Coffee House Games
on Sep 24, 2017
Summer 2017 is becoming a memory. The barbecues are over and the pools are closed. Fall is coming in fast, and there is no better indicator of the imminent season that the arrival of Pumpkin Spice...well, everything. It's a great time to visit your favorite coffee shop and reconnect with friends and family over one of thosse pumpkin(ish) flavored lattes. Our very own Pete Ruth had a great idea for a feature this month so we ran with it - our goal was to provide a great list of games that you can play on a 2'x2' table in a coffee shop with room enough for coffee and pastries.
Review Corner Editor-in-Chief
A “filler” game is traditionally a compact design that economizes space, plays quickly and has simple rules that allow for conversation while still providing mental stimulation. Hence the category is ideal for the diminutive tables of your local coffee shop. But while I’ve always enjoyed sharing a cup of coffee or tea as an amicably social affair, I must admit to finding “fillers” rather bland, even pointless and insulting - until I played Noxford.
Noxford laughs at the laidback notion of the filler while nonetheless pilfering its dynamics for a small, quick tilt with a rule set that immediately gets you into the tension. There are only 55 cards - ten identical in each of four syndicates and fifteen neutral city cards. You are gang boss placing district cards along with your adversaries to build out the city and laying down gang members to muscle in on territory. All the while you can often move cards already played, cover up a rival’s thug or neutralize them with any of three Bobbies cards! So it’s a bit more contentious than usual for the category, but it makes for a tense, back-and-forth affair that requires wits and calculation - along with luck and opportunism. Still, you can pack the game along to anywhere and enjoy your company while playing, even if just hurling churlish insults at each other. And while it’s not high Victoriana, there’s enough of its acerbic sensibility to imagine you’re in the world whilst sipping a cup of coffee or tea.
Coworkers are interested in these new hobby games you've talked about and want to try it out. But you need something that plays in your lunchbreak, fits on the table of your break room or nearby coffee spot, and yet showcases why these games are so interesting by providing real and engaging decisions. Not many games hit every criterion, but you won't go wrong by bringing out Biblios.
Biblios is largely a card game with a small board. At its core, it's all about gathering more cards in a given color than your opponents. But though the concept is simple, the game provides a wealth of options. During the donation phase, you have to decide what you're keeping for yourself, what you're passing to opponents, and what you're putting up for auction. Then during the auction phase, you try to use what you've got to get even better cards - all while trying to remember what your opponents have and where they seem to be concentrating. And if you think you are ahead in Green, try to make Green worth more points. Are they ahead in Red? Reduce that. What you end up with is a highly interactive experience that will provide a solid insight into what hobby games can be.
The great Reiner Knizia has always been one of the best designers in the hobby, and Lost Cities is one of his best designs. Two players share a deck composed of twelve cards in five different colors. Each card represents a certain amount of progress on an archaeological expedition, and the more progress you get the better your payout will be. But be careful what you start, because your investors will require a certain amount of progress before the expedition gets in the black. The tension increases with every card played, as you see your opponent play cards you wanted to use yourself. Will you need to begin a new expedition to gain ground? Will you be able to turn a profit on that expedition?
All of these little thematic touches are expressed in an abstract way, using colors and numbers on nicely-illustrated cards. But like many of Knizia's best games, Lost Cities is able to force the player to think like an explorer who needs to please their investors before they can make any money for themselves. The abstraction is all at the surface level, but its themes and decision-making are evident. Beyond that, this is just about the idea coffee shop game. It fits on a small table, and if you really want to you can ditch the board and box, and just carry around the deck of 60 oversized cards. Lost Cities is a no-brainer for those who want something portable, and for those who want something nuanced and tense.
I'm a huge proponent of small footprint, portable games because I travel quite a bit for work, and often friends where I travel to. My new favorite game of this style is Dice Heist which packs a huge amount of fun and luck-pushing into this very small package.
It's a great little dice chucker that you can play on a bar counter, coffee shop's hipster, minimalist micro-table, or anywhere that has a flat surface. It's surprisingly full of ridiculously hard choices, although to be fair they're mostly the same kinds of decisions, and it features set collection, variable scoring methods, and some really fun art. For the price, you really can't beat it.
