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7 push-your-luck board games to tempt you into losing it all

Risk, reward, and ridiculous amounts of fun.

And just like that, you’ve lost it all. Triumph, travesty -- both are weighted equally with each tumble of the dice. But that’s the exact reason you signed up. There’s something inexorably fun about pushing the odds to breaking point, even if Lady Luck occasionally feels the need to reach over and deliver a deserved slap to the face for your impudence. To that end, we’ve rounded up the best push-your-luck board games to electrify your game table with cries of elation and regret-filled groans of despair.

The best push-your-luck board games

We understand that you’re no fool, so our list of push-your-luck board games highlights the risks and rewards on offer in each. That way you can assess the situation logically before diving in headlong regardless because caution is the way of cowards.

1. The Quacks of Quedlinburg

The best push your luck board games quacks of quedlinburg

The gist: As potion peddlers in a medieval fantasy town, you’re competing to brew the most potent mix for customers. The only problem is, you’re never quite sure what you’ll pull out of your ingredients bag next. Draw tokens or call it quits like a craven as you push to fill your spiral board further for ingredient-buying money, powerful rubies, and game-winning victory points.

The risks: Plop one too many cherry bombs into the mix, and your pot is liable to erupt in your face, costing either victory points or cash for a botched brew. But what are the odds you’d really pull that one-in-seven chance token...

The rewards: As you buy more unusual ingredients, Quacks transmutes your ingredients bag into a bubbling cauldron of combo possibilities. Each draw offers the potential to stack up points, generate valuable rubies, or one-up your rivals’ efforts, endlessly tempting you to pull just one token more. It’s the ultimate test of restraint -- and you’re liable to fail it every time.

2. Codenames

The best push your luck board games codenames

The gist: Twenty-five word cards lie in a grid, and only the two Spymasters know which ones belong to their team. To point their squad of guessing agents in the right direction, they must deliver one-word clues with a single numeric figure to denote the connections on the grid. The more cards linked by a clue, the faster that side’s agents will close in on victory, but the vaguer the hint becomes. It’s a slower-paced affair but certainly not easy. Try linking Antarctica to Germany, without also indicating your opponent’s word of China. We’ll wait.

The risks: Watching your team respond to a clue with dumbfounded confusion is painful. The real agony, however, comes as you deliver a confident hint only for the disconnected brains of your agents to link words you hadn’t considered or had missed entirely. If you’re lucky, they’ll pick a neutral bystander. Worse is an opposing agent. Disaster? That’s them place a finger upon the instant failure of the Assassin card. Do try to keep a poker face as they discuss options.

The rewards: There’s nothing quite like nailing a brilliant clue. Watching jaws around the table drop as you say “four” or even more is priceless. Provided your team follows it up with the right picks, you’ll feel like a genius. And as a guesser? Hit the mark and you can choose one more than the spymaster states, enticing you into an extra guess to cover failed clues from turns past.

3. Cubitos

The best push your luck board games cubitos

The gist: The race is on, but which animal, dinosaur, robot, or sentient cheese will be the first to complete the legendary Cubitos circuit? No, we don’t understand the setup either, but Cubitos encourages you to push your luck (and racer) brilliantly with a children’s ballpit’s worth of dice to chuck at the board. Re-roll blanks as much as you’d like, but beware: If all the dice tossed turn up blanks then you’ve busted, nullifying an entire turn. Stop in time to move forward with feet icons and buy new, better dice with any money you’ve collected.

The risks: No matter what the Ghostbusters theme song would suggest, busting here doesn’t make you feel good. But neither does a limp, “move two spaces” turn. Better still to roll those blanks just one more time and -- oh dear, your runner appears to have tripped over a sign reading “HUBRIS” yet again. We’re sure that was just bad luck.

The rewards: Once you add more of Cubitos’s bizarre extra dice -- say hello to the Rich Dog and Reckless Cheese -- to your supply, each roll will offer up a concoction of unusual effects and powers, increasing your success rate but also tempting you to push further and further. Even if you keep on busting, you’ll earn the respect of the fans, granting rewards to help you succeed in future turns.

4. No Thanks

The best push your luck board games no thanks

The gist: Nah, nope, uh-uh, no way -- whatever words you prefer, expect to say them a lot in this simple card game. Points are bad, but the only way to avoid taking whatever’s revealed from the deck of 3-35 is to drop a score-reducing chip onto the pile. Whoever takes the card suffers the points but also claims all the chips donated so far. Should you hold out? Or grab the chips to avoid a larger penalty in future? Eventually, you’ll have to say yes to something.

