So, I know what score you’ve got and you know what score I’ve got – the bases are loaded, the cards are on the table and all I need is one good roll of the dice… [clatter] ah, nuts. Push-your-luck games may not be everyone’s cup of tea – if you’re into heavyweight Euros, they’ll be the equivalent of kryptonite to you – but there’s nothing quite like them for getting the pulse racing, the stakes high and failures not just heroic but profoundly epic. Here are eight… eight? Are you sure? I mean, that’s definitely pushing it. Okay, here are eight of our favourites…
Rob Wright – Design Town
Deck builders are usually known for their power creep rather than their playing the odds, but there are a couple out there that ask you to throw caution to the wind and let the cards fall where they may. One of these is Temp Worker Assassins, which I’ve already big-upped somewhat, the other is Design Town, the game formerly known as Flip City.
It’s different from other deck builders in that you don’t have a hand; you just have a deck. On your turn, you deal cards off the top of your deck, face up, until you decide to stop – if you draw three frowny faces, you bust out and your turn ends. If you manage to stop before this happens, you will probably have cash on your cards to spend, which you can use to buy a new building card from the centre row (like Dominion, you have a set number of cards in the middle and can usually only buy one at a time), upgrade one of your cards in your discard pile (this means flipping them over, hence the original name Flip City) or, if you can afford it, buy a card and upgrade it straight away. As well as cash, cards can have victory points and play continues until a player manages to gather eight victory points on their draw, making them the winner! The good thing about this as a push-your-luck is that there are cards that force you to draw - you might not see the card that busts you out on top of the pile but it might be the next one. Dare you draw the factory? Can you afford not to? It’s simple to learn, quick to play and varied enough to appeal to any games group. And guess what? It’s also pretty cheap (I like cheap games and I cannot lie!).
Callum Price - Blossoms
When it comes to push-your-luck, we've recently been playing a very light game by our standards. We bought it for the art and player count, but it’s one that we really enjoy for the push-your-luck element! Blossoms, or Kwiatki, by REBEL is a set collection game for two. The aim of the game is to create the most beautiful bouquet of flowers by collecting sets of flower cards.
After setup, play starts with players taking turns to grow flowers (growth), take actions (more growth or actions), and passing or cutting flowers which ends your turn (cut). The aim is to cut flowers when they're as tall as possible, pushing them as far as you can without them overgrowing and spoiling. There's also the risk that, during each growth phase you choose to take, you may get "bad luck", which is where you draw a flower not currently present in any pots! Should that happen, your turn ends. When the deck runs out, players calculate scores based on amounts in each set they have. Whoever scores the most, wins!
What makes this more interesting is the actions on the pots themselves. On your turn, you can utilise the abilities of the plant pots by putting tokens on them. This has two functions. First off, you get access to the abilities, giving you some control over the luck you have. You only have three tokens so you're never overpowered! The other is that your opponent cannot cut that plant until after your next turn.
Blossoms is a beautiful game. The art is stunning and the theme is embedded throughout. What's also lovely is how quickly the game is learned, played, and replayed - it's a superb filler for two! It has just enough risk to make it worth thinking a turn through. You'll play it quickly enough that "that moment" where you know you've lost doesn't happen, but it's got some surprising tactical depth for its ridiculously lightweight feel! The game's accessibility can be scaled to remove the unique abilities of each plant pot, and can even be adapted to include three players. If you're looking for a surprisingly fun, lightweight push-your-luck game for two, this is my current recommendation!
Carl Yaxley – Port Royal
Port Royal is a 2-5 player game designed by Alexander Pfister. The game drops you into the bustling Caribbean harbour of Port Royal. As merchants, the players’ aim is to acquire gold and gain influence (victory points). To do this, players will loot ships, complete expeditions, and bring skilled people into their employ. The game is comprised solely of a 120-card deck. It's super-quick to teach and virtually no set up is required.
The back of each card depicts a gold coin, the game's currency. The front of the card will depict either a Ship (in one of five colours), Person, Expedition, or a Tax Increase. Ships can be attacked to gain coins. Hire People to gain victory points and/or abilities. Expeditions are completed by trading in people with specific abilities, in order to earn coins and victory points. Tax Increases keep a check on players’ gold.
On a turn, the active player draws cards from the top of the deck, one at a time, until they decide to stop. Each time a card is drawn, it's placed face up in the middle of the table. Players can draw and reveal as many cards as they like in this way, but there is a risk; if two ships of the same colour are revealed, and the player cannot repel the second, their turn ends immediately. Otherwise, they can take one or more revealed cards, so long as they can afford them. Remaining cards are offered to each other player, for an additional cost.
The game end is triggered when one player has gained twelve or more victory points. The current round is completed, and the player with the most victory points wins. Port Royal is well worth a look if you enjoy a push-your-luck game.
John Hunt – Quacks of Quedlinburg
I can’t say I am generally a fan of push-your-luck games, but I have a massive soft spot for Quacks of Quedlinburg. Why? Because it’s just a great game!
I like the quirky theme for one – playing medieval snake oil salesmen with a cavalier penchant for mixing dangerous concoctions is bizarre but engaging. Also, the very nature of the play experience is a satisfyingly tactile experience: drawing chits depicting outré ingredients out of the bag to place on your cauldron, with the ever present risk of explosion. Plus, pushing your luck is a tactile experience too as you poke around in the bag, counting the final chits by touch and trying to work out how likely you are to pull another cherry bomb with explosive and disastrous consequences.
The consequences aren’t that disastrous though, especially in the early game – you either sacrifice your score or your chance to buy new ingredients. This means you can push your luck without ruining your turn and, for me, that is another benefit – the stakes are high enough without being crushing.