Codenames is the game that keeps on giving. I've played hundreds of rounds of this clever team-based word game and am still not sick of it. A grid of words is laid out on the table while the table divides into teams. Each team elects a spymaster whose task it to get their team to guess their set of words using only 1-word clues. The goal here is to exploit word association to have your team guess multiple words at once. For example, the clue "Structure" may signal "Building" and "Sentence". It's a race to see which team can guess all their words first and often leads to moments of hilarity while the team talks through possibilities and ends up further away from the right guesses than the spymaster could have ever thought. Lacing each round with tension is the presence of an Assassin. This one word, known only to both Spymasters, lurks as a trap. If any team guesses the Assassin, it's an instant loss.
With a Pictures version for the more visually inclined and upcoming Disney and Marvel editions, there's a Codenames game for everyone. The fact that it's team based and scales well to high player counts means you can invite all the people in the coffee shop who gather to watch your game unfold. Just ensure it's the right coffee shop. Codenames can get pretty loud; especially when you manage to link 5 words together for a come from behind victory.
Here in California, we still have a few months left of the heat. Instead of hot chocolates and pumpkin lattes, we're still indulging in ice cream and smoothies. As we try to cool down while things heat up, 13 Days mimics this with its Cold War setting.
With just a small board and a stack of cards that will fit on even the smallest table, 13 Days takes all the intense tête-à-tête action of the popular game Twilight Struggle and distills it into a 30-minute slugfest. Every card you play is agonizing decision of placing cubes or utilizing events in an attempt to claw your way into establishing majorities in areas you think (and hope) will be scored this round. At time same time, you need to minimize your opponent's influence in key battlegrounds. This is made all the more difficult given that cards often have a tradeoff between helping yourself in addition to your opponent. After three short rounds and a blended beverage with questionable nutritional value, you assess the aftermath and have hopefully avoided nuclear war.
And if this game isn't fast enough for you, you can play its even quicker, scrappier micro-game sibling, 13 Minutes. You can't go wrong either way, unless maybe you ordered that smoothie with extra flaxseed.
This is kind of a deep cut from 2008, but Roll Through the Ages remains one of the best coffee-house games of all time...OF ALL TIME! And ancient history is exactly the idea in this dice-based civ-building game from Matt Leacock. Roll and reroll the custom dice to generate workers, commodities and food to help your bronze age civilization construct cities and monuments or achieve developments that will give you lasting benefits and endgame scoring bonuses, but don't push your luck too far, or you might find yourself decimated by drought, pestilence, or revolt. Because everything is tracked by peg-boards or good old pen and paper, you don't have to worry about a bump to the table erasing all your progress, and the cafe's other patrons will appreciate the muted rattle of the wooden dice.
The Great Heartland Hauling Co. is a game about trucking. HEY—DON'T YOU GO NODDING OFF THERE. Trust me—this one's worth sticking around for the long haul to hear about. It's a pick up and deliver game that's easy to learn, small enough to stick in a purse or man-bag, and intense enough to keep you coming back for more. When I first got this game we played it non-stop for several days, ignoring my shelf of giant, hulking Ameritrash games in favor of this silly-looking little thing where you drive wooden trucks around a generic Midwest-inspired region and deliver wooden cubes. Blasphemy, I know. But this charming little guy very quickly became one of my favorite portable games, cubes and all.
This is going to sound really odd, but a successful coffee shop game for me is one that doesn't require much attention or commitment. Because in this setting, I'd rather talk about movies, records, comics, or whatever. But if the will is there, a great game to bring to this kind of setting- and in fact a little game that has been somewhat underrated through two different editions- is Star Wars: Empire versus Rebellion. Originally released with a Cold War, KGB vs. CIA theme, the most recent FFG version has an obviously lighter and more universal setting and it provides "just enough" game to be engaging but not enough to get in the way of socialization.
They key is that it uses minimal components and rides on what is really a sort of jumped-up Blackjack mechanic, which makes it immediately approachable. And by Jango, it provides a fairly decent sense of Star Wars action. To top it off with a sprinkle of nutmeg, it's a tiny, pocket sized box and sells for about the cost of two Pumpkin Spice Lattes.