Another year, another Christmas, another chance to give your friends and family the best gifts of all time. But maybe you’re not sure where to start; there are so many games, how can you narrow it down?
Well, friends and foes, don’t you worry. Here at iSlaytheDragon we’ve got some great recommendations for you. We’ve broken them down into 5 categories: Stocking Stuffers, Social, Family, Hobbyist, and the bonus Staff Picks where we share our favorites.
Each recommendation includes a link to purchase on Amazon, so if you feel like supporting our site…
Stocking stuffers are games that come in a small box that can easily fit, you know, in a stocking. They tend to be short in playtime and lite in complexity, but that doesn’t mean they’re simple or boring. These games are often great to have around for social gatherings or to include people who don’t necessarily live inside the hobby realm.
Alex: Happy Salmon | Review | Amazon
Rather than the usual stocking trout, why not try stuffing them with Salmon instead? But let’s avoid the usual fishy odor and go with something a little more olfactory friendly: Happy Salmon. The salmon pouch packaging is only the just the beginning of the fun. The small packaging is also indicative of the simplicity of the game within. With only a small deck of cards, Happy Salmon, more than anything, is an excuse to act a fool without being the butt of the joke.
Take a small handful of cards and interact with one another by giving high fives and running around in circles in order to play all your cards before anyone else. There is real interaction between the players and plenty of laughs. The low rules overhead means it’s sure to be hit at holiday gatherings.
Ruel: FUSE | Amazon
A real-time, dice-chucking, bomb-defusing gem of a game. Your spaceship has been infiltrated by enemy aliens, who’ve placed a plethora of bombs throughout the ship. You and your crew have 10 minutes to defuse the bombs before you’re all blown to smithereens. The action is fast and furious and there’s no Alpha Gamer/Quarterback problem that many cooperative games suffer from; each player has their own set of bombs to defuse and there’s no time to figure out the optimal strategy and/or tell others what to do. FUSE is a fun, action-packed game with some elements of puzzle-solving and dexterity thrown into the mix, and a hilariously snarky countdown timer (available via app) reminding you of what’s at stake as each minute passes by.
Jon: Hocus | Review | Amazon
Hocus is the perfect game to slip in a stocking if you want to get someone a lot for a little. There is so much game packed into a small box that even if this is the only game you give this year, it should still be enough to take you through the celebration all the way to New Year’s. The game uses familiar Poker hands, but instead of bluffing, the game relies on a clever, one-action-per-turn hand management puzzle with different player powers for each player. It’s simple to learn but provides tough choices each game.
Jason: Star Realms | Review | Amazon
This fast-paced, streamlined deck-builder looks like it was customized to fit a stocking. No bigger than a double-sized tuck box from a regular deck of cards, you can carry this one around wherever you go. No worries even if it gets a little dog-eared around the corners – it’s so reasonably priced you can always just pick up another copy to give next year. Gameplay is as snappy as the box is portable. Star Realms is an Ascension-style deck-building game writ simple, with a compelling sci-fi theme, quick action and welcome interaction. It’s basic enough that relatively new gamers can learn it easily, while still offering depth and strategy to hobby players. This year, let those you give gifts to reach for the stars as they reach into their stockings!
Wolfie: Patchwork | Review | Amazon
It only plays with two players and it has neither miniatures nor space, but Patchwork is an interesting and engaging tetris-like game and it is a whole lot of fun. The goal is to fill up your patchwork board using wonkily-shaped pieces, but you’ve also got a miniature economy to worry about so you can afford to buy the pieces you need at the right time. It creates a tough challenge that makes every game quite entertaining, and putting together your “quilt” is satisfying even if you don’t ultimately win in the end. It’s non-aggressive even while being competitive, so hopefully you can challenge your significant other without resulting in hard feelings or sleeping on the couch when the game is done.
For the Social Gamer
Social gaming tends to be more about interacting with people than assembling a strategy or mastering tactics. Some require bluffing, some require shouting, and some just try to get everyone to laugh. Whatever your taste, there’s certainly a game out there for you and your group of friends. Our recommendations below:
Jon: A Fake Artist Goes to New York | Amazon
Spyfall was a huge hit last year for a lot of people (myself included). A Fake Artist Goes to New York takes the Spyfall “one person doesn’t know what’s going on” conceit and makes a drawing game out of it. This one always provides a ton of laughs as players are trying to cleverly not let the fake artist know what the drawing is while the fake artist is just trying to fit in. The components in this one are great, but the best part about it is that it will fit in your purse or pocket–it’s tiny, meaning you can easily have it on hand for all your party needs this season.
