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’re not always the best bet. Jackbox has a loud and rowdy atmosphere that can get old. They also rely heavily on blue humor, which isn’t always the right vibe. More importantly, purchasing access to these games can be expensive for gamers.
However, there are free digital alternatives to standard table games and Jackbox that can appeal to different size groups and levels of commitment. Here are five free alternative board games that offer very different, yet still fun, experiences.
To note: Updated June 14, 2021 to add two more free games: Scribble.io and All Bad Cards.
Skribbl.io features a version of the classic board game Pictionary, in which players take turns drawing a simple word or phrase while others try to guess based on the drawings. The game quickly turns into hilarity, as skilled artists often end up creating uninterpretable sketches due to time constraints and the weird words they have to draw. The guessers also contribute to the chaos by misinterpreting the drawings even as they do their best to decipher the squiggles.
With the ability to join public games or create private rooms for groups of friends, Skribbl.io provides a clean and robust interface for ease of play. Requiring no split-screen, 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 time counts down to help players guess. Its simple gameplay is made even more accessible through its easy-to-use interface, making Skribbl.io perfect for audio-only Discord hangouts or low-bandwidth video chats.
All the wrong cards
fans of Cards Against Humanitythe beloved board game full of raunchy humor and surreal jokes, can turn to All the wrong cards to continue online gameplay. Players draw a hand of cards, each with some sort of weird or relevant phrase, and must use those cards to complete a phrase. Depending on who picks the winner, players can try to make sensible sentences or lean into the infamous offensive nature of the game.
All the wrong cards gives players a chance to imitate the Cards Against Humanity experience virtually. With an easy to use interface, the game takes care of allocating tricks and collecting submitted cards. All players need is a browser and a sense of humor. While the basic version of All the wrong cards is free, groups can choose to pay for additional map packs, adding even more replayability to the game. 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 jack box games like Attractive Where Bidiots, A fake artist goes to New York Scratches this itchy drawing game with some novelty moments. Players all contribute to one large drawing, but they cannot lift their pen while contributing, requiring that whatever they draw be done in one continuous stroke. This kind of evens the playing field between trained artists and those who rely on stick figures, which can make drawing games more fun.
Corn A fake artist goes to New York it’s not just about drawing — it’s a hidden role-playing game, where all but one of the players have to draw the same object, and the fake artist has to try to guess what’s being drawn. As the players take turns adding to the collaborative drawing, the fake artist must also contribute, so the players must draw something that will allow the other real artists to see that they know the term without giving the concept to fake artist. As with most hidden RPGs, there’s always a series of accusations as the real artists try to identify the fake artist, providing a chance for fun beyond just drawing.
The free web version is not a perfect transition from the tabletop game. It doesn’t provide any insight into the rules, so a party member should be able to show off the game to their friends. It also doesn’t provide a drawing surface, although that can be easily supplemented using something like Zoom’s whiteboard feature. Where it surpasses its in-person version is that it can function as the game master, assigning random roles and deciding which word everyone will draw without human intervention, instead of requiring one of the players sits at each turn and plays this role. The digital version of A fake artist goes to New York allows players to create a private game with an access code, so the game can be limited to a particular game. The website is clean, albeit minimalist, and even supports multiple languages, making it a great party game.
Code names provides a table of words, each word belonging to the red or blue team or to no team. Players take turns trying to get their teams to guess which words belong to them by giving one-word clues. Uncovering words that belong to a player’s team earns them points, but uncovering words from the other team helps opponents. There is also an automatic loss word on the board, raising the stakes a bit. The digital version of Code names is simple, but effective. It doesn’t divide a party 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 add to any party.
Sometimes known as Exquisite Corpse, Broken camera is a cult game that may not have a flashy, published version, but has been played at parties for years. It works much like Phone, where a phrase is reinterpreted as it is passed from person to person. However, Broken camera does not just convey this sentence with words, but also asks players to draw it.
Each player starts by creating a sentence, which is then passed on to another member of the group who interprets their sentence as an image. This image is then passed to the next player who tries to figure out which sentence the image represents. This pattern continues, alternating drawings and sentences, until everyone has participated. The end results are usually hilarious and always incredibly far from where the phrase started.
While in person this game can be played with just a few pieces of paper, the digital version of Broken camera provides an application that covers all aspects of the game. It takes submitted sentences and randomly passes them to other players with a drawing application, much like Microsoft Paint, and collects all final words and images into books that can be shared. Broken camera 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 succession, rather than the expected alternation between drawing and writing. Still, the app as is doesn’t break the experience. There is also no limit to the length of turns, so players can deal with a player taking five minutes for their turn. Broken camera is a fast-paced game, and a few timers could enforce that. All in all, this game is an absolute must for any socially distanced party looking for a free way to have a little fun.
Fishbowlmore commonly called Nicknames, is secretly three games in one. Players each submit a few words or phrases for the group to use, then are divided into two teams. Each team then goes through a round of Taboo, where they ask their teammates to guess the word on the card without using that word. The next round is charades, where players interpret each word without saying anything. The final round is Password, where players can only say one word to make their teammates guess the correct word. Since each round uses the same set of words, the charades and Password rounds can go fast, which makes 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 words for each game to timing and scoring each round. Fishbowl requires no screen sharing and supports all emcee tasks. 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 Settlers of Catan where players can share a digital version of the famous hexagonal board and spend their turn collecting resources, spending them to build roads and houses, and making deals with other players. Catania is a basic tabletop game, and this version eliminates all the work of setting up the game and memorizing the rules. It also applies a timer so players don’t slow down the game too much.
Even better, the digital version allows players to include bots to supplement the game if a group is too small, even allowing solo play. This version also draws attention to the problematic idea of playing as “settlers” and colonizing a new, albeit fictional, land by directly calling the game. Colon.
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