Tense Board Games with Deceptively Relaxing Themes

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Just because a game has a relaxing setting, doesn’t mean it will be peaceful. There are tons of exciting and tense games that nevertheless take place in a serene environment. Here are a few, just to give you a taste and whet your appetite for these thematically deceptive games.


Perhaps the best example in this category is Karesansui; it’s all about simple rock gardening. You take stones and arrange them while trying to avoid forbidden combinations. Simple and serene, right? Well, not exactly. You see, you get new stones through an auction that is equal parts brutal and chancy.

There are five different colors of stones, each valued 1 to 3. You can’t have all four different colored stones of the same value, all three values of one color, or three of the same value and color. Have those, and you get a demerit. Each round, new stones are added to the offering, which you can get by bidding your current stones. Whoever bids the fewest stones gets the lot of them. And then forbidden combinations are checked.

Karesansui is interesting because you generally don’t want stones. The more you have, the harder it is to avoid demerits. You might try to bid a bunch, but then someone will inevitably underbid you.

Some players will try to avoid demerits at all costs, hopefully getting none before the end. Of course, demerits get worse as the game goes on, so a late demerit can be a game ender. You can also take an early demerit to try to get rid of stones cheaply. But if the game ends early, that low demerit might be enough to cost you the win.

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Life on a simple farm, engaging in the noble pursuit of animal husbandry. Unlike its big brother, you don’t have to worry about feeding your family every few rounds or going hungry. In this two player title, you simply play eight rounds hoping to create the best farm. No timers, no stress. Right?

Well, like the original, Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small is also a worker placement game. And much of the experience is about getting the resources before you opponent has a chance to grab them. You may want to nab the wood space only to have is snatched out from under you. Or maybe you grab it early, and then have to hope that the building space is still there when you need it.

Timing is everything, which keeps All Creatures tense and engaging over its relatively short play time. The simple life turns out to be more stress inducing–and a whole lot more interesting–than the theme might seem at first.


In the rural hills of Italy, you start with a few acres and a simple plan: grow grapes, make wine, and gain prestige. Your winery will grow from a small company, barely turning a profit, to a thriving industry.

Despite the peaceful setting, Viticulture is an amazingly rich experience. In the beginning, you start with only a few coins–barely enough to survive. You’ll often have to give wine tours or sell your grapes just to make ends meet. What’s more, you only have a few workers and have to split them between Spring and Winter. If you use your workers doing Spring actions, they won’t be around for the Winter ones.

As the game progresses, and the players start shifting away from infrastructure and toward fulfilling orders, it becomes a race to acquire prestige first. Once one player has 20, the game ends, but there might be a few sneaky points here or there which end up adding to a player’s score. The one who hit 20 first isn’t always the winner.

Do you enjoy games with an idyllic setting?  Tell us about your favorites in the comments.

Image Credits: Eagle/Gryphon Games, Z-Man Games, and Stonemaier Games

Featured Image Credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

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