Jen: Sushi Go Party | Review | Amazon
Improving in every way over the original, Sushi Go Party will provide hours of entertainment, even for those who don’t partake of the actual delicious slices of heaven. The game is still Sushi Go at its heart: players start with cards, draw one, then pass the rest to their opponents as they try to score points from the various sushi they play in front of them. However, Sushi Go Party ups the ante with more types of foods to score (which range in difficulty) and provides a physical board for players to track their scores, along with offering reminders of which foods are being played during the game. The fun and friendly artwork is retained in the new cards and, like its original predecessor, Sushi Go Party will draw new players into our hobby.
Wolfie: Junk Art | Amazon
One gamer’s trash is another’s treasure. Or in this case, another gamer’s art. Junk Art comes with a wide array of chunky wooden tokens in odd shapes that are hard to stack. You, of course, are tasked with stacking them into beautiful works of art. Or just junk. Whatever suits you.
The pieces are so off-kilter it’s hard to master, and everyone around the table will have a laughing, joking good time as you all stack up your pieces. And, there’s more than one way to play, as the game includes rules for a few different challenges, such as stacking the highest tower or simply outlasting everyone else. Unlike many social games, it doesn’t require deception, knowledge of obscure trivia, or an extroverted bent. It’s a bit of a hefty price, but it certainly brings the entertainment and will gather a crowd when it lands on the table.
Ruel: Captain Sonar | Amazon
The only caveat for this masterpiece is that you need the maximum player count of eight to fully appreciate and enjoy Captain Sonar. If you get that magic number, then you’ll be treated to a gaming experience unlike any other. There are no dice or cards, just several dry-erase markers and sheets for each player, and an table-long, mood-enhancing screen to separate the two teams. The Captain leads your crew, signaling which direction your submarine will go. They’ll have help from the First Mate, who keeps track what weapons and tools are online and ready to be used. The ship’s Engineer makes sure everything runs smoothly under the hood while the Radio Operator tracks your enemy. This is a game of wits and deduction and the team who learns to work efficiently together will soon be firing the winning torpedo to sink their opponent’s submarine. If you’re on the losing end, fret not; it’s nearly guaranteed that the first response after a game will be “Let’s play again!”
Jason: Bang! The Dice Game | Review | Amazon
What screams social gathering more than gunfights and dynamite? Bang! The Dice Game is a chaotic romp through a Spaghetti Western with plenty of intrigue, deduction, bluffing, spite and laughs. Dealt a role and unique character to start the throwdown, your job is to find out who’s with ya’ and who’s agin ya’. Are you the law, gunning for the sheriff or just simply trying to be the last gunfighter standing when the dust settles? Each turn, rolling Yahtzee-style, you try to avoid Indian raids and TNT while gunning down others. It’s simple, yet the roles and character abilities inject flavor and variety. It’s interactive, yet never nasty (in the right spirit, of course!). Yes, there is player elimination. But this is a social occasion and games are pretty quick. So just observe the rest of the hilarious duel while gabbing with your other neighbors in Boot Hill. Then join the next shootout. For the gamer on your list who likes to be a little unsociable at social gatherings, you can’t miss with this gunslinging yarn.
Alex: Dead Last | Amazon
There’s nothing like a family gathering to incite some good old fashioned ultraviolence. Take a stash of gold and a group of greedy cohorts with a penchant for murder and you have Dead Last. The premise is simple. There’s a pile of gold in the center of the table, but there’s not enough for everyone. That’s going to be a problem. The remedy? Gang up on each other. Every round, the players vote to eliminate one of the players. Whoever receives the most votes is out for the round. Whoever didn’t vote for that person is also eliminated, so you want to be on the same page. The twist, is the ambush card. If the target plays it, they turn the tables and eliminate someone who voted for them instead.
What separates Dead Last from the pack is the free form nature of the decision period. The game doesn’t dole out any information and leaves it up to the players’ creativity to make the call. Faces contort, text messages fly and cards are flashed in order to secretly pass information. It’s the ambush card the elevates Dead Last above other games in the space.
