Holiday greetings, fans, readers, and cardboard devourers! It’s that time of year again when shopping for gifts is on the mind, and with thousands of new releases (and some older games still hanging on the shelves), who can decide what’s good to have and what’s just chum?
Never fear, because we’re back with our annual gift guide to help sort things out and pick what’s best for you and your friends.
And feel free to check out our gift guides from previous years, many of which include enduring games that are still available!
To make things simple, we’ve separated our selections into 5 categories: Stocking stuffers, Party/social games, Family games, Hobbyist games, and Staff picks.
Tabletop Escape Rooms (Exit: The Game and Unlock!)
Even better than a long winter’s nap is trying to find your way out of a locked room. And now with tabletop escape rooms, it’s not even necessary to leave your house. In last year’s guide I chose the Exit series as my staff pick, and it still remains my favorite series. (The new rooms in this line are just as good as the old ones.) Rising in this space, though, is the Unlock! series from Space Cowboys. Earlier entries into this series didn’t wow me, but two releases this year–The Adventurers of Oz and The Tonipal’s Treasure–are among the best I’ve played. These rooms are all fairly inexpensive, and they are bound to delight the puzzle lovers in your life. If you’re not sure where to begin, I would recommend Exit: The Abandoned Cabin or Exit: Dead Man on the Orient Express. (For a more thorough look at escape room options, check out my guide on the subject.)
For those who love their feline friends and boardgames, Cat Lady might be the perfect gift.
It is a simple set collection game which uses a card drafting variant as the way to obtain cards. The goal is to gather cards that work well together. Get cats, then get cards to feed, dress, and entertain them. Try not to go overboard with cats and food, but don’t skimp on the goodies, either. The better you are at managing the needs of your cats, the more points you can rack up.
While the game is simple to learn and play, there are some interesting decisions to make when deciding which cards to take and which to leave behind.You have to maintain a balance between what you take and what you can use, without leaving the good stuff for your opponents. The artwork is adorable, and the game itself is family-friendly and approachable for non-gamers. Only the most hardened cat-haters would despise this game, although it might even make a great gag gift for them.
Reiner Knizia’s classic auction card game is back, this time featuring terrific new artwork from Osprey Publishing. Players attempt to live the high life as European elite, bidding on cards with the highest prestige. Like other Knizia games, there’s a twist to this auction: not only do you want the most prestige to win, but you also want to spend wisely, since the player with the least amount of money at the end automatically loses, no matter how much prestige they’ve scored.
Board Game Storage Containers
This is a mildly unconventional pick, but with all my choice small-box games already selected in this and previous years, I thought I’d take a different tack. Once any board gamer starts to amass a sizeable collection, they might not necessarily want to add more boxes to their limited shelf space. But often they’re looking for ways to make storage of their games more efficient, and easy to get out and put away any game. While there are a few high-quality box inserts you can order for specific games at a fairly hefty price, if you don’t want to break the budge you can offer up a stack of these very useful plastic containers. They’re better than baggies for keeping bits separate and boxes organized, and they help you keep the bits organized during play.
The amazon link above is for a package of 20 circular containers, but look for rectangular ones as well. And, even better, check out your local dollar tree to find these in packs of 12 for $1! A great stocking stuffer for any gamer in your life that already has every game they want.
Let this small unassuming box of 100 cards cards or so to whisk you through history. From the age of antiquity to the near future you’ll explore the greatest innovations that humanity brought upon the world. From philosophy to gunpowder, each is a step in the story of humankind and can propel you to victory. Don’t let this unassuming deck of cards fool you. There’s a whole lot of game stuffed in here and no two games will play out the same. It’s all about creating a tableau of innovations to leverage yourself into the next age of human history. If finding combos and synergies is your cup of tea, Innovation is sure to please. Just beware of the wild swings that are sure to arise.
Party or Social Games
Werewords Deluxe takes the basic game of Werewords (20 Questions with a traitor) and adds lots more roles to the game. Even without using the extra roles, Werewords is my favorite party game. It combines the best of clue-giving/guessing games with a compelling (yet light-hearted) social-deduction game. The revised graphics in the deluxe edition are an improvement, and the game is an astounding value. You’ll need an app to play this one, but the app makes the gameplay smooth.
