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Friday, July 19, 2024

Dexterity Games: A Closer Look

by | published Friday, October 16, 2020

Dexterity games blur the lines between games and sports. After all, what is a sport except a full-body game? Is Darts a game or a sport? What about billiards or bowling? There are many dexterity games out there, and they mostly come in three types. There are those that focus on reflex speed: Classic games like Spoons, or Spit are early examples. Then there are games that rely on a steady hand, like Jenga, or Operation. Lastly, there are those dexterity games that challenge one’s aim & accuracy. Crokinole, and Crossbows & Catapaults are two classic examples of accuracy games. There are, of course, more nuanced games that combine two or more of these elements, and there are even strategy games that incorporate dexterity elements, or dexterity games that incorporate strategy elements into their design. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all the available dexterity games, but it will introduce you to some of the best of each type, as well as some strategy games that include dexterity systems in their game play. 

Speed games challenge the players’ reflexes. Most require a physical challenge, but there are a few, like Anomia, Spot It!, or Five Second Rule, that require verbal or mental reflexes. Some incorporate both physical and verbal reflexes, Shrimp, (aka Shrimp Cocktail) is one such game.

To win speed-based dexterity games you must be faster than your opponents, but the best speed games incorporate a perception or logical element, that make more than just your physical reflexes important. Pattern recognition and memory recall are key elements to a good speed game.


Anomia, by Andrew Innes, is a game of pattern matching and fast recall of words. The name of the game is Latin for when the name of a thing is on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t quite recall it. The game consists of a deck of cards where each card has one of several different coloured symbols, such as a yellow diamond or a green plus, and a category. Example categories include things like super power, book title, South American cities, fruit, etc. Players take turns flipping cards from the central deck onto their own play pile, and as soon as the top cards on two players’ piles have a matching symbol on them, those players are in a showdown, and each must try to be the first to yell out a word that belongs to the category on the OTHER player’s card. If each says an answer at the same time, they must come up with a new answer, until one player gives a response and the other fails. The frantic energy of the game causes much laughter as you and your friends experience brain farts over the simplest of categories. 

A favourite speed game in our house is Shrimp Cocktail (aka Shrimp), by Roberto Fraga. Like many speed games, the goal is to collect the most cards. You earn cards by spotting matches between the three active cards. Cards all have one, two, or three shrimp, in one of three colours (pink, yellow, or green), three sizes (small, medium, or jumbo), and wearing one of three kinds of hats (Canadian toques, Mexican sombreros, or US cowboy hats). If a player spots a point of commonality between all the active cards (say all three cards have cowboy shrimp), they must grab the squeaky toy at the centre of the play area and yell out the commonality. If there are two points of similarity (say they are all green cowboys), the reward is increased. If a player spots three similarities simultaneously (jumbo green cowboys, for example) they immediately win the game. I have yet to see an instant win. Play continues until one player has played their entire starting stack of cards, and the player with with the most cards in their score pile wins. It is a nerve-racking, shouty, grabby, fiesta of fun. 

Other speed-based games include SET, Jungle Speed, Ghost Blitz, Spot It!, Fun Farm, and Halli Galli (aka Spot Five, aka Fruit Punch Game), and Loonacy.

Steadiness games challenge one’s ability to keep a steady hand and perform fine motor skill activities. Most involve stacking objects on top of one another, but some challenge players to manipulate small objects – hooking the monkey’s together in Barrel o’ Monkeys, or removing the body parts in Operation. Either way, the ability to get your hand to move exactly how and where you want it to is crucial in steadiness games.

The most famous steadiness game is Leslie Scott’s Jenga, but in the 37 years since it came out, many games have been published that build on its simple idea of stacking blocks on top of each other. 

Bill Payne’s Villa Paletti won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award in 2001. In it, players use coloured pillars and wooden plates to build an irregularly shaped tower. The goal of the game is to have your pillar in the top spot. While Jenga is a game with one loser (the player who knocks the tower down), Villa Paletti is a game with a true victory condition, so one person wins in the end. One of the wonderful things about Villa Paletti is that the columns aren’t all exactly the same height, and the wooden plates used as the floors of the tower have a bit of warp to them, so what looks like an impossible move from one angle may be very simple from another, and vice versa. 17 years after Villa Paletti’s release, Oliver Richtberg used the ideas of coloured pillars and oddly shaped floor plates to create Menara, which is a co-operative take on Villa Paletti’s mechanics.

