Finding Frugal Fun with Board Games

This is a guest post from Katie Boes, a self-avowed nerd.

As kids, many of us loved playing board games. I was a child of the eighties and, as such, grew up playing Candy Land, Sorry!, and Monopoly. But somewhere along the path to adulthood, most games that we're familiar with seem to lose their appeal. Sure, we might enjoy occasional trivia games or party games, but the fact remains that most of the traditional board games that we used to play as kids now seem…boring.

In this post I'll help you discover an entirely new and exciting world of board games — games that are fun, strategic, and interactive — that I guarantee will refresh your enjoyment of board gaming.

First, a plug for board gaming that will be appreciated by GRS readers. Board gaming is:

  • Fun. A single game can provide your friends and family with years of entertainment.
  • Frugal. An average game costs $25-$50 (about the cost of dinner and dessert for two at a moderately-priced restaurant) and never expires. This means that you'll pay only 50 cents for each play of a $25 game if you end up playing the game 50 times.
  • Educational. Many games help you develop and practice planning, puzzle-solving, and negotiation skills, making them great indoor alternatives to mindless television.

When I entered graduate school in 2002, a few friends and I met weekly to play board games, chat, and generally de-stress after the workday. Over the years this gathering continued, friends invited more friends, our game collections grew, and now “Game Night” is a Thursday night tradition. We have fun and enjoy a super-frugal evening of activity!

Disclaimer: I am a nerd, and many of my friends are nerds.

There truly is a whole world of fascinating board games out there, but many of these games (most of which come from Europe) haven't broken into the mainstream, so many Americans remain completely unaware of these games. You won't find these games in WalMart or Target — at least yet! One notable exception of a Euro game that has been gaining widespread popularity here is Settlers of Catan (see this article in Wired magazine). And there are so many other games out there that are very fun but simply not well-known.

Want to try new board games and reintroduce board gaming as a fun hobby in your life? If so, use these strategies to find the right games for you:

  • Hug a nerd. Do you have a nerdy friend who has a shelf full of games that you've never heard of? Take a chance and ask him/her to teach you one of the games. It could become your new favorite game! Your friend will likely appreciate this too, as it can be hard to find people who are willing to try more obscure games.
  • Find a board-game group near you. It's possible that your region has an “official” board game club that meets once a month or so to play board games. Attending one of these events is a fantastic way to try out a variety of new games. The events are usually free or cost just a few dollars, and the club members supply all of the games. My husband and I attended a game day recently and were met by friendly people and tables upon tables of board games to try. By the end of the afternoon we had raced bicycles across terrain, claimed feeding spots for exotic birds, planted and harvested spices, and colonized alien worlds. To find an event near you, contact a local gaming specialty store to inquire whether it knows of any such events.
  • Do research to find games you think you'll like, then purchase them. If you don't know anyone who has games to try and there aren't any board gaming clubs near you, it's very likely that you'll just have to bite the bullet and order some games to try. As with any purchase, you'll want to do some basic research first to ensure your satisfaction with the product. First, find and research games through the internet or the website Board Game Geek. Once you've pinpointed a game you might like, search the internet to find and watch a video review of the game. Finally, search to see if there's an online version of the game that you can try first. For example, some of my game recommendations below — Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Mr. Jack — all have online versions available to try for free. Finally, purchase the game — many will be available through Amazon.com.

Finally, what types of games are actually out there, and how do you find a game you might like? Here I'll address a few very general ways to categorize games and provide some starting suggestions. For any specific games I mention, search the internet or Board Game Geek to get more detailed descriptions. (Disclaimer: These are only my opinions and only a tiny sampling of the games that are out there!)

  • Strategy vs. luck. Do you like games that are entirely strategy-based (like Chess or Checkers), or do you prefer games that blend strategy and luck (like Risk or Monopoly, which involve dice)? For a new twist on 2-player pure strategy games, try Hive or Khet. For a fun and addicting 2-player game that blends strategy and luck, try Mr. Jack. (My husband and I are addicted to this game right now!)
  • Theme vs. abstract. Do you like games with a rich story to tell (like Clue), or are you content just moving essentially meaningless pieces around a board (like Aggravation)? For new theme games, try Vegas Showdown, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, or Shadows over Camelot. For new abstract games, try Ingenious or Qwirkle.
  • Slightly complex vs. extremely complex. It's no secret — Euro games are generally known for being much more complicated than the games that most of us are used to seeing in American retail stores. If you're just trying out Euro games, I suggest trying some of the more simple (but still extremely fun!) games first. Start with Ticket to Ride or the ever-popular Settlers of Catan. If you like Settlers and are ready to step up the game a notch, add its expansion Cities and Knights. Or try other intermediately complex games like Ra, Citadels, Dominion, or Princes of Florence. If you want to try a very complex game, try Caylus or Goa.

