Our Favorite Small-Box Board Games
The vast majority of my tabletop collection is comprised of big box board games like Gloomhaven, Black Rose Wars, and Kingdom Death: Monster. For that reason, I’ve done the great disservice of ignoring the small-box titles. To start making up for that, we’ve comprised a list of our top games small enough to take with you anywhere.
The only board games I ever played growing up was either Monopoly, Trouble, or Yahtzee. Thanks to those experiences, I’ve never touched Monopoly again, avoided roll & writes, and have flashbacks every time I hear the sound of popping tin. All that’s to say, it took a lot of effort to convince me to try to play a roll & write game but when I finally gave Cartographers a fair shot, I discovered just how much I’d missed out on by ignoring the genre.
Cartographers is a really handy game to have in your library. From its Tetris-like approach to placement to the flexible player count, Cartographers is a good fit for just about any game night. It’s both easy to teach, quick to play, and offers a fair amount of depth. All players take their actions simultaneously and the player count is only limited by the number of scoring sheets and writing utensils you have on hand.
Each round players draw a card that tells them what type of terrain they can draw, how much space it will take up, and what shape it must form. Players are then free to draw that terrain anywhere on the map that they want, but they’ll have to be as strategic as possible about its placement. Throughout the course of the thirty to forty five minute game, players will work to meet four scoring criteria as best they can and even the best laid plans can be ruined by the wrong card draw.
Cartographers’ short play time makes it easy to play as a warm-up game or a several times on your game nights. Its wide availability and and low price tag make it worth your while, even if you don’t yet believe you’d enjoy a roll & write game.
If you’re excited about mapping out new lands you can find Cartographers here.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t understand the appeal of solo gaming. If I wanted to play a game on my own, I would just fire up Steam and play something on my PC. Thanks to the pandemic, I was on furlough for a time last year and spent more time gaming than usual as a way to cope. Even when playing my favorite games, staring at a screen all day just made the situation feel even more isolating. As a way to keep my mind engaged, I began playing board games on my own instead.
It started with a solo campaign of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion where I played as both the Hatchet and Redguard, and then spanned into a true solo playthrough of Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon. After that, I started playing solo games as a way to keep my brain engaged in an incredibly slow season. Of all the games I tried, Friday was one of the few that stuck with me well after that season came to an end.
In Friday, players take on the role of the titular character Friday whose quiet life was interrupted when Robinson Crusoe crashes onto your island. If you’re to recover your island and peaceful life, you’ll have to teach the bumbling Robinson how to survive in the wild and resist the pirates that followed him to the island.
Each turn, players draw a challenge card that Friday must teach Robinson how to survive. If Robinson succeeds, he adds the challenge card to his own deck, boosting the success rate of his action cards and potentially earning special abilities that make the adventure easier. Should he fail, Robinson Crusoe gets hurt in the process, making it less and less likely that Friday will ever het his island back.
As the game progresses, challenge cards that weren’t claimed by Robinson get reshuffled into the deck get escalated to the next level of difficulty and then reshuffled to create a new, more difficult deck. The earlier on in the game that Robinson can stack his own deck with positive modifiers, the more likely it is he’ll find success.
Friday is a mechanically simple game but offers quite a bit of challenge. Depending on how well players do, a game of Friday can take anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five minutes. Given the game’s small footprint (if you ditch the boards), low cost, and tiny box, this makes for an excellent game to take along with you whenever you’re traveling on your own and are waiting at the airport.
If you’re interested in helping a bumbling Robinson Crusoe get home, you can him a hand here.
Not that long ago, I spent some time on COVID furlough and stayed with family in the Greater Atlanta area. While they were all working and doing the whole adult-thing, I took the opportunity to check out the area’s FLGSs because there’s so few where I live. As fun as it was, those knowledgable staffers abused my poor income-less wallet.
One of those inappropriately timed purchases was Hardback which we reviewed shortly after. Hardback is a classic literature themed word game with deck building elements. Each turn, players spell a word using the cards in their hand and immediately gain rewards for it. Rewards come in the form of either victory points of currency that is used to add new letter cards to your deck. While it seems simple enough Hardback add depth with the inclusion of card genres.
Every card players can purchase falls into one of four genres, or suits: Horror, Mystery, Romance, and Adventure. Each genre adds additional rewards that players gain when using two cards of the same genre in a word. Mechanics unique to each genre add clever ways of manipulating the game by doubling rewards earned or locking away cards from the market to keep them from your opponent. By mixing genres players can create a reward combo deck or an aggressive deck designed to hinder opponents.
What stood out to me about Hardback is how it avoided the most common pitfall of word games: getting stuck with the wrong letters. At no point in Hardback will you find yourself in a position where you can’t complete a word. If players ever find themselves missing a crucial letter they can simply flip the card facedown and treat it as a wild card. The trade-off is that players don’t earn rewards for their wildcards. While overuse of wild cards might set players behind when it comes to scoring, it will ensures that players will always be able to participate.
Hardback is a small-box game that’s easy to teach, provides lots of depth, and a variety of alternate game modes like solo and cooperative to keep it interesting. The best way I can summarize Hardback is simply by referring to it as the “gamer’s word game”.
If you’re looking to replace Scrabble as your family game night, you can get Hardback here.
This is not the first time we wrote about Hive and I suspect this won’t be the last. Originally released in 2000 Hive is a clever chess-like tile placement game that pits two players head-to-head in a race to surround their opponent’s Queen Bee.
The objectives and goals are simple; players take turns either placing a new tile or moving an existing one. The rules of the game are simple:
- The hive (formation of placed tiles) can never be split into two sections. Placed tiles must always be touching on another.
