Games for a Plague Year

This post is part of a collection on Games.

I used to meet up weekly with friends to play boardgames. That was interrupted for obvious reasons earlier this year, but it wasn't stopped, and game nights have moved online. The games that are well-suited to online play are different from those we'd play in person, so this is a brief list of the games we've had the most success with.

One note is that the way we play is we use a shared Discord server and voice chat. I have had some people use video in other groups but I don't own a webcam and find it hard to combine video with focus on a game. Another thing to keep in mind is that while most people play on PCs, some prefer to use phones or tablets, so we stick to games that are versatile in that regard.

The Champion of Making Trouble, from the Jackbox game Champ'd Up. Thanks, Sempai.

Just because you're stuck inside doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to have fun with people, and game nights are a great low-key way to keep up with friends; it's hoped this list will be helpful.

Simple Browser Games

Free games that you can play in your browser without even registering are the easiest to set up.

Drawphone is a clone of Telestrations, a combination of Telephone and Pictionary. The basic idea is you get a clue, like "carrot cake", and must convey it via a drawing. Someone else captions your drawing, someone tries to convey that via a drawing, and so on. There are no points and no winners, just enjoyment of the ridiculous results.

Spyfall is a hidden traitor game we played several times when we were meeting physically still, and honestly it's easier to play online. This is a clone of a commercial game, developed by the same person who developed Drawphone. At the start of the game all the players learn the name of the location they're in, like "a police station", "the subway", or "a graveyard". Then one player has to ask another player a question, and then that player asks a different player a question, and so on. The spy doesn't know the location, but must blend in. The spy can lose if the other players guess who they are, or they can win if they guess the location.

Spyfall is a lot of fun due to the tension it creates, but it doesn't work for all groups. In particular, if someone is nervous about asking questions, or just has trouble thinking one up, the game can stall. I recommend making a list of default questions to ask when you can't think of anything.

One thing to note is that Spyfall works better online than in person because the spy can look over the list of locations without outing themselves; in the physical version only the spy needs the list, so any looking at it is very obvious.

The version of Spyfall and Drawphone here are both by Tanner Krewson, who has recently created rocketcrab as a shared interface for games like this. I'm curious to see how it develops.

Scattergories Online is a clone of the popular commercial game where you have a letter, a time limit, and too many categories. For example you might have categories like "things in the kitchen", "ice cream flavors", and "animals", and the letter "K". You have to fill in all the categories with words that start with the given letter within the time limit. You get points only if your answers are valid (they fit the category) and unique (nobody else gave the same answer). This is fast and funny and I like to use it as a game night opener. One particularly nice aspect of it is that the puzzle solving part is quick and quiet, but the scoring part lets everyone talk and debate each other in a playful way.

Codenames is an interesting word association game where players split in two teams, and a Codemaster on each team has to get their teammates to pick keywords from a grid of cards by giving short hints. A nice feature of this game is that it supports an incredible variety of languages; I've played it in Japanese with success.

Jackbox Games

Jackbox has a number of delightful games that require marginally more setup than the games above. Someone has to buy the game and stream it from their PC, while the other players can use a browser (typically on a phone) as a client. They just released their 7th Party Pack, and we've had fun trying out the new games.

Some of our fine Drawful artworks. Usually clues are pretty straightforward, but we've noticed more off-the-wall ones like those pictured recently.

Drawful is the classic here. Each round you get a secret prompt and draw a picture for it. Then everyone else makes a caption for the picture. Then all the captions and the picture are revealed, and everyone has to guess the original caption. The artist gets points if people pick the original caption, while everyone else gets points if they guess the original caption correctly or trick people into guessing their fake caption. In a typical game everyone draws two pictures, and it takes maybe twenty minutes all told.

Quiplash is a text-based game where you're given a sentence with a blank and have to fill it in. While the concept is very simple, it's been great for creating running jokes, and the speed and simplicity make it a good game for winding up or down the night.

Push the Button is a hidden traitor game where you'll have to answer personality quiz style questions or draw pictures. The catch is that aliens don't get the original clues, so they run the risk of drawing something wrong and having to explain why they're actually perfectly normal - for example, if the real prompt is "fantasy battle" but the alien saw "a princess" and drew that, how do they explain it? Amusing and tense.

