Quinns: Ladies, gentlemen, non-binary folks, and anyone else who’s left a comment over the last six years along the lines of “ARRRGH STOP MAKING ME SPEND MONEY.” Today, SU&SD amends for its capitalist crimes.
We talk a lot on this site about how we want board games to be “for everyone”, but to an awful lot of people the games we recommend are prohibitively expensive. That said, putting together an amazing board game collection can be cheap. Below, we’ve assembled a list of the very best games that could collectively cost you less than ten bucks, depending on your situation.
This isn’t some unsatisfying sampler platter. What lurks below is a moveable feast of some of the greatest games ever made. Were you to gather all of these games, I’d prefer your collection to ones I’ve seen costing $1000.
If you approve of this feature, please do share it far and wide! It represents a lot of work for both Team SU&SD and our donors, who we bothered about cheap games we might have missed (special thanks to subscribers Amanda and Jeff, who were especially great).
Let’s get started.
The best games that you can print and play
If you have access to a printer at your school, a library or a print shop, plus a pair of scissors and a bit of free time, plenty of great games are free direct from the publishers. Said publishers might suggest you print out their games on cardboard, but that can be surprisingly expensive. If you do want to upgrade from paper I’d instead buy card sleeves, which are available online at $2 for a pack of 100 (or you can spend a little more money to get your card sleeves in pretty colours or with a nice matte finish).
Don’t have a printer? No worries! Just skip ahead to the next section.
Cards Against Humanity is a noteworthy example of a publisher making their game completely free, and while it’s not this site’s favourite game there’s no arguing with the fact that it’s profoundly popular, and that it being free started a trend that’s going to be super useful to us…
Monikers is the party game we’d recommend instead, though since it’s only a lovely edition of a popular public domain game, printing it is just one option available to you. It’s just as easy to have friends create their own cards whenever you want to play the game, and then keep those hand-written cards for next time.
The Metagame offers a party game that you can play in a variety of ways, each of which are a lot more thought-provoking than Monikers, though no less funny. Plus, it’s absolutely gorgeous. You could print your copy on the flimsiest paper imaginable and it’d still be prettier than most of the games that we get sent. In making your own copy of The Metagame you also get a free version of Timeline, my favourite educational game- the designers of The Metagame invented something similar and happened to include it in their box as the game mode “History 101”.
Two Rooms and a Boom is a social deduction game that you could explore for years. I’ve played three dozen games of it and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. In a nutshell, the game starts with two rooms of people, all of whom are secretly on either the Red Team or the Blue Team, and the game is for the reds to get their Red Bomber player into the room with the Blue President via a hostage exchange by the end of 15 minutes, at which point the bomb explodes. It’s enormously exciting, with countless configurations.
Secret Hitler is a spin on social deduction masterpiece The Resistance: Avalon with absolutely gorgeous art design. Just scroll down to “Practice fighting fascism for free” for the rules and cards. There are actually so few components in this one that you could hand-write everything if you didn’t have a printer.
Funemployed is a game of terrible job interviews that requires a bit of improvisation from players, but it’s the most I’ve ever laughed playing a board game. If you’re at all interested, put on your most professional-looking shirt and give it a try. The print-and-play version doesn’t have all the cards, but it still has tons more than you need.
And finally, the entire catalogue of board gaming institution Cheapass Games is available under a pay-what-you-can-afford policy. If you’re in the mood for something fast and goofy, it’s a goldmine. We’ve only played a small fraction of them, but we’d recommend Brawl, Pairs, Deadwood and Kill Doctor Lucky. Probably about 10 minutes after this article goes up some expert will post the actual best Cheapass games in the comments and I’ll update this with what they have to say.
The best games that you don’t even need to print
“I DEMAND ENTERTAINMENT WITH ZERO PREPARATION,” you declare. Easy! Just try one of these.
Over the years this site has given glowing reviews to Ultimate Werewolf, One Night Werewolf and other, similar games, but the truth is that they all only make meagre improvements to the original public domain game of Mafia. Through that link you’ll find the full rules for a game that requires no preparation and no components, as well as a hundred different ways to play.
