Short and Sweet: 8 Pint-Sized Games That Still Pack a Punch

Tabletop Games

Eight-Minute EmpireEight-Minute Empire

Eight-Minute Empire print-and-play version shown.
Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired

Good things come in small packages. (OK, to be fair, good things come in big packages, too.) Just because a game can be played in 30 minutes (or eight) doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and engaging, even a bit of a brain-burner. I like to think of small boxes as “fun-sized.” To wit, here are a few board games (some currently on Kickstarter) that are short enough to play during your lunch hour that still have some kick to them. Since they’re short games, I’ll just give you a short overview of each.


Eight-Minute Empire

Game summary:

Two to four players, about 15 to 20 minutes (see below), $20 for the base game (or $30 for the game with an expansion board), Kickstarter funding ends Nov. 10.

Ryan Laukat’s first game, Empires of the Void, was a sprawling sci-fi empire-building game that takes hours to play. This one plays in eight minutes. (In theory, at least. In practice it’ll be more like 20 minutes until everyone’s accustomed to it.) It has a blend of area control and set collection, and the rules fit on one double-sided page.

Everyone gets three cities, eight coins, and 14 armies — each player starts with three armies in the Start location on the map, and you bid for the privilege of going first. The goal of the game is to get points by controlling regions, controlling continents, and collecting sets of resources (on the cards). Controlling a region is as simple as having the most armies there, and controlling a territory means you have the most regions. The various types of resources are worth different points: For example, the gems are worth one point each, but you’ll need three carrots to get one point.

Six cards are laid out on at the edge of the board. Each player picks a card, pays for it, and uses the action shown on the card. The cards have increasing costs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, and 3. Each time a card is purchased, then all the cards slide down and a new one is added. The actions on the cards let you move armies, place cities, place new armies (on your cities or the Start), destroy armies, and move across water. It’s pretty straightforward, with simple icons representing each action. The game ends after a set number of rounds (depending on number of players).


I think Eight-Minute Empire is a slightly optimistic title, but it certainly sounds snazzier than “23-Minute Empire.” Still, it’s a cool game that manages to pack a lot of interesting choices in a short game. Foremost is the fact that you only get eight coins for the whole game: Once they’re spent, you’ll be stuck taking the one free card each turn. When is it worth paying a few coins for a later card? Sometimes it’s for the action, sometimes for the resource, and sometimes just to keep an opponent from getting that card.

Since you can get points both by set collection and through controlling regions, there are a lot of things to pay attention to (which can lead to some Analysis Paralysis), but it’s also what keeps the game from being too simple. A double-sided board (and optional expansion board) will add variety.

Bonus: If you back at any level, you’ll have access to the print-and-play version so you can try it out before you commit. I gave it a shot, and I’ll probably pick up a copy. (Fingers crossed that this tiny game won’t come in a huge box.)

Dungeon Heroes (demo version shown). Photo: Jonathan H. LiuDungeon Heroes (demo version shown). Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Dungeon Heroes (demo version shown). Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired

Dungeon Heroes

Game summary:

Two players, 30 minutes, $25 base game (or $40 for the game with two expansions), Kickstarter funding ends Dec. 2.

One player controls the four Heroes, and the other player is the Dungeon Master (technically “Dungeon Lord,” but we all know what that means, right?). The Heroes (represented by dice that indicate their hit points) start on one edge of the board, and one treasure tile is placed on the other side of the board in the treasure room. The DM starts off in “passive” mode, and randomly chooses four tiles each turn and places them anywhere on the 6-by-6 grid. Then the heroes get four actions, with no single hero taking more than two actions. Moving costs an action, but each hero also has a special ability: The Rogue disarms traps; the Warrior kills monsters; the Cleric can heal herself or adjacent heroes; the Wizard can reveal tiles anywhere on the board.

Tiles are revealed as the heroes step on them and immediately take effect: Traps and monsters deal damage, poisonous clouds instantly kill, and portals send heroes back to their starting spaces. There are also a few more treasure tiles and some tools for the heroes. When all of the tiles have been placed, then the DM switches to “aggressive” mode: Monsters can now move around and attack the heroes.

The heroes need to collect three treasures to win; the DM needs to eliminate all four heroes. If, during the aggressive phase, all the tiles are revealed and all the monsters have been killed, then you just check if there’s a safe path for the heroes to get to the three treasures or not to see who wins.

