With the rise of co-operative board games in the last ten plus years, the hobby has begun to shun those games that invite meanness. “Take That” has become a phrase only uttered in the shady back alleys of gaming where the common decent folk won't dare to tread. But sometimes there is immense pleasure to be derived from slapping down a card and completely destroying people you formally considered to be your friends.
That’s what this list is, a list of the ten meanest games in my collection. I did not include any head to head two player style games, those are confrontational by default, no in these games you are targeting a specific player for misfortune on purpose and making it personal!
10. Junk Art
Junk Art is down here at the bottom of the list because it’s not that mean. Junk Art is a stacking game composed of a series of short mini games. Some are played cooperative, some competitive, however a few of them are played peevishly.
In some games of Junk Art you are building your own stacking tower, but in others you share a central tower, or move around the table to different players towers and it is in these scenarios where the meanness starts to creep in. It starts off fairly innocuously at first, perhaps Bob places the stupid round ball on top your structure making it tricky to build upwards any longer.
But a few rounds in and players are literally dangling components precariously from unsupported out crops and laughing maniacally as you try not to even breathe near the structure, never mind touch it. Many rounds of Junk Art have ended with players muttering “enjoy that” or “look, I made a present for you” or any number of other mockingly brutal epitaphs.
Downforce is a brilliant racing game where players bet on cars speeding around the track. Bets are placed in secret but the cars themselves are owned by the players around the table. At the end of the game you’ll score points for your bets but also for getting your cars home.
The trick with Downforce is that any player can move any car, so long as they have the cards to do it. Trouble is you don't want to move cars that you're either not betting on or don’t own. However many of the tracks have choke points, areas where only a single car can squeak through. So cunning players will block those points, forcing players to move their vehicles for them.
Each card in the game also moves multiple cars, sometimes you might be holding a high move card for your opponent, so you definitely don’t want to play it, even if it helps you out a little, but once you’ve boxed that car in you drop their six move cards like they’re hot and then apologize mockingly when their car doesn't go anywhere. And because the number of move cards in the game is finite, if you burn enough of the high value ones, the car will run out of petrol before it crosses the line and cars that don’t finish don’t place and score nothing!
Downforce then is a game that allows you to screw with your friends and take great delight in doing so.
8. Hey, That’s My Fish
Awww, it’s a cute little abstract game about penguins picking up fish. But it’s also a cutthroat game of outright attacks that leave your opponents hungry little penguins stranded on a sinking iceberg as you greedily gobble up all the fish!
In Hey, That’s My Fish, each player controls two adorable penguins on a board made up of hexagonal tiles. On your turn you can move as far as you like in one direction, collecting the tile you moved from. In this way the board continually shrinks. Players cannot move through open spaces or through opposing penguins so the game quickly becomes about breaking the board into smaller regions, trapping your opponents in the smaller regions and keeping the bigger region for yourself.
The thing with Hey, That’s My Fish is that it’s an abstract game of pure strategy. There’s no luck, no dice rolling or card play and when someone is about to cut you off and leave you stranded on an iceflow with two measly fish you can see it coming. You’ll sit there, praying they don’t notice the move that will sink you, if you can just make it back to your turn you can rescue this, you can turn the tide.
It’s short but it’s tense and mean. They could have called this game Pick Up A Penguin or Fish Frenzy or any other title but they went with “HEY! THAT’S MY FISH” because that is exactly what you’ll be screaming at your friends less than two minutes into this game!
Each round of the game has players secretly drafting roles from a hand of cards. Because the cards are drafted the first player, known as the King, has knowledge of all the roles that are in the game, but that knowledge dwindles player by player as the cards are slowly weeded out.
4 of the 8 base game roles have a “take that” element. That's a full half of the cards are about attacking your friends, for no good reason! The first and probably most divisive of these is the Assassin. This role simply calls out the name of another role and that character takes no further part in the round. This means that round after round of this game the same player could take no turns at all!
That is pretty mean and the only reason this doesn’t rank higher is that the assassin targets a role not a player. You are choosing which role doesn’t activate and canny players can anticipate which role might be assassinated in any given turn and choose to draft a different role. And that is where the fun of the game lies, in deception, in doublethink. This game is played out less on the table and instead in the minds of the players. It’s mean, it’s combative, but it’s also a blast!
Agricola is mean in many different ways. Sure it’s a simple game about farming in the middle ages with cute animeeples and Uwe Rosenberg style gameplay. But it’s also a game of druggery, of barely surviving, eeking out enough of a living to feed your family and survive. But that’s not the meanness that I’m talking about, it’s not about the game beating you down, over and over again. No this meanness comes from the other players.
