In some ways, committing opinions to writing always makes a liar of me, or at least makes me disagree with myself, whether it’s a review that I’ve already written or a top ten list that keeps getting revised as I discover new games or as old games fall out of favor.
In 2013, I wrote my top ten filler games list, one of our most-read articles on iSlaytheDragon. It’s also a little embarrassing, since I no longer agree with all of my choices there. So in the interest of staying current, I present my top ten filler games–for now, as of August 2015.
But first, my criteria for an ideal filler game (largely unchanged from 2013):
- Short playtime. A filler game should last a maximum of thirty minutes, and it doesn’t hurt it to be shorter (10-15 minutes), provided that it doesn’t get stale after one play.
- Small ruleset. If a game takes only 10-30 minutes to play, it should not take ten or even five minutes to explain. An ideal filler should be able to be explained in three minutes or less.
- Player driven. This is a mark of good design, period, but a good filler game should not leave players without choices or reasonable things to do. Players are the agents of the game and should be able to weigh options and make informed decisions. (Note: I don’t hold filler games to the same standards of depth as, say, meaty game night games or even lunch games, but they should fill their playtime with interesting player choices. Or at least give them a compelling function to fulfill.)
- Small footprint. An ideal filler game should fill gaps in time as well as space. The ideal for a filler game, in my mind, is for it to fit within a pocket, but regardless, these games should not occupy much space within a game bag or on a table.
- Conversation starter. Filler games should not be so intense as to preclude conversation (although this is my least stringent criterion, and I’ve made an exception in this year’s list, as you will see). Fillers ideally are clever and interesting diversions. They provide a fun play experience, usually with a distilled mechanism, but they should not do this at the expense of talking with the other players (even if it’s about the game).
So which ten games do I think best embody these virtues? Here’s my list.
10. 6 Nimmt!
6 Nimmt! has had many iterations over the years, but the basic game is the same: players choose a card secretly and simultaneously, play those cards in order, and hope they don’t get saddled with lots of points by playing the sixth card in a row. What makes this game interesting is that players are not just playing cards to see what happens. Like most simultaneous action games, you can play that way (and in 6 Nimmt! there are fewer restrictions so the barrier for entry is low), but players are rewarded for guessing what the other players will do. The main objective is to avoid getting points, and the six-card limit for each row seems high (at least at the start of the round), but rows quickly grow in size (especially with new players), and it’s thrilling to see a round play out. There are usually cheers and groans as players avoid and take rows of cards, respectively. I prefer to play this with a known card set (10 cards per player plus four), but you can also play with the full 104-card deck and remove part of the deck randomly for added chaos. The rules also call for a 75-point game (hence the 45m playtime listed on the box), but playing individual rounds makes for a fun filler. This one was recommended in the comments on my last list, and I’m so glad I gave this a try.
9. Ghost Blitz
In Ghost Blitz, there are five objects in the center of the table, each with a different color. When a new card is flipped, players try to be the first to grab the object indicated by the card. The catch is that cards always show two objects in two colors. Players must grab the object that either matches the card in both object and color (for example, a white ghost) or the object that matches neither object nor color. That simple dichotomy of changing criteria makes this a hilarious game to play. Grabbing objects quickly is obviously rewarded, but only if you’re right–you can only grab one object per card, and if you grab incorrectly, you have to give one of your captured cards to the player who grabs the correct object. The objects in the game are great wooden pieces and large enough to grab, so this looks great on the table. And even as you get better at the game, you can still mess up. (There’s also a great app–which is how I found out about this game in the first place.)
Pickomino is a dice game by Reiner Knizia, which is exactly what it sounds like. Players are trying to claim tiles from the center of the table by rolling dice and pressing their luck. The twist is that once a player sets aside one value of dice, no more dice of that value may be set aside, and in order to claim a tile, a player must have set aside at least one worm. (Kniziatastic!) This game is loads of fun as players press their luck to try to claim tiles. It’s also fun because tiles can be stolen, so sometimes players will press their luck in a different direction just to steal the tiles of the leader. This game allows for up to seven players, and it is fun even on other players’ turns to evaluate their dice and to cheer for their misfortune.
7. Rhino Hero
What would a filler list be without a dexterity game? There are lots of great choices for this spot (and I still recommend last list’s Click Clack Lumberjack and FlowerFall), but I think card-stacking Rhino Hero fits my criteria the best. There are few rules in this game (think dexterity game with Uno-style gameplay), and the laughs-to-playtime ratio is very high. It can be played with children or adults, and there is an advanced version of the game for a less stable tower. This game looks great on the table, and it’s hilarious to see your friends try to grasp the Rhino Hero in their meaty paws and move him upward in the highrise. Rhino Hero is perfect for the typical “filler” game situation–especially with its small box and quick playtime–or, you know, at any time.