For the Family
Family games tend to mix relatively simple rules and a bit of luck with some level of strategy and player choice. You won’t spend hours and hours at one time with these games, but you’ll get a satisfying experience that you can enjoy with family and friends who aren’t necessarily hardcore gamers.
Jen: World’s Fair 1893 | Amazon
Rather than relying on a fictional universe to create wonder, World’s Fair 1893 reminisces on a fascinating historical event and strives through every detail of the production to recreate the awe. The cards are lovingly illustrated with unique artwork, and each card has a historical explanation of what the exhibit, attraction, or personage meant for the World’s Fair. It’s likely that your first games will take longer than advertised, so satisfying is it to immerse yourself in the setting. The central board looks like a Ferris wheel, and the rulebook is full of additional historical tidbits. And beyond this, the game is a fun one. It’s a clever area control/action selection/set collection game that is simple to learn and plays quickly. World’s Fair 1893 is charming, start to finish, and an excellent family game in the Spiel des Jahres mold.
Wolfie: Get Rich Quick | Amazon
Okay, so it’s very ugly. Yeah. I get it. Doesn’t get much better when you open the box either; that’s sort of on purpose. It’s supposed to look like a “classic” game in the vein of Monopoly. You know, the sort of game that people are familiar with.
Fortunately, the game itself isn’t a clunky mess of dice-rolling and painfully long playtime. It’s a clever and simple role-selection game. Each player has an identical hand of cards and chooses three of them secretly. Then everyone flips up their cards and resolves them in order. The catch? Certain cards only resolve if few enough people played them. Anyone can go to work for cash, but if you want to make it big on Real Estate you better hope only three out of five players counted on that. The big one, Invest in a Startup, only gives you back your money if you’re the only player who does it.
Once you get a little cash, you can start buying spots on the board that enhance your abilities. Get more money for work, or get payouts even when your investment goes bust. There are ways to earn extra cash or rack up the points, and a lot of ways to win. It’s easy to teach, fun to play, and tough to master.
Jason: Dreamwell | Amazon
It’s truly golden when you find a game that is simple for kids, yet still engages adults and challenges both at the same time. Dreamwell is a whimsical puzzle with a quirky theme and rather peculiar artwork whose gameplay and presentation pull players in of all ages. Through a standard and intuitive action allowance mechanism your goal is to maneuver a pair of pawns on a modular board. The goal is to occupy tiles with icons and backgrounds that match those on friend cards in your hand, which you can then turn in for points and a nice bonus. There’s a fun and intelligent maze element to moving about the dream land. Plus you can flip tiles, rotate them and play a nightmare pawn to prevent others from moving onto them. For the gaming family on your list, Dreamwell is both accessible, smart and probably unlike anything they already own.
Alex: Ice Cool | Amazon
Dexterity games have a broad appeal. They are immediately relatable and the goals are clear. Unfortunately, they also tend to be large and expensive. Ice Cool avoids both pitfalls by employing a clever nesting box that unfurls into a larger playing area than the miniscule box would initially lead you to believe. But that’s not the best part of Ice Cool. The stars of the show are the penguins.
Flicking discs is one thing, but trying to flick wobbly, unstable plastic penguins is another thing altogether. At first, flicking the penguins may seem like an exercise in futility. They don’t go in the direction you intended and they may as well have a mind of their own. But eventually, you’ll be nailing bank shots, curving through doorways and jumping over walls. And then the fun really begins. Just don’t take the game too seriously, because the scoring system certainly doesn’t.
Jon: Costa Rica | Review | Amazon
Costa Rica is a push-your-luck exploration game that’s easy to teach and provides lots of great moments. There’s shared incentives, spatial movement, set collection, and press-your luck tension, all with a small dash of opportunities to be mean or clever. The game is quick–even with five, you can usually play in 20 minutes or so–and addictive. It’s hard to play just once, and it’s the kind of game that gets better the more you play. Good production values make this an easy recommendation for families.
