Last time I posted a top ten around these parts, it was my top ten lunch games, games that can be played and taught comfortably within the confines of a lunch hour.
But what if your lunch hour is more like a lunch break? Or what about those times when you want to play another game, but you’re waiting to mix up the players, and the other group is playing a game of Power Grid that simply will not end?
That, friends, is where the aptly named “filler” games come in–short games that can be used to open, close, or fill gaps within your game night.
What defines an ideal filler game? Here are my criteria:
- Short playtime. A filler game should last a maximum of thirty minutes, and it doesn’t hurt it to be shorter (10-15 minutes), provided that it doesn’t get stale after one play.
- Small ruleset. If a game takes only 10-30 minutes to play, it should not take ten or even five minutes to explain. An ideal filler should be able to be explained in three minutes or less.
- Player driven. This is a mark of good design, period, but a good filler game should not leave players without choices. Players are the agents of the game and should be able to weigh options and make informed decisions. (Note: I don’t hold filler games to the same standards of depth as, say, meaty game night games or even lunch games, but they should fill their playtime with interesting player choices.)
- Small footprint. An ideal filler game should fill gaps in time as well as space. The ideal for a filler game, in my mind, is for it to fit within a pocket, but regardless, these games should not occupy much space within a game bag or on a table.
- Conversation starter. Filler games should not be so intense as to preclude conversation. Fillers ideally are clever and interesting diversions. They provide a fun play experience, usually with a distilled mechanism, but they should not do this at the expense of talking with the other players (even if it’s about the game).
So which ten games do I think best embody these virtues? Here’s my list.
10. Money. 3-6 players, 15-30m. I almost didn’t include Money on this list because of its somewhat intense Knizian scoring system, but that would have been foolish. Money is a great blind auction game with a fair space for bluffing. Each turn players choose cards from their hands to bid for two “offers” from the bank. Players reveal their cards, and in high bid order, players can either take what’s in front of them into their hands or exchange the pile in front of themselves with another pile at the table (either the offers or another player’s bid). Easy. The scoring is a bit tricky, as currencies only score if you have more than 200 points in them. And, well, there’s more to it than that. But this is a brilliant little gem that plays quickly, and players usually catch on to the scoring system with a little prodding during play.
9. Incan Gold. 3-8 players (best with 4-6), 10-25m. Another member of Gryphon Games’ bookshelf series, Incan Gold is a simple press your luck game that plays very quickly. On each turn, players have a binary choice: explore the temple further (with the potential to gain more loot or lose it all) or head back to camp, collecting whatever the other players have left behind and securing your holdings in your tent. The game involves tense moments of bluffing and gambling, and it’s played over five rounds, so poor play in one round isn’t too detrimental to your final score. I prefer to play this one with kids, but it’s fun with adults as well. It’s also the most thematic game on this list. (You kinda feel like Indiana Jones. Or at least I do.)
8. No Thanks! (Review forthcoming) 2-5 players, 5-15m. In No Thanks!, each turn involves a binary decision (a theme for fillers I love, perhaps): either take the card on offer from the deck (along with all of its accompanying chips) or pay a chip to pass. The player with the lowest score at game’s end wins, so taking fewer cards is preferable (though chips are worth -1 point). But if you have cards in a sequence, only the lowest in the sequence is worth points at game’s end. This is a very clever game with more going on than meets the eye.
7. Coup. 3-6 players, 5-15m. Coup is the bluffing game distilled. (It also appeared on my lunch games list, as it can be played multiple times in a row, filling a lunch hour.) In Coup, each player has two characters who grant special powers. However, players can use any character’s power, but if another player challenges them and they don’t have the character to back it up, they lose one of their characters. The game ends when only one person has living characters. This game goes super fast and provides lots of great moments of tension and revelation. It does have player elimination, but the game is quick enough that this doesn’t matter much. (And it’s almost more fun to watch than to play. Almost.)
