The coronavirus has turned the world upside-down for us all in drastic measures. Social distancing and self-isolation has minimised human contact between friends and family. Board game nights or going round your mate’s house with a bag of games is on indefinite hiatus.
In some ways it feels ironic. The bugbear we board gamers used to gripe about was not having time to play our games. Now most of us have more free time on our hands, since Leaving The House is a no-no. (In all seriousness, playing board games doesn’t count as an ‘essential activity’!) But, if you’re like me, then your local gaming ‘group’ doesn’t live under the same roof as you.
Don’t panic. All it takes is a little bit of creativity to play some board games, despite self-isolation. I’ve listed ten fantastic games that you can play with your friends or family, even if you live apart. You don’t need four individual versions of these games. All it takes is a little bit of thinking outside the box…
What Tech Do I Need?
To play these games, participants need internet access. I don’t mean playing over boardgamearena or on Tabletop Simulator. You can play these games while filming the action using a video-calling app. It’s like a conference call between you and your gaming crew.
Apps like Facebook Messenger, Skype or Zoom allow you to invite people into one big ‘Group Chat’. These apps provide the option to make video calls, as well as regular ‘chat’ features. Using a smartphone? It will have two cameras: a regular one, and a front-facing one (the one you’d use for selfies). You can use a combination of these two cameras to either film yourself, or an object such as a game on a tabletop. Hold or prop the phone up on a makeshift tripod!
Be aware though, that video calls like this drains a smartphone’s battery like a good’un. You’ll need to either start the call on 100% battery, or have your charger close to hand, mid-call. If you use a modern laptop plugged into the mains, many of them feature a built-in front-facing webcam. Plus it’ll have a larger screen, so I’d recommend this if you don’t fancy squinting at your mobile device. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the terrific games you can play in this manner!
Just One – The Best Party Game In The World?
Just One is a brilliant, co-operative party game. Players take turns being the ‘guesser’. A card sits facing away from them, so everyone else can see it. On said card is five different words; the guesser picks a number at random. For example, they pick number 4, and unbeknown to them, that word is ‘Pipe’.
Each clue-giver has to then write down a one-word clue, in secret, that hints that the word ‘Pipe’. The guesser closes their eyes and everyone reveals their clues. You have to discard any duplicate clues. So don’t write an obvious one! The guesser then sees any remaining clues and has one guess at what they think the word is. Then the next player becomes the guesser, and they get a new card, facing away from them.
It’s remarkable how simple it is to play Just One using a video calling app. All you need is one person to own a copy of the game, and everyone else to have a pen and paper to hand. The guesser picks a number, and then closes their eyes (or walks away from his screen for 60 seconds). The game’s owner holds up a card for everyone else to see, so participants can see the word. Everyone writes down their clue. On a count of three, they hold their clue up to their camera. Any duplicates get removed, and then the guesser comes back and guesses the clue!
Which Games Don’t Work?
Most party games translate over a video call like this, because they’re simple. There’s no complex rules to decipher. There’s not a bazillion different components to dish out as starting resources. I’ve avoided suggesting titles that involve hand management, or individual player boards. I appreciate that eliminates a lot of potential games! But I’ll explain why…
Games that feature a hand of cards are tricky to simulate over a video call. It requires certain players (the game-owner) to ignore ‘secret’ knowledge. This becomes tough, because now it becomes meta in-game knowledge to them. Individual player boards, meanwhile, play a vital role in their respective games. There’s no practical way of showing all this to a player, alongside the main board, over a video call.
Something like Scythe or Viticulture would be too busy on screen! You’d need to show the whole board plus all the player boards on screen at once. The amount of hoops you’d have to leap through zaps the fun out of the experience.
More Party Games: Codenames
Codenames, getting back to party games, is a much more simple affair. This is a team-vs-team party game where you arrange 25 random words in a 5x5 grid. Each team has a clue-giver, and these two people share a secret layout. (The game owner can be one clue-giver. They can send a picture of the secret layout via direct message to their counterpart.) On this secret layout, it depicts which these 25 words belong to the red team. Some belong to the blue team, some to neither. One word belongs to an ‘assassin’.
The clue-givers take turns to say a word and a number to their team, such as “Town, three.” They’re conveying that there are three words among these 25 that that are their team’s colour. All have things to do with ‘town’. The team then discuss and debate which words among the 25 could be theirs. The team that determines all their allocated words first, wins.
And Another! Wavelength
Wavelength is another visual party game. It features a clever gimmick, which is an upright wheel that can rotate. The majority of this wheel is blank, but some tiny slithers of numbers sit on it: 2, 3, 4, 3, 2. It’s like looking at a drop-down view of measly slices of cake! The wheel’s rotated (in secret), with only the clue-giver knowing where these numbers sit. Then the numbers get covered up. The owner would have to be the clue-giver, in this example.
A card’s revealed to everyone: it offers a category of two extremes, pointing left and right. The clue-giver then has to say an answer within this category. They take the placement of the numbers into consideration, so the 4 is the ideal location. The players then have to move a dial, so the tip of it faces either extreme-left, far-right, or anywhere between. In essence, they have a range of 180º to where the answer lies.
Players can join in at any time during the video chat, with their input. Party games thrive best when they’re light, fun and even silly at times. This only escalates when performed over a ‘conference call’!
A Fake Artist Goes To New York is a party game by Oink Games. Drawing and bluffing lies at the heart, here. A drawing game? That you play remotely? Yes, you can achieve this using your phones. Get everyone in a Group Chat. This is a regular chat room, not using video. One player is the Question Master. They direct-message each individual player with the clue. They send one player no clue but an ‘X’ instead – this player is the Fake Artist.