I hope that after reading this article you'll feel motivated to branch out and try new board games. They're a wonderful source of frugal fun and can become highly addictive! I'll end with some questions for you: Have you tried any of these games? Which board games do you and your friends/family enjoy the most?

J.D.'s note: I can't believe I've never written about this subject before: I, too, am a nerd, and I, too, love board gaming as a hobby. Kris and I used to hold monthly game nights, but haven't done so in years. Now our games simply gather dust. (Or get sold for extra cash on eBay.) I'd love to start playing again, though. Photo by gadl.

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George
George
10 years ago

How do you all convince people that they should play with you? Most of my friends see games as boring and would rather spend money. Without money to spend, I feel left out.

Alicen
Alicen
10 years ago

A few of my North American favourites are Balderdash, Scattergories, The game of Things and Catch Phrase. Very fun, quick and entertaining and not too many rules to follow.

Kristia@Family Balance Sheet
[email protected] Balance Sheet
10 years ago

I have not tried those games that you listed, but they sound like fun. Right now we play board games geared towards our 4 yo. She loves to play and I want to encourage it. We play lots of candyland, shutes and ladders, twister, memory, checkers and a couple of others. Sometimes, my dh and I want to pull our hair out, because these games can get monotonous when played over and over and over, but our dd really enjoys them. My dh’s family are big card/poker players and the kids start young. When his family gets together, a group… Read more »

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

Agggggggh! Sorry, but I hate playing board games. My sister drags these things out at every family get together. Actual conversations with family members & friends have to stop so we can all sit in a circle on the floor for hours to play some trivial time-waster with our kids. It’s like being trapped in a Kindergarten for hours and hours! I seriously wish she’d just send the kids to the basement to play so we could connect like adults over a glass of Chardonnay instead. If I want mindless entertainment I’ll watch a movie, read crap on the internet,… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK
10 years ago

Oh, I love board games – both the playing and the human interaction that goes with it! Sadly, at the moment, I don’t get much of a chance except when I visit my family or some of my friends – maybe I need to look for one of these clubs?

Ezra
Ezra
10 years ago

I love board games and find them a great way to have fun with my kids. I get tired quickly of playing Barbie or cars so games are a happy medium. Some of my favorites are Carcassonne (2 player and up) and Jambo (2 player). Both are great games to play with your spouse when the kids are in bed too!

Brian B
Brian B
10 years ago

I usually love the advice given here, but not this time!

The last time I played Monopoly with my wife, I wanted to throw the game board, AND her, out the window! She is a TYRANT at that game, and has NO compassion for those with less money and property!

Dave
Dave
10 years ago

If you like RPG games you might like Anima, a card/board game. A friend got me playing it once and it seems like it’s a combination of Catan’s randomly arranged territories and resources (items and NPCs in this case) and an RPG game’s party system and character levelling. The games aren’t too long either, iirc ours took about 2 hrs, but we were learning the rules as we went along and it’d probably be faster once you’d played it a bit.

Jennifer B
Jennifer B
10 years ago

Don’t forget to check around the town where you live for stores that might sell these games too. Seattle has a store that has a “library” of games and tables where you can come in and play many of the games they offer to try them out before buying. Our faves (played with our 8 year old) include Ticket to Ride, Zooloretto, Pandemic(more complicated but a fun cooperative game where we all win or lose together) and Take Off (not European, but harder to find) but we also enjoy more popular games you can find at Target such as Set,… Read more »

Caroline P.
Caroline P.
10 years ago

You’re not the only game nerd. 🙂 Maybe as you say, there are more european ones (I actually am european) but then you’re a “protected specie”!

My boyfriend sends a scan of the rules of the new games he want to try (mostly the “extremely complex” ones) so his friends can study during the week before “game night”. That’s organisation ! And it always means great nights of collaborative discovery of a new board game.

chamoiswillow
chamoiswillow
10 years ago

Apples to Apples is my latest favorite game.

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

Karen, maybe try another type of game that is more personal. There are lots of games whose premise is that you reveal something about yourself, or everyone answers a personal question and then reveals and discusses. This way, you will get that personal interaction you are seeking, and maybe you might even learn something about your family that you never would have otherwise.