Ruel: Potion Explosion | Review | Amazon
Set up Potion Explosion on the table and, like a board game version of Field of Dreams, the players will come. The unique dispenser and gorgeous components will elicit oohs and ahhs from gamers and non-gamers alike. The simple play will appeal to all: take any marble from the dispenser and if two marbles of the same color collide, they “explode” and you receive those as well. Use the marbles to complete the two potions on your desk. After you complete a potion, flip it over and on ensuing turns you’ll be able to use it to grab extra ingredients to make even more potions. The tactile excitement of every turn ensures that this will have a place in my collection for years to come.
For the Hobbyist
Most of you reading this are probably more of what you’d consider “hardcore” gamers, or at the very least you are looking to buy something for one. We hobbyists don’t mind spending hours playing games, pouring over the rules, considering strategies, and arguing about it afterwards. We don’t mind boxing and unboxing dozens of bits or prepping the table beforehand. These recommendations tend to have longer playtimes, require more strategic thought, and can have a lot of interconnected and complex rules.
Alex: Inis | Review | Amazon
Large boxes usually mean large, long, intimidating games. Inish is large, but approachable. The actions are easy to understand and have to commend the published for making the decision to use text on the cards rather than rely on iconography. And another huge commendation for taking the chance on a unique artstyle and presentation. But don’t be lulled by the game’s beauty, there’s plenty of bite to it.
With three different victory conditions, there’s more to Inis than just smashing armies into one another. Clever play and timing rule the day and the winner will the one who can use the common pool of cards better than the other players. A slight twist on the familiar drafting system provides a shot of originality into an overall great game.
Jon: Five Tribes | Amazon
Five Tribes is a bit overwhelming when you look at the board the first time. In fact, that’s what put me off trying it for as long as I did. But don’t make the same mistake I did. Five Tribes is a simple game to understand but a challenging and rewarding game to play. It uses the Mancala mechanism of picking up and dropping pieces, and the trick is choosing moves that are better for you than for other players–and not setting up future players by what you do. There are lots of different ways to score points, each of which makes players feel clever. And the game looks gorgeous on the table. The game time is a little over an hour with four players, which is why I put this in the “gamer” category, but this is probably just few steps up from entry-level hobby gaming. Five Tribes, in other words, is a great choice for most people on your list.
Ruel: Cry Havoc | BGG | Amazon
I flipped and flopped between Scythe and Cry Havoc for my Gamer Game recommendation and while you can’t go wrong with either one, my personal preference for games with easier learning curves gave Cry Havoc the nod. It’s a dudes-on-a-map sci-fi war game with a combat system unlike any other, as opponents fight to kill and capture each other as they seek to control the planet. Cry Havoc’s streamlined turns might obscure its deep and rewarding play, but its asymmetrical races offer a variety of tactical and strategical decisions as the game develops.
Wolfie: Flick ‘Em Up | Review | Amazon
Another year, another dexterity game involving flicking, am I right? Flick ‘Em Up actually came out last year, but this year saw the release of a more plastic version at about half the price. It’s still got all the fun of the original with wild west scenery and a shoot ’em out between the law and the outlaw teams. Flick disks to move and shoot; pick up extra guns, dynamite, and bags of cash as you work your way through 10 scenarios with different setups, rules, and goals. A game takes about an hour to play with experienced players, and while skilled flicking will certainly help you out, you’ll need a bit of strategy and planning if you want your team to achieve victory. It’s thematic, fun, and entertaining, and supports up to 10 players.
Jason: Steam Time | Review | Amazon
The holidays can be a bit garish, at times, and hardcore hobby games often fit that bill, too. There’s nothing wrong with that at all! Steam Time is an open-ended design with lots of bits and plenty of color. Which means it’s big, flashy and fiddly. This worker placement title slaps a unique and, if you’re not careful, restricting twist on the genre, but otherwise allows players to explore a handful of strategies and offers a myriad amount of synergy. However, you only get fifteen actions the entire game (maybe one or two extra, depending on how good you are), so efficiency is paramount. Ostensibly about temporal sleuthing and ancient mysteries, it is in reality a mere points-generating machine. With so many options to consider and very little interaction, it can induce some mental paralysis and feel largely solitary. However, those are often hallmarks of strong “gamer’s games.” While not for the timid and casual, putting a bow on this box should delight your serious gaming friends.
Sometimes we just like to share extra games that we love, okay? Here are a few more of our favorites for this holiday season.
