Week three on Lockdown Island - or is it week two, or week four? Who can tell any more! - and tempers may be starting to fray, the bubble of familial bliss a bit stretched and ready to burst. In other words, we've Netflix-binged our way through the past seven days, with a sprinkling of home-schooling and working from the spare room on the side. And we're all slightly fed up (here "slightly" means: massively).
But fret not (okay, maybe fret a bit - we’re in the middle of a pandemic after all). If you’ve watched too much telly, finished all your books and had your fill of PlayStation and Switch, there is still an alternative. Board games!
You’re possibly groaning right now and maybe even slapping your forehead (wash your hands!). And with justification. Board games do not have the happiest of reputations. That’s because most “mainstream” board games are terrible. Monopoly: rubbish (it was designed in 1935 - would you play a video game from 1935?). Chess? A pursuit best enjoyed by mainframe computers from the Nineties. Buckaroo? Not on your bucking life.
Fortunately, the world of “hobby” - ie, proper - board games has exploded recently, with options for all tastes and ages. You can still purchase games online too. And even where that isn’t an option, digital versions of some of the best titles can be downloaded to your iPad, Switch console or laptop. So here are some picks to keep you sane.
Ticket To Ride, €49.99.
Digital option: iOS, Android, PC, Mac
Sorry to be slightly obvious and nominate this go-to “entry level” game but there is a reason Alan R Moon’s classic railway building simulation has moved three million units.
The concept is straightforward: you and your rivals are 19th century railway barons laying track across North America. Players are each assigned secret destinations which they must attempt to connect by rail - Winnipeg to New Orleans, for instance. You then draw rail carriage cards of different colours, which are placed on the map to claim a route (the cards must be of matching colour). It sounds fiddly written down: in practice it works a charm and you will soon be plotting eight steps ahead and trying to expand your empire while cutting off your rivals.
You aren’t just limited to North America. Expansion sets allow you to build railways across Continental Europe, 19th century Ireland and Britain, Japan, Africa and so forth. If in doubt, try the digital version. It’s almost as addictive.
My Little Scythe, €49.99.
Digital option: No, but the original Scythe game, which plays with a more complicated version of the same rules, can be enjoyed on Mac or PC via Steam.
Cross My Little Pony with an existential struggle for terrain and resources... and you have the heart-warming My Little Scythe. Each player guides a duo of cutesy animals - eagles, bears etc - across a hexagonal map collecting apples and gems. These are then used to purchase power-ups.
Along the way you can conjure additional resources, which you have the option of gifting to your rivals. Why would you do that? Because it boosts your “friendship” score - and high friendship is one of the ways to win. Sometimes, two animals will have a difference of opinion regarding the ownership of a particular patch of terrain. At which point it’s time for… a pie fight! Don’t worry - nobody gets hurt, though the loser will have to scuttle back to their base.
First impressions of My Little Scythe are that it is cuddlier than a Christmas stocking stuffed with puppies. But players have to both think on their feet and plan ahead, so it’s the perfect way to cajole your kids into utilising their grey matter. After hours zonked in front of the telly, their brains will receive a genuine workout.
Throw Throw Burrito, €49.99.
Digital option: No, but you can play sibling game Exploding Kittens on iOS or Android.
You have to love a game that comes with stacks of brightly coloured cards… and two giant foam burritos. The idea is simple: players slam cards on the table and when a “burrito” appears it’s time for a… burrito duel (I’m simplifying slightly but that’s the gist). Grab one of the felt fellows and gently chuck it at your foe. First to strike wins. It’s essentially playful, weaponised snap - and a great way for your kids to expend pent-up energy. Who knows - maybe you have pent-up energy too (unthinkable I know). If so, give Throw Throw Burrito a swing.
Dungeons and Dragons starter set, €32.99.
Digital option: You can play D&D online for free with friends via the website Roll 20
Dungeons and Dragons is the original table-top role-playing game. And it’s back with a vengeance having been championed by Netflix’s Stranger Things. The premise couldn’t be simpler. Grab two or more friends/children (who are essentially friends who have to do whatever you tell them), some pencils and dice (provided with the starter set). And then set off on an adventure to a fabulous magical kingdom, just like Game of Thrones, but hopefully with fewer 10-year-olds shoved from a height (though if this lockdown goes on much longer…).
