Six of The Best: The Best Board Games to Play When It’s Hot

Summer is not the season of boardgames. That’s the received wisdom, anyway. Christmas, Hannukah, Chuseok, Lunar New Year – boardgames start with the gathering of the harvest, and comfort us until winter’s darkness passes. Who wants to be shut up indoors trying to build the most efficient transport infrastructure in West Germany in June and July’s muggy, pounding heat?

Well, guess what friends. We have been sold a lie. They have played us for fools. Summer is the perfect time to play boardgames – and in any country with a thriving café culture, or abundant public spaces, you’ll see folks playing outdoors all day and well into the evening. What could be more lovely than chess in the park, or coffee and dominoes, or sitting on a blanket in the shade of a big tree, cracking open some ice cold beers and playing cards with friends? What better way to pass an evening than setting up a table on the patio or decking, mixing a jug of ice tea, filling bowls with snacks and setting up your favourite sprawling, thinky shelf-cracker?

This is a public service announcements primarily aimed at those of you who are theoretically sympathetic to the possibility of playing more games, the dabblers, the ludo-curious, but it’s also a reminder and rallying cry to those of us who love playing games to not let the hot weather put us off. It is, in fact, a wonderful excuse to play more, in greater luxury and comfort.

So then follow my suggestions for some games, suitable for all experience levels, that make particularly great summer choices.

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1. Sushi Go! Party

This cute, classic card game is as simple as a Pimms & lemonade and just as likely to leave you subtly intoxicated. It’s a very pure introduction to a game mechanic called card drafting, where you’re given a hand of cards, you pick one to keep, then you pass it to the next player, who does the same. Thematically you’re all collecting little platters of sushi from a conveyor belt, getting bonuses for grabbing particular sets.

It’s very rules-light, very chilled, but never dull. The kawaii artwork really sells it, from the rosy-cheeked onigiri to the beaming edamame beans. Because you’re focused on your own cards it’s low-conflict – no one’s actively stuffing you up, though you might experience the odd gustatory heartbreak as they snaffle the last matcha ice cream.

It’s just nice, and though I’m a seasoned gamer who likes big, heavy, complex experiences, I’m always happy to play it. I recommend the Sushi Go! Party tin over the basic Sushi Go! – it offers a few more twists and just feels like a more complete, replayable experience. (Sushi Go! Spin Some Dim Sum tries to recreate the experience with circular cards that slot into a big dim sum spinner – for me it doesn’t quite capture the magic of the original, despite the inclusion of a very cute life-sized squishy bao bun)

2. Forest Shuffle

I love card games where your cards can do multiple things. In Imperial Settlers, you’ve got this wonderful, flexible system where a card can become a building in your empire, or you can ditch it to get some stuff, like food or wood, or you can turn it upside-down and slot it underneath your board and it becomes a trade deal, giving you the resource pictured on the base of the card. It just feels so abundant – each card you draw is brimming with options, and you’re always looking for ways to squeeze just a little more juice out of the imperial orange.

Forest Shuffle does exactly this, but with less of the downtime and progressively more bonkers combos that Imperial Settlers sometimes suffers from in its final rounds. Cultivate a forest by putting down tree cards, then slotting cards with birds, butterflies, foxes and toadstools on around those trees to score points. The economy is simple – to play cards you’ve got to discard a certain number of cards from your hand – and each card has an effect or gives you bonus points at the end for meeting certain criteria. So butterflies are worth lots if you collect a wide variety, bats like it if you also have insects in your forest, bears let you take all the cards from the spread in the centre of the table and store them in your cave while you hibernate, scoring you points for each one at the end of the game.

It’s a step up in complexity from Sushi Go! Party, for sure – not so much in the rules governing what you can do turn-by-turn (you either draw two cards or play a card… er, that’s it) but in the intricacy of potential interactions between cards, and trying to maximise the efficiency of your turns. But turns are quick, and the game’s end – triggered by the appearance of the third of three winter cards shuffled into the deck – always catches me on the hop. Wow, is it over already? is me frequent reaction, a sign of a game that never outstays its welcome.

3. Santorini

Santorini is a two-player abstract game that doesn’t feel like an abstract. If you’re not immersed in the jargon, an ‘abstract’ game technically means a game where what you do, turn-on-turn – the game’s ‘mechanics’ – aren’t closely linked to who you are – the game’s ‘theme’. In fact, an abstract may not have a theme at all – think of draughts, Go, or Scrabble. Now the wise and pedantic alike will immediately discern that this pocket definition neither accounts for all possibilities nor exists in a neat, hygienic little box into which all games of a certain classes obediently fit. The designation ‘abstract’ is one end of a bipolar continuum, with, perhaps, ‘simulationist’, or ‘roleplay’, on the other.

