What does it mean to be busy? It’s a relative term, I know, but the grindstone, the rat race, the eternal hamster wheel are a daily reality for us all. Whether you pour every ounce of yourself into your work, have the pleasure of/patience for raising children, have family commitments or, for whatever reason, just don’t get the regular downtime you need (and I don’t mean between turns!) - your time is precious, and never more so than when it comes to deciding whether to spend it around the table, rolling dice, moving meeples or gathering resources.
But what if you do manage to carve out a few hours in the evening or at the weekend? Energy levels are often running on fumes once the kids are finally in bed or the working day is done. The mere thought of setting up a game which has as many cards and components as your Gran has had hot dinners can be too much for some. Equally daunting can be the prospect of having to wrestle with a hefty rulebook whose length is on par with War and Peace and which is about as intuitive as a tax return.
But even if you power through, you may find yourself already past the point of no return. Picture the scene: you’re a few hours in and the slow realisation dawns that the game just doesn’t play that well. You decide to smile and keep going, saying to yourself “Let’s chalk this one down to experience.” But secretly you’re really struggling to stick a cork in that feeling of bitterness bubbling up inside, a resentment for the person sitting right across the table. Your mate who insisted, “Let’s give this a go, guys!” - all in the name of “fun”. And meanwhile, the kids will be up in 6 hours and it’ll be Monday by the time you get the game packed away again!
We’ve all experienced this to varying degrees of severity. There are no refunds on mediocre board gaming experiences, and certainly none on your valuable time. A bad night at the gaming table can be off putting, especially if you’re relatively new to the hobby. The saddest thing of all, though, is if the time sacrifice vs reward ultimately puts you off making the effort to get together regularly, stick your neck out and give new games a good go.
Allow me to stick my neck out for you! The following is intended, not as a ranking as such, but as a list of five board games recommended for busy people who want to achieve maximum returns re enjoyment vs their time investment. Any of these titles should make for a gaming night flush with strategy, challenge and fun. A gaming sweet spot located somewhere a good deal south of trying to beat a chess grandmaster, but also much more rewarding than spending every evening lying exhausted on the sofa, mindlessly watching repeat episodes of Friends while doom scrolling through your social media accounts….or is that just me?
Ok, here we go!
For a more in depth run down of each game’s mechanics, see the full reviews on their respective product pages.
A charming worker placement game, in which you try to build the best city for your band of forest critters to call home before winter arrives. Don’t be fooled by the cutsie little woodland animals that adorn the box art and cards. As much as one’s heart might melt at the sight of a beaver in a beret, there is a lot to keep track of in Everdell. You need to be thinking a few moves ahead all the time and plan for the next season.
There’s great depth here but at the same time, it’s a sedate experience underpinned by a lovely, light theme, centred around a whimsical representation of the natural world. The rulebook is just a welcome length too. While it comes in at 24 pages long in total, only about 8 of these are required to set up and understand how the game works. Every page is very well explained with a very clear layout, which is always appreciated. This sounds like it should always be a given in rulebooks, but believe me, it’s not. This isn’t the quickest game on the list, but one which is extremely satisfying and well worth your limited time spent lounging by the river in the shade of the Evertree.
Affectionately known in our house as just “Birds”, Wingspan is a firm favourite for many reasons:
- The theme: your task is to entice the best combination of birds to the various habitats in your nature reserve to score points.
- The rules: easy to understand, teach, and get going with. The rules are easy to retain if there are long breaks between games too.
- The strategy: do I target my personal objectives, end of round goals or opt for an all out assault on end game points? Do I have my birds lay nests full of eggs or aim to build an unstoppable ornithological engine, turning my wetland habit into a point scoring dynamo?
- The replayability: it’s impossible to see all the birds in the deck, even in a few plays and even more so if you add the two expansions currently available.
It’s a difficult one to recommend to the uninitiated as a game that is packed with wall to wall excitement (one of my friends once asked before his first game, “So…do the birds, like, kill each other or anything?”). It has to be played to be appreciated. It’s a calm but competitive experience (my wife takes the game super seriously, flapping her arms gracefully like wings to wind me up when victorious, more Pterodactyl than Turkey Vulture if I’m honest).