As you’re the adult (in theory) you will probably have to be the “Dungeon Master” starting out. Sad to say that involves reading the (very short) rule book and familiarising yourself with the introductory adventure. Our heroes are mercenaries hired to deliver a wagon of goods to a wilderness outpost. But then things come badly unstuck as they stumble upon a terrifying conspiracy. What happens next is up to you and your players, as you describe the action and they guide their characters… and the hours fly past.
Digital option: iOS, Android and PC
As colourful and addictive as Candy Crush but without the screen time. Players are medieval merchants trying to outscore one another by collecting gems and building their empires. As with Ticket to Ride it sounds fiddly but is a joy to play. Each round you choose to acquire gems (from a limited supply) or cash in said gems to purchase cards representing mineral mines, shops and transportation routes - which win you points and can also give you permanent “gems” to be used round after round. The first to reach a pre-determined score is winner. Okay, so it comes across a bit “bleh” in the abstract. Once you’ve started playing, however, you won’t want to stop.
Folklore: The Affliction, €64.99.
Digital option: No, but you can play thematically-similar The Witcher instead on all consoles, Mac and PC.
“Campaign” games are one of the hot trends in the hobby sphere. The idea is that the game essentially contains a year or more worth of story that you return to again and again. One of the best examples is Kingdom Death: Monster, but it costs €400, features some nudity - and you will have to glue together the miniatures yourself. Oh and it’s set in an apocalyptic netherland where people are all borderline unhinged and badly dressed… so maybe a bit too close to home.
There’s also Gloomhaven, which has its fans and contains power-ups and new levels hidden inside sealed boxes within the main container. However, its card-based play presents a steep learning curve for non-hardcore gamers. You really do need to know what you are about. Another good example is Dungeon Degenerates, though its retro psychedelic artwork is an acquired taste.
So for relative newcomers who wish to lose themselves in a game for a year, we recommend the more straightforward Folklore: The Affliction. The setting is a mythological version of Central Europe, which will appeal to fans of The Witcher series on Netflix and the related video games.
Your characters set out on adventures, acquire new skills and items and fight ever more dangerous bad guys. All that and you can play it solo, with the game instructing you as to how the villains and monsters manoeuvre in a fight and what dice to roll on their behalf. Medieval chief’s kiss! Available direct from greenbrier-games-inc.myshopify.com.
Digital version: iOS, Android
If you enjoy porkie pies, grandstanding and backstabbing and your name isn’t Boris Johnson, you’ll get a kick out of Coup. Set in the far future, players take on different roles and aim to catch each other out by spreading rumours, telling fibs and summoning their best poker face. It’s great fun and over in 30 minutes or less. If the sci-fi setting doesn’t appeal you could try Secret Hitler. One of you is actually a budding fascist dictator - but who?
Betrayal at House on the Hill, €54.
Digital version: No
A modern classic, Betrayal is essentially a tabletop version of Scooby-Doo. You and your friends play pesky kids investigating a spooky mansion. The twist is one of you is secretly in cahoots with the bad buys. The big reveal comes roughly two-thirds of the way in - with the identity of the traitor and the conditions under which they win dependent on the circumstances in which the “haunt” is triggered. Even if you’re new to board games, it is the best fun.
Digital version: iOS, Android, Mac, PC.
Just as we have all flocked to watch Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and that Netflix series about global epidemics so sales of the classic board game Pandemic have recently shot up. This, to be hugely simplistic, is Coronavirus: the board game. Players take on the roles of experts trying to halt the spread of infectious diseases across the world. Much like our present day-to-day lives, you are all in it together: either everybody wins or everybody loses. If that cuts a bit close, one alternative is Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, which has broadly the same rules but with everyone battling evil Lovecraftian cultists rather than hidden viruses. I know which I’d rather spend my evening with.
Digital version: No, but Raiders of the North Sea is broadly similar if lacking the Irish flavours and available on iOS, Android, Switch, Mac and PC.
Jim FitzPatrick’s elaborate Celtic artwork is your clue this isn’t just another generic board game. Players vie to become ruler of a magical island - Inis - by defeating enemies, occupying holy shrines or spreading their forces far and wide. Inis is a delicate balance of strategy and politics (you will need to build alliances and then pick the perfect moment to stab your friends in the back) - and all with a mystical Irish twist.
*All prices shown are RRP but may be lower online