Tabletop RPG gamedesign requires all of the same skills of tabletop game-game design – and yet I think some RPG game designers neglect “normal” games for inspiration. And while we live in a hayday of new and exciting games – Catan, Forbidden Dessert, Pandemic (and its themed offshoots), Arkham Horror, 7 Wonders – today we will round up those classic games from generations past that can still outshine the greatest game designers today.
Games of Perfect information
A game is called a game of “perfect information” if all players know the position of all pieces on the board at all times and the game is not impacted by future random events. In this category there are two (and a half) titains that divide the world between them – Go and Chess.
Go and Gomoku
Go is a Chinese game that is a full 4,000 years old! Played with black and white stones and a board, each turn you place one stone and try to capture territories on the board. The rules are incredibly simple – which makes the gameplay intensely strategic. The game is functionally recreational geometry as players need to ensure that their pieces are not surrounded by their opponents in their quest to conquer the board.
Gomoku is played with the same set, but is based on a connect five dynamic. If you want to learn these games I highly recommend AI-Factory’s cellphone apps for Go and Gomoku. Fans of Gomoku may also like Pentago.
One of two games to be considered by the Olympic Comittiee to be a sport (though I think Go should be added to the list), Chess is called the King of Games for good reason (sorry Yugi). Simple enough to be learned by kids but the game has depth for lifetimes. Simple way exist to create handicaps, allowing new players to compete with more skilled ones.
A game of strategic gemetry (though the concepts are perhaps a bit more intutive IMO then Go) Chess is a game perfect skill, no chance. Furthermore a good chess set has a iconic beauty to it. The game is also very portable in this day and age as well from light-campsite ready sets to and endless array of cell phone apps, including chess.com’s.
Games of Bluffing and Deception
There are countless variants of poker, but I pick Texas Hold’Em as the best of the lot. It is the main event for the World Series of Poker (which has a great app to learn/play the game) and one of the most popular variants worldwide. What makes Texas Hold’em so great is the concept of Community cards. By the round’s end there will be five cards all players have in common, in addition to their secret hole cards. This gives players information to work with when gauging whether their hand can stand up to the other players.
Hold’em can be played as a Limit-bid game, a Pot-Limit bid game or (as is most popular) a No-Limit game. Texas Hold’em is a game a skill – but the cards can go back on you. But that risk is part of the fun, right?
Honorable Mentions: Omaha, Draw-poker, Pai-Gow Poker
Liar’s dice, like many great games, is incredibly simple in its rules – which is what makes the gameplay so intense. You bid a quantity of a certain dice value. The next player must increase quantity or dice value in their bid. At some point you can choose to say that you doubt, and force the biddger to reveal their dice. It’s a game of being able to read people’s faces, as well as planning your bids to not be called out when you are bluffing – and hopefully to be challenged when you really hold those values.
Good for all ages and the stats / likelihoods involved are very intuitive making it an easy game to pick up.
Skilled Games of Cards and Tiles
Bridge has a fascinating fanbase consisting of 80-year-old grandmas, British people generally, and computer engineering students. Bridge is a trick-taking game which a bidding system that allows for partners to communicate their hands to each other in order to arrive at an optimal bid. In addition to the bidding, bridge’s other great contripution to card games is the dummy hand. If you win the bidding your partner flips their hand face up for all to see. This means that all players can see half of the deck. This information, combinded from information gleaned during the bidding process, allows for highly skilled play. Furthermore bridge tournaments are played in duplicate – meaning that other players will play the exact same hand you played, making it impossible to blame luck for a bad performance.
FunBridge can help you learn the rules and the bidding. Even if you are not in one of three categories above, I highly recommend duplicate bridge – there is nothing quite like it.
Honorable Mentions: Euchre, Belote / Coinche / Contree, Whist
Mahjong is played with tiles that have three suits (Bams, Characters, Circles) that cound 1-9 (with 2-8 being called “simples” and 1 and 9 being called “terminals”), as well as tiles for the four directions of the wind, and three dragons (White, Green and Red). Each tile has 4 duplicates.
