This article begins with explaining the push-your-luck mechanism in board gaming and continues with the 10 Best Push-Your-Luck Board Games in 2023. Are you willing to gamble or do you like to play it safe?
Introduction to 10 Best Push Your Luck Board Games in 2023
We’re all familiar with the casino game named Blackjack. At least from the movies, where it’s often featured. When do you take another card and when do you stay put? A thrilling decision that makes or breaks your financial state.
But while gambling for money has many pitfalls of its own, the pure concept of gambling is highly exciting. Then, what if we created a safe environment for you to have fun with it? Meet push-your-luck board games, games where you’ll have the chance to relive those casino moments, but this time all you risk is your ego and some victory points.
Explanation of Push Your Luck Mechanics
In push-your-luck (or press-your-luck, as this board game mechanic is also known), players are against the decision(s) between settling for what they already have or risking for greater rewards. Risks can vary from losing the reward to other players, forfeiting turns, losing points, or even losing the game.
The process is mandatorily accompanied by some randomness. Whether you’re drawing cards from the deck, rolling dice, drawing tokens, collecting sets, etc., there must inevitably be a factor that you can’t completely control in order for the push-your-luck mechanic to work.
But often, games will offer ways to sway the odds in your way, using methods such as deck or bag building, dice manipulation, and similar. When implemented correctly, these can be an engaging tool for players to forge their strategies.
Criteria for Selection
While there’s an element of push-your-luck in almost every board game (i.e. do I place my worker on spot A now or do I risk waiting one more turn going for the riches at spot B instead, full knowing the spot A can be taken by other players), surprisingly, the games where push-your-luck is the main mechanic, are not abundant.
Despite this, with my list, I’ve mostly selected the board games where push-your-luck is the main game mechanic, although there are exceptions. Why I made those is further explained by every game. Other than that, I just went for the games that are highest rated among the board game community and just overall considered good games.
If you click on an affiliate link, it will take you to the Amazon store. If you then buy something, I will earn a commission – I am a member of the Amazon Associates program, as well as others.
(10) Deep Sea Adventure
Duration: 30 minutes
Player count: 3-6, plays well at all numbers
You and your buddies have heard about the great riches beneath the sea surface, so naturally, you rent out a beat-up submarine and head out to the open sea. You put on your dive suits and head deeper and deeper while having a shared air supply from the sub. You better return to the vessel before the supply runs out!
Each turn, you must decide whether to return to the submarine or go deeper for bigger treasures. The more you carry, the more air you will consume, making it harder for everyone to return to the submarine safely. If air runs out, everyone still outside will lose all their treasures!
While this sounds pretty standard, it’s the shared air that provides the extra twist. You try to predict how much others will risk and work your strategy around this, but you can’t plan around dice rolls and other players who may just decide that “if I run out of air I’ll take everyone else down with me!”. A very simple, tiny game that holds tons of excitement!
(9) Dice Throne
Duration: 20-40 minutes
Player count: 2-4, best with 2
Dice Throne is not a single board game, it’s a whole game system of fast-paced combat games for up to six players (best at two, though). Players control their fantasy heroes in a duel against one another.
Each character is unique in their appearance and abilities, which makes for a highly asymmetrical play. The push-your-luck element hides in the way their actions are activated. You roll dice and then allocate points to various powers. You have a number of re-rolls available and you’re always in a dilemma to use a current roll or gamble with a re-roll.
As mentioned, there are several editions available and characters can be mixed and matched any way you like. For starters, the Season One box containing six heroes is a good entry point.
(8) Can’t Stop!
Duration: 30 minutes
Player count: 2-4, plays well at all numbers
If you distill the push-your-luck mechanic down to its ingredients, this is what you get. Can’t Stop! is a classic from 1980 (several reimplementations have been made over the years) and it’s still very relevant today.
The gameplay is highly superficial. You’re trying to climb the tracks using four dice. There are some tactics involved in how you combine the dice, so there’s a bit of skill involved.
You can continue rolling the dice and move up again – but if you’re unable to perform a legal move you fall down all the way where you began your turn. Judging when it’s the best moment to stop for the turn is crucial. But it’s hard to win if you don’t risk anything …
(7) Incan Gold
Duration: 30 minutes
Player count: 3-8, best with larger numbers
Incan Gold (or Diamant, as it’s also known) is another immensely simplistic push-your-luck game. You are explorers (or better, loot hunters), wandering deeper and deeper into the shafts of Incan ruins and grabbing riches on the way. But there are many hazards on your path to richness – turn back before they bury you!
The game uses a shared deck of cards which represents the ruins with all of their riches and hazards. As players go through it card by card, they will collect gems automatically and uncover hazard cards. Before each card, you will have a chance to pack your spoils and head out or delve deeper.
