At first glance, Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics on Nintendo Switch looks like the sort of budget software you’d find in the discount bin of some random superstore. But it only takes a few minutes to see just how much work, love, and whimsy went into this package, one of the best values in gaming this year.
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics is a collection of classic board games, mechanical games recreated digitally, and card games, along with a few traditional video game-inspired minigames that can be played with a variety of controller styles using the many configurations of the Nintendo Switch.
Why would anyone want to pick up a digital collection of board games instead of the real thing? Clubhouse Games has many, many answers to that question.
The most obvious is the price: At $39.99, you’re already paying less than a dollar per game, and you don’t have to worry about losing pieces or storing the boxes.
Some games can be played with standard controller buttons, others use the system’s touchscreen, and still others require everyone to have their own system. Even that isn’t as big of a hassle as it sounds, however, since anyone can download the Clubhouse Games guest pass from the Switch eShop and play all the supported local multiplayer games with up to three other people. (The only requirement is that at least one of the four players owns the full version of the game.) It’s the simplest, most welcoming way to walk around with a huge collection of classic games in your pocket.
Teaching by showing
So much of the collection’s strong design is focused on teaching new games to players. Each game gets a brief introduction where little toy people play the game for a few moments, bantering back and forth about what they’re doing. After that, you’re presented with a simple menu for each game with directions on how to play, tutorials explaining the more complicated aspects of the deeper games, and adjustable AI to play against.
The instructions are laid out simply, and all the rules are written in clear language. The game’s narration warns me that Shogi would be tricky to learn, for instance, but the on-screen help shows me where each piece can go and which moves put my pieces in danger. The computer’s unending patience as I flail around trying to figure out basic strategy is also a life-saver. Playing is the best way to learn; I was able to turn off the assistance in a few rounds and just go for it. The real test came when I had to try to explain the game to a friend, and I feel like I did pretty well.
That journey is a refreshing change from the status quo: Learning a new physical game with buddies can be a challenge. If someone unwittingly makes an illegal move and you have to try to go back and figure out why, that can really slow the fun down. Clubhouse does that work for you.
The game won’t let you make illegal moves, and you can run through a large number of rounds of each game quickly, since the AI runs the board for you. No one has to worry about resetting anything, making sure the right pieces are flipped, or setting everything up correctly for the first time. The entire experience has been boiled down to the pure essence of playing, adding to the convenience.
I get that some people may miss the tactile advantage of being able to feel each piece themselves with a physical board, and there’s something to be said for that, but removing so many of the annoying parts of the physical experience when you just want to play a quick game with a friend makes up for it.
It also helps that the games themselves all look, feel, and sound so good when you’re playing them. There isn’t anything complicated or flashy, but it’s still satisfying to watch and listen to the well-modeled dice clatter against each other before being dumped on the virtual felt in Yacht Dice. Or the tinkling sound of the plastic discs falling into their resting place in Four-in-a-Row — this collection’s take on Connect Four.
That conceit of treating everything like a tabletop game and not an electronic simulation continues through most of the experiences. Toy Baseball is a simulated mechanical version of America’s pastime that seems so plausible, I had to check to see if it was based on a real product. To my delight, I get to report that yes, friends, this is an actual, physical game.
Toy Boxing pits two virtual tin fighters against each other, and your only options are to punch or block. It’s a matter of timing and reading the other player to know when to make your move. So many of these smaller, basic experiences start as a fun gimmick when I begin playing them with one of my kids, only to loop into real fun, before a few rounds of boredom, and then come back to joy once the competitive spirit kicks in again. It’s ridiculously easy to blow hours playing games that seem like they should lose their shine after only a few rounds.
Things also get kinda weird
There is some fun stuff going on in Clubhouse Games that was a little unexpected, or that worked much better than I anticipated.
The piano app is a basic piano, played on the touchscreen, and it’s fine. But you can also flip the Switch upside down to turn it into an electronic organ, because why not? Then you can detach the Joy-Con controllers to use as percussion instruments to play along with the piano.
You can also connect up to four systems in “mosaic mode,” lining them up to make one long keyboard, or make a two-by-two grid to play the instrument as a more complex electronic organ. These options didn’t need to be in here for the game to be a success — the rest of the package will likely take care of that — but if you’re going to add something into the game, why not go a bit overboard?
That mosaic mode is used to great effect in other games as well. The strangely compelling version of slot car racing gives you a selection of tracks., All you have to do is make sure your speed is within a certain range so your car doesn’t fly off the track during tight turns. That’s the entire interaction: You’re either adding speed or you’re not. But the developers nailed the “feel” and fun of slot cars so well that it feels much closer to having a real set than I expected. Arranging and rearranging four Switch systems together allows you to increase the size of the track and adjust its design.
It’s such a ridiculously decadent buffet of options for what almost seems like it should be a one-off joke of a game — an electronic version of slot cars. So many of these games are offered in such a way that the enjoyment is stretched out and enhanced to an unexpected degree, and my advice is to try everything … even if they’re games that bored you in the past. Everything is prepared with such care that it’s hard to find a true stinker in the collection. Even the super basic fishing minigame allows you to craft your own environment by lining up systems in different configurations.
Some missing pieces
While there are no true disasters in Clubhouse Games, there are some weak spots. The tracking for the motion controls on Darts and Target Shooting is only so-so. Fans of card games may be frustrated by the lack of poker variations, and there is no version of Go included, for some baffling reason.
The lobby system for online play works by having you select up to three games you’d like to play online, and then trying to find other folks to play those games with you. It’s a slightly clumsy way to find opponents, but these problems melt away if you’re playing online with people you already know and can speak to through Discord or Zoom. The online play is also still hobbled by its reliance on the Nintendo Switch Online mobile app.
The issues in Clubhouse Games are small compared to what the package does right, though, especially for the price. You’re paying to have the rules explained and enforced by an all-seeing eye, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of 51 games (and a piano!) without ever needing to set up or tear down a board. This is board gaming as convenience, without any of the worries associated with physical products.
This simple package, with an unassuming title and cover, is already one of my favorite games of the year. Nintendo may have released the perfect game at the perfect time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and it looks like the company may be able to repeat the same trick when Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics is released on June 5.
Now add Crokinole, you cowards.
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics will be released on Nintendo Switch on June 5. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.