Ten of the Best: Wooden Games

02 June 2023
This month, we thought we would celebrate the games out there that exclusively use wood in their composition.

Our hobby is dominated by cardboard, with a heavy sprinkling of plastic. Yet, for many of us, some of the games that introduced us to gaming also utilised beautiful wooden components; games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne stood apart with the organic joy of their pieces.

Words by Chris Lowry

1. Quoridor 

Buy yourself a copy of Quoridor here

To be honest, this list could very nearly just be a catalogue of Gigamic games (see issue 66) every home should house one of their iconic abstract strategy puzzles. Quoridor is arguably one of their best, a race from one side of the board to the other, with only thin wooden barriers to block your opponent. Sounds simple, right? The catch, of course, is that the wooden walls blocking their way also block yours. What ensues is an infuriating battle of frustrated movement, and the inevitable realisation that your nine year old is simply cleverer than you. Again.


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2. Pathagon

Less well-known than many on this list, Pathagon is a two player game centred around building paths across a board whilst simultaneously trapping your opponent. Solid wood construction underpins a game that scales well with player skill. A great choice for the family, children will have fun building their own routes, whilst adults will bash heads intellectually with just the right amount of crunch to fill its ten minute play time. It’s rare that you only play one game, with “Best of three?” inevitably followed by “Best of five?”. Add an incredibly simple teach to the mix and this is a game ready for pubs, picnics and… many other places beginning with ‘p’.

3. Go  

Buy yourself a copy of Go here

From one end of the complexity spectrum to the other: next on our top ten is Go. Many Western readers might mistake it for Othello or Reversi, but Go is actually one of the oldest board games in the world. It manages the near impossible – a rule set that fits into just three paragraphs whilst having a complexity that confidently outstrips all its competitors. Did you know that a computer was built that could beat humans at chess in 1997, but it took until 2015 to do the same with Go? Unlike chess, Go also has a neat handicap system that allows an absolute beginner to take a relative expert to town. Traditionally made with a wooden board and wooden bowls called “goban” holding the stone playing pieces – Go is both a challenging board game and an absolute joy to physically interact with.

4. Raft & Scupper

Buy yourself a copy of Raft and Scupper here

Along with the environmental benefits of wood, it also adds the capacity for components to be hand crafted. ET Games, makers of Raft & Scupper, have a ten year track record of making Fair Trade games, produced them in ethical partnership with Asha Handicrafts in India. Described as ‘The Thinking Pirate’s Game’, Raft & Scupper is their latest offering, and comes in a handmade treasure chest. This tactical two player game uses a randomised-but-symmetrical setup, to ensure a balanced puzzle battle that is different each time you bring it to the table. The game challenge is just the right mix for me, with the goal to raft together your entire fleet in an ever-shrinking sea – or to seize victory when you scupper the most ships.

5. Chess

Buy yourself a chess set here

We all know this grizzled old classic, and it’s certainly one that’s available in an exhaustively wide array of attractive forms; a quick search for “handmade wooden chess” would be enough to get any varnish lover salivating. However, familiarity may have led you to overlook the reality that Chess is a magnificent game. There are literally thousands of years of accumulated deep strategy in the chess world; a deep well for some people to thrive in. If that’s too profound for you, no fear, there are hundreds of variants available to bring it back into the realms of less intellectual fun. I’d point you to Devil’s Chess, which adds a deck of action cards to the game, and Atomic Chess, where any piece capture leads to a nine square explosion, dramatically reducing play time and allowing you to make ‘boom’ sound effects every other time you move.

6. Cathedral

Buy yourself Cathedral here

Cathedral is a mediaeval-themed strategy game by Robert Moore. It’s beautifully thematic, in that the game is about cramped historical cities and during the course of play the entire board gets completely clogged with differently sized wooden buildings. Unlike some of the abstract games on this list, Cathedral is a short-to-medium experience, most games coming in around the 30 minute mark. That means each play-through provides enough time for a beginning, middle and end phase, your doom foretold but not quite inevitable. Although the full sized version is the prettier, the travel edition is still satisfyingly chunky and wooden, whilst still packing up small enough to take camping/paragliding/scuba-diving.

7. Flick Em Up

Buy the Dead of Winter version here

Cowboys! Guns! Flicking! If those three words get your heart pounding, this will be your sort of game. Flick ‘Em Up is a wonderful game for all of us who spent endless hours playing with Lego and toy cars. Simply set up your own Wild West frontier town using the pieces from the box - including little wooden cacti, period buildings and little wooden cowboys with hats - then play can begin! Players flick bullets at each other in the game’s prebuilt scenarios, or simply challenge one another to a showdown. There ain’t room on this here table for the two of you, after all.  Now, I’m well aware that there is a plastic version of Flick ‘Em Up available, but let’s ignore that, and stick to the gorgeous wooden version. It even comes in a chunky full-sized game box that’s made from wood too. This game is the one I’m most likely to play with my kids, and it’s the one I’m most likely to throw out of the window when all my stupid bullets keep missing all their stupid cowboys

8. Junk Art

Buy Junk Art here

Junk Art is a must-have for dexterity fans. The premise is simple: build preposterous piles of awkwardly shaped wooden pieces. There’s fun for gamers and non-gamers alike here, and with ten game modes you could run them all together and have a Wooden Games Olympics to round off your evening. A classic in the ‘balance some bits and hope it doesn’t fall over’ genre, there’s something profoundly pleasing about its presentation and tactile feel.


9. Dominoes

Buy Dominoes here

It turns out that traditional pub games are a hidden mine of brilliance. You should absolutely consider picking up a set of Dominoes, if there isn’t one already lurking at the back of your cupboard. You may have played in childhood; but in doing so you probably missed the razor-edge strategy hiding underneath. In a two player game, as the pieces are placed and revealed, a canny player can work out weaknesses in the other’s hand. With clever play, it’s possible to strand your opponent with high point doubles that they are unable to bury. There are few feelings as satisfying as closing off sixes so that double six can’t be placed any more, and having your opponent glare at you, because they know that you know that they have the double six.

10. Pucket

Buy Pucket here

This is the second entry from ET Games here, for two reasons; firstly, we should be applauding people making the effort to bring fairly traded games to the market; secondly, this is the only game I’ve ever bought after being invited to play it by a stranger on a train. Big enough to fill half a table, and made from perfectly polished Sheesham wood, Pucket is a fast-paced dexterity game, based on a traditional French activity Table à Elastique. It is perfect for families – we’ve had extended family knockout tournaments at Christmas – it’s fun and frantic, and reliably draws a crowd, both to jeer at the loser and to pick up errant pieces catapulted erratically around the dining room.

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