits while also being its own card type, adding an extra layer of challenge while giving clues. Personally, I find the base game to be more than enough of a brain-burning experience for all involved. However, there are more rule variants which can be found online if you’re interested in trying something new.
To sum up, Hanabi is an incredibly pure co-operative game that puts on a display for all involved. Consisting of only a 50-card deck (60 if you include the rainbow suit) and a number of tokens, the game fulfils the criteria of being a portable game with an interesting theme that will create moments to remember.