Quinns: Christmas is almost upon us, everyone! That sweet stretch of the calendar where board games take center stage, or at the very least share the stage with potatoes and Jesus Christ.
Are you thinking about buying a new game to play with your relatives? Or are you wondering which game to buy for the stalwart board game collector in your life?
Either way, we’ve got you covered with the below holiday game guide. Enjoy, everyone!
Board Games to Play with your Family
The following list is made up of games that are fantastic fun, have simple rules, can be played with a variety of player counts and have accessible theming (meaning they don’t feature orcs, killing, or the killing of orcs). In other words, they’re the games that we’d take home to our own nervy mums and stressed siblings.
Paul: Oh my goodness, yes, we’ve picked this based on tempting people to the table, not turning them off with elf overload.
Quinns: Since I’m kicking off, I’m going to trumpet my top game first. Mysterium is a beautiful, broody box that challenges everyone to solve a murder together in a haunted mansion, using nothing more than the strikingly-illustrated dream cards handed out by the person playing the role of… the deceased. You can watch our extravagant, costumed playthrough here, and see our “Learn to Play” video here.
If you think your family would prefer a crime that’s a bit more grounded in reality, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders and Other Cases offers all sorts of coyly written cases for your family to crack with real-world wit over several hours. Alternatively, Watson & Holmes (pictured above) offers the same thing but in a competitive format, with everyone running around London and scribbling notes separately, trying to solve the crime first. In other words, it’s like Clue but good.
For a co-op puzzle that’s a little faster and cheaper than either of these, pick up one of the fantastic EXIT series, which offer a memorable escape room in a tiny box. There are a few competing games that do this, but EXIT does so with by far the most style.
Paul: It’s so very nice to think of everyone co-operating together over the holiday season, but what if you want to get a little more wicked? Spyfall and its sequel are still two of the best, funniest and easiest party games out there. Both have everyone trying to sniff out who in their midst has not been dealt the same location card as the rest of them, by asking oblique questions like “Hey you, what’s the weather like here?” or “How would you get out if there’s a fire?” Not only is it constantly hilarious, though the game has rules for how you track scores and time rounds, nobody I know cares. We just laugh as we try to catch a liar.
Similarly, Diamant (pictured above), aka Incan Gold, is such a divinely devilish push-your-luck game that I’m jealous that I didn’t come up with it myself. You’re all delving underground for ancient treasures, exploring tile by tile, with each new step revealing either more treasure or more danger. You can choose to cut and run at any point, but if other people leave with you, you split the spoils. Head onward and you may uncover more, but if you come across two dangers of the same type then everyone who hasn’t left loses. Simple. Brutal. Greedy.
Quinns: If your family likes trivia, Wits & Wagers is the board game community’s quiz game of choice. Rather than the uncomfortable pressure of having to publicly answer questions, everyone writes down their answers to impossible questions at the same time AND gets to bet on whose answer they think will be the closest to the mark. Wits & Wagers is, however, America-focused in its questions. For our UK audience I’d recommend the still-excellent Mr Lister’s Quiz Shootout.
“My family will start frowning if I pull out a big box!” you cry? Not to worry! If your family are nervous about committing to large-scale fun, here are some smaller boxes that look significantly less intimidating…
Since we first discovered Skull this site hasn’t shut up™ about it. If your family likes bluffing and catching one another out then you should buy it immediately. It packs a huge amount of game into hardly any rules at all, and players will soon find themselves honking and clapping like trained seals at clever or cruel plays. You could also get Cockroach Poker, which is just as good, just as mean but has some really cute illustrations of cheeky little bats, toads and (yes!) cockroaches.
Then there’s Codenames, of course. This team game of sending codewords to your teammates took the board gaming scene by storm in recent years, and for good reason. A single game of it is very quick, plays up to 10 people, and is spectacularly tense.
Paul: Oh absolutely, yes, and the new pictorial version, Codenames Pictures, is arguably even weirder.
Quinns: Do you have to cater to kids? No problem. Flick ‘Em Up (seen below) lets you play out a wild west shootout on your dining room table, with players taking turns to nudge their cowboys around town and flick bullets at one another in a contest that is both very silly and absurdly evocative. It’s also available in wood or a cheaper plastic edition. If the thought of rescuing tiny cowboys from under the fridge fills you with dread, Loony Quest is another great kid-friendly game that sees everyone trying to draw a line through a maze on a slip of transparent plastic, then popping it onto the maze to see how they did. It’s fiendishly tricky and couldn’t be simpler.
Paul: Also fun for all ages is Crossing, with it’s almost painfully simple premise: Simultaneously point at piles of gems and win them… just as long as nobody points at what you want. Except there are fewer piles than there are players, so there’s always going to be a clash. But what if you could also point at someone else’s stash the round after they won it? It barely even sounds like a game, but it’s marvelous.
Quinns: Finally, there are the two games that – full disclosure! – this very site has designed expansion packs for. Monikers offers the excellent public domain game where players have to get their team to guess the names of people against the clock, except with a couple of extra rounds and literally hundreds of funny pre-written cards.
And then there’s The Metagame, which is really ten games in one box, all of which use the game’s hundreds of beautifully-illustrated culture cards. It’s really better seen than explained. Fortunately, you can see us playing it right here (and if you’d like preorder our expansion here).
Double-finally, in the spirit of Christmas, here’s SU&SD business manager Chris with a few suggestions of his own!