Is chess an abstract? Most gamers would reflexively say yes, but then, clearly chess has a theme – a war between two rival kingdoms – it has kings and queens, knights, foot soldiers in the form of pawns, actual castles with crenelated battlements. It’s not a very realistic representation of war, but it’s clearly less abstract than, say, Go, where you’re simply placing stones on a grid.

Thematically, Santorini is about a contest of wits between rival Greek gods. In practical terms, you’re moving little builders round a 5×5 board, stacking blocks and trying to get one of your builders to climb on those blocks up to the third storey. If you succeed, you immediately win.

In its vanilla form, that’s it, that’s the entire game. You and your opponent move in this dance of play and counter-play, constructing the iconic whitewashed buildings, blocking the other player’s route to hire ground, sometimes capping off a tower with a blue dome to prevent either of you from using it. But didn’t I say you were gods?

As such, you each get a power that breaks the rules of the game in some fairly fundamental way – now you can build two blocks every turn, instead of one, now your builders kill your opponent’s builders if they touch them, now your builders are invisible to your opponent, you track their movement on a separate, hidden board, and if the other player tries to move into an occupied space they lose their go entirely.

I’ve written about Santorini before and I make no apologies for writing about it again because it’s so good. It looks gorgeous, the board mounted on the craggy cliffs of a caldera rising out of the Aegean Sea, the white plastic buildings turning the board into an undulating 3D labyrinth – and yes, the Minotaur is a playable character, granted the mighty taurean power of shoving. Each round is quick and the asymmetrical powers make them feel so different. Every combination throws up new possibilities and problems. Not every matchup is perfectly balanced but this scarcely matters because they are so darn fun.

Play this in your back garden by the flickering light of a fire pit or, better still, break it out on a park bench or on a camping table at the campsite. It has such unrivalled table presence you’re sure to draw a crowd.

4. Faraway

I feel like I have to mention this relatively new little card game, purely because whenever I get it to the table it draws admiration and inspires new fans. It’s inexpensive, it comes in a small box, and it plays quickly. Oh, and it will break your mind.

Like Sushi Go! Party, Faraway is a game about collecting cards. Thematically, I think the idea is you’re going on a little jaunt to new lands, meeting a bunch of folks along the way, then when you return home you encounter everyone you met, but in the reverse order. Basically, all that’s required of you each turn is to play one of the three cards in your hand to the table, then choose a card from a selection in the centre of the table. Once everyone’s played eight cards, you tot up your scores and the game ends.

And there’s no restriction on which card from your hand you play. So technically the information I just gave you is enough to play a full game. But it’s how you score that has repeatedly taken my brain and twisted it into a balloon dachshund, despite its being theoretically straightforward.

Cards come in one of four colours and are numbered 1 to 60+. Some have special symbols on, like a little golden pineapple or a pair of horns (these symbols have proprietary in-game names but you’re 100% going to end up calling them horns and pineapples). Most offer you some victory points (the generic tabletop term for ‘points that contribute to your score at the end of the game’), usually for fulfilling some condition – for example, two points for every pineapple icon on your cards, ten points if you’ve got at least three shell icons.

But here’s the twist: once everyone has picked their eighth card, you’re going to turn your row of eight cards down, then score them backwards, starting by flipping over the eighth and last. None of the others are considered at this point, so if your eighth card offers you points for pineapple symbols, any symbols on your other seven cards won’t count. After scoring card eight, you’ll flip over card seven and score that, but now including any relevant symbols and colours on card eight. This means you only get your full tableau when you flip over your final card – the first you played, card one.

If that sounds confusing, it is – but in a way that doesn’t become apparent until final scoring, when you realise you miscalculated, or you’ve collected things backwards, and all the shells you thought you were going to score for haven’t been revealed yet so this card is a bust.

There’s an extra twist where, by playing card numbered higher than the last you played, you get to draw from a deck of valuable bonus cards. The problem being that, most of the time, the highest-numbered cards make more sense to play early in the game – being loaded with points and pay-offs – and the lowest-numbered cards work best played late – being covered in valuable symbols and point bonuses that require little setup. Also the cards’ numbers dictate the order in which players get to pick a new card from the selection that gets dealt face-up to the centre every round. The lowest number gets to go first.

