If you are an experienced tabletop gamer you may know the following feeling well. You love playing ultra-strategic, heavy and cerebral games that last for hours, however your gaming group does not. When the age-old question of 'what shall we play?' comes up, you find your suggestions of Spirit Island, Gaia Project or Through the Ages shouted down with excited cries for 'Uno!'.
If you share this feeling, this list is for you. The following card games are simplistic and enjoyable for casual gamers whilst providing depth and challenge for experienced players. These entries may not replace a day-long session of Twilight Imperium but should provide a solid middle ground to keep everyone happy.
The rules of this list are simple. Only card games, one game per designer and only games with a BoardGameGeek complexity rating of less than two.
Number Five - Cockroach Poker
Cockroach Poker is an incredibly simplistic game for up to six players. You choose a card from your hand, pass it face-down to another player, you tell them the truth or lie about which creepy crawly is on the card and they guess if you are being honest. On the surface, it would appear that this game lacks any real depth and this is mostly true for the two-player variant. However, when played with three or more, players are allowed to pass on cards they are unsure of, peaking at the card and confirming or refuting the original player's claim. This creates an intricate web of intrigue when playing the game in a group. Furthermore, devious players can plan a step or two ahead and set other players up for failure with careful misdirection. Cockroach poker succeeds in creating intensity and depth from a very simple premise and its low price makes it an unmissable option.
Number Four - The Mind Extreme
I will begin this entry by stating that I am terrible at both The Mind and The Mind Extreme. However, both games are so simple and addictive you will find yourself dealing out cards before you have had the chance to say, “one more go?”. The Mind Extreme surpasses it’s predecessor in depth due to it’s inclusion of a second deck of cards and some devious new mechanics.
The principle of the game remains the same, two to four players attempt to lay an increasing number of cards from their hand to the table in numerical order without communicating. The Mind Extreme, however has players laying cards into two separate piles, one for numbers in ascending order (1-50) and one in descending order (50-1). This adds an extra layer of depth and danger to an already tricky puzzle. The game requires players to learn each other’s tells and play the odds mathematically. The odd blunder can still occur, I have slammed down a two instantly only to see my furious partner reveal a one from their hand but the game will keep you coming back.
The game also includes power-ups in the form of throwing stars which allow the players to discard the highest or lowest card from their hands. The final feature to mention, is the blindness mechanic. This features from level three onwards and requires players to play their cards face down. At this point the game really does become centred on how well you know those around you and all you have to go on is the speed at which they are laying their cards.
The Mind Extreme is an inexpensive, simple and addictive game with much more depth and challenge than its predecessor.
Number Three - Hanamikoji
Hanamikoji is a wonderfully simple experience for two players and it is rare for a game to last longer than ten minutes. In Hanamikoji, players take turns trying to win the favour of several Geishas. A player can win a particular Geisha’s favour by having more gift cards present on that Geisha at the end of the round. A player wins the game by winning the favour of four or more Geishas in a single round or by having eleven points at the end of the round.
Hanamikoji’s depth can be found in its unusual gameplay. Player’s are given the choice between four separate actions. A turn consists of a player completing one of these actions and drawing a gift card. Actions include: banking one card for end of round scoring, discarding two cards, showing your opponent three cards, letting them keep one and giving your opponent the choice between two sets of cards from your hand.
Although these choices imply that you have little control over the round’s outcome, there is some strategic depth here. Players need to think ahead about which cards are safe to discard or offer to an opponent. Is it better to bank a higher scoring card early or wait and see if you draw something better? Do I offer my opponent my useless cards or does that mean that they have matching cards in their hand?
Hanamikoji is a simple yet puzzling game. On the one hand, it is difficult to win with sheer luck and no forethought. On the other, even the best laid plan can be dismantled by gifting or discarding cards too liberally. The game is highly repayable and arguably possesses the most beautiful art of any game on this list.
Number Two - Gloom
The only game my mum refuses to play with me on premise alone; Gloom is certainly an acquired taste. However, if you can convince your group to see past the grim concept, there is a lot of depth to be found in this simplistic and inexpensive game.
The goal of Gloom is to give the members of your chosen family the most miserable lives possible before unceremoniously killing them off with untimely death cards. The gameplay itself is linked to the use of transparent cards. Two to four players take turns layering different event or modifier cards on either their own or another player’s family members. These cards provide the family members with either negative or positive experiences. For example, having a horrible holiday or being delighted by ducklings. Negative experiences provide negative points and positive experiences provide positive points. When one family is completely wiped out by untimely death cards, the game ends and the player with the lowest score wins the game.
The untimely death mechanic certainly provides a great deal of depth to the game, as you need to assess the best moment to kill either one of your characters or one of your opponents'. Do you go for damage limitation and kill one of their characters now, knowing it is reasonably valuable or do you risk it and try to make a better play later on? Furthermore, do you bank Cousin Mordecai now, knowing that his case of gangrene will mildly help your score? Or do you keep him alive a bit longer, risking another player blessing him with a wonderful wedding?
If you can see past the morbid theme, Gloom provides a lot of fun and replay value. This is due to the game’s ‘take that’ nature and ‘push your luck’ scoring structure. There are also numerous expansions available to add extra depth if desired.
Number One - Battle Line
This was a close contest, as Lost Cities could easily have been here instead. However, Battle Line just provides that extra bit of depth that keeps me coming back. Battle line has a simple premise. There are nine flags in a line between the players. Players take turns playing one card to a flag and drawing one card. Once both players have played three cards to a flag, that flag is resolved and the player with the best three card combination claims the flag. The game ends when one player controls five flags or controls three adjacent flags.
The game is comparable to Poker, in that certain three card combinations trump others. For example, three cards of the same colour with consecutive values is known as a wedge and cannot be trumped, except by a higher wedge. A phalanx, three cards of the same value, beats a battalion, three cards of the same colour and so on.
Once players have memorised the hierarchy of possible combinations, the game really opens up and becomes an intense case of cat and mouse. If Reiner Knizia set out to provide players with the experience of being a general in the midst of ancient warfare, he achieved it. Each decision feels massive. Do you try and rush your opponent and make them panic by laying down high value cards early? Or do you hold back and play more reactively? The win conditions also have a profound effect on your choices, do you spread your forced evenly to numerous flags or focus intently on three adjacent flags?
The depth of Battle Line is further established by the presence of tactics cards. These ten cards provide players with a finite pool of abilities that can turn the tide of battle. Some devastating examples include: traitor – which allows you to steal a card your opponent has played; mud – the flag this card is played to is resolved by four cards not three; and redeploy – allowing players to move a previously played card to a different flag.
Battle Line is simple, intense, addictive and has a great deal of depth to it. You will have to plan ahead and make difficult decisions which can secure victory or lose a game in a matter of seconds.