Wait, you don’t know what I’m talking about?
Well, I’ve got great news! Abstract games can be tons of fun, often bridging the gap beautifully between more casual games and heavier, more complicated fair. But while this list is going to focus on relatively simple (and relatively recent) games, these aren’t just gateway games – a good abstract game can find a place in absolutely any player’s collection! Here are 11 of our favorites!
Player count: 2-4
So let’s start out with the newest hotness. Azul is gorgeously produced and mechanically clean, delivering silky smooth tile drafting and pattern building goodness. With rules that you can explain in about a minute (watch me do it!) and fantastic table presence, Azul is one of those games that you’ll be able to play with family during the holidays, but still enjoy with hobby gamers long thereafter. This one’s a total keeper.
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Player count: 2
Chess, one of the seminal abstracts, is a brilliant game that some folks, reasonably, find a bit daunting. But Onitama takes the essential essence of the 2-player abstract and streamlines it into something incredibly accessible and devilishly clever.
Onitama limits the options players have in order to add depth without complexity, letting just about anyone dive into one of the best 2 player games in our collection.
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Player count: 1-4
Though Beth Sobel’s stunning artwork might belie a pastoral theme, Herbaceous is an abstract set collection/press-your-luck hybrid with a heart of gold. Stephen Finn’s filler designs are always top-notch, and this one may be the top-notchiest. Plan your garden, gather your sets, but beware biding your time too long lest your opponents grab the herbs you needed for huge points.
Simple, attractive, and accessible, Herbaceous is a sure-fire hit for both the casual gamer and the more seasoned (ugh) players in your life!
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Player count: 2
Ok, so this is something unique. Tokyo Highway is pricey and a bit hard to find, but it’s also a unique spacial puzzle with some minor dexterity elements. 2 players will turn-by-turn build up their highways, adding ramps and pillars, in an ever-more-complex weaving pattern. Scoring is done by adding cars, which can only be placed when your newest length of road travels over or under an opponent’s road for the first time.
As the grid of roads and cars grows, you’ll find yourself glad for the tweezers that are included with this starkly styled game, and you’ll hold your breath as you gingerly place bits. Though there’s not much in the way of depth to be enjoyed here, Tokyo Highway is nevertheless a bit of a conversation starter, and definitely a statement piece on how simple a game’s components can be while retaining a sense of engaging play.
Player count: 1-4
Another game we recently spent 60 seconds covering, NMBR9’s got shades of Tetris in its mechanics, with none of the stress. Each round, a card will be drawn to tell the table which number they will be adding to their tableau, and each player is trying to build up a base upon which they can start laying more number tiles. Tiles touching the table are worth nothing, but each level up will multiply the value of the tile by the number of levels below it.
Stacking numbers is complicated by the fact that you can’t place tiles over gaps, so clever planning and placement are the key to victory in this excellent game. And if you really like NMBR9, then be sure to snag some of the expansion tiles (here and here!) which add even more variety!
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Player count: 1-4
Talk about pretty – Seikatsu is a game which manages to be both abstract and attractive (not always the most automatic combination). In it, between 2 and 3 players will be working on beautifying the gardens, adding tiles which feature flowers, birds, and the occasional koi pond.
Featuring a unique scoring mechanism that makes player interaction constant yet indirect, Seikatsu makes up for its slightly wonky player count with its attractive production and silky smooth gameplay. Some might say it’s too simple, but we think it’s just simple enough.
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Player count: 2
Hounded is an asymmetrical 2 player chess-like abstract that we think is just neat. One player takes on the role of the hunter, who commands their pack of hounds as they try to zero in on the wily fox. The other player, naturally, plays the fox, who is faster, smarter, and slightly more adorable than the hounds hunting it.
Each animal has a unique movement pattern, as they traverse the grid of face-down terrain tiles (each of which may hide some special effect to the benefit of one side or the other), creating a wonderful cat and mouse feel to the gameplay (note, there are neither cats nor mice in the game). Delivered in a small box and needing little more than a square foot of table space, Hounded makes for excellent portable couples gaming.
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Player count: 2-5
For those looking to add another nice, light card drafting game to their collection, look no further than Pyramids from IELLO. Each round, players will draft for turn order and then draft for cards (double drafting!), but the order in which they go also serves to limit where they can place those cards, which will either be added to their pyramid, obelisk, or their sarcophagus. Sure, that may sound a little macabre, but the bright colors nicely offset the subject-matter of tomb-building. And hey, it’s an abstract, so who cares about the theme?!
Each of the three locations scores slightly differently, so there is some variety to the strategy of what colors you add and where you put them. Playing well at every player count, Pyramids is a game you can pick up in minutes but can enjoy for ALL ETERNITY!…or at least a good long while.
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This one’s a real winner. Bärenpark comes from a sublime alternate reality where bear-centric theme parks are all the rage (or whatever, look, theme isn’t what we’re here for). What we have here is an excellently delivered tile-laying game, where players will add features to and expand their zoos, filling them with bear enclosures and statues to delight their customers.
In some truly clever design, the placement of your current tile determines what tiles you have access to for your next turn, so the strategic depth goes just one step beyond ‘how do I fit all these bears together?’. Bärenpark is a fantastic game that serves double duty as both an intro to abstracts and an excellent filler at every player count.
Player count: 2-4
One of the great things about abstracts is that they tend to come in small, portable packages, and Codinca exemplifies this trait. From its modest box springs forth a simple spacial puzzle, where players will race to get their colored tiles into specific arrangements to meet goal cards before their opponents can manage the same.
The simplicity of Codinca’s gameplay matches perfectly with the beautiful, chunky components, and we absolutely love how quickly we can break it out and get to playing. Our preference is that it’s best at 2 (higher player counts make the game a little too chaotic), but as a quick abstract on the go, Codinca is fantastic.
Player Count: 1-10
Ok, so here’s the ringer of the group, and we’re cheating a bit by including it. Pyramid Arcade is the magnum opus of Andrew Looney, who has been designing his abstract games for decades. This box of 22 games is more of a gaming system, letting players use the same components many different ways to play a wide variety of abstract games.
With excellent production and tons and tons of replayability, Pyramid Arcade is a huge addition to any gamer’s shelf, be they newbies to the genre or veterans. This one’s among our top picks.
Of course, there are absolutely piles more fantastic abstracts to explore. Did we miss some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!