There’s no denying it: 2020 sucks. It’s been a fast-plummeting handbasket to the lower regions of the netherworld and we’re all along for the ride, but we need not always despair. In fact it’s vital that we take a breather every now and again.
One of the ways I break out of this moment of time and disrupt whatever bad mood I am in is through games. Board games give me a safe place to enjoy time with friends and family (appropriately socially distanced of course). And not only that, but the sheer variety of games means that you can find a game for exactly the sort of de-stress experience you’re interested in!
So here’s a little taste of the kinds of games I like to play when the weight of the world feels like it’s threatening to be too much – these games cheer me up and give me the mental fortitude to face another day of this endless year.
The Chill Zone
My typical first steps to de-stressing with fun are to pour myself a cup of tea and find a nice “Chill Zone” game. These are games that are simple to learn and easy to play, featuring serene themes and little direct competition. I like to pull out games like Parks, Tokaido, or Azul when I need a calm evening of fun, but one of my absolute favorites is Herbaceous.
It’s a push your luck, set collection game where everyone is trying to plant the nicest (highest scoring) sets of herbs in their pots. Each turn you draw 2 herb cards one at a time. Upon drawing the first you must decide if you will keep it or add it to the community garden. The second card will go wherever the first one didn’t. Then the only other thing you have to decide is whether or not to pot any of your herbs. You can use ones in the community garden so allowing the sets to build is good, but it can also be tempting for your opponents. The game is absolutely gorgeous, having been illustrated by the talented Beth Sobel, and is probably the most relaxed push your luck game I’ve ever played.
The Brain Occupier
Need to just get your mind off of the news? How about setting it against a more complex game? Let your brain cells focus on the nuances of play and distract yourself with strategy! My usual faves include Yokohama, Russian Railroads, or Istanbul, but recently I was introduced to Alma Mater.
In it, you play a headmaster of a university looking to increase your school’s reputation. You need to hire staff, recruit students, sell textbooks, and raise your influence in 4 different discipline tracks. The game is filled with moments of figuring out clever combos, influencing the game’s economy, and messing with other players’ plans indirectly. There’s a lot going on, but it flows together smoothly and makes for a delightful challenge to pit your mind against.
The Quicker Cheerer-Upper
When I get into a funk over the state of the world, sometimes I just need a way to break the mood – a quick, silly moment that will get me laughing and reset my brain. Party games such as Nut So Fast, Punderdome, or You’ve Got Crabs are often geared towards creating laugh-out-loud moments, but one of my favorites is Sparkle*Kitty. The story of the game is that the evil Sparkle Kitty has locked up some badass princesses in her towers. The princesses must use magic words to unlock the doors and escape.
The goal of the game is to get rid of the cards in your hand and then the ones in your tower. You’ll play cards into your spellbook, creating ridiculous combinations, and then have to repeat them outloud (this is greatly enhanced with funny voices and over-the-top, magical gesticulations). What I love about Sparkle*Kitty is that it is accessible and fun for all ages. The original game is built on kid-friendly language, but if you are looking for something a bit more adult, you can get the Sparkle*Kitty Nights box which has new rules, team-play, and naughty words. Unlike a lot of Adult-style games, Sparkle*Kitty Nights isn’t obscene or offensive. The words you play with are innocent on their own and only become a bit saucy when combined together. It’s all up to you how risque they will get, and I always end up laughing my butt off whenever Sparkle*Kitty hits the table.
I Need to Get the Heck Out of Here
Some of the best fantasy and science fiction stories are born out of troubled times because occasionally, you just need to get away from everything, delving into other worlds and immersing yourself in stories that have nothing to do with the issues you face day to day.
I absolutely love storytelling games and can list several favorites that fit the bill: Near and Far, Mice and Mystics, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and so on. For pure escapism though, and when my brain just isn’t equipped for creativity, you want to play a game that’s literally about getting out of here. Thus I present Lift Off! Get me off this Planet!
In Lift Off! the planet the players inhabit is about to explode (sound familiar?). Everyone must race to get their meeples onto launchpads and safely jettison them into space to the awaiting escape pods. There are four different areas to launch from, each with differing requirements to activate and some needing the players to work together in order to operate. It’s light on story, but a great deal of fun, and the recent deluxe reprinting comes with multiple expansions and modes so you can enjoy it anyway you like, anywhere from low-interaction family fun to nail biting take-that frustration. Lift Off! gives me that quick fix feeling of being able to rocket away from all the murder hornets. Because, I mean, murder hornets? Really, 2020?
Kicking the Virus in the Teeth
One of the biggest issues that devastated this year has been the virus and nothing has been more cathartic than whomping its butt in Pandemic. The cooperative strategy game tasks players with ridding the world of multiple deadly diseases by developing cures and eradicating the viruses. Pandemic can be challenging and maybe facing off against disease might not sound like fun right now, but, here and now, I give you permission to cheat just a little. Have the cards you need to cure it, but not enough moves to get to the research station? WHO CARES?!? Don’t let the virus win! Take that extra action and stomp the virus right in its ugly nucleoprotien! Watch its influence over the world disintegrate and celebrate your total annihilation of its presence! If you’d like a distilled (and in my opinion slightly easier) version of Pandemic, I recommend Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America which is the newest addition to the Pandemic line and weirdly appropriate for this hellscape of a year.
Yep, 2020 has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, but though playing games I’ve been able to keep myself laughing and having fun through the worst of it. These are just a few of the games that I’ve been partaking in to help me ease my mind. What are some of your go-to, feel-good games?
–-Jessica Fisher is a freelance writer from NYC with a passion for worker placement games. In her spare time she practices karate, photographs fun things in NYC, bakes cookies, and generally geeks out about stuff. You can read some of her other work on Gameosity and Geek & Sundry