As the nation teeters on the brink of fiscal ruin, we look back to our last economic catastrophe for guidance on how we should act today. Take, for instance, that scrappy entrepreneur Charles Darrow. Unemployed in the summer of 1929, a board game sprung full-formed from his head like Athena from Zeus. He introduced the game to his family and then his friends; word got out, and soon folks from all over town were clamoring to play this remarkable new pastime. His invention was later sold to Parker Brothers and, when released to the general public under the name Monopoly, sold so many copies that Mr. Darrow eventually became a millionaire.
That, at least, was the Official Parker Brothers story for about 50 years, until it was revealed to be approximately 100 percent pure marketing BS. Charles Darrow, it turns out, actually swiped the game from some Quakers, and the original point of the game was to demonstrate the evils of monopolies, not extol their virtues. Dude, seriously: swiped the game from Quakers? That’s some bad mojo right there.
Anyway, where was I going with this? Something about how board games are a great entertainment value, even in times of economic hardship? Or maybe I was going to point out that, unlike the legend of Charles Darrow, real board-game designers put a lot of work into their creations, painstakingly testing and adjusting parameters to ensure everything is perfectly balanced? Or maybe I was going to segue from classic games like Monopoly to the modern games I introduce below. Honestly, I have no idea.
But one thing I do know: Board games make great gifts! So great, in fact, that every year I assemble a list of Good Gift Games (G3s), titles that even those who don’t typically play games will love playing. In doing so, I primarily look for those that meet three criteria:
- 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 an hour or less to complete
This was such a banner year for GGGs that I had a hard time narrowing the field down to 10. But here they are, your 2008 Good Gift Games. Buy some for your friends or buy one for yourself and try to pawn it off as your own—it’s the American way!
Z-Man Games, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $35
“In this game we are all epidemiologists, trying to synthesize vaccines to four deadly diseases that are rapidly spreading across the globe…” My God, can you even imagine a less-enticing introduction to a board game? It sounds so soporific that you’d expect to find pillows and PJs in the box. And yet Pandemic, perhaps the best family game of 2008, has exactly this premise: Travel the world, conduct research, and cure the virulent contagions that threaten mankind. As a cooperative game, Pandemic has the players working as a team, winning or losing as a group. And, like any good medical thriller, the tension in Pandemic builds geometrically: Halfway through you’ll be high-fiving each other over your presumed victory; 15 minutes later you’ll be sweating bullets as the situation grows increasingly dire. Despite a theme that screams “biochem exam!” Pandemic is the everyone-who-plays-it-loves-it game of the year. (More info)
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 90 minutes, $45
You kids have it so easy these days, what with your internets and your pirated music and your celery salt. Back when I was a kid, we had to build our own tools out of sticks and rocks. And we liked it! So you will you, with Stone Age. Each turn you send your tribe out to perform various tasks: Collect resources, harvest food, erect buildings, and the like. You can even send two of your colleagues to the Nookie Hut to create more tribesmen. Reap the rewards of these assorted actions, and then reinvest in your fledgling empire. It’s like a simplified Civilization for the pre-civilization era. You’ll buy it for the beautiful board and intuitive system, but you’ll keep coming back for the Nookie Hut. (More info)
North Star Games, 3 to 8 players, 30 minutes, $35
Say Anything is the exciting role-playing game set in the world of Lloyd Dobler!! Amateur-kickbox your way around Seattle, and see how long you can hold a boombox aloft while… OK, I’m kidding. In truth, Say Anything is the newest offering from North Star, a company with a knack for turning out party games that appeal even to those who claim to hate party games (like me). On each turn one player is appointed the Judge, and he asks the group a question: “What’s the most important invention of the last century?” for example, or “Who is the most annoying celebrity in show business?” After everyone has jotted down their replies, players then bet on which answer the Judge will select as “Best.” Tip: Put “The Morning News” for “What website could you not live without” and you’ll win every time. (More info)
Rio Grande Games, 2 players, 25 minutes, $33
For more than a decade the GIPF Project has been devoted to creating modern, two-player, abstracts. All have been well received, and the newest addition, TZAAR, has garnered rave reviews, even winning the Games Magazine “Game of the Year” award. Like all games in the GIPF line, TZAAR is easy to learn and short in duration, but packed full of meaningful decisions and opportunity for strategic play. Each player has three types of pieces, and moving them onto each other form stacks. Taller stacks are more powerful, but making lots of stacks leaves you with fewer individual pieces you have to work with—and it’s crucial that you not run out of any type of piece. If you thought chess and checkers were the sum total of abstract gaming, check out TZAAR and prepared to be amazed. (More info)
Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game
Flying Frog Productions, 2 to 6 players, 60 minutes, $50
Ah, nothing evokes the festive holiday season like tearing through a horde of zombies with your yuletide chainsaw. Though thematically incongruous for a list like this, Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game certainly meets all the GGG criteria: It’s quick, it’s easy, and it puts the “fun” in “fundead.” The game casts some players in the role of Heroes and the rest as Zombies, fighting tooth and nail (and pitchfork and shotgun) in the heart of a small town. The best thing about LNoE is its replay-ability: The game comes with five different scenarios (with more available online), each of the playable Heroes is unique (the Hot Nurse can heal, the Sheriff always has a revolver, etc.), and the rulebook includes an “Advanced” section in case the basic game just doesn’t include enough dynamite for your liking. (More info)
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 30 minutes, $45
I belong to a board-game discussion mailing list, on which participants will often offer long, sober, academic analyses of modern games. Most of the messages regarding Dominion, however, have been along the lines of “OMG” and “Awesome!!!” Each player starts with an identical hand of seven cards; they use those cards to “buy” more cards, which are face up on the table. They use the newly acquired cards to purchase yet more, until each has built up a formidable deck from practically nothing. This innovative system is complemented by the huge amount of options available: The game comes with 500(!) cards in total. It’s perfect for the recovering Magic: the Gathering addict on your list, or anyone who enjoys a quick card game with tons of variability. (More info)
Parker Brothers, 1 to 4 players, 30 minutes, $27
Many spin-off games offer essentially the same gameplay as their progenitors, albeit with revised graphics and a well-known brand slapped onto the cover (“Hi Ho! Cherry-O: Ultimate Fighting Championship Edition!”). Not so with Sorry! Sliders—Sorry! may claim to be the papa, but he was clearly cuckolded by crokinole. The game is played with slightly oversize pawns, each of which had a ball bearing embedded in its base. Players finger-flick their pieces down a ramp to the center of the board, hoping to knock their pieces into the center hole (and the pieces of opponents off the board entirely). Great fun for sober kids and/or drunken adults. (More info)
Queen, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $40
Strategy games are fun and all, but sometimes you just want to roll a big handful of dice. If that’s what you’re hankering for, Airships has what you crave. On a turn you first select a goal: rolling a total of five or more on two dice, say. If you meet your goal, you take the corresponding card, which will confer onto you some benefit in future turns: more dice to throw, say, or the ability to modify the numbers you roll. Collect enough of these power-ups and you can turn your attention toward victory points by purchasing zeppelins or working to construct the Hindenburg. (More info)
Z-Man Games, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $35
Z-Man Games has earned a reputation for producing quality games (see Pandemic, above) that look great. But the quality of the components in Wasabi! exceeds even Z-Man’s high standards. Players put food tiles onto the board, hoping to create the chains of ingredients necessary to complete their recipes. For example, a line of tiles composed of maki, salmon, and roe would allow you to play the “Waterfall Roll” card. Make your entrees with special aplomb and you can even score bonus points in the form of wasabi cubes. It’s a clever game that looks delicious and won’t result in tetrodotoxin poisoning. (More info)
The Hanging Gardens
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $35
As the husband of a professional botanist, I am always on the lookout for floral-themed games. So The Hanging Gardens was a no-brainer for me. Your goal is to expand your garden (not just any garden but the Hanging Garden of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) by playing cards to a tableau, striving to put the same species in adjacent plots. When you get the same flower in three or more contiguous spaces you can close it out and score points, or leave it open in the hopes of planting yet more of that type nearby. Although deciding whether to “cash out” and take your points can provoke a bit of agony, The Hanging Garden is, by and large, as relaxing as an afternoon tending to your dahlias. (More info)
Interested? Plug the name of your city into Google Maps, search for “games,” and see if there are any specialty stores nearby; the best will have most of these titles. Alternatively, you can shop online. Check out Funagain Games, Boulder Games, Boards & Bits, Gamefest, and Amazon, to name a few.
Have fun, and happy holidays!