It’s the holidays, which means it’s time for board games!
Naturally, board games are perfect for every season. And, naturally, the holidays are about more than board games (ostensibly). But it’s also a season when you have an overabundance of family time, down time, and “what should we do now” time. If there’s a more perfect time to play more games, I haven’t experienced it.
Below is a list. A series of suggestions, hopefully some of which are new or different. It’s not exhaustive, which tells you how much board games have exploded in popularity of late. I’ve stuck with titles that can be found at your Friendly Local Gaming Store, and tried to hew towards games released in the last year or so (or had expansions released recently). Many of them also have digital versions you can try before going analog, and some have been featured on Tabletop.
It’s also a highly subjective list, in that I enjoy playing them all.
Puzzle Me This
We’re going to start this with something deceptively straightforward. Red7 is a simple game that gets your mind chugging along as the game constantly shifts gears. Red7 consists of a deck of 49 cards, seven colors each containing cards labeled 1-7. On your turn, you can discard a card to change the objective of the game (each color has different winning conditions), and/or play a card in front of you — the only restriction is that you have to be winning after you make your play(s). Otherwise, you’re out until the next round. It moves very quick, constantly throwing your brain into a different gear.
And Then: Break out Splendor, which is more of a smoldering ember that builds into a conflagration in your cranial cavity. I wrote about it earlier this year, and it’s akin to solving a slowly-shifting puzzle against other competitors. And it has satisfyingly heavy poker chips.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Perhaps you’re looking for less competition during the holidays. If you want something co-operative, how about teaming up as shipwrecked survivors trying to discover the secrets of the deserted island you’ve landed on? That’s the premise of Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, where players band together to survive, explore, and discover before time runs out. The game comes with a handful of scenarios inspired by the works of Daniel Defoe and Jules Verne, and expansion scenarios move the game to historical settings like the voyage of the HMS Beagle.
Alternatives: If you want a co-op game without Robinson Crusoe‘s encyclopedic rulebook, Forbidden Desert is a simple yet fun game where players need to find the pieces of a relic before the shifting sands bury the treasure (and them along with it). If you want something a little more action-packed, go with Sentinels of the Multiverse — each player is a superhero, represented by a deck of cards, and you work together to defeat a super villain. If you have a tablet, you can try the new digital version of Sentinels. Speaking of which…
Instead of One More Turn of Civ: Beyond Earth…
Try Eclipse. Since the holidays are a rare bit of extended downtime, I’ll usually open up the laptop to kill hours with the latest Sid Meier game. A surefire way to get me off the computer and onto the tabletop is to break out Eclipse, a civ-style game of space exploration, research, and ship-based combat. The game has a LOT of fiddly bits, but don’t fret — the game’s mechanics free you up from having to remember all the rules, instead letting you focus on galactic domination.
Simplify! If you want a civilization game on the lighter side (and on land), I wrote about Hyperborea last month. If historical settings are more your jam, Nations is a very deep card-based game focused primarily on civilization-building. If you miss Sim City, pick up Machi Koro, a quick & simple game where you race to build your village into a city before your neighbors do.
Sitting on a Throne of Lies
You’ve got the perfect “Present Face.” Your tells in poker are intentional bluffs. Your Malört regimen allows you to eat fruitcake without betraying a grimace. For you, we have Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone plays a merchant in merry olde England, and Prince John is coming to Nottingham — perfect time to make a lot of coin. The only problem is the damned Sheriff, who chooses who and what gets into the city. It’s up to you to lie, bluff, and negotiate your way into the city with your goods in tow. And players take turns being the Sheriff, so what comes around…
Or Maybe… Maybe poker isn’t your thing. Maybe you favor the psychological simplicity of rock-paper-scissors. Maybe you’re the Dread Pirate Roberts in a sea of Vizzinis. In that case, go with Libertalia, a game of pirates and booty and bluffing. Each player starts with the exact same deck of cards (crew members), and only the cleverest of captains will play the right crew member at the right time to claim the treasure while avoiding naval officers and cursed items.
Shall We Retire to the Drawing Room for Some Tea and Cards?
Continuing on the theme of bluffing and prediction, Love Letter is a distillation of a lot of the same concepts in Libertalia, with a more genteel theme. You’re a potential suitor to the princess, and want to be make sure yours is the only love letter that gets to her. The game consists of a 14-card deck, and each card represents a different member of the royal court who can help you, including the princess herself. By drawing and playing cards, you hope to end each round with the highest-value card — or be the last player left standing. Whoever wins a set number of rounds catches the eye of the princess. It’s easy to pick up, quick to play, and always fun.
Have You Heard? Another popular and easy-to-learn card game is Marrying Mr. Darcy, where players take the roles of women from Pride & Prejudice. It’s a highly random game that oozes theme, which is perfect for casual gaming. For a card game that keeps the simplicity but ups the strategy, pick up Belle of the Ball. Here you’re competing against other players to host the grandest party, which means matching up guests with common interests and catering to Belle’s whims. It’s a beautiful and clever game that introduces a little bit of direct conflict to the proceedings.
Keeping it Simple
It’s late, you’re exhausted from another holiday gathering, and you want a fun way to spend the hours before sleep beckons. Nothing too challenging, but something with a beautiful theme and fun gameplay. Enter Abyss, where you’re all undersea lords and ladies vying for control of the oceanic depths. It’s essentially a set-collection game where you get points by securing the support of underwater creatures, influence of fellow lords, and control of submerged lands. The art is gorgeous, the game is simple, and it takes no more than 45 minutes to play.
Alternately: For something a little more challenging, but still beautifully themed, go with Istanbul. You’re a trader in the city of Istanbul, attempting to collect gems and upgrade your wares. You and your assistants must get the goods before your opponents catch the sultan’s attention with more gems and better wares.
This is Hardcore
But if you want to go all-in with a challenging, crunchy, heavy game, I’m with you. You want exquisite strategy, decision-making on a knife’s edge, and depth of design that sets your neurons alight, yes? In that case, please join me for a game of Terra Mystica. This strategic darling sets up players as one groups of peoples in a fantasy world: halflings, mermaids, giants, nomads, etc. Your goal it to terraform the land into the geography that best suits your people (swamp, desert, mountain, etc.) and create the most powerful faction on the map.
Work It: If your flavor of deep strategy swings more to the “worker placement” genre, then check out Caverna: the Cave Farmers. This heavy-stategy game is the evolution of Uwe Rosenberg’s acclaimed eurogames, and it’s easier to pronounce than Agricola.
Of course, there’s always the choice to break out a deck of cards and a cribbage board for some old-timey tabletop gaming. In that case, may you never get skunked, and whatever games you play this season, may your holidays be filled with much ludic mirth.