While many people think of board games as coming from either Europe or North America, many other regions have strong board game traditions, and Japan produces a lot of wonderful games. One is Tokyo Highway, by Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka. In it players are building a wild, complex highway of overlapping roads. Every time you build your roadway over or under an opponent’s road, you get to place one of your cars on the highway. If you get all your cars placed, you win. Each player begins with an equal number of building components, and unlike many stacking games, where collapse of the structure indicates the end of the game, in Tokyo Highway, if you knock down roads belonging to an opponent, you must fix the accident AND give the offended player a replacement building pillar for each road, car, or pillar of theirs you dislodged! If you run out of pillars, you are out of the game early. Originally released as just a head to head game, the four-player version of the game includes buildings that the highway planners must build around.

Other steadiness games include Lift It Deluxe, Animal Upon Animal, Verti-Go, Rhino Hero, Hamsterrolle, Bamboleo, Riff Raff, Go Cuckoo, and Operation

Accuracy games are a challenge of your aim. They task you to put the thing where you want it from a distance. Accuracy is the corner stone of many sports, such as soccer, baseball, curling, golf, and archery, and accuracy games borrow heavily from sports for their inspiration. Crokinole and Sorry Sliders are both basically small-scale curling, and Crossbows & Catapaults uses miniaturized archery at its heart.

Craig Van Ness’ delightful Sorry Sliders may be out of print, but it shows up in thrift stores all the time, so if you have a Good Will, Value Village, or similar shop in your neighbourhood, keep an eye out, and it shouldn’t be too long before you find one. Players compete to earn points by flicking their rolling pawns toward the central target board. The game comes with multiple double-sided target boards, so you can change the challenge just by switching boards. Sliders is similar to curling or shuffleboard, because you want to knock your opponent’s pawns out of scoring position while you put yours into better position.

Ice Cool, by Brian Gomez, is a game of trick shots and penguins eating fish. The board is a series of boxes clipped together so that holes is the sides of the boxes line up. Little coloured wooden fish are clipped over each of the openings, and every time you successfully flick your penguin through a new doorway, you get to collect your coloured fish. The penguins are round-bottomed, weighted, plastic figurines that behave in different ways, depending on where on their body you flick them. Being able to shoot straight isn’t enough in Ice Cool. You have to master the trick shot possibilities as well to truly excel at the game.

Other accuracy games include Crokinole, Tiddlywinks, Bucket of Frogs, and Feed the Wozzle.

For hobbyists who want their dexterity games to be more than just reflexes or flicking skills, there are a number of games that combine strategic game play and dexterity components.

Ian Cooper’s Ascending Empires is a space exploration game that uses Crokinole-style flicking to move your ships around the board, and into orbit around new and exciting planets to colonize. Combat is also done with flicking – if you can maneuver your ships into range of enemy ships, you can destroy them, but be careful because if your ships collides with another, they are both destroyed.

Finger Guns at High Noon by John Velgus, mixes reflexes and strategy in an Old West shootout. Players want to be the only surviving gunslinger when the dust settles. At any time, almost any player can call “1-2-3 draw!” And everyone must immediately throw up one of the approved hand signs. Speed is of the essence, because if you don’t show a sign fast enough, yours won’t count. Some hand signs require a target, and others don’t. You can hurt an opponent, heal yourself, hurt multiple opponents, and more. Dead players become ghosts, and the ghosts are trying to ensure that NO ONE survives the shootout.

Other hybrid games include Mondo, Galaxy Trucker, Safranito, Terror in Meeple City, Dungeon Fighter, and Flick’em Up


  • Steve T.

    Steve Tassie has been many things over the years: actor, comedian, high school teacher, Origins-nominated game designer, soda jerk, and port-a-potty attendant. Currently, Steve is a voice actor, an attempted novelist, occasional podcaster, and the Curator and Head Game Guru at Snakes & Lattes Board Game Cafes. Steve has been a player of all kinds of board, card, & roleplaying games since he was a small boy. Now that he's a large boy, his taste in games run toward light-medium weight Euros, thematic Ameritrash games that focus on story over strategy, and dexterity games. He would probably crush you at Ghost Blitz. If you're on the Twitters, he is @RealSteveTassie and you can totally follow him.

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