Frosty reception? These games will heat up the conversation.
Well, this is awkward. We’re usually pretty good at this stuff -- the smalltalk, chitchat, inane babble. Something’s a bit off today though, so let us direct you to our cardboard friends here instead. These lovely boxes know how to make a newcomer feel welcome, which is exactly why we’ve picked them for our list of the best icebreaker board games around.
The best board game icebreakers
A sledgehammer or pick might serve you better for frozen water of the literal kind, but when breaking the metaphorical ice, these board games will have you slicing through that social ‘berg faster than the Titanic. (We’ve not seen the movie, but the unsinkable ship did win, right?).
Recommended for: large parties and social events
On a scale of 0-100, how impactful was the invention of the airplane on a global scale? Everyone has their own internal gauge for these things, and we assume, quite reasonably, that ours is pretty similar to everyone else’s. The beauty of Wavelength is that it’ll show you just how differently that lumpy mush inside our skulls can work. Sure, airplanes have been vital in the last hundred years, but compared to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs or the invention of penicillin? The Wright brothers’ crowning achievement was hardly more than a single leaf, rustling in the winds of time.
In Wavelength, one player spins and secretly views the position of a narrow, colored pie slice (the scoring range) on a semicircle gauge. A publicly drawn card then designates the gauge as a spectrum, with the two ends marking extremes of a concept or topic. Hiding the scoring range, the player then has to come up with an object, person, idea…whatever, to represent the position of this area within the gauge as a whole. A dial close to extremely “cool” for example, could elicit a clue of “liquid nitrogen” or even “Going Analog” if you’re feeling particularly generous. The teammates must then use this clue to guess at where the secret scoring range is hidden.
Depending on the topic, differing world views could prove grounds for a nasty argument. Thankfully, while Wavelength will certainly get you heated -- sometimes even shouting -- it’ll usually be over the most benign topics imaginable. Do you really believe that printer cartridges are an easily replaceable item? Have you seen how much those things cost?
Wavelength is a game that most would mark as best for groups who know each other exceptionally well, but it’s an equally brilliant tool for learning and laughing over just how differently people approach an idea.
Recommended for: kids or gaming with drinks (definitely not both), newcomers to board games
Completely sober, Cockroach Salad isn’t much of a game. Now we don’t think alcohol is necessary to enjoy a games evening, but it sure as hell transforms Cockroach Salad into a masterpiece of mess-ups and laughter.
First, you split a deck of bug-infested vegetable cards between everyone. Easy. Players then take turns flipping the top card of their deck onto one of two “salad” piles. Piece of cake. As soon as you flip, you have to say the vegetable on your card. This ain't a challenge -- pour me another! Except, if your card matches the one underneath, you have to lie and say a different veg. Oookay, still manageable. Oh, and if the player before you lied, you also can’t say the same lie that they did. Hold on, I’ve had two rums already, what was that again? Plus! If any special taboo cards are face up, the veg they depict are also forbidden. Are tomatoes even a vegetable?!? Hesitate or say the wrong vegetable, and the entire table will pounce on your mistake, forcing you to pick up all the cards and add them to your revolting deck. Oh god, I’m feeling queasy.
Relying on slips of your memory and reactions, Cockroach Salad is an ideal icebreaker game to whip out in a pub, or when inviting folks round for a drink or two. If you’re living an alcohol-free life then its putrid produce may struggle to offer a challenge, but it’s also a great option for kids to play together.
Recommended for: large parties and social events
Designer Vlaada Chvátil has quite the portfolio to his name, but we’d argue that Codenames may be the top (secret) contender in his cardboard catalogue. This simple game of word connections has proven itself appealing to almost all demographics -- and equally popular with experienced and new board gamers.
Laying out a grid of 25 word cards, Codenames asks two teams to attempt to identify which are secretly associated with their side. The only direction? Single-word clues given by their otherwise-silent Spymasters. Mess up and pick a card that’s not yours and the turn ends immediately, giving the other side a chance to outpace you. Each turn is vital, meaning every single clue needs to be considered carefully.
