Of all the mechanical marvels in the game designer’s toolbox, none gives so much bang for so little complexity as turning titles into real-time board games. Putting a time cap on a game can transform a tame card-matching affair into a frenzy of furious plays as you try and inch your win conditions over the line.
Best real-time board games
- 5-Minute Marvel
- Space Alert
- Captain Sonar
- Galaxy Trucker
- Magic Maze
- Rival Restaurants
- Sorcerer City
- Project: ELITE
It’s particularly powerful when it comes to co-operative games. Without the added pressure of a timer, sometimes it’s too easy to come up with a plan or for an experienced player to guide the group. With one, there’s a sudden limit to communication, forcing players to work together as a team.
The downside is that real-time comes to dominate the game, and not everyone is comfortable with having a limit. That’s fine. But if that’s you we reckon playing one or two of these classic real-time board games might change your mind.
1. 5-Minute Marvel
The entire MCU with extra jokes in just five minutes
Let’s start with this great example of what we’re talking about. Overcoming the challenges in this simple cooperative real-time game means players playing cards from their hands to match the symbols on the challenge. This would be pathetically easy if not for the five-minute timer.
Under pressure, it’s incredible how this straightforward task degenerates into an exercise in card wastage and blame as everyone scrabbles to get the matches in. However calm you think the next game is going to be, the ever-increasing difficulty as you progress is going to boil over in the end. The well-voiced timer apps and hilarious puns are just the icing on this chaotic cake.
Bring the frantic pace of a bullet hell shooter to your tabletop
You’d never imagine that a strategy game could mimic the dangerous dance of an arcade bullet hell shooter. Unless you’ve played Bullet♥︎, that is. The core of the real-time board game is using a limited pool of actions to move randomly-drawn bullets on your grid to fit patterns on your cards. Optimising this is a tough puzzle by itself but, as ever, it’s the timer that adds the magic. By giving everyone just three minutes to draw, place and move their allocation of bullets it ratchets the pressure up until your hands will be just as sweaty as they would on a well-worn joystick.
If that sounds too much, Bullet♥︎ has other excellent game modes without the timer. But in the main game, any bullets you clear get passed to your neighbour to draw the next round. So it’s supremely satisfying to pull off a big board clear as the timer ticks down, knowing you relieved your own pressure and dialled it up for an opponent.
3. Space Alert
Work together to survive ten minutes in the depths of hostile space
One of the oldest real-time board games in the genre is Space Alert, which dates from before the era of fancy phone app timers and comes with a CD instead. The reason for the extra media is that each mission is narrated: you are the crew of a deep space vessel who must survive the encounters that each ten-minute game throws at you. Each player has a particular role with its own responsibilities, from the captain to the weapons officer.
While the first few missions teach you the ropes, the difficulty ramps up steeply until missions degrade into desperate screaming matches and bitter rounds of recrimination over who failed to do what. And when you do triumph, there are more missions and tons of card variety to keep you squabbling.
4. Captain Sonar
Get a fix and fire torpedoes at the enemy sub before they do the same to you
Timers aren’t the only way to bring real-time elements into a game. In Captain Sonar the players also take the roles of a crew, although this time it’s a submarine. But rather than co-operating to beat a timed mission, they’re playing against each other as their subs move and fire.
In addition to the usual communications issues involved in making a crew work together, Captain Sonar ups the ante by making it competitive. One role, the Radio Operator, has to listen to the other team and use their chatter plus the movement rules to guess where the other sub is. With so much hidden information both within and outside the team, the tension can reach depth-charge levels.
5. Galaxy Trucker
Build a spaceship out of spare parts in real time and see how fast it flies
Another aged classic, shortly due an all-new edition, Galaxy Trucker puts a novel spin on the concept of real-time play. At the start of the game players have nothing but an empty board, and must grab tiles from a communal pile as fast as possible to construct their galactic truck.
Of course, you can’t just build a spaceship by throwing tiles down willy-nilly. There are all sorts of rules and requirements as to how you place parts and what systems you need. Players are thus caught on an eternal seesaw between speed and accuracy as they try to build the biggest, baddest ship as fast as possible. The second part of the game, where they actually fly these zany constructions through the hazards of space, isn’t real-time but is a madcap race as badly-built ships fall apart around their hapless pilots.
6. Magic Maze
Use your unique abilities to loot a fantasy mall, but mind what everyone else is doing
All of the Magic Maze games rely on the same central conceit: you are in control of one or more pawns that are able to carry out particular actions. Starting on a central tile you’ll explore by flipping new ones off the stack and adding them to the growing map until you can find and complete your goals. In the original, that’s looting a fantasy shopping mall. In its sister game, Magic Maze on Mars, which streamlines the original with some of its expansion content, you must save astronauts.
So far, so ordinary. The cooperative real-time game adds pressure with a timer, allowing everyone to move simultaneously in pursuit of objectives. It adds more pressure with a no-communication rule, meaning you need to be aware of what other players are doing at all times. Then it crowns the package with the magnificent “do something” pawn, a phallic marvel which you place in front of players you feel might have missed something. It’s like charades, with a whole lot more strategy and silent recrimination.
7. Rival Restaurants
Beg, borrow and barter with rival chefs as you build a business
Up until this point, we’ve talked about games where the time pressure is all about strategy. But some real-time board games diversify this into negotiation with timed trading rounds. Take Rival Restaurants. On the face of it this is a fun game of building up a restaurant business where you buy ingredients and kitchen upgrades in pursuit of culinary glory.
The core of each round, however, is the one-minute buy and barter phase. Inside that tiny timebox you’ve got to buy ingredients from the market you’ve chosen that round, while also trying to trade recipes, ingredients, money and pretty much every resource in the game with your opposing chefs. Enlivened with some great art and great puns it’s a sweet, and savoury, addition to any collection.
8. Sorcerer City
Construct a magical city and juggle resources by laying tiles under time pressure
If you’ve ever played Carcassonne and felt the sedate pace of that classic could be improved with some time pressure, Sorcerer City is the game for you. Drawing tiles from your stack, you need to grow your city, trying to match colours and symbols between tiles to maximize your income in resources like magic, money and prestige. But you’re trying to do so under the tyranny of a timer.
Once you’ve totalled up the points, you get to spend your income on tiles to add to your stack for the next round. But beware: you also have to add monsters to your city that complicate the placement and ramp up the pressure even more. With lots of variety and a nice ebb and flow of intensity between the timed and untimed aspects, Sorcerer City is a rare beast that balances both speed and strategy.
9. Project: ELITE
Cooperate to stave off an alien invasion with risky action dice rerolls in real time
Tactical combat games are ten a penny but, as we’ve seen so many times on this list, a few neat design tweaks and a timed element can transform a title into something special. Here, you’re elite soldiers working together to hold off an alien invasion for eight tense rounds. After random spawning and movement, players roll their action dice and try to make best use of the available symbols to move, shoot or search.
It’s an interesting enough framework by itself but players are allowed to re-roll their dice as much as they like within a two-minute time limit. At the same time, they need to be discussing plans and coordinating their actions. And there’s another catch: dice faces sometimes activate enemies, which must be resolved immediately. Every round sees the players caught in a vice between the timer and the constant threat of creeping aliens.