Golden Sky Stories: I first learned about this game via a Japanese RPGs panel at Anime Weekend Atlanta, and immediately bought a copy because I loved the concept so much.
Then I gave it away, because I knew it was not a game I could adequately GM.
Golden Sky Stories is a “honobono” (“heartwarming”) game where you play animal spirits who solve problems in their village. There’s not really a combat system, and characters advance by forming friendships with others.
I confess I’ve never played it, but my friend Chad ran this one Hamacon for a group of younger kids, and they loved it so much their parent asked about it the next year.
Ryuutama: I’ve mentioned this multiple times already, but this is probably my favorite tabletop RPG, at least conceptually. (Half of that is the art style.) It’s another “honobono” game. I refer to it as “chibi D&D”; the translators refer to it as “Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail.”
Ryuutama has a lot of the same concepts as D&D–combat, magic, items, etc.–but mechanically, it’s far more focused on traveling and mundane challenges than combat. It also adds a lot of interesting player/GM collaboration, such as town and world creation processes, and a GM-controlled character called the Ryuujin that can trigger certain effects.
If you like other styles of RPGs, check out some of Kotodama Heavy Industry’s other Japanese RPG translations: Tenra Bansho Zero and Shinobigami.
Grant Howitt’s one-page RPGs: I was introduced to these via Honey Heist, a game where you play a bear who is also a criminal. (It literally has two stats: Bear and Criminal). When I say introduced, I mean I saw a tweet containing a photo of the entire ruleset.
Most of these games are intended to be self-contained and follow a particular story arc. With the right pacing they should be easy to fit into a schedule. Mechanics are fairly light-weight–usually only one die and a few stats or proficiencies. Helpfully, many games like Honey Heist, The Beast (a horror game set in 18th century Europe), and The Witch is Dead (a game where you play forest creatures taking revenge on a witch hunter) have GM tables you can use to roll up a plot on the fly.
Channel A: If you like anime, Cards Against Humanity-style humor games, and bad Engrish translations, Channel A is the game for you.
Each round, you get two anime genres as prompts (mecha, magical girl, slice-of-life, etc.). You pitch your idea for a show by playing up to 5 words as a title, and then explaining what it’s about.
It’s perfect for anime cons. It’s a great PG-rated alternative to Cards Against Humanity. It’s also sort of an improv game–meaning you get to engage your creativity, but it’s also more mentally active, so you tire out faster.
Larceny: Here’s another game that takes the Cards Against Humanity formula in a more improv-like direction.
In Larceny, the players are a gang of criminals planning a heist. Each round, a Score card is revealed (e.g., the Mona Lisa), along with two Catch cards (e.g., armed guards, guard dogs). Players apply one Fix card to each Catch, and then discuss the options. Finally, The Chief awards points to his or her favorite combinations.
Larceny also comes with several alternate rule sets which amp up the role-playing and improv elements.
Spyfall: Spyfall feels like an inversion on the Werewolf formula: there’s a traitor in the group, and they’re the only ones missing some vital information.
Players ask each other questions about a randomly chosen location. The “good guys” know what it is, but the traitor doesn’t. The traitor has to fake his answers, while the “good guys” have to answer questions carefully to avoid revealing it.
Sheriff of Nottingham: At its core, this is a bluffing game, but it can get pretty hardcore.
Each round, one player is the sheriff, responsible for inspecting (or not) the goods that come into Nottingham. Each other player selects 1-5 cards from their hand, places them in a pouch, and declares that they are all one type of legal good (which may or may not be true).
When you get the hang of this game, crazy stuff happens. Sometimes you slip the sheriff a coin before making a deal. Sometimes you offer her some contraband. Sometimes you trick the sheriff into inspecting your bag of completely legal goods, just to make him pay you a penalty. Sometimes you force the sheriff so deep inside their own heads that they start questioning reality.
Azul: Azul feels like a slightly heavier Splendor–it’s highly strategic, easy to learn but hard to master, and it plays quickly enough that it can be a crunchier “filler” game.
For a strategy game, it’s a bit unique–it has set-collection elements, but the Scrabble-like scoring requires more spatial thinking than mathematical efficiency.
It’s also beautiful from a design perspective, with players building mosaics out of colorful heavy plastic tiles.
Love Letter Premium and Lovecraft Letter: If you’ve been playing board games for a while, you probably already know about Love Letter. However, these more recent releases make it suitable for larger groups, supporting 8 and 6 players respectively.
Plus, the large tarot-sized cards, sleeves, and tokens make it feel a little fancier than the standard-size editions.
Machi Koro: Machi Koro is an older and fairly well-known game, so it’s debatable whether this fits “games you might not have tried.” It does a lot of things well–specifically, it puts some polish on mechanics used by classic games.
Imagine a simplified combination of Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. You roll a dice every turn to generate resources, but there’s no complicated road-building and no trading. You can screw over other players as in Monopoly, but there’s a clear end-game. It introduces some concepts to newer board gamers, but it still feels very familiar.
The base game has a fixed set of cards, so it can get repetitive. However, it’s good for new players to learn. Later expansions and the Bright Lights, Big City standalone edition randomize the deck, providing more variety.
Attack on Titan: The Last Stand: There are a lot of bad licensed games out there, but this is not one of them.
AoT:TLS is an asymmetric game where one player is the titan, while the others are survey corps. (This is great for running demos, because being the titan is sort of like being the dungeon master.)
The core mechanic is rolling dice to collect icons (think Yahtzee or King of Tokyo), but with a press-your-luck element. Players can re-roll individual dice as many times as they like, but rolling the titan icon empowers the titan player.
The cooperative play also requires a great deal of synchronization. Special tactics can be used against the titan, but they require players to coordinate placement and pool their dice strategically. (However, this can be a downside, since it encourages quarterbacking by a few players, rather than coordination among the group.)
In addition, the physical pieces are well-designed, and look pretty striking when set up. A foot-tall titan standee and a cardboard tower model provide 8 levels that the players can climb up and down.
Chocobo’s Crystal Hunt: This is a very simple 10-20 minute set-collection game, and it doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary. If I remember correctly, it’s sort of a simplified “Go Fish.”
But I feel like it has a lot of potential at a con. It’s Final Fantasy themed. The art is exactly what you want a chocobo-themed game to look like. And it’s simple enough that kids could learn to play without much trouble.
Dice Heist: Want to suggest a quick game that’s not as common as Love Letter or Jenga? Dice Heist is perfect. It’s a push-your-luck set-collection game. Each turn, you place a new item in one of four museums. You can either roll dice to try to steal from one museum, or take an extra dice to improve your odds next turn. Once you get the hang of it, it plays in about 15 minutes.