Anyone who loves playing games can understand the desire to make your own and share it with the world. You have a cool idea and maybe even some friends who want to help. Way back when board games first became popular, it was nearly impossible to get your game seen. However, in today’s modern world, there are many ways games can be made available to the public. Indie board games have become a huge thing in recent years, and we’re all better people for it!
But exactly what are indie board games? Indie board games are tabletop games designed and produced by individuals or small, start-up companies. There is no major corporation backing the design or production of the game and no big money from a single source to fund it. Indie board games may be funded through crowdsourcing, donations, or personal finances.
Indie board games are often a major hit at parties, gatherings, and official game nights because they are so different from standard board games. They often have unique themes that set them apart from mass-produced, commercial games designed for general audiences. With clever designs and new kinds of gameplay, indie board games provide incredible fun packed into small boxes. There is a lot to learn about indie board games, so let’s dig in! We’ll even show you some of our favorites.
What Is an Indie Board Game?
Indie means “independent”, and you see this term used for anything from games to movies to music and so on. It simply means that the product was created by an individual or a small group of people instead of being backed by a major business, company, or corporation. Yes, that means they’re working on a much smaller budget, but it also means they aren’t held back by restrictive company guidelines and silly, arbitrary rules.
Indie board games often push the boundaries of tabletop gaming. They can touch on subjects the mega-corporations won’t even think about. Indie board games can introduce new and exciting ways to play without the fear of some faceless and nameless board of directors getting their panties in a bunch.
Think of indie board game creators as mavericks, trailblazers, and explorers who wish to share their adventures and unique treasures with you. They have the freedom and passion to make incredible games that may never have seen the light of day 20 or 30 years ago.
How Do Indie Board Games Get Made?
Since there is no major funding backing up indie board game designers, it can be tough to pay your team and still create an awesome, playable, and attractive game that people will want to buy. For that reason, many indie board game companies do the work on a volunteer basis. You read that right: indie board game creators often make no money while creating an awesome game for you.
So, these people are obviously passionate about their creations, which is really cool for gamers. But there has to be money somewhere to actually produce the pieces and parts, right? Yup! But that’s where crowdsourcing comes in. Many indie game creators turn to crowdsourcing platforms such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe to get people excited about their games and to pitch in some money.
Every pledge counts. Small bits of money add up to large sums, and then board games get made. Thank goodness for the internet!
Those who don’t use crowdsourcing platforms, or who don’t get enough pledges on those platforms, can still dig into their own personal finances to pay for production, artwork, storylines, and printed materials.
Obviously, indie board game creators love what they do, which is one major reason you should be looking for indie board games to add to your game cave.
The big payoff for indie board game creators is having a growing fanbase and loyal players that provide feedback and support. If they’re lucky, investors will see the success from these grassroots creators and start funding bigger and better projects.
Our Favorite Indie Board Games
Below, we’re shining the spotlight on some of our top indie board games so you can get started with indie games on the right foot. These will all be from either individuals or small to medium game companies who started out super tiny. Some of these companies have managed to grow a bit bigger now, but they all still hold true to the indie game philosophy of gamers first.
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Shadows of Brimstone
This is my favorite board game of all time. While Flying Frog Productions has made a pretty big name for itself now, at its core, it’s still an indie board game company that puts players first. I discovered them at a local horror convention selling their first big game, Last Night on Earth (also a great pick), and I was pretty excited to see they were a local company. I love supporting local artists, so I picked up that game and was instantly in love with it. But years later, they introduced Shadows of Brimstone and I felt like my gaming world was complete.
Shadows of Brimstone is a hybrid board game and roleplaying game (RPG) set in the old west, but with a twist. Demons, monsters, and other horrors have emerged all over the world, spreading terror and death wherever they go. You choose a player card with some basic stats, then the RPG part starts. You decide how your character develops, what they do, how they behave, and how they specialize. If they survive, that is. This game is brutal!
As an example, my main character is the gunslinger. The card has a male avatar on one side and a female on the other, each with the same stats so there are no penalties for gender selection. I like to go with high luck and two pistols. I am unstoppable, as long as no mobs (creatures, enemies, and bad guys) get near me. Up close, I’m made of pudding and die in a few hits, so it’s imperative that I take them out from afar.
Other characters include the doctor, a prospector, the gambler, the lawman, a rancher, the bandito, and an orphan, but there are many more, too. Each has their own strengths, weaknesses, special abilities, and character progression charts that let you develop your character however you like. You can further develop your character by equipping or carrying equipment, items, and consumables.
The game itself is massive, complex yet easy to learn, and incredibly deep. There are dice rolls, chance charts, and random encounters. There are figures to move around the board and lots of props and cards to play with and add that authentic old west and demons feel. I’ve been playing this game for years and every adventure has been unique and full of surprises. The board portion of the game consists of beautifully drawn map tiles that are selected via the map deck. They fit together like a giant puzzle. It will be different each time you play as long as you shuffle that deck.
There are also other worlds to explore, so you’re not always stuck in the mine. These come in a variety of new core sets and expansions. Even going back to town after your adventure is an adventure in itself—both the travel time and your stay in town.