There are several types of hazards (rocks, snakes, spiders, mummies) and if two of the same type are revealed, everyone still left in the deep loses their loot. To incentivize pushing your luck, you can collect valuable artifacts but only if you’re the last one still exploring (or the only one exiting that round).
The simple concept results in exciting fast-paced gameplay. You can learn it in a minute and it’s particularly suitable for large groups or parties.
(6) Port Royal
Duration: 20-50 minutes
Player count: 2-5, plays well at all numbers
There’s a bit more meat in our next entry as it also relies strongly on the tableau and engine-building mechanics. Port Royal is pirate-themed and the crew that you hire will help you to be ever more effective with what you do (hiring, trading, fighting, along with some special abilities).
Each turn, you will draw cards from the central deck and these cards are of two types: ships or crew. Revealing a crew card is fine – it’s another candidate that you can potentially hire. But when you reveal a ship, you can decide whether to fight it off (if you have the appropriate crew) or leave it in the card display.
If you leave it in the display and draw another ship of the same color, your turn is over. You can, of course, stop drawing cards at any time.
The trick is that you can only interact with one card in the display (hire one crew or trade with one ship) – unless you have ships of multiple colors in the display – the more, the better.
This allows you to progress much faster, so the point of the game is to build up your crew so that collecting multiple colored ships becomes less and less risky. This results in a highly strategic gameplay where push-your-luck is not pivotal, but still an important component of it.
Nonetheless, Port Royal is still a relatively entry-level board game with a solid skill ceiling and a bit of luck mixed in a perfect blend.
(5) No Thanks!
Duration: 20 minutes
Player count: 3-7, best at 4-5
Here’s another one-deck card game, but it holds much more than the covers might suggest. In the deck, there are cards numbered 1-35. Each round, one card is turned over and on your turn, you either decline the card by placing the chip on it or take the card with all the chips on it.
The cards score negative points so the goal is to take as few (and lowest numbers) as possible. Two more tricks – if the cards you have taken form a succession, only the lowest is scored (for example, you have 29-30-31, you would only score 29 negative points for this set) and the chips are worth positive points at the end.
These simple rules create a series of interesting tactical choices. Perhaps you have a 31-32 and a 33 comes out. You see that no one has the 34 yet, so this looks like an undesirable card for other players. So instead of taking it right away, you might decline it, hoping for more chips to accumulate on it before it’s your turn again. Do you now dare to decline again or play it safe?
While declining undesirable cards is fine, you must also make sure you don’t run out of chips, because you’ll have no other choice but to take a card then, whether you like it or not. Therefore it’s very important to form a plan of which cards to take.
Of course, other players have their own agendas and can destroy your plan with one card, so you need to keep an eye out for them, as well. All in all, No Thanks! holds a formidable level of gameplay for such a small (and cheap) box.
Duration: 45-60 minutes
Player count: 2-5, best at 3-4
This classic reinier Knizia game from ’99 perfectly encompasses the board gaming cosmos of the time. It’s fast-paced, simple to teach, and uses very few components (well, at least compared to what we’re used to these days) and rules to achieve great gameplay depth.
Ra is a push-your-luck auction game where players collect tiles representing different aspects of ancient Egyptian life. The mixture of bidding values available to each player, the clever bidding rules (the winner’s bidding tile goes to the middle and is an extra reward for the next auction), varied combinations of tiles available during an auction, and the clever scoring mechanisms make for a deep, yet fast-flowing game.
The push-your-luck element is intrinsically embedded in the auction system as you ponder when to spend each of your three bidding values. The higher the better, but you can gamble that others will spend their high tiles first and you will then be able to make your lower values work, as well. Or wait until you can win a high-bidding tile on top, giving you the edge next time.
Even after all those years, Ra has stood the test of time (like the pyramids, heh) and its gameplay is still top-notch. It also covers a narrow auction with a push-your-luck niche, making it a highly unique board gaming experience.
Unfortunately, the original is a bit hard to buy (it can get expensive to track down a used copy), but there has been a recent Kickstarter for a new edition.
(3) A Feast for Odin
Duration: 60-120 minutes
Player count: 1-4, plays well at all numbers
This “Viking-lifestyle simulator” is a grand worker placement slash polyomino masterpiece from Uwe Rosenberg. You run your Viking tribe by placing workers on one of the many dozens of spots, covering all aspects of their lifestyles: house and shipbuilding, mining, logging, hunting, whaling, farming, crafting, trading, pillaging, raiding, exploring new lands, and emigrating.
There really is a lot of different stuff to do, but what most actions have in common is that they lead to acquiring polyominos and places where you can place them. Each covered space eventually translates to points.
So, where does the push-your-luck element kick in, you might ask? While it’s not the main revolving point of the game (which is what prevents this masterpiece of a board game from being higher on our list), it’s an important part of hunting, pillaging, and whaling. Each of these activities requires you to roll an 8 or 12-sided die (some activities demand low rolls for success, some high) and you can re-roll twice.
