What Are the Best Board Games That Play in 30 Minutes or Less?

Want to get together with friends and play something, but don't have the hours required for a game of Arkham Horror or Mage Knight? USgamer to the rescue with a list of quick-hit board and card games you can get to the table super-quickly.

Article by Pete Davison, .

If you've tried to set up any sort of regular social gathering that involves board games, doubtless you've run into the time issue once or twice.

My regular gaming group particularly suffers from it -- we play regularly on a weeknight, which means games that take hours and hours to play are generally out, particularly if our host is attempting to prepare dinner while we're playing, as is often the case.

For this kind of situation, it's important to have a selection of games on hand that can be set up and put away quickly -- and more importantly don't take very long to actually play, either. Lucky, then, that we've got some suggestions for you: here's five great board and card games that take half an hour or less to play to completion.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Escape is rather peculiar in the world of board games in that it's real-time rather than turn-based. In other words, every player is doing their thing at the same time, and this can lead to chaos and confusion if you're not careful -- particularly as the game is a pure cooperative experience in which all players are competing against the game itself as a team rather than each other.

In Escape, you and your friends play a team of explorers who have found themselves trapped inside a mysterious temple that is going to collapse in precisely ten minutes' time. In order to track how much time you have left, the game comes with an audio CD that features the same sort of vaguely lavatorial ambient noises that the original PC CD-ROM version of Tomb Raider sported, and at three points during your allotted time, there's a countdown -- for the first and second countdowns you and your friends must get back to the chamber you started in before you hear the sound of a door slamming shut; for the third, if you fail to escape the temple before the countdown completes, everyone loses.

If you don't have a CD player in your gaming space, you can use the included sand timer, too. Image via Boardgamegeek user Henk Rolleman.

Escape is played almost entirely with dice. Each player has a hand of five dice that they can roll as much as they like, setting individual dice aside as they need to. Rolling various combinations of symbols allows you to do things -- rolling two adventurer symbols lets you reveal an unexplored room, for example, while you need to roll a particular number of keys to escape the temple once you've found the exit tile. The key to success is in the rooms that have magic gems in them; here, you and any other players with you will need to roll a particular number of a specific symbol in order to activate one or more gems and remove them from the pool -- this is important, because in order to escape, you'll need to roll a number of keys equal to the number of gems left in the pool plus one. Consequently, the more gems you activate, the easier it is to escape -- and in fact, it's impossible to escape using your hand of five dice without activating at least a few gems, depending on how many people are playing.

The game comes with some optional modules for curses and treasures, both of which add a bit of extra depth to the game, and there are expansions available, too. It's a deceptively simple game that initially appears to be throwaway, silly fun, but it quickly reveals itself to be a game that rewards cooperation, communication and the ability to stay calm in a crisis. Its theme works well with its mechanics, and its straightforward rules make it eminently appropriate for both family game nights and as a short game for more experienced groups.

Love Letter

Love Letter is a simple card game about bluffing. The premise is simple: you are in love with the princess of the kingdom, and you are attempting to get your love letter to her. The single card in your hand reflects who is currently in possession of your letter, and at the end of a round the player whose letter is closest to the princess -- i.e. is of highest value -- wins a "token of affection," with whoever reaches the score goal first winning the heart of the princess and being allowed to court her.

All the cards in the game. Image credit: Boardgamegeek user Mikael Vintermark

Play is extremely simple; you hold a single card in your hand, and each turn you draw a new one from the small deck -- there are only 16 cards in total, and one is randomly removed each round. You must then discard one of the two cards in your hand and resolve the instructions on it; these range from the Guard, who allows you to declare a card you think one of your fellow players holds and eliminate them if you are correct, to the princess herself. If you discard the princess, you immediately lose the round, but discarding something else may reveal the fact that she's still in your hand. The game quickly becomes about reading your opponents and deducing what they most likely have in their hands based on what has already been discarded and what is still in the deck; you'll have to choose your actions wisely to remain in each round.

A single round of Love Letter plays extremely quickly, and a complete game is made up of several such rounds. Being a card game with such a small deck, there's minimal setup time required, and you don't even need to spend very long shuffling. It's an extremely portable game, too -- the game comes with a lovely velvet bag that holds all the cards, the small instruction book and the attractive plastic "tokens of affection" and is thus easy to slip into your pocket and carry with you. The only real downside is that it doesn't support more than 4 players.

Space Alert

The work of veteran game designer Vlaada Chvátil, Space Alert is a wonderfully creative and theme-heavy cooperative game that is just as rewarding and fun if everything goes horribly wrong as it is when you win.

Casting players in the role of the crew of a spaceship travelling through what is seemingly the most dangerous sector in all of space, Space Alert unfolds in two main phases. The first phase is real-time and supported by an audio CD, somewhat like Escape: The Curse of the Temple. The second unfolds in turn-based slow motion, and shows the consequences of the decisions you made in the real-time phase.

During the real-time phase, you'll play cards from your hand to give your character orders -- move left or right, take an elevator to the upper or lower deck, or perform a specific action in a location. As the CD plays, you'll receive threat warnings, and the player in the role of communications officer will have to place these threats in the appropriate locations so other players can plan their actions. The twist is, you play your order cards face down so no-one can actually see what each other has planned -- you'll have to communicate with one another in order to cooperate, but you may only trade cards with one another at specific moments on the CD that announce a "data transfer," and during "communications malfunctions" you are not allowed to speak at all.