Shadows of Brimstone is my personal top pick for the best indie board game. It’s best suited for at least one experienced gamer in the group, but a studious newbie board gamer should be able to learn it pretty quickly.
Interested? You can start with any of the boxes that say core set or core set plus expansion. They make it easy to get started! This is one of my favorite core sets to begin with: Shadows of Brimstone: City of the Ancients. If you’d like to take a more eastern route into the darkness, you can try the Forbidden Fortress core set instead, which includes classes like the samurai warrior, ninja assassin, and a traveling monk.
This little-known game is a truly unique board game that deserves high praise. Mysterium is unlike any board game I’ve ever played, and that’s really saying something considering my collection boasts more than 200 board games at last counting. It’s a cooperative game where one player is an amnesiac ghost who cannot speak in words, and the other players are mediums who must figure out who murdered the ghost’s body before time’s up.
So, if the ghost player is mute, how does he or she communicate? Through a deck of incredibly detailed and beautifully drawn cards. Each card has some kind of abstract or surreal scene in full color. The ghost player hands out cards to each medium to try and explain who killed them, where, and how.
It’s a fairly complex game when first trying to set it up, and the directions could use some reworking, but after a round or two it becomes much faster and a real treat to play.
It’s a wonderful way to use your brain while having fun with 2 – 7 players. Set aside about 45 minutes to an hour to complete the game, so this is a good one to play in the middle of your game night or as the last one of the day.
Younger kids won’t quite understand the deep concepts here, but older kids will catch on quickly, so it’s a good candidate for family game night once the little ones go to bed.
Red Dragon Inn
This game really blew up once it hit the board game scene, and there’s a good reason for that. The Red Dragon Inn isn’t your standard fantasy adventure game. In fact, you don’t even have to crawl through a single dungeon or survive a single battle to play this game. The entire thing takes place in the inn after the adventure is through. You’ve just completed your quest and now it’s time to spend your money and turn in your treasures while having a few drinks with your pals.
The description says, ” You and your adventuring companions have spent all day slogging through the Dungeon, killing monsters and taking their stuff. Now you’re back in town, healed up, cleaned up, and ready to party at the Red Dragon Inn. Drink, gamble, and roughhouse with your friends. But don’t forget to keep an eye on your Gold. If you run out, you’ll have to spend the night in the stables. Oh… and try not to get too beaten up or too drunk. If you black out, your friends will continue the party without you… after they loot your body for Gold of course! The last conscious adventurer with Gold wins the game!”
In The Red Dragon Inn, you must use every trick in the book, every tool in your bag, and every weapon of wit in your arsenal to outsmart your opponents. Each character has their own deck of surprises to unleash on the other players. My favorite is Natyli the Witchdoctor and her adorable voodoo dolls. Other characters include Fleck the Bard, Zot the Wizard, Dimli the Dwarf, and Brewmaster Phrenk, but there are tons more.
Obviously, this is not a game for kids since it’s all about drinking, gambling, and messing with the other players. However, for adults, this is a riot. With expansion packs, new versions, and a massive collection of additional characters to add to your game, there is so much that can go right and oh so wrong with the flip of one card.
In 2016, Scythe was released after a successful Kickstarted campaign. While I didn’t get my hands on it until the next year, I’d heard nothing but high praise from those who’d backed the campaign. They were 100% correct: this game is incredible! For 1 – 5 players, it’s 1920 in an alternate history that includes farming, manufacturing, and war.
You are a fallen leader fighting to restore your honor and the honor of your country. How you go about that is entirely up to you. Will you be a benevolent leader, feeding and sheltering your people and building societal stability? Or will you be a warmonger set on the advancement of your borders and pushing your opponents back? Or will you do something completely unheard of?
Conquer territories in your preferred style, gather resources to build your empire and further your research goals, enlist new recruits, and unlock special abilities that reward you for staying the course. Oh, and did I mention mechs? Heck yeah, there are mechs in this game and they are awesome!
All that said, there is no killing, elimination, or getting booted from the game. You’re only setting others back or preventing them from moving into your territory, not knocking them completely out. That helps this game be a little more kid-friendly in my opinion, which is a great thing.
Kill Doctor Lucky
For a fun and only slightly evil time, turn to Kill Doctor Lucky. It’s basically a reverse Clue. Instead of finding out who killed the victim, you’re actually trying to do the killing. In this game, you choose from a pool of characters that truly hate Doctor Lucky. You’ll draw cards that will either provide movement options, weapons, or ways to stop other players from exacting their own revenge on the clueless old man.
Doctor Lucky moves around the board in a predictable pattern, but some cards can be used to force him to specific locations. Time it just right and you can make Doctor Lucky end up in a quiet room with you so you can do your dark business.
However, it’s not so easy to murder a person. You must consider line of sight! If any player has line of sight to where you’re trying to kill the good doctor, your attempts will fail and the doctor will simply move on about his business.
If you do happen to get Doctor Lucky alone and make your attempt, players can still stop you using the cards in their hands. For each failed attempt on Doctor Lucky’s life, you earn spite tokens, each of which will add murder points to your next attempt.
