Playing board games with friends online is a great way to stay social, but while Jackbox games are the definitive benchmark for board games, they aren’t always the best choice. Jackbox has a raucous, rowdy atmosphere that can get old. They also rely a lot on blue humor, which isn’t always the right vibe. More importantly, purchasing access to these games can cost players a pretty penny.
However, there are free digital alternatives to the standard table games and the Jackbox that may appeal to different size groups and levels of engagement. Here are five free alternative board games that offer very different, but still fun experiences.
To note: Updated June 14, 2021 to add two more free games: Scribble.io and All Bad Cards.
Skribbl.io presents a version of the classic board game Pictorial, in which players take turns drawing a simple word or phrase while others try to guess based on the drawings. The game quickly turns to hilarity, as skilled artists often end up creating uninterpretable sketches due to time constraints and the weird words they have to draw. Guessers also contribute to the chaos by misinterpreting the drawings even though they are doing their best to decipher the scribbles.
With the possibility of joining public games or creating private rooms for groups of friends, Skribbl.io provides a clean and robust interface to make the game easy. Requiring no split screens, this browser-based game implements time limits and role assignments. Players make guesses in a chat box, which hides the correct answers so everyone can play until the end. The interface also reveals letter clues as the time decreases to help players guess. Its simple gameplay is made even more accessible thanks to its easy to use interface, which makes Skribbl.io Perfect for audio-only Discord hangouts or low-bandwidth video chats.
All the bad cards
Fans of Cards Against Humanity, the beloved board game full of scorching humor and surreal jokes, can turn to All the bad cards to keep the gameplay online. Players draw a hand of cards, each with some sort of strange or relevant phrase, and must use those cards to complete a phrase. Depending on who picks the winner, players can try to make sane sentences or delve into the notorious offensive nature of the game.
All the bad cards gives players a chance to emulate the Cards Against Humanity experience virtually. With an easy to use interface, the game takes care of assigning turns and collecting submitted cards. All gamers need is a browser and a sense of humor. While the basic version of All the bad cards is free, groups can choose to pay for additional map packs, adding even more replayability to the game. However, the free version still packs a punch and provides a platform for social gatherings to get a little weird.
A fake artist goes to New York
For fans of Jackbox games like Pulling or Idiots, A fake artist goes to New York scratch that itchy drawing game with a few new twists. Players all contribute to a large drawing, but cannot lift their pen while contributing, requiring everything they draw to be done in one continuous stroke. It sort of level the playing field between skilled artists and those who rely on stick figures, which can make drawing games more fun.
But A fake artist goes to New York it’s not just about drawing it is a hidden role-playing game, where all players except one have to draw the same object, and the fake artist has to try to guess what is drawn. As players add to the collaborative drawing, the fake artist needs to contribute as well, so players need to draw something that will allow other real artists to see that they know the term without giving the concept to the fake artist. As with most hidden role-playing games, there is always a series of accusations as the real artists try to identify the fake artist, offering a chance for fun that goes beyond just drawing.
The free web version is not a perfect transition from the table game. It does not provide any overview of the rules, so a party member should be able to introduce the game to their friends. It also doesn’t provide a drawing surface, although this can be easily completed using something like Zoom’s whiteboard feature. Where he goes beyond his in-person version is that he can function as a gamemaster, assigning random roles and deciding what word everyone shoots without human intervention, instead of asking one of the players to. sit at each turn and play that role. The digital version of A fake artist goes to New York allows players to create a private game with an access code, so that the game can be limited to a particular game. The website is clean, albeit minimalistic, and even supports multiple languages, making it a great board game.
Code names provides a word table, with each word belonging to the red or blue team or none at all. Players take turns trying to get their teams to guess which words belong to them by giving one word clues. Discovering words that belong to one player’s team earns them points, but discovering the other team’s words helps opponents. There is also an automatic loss word on the board, which raises the stakes a bit. the digital version of Code names is simple, but effective. It doesn’t divide a group into teams, but it does provide a visually appealing board and an easy way to share it without screen sharing. It’s a quick and easy game that can be added to any party.
Sometimes known as Exquisite Corpse, Broken photophone is a cult game that may not have a flashy, released version, but has been played at parties for years. it works a lot like Phone, where a sentence is reinterpreted as it passes from person to person. however, Broken photophone not only conveys this sentence in words, but also asks players to draw it.
Each player begins by creating a sentence, which is then passed on to another member of the group who interprets their sentence as a picture. This image is then passed to the next player who tries to determine which sentence the image represents. This pattern continues, alternating drawings and sentences, until everyone has participated. The end results are generally hilarious and always incredibly far from the start of the sentence.
While in person this game can be played with just a few scraps of paper, the digital version of Broken photophone provides an application that covers all aspects of the game. It takes the submitted sentences and passes them randomly to other players with a drawing application, much like Microsoft Paint, and collects all the final words and pictures into books that can be shared. Broken photophone makes it easy to play without even requiring screen sharing between players.
Although the free app is comprehensive, it still has its bugs. Players often find themselves drawing multiple images in a row, rather than the expected alternation between drawing and writing. However, the application as is does not break the experience. There is also no limit to the length of turns, so players may have to deal with a player who takes five minutes for their turn. Broken photophone is a game best played fast, and a few timers might dictate it. Overall, this game is an absolute must-have for any socially remote party looking for a free way to have a little fun.
Fishbowl, more commonly called Nicknames, it’s secretly three games in one. Players each submit a few words or phrases for the group to use, then are split into two teams. Each team then goes through a Taboo, where they ask their teammates to guess the word on the card without using that word. The next round is Charades, where players play every word without saying anything. The final round is Password, where players can only say one word for their teammates to guess the correct word. Since each round uses the same set of words, the Charades and Password rounds can go fast, doing Fishbowl a fast paced board game that can be a lot of fun.
The digital version of Fishbowl is a clean and powerful web application that takes care of everything from collecting the words for each game to timing and scoring each lap. Fishbowl requires no screen sharing and takes care of all emcee duties. The game has a lot of moving parts because it combines so many things, and it requires a fairly large group to play. Still, parties with motivation and numbers should definitely dive into this game.
Colon is a free version of the The settlers of Catania where players can share a digital version of the famous hexagonal board and spend their turns gathering resources, spending them on building roads and houses, and making deals with other players. Catania is a basic tabletop game, and this version takes all the work of setting up the game and memorizing the rules. It also applies a timer so that players don’t slow down the game too much.
Even better, the digital version allows players to include bots to complete the game if a party is too small, even allowing for solo play. This version also draws attention to the problematic idea of playing as “colonists” and colonizing a new land, albeit fictitious, directly calling the game. Colon.
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