Wolfie: The Dragon & Flagon | Amazon
If you were going to simulate a medieval bar fight in carboard, what sort of things do you think you should be able to do? Push tables around? Throw chairs, mugs, and barrels? Pull the rug out from under people’s feet? Swing on a chandelier? Well, you can do all those things and more in The Dragon & Flagon, a board game about what happens when fantasy adventurers come home and just want to have a quiet drink, only to find a powerful and valuable artifact in the center of the bar. This is a clever programming game with 8 unique characters (and up to 8 players) with a neat timing mechanism and a huge variety of actions. There’s no health to worry about – instead, when you get hit with an attack you give up reputation (and reputation is everything for a hero, amiright?). Certain attacks force you to program additional actions in advance, before you know what’s going to happen. It’s pretty chaotic, and your genius plans go awry far more often than they succeed, but it’s zany and hilarious and fun and it rewards you with just enough brilliant moments to keep you from feeling like a total loser.
Ruel: Mechs vs Minions | Amazon
If I had to pick only one game to give during this holiday season, it’s Mechs vs Minions. It far exceeds its price-point in terms of quality components and replayability. Opening the box is an event itself, as gamers will appreciate the “love letter to the board gaming community” that Riot Games has produced. Featuring Robo Rally programming mixed with a Descent-style dungeon crawl, legacy-like touches in its campaign mode, and the stellar components (pre-painted character figures, 100 minion figures, thick cardboard game boards, metal rings, and more all neatly packed into Game Trayz inserts), Mechs vs Minions will have you wondering how a $75 game felt like such a bargain.
Jason: 7 Wonders | Review | Amazon
Every gamer should have some titles on their shelves that they can pull out in just about any situation. 7 Wonders is a versatile modern classic that works for most occasions – other than perhaps unleashing upon newcomers wholly unfamiliar with the hobby. This masterpiece is a straightforward, card-drafting design of city building, with lots of synergetic ways to generate points. It is both basic enough for relatively casual players and deep enough to please seasoned gamers. But while it’s gameplay and accessibility are attractive, it shines for other reasons. 7 Wonders is ideal for large groups, but scales wonderfully at any of its player counts. And it manages that flexibility without creating downtime nor sacrificing playability. There’s just the right amount of subtle interaction – you only need worry about your neighbors’ progress, no matter how many are playing, though you’ll want to keep on eye on what others may be building across the table. And even though experienced players may have the usual advantage, there’s enough randomness and uncertainty to keep everyone in the game. Toss in some variable powers and alluring artwork and 7 Wonders is the gift you can give so that your gaming friend has something for everything.
Alex: Wir Sind Das Volk! | Amazon
13 Days was released this year and and was a big hit with a lot of people including a certain writer on our site. I wanted a tense, two player game with a historical flavor but 13 Days just didn’t hit with me. Luckily, I discovered Wir Sind Das Volk! It’s been out for a couple of years now and it isn’t the most well known game (which is a shame), but it’s still available if you look for it, but I don’t think that will be the case for long.
So why does a game about the German Divide deserve your holiday dollars? One player will take on the role of the West and the other as the East. It’s a battle, but an ideological one. Will socialism or capitalism prevail? Build up your infrastructure and increase the living standards in your regions to show that your ideology is best. You’ll also need to balance the historical events that pop up and contort history to your own advantage. It’s certainly a more substantial game than 13 Days with a longer play time, but for my money I would place my bet on Wir Sind Das Volk!
Jon: Concordia | Amazon
Concordia if one of my best new finds in 2016. It’s a Euro game squarely in the classic mold, meaning it has lots of player interaction, but this interaction is of the friendly competitive variety (think Catan) rather than outright aggression. Players establish their houses all over the Mediterranean, using their personality cards to exploit the resources of the regions where they are. Cards are what give players actions, but they also determine the scoring conditions for that player at the end of the game. This is a tricky balance, because in some sense, players have to be decent at everything, yet the cards (and especially the scoring) push players in different ways. Concordia is an efficiency game with incredibly simple rules (the rulebook is only four pages!) that nevertheless produces a satisfying experience each and every game. I love this one, and I think most people who already like games would be pleased to find this one under the tree.
Is Mechs and Minions on a bed? And I thought *I* loved board games.