I am a fan of board games – not all the time but every once in awhile to switch things up.

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

My husband and I, and our best friends, are huge Carcassonne nerds. We have many expansion sets and a game can take up to 3 hours at this point. Which we don’t mind one bit. I even have a plush “meeple” in my game piece color that my friend gave me for my birthday. Karen, if it’s “mindless entertainment” you’re probably not playing the right game. Many games, like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Catan, etc are complex and require thought and strategy. That being said, some people just don’t like games and that’s OK too. I have some friends that… Read more »

Charles
Charles
10 years ago

I am not so sure this is all that frugal of an idea. I used to play a lot of board games, particularly historic war games. The only one that I played that is still around is Advanced Squad Leader. It is still in print, decades later, but a full set now costs over $200.

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

Ticket to Ride is an awesome game!! My parents got it for my husband and I for Christmas and we have played it probably three dozen times already. Ticket to Ride (AKA the train game, in our house) is great because it’s just as fun with 2 people as it is with five. Even my Mom, who usually feels like she’s not good at games, actually had a great time. Our neighbors liked it so much they decided to buy the German version for themselves. So, a hearty recommendation for Ticket to Ride! I also love playing Scategories and Taboo… Read more »

Jedrzej
Jedrzej
10 years ago

Well, I’m happy to have a friend who is a huge fan of board games (he’s running a great board game blog with news and video reviews in Polish). And while the games we usually play are not that cheap ($60-$100), they provide enormous amounts of fun and develop tactical thinking. Those are mostly Euro games (at least I think they are Euro games) like Imperium Twilight, Space Hulk or Runewars. Those games provide huge replay value as there are endless possibilities of how the gameplay evolves. I also used to attend board game nights where everyone would bring their… Read more »

Maureen
Maureen
10 years ago

I’m not a big fan of board games. I’d rather play card games – Rummy, Euchre, Bridge.

A deck of cards is $1 and can be used for many different games.

JimmyV
JimmyV
10 years ago

I have enjoyed board gaming for the last 10 years as a great activity. After the initial learning of a bunch of rules, games like Settlers are the main way we interact as a family. Talking about our lives, competing, ribbing each other, eating pizza. Good stuff. Settlers is our staple game, though we play lots of Puerto Rico. I’m glad that we have variety to choose from, such as Kill Dr. Lucky, Ark of the Covenant, Cashflow, Blockus, and my newest fave an old logic game called The Orient Express. I find it to be much better than sitting… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I’m really surprised that no word-based board games were mentioned here!

Hubby and I play Scrabble nearly every night, and our most popular social get-togethers involve Boggle!

hackbarth
hackbarth
10 years ago

The people at Oversoul Games make print and play boardgames, inpired in roleplaying games. They are fun to play and nice looking.

http://www.oversoul-games.com/

I’m not a member of the Oversoul team, but my hobby is finding print and play games and game components for RPGs.

dickgrogan
dickgrogan
10 years ago

What many people don’t realize is Catan is based off of M.U.L.E., an Atari and C64 game from the early 80’s: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.U.L.E.

There’s one way to play it (vs AI or online) here: http://www.atarimule.com/

But, if you’re not into emulating, there’s a modern version of the game: http://www.planetmule.com/

M.U.L.E. basically created my love for economics, teaching me all about supply, demand and pricing.

Allan Jackson
Allan Jackson
10 years ago

Settlers of Catan is a great one to start with if all you’ve ever played is typical kid games like Monopoly or Sorry. Another really good “Euro style” game I haven’t seen mentioned is Carcassonne. It’s probably slightly easier to learn than Catan, but there’s still tons of strategy involved. Both of these games have about 10 expansions too, so there are many different rule-sets you can play with.

Other games I’ve liked (and are pretty easy to learn): Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Set, Ticket To Ride (the Europe map is regarded as the best version).

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

My husband has introduced entire armies of people to Eurogames. (Play Axis and Allies? Try Puerto Rico… Big on monopoly? Try Agricola… the first game is always free.) If you’re looking for gamers and the bulletin board in your local comic book store isn’t helping, http://www.boardgamegeek.com/ is an excellent resource.

I remember when we first played Die Siedler… because it wasn’t out in English yet.

Melanie
Melanie
10 years ago

I am definitely a nerd! Settlers of Catan FTW!