The risks: Runs in No Thanks only count for the lowest card in their streak, so you can risk taking multiple, close-numbered cards for chips in the hopes of linking them together later. Miss the crucial link in that run, however, and your score will be catastrophic.

The rewards: Chance a high card or two early for a bundle of chips, and you might be able to extort your rivals. That 27 card adds nothing to your run of 24-26, but scores big for anyone holding something lower. Send it for a few loops round the table before collecting, and you’ll force your friends to cough up chips that’ll minimize your score further.

5. Port Royal

the best push your luck board games port royal

The gist: The seas are awash with pirates, so it’s time to build a merchant crew to take them on and complete expeditions. Drawing cards one after the other from a deck of 120 cards, you’ll take your pick of ships to eliminate for coin or seamen to recruit with your spoils. You can keep drawing as long as you like, but reveal two ships of the same color without the swords to defeat them, and you’ll scupper the entire venture, squandering your turn. Everyone else at the table also gets a choice after your initial pick, so consider carefully just how many cards you want to reveal.

The risks: Matching ships are but one risk in the salty harbor of Port Royal. Reveal a taxation card when one player is hoarding gold for a big purchase, and they’ll be forced to discard half their savings. Even on the rolling waves, you can’t keep The Man off your back.

The rewards: Build your crew well, and you’ll be able to draw through as many cards as you want so long as two black-flagged galleons don’t spoil the party. Some recruitable cards even reward drawing in high numbers, allowing you to take extra money or spend big on a victory points splurge.

6. Diamant/Incan Gold

The best push your luck board games diamant incan gold

The gist: The allure of treasure is worth any and all risks! Wait, where did everyone else go, and what was that sound? In Diamant, you’ll be bravely robbing ancient ruins for your own financial gain. Flip over a gem tile, and you’ll share the loot between everyone with the guts to push on. But face one too many terrifying hazards, and you’ll be forced to flee with nothing more than some newly dampened underwear.

The risks: Mummies, spiders, snakes, lava -- the list goes on. Turn back too soon though and you could miss out on the lion’s share of treasures. So long as three identical hazards don’t turn up at once you’ll be fine, but how many were in the deck again?

The rewards: Mummies? Pah! The others are just cowards. Risk just one more room than everyone else, and you could be making off with a fat stack of diamonds for you and you alone. Impressively, Diamant manages to make both delving further and turning back a tempting prospect. Any time treasure can’t be split equally by explorers, the remains are left behind, with those who turn tail first able to snaffle them up as they flee towards daylight.

7. Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure

The best push your luck board games clank

The gist: Dragons are notoriously light sleepers. To be fair, we wouldn’t rest easy either if folks like us were after our hard-won riches. Clank! sees a group of rival adventurers (read: thieves) delving into the dungeon home of a deadly beast. By building up a deck of actions from a shared shop, the aim is to hop between monster-packed hallways in a race for treasure. Each noise card played adds one of your tokens to the dragon’s bag, increasing the odds of your champion getting a singing salutation whenever the winged serpent awakens. 

The risks: You need to secure an artifact before making your getaway but why stop there? Best to loop through the dungeon one more time to stash up on other valuable goods too. Before you know it, you’re caught in a dead end, your friends have already made their escape, and your armor is soon to be nothing more than a blackened addition to the scaly beast’s fortune.

The rewards: Like any good deck builder, Clank! offers the satisfaction of stuffing your draw pile with increasingly powerful and interlinking abilities. Play it right, and by the end of the game you’ll be bouncing nimbly through the dungeon’s many locked doors and dangers. And if glistening gold isn’t your style, Clank! In! Space! sees your pilfering crew navigating the spaceship of a galaxy-conquering warlord for sci-fi trinkets.

Which push-your-luck games tempt you to pull them from your shelves at each game night? Let us know on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And if you enjoyed this feature, we’ve got even more board gaming treats in store for you with the Going Analog Podcast and The Board Game Quiz Show.

Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Gloomhaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found gobbling up all the latest and greatest party games, then wondering why he can never find the time to actually play them with friends. Share your love of deck builders with him on Twitter @Fernoface, or drop an email to henry@moonrock.agency.