Skull is probably this site’s favourite card game, but all it requires is just four cards per player, one of which is different from the other three. Play it using a standard deck of cards, make your own chunky cards using some beer mats and a pen, or deface some pennies and mix them in with undamaged ones. In every edition of Skull I’ve played the designers state that it isn’t their design, so they could hardly object to you manufacturing your own edition, too.
After Funemployed, Telestrations is what I think of when people ask for funny games, and all it requires is just some paper and pens. And as a bonus, it’s the only drawing game where not being able to draw makes the game better.
Win, Lose or Banana is, on paper, a terrible game, but in practice it’s occasionally the best game ever? You can buy the official game for $1, but if you make your own version by scribbling on some cardboard the police are unlikely to investigate.
The best traditional games played with cards and dice
The bigger my board game collection gets, the more I appreciate the simplicity and cultural gravity of a cup full of dice, or an ordinary 54 card deck. Why not skip this middle step of “collecting board games” and save thousands of dollars by proceeding straight to these classic games?
Liar’s Dice is one of the greatest activities that a human being is able to perform. You could ask me “Quinns, do you want to play an expensive, lengthy board game from your collection, or do you want to drink and play Liar’s Dice with £5 on the line?” and I’d have to think about my answer for a long time. Dice are dirt cheap if you buy online, and for cups you can just use mugs from the kitchen. Once you own a bag of dice you can also try Mia, Bunco, Farkle, and other games with names that are fun to say out loud.
As for card games, it’d be silly not to mention Poker, which I haven’t gotten to play as much since we began Shut Up & Sit Down. More specifically, one very excited SU&SD donor wrote in to suggest Open-Face Chinese Pineapple Poker, and if that’s half as much fun to play as it is to say, we’re on to a winner.
Durak is the most popular card game in Russia, and was suggested to me by a couple of die-hard fans. It was also recommended that I big up Euchre and Pitch as traditional card games. All of those links are to Pagat.com, which is a phenomenal site in general, and contains a ton of links on the front page for anyone interested in trying something new or just exploring the possibilities of playing cards.
It’s important to keep perspective. In terms of price, tactile joy, depth, presentation and flexibility, the 54 card deck is the greatest board gaming product ever made. In any kind of sensible world, a fan of table games should be able to teach a dozen card games off the top of their head. It makes me so sad that we haven’t yet got around to exploring playing cards in an article on SU&SD, but you just watch this space. We’ll manage it one day.
The best free role-playing games
If you’ve ever thought to yourself that Dungeons & Dragons looks like quite a lot of fun, or (better yet!) you’ve been reading our RPG review column, I’ve got awesome news. You could explore the role-playing scene for the rest of your life for the price of some printed character sheets, plus the pencils and erasers you’ll erode in the course of your adventures. Big thanks to the community of The Gauntlet Podcast for helping me with the following list of free RPGs.
So, just last week we reviewed swashbuckling yarn Lady Blackbird, calling it the greatest free RPG of all time, but it’s also just the start. If you think Blackbird’s 15 pages of rules sounds like 14 too many, or you just like lasers and/or feelings, you could try 1 page RPG Lasers & Feelings by the same author. Or, if you prefer your sci-fi with more rules, not less, there’s Stars Without Number. And if you wanted not just one free sourcebook but an entire free catalogue of sourcebooks, check out the awesome world of Eclipse Phase. I’m flabbergasted by that last link. So! Much! Stuff!
If you were looking for a fantasy game that’s closer to D&D, you could literally just play D&D. The “basic” rules of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons are a free download containing 177 pages of dwarves, magic swords and sentences like “Black puddings and gelatinous cubes are among the most recognizable oozes.” If you felt like shopping around, other free fantasy systems are available.
And while more of a “demo” than a fully-fledged product, a lot of popular RPGs offer starter kits that are surprisingly substantial. This Mutant: Year Zero booklet is a standout, letting you have multiple evenings exploring an award-winning ruleset and universe before deciding if you want to invest in the full, £15 .pdf (or you could just invent the rest of the game yourself). Similar quickstart kits can be found for the ever-ridiculous Shadowrun or the darkly beautiful Symbaroum.
That was so many games! Surely we’re finished now?
NOT ON YOUR NELLY.
This is only the first article of a series! Click here for part 2, where we provide a list of the board games that we think are the best bargains, and make the perfect opening moves if you choose to start actually buying games.
Stay tuned! And of course, list your own favourite free games in the comments.