Remember those sliding tile puzzles from your misspent youth? Mesozooic is a card game that replicates that (sometimes frustrating) experience of sliding pieces around a grid with only one empty space to complete a picture. In this case, you’re building a dinosaur zoo. You’ll be sliding cards to complete enclosures, connect your transportation, beautify the grounds with topiaries, and position maintenance workers close to attractions.
Mesozooic isn’t heavy on strategy, but it is heavy on fun. You gain your cards through a draft and then place them into a grid, leaving that all important one empty space. The chaos begins when the timer is flipped, giving everyone 45 seconds to slide their cards into position. Lots of laughter and frustrated groaning ensues. Mesozooic plays up to six and is very adaptable to various ages and experience levels.
Welcome To …
This roll-and-write is more accurately described as a flip-and-fill, since you flip cards over to determine what you’re writing on your scoresheet. It’s a fun puzzle that’s easy enough for new gamers to learn and has interesting decisions to make on every turn as you try to create your ideal suburban city in 1950s America. Best of all, it can play as many as you have score sheets for, making it a perfect gift for the holidays and beyond.
Picked by: Wolfie | Amazon Link
Goodcritters is a casual game of dividing loot after a successful heist, minus the gunplay of Cash & Guns that might make people uncomfortable in a family setting. It’s up to the “family” leader to divvy out the cash as they see fit, but the whole group gets to vote on whether the distribution is fair. If the group votes no, the leader passes to someone new. ‘Course you can just forget voting and go stick up someone for their hard-earned cash, or stay out of it and protect yourself. There’s also bribery to convince people to vote how you want. It’s an open ended game of negotiation, simpler and quicker than other affairs, and doesn’t require the blatant lying of many other social group games like Werewolf. Plus, everyone plays as a cute woodland critter (albeit part of a critter mafia). If you’ve got the right group for this, you’re bound to get a lot of fun out of this small box.
Picked by: Alex Singh | Amazon Link
Last year ICECOOL proved a fun concept that was betrayed by an underwhelming scoring system. This year, publisher Brain Games has iterated on the formula and improved on the game in a major way. ICECOOL2 turns the low scoring cards from the gaming equivalent of a sad trombone sound into Yakety Sax. Flicking penguins around the nesting game boxes makes for some entertaining and unpredictable results. Scoring used to be based on a random card draw. It still is, but now when you draw low scoring cards you can attempt challenging tasks for extra points. It makes for some wild moments that are sure to elicit laughter from everyone.
The Quest for El Dorado
My original review (linked) is of the German edition, but now an English version is available. The Quest for El Dorado is a deck-building race game where players try to load their decks with the cards they need to move and then race to the famed lost city. The central tension is that if you’re buying cards, you’re not moving and vice versa, so there’s a timing concern. Add to it a variable map, lots of card choices, and a cave variant for advanced players, and The Quest for El Dorado is sure to please most crowds.
Reef is a lovely abstract game in which you are trying to build a reef to house marine life. Technically, you are the reef, trying to grow and be beautiful. To build your reef, you’ll be playing cards and placing bits of coral (which are fun to play with between turns) in order to score points for completed patterns.
What makes this game different from some abstracts is the 3-D nature of the puzzle. Coral pieces are stacked as the game goes along and the pieces that create your patterns reside at the top of the stacks. Some patterns even require your stacks to be certain heights. As you’re placing pieces, you have to be careful not to cover up something you may need, and you have to watch carefully because checking all the stacks for matching patterns isn’t as easy as it sounds. Despite the unique thinking required, this is a very light, sometimes random, approachable game that’s best in a family environment.
My Little Scythe
Picked by: Ruel | Amazon link
My Little Scythe is the result of mashing up two seemingly disparate worlds in My Little Pony and Scythe. Not only does it work, but it works surprisingly well. Scythe veterans will recognize streamlined and simplified mechanisms from the original game and My Little Pony fans will enjoy the influence of the source material. It’s all neatly presented in the high quality components we’ve come to expect from Stonemaier Games. Can you be the first to complete four quests, from winning a pie fight to delivering apples to Everfree, and win the coveted Harvest Tournament trophy?
