Good Games for Under Ten Bucks
Sometimes, after finishing a game of Acquire or Kohle, Kie$ & Knete, I find myself gazing down at my imaginary wealth and wondering what I would do if I really had all that money. Well, okay—I don't really "wonder" about what I would do, because I already know: I'd buy games, and I'd buy them all. But eventually the play money gets packed back into its box, and I'm reminded of the truth of the matter: given my actual financial situation, Bill Gates could probably outbid me at an auction if he really wanted to.
So I pick and choose what to buy, and much as I wish that money were no object, I instead find myself looking at price tags before carrying something up to the game store counter. Yes, I'll spring for a Battle Cry now and again, but I usually find myself buying the more modestly priced offerings. Fortunately there's plenty of good stuff on the shelves for shoestring gamers like me —in fact, there's quite a few decent games that cost less than what you'd pay for a ticket to the movies.
In general, the cheapest games on the market are those that consist of nothing more than a deck of cards, and for $8 or so you can snag yourself some of the best pastimes on the market: Bohnanza, Get the Goods, Rage and the like. I have owned two of my personal favorites—Amigo's 6 Nimmt! and Wizards of the Coast's The Great Dalmuti —for years, but I play them as frequently as any of my recent purchases. The 6 Nimmt! deck contains cards numbered from 1 to 104, four of which are put in the middle of the table before each round begins. Then, on each turn, everyone simultaneously plays a card from their hand. Each card—going from lowest to highest—is placed along side the card in the center that has the next lowest value (so if the four cards were 3, 67, 69 and 100, a 45 would go next to the 3 and a 72 would go along side the 69). As play progresses the rows on the table will become progressively longer, and if you put the sixth card in a row you take the other five as points—and you don't want points! The tension in 6 Nimmt! is so great that it's akin to watching a suspenseful motion picture.
The Great Dalmuti, meanwhile, is a refinement of the the quintessential "bar game". The cards are ranked from 12 to 1, and each rank contains a number of cards equal to its value (so there are twelve 12s, eight 8s, and a single 1). Someone leads one or more cards to the center of the table, and each other person must either play a like number of cards of a better (i.e. lower) rank or pass. When everyone has passed, the person who played last leads the next round. Play continues until everyone has gotten rid of all their cards, and then the players change seats to reflect their new positions, with the person who went out first as the "Great Dalmuti", the person who went out second as the "Lesser Dalmuti", and so one, all the way down to the lowly "Lesser Peon". A fun game amongst friends, doubly so if everyone plays up their roles. Fill my glass, Peon!
One of my most recent shoestring acquisitions was Clash of the Lightsabers, a Star Wars Episode I tie-in released by Hasbro about a year and a half ago. Now, technically Clash of the Lightsabers has no business being on this list—it has a retail price of $12.99 -- but I picked it up at a local toy store when I saw it on sale for only five bones, and I have since discovered that this gem is available online for as low as $2.98(!). One player assumes the role of Darth Maul, the other becomes Qui-Gon. The game is played in a series of rounds, with each round consisting of three battles. Players commit cards to the first battle until one of the players concedes; then the second and the third battle are fought in the same way. The player who wins two of the three battles in a round gets a point (or two points if he won all three battles) and a new round begins unless someone has amassed four points and won the game. Since players typically only draw new cards between rounds (and only start the game with seven), card management—and knowing when to concede a battle in order to conserve your resources—are the keys to victory. If you can pick up a copy of Clash of the Lightsabers while it's still around (and still on sale), I'd recommend you do so.
Card games are fun, but sometimes only a board game will do. Unfortunately once you toss a board into the mix, the price of a game usually skyrockets, and finding a good "board game" for under ten bucks is a bit of a challenge. Some game designers, however, have done us a favor and cleverly squirreled their game boards away in deck of cards. One of my favor "ten minute games", for example, is En Garde from Abacus and estimable Reiner Knizia. Before play begins the game board is assembled by laying seven special cards end to end to form a fencing "piste" of 23 spaces. The other 25 cards are used for play, five cards in each of the rankings 1-5. Each player puts his fencer (represented by a die) on his end of the piste, and may play cards to move him a corresponding number of spaces forwards or backwards. A player attacks by playing a card that would move his fencer into the space occupied by the opponent. The attacked fencer may then parry by playing a like-valued card. With only 25 cards in the deck it's relatively simple to keep track of which cards have been played, so the gist of the game involves getting your fencer in position and then attacking with an unstoppable card. Elegant and exciting, En Garde is a terrific little game—and the only one I know of recommended by the German Fencing Association.
