Paul: Like a snowman at the door, having a wank through your letterbox, Christmas is coming fast. Everyone and their dog is going to be asking for board games and hoping to unwrap something special but, but not everything that you ask for is going to be suited to families.
Does your brother want to play Twilight Imperium for eight hours? Does your dad understand how the Ambush card works in Memoir ‘44? Will your mum flip the table again if she loses another game of Space Hulk?
Here, then, are Shut Up & Sit Down’s recommendations for games your family can play at Christmas. These are all games with rules you can learn in just a few minutes, and won’t keep you returning to the manual. Some are simple, some are smart, some are physical and some are outright dangerous. But they’re all terribly, terribly good fun.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple
Paul: BONG. There you go. The timer’s started and you now have ten minutes to roll your way around an ancient temple, hoping to escape with your lives. Escape: The Curse of the Temple is a team game played in real time whose distinguishing feature is the constant rattle of dice as everyone tries to roll what they need to get to the next room, to search for gems, to help each other out of trouble.
Quinns: If you don’t get back to the safe room before the time is up, you lose one of your dice. That’s not going to help anyone. Collect enough magic gems and you may just be able to roll your way out of the exit. It’s quick. It’s hard. It’s frantic. It’s wonderful. It’s also definitely not for families that were expecting something lethargic after digesting literally thousands of calories of root vegetables and bird flesh.
Paul: What’s your favourite bird flesh, Quinns?
Quinns: The face. Speaking of faces!
Quinns: A gorgeously naughty game of confusion, bluffing, trickery and outright bafflement, Mascarade has everyone constantly swapping roles and rarely understanding who they are or what exactly they’re allowed to do. But none of this matters as long as you’re able to make money. Oh, and as long as nobody calls you out.
What actually happens is everyone spends each and every turn constantly calling people out and double, even triple-checking who they are and what exactly they’re supposed to be able to do. It’s confusion on a scale never before seen and it’s quite brilliant.
Paul: The first game we ever reviewed on the show is still a favourite of mine and still just as murderous as ever. Citadels is a tiny, tiny card game where everyone secretly picks a role every turn–
Quinns: Hang on. This is just the precursor to Mascarade, by the same designer. You’re trying to stop the march of time.
Paul: No! It’s more easy-going than Mascarade. Everyone’s developing a little tableaux of city cards, rather than Mascarade’s drunken squabble for coins. And while it has the same hidden roles, it moves at a pace even grandma can understand.
Quinns: THE MARCH OF TIME, PAUL.
Paul: Are you drunk?
Quinns: Paul and I don’t play party games, although we did go to a party once.
Paul: …so, yeah. Yes.
Quinns: While we’re on the subject of tiny card games, Love Letter is one of the most economically designed games we’ve covered, in terms of components and rules. It’s a game of outmaneuvering people to slip tokens of your affection into the hands of a princess. In real terms, it’s about puzzling out what card everyone else is holding, and hopefully getting the chance to peek at it, beat it or make them discard it.
Paul: That’s really it. You hold one card, draw a second on your turn, and discard one of them for its special power. What’s going on? How can a game be so tiny and so simple? It must be the power of love.
Paul: I’m very sad, nay, distraught to say that Carcassonne is still criminally underrepresented by SU&SD. It’s a simple game of laying tiles-
Quinns: And takin’ names!
Paul: …and claiming those tiles by judicious placement of wooden men.
One by one, players in Carcassonne build up a sprawling medieval map. Each tile is a fragment, a part of a castle, a road or maybe an abbey, and each player has a handful of followers they can use to claim these tiles. By themselves, the tiles aren’t worth much, but if you can place the tile that closes off some giant castle that you’ve claimed with a follower, you’ll earn a wealth of points.
Everyone else is trying to do exactly the same thing, blocking you off with their tiles or trying to find a way to squeeze their way into your point scoring, connecting their castles and roads to yours. It’s an easy game to learn, but it’s devious, it lets you build a charming playing area and it’s grown so much through expansions both smart and silly.
Quinns: Oh god. The less said about Carcassonne: The Catapult, the better.
