Thanks to classics such as Yahtzee (1956!) and Blackjack (1700s) – and since the TV era, game shows – push or press-your-luck is a universally known and understood game mechanism.
Below I’ve listed my favourite push your luck tabletop games. They’re all card and dice games, although the way they use the mechanism does vary considerably. In some it’s the whole game, in others less so; while sometimes you’re relying on the luck of the draw or roll, but elsewhere it’s the other players who have control of your destiny.
Before getting to the list, a lot of games use push-your-luck as either a subtle or small part of the game; the three standing out for me being Downfall of Pompeii, Thebes and The Oracle of Delphi. While most of Thebes is set collecting, push-your-luck often decided it; while in Pompeii, it’s all about choosing a small amount of people to save – or risking trying to get more out. In Delphi, you want to take those monsters out to get great rewards – but it means a dice roll; while if you don’t deal with those wound cards, you can miss a whole turn which can easily cost you the game.
So here’s my list. As always, the links aren’t commercial (I wish lol) – they’re to full reviews of any of these games I’ve done elsewhere on the blog. And please do chime in with any you think I’ve missed in the comments below. As for numbering, this isn’t really an in-order list – there are hundreds of press-your-luck games and I think all of these are worthy of the £10-20 you’ll need to buy most of them. And I’d still play Yahtzee!
My Top 10 press-your-luck board games
(2015, 2 or 4-8 players)
No matter the version you choose, and there are now myriad (well, seven), you’ll have moments playing Codenames where – as either spymaster or guesser – you’ll decide whether to go for that dodgy clue (or answer) that could make or break your game. Push your luck is relatively common in party and dexterity games, but nowhere is it more obvious than here. And it’s always more delicious when, rather than the roll of a dice or a flip of a card, it’s your team mates that are going to be involved in whether your luck pays off.
(1999, 2-5 players)
While bidding and set collection are key to this classic Reiner Knizia design, it’s the press your luck element that raises it to the next level. On each of your turns you’ll look at the current tiles on offer and decide: should the auction start now, or do I add another tile to the those on offer? And there’s luck here, as a brilliant tile offer can be totally blown by a cursed tile being drawn’. Even better though, are the red Ra tiles: as more start to be drawn in a round, you know the round could end at any moment – but if you stay in, you could grab a bunch of tiles unopposed. Great tension.
(2007, 2-4 players)
In the first half of this game, the player on turn draws a card per player (plus one) and distributes them as they see fit: the trick being, you don’t see the next card before you’ve distributed the first. So, if you get a middling card, you might think of playing safe and keeping it – knowing something juicier may come along next. Agonising. Unfortunately for me, the second half of the game isn’t quite as fun – which is why (self-interest alert!) took Steve Finn’s mechanism and used it as the main stay of my own design, Witless Wizards. I suggest you check them both out.
7. Welcome to the Dungeon
(2013, 2-4 players)
This quick card game sees players taking turns to make a dungeon tougher to complete or weakening their own chance of completing it – with the last/bravest/stupidest adventurer standing going on to attempt it. You can win by never venturing into a dungeon by being last standing – while those taking a risk need to compete just two dungeons to win the game. But two defeats, and you’re out. The trick: only the player looking at each card knows what they’ve put into the dungeon, so you’ll only know a fraction of what to expect inside.
(2003, 2-5 players)
One of the simple joys of gaming is pushing your luck against your opponents’ decisions (if you like that kind of thing) – and it’s usually about greed. This is a great example: a simple card game where you try and maximise points in three colours, while avoiding the other four. On your turn, flip a card and add it to a row (there’s one row per player) – or take a row. Each row has a maximum of three cards, so you can hold out – but of course, other players will try to make any row bad for you. For a similar feel, see any of No thanks!/Incan Gold, Medina (bigger and deeper) and Android: Infiltration (sci-fi).
5. Archaeology: The Card Game
(2007, 2-4 players)
One simple premise elevated this simple set collection card game from being just another take on rummy into my personal Top 50 games. You want to get as many of a card type as possible before you lay them in front of you, as they score more each per card you have – and you can’t add to a set once placed. There’s also no hand limit. However, there are cards in the deck which force you to throw away half of your hand – so the more cards you’re holding, the more risk you’re taking. It also nicely matches the theme, making this one of the best – and accessible – filler card games out there.
4. Can’t Stop
(1980, 2-4 players)
A simple meeting of probability and push-your-luck, this family friendly dice game doubles as a great educational tool. Roll four dice, make two pairs, and score those numbers. You need to complete three number tracks to win, with the 2 and 12 tracks being very short and the 7 track much longer – but once you’ve started three numbers in a turn you have to roll at least one of them or lose all your progress – or stop for the round. If you’re looking for a card game equivalent, check out Port Royal – a great pirate-themed card game that (occasionally, unless you’re me) rewards the brave.
3. King of Tokyo
(2011, 2-6 players)
While Yahtzee is fine, this is one of a host of games that have taken the idea of rolling/re-rolling a bunch of dice and doing something fun with the outcome. Here you’re each a big monster (think Godzilla, King Kong etc) trying to destroy Tokyo – but you want it for yourself. Dice can heal you, attack foes or collect/trigger special powers – while an extra level comes in being the current ‘king’: if you’re in the middle of the board, your attacks hit everyone and you gain points – but equally, everyone else’s attacks hit you. See also Pickomino (kids/light) and Ancient Terrible Things (Cthulhu themed).
2. Formula D
(2008, 2-10 players)
While re-rolling is fun, it’s also tense to have to make a decision (on the amount or size of the dice, for example) and then be stuck with the outcome of a single roll. Formula D does this brilliantly, as players take control of a racing car where each higher gear sees you using a larger, more unpredictable dice for movement. You always have to stop in corners or take damage, so timing those changes is crucial – but if you get behind, you have to take risks. for a much smaller, lighter take on this see Dice Heist; or a version with added bluffing and inter-player intrigue, check out the excellent Celestia.
1. Reina Knizia’s Decathlon (FREE GAME)
(2003, 1-4 players)
Yup, you read that right – you can download the official Decathlon rules free. All you need then is eight normal 6-sided dice and a bit of paper (or print the official score sheet, at the end of the rules). This Yahtzee style game reproduces each even of the decathlon with slightly different dice rules, implementing several of the ideas you’ll find in the other games on this list. It’s a fun family game and hey – you don’t need to take my word for it – no matter how much you’re struggling, your budget should stretch to free!