Trash Talk: Micro Games

Remember the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? The new saying is “Don’t judge a game by its box size.” The recent explosion in the table top gaming hobby offers both hobbyist and non-hobbyist an eclectic choice of theme, style, mechanics, player count, and size for their gaming pleasure. Some two-player games have large boards, separate player boards, and hundreds of bits and chits. While some four-player games have as little as a few dozen cards and a handful of wooden cubes. Some of these smaller, micro games have quite a bit of depth and strategy packed inside that little cardboard box of joy.

Sail To India, designed by Hisashi Hayashi and published by Alderac Entertainment Group, is a great example of innovative gameplay packed into a tiny box. Thirteen of the tarot-sized cards are laid out side by side across the table, forming a board. Each card represents a different port. Players will use their colored cubes to travel to these ports, trade goods, and build churches, markets, and strongholds. The game has another set of tarot-sized cards that players use as boards that will track their individual currency, ship speed, and technological advances.

Is this a card game or is it a board game? It plays like a board game. Players place their cubes—representing workers—on different spaces on the board, but that “board” is nothing more than a row of cards. It’s because of this outside-the-box thinking by game designers (like cross pollinating board and card mechanics) that the metaphorical box lid has been blown sky high, revealing ways to fit a lot of gameplay inside these small games.


Another series of games that use cards as boards is the Tiny Epic series, designed by Scott Almes and published by Gamelyn Games. So far, two games have been published (Tiny Epic Kingdoms and Tiny Epic Defenders) amd Gamelyn Games has a third title in the production pipeline (Tiny Epic Galaxies). Also, the recently announced an upcoming expansion for Tiny Epic Kingdom. I’m sure there are other Tiny Epic projects that Michael Cole has hidden under his great helm.

Each of the Tiny Epic games has its own set of original mechanics and rules. The only thing they have in common is the name of the designer, that they all use large cards as boards, and the small size of their boxes. Each has its own degree of depth and strategy allowing it to provide a unique gameplay experience. Tiny Epic Kingdom is a small, excellent 4x game, and though Tiny Epic Defenders is set in the same universe, it is a cooperative game. Tiny Epic Galaxies is altogether different, building on its own dice rolling and bad luck mitigation mechanics.

Another way designers are able to get more game with fewer components is by designing cards that can be used in multiple ways. Depending on the orientation and or placement, one card can be used to represent different resources, currency, actions, locations, items, victory points, and more.


San Juan (designed by Andreas Seyfarth) was perhaps the first modern game to use this micro game format (at the very least, it kicked off the recent trend). This classic city building and economic game is still considered by many to be one of the most innovative card games around. To help solidify that claim, it racked up a stream of awards since its original 2004 publishing. So popular, it just received a small face lift to celebrate the release of its second edition.

San Juan, Second Edition is sold in a slightly larger box (so it no longer quite fits into the micro game category), but with its deck of 143 cards and only a few other small pieces, it can still be loaded into a sandwich bag and tossed into a backpack, pocket, or other game box for easy portability.


A game that well and truly is a micro game is last year’s Isle of Trains, designed by Dan Keltner and Seth Jaffee and published by Dice Hate Me Games.

In the tiny box that Isle of Trains comes in contains only a deck of 56 playing cards, a one-page rule sheet, and a one-page card reference sheet. That’s it! Nothing else! No meeples, dice, or any other wooden bits are needed for the game. But within those 56 cards is a surprising amount of strategy and tactical gameplay.

With the exception of the six delivery cards, each card in the deck will be used throughout the game in multiple ways. The cards can be built or placed in front of the player as a building, train engine, boxcar, or caboose. Each card has a build cost where the currency is cards—you must discard a number of cards equal to the cost of the train or building you want to build.

This mechanic plays double-duty, acting both as a natural hand management mechanic and also requiring the player to make some interesting decisions about what to build and what to give up in order to build it. The cards that you are discarding represent not only architecture that you might want to build, but also cargo you might want to load for bonus actions later in the game (another common use for the cards).

On the right side of cards in Isle of Trains is a small illustration of a piece of coal, a box, or an oil drop. These represent cargo that can be loaded on to one of the corresponding boxcars. To do so, you will slide the card perpendicularly behind the boxcar card so only the cargo symbol is showing. If you load cargo onto your own train, nothing special happens. If you load it onto an opponent’s train, you get to perform the special action that is printed in that cargo box (possibly granting you more card draws and or extra actions).

All of this leads to a second level of gameplay—assessing your opponents’ hands. “If I load this specific cargo on their trains, am I making things difficult for them or giving them just what they need for some easy victory points?” When it isn’t your turn, you must watch what cargo the other players are loading so that you know what combinations remain available for you to make your own deliveries.

So many decisions packed into not only this little game, and the others I have mentioned, but tons of other games I haven’t even touched on—Mike Fitzgerald’s Mystery Rummy series, the dozens of different iterations of Love Letter, Legacy, Valley of the Kings, Star Realms, Coup, and—oh my gosh!—the list goes on.

All I can say to you, friend, is keep a close eye on that little micro-games spinner rack in your favorite local game store. Just because there’s only a ten- or fifteen-dollar price tag on a tiny little box doesn’t mean it isn’t packed with thousands of dollars worth of gameplay.


Written by Jason Hancock

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