A game of Space Alert in progress.

In the following phase, you follow a set of rules to determine how your chosen actions resolve themselves. Each turn, players resolve their actions, move their pieces around and hope that they didn't get "left" and "right" confused. Threats advance, disasters happen and you'd better hope you planned for every eventuality -- a broken elevator can throw a real problem at a crew, for example. Once you've resolved your ship's entire journey -- assuming it wasn't blown into tiny pieces in the process -- you receive a score based on any threats you successfully dealt with and any you simply managed to survive.

Space Alert takes a play or two to get your head around -- particularly if you're playing one of the more advanced missions that throws you threats inside the ship as well as outside -- but once you understand how it all works it's a lot of fun. The agonizingly slow-motion nature of the turn-based resolution phase makes any unwitting mistakes all the more hilarious to witness, particularly as the consequences get worse and worse. To the game's credit, a single mistake generally isn't enough to jeopardize the entire mission -- that wouldn't be much fun -- but it can be amusing to watch a player's character repeatedly literally banging their head against the wall due to poor planning.


Fluxx isn't a game to take seriously, but it can be a lot of fun -- and it's one of those games that there's a variety of themed versions available, so you'll probably find something to cater to your own personal tastes.

Fluxx is a card game whose main shtick is that its rules change as the game progresses. At the beginning of the game, you draw one card per turn, then play one, but there's no way to win. In order to win, someone must first play a "Goal" card that lists a victory condition, then someone around the table must meet that victory condition, usually by playing a certain combination of "Keepers" -- cards that remain in play in front of a player.

Just some of the many different cards in Fluxx. Image via Boardgamegeek user "Program Terminated."

A single goal card generally doesn't stay in play for that long, particularly if one player looks likely to achieve it. Rule change cards shake things up regularly, too -- some of these affect how many cards you draw or play per turn, others affect your hand or keeper limit, and others still provide bonuses or penalties to players according to certain conditions. Later editions of the game also introduce "Creeper" cards that have various negative effects on players, usually preventing them from attaining victory even if they meet a goal card's conditions.

Fluxx is a highly unpredictable game whose heavily random nature means a game can take anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes to play. Some may argue there's not a lot of strategic depth to the game and they're perhaps right -- but that's not really what this game is about. Instead, it's about the moment-to-moment play -- taking advantage of the cards you have in a way that will benefit you more than your opponents around the table. It's a fun, silly game that is particularly suitable for families to play together -- I had a most enjoyable time introducing it to my young nephews a few Christmases ago, for example.

Greedy Wizards

This is a brand new game that isn't yet widely available due to not long successfully completing a Kickstarter campaign, but if you tend to play games against just a single opponent rather than a larger group it's a fun, quick game that should be on your radar.

Greedy Wizards depicts the epic battle between Red Wizard and Blue Wizard as they fight for supremacy over a delicious cake. Each round resolves over the course of three duels, during which you play three of the nine spell cards from your hand. In each duel, whoever has the highest total value of spells wins, and in each round, whoever won at least two out of the three duels wins a slice of cake. But oh no -- because these wizards are greedy, they value cake over magic, and consequently winning a slice of cake means you discard your highest-value spell. Not only that, but the cake cards are double-sided, making it immediately obvious when you've played a lump of cake instead of a spell in one of your duels. How will you outwit your opponent?

A round of Greedy Wizards in progress. Image from the game's Kickstarter page.

Greedy Wizards' main charm comes in the lovely storybook-style card artwork and ridiculous spells which range from "a pretty scary elf" to "a spider with a sword" and "a woman who shouts 'Hurricanes!'" Each wizard has its own unique deck of nine spells, and imagining exactly how a battle between these spells would look in reality is hilarious for both adults and children alike.

More than that, though, it's a simple but solid game for two players that unfolds very quickly and is enjoyable and satisfying to play. It'll soon be available to the general public via Amazon according to creator Simon Byron, and in the meantime you can read up on the game at the somewhat bare-bones official site.

Those are some of our favorites; what are yours? Let's hear some more suggestions in the comments, and don't forget to check out our feature on the best games for tabletop newcomers, many of which are similarly quick to play. Watch out for more tabletop gaming coverage on USgamer soon!

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 4

  • Avatar for hankhank1 #1 hankhank1 4 years ago
    I enjoy these board game articles. Keep up the great work!
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for lobotomy42 #2 lobotomy42 4 years ago
    Great list! I would also add Forbidden Island as a fast-to-learn, fast-to-play co-op game (slightly lighter than Space Alert)
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for pjedavison #3 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @lobotomy42 Forbidden Island (and its sequel Forbidden Desert) are both very good! In my experience, they tend to veer more towards the 45-60 minute duration, though, hence why they weren't in this list.

    I actually haven't yet tried Forbidden Desert with more than two people; looking forward to giving it a go. Big fan of Matt Leacock's work.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for abuele #4 abuele 4 years ago
    Do you have something in mind about boardgames for kids?
    Sign in to Reply