I have been living in Asia since early 2009, traveling when I can and teaching ESL when I need to replenish travel funds. As both a traveler and a teacher, I use board games a lot. Much of the weight of my backpack is taken up with games and other geek paraphernalia. (Cheap flights limit you to 15 kilograms of weight, and my game collection takes up between 5-7 of those kgs.)
A deck of playing cards is standard fare for most backpackers, but we live in a golden age of board games and there are plenty reasons to travel with a larger selection.. From Settlers of Catan to Cards Against Humanity, from Elder Sign to Munchkin, there are hundreds of great games that backpackers can use to make new friends or cure boredom on a monsoon afternoon.
Although your local game store, Amazon, and boardgamegeek have hundreds of games, many countries, especially in the developing world, will be limited to the likes of Scrabble and Uno. As a backpacker, you need to carefully consider every thing you put into your bag, but the social aspects of board games as icebreakers and smartphone-free time you can spend with fellow travelers are good reasons to bring them. And many games are either small to begin with or have a portable/card version. (For those travelers who are also ESL teachers, or considering to be, many games have a creative/English learning function as well.)
Whatever the country, I’ve found most locals are interested in the games (though wary as well,) and language barrier prevents them from joining anything too complicated. As far as travelers, I’ve encountered those who like board games, those who like winning, regardless of the medium, and those who simply have no interest at all. The games I have likewise, can be lumped into three categories.
Those that are worth their weight (pass), those are not (fail), and those yet-to-be-tested (incomplete).
Deck of cards
Not just for King’s Cup or Arseloch, this versatile deck (if you have enough people) can be used for intriguing games like Werewolf as well. You can find them everywhere, and people all across the world have their own games.
Settlers of Catan (card game)
For up to 4 people, this is a highly addictive and easy-to-learn (yet difficult to master) game that I prefer to the full board game. It’s easy to learn and only takes 30-60 minutes. Great game to bring hiking as it’s more than slightly addictive.
This is surprisingly popular with people who have never heard of Cthulhu, Azazoth, or even HP Lovecraft. Because each game is different, it is highly repeatable. It’s too complicated to teach to young children or without a common language, but most backpackers and travelers have learned it quite quickly. Without the packaging, it’s also quite portable.
Dominant Species (card game)
Another light, easy game that is popular with almost everyone. Not that fun multiple times, however.
If you’re talking sheer size for fun, this is a really good game. It’s tiny, and the turns can be really quick but it’s a bit addictive and hours can go by. This is one that children and different language learners can learn quite easily as well.
My Dwarves Fly
Another game that is surprisingly popular even with people who aren’t entirely conversant with goblins, titans and cyclops. It’s small, only takes about an hour to play, so it’s perfect in areas of the world where your food takes some time to come out.
I have the original deck and all the supplements (minus the dungeons but plus the Necromunchkion and Faerie Dust supplements) which makes for a ridiculous amount of weight. It’s (almost) worth it. There is a steeper learning curve than any of the above games, but for those who play a few times this usually becomes their favorite.
Simple but super fun. Really good for trekking or other times when the weight-to-fun ratio is vital. Children as young as six can quickly grok the rules and some Nepalese porters on the Everest Base Camp trail loved it as well.
Cards Against Humanity
You probably know this game, but it’s quite different playing with a group of German and Israeli backpackers when a card like Auschwitz is thrown down, or explaining “queefing” to a young group of Japanese and French women. I have seen more people reduced to tears (of laughter, usually) from this game than anything since the heyday of Mystery Science Theatre. My deck is ghetto–not laminated and poorly cut, and I’ve made the deck more internationally friendly by removing both the American politicians and all the trademarked products. (Lunchables is never going to be funny to a group of Asians or Europeans.) This is THE social game to have in your pack.
The grand winner. This epic game of tile placing is popular with almost everyone and doesn’t even rely on common languages to play (it does, of course, help a bit.) The tiles and meeples themselves fit into a small bag (think Crown Royale) and then it’s just a matter of putting the board in a folder or at the bottom of your bag. This game has retired almost every other game I have. It’s just too much fun.
Gloom (original and Cthulhu)
No one is ever interested. Too much spontaneous storytelling is involved, and neither the Addams Family-like nor the Lovecraftian themes have much appeal to the average traveler or locals.
Once Upon A Time
This is largely the same case as Gloom. I talked one person into trying once, but he stopped halfway through. I keep this one because it will be great to use teaching ESL. And it’s one of my personal favorites.
Apples to Apples dice game.
Another game that requires a bit of creativity and is not popular. It’s like Cards Against Humanity only not funny. It’s very small though and I will use it to teach elementary students.
These big books aren’t ones that I even offer to play with anyone, but reading through and creating characters and designing adventures is an entirely great way to spend an afternoon or three. However, they take up a lot of space and weigh a huge amount. And in addition to being big old book, they also necessitate having a bag of Dice/pencils/sharpener/
RPG Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (Players Manual & Referees Manual)
This game looks amazing–it’s been described as “Dungeons and Elder Things” (plus Conan) and has the most fun set of classes I can recall seeing. I have spent long bus rides and rainy afternoons reading through, plotting scenarios and rolling up characters. But these two book are not light! I did end up playing with some friends back in the States and it was quite a lot of fun.
This six page complete role-playing game is the perfect travel RPG. I’ve played quite a games of this with my geek homies and the system is surprisingly robust.
RPG Mythic Iceland
Maybe a bust, as I don’t even have the Basic Role Playing system to go with it. But the research that went into this book is amazing, and it’s great fun to read through as well.
In the Resistance family of games, this mafia/werewolf game is a lot of fun for those who want to match wits. It’s not for everyone though and you need a minimum of 5 players to even start.
For me, having these games is mostly a no brainer. I’ve made friends, met locals, had creative and hilarious evenings that otherwise would have been much less fulfilling. However, I do wonder. If travel teaches you one thing, apart from patience, it’s that minimalism makes a lot of sense. As such, carting several kilos of games around for months at a time does seem a bit ill-advised. Nonetheless, their versatility as both educational and entertainment really makes them worth their weight. For my next trip, I might remove some of the less popular ones, but overall I’m geek enough to be proud to introduce dopplegangers, Azazoth, and wool for sheep into people’s lives.