Picked by: Wolfie | Amazon Link
Enter a world of intense kitchen warfare – but in this game, you’re cooperating with the other players in order to satisfy customers and eke out a profit. It’s a real-time game, with each round lasting for a too-short 4 minutes. Each player has 2 sand timers, each of which can perform an action, but you can only move a timer once the sand has run down. Seat customers, take their orders, collect food, spice it, and cook it to the correct temperature. Deliver a plate early to get extra tips; but don’t forget to keep your stock well-supplied with visits to the store. Limited spots for each action and the constant pressure of time will keep you sweating and rushing.
This game is perhaps a little more complex than many “Family” level games, but it’s tempered out by the theme. Most people are familiar with the concept of cooking food, what meat and vegetables are, and how restaurants work. And while there are a lot of moving parts, the mechanics are pretty simple, so you can focus on learning how to play and win – which, by the way, is very, very difficult. Be prepared for your restaurant to go out of business many times before even mastering the easy level – but in the meantime, the gameplay is frantic and fun.
Picked by: Alex Singh | Amazon link
Brass takes the original Brass that has been a critical darling for years, dresses it up and douses it in beer. The original Brass is lauded for its system of network making and shared incentives. The bones of Birmingham are based on the original but the randomized setup and extra resource add just that extra of spice to make it my preferred version of the game. What’s that? Brass isn’t a family game? Pshhaw. No family gathering is complete without some good ol’ industrialization!
Picked by: Ruel | Amazon link
[Ed. note: no, it’s not a mistake. 2 people recommended Brass: Birmingham in 2 separate categories.] Brass: Birmingham was one of my favorite games of 2018 and it continues to challenge and entertain me. Based on Martin Wallace’s classic Brass, Birmingham is a tense game of hand management and network building in which you attempt to develop various industries during England’s Industrial Revolution. The simple turn structure (play a card and perform an action) belies this game’s depth and it’s an instant classic that any hobby gamer would love to receive as a gift. Hint, hint.
Picked by: FarmerLenny | Amazon Link
2018 was in many ways the year of Michael Kiesling, with his Azul winning the most prestigious award in tabletop gaming and his Heaven & Ale being nominated in another category. Yet while both of these games are excellent, I think my favorite of his releases is Riverboat. Riverboat combines several disparate elements–Bingo-style farmer placement, set collection, tile-laying, and special scoring achievements–into a game that just works. It’s true that there is some luck in the game, but Riverboat is all about speculation–about knowing how to turn luck to your advantage and knowing when to pay the price to make your own luck. The game plays briskly, and after the initial learning curve is quite intuitive. Riverboat is a gem.
Picked by: Jennifer | Amazon link
Gingerbread House is a tile laying game that turns fairy tale characters into the villains of the game. A sweet little witch loves gingerbread so much that she built her entire house out of the stuff. The problem is, all the other fairy tale characters living in the wood keep breaking off bits of her house and eating it. To stop this atrocious behavior, the witch keeps a list of who likes what type of gingerbread the most, and builds parts of her house to lure in specific characters. When the characters appear to eat their preferred gingerbread, she traps them and locks them up, ending their house-munching ways.
Subversive theme aside, the fun in the game is building multi-level gingerbread houses using tiles. The challenge is to arrange the tiles in ways that earn gingerbread tokens, which you then trade in to “capture” fairy tale characters. Completing levels of your home also earns bonus cards, which are worth extra points at game’s end. Gingerbread House is a relatively simple strategy game appropriate for families, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The puzzle of how to best optimize your house is intriguing and keeps you thinking throughout the game. Bonus: While Gingerbread House isn’t explicitly holiday-themed, gingerbread is a holiday staple so this game will fit right into your holiday gaming schedule.
Sol: Last Days of a Star
One of the cleverest game designs I’ve seen in a while, Sol will appeal to almost any type of gamer. Me, the theme-loving thematic game player. FarmerLenny, the dry boring Euro-lover. It’s got spaceships flying around and building cool structures on a beautiful-looking board; but interesting, solid mechanics of managing your resources to convert energy into points. While there’s little in the way of aggressive interaction (and none if you want to avoid it), there’s plenty of interaction, as you can use other player’s structures in order to collect energy and power your mothership. Action cards give the game wide replay value, and the components are top notch.
