I am probably going to Gaming Hell for making fun of the current global health crisis, but seeing as I have just come out of a 3-month self-quarantine from the Australian bushfires, I think I’m well-prepared for whatever COVID-Eileen wants to throw at me. And that includes my own list of the 5 best tabletop games to play during a pandemic.
And, yes, it includes Pandemic.
Pandemic (Z-Man Games)
If you search “best tabletop games to play during a pandemic,” you probably ended up with the actual game Pandemic at the top of the list. And to be fair, it is a brilliant game to play during the healthy days of your life. It’s also a fairly accurate game to play during the real thing.
There are a few reasons this game is my first choice to play when quarantined at home. For starters, it’s a cooperative game. If you are going to be locked up in your home for 14-days with your family, you really should start off with a cooperative game. At least try to foster a community within your home; allow the more competitive nature around day 10 or 11, when you need the adrenalin spike to shake off the lethargy of boredom.
Quick summation: Working as a team, you need to spread out across the world to treat and cure diseases. Each player has a separate role, with their own special skill set to aid the team. As you meet up in various locations, you can share knowledge to discover cures and set up treatment centers. If you can cure all four diseases, you win! Players take turns drawing cards with actions to help in your plight. However, the game itself is your shared enemy. For each player’s turn, the game also draws a card and spreads its infections everywhere. Each of these turns adds up and it is scary how quickly you can have a pandemic on your board.
Forbidden Sky (GameWright)
Similarities between Forbidden Sky and Pandemic will be apparent, thanks to the common factor of Matt Leacock and his creative, albeit twisted, mind. You may also be familiar with Forbidden Sky’s siblings, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island. GeekDad Logan has a full game review for Forbidden Sky; my short summation is: “Perfect cooperative play when the family is hell-bent on getting off this cursed planet.”
The soul of this game still revolves around discovery and escape. Once again, you are encouraged to work together to beat the game at its own… game. It’s not like the game is out to get you. It’s just very good at giving you all the wrong stuff at the wrong time. Which is kind of how the current social/political/medical climate feels right now.
Orchard (Haba Games)
If you are stuck in “self-isolation” with really young children, then you have my utmost sympathy. That is hell. And there is no one who can convince me otherwise. I have been there, my friend. It is not pretty.
But there is hope! Yes, there ARE games out there for the young ‘uns. Cooperative FUN games that will help during any pandemic or quarantine period. Orchard is possibly the best of the lot. And bonus points for encouraging your kids to fight off scavengers … I mean “ravens” from your food supply. (Substitute the apples for toilet paper and you might be on to something…)
Quick summation: The idea is to collect the fruit from the trees before the raven steals it all. Each player takes a turn rolling the six-sided die: four colors representing each of the fruit, a basket to allow free choice of two pieces of fruit, and a raven. The active player collects according to the roll of the die. However, if it lands on the raven, then the raven has a puzzle piece. If all nine puzzle pieces are collected before you pick all the fruit, then the raven wins and the fruit pickers go hungry.
The game is cooperative in nature with room for a bit of strategy if playing with slightly older children. While aimed at younger kids, we have had the older kids willing to play with younger siblings for a bit of fun in passing the time.
Skyward (Rule & Make)
Okay, now we move into the “not quite cooperative but not quite cutthroat” side of the games. Skyward is the kind of game to still require a “winner” at the end, but at least it’s not creating outright war for the battle. Plus, it feeds into my lofty ideals of escaping from quarantine, so it still fits into my ideal list of the best tabletop games to play during a pandemic.
Quick summation: The goal is to build a model capital city to unite a divided nation, located high up in the clouds. The game itself is created from a deck of cards, with the mechanics based on a “divide and conquer” drafting system: ie one person draws the cards, divides them into groups, and the other players take turns selecting which group of cards they want for this turn. Each player then uses those cards to build their airspace and their controlling power. Most of the cards are buildings or factions and services. Buildings give more power to your factions, giving you more control over the city. Once a player has six or more buildings, the game ends. The winner, however, is the player has the greatest number of points from bonuses and added values in the airspace. Sometimes this is from your extra services; sometimes it is piggy-backing off another player’s hard work. Personally, my favorite is the Rocket Cat. Not only does it look cool but it can provide some stealth attack.
The reason this is such a great game for locked up families is because it encourages a cooperative style of thinking without being a cooperative game. For each round, one player is deciding how to divide the cards in to groups. The twist: this same player will end up with whichever group of cards is left after the other players take turns choosing a group of cards for themselves. Yes, loyal minions, the dealer has to ensure there is a little something good in every group of cards so that they don’t miss out completely. Nice touch, team.
Settlers of Catan (Kosmos)
And now for the game for when you have really had enough of this whole pandemic and just need to let off some steam by annihilating your loved ones. Either that or gain some practice in hoarding and trading essential resources before re-emerging into our post-COVID world.
Settlers of Catan is pretty well-known in the tabletop community. It is one of THE GAMES mentioned whenever anyone says, “Oh, I play board games but I hate Monopoly. What else is there?”
Oh, sweet summer child. Take a seat and prepare to go to war.
GeekMom Sarah has a great summation of the game, dating back to 2013. The game has not changed since then. However, if you want to “liven it up,” you can always swap in some resources (based on recent panic buys at my local grocery store):
- Sheep = Toilet Paper
- Wood = Hand Sanitizer
- Wheat = Flour
- Brick = Face Masks
- Ore = Tinned Baked Beans
Look, to be totally honest, being “self-isolated” in your home with the kids for 14-days is not ideal. Most families have contingency plans for stuff like this, but even the best of us needs breathing space. And while I will easily choose self-isolation to help the more vulnerable in our community, I am also grateful for anything that will make life a little easier during that period. After experiencing our own quarantine due to hazardous air quality during the Australian summer, our family has developed a very healthy understanding about personal space, entertaining the kids, and being supportive as a family. We did indeed test the best tabletop games to play during a pandemic. And lived to tell the tale.
I’m not saying this list is going to save your sanity completely. Damn it, GeekMom, I’m a parent, not a doctor. I will say that this list will buy you time. It will encourage civility. And it may even allow your kids a moment to appreciate some quality family time. Even if you had to be locked up in quarantine to achieve it.
Think I’m done there? No way!! Stay tuned for my Best Computer Games to Play During a Pandemic!