Games for the Road

We’re a camping and picnicking family, and we like to pack a game or two in case things slow down. We’d much rather play a game when waiting in an unexpected line or at a restaurant; it keeps the noses out of the phones.

How do we pick a portable game? First, it needs to have a small footprint. After taking away the box and rulebooks, the remaining pieces need to fit neatly into a small space. This is especially important in the camper, where space is at a premium. Second, it needs to to play on almost any surface. We may find ourselves on a picnic table, but we’re also likely to be sitting on a beach blanket or around a neat sheet near the Washington Monument. Minatures and counter cubes are not right for that environment. Finally, it needs replay value. Games that can be played repeatedly and still be entertaining are key.

Here are some of our favorite traveling games:

Fun Party Games


No Thanks is a fun little card game relying on probability, wagering, and a little bit of revenge. Your goal is to have the lowest score, but other players may take the cards you need or stick you with high-value cards if you don’t play your chips right. It’s involved enough to be interesting, but simple enough to hold a conversation while playing. This game goes especially well with a few beers near the campfire and suits three to seven players.

Footprint: one deck of cards and one bag of wagering chips. Play surface: a small area for each player, plus card and discard piles.  Replay: this one will get boring after the third game, but its small footprint makes it a great appetizer.

Sushi Go is even smaller, but we find that Party isn’t too big to carry. This game is a great deal of fun, even for new players. It’s a great mixer when you find yourself with a new crowd (up to eight players) and want an ice breaker. Players try to max out points by playing food items and building sets. Cute Japanese artwork and a modular board make for a fun, eminently replayable game.

Footprint: one deck of cards, one deck of card chips, one folding play board (about 5×7 folded in half), six meeples. Play surface: a small area for each player to lay sets of cards, plus the 10×7 board with meeples. Replay: switch up that modular board to a new menu and it’s a whole new game; that makes it well worth the slightly larger footprint.

This hilariously loud party game relies on your ability to think fast – and not get confused by the cards in front of you. For up to eight players, the goal is to be the first to get rid of all your cards. You’ll do this by watching card for matching sets, then making the sound of someone else’s animal before they make your animal’s sound. It’s loud, it’s crazy, and it’ll have half the campground over at your site.

Footprint: one deck of cards that’s about four times the thickness of a normal deck, twelve rubber animal figures, and an optional 8 small plastic barns. Play surface: this one does need a reasonably smooth table as you slide card back and forth, but players hold their own decks, so 8 people can play around a single card table or even a large cooler. Replay: Depending on the crew and the number of brews, this game will replay all night.

The small footprint of Zombie Dice make it a traveling staple with our family. After all, it’s just 13 dice that we can put in a bag if we don’t like to carry the cup – and the dice cup is small enough that we usually carry it anyway. In this game, you’re rolling as many brains as you can – but watch out because as soon as you roll three shotgun blasts, your turn is over and you’ve lost your brains. It’s a “press your luck” game of probabilities that we play under food and conversation on the regular; the number of players is virtually limitless, but this one even works well with only two.

Footprint: a dice cup about the size of a can of soda, or just 13 dice in a bag if you’re extra tight on space. Play surface: you can play this one on top of a cooler, a camp chair, a subway seat, or even the ground. Just roll your dice. Replay: It gets mindless after a while, but we can still play it for hours.

Family Friendly


Exploding Kittens is a little like Russian Roulette, with the Exploding Kitten cards as the bullets. You take turns drawing cards and creating sets, all the while scheming to make your opponents draw extra in the hope that they will draw an Exploding Kitten. The artwork is silly, the kittens are cute (or not), and the simple premise keeps it fun for all ages. This game needs at least three players, but goes up to five.

Footprint: It’s a deck of cards – maybe twice as fat as a normal deck. Play surface: since you don’t lay out your sets like normal Rummy, you can play this one just about anywhere you can put a deck of cards and a discard pile. Replay: strategizing to get your opponents to take the Exploding Kitten does get dull after a few back to back repetitions, but the first game or two are so good that we deem it a “must have.”

Ye olde classic, Apples to Apples, travels extremely well. Bag up the card decks and take as many as you have room for. The gist of the game is: one player calls out the category/adjective and a virtually unlimited number of other players try to come up with a card that matches that category (or hilariously doesn’t match). Winner of each round takes those cards; winner of the game is the one with the most cards.

