“It’s that time of year, when the world falls in love…” It’s also that time of year when gift-giving is not only encouraged but expected. And as expected as giving gifts is, what is even more expected–at least in the world of gaming blogs–is the ubiquitous holiday gift guide. Here’s our unique take on it, from the hearths of a theme-loving Wolf, a mechanism-loving Farmer, and an eclectic Kinderspieler. And if after reading this you still don’t know what to buy for someone on your list, leave us a comment. We give recommendations to order.
Saving the best for first! Without surprise, my picks are the more thematic choices of the bunch. They’re also the most fun, and fun is what the hobby is all about! And if you’re wondering why Dominion isn’t on this list, it’s because… seriously, do you really need someone to tell you to buy Dominion after all this time? Anyhow, read on, my friends, for tales of larceny, betrayal, war, and a little bit of a mix of all, mostly set in the far future and/or in space. Also, Camelot. Enjoy.
Why Buy? This is a delightful game that puts you in the shoes of cyberthieves breaking into a corporation to steal valuable information and technology. It has a very straightforward framework and simple mechanisms, but a wildly variable “board” setup and a tense countdown timer make this a great experience. It’s easy enough for non-gamers to grasp, but the limited time, bluffing, and excitement created by the game is fun for all. It works extremely well with four to six players (it’s compatible with two to three players, but that is not recommended), and it’s not that expensive
Who to buy it for? The gamer looking to introduce more family and friends to games.
Who not to buy it for? People who hate science fiction or are looking for a much more complex game (like the original Android game, which shares the same futuristic setting).
Why Buy? This is a remake of the ever-classic Dune board game, with a Fantasy Flight Games makeover that includes a new setting (the Twilight Imperium universe), beautiful art, and a shortened game length from the original (yes, that’s right, FFG actually made a game shorter). This is essentially a distilled wargame with asymmetrical powers and a bit of bluffing and diplomacy, not to mention a brilliant combat-resolution mechanic in which the involved players essentially secretly bet on who is going to win in a given area, using their troops in that area. Whoever loses the bid loses all their troops–but the winner has to pay up in all the troops that they bet. With cards and leaders to mix things up, not to mention traitors, you just never know what’s going to happen. It’s tense and exciting and I love it.
Who to buy it for? Fans of the original Dune game; players looking for a tactical wargame without getting into minis; someone who doesn’t mind a three- to four-hour game length.
Who not to buy it for? People who don’t like conflict or who don’t have the time
Why Buy? There are a lot of great cooperative games out there; there are a lot of great space-themed games out there. This is the best of both worlds; with a zany, real time mission resulting in frantic mayhem, panic, catastrophe, and very commonly failure. No matter the outcome of the mission, the game itself is a blast, as you attempt to work together with the other players to plan your actions. Once the accompanying CD ends, it’s too late to change what you do, but hilarity certainly ensues as you review the mission to see if you succeeded. More than likely you’ll fail epically and end up firing weapons out into empty space, only to retreat and charge the already-full reactor core just when an enemy shows up. It’s brilliant fun and a great thematic experience without too many complex rules; although it is recommended to learn from an experienced player, the game comes with an extra rulebook that steps you through the learning process bit by bit to get you used to the game without getting overwhelmed. We haven’t reviewed this one yet but it’s coming soon and it is a winner.
Who to buy it for? The sci-fi enthusiast, the co-op fan, the family looking for an exciting new game.
Who not to buy it for? Someone who stresses out easily
Why Buy? The Resistance was on my list last year, and it stays this year. Not just because it’s a blast to play and easy to pull out at a party or with a large group, but a new version called Avalon just released. Avalon features the same paranoid gameplay, with a few added elements–characters with specific purposes in the game. The theme is now Camelot, with loyalists to King Arthur against traitors. Merlin is a loyalist who knows the identity of the traitors; but he must remain hidden lest he be assassinated before the end game. It’s a new level to an already brilliant game which should add life to the game if, somehow, it was starting to grow stale. And that’s just the start–several new optional characters make their debut, with various levels of knowledge or secrecy along with them.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Resistance, it is a hidden-identity game in the vein of Mafia or Werewolf. But instead of eliminating people, each round players are chosen to undertake a mission, which they can pass or fail. Loyalists must root out the traitors to prevent them from failing three missions in a row before three missions are passed, but the only way to do so is by arguing, accusing each other, and trying to figure out who is lying. It’s an easy game to learn, but it is an extremely exciting experience. And you’ll never trust your friends again.