The game isn’t extremely widely available – and skip overpriced auction listing. You can order the game directly from the publisher’s website (or, possibly, ask your local gaming store to order it).
TOKYO METRO is the weirdest game I played this year. It’s a large game in a little box about running subways stations. But you’re not building tracks, instead you’re investing in pre-existing lines based on the actual map of the Tokyo subway station. It’s not your typical train game, but it’s one of the best games of the year.
I think 2018 was a good year for new games, and yet when I look back on my favorite games of the year, the one that rises to the top is this unassuming card game that is, at heart, just a deck of cards numbered 1-100. In The Mind, the goal is simple: players cooperatively play number cards in ascending order. There are no turns, and limited communication. Players have to simply work together to try to get the cards played. Each wrong play costs a life; each completed round moves them closer to the goal (and makes the game more difficult). There’s some argument whether The Mind is a game or an activity. These arguments miss the point: The Mind is perhaps the most compelling experience I’ve had on the tabletop this year. It’s an exercise in empathy and shared humanity. And it’s a testament that sometimes less is more. Don’t believe me? Just give it a try. (Also, it looks like The Mind might be in between print runs, so it might be better to look elsewhere than Amazon. You can buy The Game at Target, which uses a similar 1-100 card deck. The rules for The Mind are here, and you can get a level/life/star tracker here.)
If you’ve got a book lover on your gift list, look no further than Ex Libris. In Ex Libris, you are trying to win the coveted position of Grand Librarian. This position is awarded to the person with the best library. To win the job, you have to send yourself and your assistants out into the world to source the finest books (represented by cards in the game). Once you’ve got the books, you have to shelve them in order, create strong bookshelves to hold them, and make sure you feature prominent works and avoid banned books. Plus, you want a variety of books to cater to all readers! The Official Inspector will judge your work, so make sure to meet the requirements by getting the right cards and placing them in the right spots. Otherwise, the Inspector will mark you down and you’ll be serving as the library janitor.
Ex Libris manages to feel somewhat unique. The combination of worker placement, set collection, and puzzle solving might seem like it would be a mess, but it all meshes well together to create an experience that really feels like building a library. It’s not quite easy enough for small children, but for teens and adults it’s a light to medium game that serves as a great introduction to worker placement. For book lovers, librarians, writers, editors, and other bookworms, it’s an easy gift choice.
After being on staff for a few years and
being brainwashed reading about Wolfie’s love of Twilight Imperium, I finally took the plunge a few months ago during a cool Southern California afternoon which quickly became evening as I built my galactic empire. As the game approached its sixth hour, my back was sore and my brain was close to melting — yet I knew right then and there that I’d play this space-opera-in-a-box again in a heartbeat. From the time you begin your quest to rule the galaxy to the moment when the winner scores the final victory point, TI4 is an epic, must-play-at-least-once-in-your-lifetime gaming experience — one that isn’t easily forgotten.
Picked by: Wolfie | Amazon Link
Debuting at Gen Con, this colorful tile-placing city builder has been a hit with everyone I’ve put it in front of. The mechanics are fairly straightforward – you place a tile and then add building pieces that stack neatly on top of each other. You score points by building tall buildings and by placing restaurants, parks, churches, and shopping malls in convenient point-boosting locations. Contract cards give you even more ways to score points by meeting certain arrangements of tiles or building configurations. At the end of the game, you have an awesome, sprawling city on your table, and once you count up points the losers get to destroy it, godzilla-styles.
The sheer number of ways to score points can be overwhelming to less experienced gamers, so introduce with care – but the familiar theme and clear mechanics make this game a winner. The game is weirdly hard to find right now – hopefully it lands back in stores before christmas, but in the meantime you can order from the publisher’s website.
2018 was the year I discovered the magic of Carl Chudyk. Not all of his games are hits, but certain ones have really lit my fires. Impulse is actually an older design that received a new edition with a much needed facelift. It’s a stripped down 4X space game that relies on your ability to seek out combos and execute on opportunities. Cards have never felt so nimble.
Thanks for reading! Hope you found something great for your family or friends. And until next time… keep slaying dragons!