The big risk with Codenames is that it puts a lot of pressure on the clue-giver. Generating connections without looping in opponents’ cards or the game-ending assassin is sweat-inducing work for even the coolest foreheads in the business. Grab two players willing to kick things off, however, and Codenames will accommodate and engage as many people as you can fit in a room.
Discussions over which cards a tricky clue refers to are a brilliant way to get people talking, and you can expect plenty of high-fives when a risky gamble pays off. After greasing their brain-cogs through a round of guesses, you’ll soon find others eager to give clue creation a crack. Because it can’t be that hard now, can it? Oh my sweet, summer Spymasters, how wrong you are….
Recommended for: terrible artists, groups that don’t care about winning, anyone who hates whispering
To the catastrophic artists of the world -- ourselves included -- here, finally, is a chance to shine. Telestrations will likely be one of the funniest games you’ll ever play, and it’s all thanks to your own ineptitude. In no other game will you transform the concept of dreaming into a Jewish hospital or write the words “sad river cheese” in complete sincerity.
Based on the children’s game of Telephone, everyone playing is given a dry-erase marker and booklet of wipeable card sheets. Picking a concept or rolling a dice to choose from a secret card, all players write their “secret word” on the first sheet of the booklet. Everyone then has 30 seconds to attempt their best drawing on the next page before the booklets are shuffled round the circle. Checking the previous page in the book, players alternate creating their own drawings and attempting to decipher the mad scribbles of the player before them.
Telestrations is all about the end-of-round pay off. As each booklet arrives back with its original owner, sounds of laughter and amazement will erupt around the room. Everyone then gets the chance to share their own story of precisely how a cat ended up converting itself into a hairy biscuit as well as dish out some meaningless points for best drawing and guess.
Discovering someone is a brilliant artist is bound to generate conversation, but being equally terrible only makes Telestrations funnier. It doesn’t put any pressure on players to debate or perform to the crowd, making it a fantastic option for the less extroverted groups that grace your table. Our biggest complaint? You’ll be playing it so much that an endless supply of erasable markers is almost a necessity.
Trial by Trolley
Recommended for: groups of around 5-10, sadists, and fans of Cyanide & Happiness (is there a difference?)
“But do I know anything about the person?”
We’ve all heard of the trolley problem -- that age-old dilemma over whether to shift a train between two tracks of tied up victims. Flipping the switch could save several lives, but in doing so you’d condemn another to death. The trouble with thought experiments, though, is that they don’t get down to the nitty, gritty details of life and death that we humans are so obsessed with.
Thankfully, Trial by Trolley has just pulled into the station, and it won’t just tell you know the name of the person you’re about to run over, it’ll let you know just how many kittens they’ve punched recently. The problem? The other side is likely packed with just as many despicable characters. Ahh, the tragedy of choice.
One player takes up the role of conductor on the Philosophy-and-Murder Express, with the rest of the room split into teams representing the demons on either shoulder. Adding innocent victims to their own tracks and guilty parties to their opponents’, each side attempts to justify why their route should live. The real fun comes from the twist-happy modifier cards played at the end of a round. That politician fighting for a better, more equal tomorrow? Sure they seem noble, riiiight up until you realise that they’ve got a side-job kidnapping children. Seriously, they need to be stopped.
With the right crowd, Trial by Trolley is brilliant at generating conversation and light arguments. Thanks to rotating teams, it’ll also force everyone to talk and team up with one another over the course of a single game. It's worth noting, however, that among a plethora of lighter, sillier cards, Trial by Trolley includes several “edgier” topics that some may not be comfortable joking about. If you’re concerned about how some new folks might respond, a quick scan through the decks can siphon out the more questionable content before the game hits the table.
Those were our picks for the best board game icebreakers. Know of any other great games to smooth over an uncomfortable opening conversation? Share them with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Speaking of chitchat, you can listen to us talk everything board games on the Going Analog Podcast. We promise the entrance won’t be too awkward.
Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Frosthaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found scouring the web for the latest and greatest games, then wondering why he never has time to actually play them. Share your love of deck builders with him at @Fernoface on Twitter or drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.