You will probably fall arse-first through a skylight onto a wedding buffet the first time you play but that’s okay, because a single game goes quickly (you play your cards simultaneously, and only eight in total all game) and your mistakes usually only become apparent during the final scoring, so there’s not that long, drawn period of knowing you’ve stacked it and having to stick around for the sake of the other players.

The artwork is quirky and appealing, I like the square cards, and the tension between playing big payoff cards first versus grabbing lots of bonus cards (which offer additional scoring opportunities and extra symbols) makes every decision interesting. A snappy, charming game that’s also a thinky squeeze? Yes please.

5. Sidereal Confluence

I bet none of y’all motherflippers saw this one coming. A heavy space-opera-themed negotiation game? As a summer classic? Get out of here, Tim Clare. Away with you and your heatstroke-induced delirium.

Well, the joke’s on you, I have played this in my friend Ed’s garden with four other players on a glorious summer’s afternoon, and aside from, okay, having to move indoors when eventually it got so dark we couldn’t see what we were doing, we had a fabulous time.

Sidereal Confluence is a weighty trading game where you take the roles of various galactic civilisations, doing deals with each other by exchanging various commodities. You use these commodities to power a variety of different machines, which basically turn a bunch of little resources into a few more valuable ones. In addition, there are some planets to explore, and each civilisation has its own special power.

That’s it. That’s the game. Swap coloured cubes, use them to make more and bigger cubes, eventually transform those cubes into points. The trading section which makes up the bulk of the game is refreshingly freeform – you’re just talking to your fellow players, looking for the cube colours you want, trying to offer them something they want in return without getting ripped off.

As in my other beloved negotiation game, Chinatown, the central tension comes from playing a zero sum game where the only path to victory is cooperation. I need something you have. I am also your rival. How can incentivise you to help me? You never want one of your generators to sit idle at the end of a round, but every sweetener you offer your opponent in a deal gives them more ammo. These negotiations are never entirely rational, either – most players can’t perfectly math out every outcome, so a lot of the time they’ll be going with their gut. Do they feel like they’re getting a bargain? Some players respond to browbeating, some to cold spreadsheet logic, some like making tacit alliances, some take any show of friendliness as an attempt at manipulation.

It’s not quite as cutthroat as my summary makes out. The game actively rewards trade and cooperation, and a successful exchange leaves both of you feeling like you’ve made progress, so most of the time you’re all actively invested in each other’s board state, looking round to find someone who might need what you’re selling.

Yes, it’s the heaviest of the games I’ve listed – though not oppressively so – and probably not a great choice for a gamer still finding their feet (though working in teams is completely viable – I’ve had some great games of Chinatown involving pairs), but it’s exactly what you want to wile away a summer evening. A lively, engaging game with little downtime, full of politics and haggling and aliens, with plenty of scope for feasting and drinking alongside.

6. Avalon

I appreciate that Blood on the Clocktower has knocked all other social deduction games into a cocked hat, then weed in that hat, then put the hat back on its owner’s head so the wee trickles into their eyes, but – Lord forgive me – I still haven’t played BotC. That is mostly my fault, though it is well over a hundred quid to buy and so I blame both my lack of organisational aplomb/friends and my moth-riddled wallet.

If you’ve seen BBC’s The Traitors or played games like Mafia or Werewolf or the video game Among Us, you’ll know what to expect in social deduction – the basic skeleton is that, at the start, players all secretly get assigned roles – games in the genre are sometimes called ‘hidden role’ games – mostly goodies but a few baddies. Sometimes the baddies have to eliminate the goodies to win and vice-versa, sometimes the goodies have to complete some set of tasks and the baddies have to try to stop them by secretly sabotaging things.

Avalon’s core loop couldn’t be simpler. Each round, the group’s going to vote for a couple of players to go off and do a quest. You’re all knights of Arthur’s round table, with the exception of a few who are secretly minions of Mordred. The players on the quest pick one of two cards in their hand – either ‘Pass’, or ‘Fail’, and add it, facedown, to a pile in the centre of the table. Then the cards get shuffled, and revealed. If they all say ‘Pass’, the quest was a success. If even one says ‘Fail’, the quest fails. If three out of five quests succeed, Arthur’s knights win. If three out of five fail, Mordred’s evil conspirators win instead.

From this basic premise arise all sorts of schemes, theories, accusations, and opportunities to test your ability to tell if your friends are fibbing. If a ‘Fail’ result turns up, you know at least one of the players who went on that quest is a traitor. Minions of Mordred know each other’s identities, so they can conspire to nominate each other for quests, or smear innocent knights.

