What’s keeping me grounded in our current pandemic? Board games, for one. But I’m not reaching for the latest and the greatest at the moment; I’ve found myself reaching for shorter titles that don’t melt my brain, and I’ve been digging deeper into my collection for those criminally underplayed treasures. In part that’s because I’ve been playing with family rather than a gaming group, but—and perhaps you know the feeling—it’s also because I can’t concentrate on a two-hour strategy fest when the world feels like it’s on fire.
I’ve enjoyed digging up some older titles during this time, and I’ve been reminded of how terrific some of them are. When I played Sanssouci with my 13-year old daughter, for instance, we had such a blast that we immediately played it again. And Keltis—what a gorgeous presentation, even if you do have to order it direct from Germany and download an English rules translation from BoardGameGeek.
Anyway, here are six titles that I’ve been playing at home over the last couple of months. Hopefully they inspire you to get some gaming in—and to share your own quarantine board games in the comments.
2-4 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+, $33 on Amazon (with ruinous shipping)
The delightful aesthetics—there’s just so much glorious green!—elevate the solid gameplay, while a second map on the back side of the board offers a thinkier experience. If you’ve played Lost Cities, you’ll grok the gameplay right away: play one card per turn, building up piles that can only move in a single direction (each card must be higher or lower than the one before). Whatever color you play conditions the piece you can advance on the board. But don’t start too many pieces down their respective paths—moving only a few spots or less results in negative points. Mix in some very light set collection and you have a terrific way to spend 45 minutes. I’m not alone in this opinion; Keltis won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres prize in Germany back in 2008.
2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10+, $47 on Amazon
A recent title from master designer Stefan Feld, this one really hits my sweet spot. You have tons of ways to earn points and plenty to think about, but gameplay couldn’t be simpler: grab a tile each turn and place it on your ancient Roman country estate, then take points and bonuses. At the end of each round, you’ll even choose your own scoring conditions. The result is thinky without being rules-heavy, and the delightful grape and fish meeples add a pop of color. Much more accessible than Feld’s masterwork, The Castles of Burgundy.
Ticket to Ride: Europe
2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8+, $44 on Amazon
A classic. I hadn’t played this in some time, but lockdown provided a great opportunity to teach this set-collection and route-building train title to my 8-year old son. The iPad app for this is great—and waaaaay faster to play—but the tactility of the giant map, the plastic trains, and the presence of three trash-talking opponents made our in-person game a blast.
1-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 8+, $25 on Amazon
An old-school abstract from Reiner Knizia that sees you placing paired hexagons around a board, scoring points based on how many identical colors touch the five open lines radiating away from each of the paired hexes. (Okay, so the scoring takes a moment to wrap your head around.) The gameplay is fast and fun, and it requires you to value every color alike—because your final score is equal to the score of your lowest color.
Robin of Locksley
2 players, 40 minutes, ages 10+, $33 on Amazon
A new game from designer Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, Patchwork), this one has about as much to do with Robin Hood as I have to do with the Sheriff of Nottingham. But what it does have is easy-to-teach gameplay in which your horse meeple moves around like a chess knight, snagging bits of loot. You collect this loot in order to satisfy a long series of conditions placed randomly around the edges of the play area—and you can move as far on a single turn as your loot allows. It’s set collection meets racing, and though we enjoyed our initial play of it, I’ll need a few more games to see how well it holds up.
2-4 players, 30-45 minutes, ages 8+, $70 on Amazon (because it’s out of print)
A terrific tile-layer, this Michael Kiesling design has been criminally overlooked. No dungeon crawls here, D&D lovers—this is a game about building a European formal garden while moving your nobles down the garden path so they can smell the roses (and earn you points). It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s extremely relaxing. The rules are simple to teach, turns are fast, and everything looks great. The game even includes a small expansion module in the box for slightly more complex play. The biggest downside? It might be hard to find new right now.