Brilliant as it is, tabletop gaming is not exactly a low-cost hobby. In fact, it’s one that’s characterised by deluxe products, big boxes stuffed full of bespoke miniatures or metal play pieces. These can be spectacular works of art - but few of us have an art collector’s budget kicking around. Short print runs can also rocket prices sky-high: the older games that fellow hobbyists call absolute essentials have the mischievous habit of being prohibitively expensive.
It’s good news then, that you can have just as much fun with a £15 bargain as any £50 game, so long as you know where to look. To prove it, we’ve marshalled six of the best cheap board games into one wholly cost-effective list.
Cheap board games
A great variety of board games - covering numerous genres and themes - are available at a lower price point. What all these titles have in common is economy of design. They’re laser-focused, not an ounce of fat on them, and proof that bigger doesn’t always mean better. Stick a few of these on your wish list, and you’ll have hours of entertainment ahead of you - plus, your bank balance will breathe a sigh of relief.
1. Star Realms
A budget two-player space battler and innovative take on the deckbuilding genre
Combining savvy deckbuilding with the combat mechanics of a trading card game like Magic: The Gathering (indeed, it was designed by a pair of MTG pros), Star Realms is an exciting little sci-fi dogfight for two players.
The gameplay involves gradually building up your fleet from a collection of stitched-together spacejunk into a gleaming force full of faction bonuses and synergy. All while attempting to explode your opponent before they can do the same.
Deckbuilding games can often feel like each player is off in their own little world, doing their own thing. Not so in Star Realms. Preventing your opponent from buying a good card feels a little more urgent when that card will otherwise come back to blow your face off.
Fast-paced and fun, Star Realms is not the deepest game to be found in either of the genres it pulls from. However, few deckbuilders have the power to spark competitiveness like this one can, and few TCGs are so easy to pick up and play (plus you don’t have to deal with expensive MTG cards).Its retro-style spaceships are lovely to look at too.
Buy Star Realms from Zatu (UK)
Bluffing at its finest, the genre distilled to its purest form
Skull contains just four cards per person: three flowers and the titular spooky skull, but it packs surprising depth into such a small space. Quick to play and highly addictive, this is the kind of game that you’ll plan to use as an opener on game night, but will swiftly take over the entire evening.
Players take it in turns to secretly lay a flower or their skull facedown in front of them, until someone decides to start the bidding. To win a round, you must first outbid your opponents, then successfully reveal that number of flower cards, starting with those you yourself laid down. Accidentally hitting a skull means failure and the permanent loss of a card, so every attempt requires daring. In this game about picking your moment, often your mouth will write cheques you can’t cash, and you’ll find yourself distressed about winning a bid. It only takes two successful rounds to be crowned the game’s winner, however, so sitting back is also a mistake.
Each card-flip in Skull is a delicious moment of tension. You lock eyes with your opponent, hesitate, one hand hovering over their stack. Will you reveal a harmless flower or find yourself confronted by a deadly skull, its infuriating grin matched by its owner’s - an expression that says “Gotcha”?
Buy Skull from Zatu (UK)
Create a firework display worthy of “oohs” and “aahs” using teamwork and logic
Hanabi is a cooperative card game with a charming theme: players must work together to put on a spectacular firework show. This is done by laying suited and numbered cards in the correct order, which might seem a simple task, but here’s the wrinkle: you must hold your cards backwards. Everyone else can see your hand, but you cannot.
To share information, players must spend their turn to give clues, pointing to another’s cards and telling them what suit or number (but not both) they are. Too many mistakes will spell explosive disaster, but the group can only use a limited number of clues in total.
A pleasantly head-scratching logic puzzle, Hanabi also effortlessly removes a major obstacle common in cooperative board games - that of one, slightly more boisterous player taking over the decision-making. The restrictions on information and communication make this impossible; true teamwork is needed.
Like many of the cheap board games on this list, Hanabi is deceptively simple. It’s easy to learn but difficult to beat, and you can while away an evening trying to obtain the perfect score of 25. Hanabi won the 2013 Spiel de Jahres for a reason. And that reason is: it’s good!
Buy Hanabi from Zatu (UK)
4. Rhino Hero
Jenga but better, cheaper and with more masked mammals
A super cute dexterity game that’s fun for all ages, Rhino Hero sees players constructing a skyscraper house of cards for its horned hero to ascend. The objective is to deplete your hand, using floor cards for construction material, alongside foldable wall pieces. Eventually, however, that teetering, tottering tower will come tumbling down, at which point the player responsible for the demolition loses, and the one with the fewest cards wins.
Roof cards dictate which walls the next player must use and also come with special abilities, letting you take two turns in a row or force the next player to move the (heavy) wooden rhino meeple up the tower, risking collapse. In essence, it’s a little bit of Jenga and a little bit of Uno, squished together to form one entertaining whole. A wibbly card tower that you’re trying not to topple is already funny, but the chance to mess with your opponents makes it so much better.
There’s a more elaborate and expensive sequel game available, Rhino Hero: Super Battle, with taller towers and more animal superheroes, but the original is a real hoot and costs about as much as a cinema ticket.
Buy Rhino Hero from Zatu (UK)
5. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
A great value, cooperative trick-taking game set in the farthest reaches of the Solar System
Another co-op card game, and another Spiel des Jahres winner, but one with a far less tranquil premise, in The Crew you must work together to survive the harsh environment of the final frontier. Its gameplay is an unusual twist on the trick-taking genre. Here, you’re working together to get the right person to win each trick, in order to complete individually-assigned tasks and beat the mission.
However, in space, no-one can hear you talking about your hand, as the saying famously goes. Instead, to convey information, you have to rely on The Crew’s other main feature: radio tokens. Players can use these once per mission in conjunction with a single card to indicate whether it’s the highest, lowest or only card of that suit in their hand. With such limited communication tools, everyone has to pick the right time to share info and pay close attention to what’s already been “said” in order to win the day.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering it’s only a tenner, The Crew is campaign-based. It consists of 50 scenarios of increasing difficulty, and each one is highly replayable, so there’s endless variety on offer. So many ways to die in the vacuum of space!
Buy The Crew from Zatu (UK)
6. Love Letter
Tamper with your rivals’ mail in the cut-throat world of medieval courtship
In this card game, players take on the role of rival suitors, trying to be the first to get a letter to the realm’s most eligible bachelorette: the princess. You each have ever-changing hands of just a single card, every turn drawing a second and then playing one of the two. The aim is to knock your rivals out of the game and earn literal tokens of princess-ly affection.
Cards portray different members of court: priests, guards, barons and such. Each has a different ability; some gain you information about your rivals’ hands, while others allow you to use that information to eliminate them. Each card also has an associated score, and once the draw deck is empty, the remaining player with the highest-value card wins.
Love Letter is often compared to Coup, another popular low-cost classic, but it has a far greater emphasis on deduction than bluffing, so you don’t need to be quite so devious to succeed. With only 16 cards in the entire game, it’s easy to work out which roles are still in play and build that into your decision-making. Rounds are super short, so there’s never too much downtime, even if you’re knocked out early. Quick and simple, Love Letter is the perfect game to kick off a board game night or introduce someone to the hobby. Plus it’s one of the cheapest games you’ll find!
Buy Love Letter from Zatu (UK)