6. FlowerFall. 2-7 players, 5-15m. FlowerFall is stupid, stupid fun, but fun it is. Players receive identical decks (except for the color of flowers on the cards) and shuffle them up. On each turn, players drop cards onto the playing area (which can be anything–terrain!) in an attempt to control gardens in a bid for points. This is a dexterity area control game that’s a lot of fun because, let’s face it, no one is good at dropping cards.
5. Click Clack Lumberjack. 2-7 players, 5-15m. Click Clack Lumberjack is another dexterity game where players try to knock the bark off a tree while keeping the trunk intact. The components in this one are excellent (as they should be), though the packaging is a little larger than I would hope for a typical filler. Oh well. The gameplay makes up for it. This one is silly fun, and it’s good with kids or adults because, again, no one is good at wielding a tiny ax.
4. Get Bit! 2-6 players, 10-20m. Get Bit! is a simultaneous action game distilled. Players are swimming robots and have an identical hand of cards, and on each turn, players play a card to determine when they move to the front of the line (away from the shark). Lower numbers move first (and are thus worse), but if two players choose the same number, they don’t move at all. The player’s robot at the back of the line once cards are resolved loses a limb, and once a robot loses all four limbs, it’s out of the game. The robot in front when only two robots remain is the winner. This game is simple enough for kids to play, but it’s a lot of fun with adults as well, especially as you try to get into other players’ heads to guess what they’ll play.
3. Sushi Go! 2-5 players, 10-20m. I love card drafting, but 7 Wonders, while having a shortish playtime of 30-40 minutes, takes up a lot of table space and has a long setup and rules explanation time. Sushi Go!, on the other hand, is as quick as the name leads you to believe, and even faster to explain. Players collect sushi dishes that score in different ways, trying to create the tastiest (read: most victory-point-saturated) meal they can. The artwork is on the cute side, but really good. This one is pocket sized, which ensures that this gets taken everywhere with me.
2. Coloretto. (Review forthcoming) 2-5 players, 10-20m. Oh boy, is this game awesome. The game can be explained so easily: each turn a player may either claim a card row or draw a card, placing it in an available card row. (Each row can hold a maximum of three cards.) Once a player has claimed a card row, he or she is out of the round. At the end of the game, each player scores positive points for their top three color categories, and negative for every other color (according to the score tables). This is a simple, simple framework, but there is lots of room for clever decisions within it. You drew a card you want–where do you place it? You are simultaneously trying to build a card row for yourself with stuff you want (and no one else does) while also sabotaging the rows your opponents might be interested in. Fast moving and incredibly clever. This one also fits in the pocket and travels with me most places.
1. For Sale. 3-6 players, 10-15m. For Sale is the pinnacle of filler games. It is a two-step auction game. The first step involves bidding on properties; the second step involves flipping the properties for fat ca$h. The first step is a more or less traditional auction. One property per player is on offer, and on your turn you can either bid, placing at least $1,000 more than the last bid in front of you, or pass, paying half of what’s in front of you to the bank and taking the lowest remaining property on the table. The last player to pass pays the full amount but gets the most valuable property. The trick in this game is, in most cases, trying to come in second: getting almost the best property while paying half of your bid. This isn’t easy, though, and you have to outguess your opponents. The second step is a blind auction, where four checks are laid out, and each player secretly chooses a property to bid. The rank of the properties determines who gets which check. This game is always a blast when we play it, and it opens the floor for all kinds of banter and taunting. The property artwork is flawless (the 1 is a cardboard box; the 30 is a space station). This is another Gryphon Games bookshelf series entry, so the box isn’t pocket sized, though you could easily condense it if you wanted to. It’s worth it, though, even if you allow it to take up more valuable real estate in your bag.
I know that most people determine whether a game is a “filler” game by how long it takes to play the game alone. Hanabi, The Resistance, and Escape are all excellent games–and short–and would be on my list if time was my sole criterion. I put them outside of filler status because they feel like fuller, more immersive experiences, and in the case of Escape, the box is very big for a ten minute game. These could serve as “fillers” if you’re judging just by how much time you have available. (Conspicuously absent from this list: Love Letter. Why? I don’t like it.)
What’s missing from my list?