- When placing a new piece, it must not touch any of the opponents existing tiles.
- When moving a tile (excluding special movement such as Grasshopper and Dung Beetle), the tile must be able to slide from its original position to its new one. If it can’t move without disturbing an existing piece, then it is blocked in and can not be used.
The rest of the rules simple pertain to how each component moves. From there, players must use their wits to trap one another with calculated strategy and sneaky tactics. It’s a rather simple game to teach but can prove to be a complex one to master.
Aside from how enjoyable the core concepts of Hive are, one of the great things about the game is how it feels in your hands. No matter which version of the game you choose to pick up, the hefty tiles (at least for me) really add to the tactile experience of handling game components like poker chips. The base version of Hive is small enough to travel with (and I often travel with it), but Hive Pocket makes it even easier to travel with and throws in two expansions.
Whether Hive, the more portable Hive Pocket, or the monochromatic Hive Carbon is more your style, it’s an easy game to find and a wonderfully challenging two player game that you can take anywhere and and play with anyone.
Much to my surprise, Mint Works became my favorite game on this list. It’s tiny, heavily thematic, and remarkably clever. This little worker placement game shines brighter than most of the big box ones I’ve played.
In Mint Works, players compete to be the first to gain seven stars in their neighborhood. In order to do this, players will need to build out their neighborhood of factories. Each round, players will gain one mint, which acts as their currency and workers. Players then go around the table taking one action a time placing their workers on various locations to gain more mints, buy building blueprints, or build new factories. Once every player is out of mints to spend or has opted to pass, the round concludes and proceeds to the upkeep phase where bonuses from their buildings.
What makes Mint Works so much fun is the different types of factories featured in the game. Each of the four types of blueprints (culture, utility, production, and deed) have ways of boosting the effects of the other cards of their type. With the right planning, players can significantly bolster their resource gain and possibly even number of stars. Mints are a valuable resource that are not easy to hold onto so these small turn-to-turn boosts make a world of difference, especially if players can gain them in the early game.
Mint Works is a wonderful little game that’s no larger than a tin of Altoids mints making it easy to carry on you wherever you may go.
As I mentioned earlier, Cartographers opened my eyes to the world of roll and write games that I had been so foolishly ignoring. For a period of time afterward, it was my genre of choice. I tried a decent number of them, but ultimately learned about Railroad Ink and haven’t felt the need for another one since. Perhaps I came to enjoy Railroad Ink so much on account of its similarities to Cartographers, but it lands right in that sweet spot where random die rolls meets strategic planning.
In Railroad Ink, players compete to create the most effective series of intertwined roads and railroad tracks in their city. The longer the pathways and the fewer dead ends they have, the better score. Each round, players roll a shared set of four six-sided die portraying various shapes of roads and tracks. Players must then find a place on their board to draw and connect each of the four shapes to their existing transportation network. This is a simple task at first while the board has nothing on it yet, but as the game progresses it becomes an increasingly complex task that will punish players who began without a plan.
As if that weren’t challenging enough, there are special sets of die contained within each edition of the game that only increase the game’s difficulty. The Deep Blue Edition portrayed above contains two river die and two lake die. These are optional components that can be added for anyone who wants a more challenging experience. For example, the river die add bodies of water that block railroads and highways, creating additional unwanted dead ends. The only way to avoid these point reducing obstacles is to get lucky enough to roll a bridge, allowing either a road or track to cross the river.
Other editions such as Blazing Red and the soon to be released, Lush Green and Shining Yellow editions add alternative challenges that can be mixed and matched for new levels of difficulty. CMON’s most recent Kickstarter campaign that includes Lush Green and Shining Yellow is currently being shipped to backers as well as massive variety of mini-expansions that we’ll be covering in greater detail when it arrives in the coming weeks.
If dice-chucking and transit routes get your motor running, you can find the various editions of Railroad Ink from Horrible Guild here.
Button Shy Games is known for publishing the smallest possible games. The games they publish are entirely comprised of cards that are stored in a plastic bifold that can fit in a wallet. Sprawlopolis is one of these ingenious games that offers a lot of variety and fun within a small deck of only eighteen cards for only $12.
Before starting a game, players will shuffle the cards, draw three cards and flip the scoring side face up. These cards will guide players in how they should build organize their city throughout the game. Then each player draws one card from the remaining deck and puts it in their hand. The first player then draws two additional cards and starts the game.
Each turn the active player will choose to play one of the three cards in their hand to begin building the group’s city, doing their best to follow scoring conditions. The remaining two cards in their hand then get passed to the next player before drawing a card, ensuring they have only one card in hand when they aren’t the active player. The game play continues this way until all fifteen cards have been used. Then the group counts up their points to see how well they performed together.
Sprawlopolis is a whole lot of fun and strategy in a pocket sized package. With eighteen different scoring cards, there’s a great range of variety contained in the base game alone. Optional expansions such as the Beaches Expansion cost a mere $4 and add even more options to this already dense game.
If pocket-sized city planning is up your alley, you can find Sprawlopolis and its expansions here.
There are a ton of other small games that are worth your time, but for now, these are the ones that have found their place in our hearts and on our shelves. As we discover more, we will be sure to upload this list to ensure your pockets are as loaded with games as they possibly can be.
If you’re interested in any of the games mentioned in the article, please consider purchasing through our Amazon affiliated links in the article. WayTooManyGames is run by a small group of hobbyists who are passionate about games and the memories they create. Small gestures like purchasing through our affiliate links let us continue to provide new content on a regular basis without resorting to algorithms and trends.