This all comes down to one particular experience I had with Agricola, against an opponent I will NEVER play games with again. Everything in Agricola requires forward planning. To plant crops you need to plough fields and gather crops before you can plant them. To breed animals you need to chop down wood, then build fences before acquiring your animals. These chains of events can be observed by your opponent, they can see what you are working towards and they can take it!
In this particular game, I was, as usual, barely making ends meet. Mr Farmer and Mrs Farmer were diligently out chopping wood and building paddocks in order to finally bring home some sheep that would not only offer friendship and comfort but also enable us to survive the coming harvest.
My opponent could see the multitude of turns I had spent working and toiling to build the perfect home for my new sheep herd, and then, quite deliberately, he took my sheep. He looked me in the eye as he placed his farmer on the sheep space, almost twisting that wooden disk into the board with delight. But, I could have lived with it, could have almost understood it if he needed the sheep, if he wanted the sheep, but he didn’t even have the room for the sheep and he slaughtered and cooked them all… All my beautiful sheep!
I ended the game with an empty paddock and an empty belly and, well, I’ve never played Agricola since!
“You put the robber on my land” is the rallying cry of gamers everywhere. The Settlers of Catan has meanness baked in with players able to carve up the landscape to block access to resources and ports, development cards that allow you to amass dozens of resources from the other players, but thing that everyone focuses on is that little black pawn that sits on the board and siphons all your stuff.
The robber in Settlers of Catan acts as a way to control the flow of resources but also as a catch up mechanism for players lagging behind the curve. Or at least that’s how it should be used. However I have seen the robber used simply as revenge for earlier sleights, in game or otherwise, or even to attack players for winning the last game or because they “always win.”
But the real meanness of the robber in Settlers of Catan does not come from within the game that it is used in. No, instead it is used as a justification in any other subsequent game. Any attack, any cruelty envisaged on a player in any game thereafter, no matter how much time has passed, can be explained away with a simple phrase “You put the robber on my land!”
Or maybe that’s just in our house. This simple little wooden pawn has caused more gamer strife than it has any right to.
4. Cutthroat Caverns
Erm, it’s right there, in the title, this game is meanness 101. Cutthroat Caverns is a wonderfully unique game which begins co-operative and ends up in bloody sabotage. Players take on the roles of fantasy characters escaping a dungeon, so far, so generic. They will face a series of monsters which will require them to work together to defeat, however, in classic D&D style only the hero who lands the killing blow will earn the prestige for defeating the monster.
The player with the most prestige will win the game, but you can only win if you’re still alive. Players cannot attack each other outright, so instead you must manipulate the game state so that your friends are the ones taking the hits while you land the killing blow. This game then is a series of microaggressions as you deliberately put your friends in harm's way all so that you can collect the glory.
3. Daring Dustbunnies
This hidden gem from the unsung hero of the UK gaming scene Andy Hopwood is sooooooo mean! But so much fun. In the game players are betting on fluffballs that are about to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner. The object of Daring Dustbunnies is to have your fluff ball as close as possible to the hoover but not in it, when the round ends.
The round only ends when all fluffballs are on separate spaces, at least one fluffball is in the hoover and no one is on the start space. The fluff ball you control is kept secret from the other players, so you need to jockey for position, playing cards to move the different coloured fluff balls without revealing which one you are controlling. But every time you play a card and move a fluffball you watch the other players around the table looking for a reaction on their faces that might tell you who’s fate is linked to it.
Like Citadels this game stops short of being the meanest in my collection because you can never be sure who exactly you are targeting, at least at first, because as the game progresses you can play Talismans of Truth to discover a players fate and then target them openly.
And in a brilliantly wicked twist, a fluffball that is sucked into the hoover, is not immediately lost, no, at first it lodges in the nozzle, allowing the controlling player a chance to rescue it, but potentially revealing their secret allegiance. Once a fluffball is in the nozzle a second card matching its colour is required to send it into the bag of doom to be lost forever and that creates a delicious moment, a tantalizing tension where you just don’t know if you can save your fluffball or if it really is all over for you.
Saboteur breaks my earlier rule of not including two player confrontational games. Saboteur isn’t a two player game, but it is team vs team so naturally you have to be mean to each other. But the game includes an optional rule, the Greedy Dwarves rule and that takes this game from a fun hidden role game, to all out sabotage!
In Saboteur players are dwarven miners attempting to find gold. On your turn you can play a path card, a special card, or discard a card. Each player has a hidden identity, either miner or saboteur. The miners all win together and share the gold. The saboteur wins if the miners don’t reach the gold after all the cards have been played out.
With the Greedy Dwarves variant only the players with functional mining equipment get a share of the gold. This rarely affects the first game, but each subsequent game players begin outright attacking each other out of the gate. A player is a valid target for an attack if:
They won the last game
Did something mean to another player in the last game
Or the current game
Or real life
Or didn’t hesitate
Discarded cards facedown
Looked at their role card