Every smartphone has the ability to doodle or annotate onto pictures. Have the start player doodle one line on a blank background, and upload it into the group chat so everyone can see it. Then the next player can download this image, and draw their one line on top of it. Then they’ll upload it into the chat. Rinse and repeat! Ensure that each player uses their own unique colour, when contributing.
The aim is to make this collaborative work of art look like the clue word! The trick is to draw something subtle enough so you don’t give the clue away for the Fake Artist. But if you draw too vague a line, then others will suspect you of being the Fake! After two rounds of people drawing one line at a time, then it’s time to guess the faker. Fake Artist is hilarious at the best of times, and it provides even more giggles over a messaging app.
Santorini – Endless Abstract Fun
Fancy something a little more serious? Santorini is an abstract strategy game by Roxley Games, with zero luck. No cards, no dice, no random elements at all. It’s a bit like Chess, in that way. The players’ destiny is in their own hands.
Santorini is a two-player game, but it can accommodate three or four players. Each player controls two people on a 5x5 grid. Your turn consists of two parts. First, you move one of your people one space. Second, you construct a single level of a building in an adjacent space to the moved player piece. Buildings can at most have four tiers: three storeys and then a domed roof.
When constructing a new building, you place the base level, only. On a later turn someone else can place the second floor on top of this, and so on. When moving, players can, if they wish, move up one storey (but not two) as part of their movement. The winner is the first player to reach the third level. Players start by picking one of 40 ‘god powers’. These are asymmetrical cards that help break the rules in balanced ways.
For Santorini to work over a a video call, one player sets up the game and have their camera facing the board. They’d take their turns as normal. Meanwhile, the other player(s) can see the board layout, and they describe what they want to do on their turn. “Okay, I’ll move my bottom guy one space to the left. Then I’ll build a second-floor building in the space above him…”
More Abstract Games: Hey, That’s My Fish, and Battle Sheep
Like Santorini, abstract strategy games excel in this manner. All of the components the players need to focus on are on the board. By describing their move to the owner of the game, who can move their piece(s) for them, it’s like they were in the same room.
There’s dozens of fantastic abstract games you could try. Hey, That’s My Fish! is a game about trying to grab as much fish as possible. Players control penguins and move them in straight lines. They claim the tile they vacated, so the layout shrinks. It becomes a disappearing, ever-melting ice floe. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the cute box art that this is a kid’s game! It can be brutal as you trap your opponents on worthless parts of of the iceberg.
Battle Sheep has parallels to Hey, That’s My Fish! Battle Sheep has a less fiddly set-up. First, players take it in turns to build a modular, communal pasture. Then they’ll place out their stack of 16 sheep discs. On your turn, you move your stack in one direction (of a possible six, since the pasture comprises of hexes). You have to split your stack each turn, deciding which discs to move and which to remain in place. The aim is to spread all 16 of your sheep out, and not get penned in!
Imhotep – Easy-To-See, Gateway-Plus
Imhotep is a clever ‘gateway-plus’ game by Phil Walker-Harding, filled with layered decisions. Again, you can play Imhotep with one player settin it up and angling their camera on the action. Other players can instruct where they wish to place their pieces. It doesn’t take up much of a footprint, space-wise, and the components are chunky and visual. Players will be able to see everything laid out with ease.
Ancient Egypt’s the setting, here. Players aim to sail bricks to contribute towards various monuments. On your turn you either place one of your bricks on a boat. Or, you can sail a loaded boat to a monument, where you unload the bricks in order, front-to-back. Monuments score in different fashions. Some give out instant points, while others are bigger, end-game set collection targets. The third option is you can restock three bricks from the ‘quarry’. The timing of this is crucial, because at some point you’ll have loaded all your bricks onto the boats!
However, watching someone else move your pieces in a game might not feel all that satisfying. The best part of any board game is, after all, your turn. The bit where you roll the dice, or move your components. But turn that frown upside-down! I’ve got a solution for that…
Roll & Write Games
If one person owns the a roll and write game, they can send the other players a photo of the player sheet. Those players can then print it out. There are dozens of roll and write games in existence. Some feature beautiful custom dice, such as Railroad Ink. If only one person owns the Blazing Red or Deep Blue copy of Railroad Ink though, then it could suffer the ‘observer’ problem I mentioned above. One player, the game-owner, will be the only one doing all the rolling. And if you don’t get to roll any dice, then you’re missing out on 50% of the game!
I’ve included here two roll and write games that feature regular dice. I’m talking six-sided dice, with bog-standard die faces. Most people own dice somewhere in their house (even if they have to dig Monopoly out of the loft). On their turn, they can face their camera onto a dice tray and roll away.
Qwinto features only three dice (a red, yellow, and purple one). The game is super-simple to teach and it’s so clean to grasp, graphics-wise. Corinth, meanwhile, is from Days of Wonder. They’re well known for their quality components and family-weight designs. (Days of Wonder recently released the files for Corinth as a free download, too.)
I could sneak Ganz schön clever, by Wolfgang Warsch in, too. It might be a bit of a tall order though, since it involves six different-coloured dice (white, yellow, green, purple, orange, blue). Not everyone might have that many dice, or indeed those combination of colours. Of course, if you don’t mind one player doing all the rolling, then by all means, fill your boots with this mechanism. Pretty much any roll and write game in the world would work…
Editors note: This post was originally published on 27/04/2020. Updated on 17/03/2021 to improve the information available.