The Waiting Game – Family Card Games that Eliminate Downtime

One of things that I find myself planning for is how to deal with downtime, not only for myself but for the kids as well. When at home, it’s easy to keep ourselves entertained and occupied because all the games and activities we enjoy are at our disposal. Downtime away from home, however, is a whole other issue because the options are considerably more limited.

As the kids get older and we are able to go out and experience more, we are finding that waiting is becoming more a part of our lives than ever before. Whether we are waiting for a meal in a restaurant, waiting for a flight at an airport, or waiting for an activity in our hotel room while on vacation, the issue of downtime is one that we are continually having to navigate.

When we first started to experience this downtime away from home, I noticed that the usual answer was to throw a screen at them and let them play/watch what they wanted. This never sat well with me because I felt that it sent the wrong message to my kids. I felt that it told them that instead of interacting with the people around you and enjoying being away from home, it was ok to shut yourself off from the world. It also always made me feel bad because instead of finding something interesting for them to do, I took the easy way out and set a screen in front of them to keep them occupied.

Phones and tablets are wonderful tools and can provide us with an incredible amount of utility and entertainment, but I felt that having them always be the fallback for downtime potentially creates a reliance that can be hard to break.

One of the things that I started to do to break the habit of always using screens to kill time was introducing new physical games to my kids.  As my interest in board gaming grew over the past couple of years, I came to realize that there are an insane amount of interesting card games that are quick, fun, and easy to setup. Playing these games while we wait has not only proven to eliminate boredom, but it has created a lot of lasting memories that wouldn’t have happened if we had our phones and tablets out. I also found that these memories that they have of their experiences are much more dynamic because they were engaged with the people and environment around them.

While playing games in public is great, there are some things to consider before packing some for your next outing. Before I decide which games would be good for our family to play in public, I usually consider the following factors:

Table Space

Easy setup and even easier clean up is probably the most important factor when deciding on a game to bring along on your family outing. Keeping the game small is essential in avoiding having to rush and pack a bunch of stuff away when your food arrives or your flight is called.


Personally, I eliminate all games that have any pieces or tokens and simply stick to card only games. This avoids having to crawl under the table to find those pieces that they “accidentally” drop, as I’m pretty sure my kids are running a lifetime bet to see how much stuff they can make me pick up.


I want a game that is not only easy to teach to someone new at the table, but one that is easy to refresh people on the rules. This is important because quite often we won’t have played the game in months and it’s impossible to play a quick game when you continually have to double check rules. Easy and accessible concepts will ensure that both kids and adults can jump right in and play. A simple rule set can also allow everyone to carry on conversations with each other   while still being engaged with the game at hand.


I include this not for the obvious fact that time is quite often limited in a restaurant or airport, but for the reason of winning and losing. Having to deal with an upset child (or adult I suppose) because they lost a game is probably the most frustrating and counterproductive thing when it comes to gaming. What I have found about quick games is that nobody really cares who wins or loses because you can always play again. As quick games usually rely on a combination of quick decisions and luck, no one really gets all too angry or self conscious when they don’t win.

If you’re interested in trying out a card game with your family during your next outing but don’t know what to play, the following games have worked really well with our family. They are also relatively cheap and they all meet the criteria of the categories above.

Recommended Games

Sushi Go

Sushi Go is a great example of a travelling card game. Not only does it take up minimal table space, but it comes in a tin box that can easily be transported without getting banged up. The game has players passing hands of cards around the table and selecting the ones that help them collect sets and earn points. The interaction in this game is great because you can always see what the other players are collecting and then choose your cards accordingly. In terms of length, it’s pretty versatile because it can be either be played as a one round game or in rounds of 3 if you have a little more time.

Sushi Go was the first card game that our family brought with us to a restaurant, and it is one that we still go back to time and time again because it’s so much fun.

Love Letter

I may have to buy a new copy of Love Letter soon because we have almost worn out my original one. Love Letter, by far, is the card game we have played the most as a family. My daughter has been playing, and winning, this game since she was 5 years old and it is still one of her favourites. The nice thing about Love Letter as a travel game is that it is made up of only 16 cards and it comes in a nice little pouch that is easy to slip into a bag or purse.

Love Letter is a hidden identity game that has players using character abilities to try and get the other players to discard their one card while also trying to hold on to their own card until the end of the game. The game uses player elimination as its key concept and it ends when only one player has a card in their hand. Normally, elimination games can raise some issues because players who are out can become disinterested, but because this game is so quick and tense, even eliminated players stay engaged until the end.

Exploding Kittens

Exploding Kittens is probably the most popular game on this list and it is the newest addition to our travel collection. Although we have only played it a handful of times, I can easily see why it was the most supported game ever on Kickstarter and it will definitely be one that we will play for years to come. Along with having some of the funniest artwork I’ve seen in a deck of cards, the game advertises itself as taking 2 minutes to learn and 15 minutes to play, which works perfectly for a downtime game.

Exploding Kittens is simple yet strategic game that has players draw cards from a deck. If they draw the exploding kitten card, they are out of the game – unless they have a diffuse card. The entire game has the players using the abilities on a variety of cards to ensure that they have diffuse cards in their hands to protect them from the inevitable draw of an exploding kitten. Much like Love Letter, players are eliminated from the game until there is only one player left.

Exploding Kittens is a great travel card game for the family, but be sure to buy the Original Edition and not the NSFW Edition as the latter is definitely not kid friendly.

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Alan North

Alan has found that blending a teaching career with parenthood to be quite different than he imagined due to the fact that teaching other people's kids is a lot easier than teaching your own. His passion in the areas of literacy, music, communication and student leadership have helped him to survive/enjoy 15 years of teaching.

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