Another game that makes good use of the "cards as board" gimmick is Adlung Spiele's Verräter. After buying this game, I was so enamored with it that for a while I just carried it around in the breast pocket of my coat, ready to suggest a game at a moment's notice. You start each game of Verräter laying out 12 territory cards to form the "board". The game concerns the war of rival houses (the Rose and the Eagle), each striving to take over the other's land. Players will belong to one house or the other, but as the translated name of the game ("Traitor!") indicates, switching sides is common. During the course of each battle, each family plays supply cards to bolster their side's total, and the highest total wins, with a clever scoring system keeping everything in balance. The sequel, Meuterer, is also rumored to be quite good, and I hope to review it here in a few months.
If you're in the mood for something a little more off-beat, you can pick up The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen for about six dollars. Hogshead Publishing bills it as a "Role Playing Game in a New Style". It is, in truth, just a very simple storytelling engine (albeit one that encourages the consumption of high-quality wine). Each player attempts to tell the most outrageous and impressive story, preferably with the aid of outlandish hyperbole and shameless exaggeration ... such as the time you fell an enormous oak by telling the worst joke of all time. The other players attempt to derail said story by continually raising objections: "As fascinating as I find your tale, I can't help but wonder what an oak was doing in Northern Holland, insofar as that region was entirely underwater at the time of this alleged incident". The rules to the game are so simple that they could be summarized in a few paragraphs, but the book is a hilarious and well-written read, as the author (the Baron himself, it says) goes off on a myriad of humorous tangents and digressions. The rules also contain over two hundred starting sentences, the initial lines to stories you can challenge your opponents to relate.
Of course the only price a Shoestring Gamer likes better than "cheap" is "free", and there are some excellent public domain games available on the web. One of my game group's current favorites is the public domain game Werewolf (http://www.eblong.com/zarf/werewolf.html). In each game one player is the Moderator, two players are Werewolves, one player is a Seer and the rest are Villagers—but since roles are distributed randomly and secretly, no one knows for certain what anyone else is. The game starts at night, during which all players close their eyes. The Moderator the instructs the Werewolves to open their eyes, who then silently choose a victim. After the Werewolves have closed their eyes, the Seer opens his eyes and points to another player while the Moderator signals whether the indicated person is a Werewolf. When day breaks, the slain player is immediately out and reveals his card. The rest of the day is simple: all the remaining players (Villagers and Werewolves alike) must decide which among them they wish to lynch. Villagers, of course, will be trying to ferret out the lycanthropes, while the Werewolves will be endeavoring to cast suspicion on the innocent. The game then alternates between day and night until both Werewolves are lynched (and the villagers win) or the number of Villagers if reduced to the current number of Werewolves (at which points the Werewolves can rise up and kill them openly). You can easily make the cards for Werewolf yourself, or adapt the cards from some other game for the purpose. (I use cards from my Great Dalmuti set, with Dalmuti = Moderator, Archbishop = Seer, Jesters = Werewolves and Peasants = Villagers). (GGA - Andrew Swan also suggested using the following Magic commons which should easily be available for about $0.10 a card: Werewolves = "Howl From Beyond", Villagers = "Pikemen", Seer = "Soldevi Sage" and Moderator = "Ley Druid".) The game only plays well with 9, 11 or 13 people, but it has become so popular in my gaming group that whenever we hit one of the critical numbers the call goes out for a game.
And if you are interested in free games that can be played with a standard deck of cards, check out http://www.pagat.com, a stupendous compendium of traditional and invented card games. Other free games can be found at Invisible City Productions (http://www.invisible-city.com/games), Bone Games (http://www.bonegames.com), and, of course, the very epitome of Shoestring gaming, Cheapass itself (http://www.cheapass.com/neat/freegames.shtml).
This is but a small sampling of the games on the market with remarkable "buck:bang" ratios. It may take a bit more research to find the cheapies-but-goodies, but just think of all the money you'll save. And then think about how you'll spend that saved money: to buy more games! Bill Gates, eat your heart out.
- Matthew Baldwin