The game may remind Westerners of Gin but there are severak key differences. In addition to having all your tiles in sets (either melds or runs of three with a single pair of 2 for a 14 title total), your tiles must have a specific characteristic such as being all simples (2-8’s only), including a meld of one of the three dragon colors, being all concealed (you didn’t take any tiles from the faceup board), or having a meld of either your chair’s wind or the round’s “prevailing wind.”
Often I have faced the situation where I can make a meld . . . but it includes a 1 or a 9 which would eliminate the “all simples” characteristic. Deciding for which type of hand you want to aim for plays a big part in the strategy.
I am fairly new to Mahjong with this app being my main source of learning. I recently got a real-life Mahjong set, and like a chess set there is an iconic classic feel to the tiles. I very much hope this game gets more recognition in the West.
Honorable Mentions: Fans of the game may also appreciate a game called Rummikub that is a cross between Mahjong and Gin Rummy (Gin Rummy itself would probably be on this list had Mahjong not beat it out)
Games of Solitaire
FreeCell is a Solitaire game of Perfect Information. Whereas in Klondike (the game most people think of when they think of Solitaire) cards are turned face down, in FreeCell every card is faceup, making most games solvable (though some can be intensely hard to solve).
If you want to make the game a tad easier, you can allow Deuces to “placehold” for Aces, ensuring you can start building up your runs early in the game.
Arguably I am bending the rules including this game as it is one of the newest games on this list (and more info here) but it really stands out (IMO) from other solitaire games, so I had to include it.
Honorable Mentions: Klondike, Spider, Pyramid, Tri-Peaks. Microsoft, of course, makes the most famous solitaire app as solitaire is a bit of a Windows OS tradition.
GAMES OF Chance
Very easy to learn both the rules and the strategy, blackjack’s house edge isn’t overly unfair to the player and the game allows the player to make choices during gameplay (unlike Baccarrat).
With its iconic table and cheering (or growning) patrons, Craps is possibly the most exciting gambling game of pure luck. The Wizard of Odds has a simulator here.
The rules are simple: The opponents place their bids and each player gets to roll the six dice, choose one (or more) to keep and re-roll the remainder continuing until all are kept. To qualify (e.g. not get a zero) you need to have a 1 and a 4. If you have a 1 and a 4 the remaining four dice are added together to make your score. Thus 1,4, 24 (6+6+6+6) is the optimal combination. A game mostly of luck with some skill, it is a fun low-stakes betting game.
Balut, Yaht, Yahtzee
These games (I am not going to pick between them) are about assigning dice rolls to specific scoring paradigms which can only be used a limited number of times. Super easy with enough strategy to not get boring, these can be great for family game nights. Balut has one of the simplest scoresheets and thus can be memorized and played without buying a game-set from a toy company.
Honorable Mentions: Bunco, Pig, Big Big, Poker Dice, Ship-Captain-Crew
The OG’s of Board Games
Backgammon’s history goes back 5000 years! Even today the game has simple rules that allow for strategic play. Dice are rolled and these values are spent to move checkers accross the board. If a space is occupied by two opposing pieces it cannot be moved on. If an opposing piece is by itself it can be knocked off the board, forcing it to have to restart its journey from the beginning. Players can offer to double the value the points awared for winning the current round and either accept the offer or resign the current rounds. Strategy resides in keeping your pieces safe, blocking or knocking off the pieces of your oppoents and knowing when to double. AI Factory, ever reliable, has a solid Backgammon app.
Mancala is possibly the oldest two-person boardgame still widely played. This is a game that you can litterally play anywhere – all you need to do is dig some holes in the sand or make circles and gather some stones. The game requires you to move as many stones as possible into your goal – without creating opportunities for your opponent to do even better.