Dungeon HeroesDungeon Heroes


I mentioned Dungeon Heroes briefly in my Board Game Kickstarter Report last week; it’s by the same guys behind the Lost Dutchman and the earlier Rise! abstract strategy game. It’s a fun idea: a dungeon-exploring game that’s short enough you can each take turns playing the DM and Heroes in one sitting, but of course certainly not as involved as an actual role-playing game. I’ve played a demo set and I’ve enjoyed it but in my plays it seems weighted toward the Heroes — there are a couple of strategies the Heroes can use that really force the DM to work a lot harder (and depend on some good luck), and I’m not sure if it’s ultimately as satisfying for the hardcore gamers. For a quick, casual game over lunch, though, Dungeon Heroes is a good fit for players who love the theme. Plus, what other games explicitly instruct you to be passive-aggressive?

Ruse PortraitsRuse Portraits

Some of the shifty characters in Ruse, a steampunk whodunnit.

Ruse coverRuse cover


Game summary:

Two to four players, 30 to 60 minutes (OK, this one’s a bit longer), $25 base game, Kickstarter funding ends Nov. 16.

Somebody has been murdered in St. Sebastian, and you’re all suspects. But unlike Clue, in which you’re trying to figure out the real murderer by investigating clues, all you need to do is pin the murder on somebody else. Each turn you can play a card on another player (suggesting that they had the Method, Motive, and Opportunity) or play an Alibi to protect yourself from accusations. The deck is based on a traditional 52-card deck: The Guns and Gears suits are accusations and the Crystals and Lamps suits are alibis. Once a player has an accusation in front of them, you can only play additional accusations of the same suit. Meanwhile, alibis have to match the value of the accusation (e.g., the 4 Lamps Alibi can cancel the 4 Guns “Motive” card).

Like Gloom, you’re intended to provide the story as you play the cards: Why does the Banker have a steam-powered clockwork golem? When was the suspect alone with the victim?

Ruse cardsRuse cards

Accusations and Alibis


Ruse is a cute idea, and the Steampunk-inspired artwork by Kelly McClellan is wonderful. I got to see an early version at PAX Prime this year, and have also received a pre-production demo copy to try out. I love the way the alibis line up with the accusations (in most cases, anyway): “I couldn’t possibly have used the Gatling Needle Gun because, as you see, I have this deathly Fear of Needles.”

The charm of the game is getting into character and making up stories (see the TableTop episode featuring Gloom for a great example). On the other hand, if your gaming group skips the storytelling aspect, the pure mechanics of the game aren’t very deep: It’s akin to something like Go Fish, where you’re trying to get particular matches either of suits or values. I’d recommend this one for fans of steampunk and for players who like to get into character.

GeistesBlitz 2.0GeistesBlitz 2.0

GeistesBlitz 2.0 — same rules as the original, but with different objects. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired

Geistes Blitz (Ghost Blitz)

Game Summary:

Two to eight players, 20 minutes, about $20 (no English printing yet)

I mentioned this one in my list of Halloween games (it does feature a ghost, after all), but it’s one that I’ll be playing year round. Here’s how it works: There are five objects, each with a different color — the original has a white ghost, red chair, blue book, grey mouse, and green bottle. Geistes Blitz 2.0 features a white ghostess, red towel, blue hairbrush, gray bathtub, and green frog.

You shuffle the deck of cards and flip over one at a time. Each card has two of the items on it, in two different colors. Your goal is to be the first to grab the correct item — but which one is it? If either of the items pictured on the card is the correct color, then you grab that item (e.g., if the frog on the card is green, grab the green frog). However, if neither item is the correct color, then you grab the item that isn’t represented on the card either by image or color. For example: The card pictured to the far right has a green ghost sitting in a red tub. So it’s not the ghost, not the tub, not the green (frog), not the red (towel). Therefore, you have to grab the blue hairbrush.

When you grab the correct item, you get to keep the card. Whoever has the most cards when the deck runs out wins the game.


It’s a bit like Set or Spot It: It’s a game of speedy visual observation. But the little wooden objects are a lot of fun, and somehow the less-abstract nature makes it easier to teach than Set. (I will point out that the red towel in 2.0 is fabric and can be a bit harder to swipe.) You can combine the two sets for extra fun and chaos, and there’s even another rule to complicate things where you have to shout out the object rather than grabbing it in certain situations — and the variant includes shouting out the names in other languages.

I found the games on my trip to Taiwan; you can find them online but they don’t appear to be widely available yet. I’m hoping a U.S. distributor picks them up soon, because they’re fantastic.


Dave Banks and Erik Wecks engage in a tense (but pretty) game of Flowerfall.