Who to buy it for? The person who plays in big groups.
Who not to buy it for? People who refuse to lie, even for a game.
Why Buy? Cosmic Encounter is my number one game of all time (beating out Twilight Imperium only because it doesn’t take eight hours to play). Truthfully, this game is a mixed bag in the gaming community. There are those who hate it and those who love it. I definitely fall on the “love it” side, and I greatly enjoy introducing new players to this lovable, rule-breaking space game. The game has a fairly straightforward framework, involving the use of attack cards and negotiations to gain colonies on the other players’ planets. Leaving it at that, it’s a decent diplomacy/combat game with bluffing and risk-taking. However, once you add in the ability to invite allies who are rewarded for helping you, and even more important, a base collection of fifty unique alien powers that allow players to drastically break specific rules, you have a recipe for something fantastic. These powers don’t just stick with your basic “+1 to this stat in a certain situation” kind of powers– these aliens range from gaining cards more easily, to winning with a lower attack instead of a higher attack, to changing the conditions of how the game ends. It’s a brand new experience every time, and it’s a blast to see alien powers interact in peculiar ways. I love this game, and there are plenty of other people out there who love it too.
Who to buy it for? The sci-fi gamer who doesn’t take him- (or her-) self too seriously
Who not to buy it for? @FarmerLenny
My picks–while not in space or Camelot–cover the broad spectrum of gaming situations you or your loved ones may find yourselves in. Some are simple, some are complex, all are worth your time.
Why Buy? Ticket to Ride: Europe is the only game I’ve carried over from last year’s list, and that is because it is perennially the right choice for an entry-level board game. More than that, I continue to love each play of this game. Here’s what I wrote last year: “Ticket to Ride is simple, so simple that almost anyone can play it. Its low barrier to entry means that the whole family can gather around and play. Yes, I know, trains don’t seem that interesting, but believe me: looking at a beautiful map of Europe while trying to destroy your wife’s plans of making it to Pamplona is fantastically fun. Yes, it is in many ways Rummy on a board, but the board makes all the difference. (There are various versions. My favorite is Europe because of the flavor. It’s a little easier than the U.S. map; both are fun.)”
Who to Buy It For? I haven’t introduced this game to anyone who didn’t like it. Anyone, even those who aren’t used to designer board games. (I think this is the best “gateway” game, even preferable to the ubiquitous Settlers of Catan.)
Who Not to Buy It For? Someone who already has it.
Why Buy? I was introduced to this game this year through the Black Box Kickstarter campaign. Oh man, what have I been missing?! This game truly has it all. Lots of interesting decisions on every turn (not just your own), plenty of interaction, the feeling of freedom and being a high roller. I can’t recommend this game highly enough (you can check out my gushing review here). But be warned: this is not for the faint of heart. Even though the game lasts less than an hour and has lighthearted art, this is a big-time strategy game.
Who to Buy It For? Those who are comfortable with strategy games, those who like innovative games.
Who Not to Buy It For? The analysis paralysis prone, those who think “Uno” when they hear “card game.”
Why Buy? This game is versatile. It’s easy enough to learn that I have taught it to both my and my wife’s family, yet it’s interesting enough and has enough depth to keep most of my more game-inclined friends satisfied. The iconography is the biggest hurdle to playing this game, and that issue is settled within the first game. 7 Wonders handles from 3-7 players well (though I think it’s best with 4+), looks nice, and since a game only takes 30-45 minutes, it’s easy to fit multiple games into an afternoon. My family usually chooses one game every Christmas to play over and over and over, and last year’s choice was 7 Wonders. I plan to take it again this year.
Who to Buy It For? Those who like strategy games but usually have a larger group around.
Who Not to Buy It For? Couples, those who like very simple games.
