Travel can be fun, but in some instances it can be long and monotonous, whether we're talking about a 45-hour cross-country train ride, a 10-hour international plane ride, a 5-hour bus trip, or a 3-hour Shinkansen. When it's one of those times, it pays to keep yourself occupied. Other times, playing games can be a great icebreaker with new acquaintances or a familiar past-time for old friends.
There are a few criteria for what makes a good travel game:
Portability is a given: you don't want to haul more weight than you have to, especially since you'll want it on your person so you can play it at your leisure, and it needs to be easy to take out of your bags in tight spaces.
Few Moving Pieces
Few moving pieces means less pieces to chase after or replace on the game board when the plane hits a patch of turbulence or you accidentally roll off the table/tray. You want to play the game you brought, not the game of corralling pieces and trying to remember where they were supposed to be before the board got bumped.
A small footprint is a must for games you plan to play on a train or in a bus where you likely only have personal trays to use as a play space – balancing boards between trays and hoping it doesn't collapse in the middle is simply no fun.
Specific Recommendations and Types of Games
Lying games – games that use deception and calling out apparent lies as a risk-reward mechanism to drive gameplay – and hidden-role games tend to be pretty good for trips because many games in this category are just a deck of cards that you deal out and some don't require any table space at all and just have the players hold a card that explains their role.
A few of the greats in the hidden-role genre are Love Letter, The Resistance: Avalon, and Werewolf. Love Letter is good for 2 – 4 people, with the premise of getting your love letter as close to the princess as possible without getting found out. The Resistance: Avalon is great hidden-role game for 5 – 10, with the premise that one person is Merlin trying to get the virtuous knights (most of the other players) to stop Mordred's minions (2 – 4 of the players) from sabotaging their missions without giving himself away. In Werewolf, you are townspeople trying to kill the werewolf (or werewolves), but many of the townspeople have ulterior motives.
I prefer to personally stay away from dice games as travel games because it's so easy to lose dice but I tend to always have dice and end up playing some anyway. Zombie Dice is my favorite exception to that rule: it's quick, tons of fun, and it's container is a dice cup to help keep it contained. Speaking of dice games, if you have a little bit of room Liars' Dice is a great, simple game that only requires a few sets of same-sided dice and being a better liar than your opponent – I suggest bringing dice-cups, though.
If you're somewhere that has consistent, affordable access to WiFi, a lot of the larger game makers are making digital versions of their smash-hits that you can play with friends online. Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Ascension are all now available as digital versions for under $10 (although that's a per-device fee in most cases, so everyone who wants to play will need to have it bought and downloaded), but those three are just the tip of the iceberg! There's little better than having a full board game with none of the pieces to lose or boxes to pack when on a trip.
I've mentioned a few team games already thus far, but I think that the best team game that also happens to have a fairly small footprint is Codenames. This is a game that requires at least 4 people and a little bit of tablespace to put out the codenames and color map for the codemasters but it is so worth it. You and your friends will get into a “one more game” cycle pretty easily with this one!
Remember that these games are just starting points – the guidelines above will help you find your own new classics and travel musts. Games come in many shapes and sizes with all sorts of time and space requirements, so with enough time you will find the game that fits you if none of these do. You'll do well if you remember the two rules of gaming: the best game is the one that everyone wants to play and the point of every game is to have fun!
Matthew is the Fulfillment Web & Documentation Lead at TOM BIHN. When he isn't writing, helping people post on the forums or sipping coffee from a unicorn-themed mug, his wife Bea, tuxedo cat Agatha, and him are taking silly pictures or playing board games.