Which board games are the best for an NCSY setting (or in any youth group)? Read these tips for choosing the best board games, and specific suggestions for which board games to buy.
So you’ve decided to build up a library of boardgames to have around for Shabbos, and you realize that you have no clue what to buy besides for Monopoly and Bananagrams. Is Monopoly even a good idea for a youth group? Does Bananagrams let enough people play at the same time?
What makes a good game for an NCSY setting?
As a Chapter Adviser and game enthusiast, I’ve been asking myself these questions for a long time and wanted to share my observations to help you get some really fun and engaging activities for your NCSYers. I’ll start with a brief look at what makes a good “NCSY game” and then go through a list of specific categories of games that work very well in this setting.
First off, I think it’s helpful to understand why something like Monopoly is NOT a good game for an NCSY setting (particularly on Shabbos). While Monopoly is a well-known and popular game, it has a lot of knocks against it that we should generally be avoiding for Shabbos afternoon (or NCSY activity) games.
- It can be VERY long. Long enough that you might have to stop the game early on a short Shabbos, which can be very annoying.
- It has player elimination, leading to people getting kicked out of the game and sitting around with nothing to do.
- It has almost nothing for you to do when it’s not your turn.
- It has a fairly limited number of players that can play at the same time (usually around 4).
Now that we know what we DON'T want in a game, let’s look at some of the things that are ideal to have in a game:
- Not only should there be no player elimination, but players should also be able to bounce in and out of the game at will, without ruining it for everyone else. A game that a player can drop in or out of and can keep going is wonderful for large, fluid groups.
- Really simple to learn and quick to grasp the rules. A good youth group game should be able to be taught in under 5 minutes (for the basics). An ideal game can be grasped simply by observing others play for a few minutes.
- The game should be able to handle a large number of players (6 or more). The very best games can handle an unlimited number of players - by playing in teams, or having one player take a turn while everyone else participates, too (like in Charades).
- They should play fairly quickly per game or per round. A good game for an NCSY setting should not drag on and on. It should be able to be played to completion in under 20 minutes, or at least play to a point where others can join in.
Now that we’ve identified some of the things that will make for a good experience for the NCSYers (with a particular eye towards a Shabbos hangout setting), let’s look at some specific types of games that work well, and give some suggestions for what to actually buy. I’ve linked to the games on Amazon for a quick and easy way to buy them, but I suggest patronizing your local game stores if you have them.
- Games that are primarily about bluffing and social dynamics are phenomenal hits with teens. The classic game Mafia falls into this category. The more modern published versions are almost always titled Werewolf instead. See Ultimate Werewolf as a popular commercial version. The Resistance is another very popular and very good option. Both of these take a little longer to play, so my top suggestion is probably One Night Ultimate Werewolf. The rounds play very quickly, so new players can rotate in and out, and people will want to play again and again. I’ve had tremendous success with this one.
- Quick card games are great for NCSY get-togethers. Any game where the rounds are quick work well. I find it’s often the simpler the better. Spot it and Set both handle a theoretically limitless number of players and play through a round very quickly. The rules can also be observed and people can jump in at any time. These are absolutely perfect Shabbos afternoon games. Fluxx is super simple, silly and people can jump in and out. Loonacy by the same company takes only minutes to play and is fast frenetic fun, people can’t wait to get in on the next game. Anomia and Jungle Speed both play quickly and handle a lot of players and are easy to join in on.
- I’ve had a lot of success with some higher player-count party games that are a little more cerebral. If a game ever seems to be more of an activity than an actual game that is often a good bet (Telestrations is a perfect example but involves melacha). However be sure to check out the game Concept. It’s more activity than game but handles any number of players, players can drop in and out and the rules are dead simple. It’s basically charades with a board of symbols instead of acting. One of the nice things about it is that you can make up your own clues easily and thus incorporate Jewish topics. Lastly there is a phenomenal new game called Codenames. This was the hit of the summer game conventions and is an amazing word association game that you can play with really any number of players.
- Simple push-your-luck games are great fun and easy to get into. The luck aspect is also a great equalizer and puts all the players on a level playing field. Check out Incan Gold, Can't Stop or the classic Cosmic Wimpout (which needs some method of tracking score but often comes with a scoreboard preventing problems on Shabbos)
- Simple bidding-style games (besides Poker) are great brain flexers but work even for kids who don’t want to think too hard. No Thanks is probably the best of these. I get a ton of mileage out of that little game. For Sale is another great one.
- Finally, dexterity games of all sorts are perfect fits for NCSY settings as they are tactile, visual a lot of fun to watch as well as play and require very very little rules explanation. Crokinole is probably the best of them (especially for Canadian households who likely already have a board!) but check out Pitch Car (yes it is expensive, yes it was worth it), Tok Tok Woodman is a fantastic game but currently between printings and hard to get. Dancing Eggs is one of the most unique games you’ve ever seen guaranteed, and NCSYers adore this game. It does cause a ruckus but people will ask for it over and over.
I hope all of these suggestions are helpful. I personally recommend Spot it and Concept highest of all, because of their all inclusive nature. Anyone can jump right in and be playing all the time. I would also highly recommend taking a look at the game Time’s Up! which is for my money the best party game ever created (a little tough to do on a Shabbos afternoon though). Non-commercially, it’s known as Three Round Charades (or Celebrities) so it’s easy to look up the rules and make your own cards. It’s also worth mentioning (though it breaks most of our rules of what makes a good game for an NCSY setting) that there is a game called Kings of Israel where all the players play cooperatively as Navi trying to remove tum'ah from Israel. Super fun and educational but not ideal for most of our purposes.
There is plenty more out there though - the website Boardgamegeek.com lists over 80,000 boardgames in it’s database! So there is something out there for every situation.
Please feel free to email me (Samz@ncsy.org) with any specific situations you have, and I might be able to come up with some good suggestions.