February 28, 2021
Best card games for the 2020 holidays

Best card games for 2021


If you hear “card game,” your first thought might be solitaire, or maybe poker, Uno, euchre or another classic card game played for decades. But a new generation of card games has arrived, introducing more complex strategy, more imaginative themes and more fun possibilities. In Race for the Galaxy, players produce resources on planets and expand their control of space. In Everdell, players invite forest critters to their communities, build new structures and compete for various combinations. In Time Stories, players investigate mysteries in Lovecraft-ian asylums, zombie-infested towns, ancient Egyptian cities and more.

While many people think of game developers as working on video games, there are also card game developers discovering innovative new ways of playing card games every year, so it was important for this list that we test out a wide variety of games. In testing out contenders, I played most of these games dozens of times, with various arrangements of people. They are the most interesting, replayable and fun card games for 2021.

Read more: Best cooperative board games for 2021 to play over holiday break

David Priest/CNET

If you’ve played Rook, euchre or other trick-taking, partner card games, Tichu will be easy to pick up. The cards are fairly traditional (2 through Ace), with the addition of four unique cards: the mahjong, the dog, the Phoenix and the Dragon. Besides these cards, what makes Tichu unique is its blend of card-playing (in addition to single cards, players can play full houses, straights and other combinations) and strategy (before rounds, players must trade cards with partners and opponents).

Tichu has simple mechanics, but a few smart subversions of traditional trick-taking rules turn this great card game into one of the most enjoyable classic-style card games around.

Abacus Spiele

Mamma Mia is a fantastic memory-challenging card game for families. In this easy card game, players take turns throwing ingredients into “the oven” — that is, the pile of cards in the middle of the table — and trying to roughly memorize the order of what’s been contributed. Remembering is important, because players can also opt to play recipe cards, which use previously entered ingredients to cook pizzas (and some of these pizzas require a dozen different ingredients!).

Once the deck is totally played out, everyone flips over the central pile and shuffles through to find which recipes are successfully cooked, and which failed.

This simple game is by turns strategic and chaotic, and always fun for a family game night.

Rio Grande Games

Deck-building is a relatively recent development in card games: essentially, players draft or “buy” cards in a deck building game to shuffle into their draw decks. Slowly, then, the hands they play with each turn transform to allow new strategies over the course of a game. And the granddaddy of these sorts of games: Dominion.

Dominion has been around for years, but its developer has kept it fresh with over a dozen expansions to the base game. The core gameplay is simple: each turn you can play an action and buy a card, be it an action card, a money card or a victory point card. The problem is, victory point cards (which for the most part do nothing aside from giving you game-winning points) dilute your deck.

The game ends up as a supremely satisfying exercise in slowly building your deck into an efficient tool, so that you might snap up victory point cards all at once, near the end of the game. Of course, if your timing is off by even a single turn, it could lose you the game.

Dominion is a modern classic game, and very much worth your time.

Asmodee

Time Stories is a wonder of a game. With a simple deck of cards, the game catapults you across dimensions and spacetime, guides you through beautifully rendered settings and brings you face-to-face with Lovecraftian monsters — and that’s just in the first campaign.

In Time Stories, players investigate mysteries in settings ranging from ancient Egypt to zombie-infested suburbs. The stories change with your decisions, and your ability to solve the given mystery depends on your cooperation with teammates, your problem-solving skills and your ability to adapt to new elements introduced on the fly by the game.

Time Stories isn’t perfect: you can find plenty of chat boards online with fans debating which stories are best, and which could have been better balanced. But even small unbalances ultimately stem from the game’s massive ambition, and it’s hard not to feel swept up by that ambition every time you sit down to play this fun card game.

Rio Grande Games

If tableau-building sounds a little similar to card deck building, that’s because it is: in games like Race for the Galaxy, players slowly assemble their “tableau” — that is, their slate of face-up cards — in front of them over the duration of the game, using their actions and resources to gain the most power.

Thematically, Race for the Galaxy is very sci-fi. Players purchase various planets and other developments to add to their tableau, which then help them collect resources and perform more valuable actions. While deck-building can feel a little abstract or overwhelming to new players (a whole deck’s makeup can be hard to hold in your head, after all), tableau building keeps all the cards on the table — literally. At any time, you can see what you and your opponents are trying to build, which can make the game feel a little more interactive.

Race for the Galaxy is a fun, quick game that anyone can learn in 10 minutes, but most people won’t master for dozens of play-throughs.

David Priest/CNET

Card games can be a blast, but they can also be challenging for visual learners, since so much of the action happens between the cards. Luckily, there are some great game options that mix cards with a central board, and Everdell is one of the best mixed-mechanic games around.

Everdell blends tableau-building mechanics with more traditional meeple placement on a central board. It’s a strategically rich game, but also beautifully endearing as you recruit various woodland critters to live in your settlement using berries, and build structures using wood, stone and resin.

And for the more aesthetically minded, Everdell is one of the more beautifully designed games for 2021.

Renegade Games

Life may currently look a little different from most years thanks to the pandemic, so maybe you’re looking for more two-player games for your smaller family/friend gatherings. If so, The Fox in the Forest is perfect for you: it’s a simple trick-taking game like Rook (or Tichu, from above), with a few special cards mixed into the traditional format.

What makes The Fox in the Forest interesting is the unique card powers and the scoring system. Rather than trying to take all the tricks to win the game, you’re trying to take certain numbers of tricks for certain point values — and if you narrowly miss those ranges, you often miss out on a big bonus.

In many ways, The Fox in the Forest is a fairly traditional, simple game. But it’s a well-balanced game that’s perfect to pick up and play for 20 or 30 minutes.

Asmodee

If you want a little more heft to your two-player card games, try 7 Wonders: Duel, a devious little card-drafting game. Both players attempt to build civilizations across three eras, drafting various cards that help players pursue military or scientific dominance, grow their resources and build various Wonders.

The competitive game moves more quickly than bigger strategy games like Everdell, and the card-drafting mechanism introduces surprising opportunities to block or trap your opponent. If you’re looking for a well-balanced fun game for many play sessions, this is one of the best out there.

David Priest/CNET

Twilight Struggle balances the strategic complexity of a “big” game with the simple mechanics of a traditional conquest game like Risk. One player takes the role of the United States, and the other plays as the USSR as you struggle for presence, domination or complete control of various battleground regions around the world. Both sides race to put a man on the moon, degrade the DEFCON status through military operations, while carefully avoiding the devastation of nuclear war (an instant loss) and spread their influence across the globe in a tug of war for global power.

Twilight Struggle won’t be for everyone — it’s a time investment and your brain may feel like mush after playing it the first time. But few games on this list feel as satisfying to play, win or lose.

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