You'd be amazed how much fun there is in a tiny box from the best cheap board games. They tend to be shorter experiences than the beefy games you'll find in our list of the over best board games overall, but they're no less sharp and innovative.
These cheaper board games are also often a bit easier to teach and learn than more expensive games, which can be a big bonus as well, if you're looking for something to squeeze into a gap in the evening, and not take over a whole day.
A lot of the best cheap board games are card games, for understandable cost reasons, but they're a million miles from feeling like something you can play with a normal 52-card deck. Some use cards to build maps, while others have cards with special powers that interact precisely and inventively. And there are still games that have a traditional board, and other great essential components – hell, one here has a 3D airship that you'll build.
What you'll find here make for ideal gifts for board gamers, or are great if you want some fantastic games to play with friends without taking over a bookshelf. They're regulars for us with friends, even though we also own much more elaborate (and expensive) games.
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The best cheap board games under £20
Here's a quick run-down of the games under £20 we love most, and you can read on for more info about them all, and many more options beyond.
- The best cheap strategy board game: Ticket to Ride: London – it feels like a bigger game than it is, but plays in under half an hour
- The best cheap board game for two players: Jaipur – a perfectly honed puzzle for two players to battle against each other
- The best cheap cooperative board game: Letter Jam – a clever game of making words and deduction
- The best cheap board game for families: Sushi Go! – it's easy to understand, has adorable art, and is top value
- The best super-small cheap game: Love Letter – at just 16 cards, this fits in anyone's pocket, but is a full, rich game
- The best cheap board game for up to six players: Celestia – a beautifully-designed game of trying to fly an airship co-operatively (but not too co-operatively)
The best cheap board games
What a brilliantly realised, compact gaming package. This is a mini version of Ticket To Ride, one of the most popular board games of all time, but it doesn't feel cut back when you play – just more concise.
The game is easy to learn and play: you get points by claiming routes through London with your colour of London Bus. You'll draw cards that show you two destinations, and if you can connect them, you'll get big points. If you can't, you'll lose big points. The problem is that other people are also trying to make connections all over the board, and if they claim a route you need before you snap it up, you'll have to go the long way around… or maybe you're just stuffed.
You claim routes by collecting cards: you'll need a set of all pink cards if you're planning to claim a route that's pink. You can only take two cards on a turn, though, and everyone can see what cards are available, so you can try to predict what other people up to (if you're paying attention).
The crucial part is is how tight the board feels – there's nowhere near enough space, so it feels like a slow build up as people collect cards, until suddenly it's a mad rush to claim the routes you need before they're gone. It's all sharp elbows as you muscle your way to a good network – fiercely contested without feeling targeted or mean-spirited.
And it all plays in about 20 mins, with a satisfying conclusion! You'll want to just clean down the board and go again – it's such a fun sprint.
This is a cooperative game of deduction and word-making. Because it's cooperative, it largely avoids one of the major pitfalls of word/spelling games, which is that some people just tend to find it easier to pick a complex word from a jumble of letters than others. In Letter Jam, you will have a jumble of letters to make a word from, but because you're trying to come up with words that other people have to guess, there's no inherent value in longer or more obscure words.
The setup is a bit fiddly to explain (and this is true while you're teaching it to others, too – though it's extremely easy to play, there'll need to be some patience in the explanation), but the gist is: each player has five cards face down in front of them, which spell out a word. The ultimate aim of the game is for every player to be able to say what their word is, without ever having looked at the cards.
The way to achieve this is that, each round, all players have one of their five cards upright and visible to the other players at the table. One player will then use the letter cards they can see to spell out a word, placing down tokens that specify where in the word each letter comes (1st, 2nd, etc). This word then becomes a clue to all the other players about what the letter that's in front of them might be – if you can see that I have spelled a word that starts 'CR' and then the third and final letter is the card in front of you that you can't see, you could safely assume that it's a 'Y'. However, a third player has the 'C' in front of them, so they're looking at a three-letter word that ends in 'RY', and will be wondering if the first letter is a 'C' or a 'W'. But that's okay – because next round, a new word will be made that might cement which of those two options it is.
That's what we mean about the game not being about who's the best at anagrams or has the biggest lexicon – what really works in a given turn might be the simplest word, as long as it helps people work out what their letter is.