While you can help mitigate bad luck with having certain resources and cards, the re-rolls are absolutely essential in providing a feeling that you’re doing something you can’t completely control (i.e. you can come home from a hunt empty-handed even if you have the best bow in the world).
Even though push-your-luck is just a small part of A Feast for Odin, it’s dosed perfectly. It’s simple and fast and provides the necessary extra excitement in what is already a phenomenal board game.
(2) The Quacks of Quedlinburg
Duration: 45 minutes
Player count: 2-4, plays well at all numbers
Contrary to our previous entry, quacks are all about pushing your luck. You’re a quack, a producer and seller of potions at a medieval fair. Your goal? To brew a potion of all potions. The one to cure disease, madness, and old age. With this in mind, you try mixing and matching ingredient after ingredient, pushing the limit of the pot further. But beware, as the wrong ingredients (the white chips) can make your pot explode and leave you with nothing!
Each round, you draw ingredients from your bag one by one, pushing your marker further down the track by its value, earning you more points. There are several resources (spiders, bats, mushrooms, rats, etc.) and they do different things as you draw them out. For example, a yellow chip will remove one previous white chip, red will move one space further if there’s an orange before it, and so on.
As you draw chips, you will eventually also draw the white dangerous ones and if you have more than seven of those, your pot will explode. Therefore, calculating how many good and bad chips are still in your bag and the hope and excitement when you pull out just the chip you need provide highly exciting gameplay.
And while some of the success comes down to luck, a lot of it also depends on which ingredients you buy in between rounds and put them into your bag. It’s even more exhilarating when you pull the chips out in exactly the order you planned when you bought them, triggering the desired combos.
On top of that, The Quacks of Quedlinburg is also very easy to learn and teach, thus making it perfect for family play. And while the more serious players will smirk at a relatively high dependence on luck and somewhat limited long-term appeal, they won’t be able to deny that playing The Quacks of Quedlinburg is one of the most fun things you can do as a board gamer.
(1) Clank! (series)
Duration: 60 minutes
Player count: 2-4, plays well at all numbers
What if we took the concept of the previously mentioned Incan Gold and expanded on it? We’ll start with a detailed map of the underground, hiding many rich artifacts and other treasures. With a Dragon guardian. Then, for movement, we’ll add a strong deck-building aspect. The push-your-luck element is implemented with “clank”, a noise you generate when stealing goods, among other things.
These clank cubes from all players accumulate in a bag, and every time the dragon guarding the riches attacks (the chance of an attack increases as artifacts are looted and also as the first player finishes the game), the cubes are pulled out, reducing players’ hit points.
The result is a very tangible risk/reward ratio. Unlike simpler games, where the push-your-luck is abstracted, in Clank! you always know how much you risk (how many hit points you have left, what stage of the attacks the dragon is in) and what you can gain (the precious artifact is just two spots below the surface – I can get there and back above in two turns).
The element of chance is implemented with the cards you draw from the deck and the cards that come on the display. The more are bought, the more are replenished, increasing the chance that one of them has the dreaded dragon symbol, indicating an attack.
Moreover, you compete with other players – when the first player gets out of the dungeon, the attack intensifies significantly. So the dilemma is always whether to race out when other players are still deep in or go for another scoop of the loot.
But we shouldn’t neglect the deck-building part of Clank!, because it’s one of the best in business. You’ll get the satisfaction of adding new cards to your deck every turn and you have to make sure to have the right balance of movement and weapons in your deck, as well as companion cards, cards with other special powers, and cards that generate clank. Towards the end, you might want to transition towards more cards with victory points, that are otherwise useless during the game.
The offer is very diverse and the cards are potent, appealing, and funny. Your character will get significantly stronger towards the end and the whole process is perfectly intertwined with the push-your-luck element and the overall concept of the game, creating a truly fantastic board game.
But there is more (really). Clank! is not just one game, it comes in several flavors:
- Clank!: A deck-building adventure is the original game which is set in a high-fantasy world. There are numerous expansions available, adding new maps, cards, and even asymmetrical characters.
- Clank! In! Space! is a sci-fi variant, with its main feature being the modular board that you build before every game.
- Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated is, as the name suggests, a legacy game, including a whole story-driven campaign.
- Clank!: Catacombs is the latest addition introducing an exploration element with an even more complex modular board. This time, you venture into the unknown, building the board as you play the game, instead of knowing where and what to go for beforehand.
Besides all the remarkable positives, Clank! remains a relatively approachable game for all players. I’ve taught it to beginners and non-gamers without any issues. Clank! is truly one of the great board games of modern times. Its ingredients are implemented perfectly and they form a result that is even more than the sum of its parts. Clank! is phenomenal and I can only recommend it, whichever edition you go for.