The advent of the holidays means different things to different people, but for many it signifies a month of wracking your brain for gift ideas, a month of awkward socialization with family and coworkers. Fortunately, there’s a single solution for both: Buy some board games, man. They work well as presents, and can turn a situation where your sitting around silently with people you only half know into a situation where you are—OK, well, where you’re still sitting around silently with people you only half know, but now at least you’ll have something to concentrate on and, with any luck, a heavily spiked eggnog on hand. Alcohol may be the social lubricant, but sometimes you find yourself in need of an entire engine.
And when you play these same games with friends, you may find yourself having more fun than you have in years. Because the new breed is a far cry from the Parcheesis and Paydays you played as a kid. Modern board games are created with adults in mind, especially designed to encourage interaction and friendly competition (i.e., the kind that doesn’t end when a player responds to losing Kamchatka by flinging the Risk board across the room).
I’m something of a game connoisseur, myself—I write reviews for a few publications, host regular game nights, and even do a little freelance designing on the side. So for nearly a decade I have been writing an annual Good Gift Games Guide, to steer folks toward those games that serve well as an introduction to contemporary board games. In particular, I look for three traits:
- Easy to learn, with rules that can be explained in less than five minutes
- Entertaining enough that even the guy who comes in dead last has a great time playing
- Quick, lacking downtime, and requiring around an hour to complete
Each of the following games meets these three criteria (or is strong enough in one category to compensate for the others), and was released or re-released in this calendar year. And so I give you the 2005 Good Gift Games.
Rio Grande Games, two to five players, 60 minutes, $45
This handsome game won the esteemed “German Game of the Year” award earlier this year in addition to being selected as MENSA’s “Best Mind Game.” Players race their canoes around the top of the Niagara River, trying to collect gems and avoid being swept over the falls. The river itself is represented by blue “water” disks that are placed on the raised game board, and each turn ends with several of them actually toppling over the edge—taking any unfortunate boaters with them. Gamers will appreciate Niagara’s masterful blend of skill and luck, others will be impressed by the beauty of the components, and kids will love the “toy” aspect of the waterfall. It’s hard to lose with this one. [ more info ]
Schmidt Spiele, three to eight players, 20 minutes, $25
Two men enter, one man leaves! Or, in the case of Diamant, as many as eight explorers enter the perilous caves in search of jewels, and one by one they flee in terror, as they encounter snakes, scorpions, and deadly rock slides. Those who get out before catastrophe strikes keep the booty they amassed; those that push their luck too far wind up with nothing. The simplest game on this list but also the most tense, Diamant packs all the anxiety of a two-hour suspense film into a tidy 20-minute package. [ more info ]
Ra & For Sale
Ra: Uberplay, two to five players, 45 minutes, $35
For Sale: Uberplay, two to five players, 10 minutes, $20
When Ra debuted in 1999 it was overshadowed by some bigger, flashier games. Since then, though, it has earned a reputation as one of the finest games ever designed, and recently clocked in at no. 9 on a list of the 100 best games of all-time. The only bad thing about Ra was that it had been out-of-print for the last few years. Now, a re-released edition from Uberplay Games makes for a perfect “middle-weight” offering. Set in ancient Egypt, players bid in a series of auctions to acquire gold, build monuments, advance their civilization, and avoid disasters—all under the watchful eyes of an impatient Sun God. [ more info | purchase ]
If the idea of an auction game intrigues you—but Ra sounds a little daunting—Uberplay still has you covered with its 2005 re-release of For Sale. Players buy real estate and immediately auction it off, striving for the largest profit margin. The rules to For Sale can be explained in two minutes and an entire game can be played in 10, making this little gem as potent as a shot of espresso, and every bit as exhilarating. [ more info ]
Playroom Entertainment, three to six players, 15 minutes, $15