6. Sushi Go!
Drafting is one of my favorite mechanisms, and 7 Wonders is one of my favorite games. However, as quickly as 7 Wonders moves, the rules overhead and size of the game bar it from this list. But you know what game provides a similar experience in a shorter time and with fewer rules? Sushi Go! Sushi Go! is a drafting game with a perfect theme: sushi plates on a conveyor. Players choose one card per hand and pass the cards to the next player, and at the end of a round, each kind of sushi scores points in different ways. Scorecards are included in the box, and this one really can fit in a pocket. The cute artwork makes this appealing, and the simple gameplay and sometimes tense decision certainly make this a great choice for many situations.
Parade is a thinky filler that is essentially based around a single mechanism (but a clever one). Each turn, players must add a card to the end of the parade. The number on the card shows how many cards are safe, and of any cards that are not safe, players must claim all cards that match the color and/or are the same or lower rank than the number on the played card. Players want to have the fewest points at the end of the game, but players score only one point for cards if they have the majority of cards of a color. I know, I know: it sounds tricky, but once you start playing, it’s simple. Not easy, mind you: you have to decide how to play your cards to optimum effect. And it is tense. It feels like each played card is priming a bomb for explosion. This is an excellent game, one I’m always happy to play, and it works well with two (offering more control) all the way up to six.
4. One Night Ultimate Werewolf
I enjoy social deduction games, but many of them focus on lying or simply derailing conversation. There’s some of that to be sure in One Night Ultimate Werewolf, but where this game really shines is in the actual deduction element of the game. The game is essentially a shared puzzle, and each player has some information about the puzzle. You may have woken up in the night and looked at another player’s card, or switched another player’s card, or simply have heard some rustlings close by when one of the players was taking his or her action. But since each role is tied to a winning team, it behooves players to be stingy with their information until they know with certainty that their role hasn’t been switched. There’s bluffing galore as players piece together what happened in the night. The proliferation of roles can make this seem more complex than it is, but the available app makes the game much easier to parse. This one is always a hit when it comes out, and it’s great for just a round or you can play many rounds–it takes a while for it to outstay its welcome.
Hanabi didn’t make my last top ten list because I didn’t think of it as a filler. Perspective, however, has revealed that while the gameplay feels less filler-like than some of the other games on this list, I break it out in situations where a filler game is appropriate. Hanabi isn’t a loud or uproarious experience, but it is deeply engaging. This is an excellent choice in a quieter environment with an audience that wants to Play a Game. The rules are super simple, but the challenge is great as you try to, first, play by the rules (without cheating!) and, second, telepathically tell your teammates as much as you can with very limited clues. This is a fascinating game, and it’s excellent at all its player counts.
Coloretto is a flat-out brilliant design. It’s incredibly simple–players either draw a card, adding it to a row, or claim a row of cards. It’s a variation on the I-divide-you-decide mechanism, and it works incredibly well. Because players are penalized for collecting more than three suits of cards, there are plenty of opportunities for sabotage as players try to both sweeten the pot for themselves and ruin rows of cards that look tasty to other players. The gameplay to time ratio is quite high here, and there are times when I think this almost takes over the top spot for best filler game. Coloretto is truly excellent.
1. For Sale
It’s hard to topple the champion, and as close as Coloretto comes to being the best filler game, For Sale still occupies the top spot. For Sale is an auction game in two steps: first, players bid on properties; then, players bid properties for money. The player with the most money wins. Where For Sale shines is that coming in first is not always beneficial. The top bidder pays their full bid; each other player, when they pass, loses half their bid and takes the lowest-ranked card on the table. And having the highest-ranked properties doesn’t necessarily grant the largest checks in the second auction. There are plenty of opportunities to spin straw into gold, and it’s always fun to play. The art is perfect. This game is a gem.
Notable omissions from this list: Escape: The Curse of the Temple (violates size restrictions), Spyfall (while it could be argued to be similar to ONUW in its round structure, this game is less satisfying if playing only a round or two), and Love Letter (I really, really don’t like it). Lots of other great games didn’t make it because, well, this is a top ten. But for some other good (and different) choices, check out my 2013 list.
What about you? What are your favorites? What games did I miss? Feel free to disagree in the comments.