There are a few additional roles you can add once you’re comfortable with the base game, to spice things up: Merlin is a goodie who knows the identities of all the baddies, but if Arthur’s knights prevail, the baddies get to guess who was playing Merlin. If they guess correctly, Merlin is executed and the baddies win. This immediately puts the Merlin player in an exquisite bind: they know who is lying, they can see when their team gets manipulated into accusing an innocent player, but if they protest too loudly, the baddies will twig that something is up.

I accept the word of close and trusted friends that Blood on the Clocktower is the gold standard for social deduction games these days. If you know someone who owns it and you can get a big enough group together, by all means go for that instead. The roles are a bit more gnarly and involved, with more special powers, and there’s more breaking off into huddles to discuss your suspicions, both of which are either pros or cons depending on your tolerance for faff. Personally, I suspect I will love it, but having never played I can’t vouch for it.

What I can say is that Avalon is cheap and straightforward. It doesn’t require one player to sit out and act as gamesmaster, so everyone can be involved. It is entirely navigable by older children and slightly drunk adults. So I think if you have never played hidden role games before, and would like a low-risk dabble, it still represents a fun, relatively quick option.


And the others…

The above by no means represents my top six (yes, the title was a lie, live with it) and it’s nowhere close to exhaustive, but there’s a decent spread there of starter and intermediate titles for the long warm nights of summerstide. Some other possibilities that I can’t bothered to give a full rundown of but absolutely deserve it if only I weren’t so goshdarned feckless:

The Mind – a very elemental little card game where you work together to play numbered cards in ascending order, only you’re not allowed to speak. 2-4 players, a pretty intense, singular way to pass twenty-odd minutes.

Mandala – a two-player abstract card game of playing DMT-tunnel-patterned cards onto a cloth board in a kind of push-pull area control battle. I really like the tactile and visual qualities of this game, and I think the central puzzle is really engaging.

Sea Salt & Paper – a lot of charm in an incy box, this 2-4 player card game sees you collecting sets of ocean-themed cards: crabs, fish, octopodes and mermaids. Some cards have special abilities when you play them, and there’s a nice push-your-luck system pinched from Go-Stop and Gin Rummy where, on reaching seven or more points, you have the option to immediately end the round, or offer your opponents one more turn each. If you do the latter and they still haven’t scored higher than you, you get a bonus and they score less. If you gamble and whiff, you take the points penalty instead.

It’s tiny and neat, basically, with soothing origami card art that seals the deal. An expansion adds a few more options without significantly adding complexity. A cosy choice for recharging with friends.

Kittin and Tinderblox – these two games-in-a-tin from Alley Kat Games are just dinky stacking games, one using cats of various shapes, the other requiring you to construct a campfire using tweezers. Colourful, portable, and frantic and clinical respectively, they fit in a pocket or glovebox and are a nice way to chill out in the early evening on a camping trip.

Love LetterLove Letter is good enough that it’s sort of boring to give it a shoutout as a superb travel game that is also just a near-perfect game in general. I’m on my third copy, having managed to twice put previous copies through the washing machine in a coat pocket, because I take it almost everywhere. I’ve played it in tents during the rainy parts of festivals, and it’s just so well-designed – I think there are just nineteen cards (*grabs copy off shelf, counts by hand*) twenty-one, if you count the optional Spy cards in later editions – and it plays equally well at two or four players. Hey, the Bridgerton-themed edition seats up to six players and… I think it might even improve on the original? You can certainly strip it back to just play the classic game, so its extra little twists are just there if you want them.

A whole bunch of Buttonshy games – Buttonshy make slick little wallet-games comprising exactly eighteen cards each. If you’ve never tried city-builder Sprawlopolis, competitive ossurary-organiser Skulls of Sedlec, gorgeous paddy-field-em-up Seasons of Rice, passive-aggressive Victorian flower-giving sim (from Wingspan designer Elizabeth Hargrave) Tussie Mussie or remarkable fairy-tale-meets-Rubik’s-Cube Wonder Tales, well my friend, you have nay lived. Ridiculously compact, delightful, easy on the ol’ bank balance and straightforward to teach, they are your backpacking, camping and festivaling best friends. I mean, aside from your human friends, of course. We all have those.

So those are my recommendations for games of the summer, but what games would you choose? Don’t tell me in the comments, because I don’t want to hear it. I’ve got enough on my plate already, you thoughtless oik.

My new book about tabletop games, THE GAME CHANGERS, is out in November ’24. Preorder here.

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