Players throw “ingredient” cards into cauldrons to create different “poisons,” and the player who plays the card that pushes the cauldron’s value over the limit takes all the cards from that pot and places them in his score pile. Or, rather, into his “debit” pile—in Poison, points are bad, and they count against you. But there’s a twist: If you imbibe more of a certain kind of poison than anyone else, you build an immunity and will score no negative points for it at the end of the round. Therefore, players compete to take either as little or as much of a given concoction as they can, which makes for a quick, taut balancing act and a perfect little something to play over after-dinner drinks. [ more info ]
Around the World in 80 Days
Rio Grande Games, three to six players, 60 minutes, $38
The common problem with race games is that the winner is often obvious long before the contest ends, leaving players to glumly carry out their final turns without a hope in hell of winning. Around the World in 80 Days, however, cleverly conceals the lead player until the travelers have reconvened in London to settle their wager and swap tales about their circumnavigation of the globe. This is a near-perfect family game: easy enough for anyone to play, but with enough depth to keep your brainy cousin Claire engaged until the exciting conclusion. [ more info ]
Rio Grande Games, two to six players, 30 minutes, $30
Strategy gamers disdainfully dismiss classics such as Monopoly as “simple roll and move games”; that is, the game is all up to the dice, and not you. So for That’s Life—the very epitome of “simple roll and move”—to receive such high acclaim is quite a feat indeed. The game track is made up of tiles bearing values from -10 to +10. On your turn you roll a die and move one of your many pawns, and if your pawn is the last to leave a tile, you take it—for good or ill. Innovative system + easy rules + short playing time make this a game that will hit the table often. [ more info ]
Fantasy Flight Games, one to six players, 45 minutes, $40
Have you played dominos recently? I have, and I’ll let you in a secret: BORE-ing! It might be fun if you were actually in Jamaica, playing it at a café against both an 80-year-old man and your own tolerance for rum and coke, but under any other circumstances it’s pretty dull. So I was understandably agog the first time I played Ingenious—which appears to be little more than a domino variant with a bunch of bells and whistles—and found it to be incredibly addictive. Players place hexagonal tiles onto a board and score by forming groups of the six different symbols. Ingenious is also one of those rare multi-player games that plays great with just two, making it suitable for almost any occasion, no Caribbean airfare required. [ more info ]
Shadows Over Camelot
Days of Wonder, three to seven players, 90 minutes, $35
Shadows Over Camelot is that rarest of all board games—a cooperative one, where everyone works as a team to defeat the game itself. Become a knight of the legendary Round Table and collaborate to complete quests and keep at bay the sinister forces of darkness that threaten the fall of the kingdom. It’s an immensely fun game with a Machiavellian twist: One of the players in this “cooperative” is a traitor, striving to undermine the others and the sow the seeds of their defeat. Nothing says “happy holidays” better than a game rife with mistrust and paranoia! [ more info ]
Avalon Hill, two to four players, 60 minutes, $45
Family games are well and good, but sometimes you just want to shoot stuff. Welcome to the year 2315, in which corporations wage battle against one another to gain control of a distant moon, home to the most valuable mineral in the solar system. Opening the box full of cards, dice, terrain tiles, and alien figures would give even Scrooge pleasant memories of childhood, when Christmas morning meant getting cool stuff instead of key chains and garden rakes. [ more info ]
Rio Grande games, two players, 45 minutes, $23
Trading games typically don’t work with only two players—after all, you have only one person to negotiate with, and any deal your opponent extends or accepts is likely to be bad for you in the long run. Jambo sidesteps this pitfall by having players buy from and sell to a central Swahili market, all while interfering with one another by playing special cards. The large number of card types can be a little daunting the first time you play, but it makes every game of Jambo a unique experience. [ more info ]
Though there has been a recent resurgence in board game popularity, you still might not find these games at your local mall. The best place to purchase GGGs continues to be the Internet, and online retailers such as Boards and Bits, Boulder Games, Funagain, and Gamefest will carry most of these titles. Most metropolitan areas have a couple of specialty game stores too, so you may want to check your local yellow pages.