I also like the variety that comes in the main box, with options for different ingredient effects that keep the experience fresh and varied. This is made even more varied with the addition of The Herb Witches expansion. It provides more ‘modular’ options you can choose to drop in or out and ups the player count – and it does this at the right price for an expansion, in my opinion.
Finally, Quacks appeals to a broad audience: I have had great games with experienced gamers wanting a light, funny and slightly thinky filler. I have sat with the family, a 4 year old on my knee gleefully pulling out chits and yelling, “BANG!” when she inevitably causes an explosion.
Neil Bunker – Diamant/Inca Gold
How much risk are you willing to take to find treasure?
You have already found 15 rubies in this increasingly dangerous tunnel. The spiders, snakes and rock-falls have scared away four of your fellow treasure hunters – now just one companion remains.
Between you sits a valuable relic.
If you turn back, that relic could be yours. If you stay, but they leave, the Relic is theirs. If you both go, the Relic is lost forever, but those rubies are yours to keep.
The next tile could be anything. A new trap, another Relic, more rubies. If it’s a trap, the tunnel could collapse and those that stayed behind lose everything.
Neither of you want to be first to leave; the temptation to grab more treasure is too great. You slowly reveal the next tile and…
Designed by Allan R Moon and Bruno Faidutti, Diamant (also known as Incan Gold), is everything you could possibly want in a push-your-luck game.
It’s simple enough to play with children, yet has tension to spare for everyone - the treasure hunting theme seems perennially popular with all ages. Its quick to play and the 3 to 8 player count makes it a great choice for larger groups. The components (in the Diamant version) are fantastic, complete with Raiders of the Lost Ark style treasure boxes and wooden adventurers.
True, the gameplay is essentially a single decision: do you carry on? Yes or no.
But the hilarity that ensures as you egg each other on into taking risk after risk is what makes that decision into a game worth playing again and again.
If you only have room for one push-your-luck game on your shelf, make it this one.
Gavin Hudson – Rallyman GT
Vrrooom Vroooom! Eeeeeeeeeeee! Neeeeeeeeerrrrrrr! Neeeeeeeeeeeeerrrr! Eeeeyayyyyeeeyayeee! Kaboom! – If these noises sound exciting, it’s because they are. It’s the ear-splitting, searing crescendo of throbbing engines ripping the lungs from your chest as they thunder past you in the grandstand. It’s the squeal of tyres straining for a grip on tarmac. It’s the cacophonous crash of a spin-out over the gravel trap into the barriers. It’s the pop of the champagne cork on the winner’s podium. Racers, start your engines - it’s Rallyman GT!
Ok, so maybe you have to provide your own sound effects and you certainly have to provide your own champagne. But, for adrenaline thrills, Rallyman GT gets my vote as both a racing game and a push-your-luck game. Simple to learn, fun to master. Pick your car, plan your route with your dice, roll ‘em, and hope you don’t hit enough hazard symbols to lose control and crash. Will you play it safe and roll them one at a time? Or, will you go flat out and chuck ‘em down the dice tray all at once? Obviously, the latter!
Sure, it’s as lucky as it is tactical. Sometimes, someone takes a lead at the first corner and is never caught. It doesn’t matter; the race for second, third, fourth, and even to avoid the wooden spoon is just as absorbing. Coming third after two nasty spin-outs can feel just as much an achievement as leading from poll for the entire race.
Rallyman GT hits that sweet spot of just enough tactics to make it interesting, but just enough chaos to keep it light and sociable - this is the perfect game for a casual gaming get together. You can have a drink, eat snacks, trash talk and do your own sound effects until the chequered flag falls.
Tom Harrod – Deep Sea Adventure
Deep Sea Adventure by Oink Games comes in a small, Ribena-carton-sized box. Appealing to casual and strategic gamers alike, it’s a great candidate for a ‘hand luggage’ holiday game. Up to six players are divers on a submarine. There’s a path of face-down treasure tokens ’neath the waves, increasing in value the deeper you dive. The aim is to swim down, grab valuable loot, and bring it back to the surface before you run out of air.
On your turn, you roll two dice (the faces range 1-3 pips). You move that many spaces down the treasure tokens. Divers don’t share spaces, so leapfrogging occurs. Once landed, you decide: do you want this treasure? If so, replace it with a blank token, so the route’s length remains the same.
There are a couple of exquisite twists. This sub has a limited oxygen supply, which every diver shares. There’s no limit to how much treasure you can hold. But if you take treasure, it weighs you down on future turns. It forces you to use up one unit of oxygen per token you have. Also, for every token you hold, you lose that many pips from your dice rolls on later turns. You’re moving slower, and you’re burning through air.
If you don’t make it back to the surface before the shared oxygen runs out, you drop all your loot. It sinks to the bottom of the sea and you score zero! You have to decide before you roll the dice if you’re turning around to swim back up to the sub, or continuing down. Once you turn, there’s no going back! Do you stay shallow and pick up cheaper trinkets? Or are deeper depths worth it for the risky riches?
Deep Sea Adventure is a fascinating, competitive push-your-luck ride. The first 50% is almost semi-cooperative. Nobody wants to be the first to use the oxygen. Then people start getting selfish. They get greedy. And, usually, they don’t score…
Anne Other – Celestia
No, I can do this… I just need one decent roll... [clatter] ah, nuts. Sorry, you don’t get an eighth game.
We could definitely have added Celestia in there and Eric Lang’s stunningly brutal X-Com but… that’s what happens when you push your luck. Still, there’s always next turn, isn’t there?