Why Buy? For Sale is simply the best filler-style game I’ve played. It uses a very simple auction system, and each turn offers a binary choice: bid or pass. But within this binary choice there are lots of considerations. For Sale is two games smashed into one (a one-upping auction and a blind-bid auction), and beyond just a simple auction, the game offers elements of press your luck. For Sale is by no means epic, and it usually won’t remain on the table all night, but it is a wonderful appetizer for meatier fare. And it’s simple enough that your mom can play it.
Who to Buy It For? Just about everyone, especially fans of auctions, light games, or those in need of a good short game for game nights.
Who Not to Buy It For? Those who will only play epic space fantasy games, enemies of fun.
Why Buy? I was at a neighbor’s house recently and noticed their fancy Scrabble board, the one with the Lazy Susan (sorry, Susan: you’re forever remembered as lazy). My wife said, “Yeah, Lenny usually beats me at word games.” Their response: “How many word games are there?” Scrabble (and now its Internet-branded Words with Friends) are all over the place; other word games are not. But the truth is, I’m not a huge fan of Scrabble. You have to have the right letters and the right placement, and so often the game is won by whoever knows more obscure two- and three-letter words. Prolix takes what I like about Scrabble (making long, awesome words) and removes a lot of the luck factor. You can use any letters in forming your words, but only the letters that are on the scoreboard earn you points. It offers yet another way of thinking about words. Look for a full review in the future, but Prolix has quickly ascended to become my favorite word game. It’s fun with any number of players (two to five), and each format is a little different. You can also usually find this one on sale (especially at Tanga and Barnes & Noble [in store, not online]).
Who to Buy It For? Fans of word games, your mother (well, at least mine–who does enjoy it, by the way).
Who Not to Buy It For? Those with tiny vocabularies, people who don’t know how to spell.
Why Buy? This title is a light and simple card game with a whimsical theme and imaginative art. It incorporates basic tableau building and CCG mechanics. Find the titular insects, play them to the table, and then protect them, all while trying to attack/steal other gubs. Accessible and fun for children, as long as they can read. Inexpensive and an ideal stocking stuffer.
Who to Buy It for? Families with younger kids.
Who Not to Buy It For? Adult gamers.
Why Buy? This title is a very smooth and streamlined two-player card game with hand-management, simple economic, and CCG mechanics. Use cards to buy/sell wares, attack your opponent, protect yourself, and bend the rules. Nicely paced, great balance of interaction, and top-notch components. Affordable value.
Who to Buy It for? Gaming couples.
Who Not to Buy It For? Gamers completely averse to luck.
Why Buy? This dice and board game is an intuitive, slick, and colorful design with worker-placement and resource management mechanics. Roll your dice to influence the King’s advisers who give you resources which you use to build and prosper your lands. A well-paced strategy game with a fair dose of luck and interaction that is low on downtime. Superb graphic design, artwork, and bits, to boot! The expansion, To Forge a Realm, could be next year’s gift, too.
Who to Buy It for? Slightly more than casual gamers.
Who Not to Buy It For? Hardcore gamers.
Why Buy? These two titles, cut from the same cloth, incorporate cooperative mechanics in which all players work together. Forbidden Island is lighter and quicker and more accessible for kids as you all race to collect treasures and escape a sinking island in true pulp fiction style! Pandemic is a bit meatier and more complex as you all race to contain and fight a worldwide epidemic before it wipes out humanity straight from the screen of a disaster film! Both are unbelievably priced for production quality and fun value they offer.
Who to Buy It for? Families and gamers who don’t like interaction.
Who Not to Buy It For? Ultra-competitive gamers.
Why Buy? This gaming blast in a bullet-shaped container uses cards and secret role-playing mechanics to deliver loads of action and lots of laughs. The sheriff aims for the outlaws and the renegade, the deputies protect the sheriff, the outlaws gun for the sheriff, and the lone renegade takes on everyone. The Bullet! includes the base game and all major expansions, plus a shiny, plastic sheriff’s star! It’s a theme anyone can get into – ham it up for best effects.
Who to Buy It for? Gamers who love thematic interaction and social/party gamers.
Who Not to Buy It For? Sore losers who hate dying.