Game Summary:

Two to seven players, 10 minutes, $15

Each player gets a set of cards that has their own colored flowers on them and some patterns of green garden and white stone walls. There are a few cards set out in the center with green flowers on them. You take turns literally dropping cards onto the table, hoping to form connected “gardens” in which your flowers outnumber everyone else’s — and then you’ll get points for all the green flowers in those gardens.


You should expect a closer look at Flowerfall from Dave Banks soon — we both picked it up at PAX Prime this year — but it’s a chaotic, hilarious game which requires a weird mix of strategy, luck, and physics. Guaranteed to make you laugh.

Light SpeedLight Speed

Light Speed (with my laser level). Looks like Blue shot himself — ouch! Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired

Light Speed

Game Summary:

2 to 4 (or 5 players, see below), 10 minutes, $10 (or free print-and-play)

Light Speed was one of James Ernest’s Cheapass Games, specifically from the Hip Pocket series. Your ships are all dropping out of light speed to mine an asteroid for valuable minerals — but you’re also blasting away at your opponents’ ships, too. It’s a real-time simultaneous game as everyone races to get their cards down, and the game ends as soon as one player runs out of their 10 cards. Then the shooting takes place: The lower-numbered (and least powerful) ships shoot first, and then you go up until all the ships have fired (or been destroyed). You get points for hitting the asteroid and taking out enemy ships. But be careful with your speedy aim: You lose points if you destroy your own ship!


I bought this years ago and it’s still one of my favorites: messy and chaotic, and you’ll never want to stop after just one play. I found a cheap laser level that I keep with my set — it’s a fun way to see whether you shot somebody down or just missed them. You can grab the free print-and-play from Cheapass Games, or order a set of printed cards from ArtsCow. They even have round cards now — I’m tempted to update my set! (The new versions have enough ships for five players instead of the original four.) A great balancing act of precision and speed.

Agricola: All Creatures Great and SmallAgricola: All Creatures Great and Small

It’s like Agricola, but for two players! Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired

Agricola: All Creatures Big and SmallAgricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Game Summary:

Two players, 30 minutes, $40

Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola is a game about 17th-century farming that’s very involved and can take up to three hours to play. This new stand-alone game, All Creatures Big and Small, takes a bunch of the similar mechanics and reduces it to a two-player game that plays in half an hour. Each person get a miniature farm board with six spaces (one space has a cottage pre-printed on it), a couple of fences, and three workers. You take turns placing workers on the action board (shown above): they’ll collect resources and animals, or build fences or buildings. After each round, you’ll add additional resources to the board — things that weren’t taken will accumulate. Also, if you have at least two of a type of animal, they’ll breed and produce a new one, as long as you have room for it.

And there’s the rub: It takes actions to collect resources to build fences and make room for your animals, and if you don’t have room then you can’t get more animals. But you also only have so many turns to collect animals, and the sooner you get them the more times they can breed. The game ends in eight rounds. You get points for all the animals you have, plus bonus points (or penalties) based on how many you have of each one.

Agricola: All CreaturesAgricola: All Creatures

My winning farm: two farm expansions and LOTS of animals. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired


At $40 retail, this is the priciest game in the bunch, but it’s packed with gaming goodness. The original Agricola is still one of my favorite Euro-games but it doesn’t make it to the table very often because it’s such a long game. A friend of mine introduced me to All Creatures, and I’m sold. This mini-game focuses on the animals and leaves out plowing fields and planting, you’re forced to make tough, meaningful decisions throughout the entire game.

Oh, and did I mention there are wooden animeeples?

Halli GalliHalli Galli

This is really all there is to Halli Galli. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu/Wired

Halli Galli

Game summary:

Two to six players, 10 minutes, $15 to $20

Halli Galli is very simple: there’s a deck of cards that shows different types and numbers of fruit. The deck is evenly divided among all the players; the goal is to be the last one to run out of cards. You take turns flipping over cards from your stack, and if you ever spot exactly five of the same fruit, you ring the bell, and collect all the cards and put them into your stack. If you ring at the wrong time, you pay each other player a card. Run out of cards, and you’re out of the game.


Halli Galli is 20 years old but it’s just as entertaining as ever. It’s simple, but you’ll still find yourself doing double-takes while you try to spot five of the same fruit. What’s interesting is that sometimes you’ll end up with five fruits when a card gets covered up — you have to be ready to ring that bell. And, of course, any game with a metal bell to ding is one that kids will love playing.

Of course, this is just a handful of examples. While I do like a good, meaty game, don’t overlook the small stuff! These are games that you can throw into a backpack and break out anywhere — sometimes you can have an entire game night of these so-called “filler” games. What are some of your favorite quick-playing games?

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