Our group of friends like to have a monthly game night and play different games….shoot, we have a whole of them!

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

We too have board game night with friends once a month! It is a great alternative to going out and the beer is cheaper:)

Ticket to Ride and Settlers are our go-to games. But Set, Bohnanza, Alhambra and Power Grid are also lots of fun.

RazzBari
RazzBari
10 years ago

Our public library has monthly game sessions (usually on the weekend) where you can come try out either board games or wii-type games. Next month they’re featuring Ticket to Ride, so I’ll definitely be there!

Just wish they had game sets to check out… 8(

Brian C.
Brian C.
10 years ago

Aside from two fateful games of intense Risk in college where my roommates and I did not speak for a week afterwards, I pretty much did not play board games from the time I was around 12 until I met my wife over a decade later. We started dating around Thanksgiving and Christmas-time, and a bunch of her friends were having game night gatherings. I finally found something that my knowledge of entertainment trivia was good for as after one evening, a friend of her pulled her aside to say “You’re new boyfriend is a [email protected]$$ at Trivial Pursuit.” I… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

I’ve watched my kids grow up playing board games. Man, the smallest offense can cause the biggest temper eruptions! But overall, they love the games (and each other, but you’d never know it when they’re competing against one another). When my youngest was a pre-schooler, one of her favorite things was a “cheat-game” of Candyland where I’d rig the deck so that when we’d play, I’d get within one space of winning, then I’d pull Plumpy out of the deck and be set back almost to the beginning. Suddenly, her luck would change and she’d pull Queen Frostine and be… Read more »

keith twombley
keith twombley
10 years ago

Board games, like any geeky hobby, can quickly expand and fill up all of your time and money. Be careful!

So it wouldn’t be very nice of me to recommend yet another board game to buy.

Carcassone.

It’s great. 🙂

JAK
JAK
10 years ago

I wouldn’t classify our family as nerdy, but we are certainly homely by most of our family’s standards. During the snow storms this winter, we didn’t go crazy, because we often turned the TV off and would whip would out the games. I in particular do not like most board games, but rather enjoy Scrabble, Dominoes, card games, Taboo, Gestures, but three feet of snow can spark an interest in Monopoly. The one my son received for Christmas has no cash…only credit cards!!!!! Perfect time for a lesson on credit. Thanks for sharing.

PerDiem
PerDiem
10 years ago

Jigsaw puzzle and origami are also frugal fun, and I can use the products to decorate my house and my office.

Lauren Hill
Lauren Hill
10 years ago

Katie,

Thanks for the information. I look forward to trying some of these games!

Julie
Julie
10 years ago

My extended family gets together weekly for dinner and we play board games together afterward. We love Jenga, Blockus, Sorry! and Clue and we also have an old 1970s edition of Payday that is very fun. With a toddler in the mix now we are also adding Hungry Hungry Hippos and Memory to the mix with Candyland and Chutes & Ladders to be added soon.

Jessica @ Life as I See It
Jessica @ Life as I See It
10 years ago

LOVE this!! We adore games here and have friends over on a weekly basis to play. Anything from Settlers of Catan to Speed Scrabble to Killer Bunnies.

I have discovered that in the first 2-3 weeks of a new year you can often find brand new games at second hand stores (still sealed!) for a few dollars. I have found games that way for the past 3 years now. If it’s a game I already have I buy it anyway and save it to use as a gift for people I know play games.

Kevin
Kevin
10 years ago

Pandemic is another great game that involves all players against the board/game itself. It’s another type of game similar to Shadows of Camelot that has the players work together to try and win.

Scott
Scott
10 years ago

I grew up playing Monopoly, 5-card draw poker, gin, Parcheesi, Uno, Risk, checkers, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Rummikub, Boggle, Battleship, Clue, Yahtzee, and a bunch of other games. They are all good games. But my dad had no idea how much I would take to chess when he taught me how to play. I joined my middle school chess team, and I still play competitive USCF chess today. I also coach chess and run chess tournaments for all ages. There is a very vibrant national scholastic chess scene in America. Most schools have chess clubs. If your child is looking for… Read more »

Jami Johns
Jami Johns
10 years ago

As a professional-grade geek with a flight of non-geek friends, gonna give this a big ++. One thing I’ll note: there are a lot of great cooperative games out right now, where all (or all but one) players are working together to overcome a common obstacle rather than vying to win. Obviously, these are great for non-competitive players, but I’ve also noticed over the years that a lot of people who don’t usually play board games are really hiding a hypercompetitive streak that Monopoly and the like tend to bring out in them. Try Shadows Over Camelot, Fury of Dracula,… Read more »

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

Not a board game, but Apples to Apples is our family favorite. It’s especially great if you play it with people who don’t get offended easily (or at all…).