When you're certain you know what the letter that's currently up in front of you is, you can place it face down again, and bring up your next letter, keeping a note of what you think they are as you go. The challenge in the game is that the group only has a limited number of guesses overall. When you run out, everyone needs to make a guess as to what word their cards spell – you don't necessarily need to have worked every single letter for this, of course!
We love this game because it's truly cooperative – nobody has all the information needed at any time, and everyone is relying on others to help them out. Domineering personalities can't overshadow play the way they can in some other cooperative games. You can also make it harder or easier as needed, by changing the length of the face-down word in front of each player.
Love Letter's theme (of being suitors of a princess) is very flimsy and fluffy, maybe because it wouldn't be as appealing to depict what this game really is: a brutal series of two-minute knife-fights.
There are only 16 cards to play with in the first place, and a random one is actually left out of each round. Every card depicts a figure from the court with a value attached to them, and they all have a special power of some kind, which tend to be geared around either knocking other people out of the game, or avoiding being knocked out yourself. Everyone starts with a single card, and on your turn you draw a single new card from the deck, and decide which of the two to play now (using its power), and which to hold for next turn. The aim is to either be the last person left when all others have been eliminated, or if more than one person is still in when the deck runs out, to have the highest-value card in your hand.
The brilliance of the game is in how all the powers on the cards work together, and how easy it is to be knocked out. The most common card of all lets you guess which card you think someone else is holding, and if you're right, they're gone, just like that. Other cards do things like let you look at what card someone else had, or force someone else to discard their card and draw a new one: pretty innocuous, except that instantly eliminates the Princess card, which is the best to have at the end of the game, if it didn't make you very vulnerable up until then.
You play several rounds to finish a game, each of which is really quick. It's short and sharp game of deduction, cunning and no small amount of luck, but one you can play over and over again and it always feel fresh. All in a teeny box.
This is a game of building a delicious sushi meal out of adorable pieces of food with faces! It's extremely cute (if you don't think about it too hard) and super-simple. Everyone starts with a big hand of cards, from which you'll take one, and pass the rest on to the player next to you. Every other player will do the same, so you'll be given a new, slightly smaller, hand that you'll again take one card from before passing it on – this continues until you've run out of cards, then you'll add up the points from the cards in front of you, and go for another round.
The tactics are in decided what cards you're going to take. Some sushi types are worth good points on their own, some are worth little if you have one but lots of you have several the same, some only give you points if you have the most of that type, some stick around over later rounds and give you points at the end of the game… there's loads of possibilities. It leads to big triumphs, and some rounds where the person before you keeps taking what you wanted just before you can – you'll have to adjust your plan as you go plenty of other stuff to grab instead.
There's a bigger version of this game called Sushi Go Party, which has lots of extra sushi types that you can rotate in and out of play every time you bust it out, keeping it fresh (…get it?). It also supports up to eight players! Sadly, it's just over our £20 price limit here.
There's also a new dice-based version called Sushi Roll that we really like: instead of cards to pass around, you have dice that you roll each time. It's a bit more interactive between players, because you can nick dice from other players before they have a chance to take them, but again is more expensive than our £20 limit.
Exit: The Room is a whole range of games (there are 13 in total) that are designed to give you the escape room experience at home – each is based on a different theme, including 'The Abandoned Cabin', 'The Polar Station' and 'The Sunken Treasure'. Inside, you'll find components such as code wheels, cards, clues and all kinds of puzzles, which you'll have to work your way through.
We're not going to go into as much detail about these as we would for other games, because you obviously need to explore them yourself to get the real experience. Instead, we'll say that the puzzle levels feel perfectly pitched, they're really satisfying to crack and move onto the next stage, and the whole thing is ideal to bring together friends or family for a few hours. There's no worries about time or anything, making it less stressful than a real escape room.
Each box can only be played once, because you'll need to actually alter parts of the game at times. That might make them seem like less good value than the many replayable games here, but then this should keep up to six people entertained for a couple of hours, for just £13 or so. How much would taking that many people to the cinema cost?
Our price finder above will take you to The Abandoned Cabin set, but you can see the whole Exit: The Game range at Amazon right here.
This is one of the biggest bargains in board-gaming – you get a beautiful 3D ship made of cardboard, a big pile of cards, and a really fun game, which is the important bit, really.