Chris: Holiday boardgaming goes back forever in my family, but it took very careful purchasing to take us from Hearts, Rummikub, and Scrabble to games I’ll still enjoy when the card corners wear thin. But mention player aids or victory points and dad’s not leaving the couch, and everyone better ‘get it’ after the first round or it’ll never be seen again. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had a ton of success over the years!
Bohnanza is a weird and wonderful classic, and such a unique card game of bean farming and trading that you really shouldn’t miss it. Which you probably haven’t because it’s been around since the ‘90s. And don’t forget Sushi Go! (seen above), which Quinns once called “possibly a better 7 Wonders.” It is for sure faster, cuter, and more intuitive. It’s also my sister’s favourite game.
Does your family like numbers? If so, let’s talk auctions. For Sale is a pocket sized card game where you bid on properties of varying decrepitude, and then sell them for all you can. It’s quick and easy, which means everyone will want to play again the minute you finish. If this kind of game is your grandmother’s jam then also check out the Canadianly named No Thanks! which turns the formula on its head and everyone bids to take the fewest points.
The Game of 49 isn’t quite a card game like the last two – it’s more or less bingo with bidding – but the new edition is cheap, and your family just might love it. But this year I’m excited to introduce the family to Modern Art (seen below), a game that is 4 different types of auctions in one box! Hmm. I wonder if we have a problem?
Moving swiftly along, I actually prefer Deception: Murder in Hong Kong to Mysterium. The magic that happens when the right combo is discovered, or just enough doubt has swayed the investigation away from the truth is a thrill for me every time, regardless of which side I’m on. And on the subject of collaborative puzzles, I still can’t find a better co-operative puzzle than Burgle Bros.
Board Games for that Special Gamer
Quinns: Any of the games on the above family-friendly list would make awesome gifts, especially Watson & Holmes, a fantastic game that slipped a lot of the board game community by upon release. That said, as a species, board gamers tend to get excited by big boxes with lots of pieces and a worryingly long manual. If you want to buy that board gamer in your life something a little… stronger, here are some excellent new(ish) games. Lots more can be found by clicking the “SU&SD Recommends” button on our Games Page (it can take a bit to load, because it’s just that bloated with Good Times).
Let’s start with the big boy. The brand-new Twilight Imperium 4th edition (seen above) is essentially a space opera in a box. It’s an absolutely enormous game with a price tag to match: $130 is the cheapest I could find it. That said, it’s so impractically big that it’s the sort of thing people won’t buy for themselves, which makes it a good, extravagant gift.
If you wanted to buy something almost as generous as Twilight Imperium, but your friend is more into puzzles and management than EPIC LASER DEATH, A Feast for Odin is a game of managing a viking settlement, and an absolute labor of love from designer Uwe Rosenberg. There’s not much interaction between players, but you’re so wrapped up in your own problems that you’ll hardly notice.
Chris: Another option if you’re really looking to blow the budget, Crokinole is by no means new or complicated, but a Crokinole board is a lovely wooden centerpiece to any game collection, and I have yet to find a dexterity game I’d rather play. It’s curling meets marbles with little wooden disks, and has always been a family favourite, coming out every Christmas since as far back as I can remember.
Paul: Moving onto games that are heavier while not being that expensive, the recent re-release of Tigris & Euphrates (seen above) raised a lot of ears, eyebrows and hairpieces (don’t ask). If someone important in your life really wants to chew over some deliciously deep decisions, really wants to bite into something maths-y and complex, this Knizia Classic should keep their brain busy well into the new year.
Quinns: Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 is another of the year’s coolest releases. That said, the series starts with Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 so you might want to buy them that first, though it doesn’t make a huge difference.
As for other affordable games (around the $40 mark), if you’re buying games for a fan of deduction, Whitehall Mystery is a lovely little game of chasing your friend around London (because they’ve murdered someone, so perhaps “lovely” isn’t the right word). If your friend or family member likes puzzles, Barenpark (seen below) is a fantastic game of designing bear enclosures. Great Western Trail is significantly more complicated, but it’s a puzzle of profound beauty and depth.
Paul: Aha! We’ve flown full-speed into a zone where we can find a wonderful compromise between canny game mechanics and approachability, in the petite and pedalsome form of Flamme Rouge. Build your own cycle track and then enjoy deviously difficult races, judging just the right moment to play a particular card or slipstream another player. This is one of the best racing games ever, as fast and tight as any pair of cycle shorts.
Quinns: For around $30, I think you’ll find the best bang for your buck in the older releases of SU&SD’s favourite designer, Vlaada Chvatil. Board game prices tend to lower slightly with time, which means absolute belters like Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Petz and Tash-Kalar can all be founder a little cheaper than you’d expect.
For $10-$20, we’d like to suggest some of this year’s best small box card games. Pit Crew is fast-paced frenetic madness for up to 9 players. Not Alone (pictured below) is a fantastic little game where one player – an alien – stalks a whole table of players through the wilderness. And finally, H.M.S. Dolores is a startlingly tight and cruel game of bluffing and set collection.
Paul: Oh boy those are ALL GOOD.
Chris: Have a lovely holiday, everybody! I hope you, your friends and your family find the perfect game to play together this year. And if that game ends up being Hearts, Rummikub or Scrabble then know that you don’t walk that road alone (and at least it’s not Catan again).
Quinns: And for the board gamer in your life that truly has everything? You could do a lot worse than buy them a candle to add an olfactory element to to their favourite game, with a metal die hidden inside.