A fantastic aspect of board gaming is the range of people with which you get to play games. You share a passion, of course, but what if you don’t share a common language? Luckily for us, knowing your “Bonjour” from your “Buenos Dias” is no prerequisite to having fun with fellow players. The broad spectrum of tabletop offers many language-independent board games.
Here at Zatu, we appreciate that our hobby knows no geographical limits. As such, we have put together a list of 5 great games which, so long as there is one volunteer to understand and disseminate the rules to the rest, are essentially language-independent once they are on the table. And, in fact, some are so intuitive, that you might be able to work them out simply from the pictures in the rule books (or a few crazy hand gestures from those in the know!).
When thinking about good language-independent games, my instinct is to go for one focusing on numbers. Mathematics is, after all, a universal language. Not one I am personally fluent in, sadly. But a number is generally a number whatever country we are in. So, with that in mind, it makes sense to bring people together to play something that sidesteps words altogether.
And for this reason, NMBR9 is a great shout. The copy I own is in fact German because at the time I was hunting it down, it was out of stock over here. My super pal, Hannah, was the clever Trevor who found it, and we have introduced it to a number of other people since. And we can do this primarily because it is a multiplayer solitaire type game where language is an optional extra. Nothing to read on boards. Nothing to write on sheets. Simply flipping cards depicting numbers, and stacking the corresponding tiles on top of one another.
NMBR9 does have a little more depth and strategy than that, of course. You cannot overlap any tiles, and you have to place a new one on top of at least two others (no breaks, holes, or overhanging edges allowed). Without a doubt, the scoring is what sets your strategy for the entire 10 minutes of playtime. With levels acting as their own multipliers (meaning everything on the base scores 0), you will want to have prime tile real estate ready to fill on level 2 or 3 when those 8s and 9s flip over. And, when you do, believe me, you will be proclaiming victory in every language you can!
The board game industry shifted in the 60s as a result of major efforts coming out of Germany, and was drastically escalated by the turn of the century. As such, for a long time, board games were produced by Europeans, which meant they had to cater to a huge range of languages. There were basically three options: print multiple copies with different languages (expensive); print them all in English as the most common foreign language (boy, that would’ve gone down well after Brexit); or make the games language-neutral. Take away the words and let the game speak for itself.
My pick today is one of my favourite games to play, and it’s all the more appropriate because the copy I have is Italian. Stone Age is an excellent worker placement game where each player controls a tribe of cavepeople trying to survive and thrive. You can place your meeples to gather food, wood, clay, stone and gold to trade for civilisation cards and buildings. You can also generate more meeples (stop sniggering at the back) or develop tools and agriculture. What makes this game great is the mechanic by which your resources are generated. The number of meeples = the number of dice rolled and each resource has its own difficulty to generate.
“How is it language independent?” I hear you reasonably ask. Well, aside from the rulebook and the name on the front of the box, there is no writing. All the trade values are indicated on the player boards as numbers, the trading is based on pictures of the goods needed, and all the tokens are clearly shaped to be the appropriate material. I love a great worker placement game, and Stone Age has really brought my partner into the game playing world. Pick up a club and roll the bones, let’s see how we develop.
Phil Walker Harding makes a vast array of different weights of games, from simple roll-and-writes like Silver and Gold up to family weight plus games like Sushi Go Party. For this feature, I picked Barenpark which is a game featuring Tetris style pieces that you place into your grid to complete your zoo.
On your zoo grid, there are wheelbarrow icons. When you cover them over, they get you a 1,2 or 3 square basic tile to go into your holding area. The cement mixer icons get you a 4 square tile that is worth points. The first tile is worth more points than the second, and so on. These tiles come in koala bears (not a bear, but we will let them off), brown bears, polar bears and panda bears, each with its own distinctive shape. Bigger tiles that are worth more points are available to choose from if you cover over the digger icon on your zoo grid. The construction worker icon also lets you draw another zoo tile, and so gives you your next space to build in. Each zoo may only be 4 grid tiles in size, but this can be in any orientation you please.
Covering all the spaces on one of your four zoo grids will get you a bear statue. The earlier you manage to take a statue, the higher points value it will be worth. This gives you a kind of heads up race to finish and fill up a grid quick sharp. You do not, however, want to achieve this at the sacrifice of getting more tiles into your reserve. This could leave you a turn or two behind your opponents. It is a delicious delicate balancing act.
Almost all of Walker Harding’s games on my radar have been language-independent, but I think my favourite is Barenpark. This polyomino tile placement bear zoo building game can be played with people who don’t speak the same language easily. There is no reading required on any of the components, everything is simple icons. The family version of the game is also so simple it can be explained in just a few minutes, which means you can get to the fun pronto!
Michael Kiesling’s Azul has won over hearts and minds, tenfold. It’s more than earned its status as a ‘modern classic’ in the board game world. Yes, it is an eye-catching array on the table. Yes, it’s got quality components that feel wonderful between your fingertips. Yes, it won the Spiel des Jahres in 2018 (Family Board Game of the Year Award). One factor for the latter is the simplicity of its rulebook.
A major reason behind Azul’s success is the rate at which you can digest the rules. It’s no coincidence that this factor ties to the game being language-independent. There’s no text on the player boards, tiles, nor the ‘factories’ (don’t you dare call them beermats). What you see is what you get.
Azul is what’s known as an abstract strategy game. Once explained, everything you need to know is present on the table. No reading required. The theme’s a little loose, but we forgive it because the components are just so darn good. Plus, the player interaction and individual placement battles you face are straight-up sensational.
Abstract strategy, as a board game mechanism, lends itself well to language independence. You’ll often find that in-game text accompanies some products as an attempt – or strengthener – to applying a sense of theme. Azul presents itself as a puzzle, first and foremost. The theme is an afterthought, but it’s not a blight on the gaming experience. Nobody plays Azul because they want to feel like they’re tiling and grouting the King of Portugal’s third guest bathroom. People play Azul because it is one of the best drafting puzzles in the board game market.
About two years ago, I was working in Africa and had the chance to go on a safari with a number of colleagues. Being an avid gamer, I always try to pack one or two travel-suitable games that can be enjoyed during a few moments of “downtime”. So, whilst eleven of us were waiting for our transport into the game reserve, it transpired that we had eight different nationalities and seven different languages between us. All of us could speak English and French as common tongues, so we could work together.
As we sat under the straw-roofed hut, sheltering from the African sun, I bought out my Dobble tin. This was new to everyone. Just 55 cards, each with eight symbols and always one symbol shared between two cards. It is a clever game of speed matching. There are now numerous different versions including some with fewer symbols that are more suitable for children. We played the game type where you need to lay down one card from your hand to match with the card already played. The winner is the first to clear their hand.
So where does language independence come in? With so many nationalities, we decided that before a card match could be made, that the player needed to shout out the name of the symbol in their mother tongue. All was going well until a chap from Madagascar placed his card and said, “What is the name for the white house in a circle? I do not know what it is called!” It turns out there is no Malagasy word for igloo!
So whether you speak the language or not, or even if you don’t know the names of the symbols, Dobble can be played almost anywhere, by almost anyone without the use of language at all.