Kill Doctor Lucky has been updated since I first picked it up many years ago. They’ve made some changes to the draw rule and created all new art for the game. However, none of this really affects the gameplay—it’s still a ton of fun!
Another successful Kickstarter campaign brought Small World into our world, and I’m so stoked I was one of the first people to back this awesome indie board game. We loved it so much in our game cave that we’ve purchased every expansion the moment they were released.
While the game company is getting bigger now, they started out pretty darn small and still stick to their roots. Gamers come first and they never rush a release. That makes games like Small World that much better because you can see the attention to detail and the passion behind the designs.
The game designers say, ” Small World is a zany, light-hearted civilization game in which 2-5 players vie for conquest and control of a board that is simply too small to accommodate them all. Picking the right combination of fantasy races and unique special powers, players must rush to expand their empires – often at the expense of weaker neighbors. Yet they must also know when to push their own over-extended civilization into decline and ride a new one to victory.”
It’s a great family game that will appeal to any player who can read easily on their own. The gameplay is simple to learn and the pace of the game increases as everyone gets closer to decline. I like the twist on the empire-building and survival aspects… you’re supposed to expand, grow, and spread, using multiple races to push your opponents out of the running, not depend on one race to use the entire game.
Starter Games, Ending Games, and Not Quite Board Games Worth Mentioning
Bullets and Teeth
Bullets and Teeth came out in 2017 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, but I found it at a convention in Seattle, Washington. It’s less a board game and more card centered, but it’s a riot to play and can be a great way to start any game night. I met the creator and he’s a pretty cool guy with a true passion for indie games.
The official description says, “In Bullets and Teeth, a real parasite found in litter boxes has mutated. The dreaded Toxoplasm now infects cats, humans, and other animals.
To escape the claws of the brutal Scabby Tabby or the ferocious Moldylocks you’ll need to use every tool at your disposal. Fling uninfected animals for a quick Snack-rifice. Give ’em both barrels with Ol’ Faithful. Or Duct Tape tools together for a killer combo. Blast and backstab your way through the Horde or die laughing.”
This game is so much fun to play with older kids or adults whether you’re a zombie fan or not. You don’t need to understand zombie lore or even like horror movies to appreciate the tactical side of Bullets and Teeth. It’s a great dose of silly and serious mixed with the randomness a shuffled deck of cards brings.
If you’re looking for something fast to play after dinner with a group of pals or need to entertain your teen’s friends for an evening, this is a great pick.
This game is very simple to learn and quick to play—here’s a quick video explaining gameplay.
Unexploded Cow is just as silly as it sounds. This is a card game technically, but it takes up a lot of room, much like a standard board game, so I think it belongs in this list.
The description reads, “Players take the role of savvy entrepreneurs who have found two problems with a common solution: mad cows in England, and unexploded bombs in France. Gameplay is simple, fast, and funny.
This evergreen Cheapass Game returns after many years out of print, with all-new artwork and updated rules. Round up your herd, march them through France, and make a buck blowing them up!”
But it’s so much more than that. You can be totally devious in this game, using cards to move bad cows from your herd to your opponents’, shifting the entire rotation, taking extra turns, and making a total mess of your friends’ carefully laid plans.
Sure, you can be a nice and friendly player, too… but where’s the fun in that?
Unexploded Cow is a fast-paced strategy game with a wicked sense of humor. It’s very easy to learn, fast to set up, and is a great way to open or close a game night.
It probably seems like I have an obsession with blowing things up by now, but trust me. This one is the opposite! Instead of making something explode, this game is all about preventing said explosions. It’s super fast to play, incredibly simple to learn, and a ton of fun for anyone who can read simple instructions. In short, it’s Russian roulette with a twist—instead of bullets, adorable cats want to end you.
You draw cards, play cards, and attempt to avoid the exploding kitten in the deck. If you draw the exploding kitten, you’re done and out of the game unless you have a diffuse card. If you have one, you play that and the exploding kitten gets shuffled back into the deck and everyone keeps playing. It’s very simple but so much fun.
There are expansion packs for this game, so that adds a lot of neat new cards. You can also get the NSFW deck, but please be sure you don’t mix those in during an all-ages game. They are really, really not safe for work, folks.
The best part of this game is that the artwork was done by The Oatmeal, a hugely popular comic artist. The cards, art, and game are all hilarious and well worth the purchase. I got mine during the Kickstarter campaign, so my box actually meows when I open it—that was one of the perks. Yours won’t meow, but it’s still an awesome game.
This is another good choice for the start of game night, before you bring out the big board games, or to close out an evening of intense board games.
Conclusion: Indie Games Are Awesome!
There are so many awesome games out there today that it’s always hard to pick my top favorites. When you ask me about indie games in particular, it’s even tougher because they all have something unique and spectacular you just can’t find in mass-produced generic games. Hopefully, my painstakingly crafted list of the best indie board games has helped turn your eyes away from the big-name companies long enough to see that the little guys can make fantastic games, too.
Do you have a favorite indie game you’d like us to try? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!