Blather Round is the favorite of the most recent Party Pack. It's a little bit like Charades or 20 Questions, but the clue giver has to give hints from a very limited vocabulary. The one fun twist is that they can use guesses from the audience as part of their limited vocabulary, so even random guesses can sometimes be helpful.

Champ'd Up, a drawing game from the latest pack, first left us amused but a bit mystified, but on repeat play it's been more fun and we'll be coming back to it.

There are many other great Jackbox games, but these are the main ones we come back to. One issue we've had is that some Jackbox games rely too heavily on references to American culture. This is mostly a problem with the trivia-oriented games, but it sometimes also creeps into the other games, and is something to be aware of.

Another great feature of Jackbox games is that they often leave with mementos of the game. Post-game the winning answers are shown, and for some games shareable images are generated, including animated gifs. You can even order t-shirts. This is great for making game night memorable without requiring extra prep.

Board Game Arena

Board Game Arena is a site where you can play traditional or modern board and card games in your browser. The interface is odd, but functional. Most games are free; a few "premium" games require one paid member in order to create a "table", but with annual membership at $25/year it's very reasonable. It works on phones and tablets, though depending on the game the mobile interface can be difficult to use.

Incan Gold is the lightest game we enjoy on BGA. It's great for being easy to explain and supporting a lot of players (up to 8) and the design is such that more players doesn't increase the play time at all. Each turn you have the choice to go deeper in the temple for the chance at more gems, but at the risk of running into a hazard and losing everything. The one downside is the mobile interface seems to be unusually hard to use.

7Wonders is complicated enough it can't really be explained in one sitting, but it's not hopelessly complex and is well worth learning. It was already a physical favorite, but after playing online I'm not sure I could stand to play in person again. Cards have dependencies that can take a while to count, and with the online version doing that for you a game that would take 30m in person takes 10m online.

As to gameplay, 7Wonders is a "drafting" game. You start with a hand of seven cards, and each turn you pick one card to play and pass the rest. Simultaneous turns means you're never waiting on other players, so it supports up to seven players without slowing down.

Sushi Go! is like 7Wonders, but lighter, for fewer players, and cuter.

Kingdomino is a light tile-laying game for up to 4 players. While simple there's tension in the choices each round, as better tiles for your kingdom give you lower priority when choosing in the next round. It's easy to explain and a good first game.

Carcassonne is more complicated than Kingdomino, but still with simple rules. It's also more interactive and takes longer, so it's better for people you'll play with repeatedly. Each round you pick a tile and must fit it into the shared map, placing "meeples" (your tokens) on various features of the landscape to score points. While mostly a peaceful game, one expansion does add a dragon that can set everything on fire, so there's something for everyone.

One note about BGA is that it uses sound effects. The default sound effect for a person joining the table is a "knocking" sound. The knocking is very aggressive, and because knocking is the kind of sound you can hear through headphones, it's easy to think it's coming from outside your computer. I and many people who play with me have been unpleasantly surprised or even briefly frightened by this sound, so after creating a BGA account I recommend you go and turn it off first thing. I posted about this on the BGA forums and got comments where people describe the sound as "the police are raiding our house" or how it sounds like it comes from "beyond the grave", so I hope the site admins will take time to pick a better default soon.

Other Games

Recently we've experimented with Among Us, a hidden traitor game that's become a hit since the pandemic kicked in. This is more of a video game than the other games we play, and we've had networking issues, but it's been amusing when we can get it working. The phone version is free with ads, but the inexpensive PC version is generally easier to control.

A Fake Artist Goes to New York is a brilliant game from Oink Games which is a little like Pictionary with a hidden traitor. Everyone except the traitor sees the clue, and then you cooperate to draw it, one line at a time. The spy loses if they're found out or wins if they can guess the clue. I'm not sure it makes sense as a boxed game - all you need is paper and markers - but it's a delight to play. An online clone was shut down at the request of Oink Games but they unfortunately have yet to offer an official version.

So, that's a sampling of what we've been playing, and a good start for an online game group. I hope you find it useful.

One thing I've had trouble finding is good asynchronous games for playing with friends overseas in drastically different time zones. Civ is too heavy; Words with Friends is classic but I don't want to touch Zynga; I've tried Subterfuge but had a mixed experience. If you have any suggestions please do tweet or mail me. Ψ