You're all aboard a fantastical flying ship going from island to island, and each turn one player is the captain, who rolls some dice to see what the obstacles you'll encounter on the journey. To make it to the next island, the captain needs to have cards in their hand matching the symbols on the dice – they'll discard them to move on if they can, otherwise the ship crashes. After the dice are rolled, but before cards are played, everyone else on the ship gets to decide whether to get off the ship and pick a treasure from the island; or whether to stay on and risk whether the captain will be able to beat the dice or not. The further the ship travels, the more each island's treasure will be worth.
Here's the kicker: the captaincy rotates after every single turn, in flagrant disregard for the need for qualifications. And the captain isn't allowed to get off. And there are also power-up cards people can play, which can both help and hinder the current captain, or can even save you (and only you) from a crash.
After every crash, you go back to the start of the islands and keep going until someone gets enough points to win. It's so easy to play, it's a ridiculous amount of fun, and it has the thrill of gambling without anything untoward.
For two players, this is a perfect little package. It's compact, it's tight, and the core puzzle at its heart never gets any easier to solve, so it's interesting every time you play. The idea is that you need to collect goods of the same type to sell, which gives you points. There's a market of cards in the middle that both players can see, and every time you take something, it's replaced with new cards, so even if your opponent grabs lots of cards, that means a fresh batch of goods for you to pick from.
The dilemma is how long you wait before turning your goods into points. If you're the first to trade in cards of a particular type, you get more points than someone who does it later. But if you can trade in more cards at a single time, you get bonus points. So the game is always tempting you to maybe wait another turn or two, because maybe – just maybe – you could get the higher first-mover points as well as a bonus for selling lots of cards. If it comes off, you'll be laughing. But maybe – probably – your opponent nips in with a small sale of that type of card first, nicks the biggest points, then moves on to something new.
It's great, fast-paced stuff, and we really like how flexible it is for letting you change tactics – you can take every single card in the market, if you want, but you have to replace them, so you can just effectively ditch your entire hand and take juicy new ones from the middle if it feels like that'll be more successful.
So cheap, so simple, so good. All you do in this game is trick your friends, either by lying or telling the truth, depending on which you think will bamboozle them most.
The 64 cards are divided equally among everyone, and they're divided evenly into eight different types of pest (rats, flies, cockroaches, etc). The illustrations of the pests are brilliant – there's a kind of rough, frantic, ’90s-Nickelodeon-show look to them.
If it's your turn, all you do is take a card from your hand, place it face down in front of someone else, and tell them 'This is a [pest name]'. You can choose which pest type to say – lie, or be honest. That person now has three options: they can say they think you're telling the truth; they can say they think you're lying; or they can pick up the card, look at it, and do the exact same thing to someone else at the table, with the option to change what they claim it is, branding you a liar (or not) in the process.
If they answer whether they believe you or not, and they're wrong, then the card goes face up in front of them permanently. If they answer and they get it right, then it goes face up in front of you. The aim of the game is avoid have four of the same kind of pest in front of you, because that's an instant loss, and the game is over – there's no winner here, only a loser.
Within that simple frame work, there's so much scope for crafty thinking – when you pass someone a card that you claim is a rat when they've already got three rats face up in front of them, you put their mind in overdrive. Should they just say it's true, because then even if they're wrong, they still won't get a rat this turn? Should they just pass it on, because maybe that's slightly safer? Of course, it being such afast and silly game, you don't have to think about it at all… it still works great.
There's so much game in this box! Honshu is a pretty little game of building a pretty little Japanese town. Each turn takes place in two phases: first, you'll choose a card from your hand, which has six squares on that represent different zones: housing, resources, factories, parks, lakes, and empty brown land. Everyone puts their cards in the middle, and whoever's card has the highest value written at the top gets to choose which cards they want from everyone's options – then the second highest, and so on.
Once everyone's got a card, you'll build up your town by placing that card next to a tableau of cards you've already placed, trying to maximise how many points it gives you. Houses get you small amounts of points each, but if you form them into a big cluster, it really adds up. Lakes are worth tons of points if you chain several of them to touch each other, but are barely worth anything on their own. Factories give you points at the end provided you have a matching resources square… everything has a use.
After twelve rounds, you've built up a sprawling town, maybe using the cards you wanted, or maybe using whatever you were able to pick up. Even if you lose ultimately, there's a deep satisfaction to looking over what you've built.
