So, what do you see in your mind’s eye when someone mentions new board games? Most non-hobby fans probably visualize a big, sprawling game with a ton of tiny pieces, multiple decks of cards, and a rulebook chock-full with complex and confusing rules. And of course, the promise from the game’s owner that it’s actually really easy when you get into it.
Well, now that you have that mental image, let’s shatter it. There’s a class of games that are the complete opposite - few rules relying on just a handful of cards. Better still, they really are easy when you get into them.
We’re talking about micro games here. A micro game is a hobby-style game mostly composed of 18 cards. That’s right, just 18 cards - not even a full poker deck! Some decks may have an additional card or two, or ask players to write down scores or provide their own dice. At any rate, the 18 cards are the core of a micro game, and it’s amazing how much gameplay these small form games fit.
The biggest and best source of micro games is a company called Button Shy. They’re an independent publisher that works with the board game community to bring fans’ ideas to life. Every month, Button Shy publishes a unique, clever and - most importantly - fun micro game. They package these 18-card wonders in little leatherette wallets, making these games the ultimate in portability.
Button Shy has been publishing these games for years, so their portfolio of games is pretty large. Here we’ve picked out four great examples of the kinds of games they publish. These four are diverse and well-received, so they make great recommendations as well.
It’s hard to talk about Button Shy without mentioning their flagship game. Sprawlopolis is by far Button Shy’s most popular and highest-rated game. It’s delicate design represents a center of gravity for the rest of Button Shy’s catalog to revolve around. It’s easy to pick-up and play, but still provides a satisfying game with intriguing game decisions. It plays 1 to 4 players, and casts players as urban planners, who work together to manage the growth of a city.
Sprawlopolis is representative of a common mechanic in a lot of micro games: tile-laying. Instead of having values or rules or ranks and suits, the cards in Sprawlopolis are physically divided into six colored zones. Laying cards on the table next to other cards, putting zones next to other zones, is how players score points.
The game is also cooperative, meaning players are working together towards the same goal. This means that Sprawlopolis can also be played as a solitaire game, which is another common feature of many of Button Shy’s games, and micro games in general.
Find out more about Sprawlopolis at BoardGameGeek.
Speaking of solitaire games, many micro games are strictly solitaire-only. Players play the game by themselves, like Klondike or Freecell, but with more thematics and interesting gameplay. Probably the biggest solitaire micro game, in terms of rules and gameplay, is SpaceShipped.
Modeled after a cult favorite genre of video game, the player in SpaceShipped captures the gameplay of games like Elite, Freelancer, and Everspace. Players have a basic ship, inexperienced crew, and a few dollars, and set out to get rich. Players can trade different goods with different planets, purchasing upgrades to their ship and crew to haul more cargo to make more money.
This sounds like a big game for 18 cards, and it is. Other board games that mimic space trading games, like the Firefly Board Game and Xia: Legends of a Drift System are big sprawling games with lots of pieces and lots of rules (like, the type we mentioned at the beginning of the article). It’s amazing that SpaceShipped distilled and abstracted this kind of game into such a small scale.
Find out more about SpaceShipped at BoardGameGeek.
In Vino Morte
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is a party game. In Vino Morte has extremely simple rules, and can play up to 9 people, making it a wonderful game to entertain at parties. Because what’s a party without the appropriate beverages?
Basically, the dealer has 9 Wine cards and 9 Poisoned cards. The dealer gives one card to each player, and gets to decide who gets what card at the beginning of the game. Then, in turn, each player chooses if they drink their wine and reveal their card, or swap their wine with another player. This decision is the crux of the game: is my wine poisoned, or not? What card would the dealer give me? If you flip your card, you lock in your fate. When the dealer takes their turn, all the face-down cards are flipped and we see who survives.
That's all there is to it! From this one, singular round of bluffing, an incredible experience emerges. Similar to any social deduction game like Werewolf, Resistance, or Secret Hitler, In Vino Morte isn’t about calculating the optimal move to earn the best victory points, it isn’t a strategy game. The game of In Vino Morte comes from the players at the table; the cards are just a catalyst.
Find out more about In Vino Morte at BoardGameGeek.
Lastly, let’s end this smorgasbord with a simple and decadent dessert of a game. Turbo Drift isn’t a game about mathematical, logical strategy. It’s a wild and woolly caper with just enough unpredictability to make everyone at the table laugh.
Each player has racecar represented by a single card, lined up cars along one end of the table. Everyone is racing to the other end of the table first by using movement cards, which is depicted a pair of tire treads. On their turn, a player picks one of the six movement cards, lines up the tire treads in front of their car, and slide their car to the other end. But the movement cards aren’t all boring and straight - they curve wildly around, sometimes in breakneck hairpins. Keeping control of your car is like staying on top of a bucking bronco.
Players can also hit the nitro to scoop up three movement cards, shuffle them, and hope they take your car to victory. Or, add some obstacles to the table, like phones or ketchup bottles or salt shakers or whatever, and queue up the Initial D soundtrack and watch the tires fly.
Find out more about Turbo Drift at BoardGameGeek.
Concoctions of Fun and Creativity
Every one of these minimalist games illustrate one of our favorite things about Button Shy’s micro games - the level of novelty and diversity that micro games achieve. Micro games are a playground for creativity, due to their interesting restrictions and ease of production. On top of that, micro games are fun! They’re easy to carry along to show off, with beautiful art and graphics, and draw players into their little worlds. Button Shy’s micro games exhibit the best that games have to offer.