Footprint: you need at least two decks of cards to play – one category deck and one description deck – but you can take as many of each as you have space so it fits in a lot of odd, left-over spaces. Play surface: the category and description decks both need a space where all players can reach them, and each player will hold a stack of their “victory” cards. No other surface is really required, so this is another game that can be played on a subway seat. Replay value: this depends on how many cards you bring with you, but generally this game is good for an entire afternoon or evening of fun.

Love Letter (or our edition, Loot Letter) has to be one of the smallest footprint games we own – it’s 16 cards and the bag we keep them in. The goal is to be the last man standing but also with the highest card value. Certain moves will allow you to trade, draw more, or make your opponent discard all the way to the bottom of the deck. This game is great for those who can stand a direct “head to head” sort of game with a lot of strategy but only a few choice options. We love it while waiting at a restaurant or any other filler time.

Footprint: Sixteen cards in a small cloth bag; games don’t really get any smaller. Play surface: space for the draw and discard piles is all that you need. Players each hold one card in their hands at a time, so this is a great game for the train, bus, subway, or airplane.  Replay value: for a simple game, this one is surprisingly strong on replay value. Several games in a row is not uncommon with us; the games don’t last long but it’s fun to start again.

For the Strategist


Coup is a last man standing strategy game of trying to eliminate your opponents. On your turn, you will take coins, pay coins to do actions, or draw new cards. Players who lose both of their cards are out of the game. It’s a head to head game of domination, bluffing, and backstabbing; if that’s your style, it’s a great deal of fun.

Footprint: a deck of cards and some money chips; both will fit in a ziploc baggie. Play surface: space for the draw and discard piles, plus each player will hold two cards in their hand and a small pile of money chips in front of them. This is another great cooler-top game. Replay value: as you repeatedly play the same opponents, you will get to know their strategy, so make sure you’re all switching up strategies to keep the game fresh.

See the above note on Apples to Apples; Cards Against Humanity is the exact same game mechanic, but with wildly adult and inappropriate cards. This game is not for the prim and proper! But it is hilarious and has earned a place in our traveling box. As with Apples to Apples, take as many cards as you can. The entire bigger, blacker box is over a foot long, but well worth the space considerations if it fits.

Smash Up is one of those games where you love it or hate it, and expansion packs radically alter the game. Start by placing down four “base” cards, then players take turns using their cards – zombies, wizards, robots, ninjas, etc – to dominate the base by placing points or removing opponent cards. When a base has been won, it goes to that player. First player to reach 15 victory points is the winner. This game also works well with two.

Footprint: Smash Up is comprised of thin decks of cards for each class – pirates, aliens, dinosaurs, etc. Take as many of these player decks as you’d like. Add to that the bases, which is an additional and slightly oversized deck of cards. Play surface: this one requires more surface because you play your own cards around the base cards. But placement can be haphazard, so this one is great for a picnic blanket or a towel on the beach. Replay value: huge because you can choose different classes as well as different bases each time you play. There are thousands of combinations, making this a great repeating game.

Splendor is an engine building, longer term strategy game of gem mining. You compete to build mines, mine gems, and earn influence points with the nobility. The trick is that a limited number of mines are available at any point in time, and your opponent may grab the one you were looking for. Requiring some thought and planning, but also flexibility, this game will flex the brain cells as well as the smile muscles.

Footprint: this game requires three standard-sized decks of cards, four chipboard noble cards, and a bag of gem chips used as money. Play surface: you’ll need at least a 16″ by 16″ area to lay out the central mines, plus each player will require a small area to lay out their own conquests. But placement can be somewhat haphazard, so this is another great game for that large cooler or picnic blanket. Replay value: almost endless. Different mines will be drawn on each play, opponents will steal your moves, and you’ll need to adapt strategy each game. That makes this one worth the slightly larger footprint.

And those are our traveling favorites! They represent a wide array of gaming styles, mechanics, volume, craziness, and strategy to accommodate whatever mood we happen to be in.

If you see us out and about town gaming, by all means stop and ask what we’re playing! Most gamers love to show off their games and we’re no exception. Visit us at our next game event in Moonjava Cafe, Batavia to try any of these games for yourself!

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