Colleen
Colleen
10 years ago

I’m a big fan of Trivial Pursuit, Scattergories,and Scrabble, but my new favorite game to play is Bananagrams! For those who like word games, but find Scrabble intimidating or too long, I would definitely recommend Bananagrams. It’s a lot of fun to play; the games go by pretty quick; and the tiles come in a cute cloth sack in the shape of a banana, which makes it easy to travel with.

Penelope
Penelope
10 years ago

Apples to Apples!

Dominos! I’ve stayed WAY past my bedtime playing those. Tons of fun.

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

In general I swear that I hate board games but I also love Settlers. When I found out that at my friend’s med school they all play it I was affirmed in my estimation that it is a smart and engaging game. Also one of my fave Chicago bars is a place called Guthrie’s that has tons and tons of board games. Re: Brian B. and your wife as monopoly tyrant. No better way to teach your kids the evils of pure free market no-conscience capitalism than to play monopoly- when you are a kid someone ALWAYS ends up crying… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

I agree with PerDiem (@31) about jigsaw puzzles. Having a puzzle in progress when a group is over can be really helpful for people who are shy, or bored, and can accommodate a wide range of ages, and people can spend as long or as little time as they like…
Some of the coffee shops in our community offer games to use while hanging out, and that’s another way to test a new game in an entertaining atmosphere, and again, can help when only some members of a group are interested in playing.

Rachel
Rachel
10 years ago

@Brian B (#7): About 5 years ago, I came to the conclusion that Monopoly breaks up families. I was playing it with my brother and some cousins and by the end of the game when only two people were playing (my cousin trouncing the other and the rest of us were sitting there bored and annoyed), all I could think of was that I couldn’t stand my cousin’s behaviour and that I never wanted to play Monopoly again. My brother, sister-in-law and I have several games that we play on a regular basis: EuroRails Bohnanza (or The Bean Game as… Read more »

Ely
Ely
10 years ago

I’ve never been a huge fan of boardgames, but I do love Trivial Pursuit. I also recently discovered Apples to Apples, which is great fun in an irreverent crowd, and can be quite creative.

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

I think this article underestimates the popularity of Ticket to Ride. 🙂 And doesn’t even mention the hugely popular Carcassonne.

I have gotten my not-quite-as-nerdy-as-me family to play (and then buy!) Settlers, but also Bohnanza, Tsoro, and Transamerica.

Board gaming can theoretically be an expensive hobby, but really, an entire game collection can be had for less than the price of one season lift ticket.

SandyFS
SandyFS
10 years ago

Thanks for reminding me that I used to love board games–I’m going to start getting them out again.
Also check out EcoToyTown.com and Family Pastimes for cooperative board games.

Jake
Jake
10 years ago

I was initiated into Eurogaming about two years ago by a friend who had a weekly game group. I fell hard, and have been hooked ever since. It’s a good, fun, cheap hobby, but only if you are the one NOT doing the buying. These games ain’t cheap, my friends, not in the least bit (though you can find good deals online, especially for bundles that cancel out shipping costs). Most new games, especially the more elaborate ones (with intricate boards and/or pieces) run anywhere from 50 to 80 bucks a pop. My friend who runs the game night has… Read more »

csdx
csdx
10 years ago

Ok I thought it was funny that frugal and board games are together. I’ve got a board game collection, and it’s by no means a frugal hobby for me (it’s one of the few things I buy at full retail, since supporting my FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) is important to me). Speaking of that, you might often find that such local game stores do have some sort of game night, the crowd varies by place to place, some I’ve been in have been mostly parents & younger kids, whereas others were mostly high-schoolers. I’d reccomend at least checking it… Read more »

Tammy Moore
Tammy Moore
10 years ago

We used to play games regularly, but now we only play Clue with our daughter (10) because the others are packed away in the garage. I’m hoping to use some of my saved “fun money” to buy a buffet to put them on in the dining room. I’ve found that since we always play games there it’s best to have them close and out in plain sight to encourage play.
So glad I found your blog! 🙂

Caroline
Caroline
10 years ago

The public library in my town has several board games that you can borrow. It is a good way to try a game before buying it.

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