It’s also a game rich in educational value, with its focus on conservation. I’m the one who insists that players read the description on the bird card they are playing aloud so that we always learn something new (sorry, I’m a teacher by trade). I am already looking forward to my son discovering the various types of birds the game has to offer when he is finally old enough to play a full game. Wingspan might also get you out into the great outdoors in search of some of your own, local feathered friends. We’ve not yet managed to marry the two and play a game outdoors - very still conditions would be needed, otherwise your birds might just take flight for good!
Parks is a lovely little offering from Keymaster Games which has you hiking, gathering resources, lighting campfires and taking photos as you visit the many National Parks dotted across the United States. The artwork is stunning, the rules are compact (only 7 small pages of necessary information to get going) and the sense of journeying to places unknown is liberating. Even more so after a long and potentially monotonous day at work (unless you’re a park ranger!) Even if you aren’t physically going to these places, there are no limitations on where your mind can take you.
There’s something quite chill and meditative about the game and, similar to Wingspan, it’s made me want to visit these wonderful National Parks someday when time (there’s that word again) and money permits.
Quacks is a vibrant and bubbling cauldron full of fun: easy to set up, pick up and mess up, if you push your luck a bit too far that is. The game has you brewing weird concoctions as you hope to make a name for yourself as the most renowned quack doctor in Quedlinburg. Blind drawing ingredients from your bag each round, you add them to your cauldron player board, but knowing when to stop is key - get too greedy and your potion may just blow up in your face.
This mechanic alone makes the game very tense. As more ingredients are added to the pool, the stakes climb ever higher and you’re hoping for that one ingredient you really need to score vital points. Relying heavily on good fortune rather than skill in board games can feel unfair at times, and no one wants to give up their evening voluntarily only to feel that they’ve been pounded upon by the cruel hand of Lady Luck. Worry not however, as Quacks employs a clever means of catching up those that like to live fast and free with exploding cauldrons, meaning that the fun doesn’t let up even after a few missteps.
This is a game I could happily play every weekend for the rest of my days and still love it - it’s light, quick, exciting and varied. Basically, everything I was in my early to mid twenties. Maybe there’s a potion I can brew to recapture that...
I’ve just come doon, fae the Isle o’ Skye.
Laying roads, selling land and buying tiles,
And as I win, my clansmen cry,
Adam where’s yer troosers.
(*swings trousers over head in victory*)
First of all, don’t worry. As a longtime resident of Scotland, I felt that I could get away with bending the lyrics of Donald, Where’s Your Troosers for the purposes of this article. And secondly, I can assure you that I keep my trousers firmly on at all times, even when I win at this absolute gem of a game. In Isle of Skye, players compete to build the most lucrative network of roads which in turn connect things like farms and distilleries to your castle. Points are scored accordingly and also if other conditions are met, such as completing a loch, or having lighthouses.
Sounds a bit mundane, but the kicker is in the bidding system; you buy tiles from each other, the prices set in secret by the players themselves. It’s all about setting your prices with a strategy in mind. Too low and you lose them to an opponent for next to nothing; too high and no one buys your tiles, you receive no income, but you ward off other players from grabbing a tile they really need. There’s a lot going on and it’s all very satisfying. It’s games like this that make you want to weep for joy at how something so simple can be so clever. And yet it never gets old. Isle of Skye - when will we see your like again? Probably never. And that’s ok with me.
It’s a tried and tested cliché (which I’m unashamedly going to repeat here) but board games should offer us an opportunity to step out of real life, even if only for an evening. This is all the more important for those of us who don’t often get that chance. Board games should be a chance to have fun in good company but they should also offer some sort of reprieve: whether through the idle chat between turns with those you have invited to sit around your gaming table, or an escape via the theme you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in for just a few hours. You might find yourself trekking through the woods, building a bird reserve, becoming a master of your clan, brewing dodgy potions or building a pigeon post office in a forest settlement.
No matter what you choose, the hope is that, in that perhaps very limited time, all the stars align - theme, setup, gameplay, company, and you sit down to something which leaves you feeling like it’s been an evening very well spent. I do like heavy games, but not every gaming session has to stretch into the wee hours of the night. My hope is that this list gives some food for thought when it comes to the choice of whether to spend an hour or two somewhere else, away from the maelstrom of modern day living. You deserve it!