This all already makes it highly repayable – you'll have to change your tactics every time depending on what cards you get – but it also comes with a couple of ways to change the game in the box. One gives every town a totally different starting card (they're all essentially identical normally), changing your tactics further; another adds bonus ways to score on top of the usual ones, giving you even more ways to build.
You are ocean-floor treasure hunters, diving down from your submarine to grab swag. The problem is that you're cheapskates, so everyone (up to six players) is sharing the same oxygen supply. And it runs out much quicker than you think.
You lay out a path of face-down tiles from the submarine, and then roll dice to see how far along the tiles you'll move. After you move, you have the option of picking up whichever tile you're on, and having it as treasure – it has a points value printed on the underside. You can then keep moving down the track if you like (later tiles are worth more), or at some point you announce that you're turning back, and then move up towards the submarine. If you make it to the submarine, you get to keep your treasure. The problem is that every treasure you pick up makes the oxygen counter move down by one on your turn – and takes one point of movement off whatever you roll. And remember, there's one oxygen counter for everyone, so greedy people are cutting down how much time you have left as much as themselves. It's common to end up just one space outside the submarine, with enough oxygen for one more turn, banging on the outside desperately hoping to be let in… and rolling too low to move.
After each round, the gaps in the path left from treasure taken so far are squeezed up, bringing the higher-value tiles within reach… making dangerous dives even more tempting.
This comes in a teeny tiny box, and is one of the most beautiful games ever made – the design is just gorgeous, from the box art to the submarine design to the little wooden diver figures. It's been a favourite of T3 for years – we had to get it imported from Japan after it was a hit in the local game scene there, which cost loads. You can can get it from Amazon for a song, you lucky treasure hunters.
Another very small game, this casts you all as dwarves digging a mine to find gold nuggets. You all have hands of cards with paths drawn on them, and on your turn you can lay next to existing path cards to make a route from the entrance to the three end cards – one of them has the all-important gold, but you won't know which at first. However, one of you might be a saboteur, who only wins if everyone else loses, and who'll try to block you off with dead ends, and rock falls, and by breaking your tools so you can't lay cards.
If you work out who the saboteur is, you can try to neutralise them… but some people will end up acting suspiciously even if they're not the saboteur, because whoever gets to the gold first will get more of it than anyone else – maybe you end up breaking people's tools just to slow them down, so you get to lay the final card.
It plays up to 10 players from one little box, and the amount of saboteurs scales up too, so it's actually most interesting at higher player counts, where some some saboteurs might be openly ruining everyone's day, while others are still pretending to be friends, biding time to turn on the legit players.
It plays quickly, there's a great level of intrigue, and takes about two minutes to learn. It's a worthy addition to any board game collection.
Oh, you're the toughest adventurer, we all know that. You can definitely defeat a dungeon full of monsters, no worries. But can you do it without your shield? Yes? Okay, without your sword? Well, maaaaybe?
This game is a bravado balancing act. Each round, one of the players will have to take an adventurer on a run through a deck of cards filled with monsters, seeing if they can get all the way through without losing their health. Succeed, and you get a point – just two points to win! Fail and you lose a life – just two losses and you're out! But all this occurs at the end of a round, and what happened before determines whether it will work out or not.
The first part of the round is players taking turns to pick up a monster from a deck of them, looking at it secretly, then deciding whether to put that monster into the dungeon, or keep it out of the dungeon – but if you do the latter, you also have to remove one piece of equipment from the adventurer. Some gear gives them more life, some kills certain monsters with no damage taken, some has other powers. If you think things are looking too hairy, you can pass at any time, removing yourself from the round – you won't gain anything this round, but you won't lose anything either. The last person who hasn't passed will be the one taking the adventurer through the dungeon, flipping over monster cards, with each one either damaging the adventurer or being killed.
It's surprisingly tactical and thrilling, which isn't an easy combination. You can bluff, sort of, by keeping a very high-damage monster out of the dungeon, and removing the one piece of equipment that could kill that monster – to everyone else, it will look like you're making the adventurer very vulnerable, but you know that actually it balances out.
And then you all get to watch someone make the run, yelling when a really weak hero somehow makes it through with one point of health left, or cheering when a tricked-out hero is laid low by a dragon, and feeling smug that you withdrew from the round at just the right moment.