Table Games that Work Well Cross-Culturally

Hey, you! The one who likes to play table or board games. Have you ever thought about which games are best suited for friends who don't share the same mother tongue or culture as you? As we've played games with people of other cultures over the years, a few themes have stood out as far as games that are or are not fun for international guests. 

For example, some time ago, a kind, well-meaning German friend invited us for supper. We were having a nice evening — that is, until he pulled out Agricola, a German agriculture game that resembles Settlers of Catan, and asked us if we wanted to play it together. 😉 We knew he liked the game, so of course we agreed to play it with him. I'm already bad at these kinds of games in English (how should I know whether it's time to fell some trees or buy a new cow or make clay bricks?) But playing it in German just added another level of difficulty; I definitely lost.

Below you'll find a list that should help your guests have more fun than I had playing Agricola. I've played most of the games you'll see mentioned below, but a few I have not — those were suggestions from The Serviette readers (#crossculturalgames on Instagram). You'll also see a few quotes from the readers throughout, sharing how they've used these games. This list assumes that either you or your international friends are not yet fluent in your common language, and that you don't want to spend upwards of 20 minutes explaining the instructions! Please feel free to leave other ideas in the comments. Happy gaming! 

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Games that don't work well cross-culturally

  • Games requiring a lot of talking, reading, or advanced vocabulary, like Taboo or Malarky. 

  • Games with complex rules...like Agricola, Settlers of Catan, etc.

  • Games that require pop culture knowledge.

  • Games that might relate to taboo or mature themes: such as war or gambling-related games. Traditional playing cards can sometimes be offensive to people from conservative backgrounds because of their association with gambling. Or a game that involves hunting could be offensive to people in the New Age / Hindu / vegetarian crowd.

But the good news is, there are lots of games that work great in cross-cultural settings, you just have to remember to choose them!

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Games that do work well cross-culturally

First, as a general principle, the best cross-cultural table games have simple rules, because the rules can be one of the hardest things to communicate. As one of The Serviette readers told me, "Games that don't require tons of strategy or concentration, and have fast rounds are great with new friends." A bonus is that many of these games work well for kids as well as adults.

Number-based games

Some of these games are quite simple to begin with, but they can be made more exciting or challenging, as required. 

  • UNO - "I love teaching someone new how to play UNO and then letting him or her take that deck home."
  • Phase 10
  • SkipBo / SkipBo Jr.
  • Dutch Blitz / Ligretto
  • Rummikub
  • Yahtzee
  • Spoons

Image-, colour- or shape-based games

  • Set
  • Spot It - "While travelling through Sri Lanka, we were playing Spot It with our kiddos and the Japanese ladies sitting next to us — who spoke no English — picked up on the concept quickly and played with us. It was fun to hear them gasp and giggle when they found a match."
  • Go Fish
  • Jenga
  • Quirkle - "I played Quirkle the other week with a Japanese exchange student whose English was very limited, but she won! The game is just based on colours and shapes, in a similar game play to Scrabble."
  • Blokus 
  • Farkle 

Classic games

  • Checkers
  • Chess
  • Chinese checkers
  • Dominoes
  • Memory
  • Sorry
  • Jigsaw puzzles
which games work well for english learners

Language-learning games

As nerdy as this sounds, in the last year we started playing a German grammar game with some of our guests. We've played it both with German and international guests. Whether you and your guests are trying to learn the same language, or one of you is trying to learn the other's language, you can use:

1. Specialized grammar or language-learning games

  • Games like "Name that Word" - search your favourite online store or Google for "ESL games" or "language learning games" and you'll see some more ideas of this nature.
  • "Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod" is the game we use for learning German

2. Regular table games that help build language skills or vocabulary

  • Memory
  • Go Fish
  • Pictionary / Telephone Pictionary
  • Charades / Fish Bowl
  • Quiddler
  • Headbanz Jr. 
  • Scattergories
  • Apples to Apples Jr

Playing a language-learning game might sound more like work than fun to you, but students or foreigners who are actively trying to learn the language of their host culture are often delighted to play these kinds of games, especially with native speakers. 

    games for international students.jpg

    I hope this list helps you find games that both you and your international friends can enjoy together!