Quinns: …is sold out in the UK right now! Sorry about that.
For the rest of the world: We know we keep recommending Cosmic Encounter, but that’s because it’s literally the best thing anyone’s ever invented.
Quinns: Penicillin? The wheel? Step aside, children! If your family can handle something a tad more intimidating than the other games on this list, it’s a no-brainer. This is an uncomplicated concept that’s endlessly reconfigured every time. All you need to do in Cosmic Encounter is land five of your ships on the other players’ planets, something you can do by diplomacy or by just blasting your way there, but so much of that is tied up in negotiations of which players to ask for help in each attack and each defense.
Also, every player plays one of 50 unique aliens with a power that somehow changes the game. Some of these powers are subtle or funny, others are outright dangerous in ways that almost break the game. It’s often ridiculous, and a constant, constant barrage of cosmic conundrums.
How do you handle a player attacking you, but promising to lose because another player has said that if that player wins then they’ll score an extra point and themselves win? And you have no way to lose the battle because all the cards you play to fight are too powerful? Why, you handle it like any other turn of Cosmic Encounter, of course.
Ooh, and a quick pro-tip: you can make this game an awful lot more accessible by simply leaving the flare cards out.
Paul: Tropical treasure hunting was once the purview of pirates, salty and malnourished people who bummed their way around the Caribbean. Nowadays, it’s open to everyone who has a 4×4 and a hand of cards. Tobago is a pretty, clever game of deduction that has you revving your way around an island, trying to dig up old relics and avoid terrible curses.
Quinns: All the rules of treasure tracking are very simple, which means you’re free to worry about beating other players to all the right spots. It’s also up to you just how much you push your luck as you dig for gold. For a game so simple, I’m not sure Tobago deserves to be as fun as it is. But I’ll let it slide. This time.
Paul: Bang bang. You shot me down. Bang bang. And I hit the ground. Bang bang, that fast-paced card game of gunfights and hidden identities, where the sheriff is trying to clean out the town and where nobody really knows who’s on whose side until the bullets start flying.
Bang is quick and deadly, like life in the Wild West, and it’s perfect for some Christmas day deception. Bang bang. That awful sound. Bang bang. Your grandad shot you down.
Quinns: I got to play Bang: The Dice Game last month.
Paul: Oh really! Is that the dice version of Bang?
Paul: Was it as good as Bang?
Quinns: If you ever wanted to watch your little brother struggle up a mountain and then freeze to death in the shelter of an overhang, then this exactly what you need. K2 is a comedically tough game of conquering nature, but its rules are actually very simple. The challenge is in conquering the weather and the cold, uncaring face of one of the world’s deadliest piles of rock, through nothing more than cards that either moves one of your climbers, or acclimatise them to the weather. But never both. You might see the problem here.
It’s about both planning and pushing your luck, choosing when to fight the weather or when to hide in your tent. And you know what? It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to the top of K2, as long as you climb higher than your mum, your dad or your cat. And survive.
Paul: Is the sequel out yet?
Quinns: Mount Everest? There are about three copies on all of Amazon, but I suspect people could call around and find it.
Paul: Jungle Speed is a really fast game of snap where each player has to grab at a small totem in the middle of the table when two matching cards are laid down BUT BE CAREFUL because the matching cards might not really match because some of them look very similar actually lots of them look very similar the whole game is about being fast and not making mistakes OH NO. See also: The excellent Dobble (called Spot It! in the United States), by the same publisher.
Quinns: Is it Christmas yet?
Quinns: Right. Let’s talk about Monopoly. The definitive game of the harsh realities of a market economy, right? RIGHT?
Paul: Power Grid is a game of running competing electric companies, and it’s twice as brutal as Monopoly, five times more fun and a HUNDRED times smarter. You’re simultaneously laying great lassos of cabling around your opponents, snatching the blueprints for the exact stations they wanted and bludgeoning them into a coma in the uranium marketplace.
Quinns: Yes. Making this the perfect game for competitive families that can handle an ever-so-slightly longer rules explanation. Not least because unlike the treasonous play of Monopoly and Risk, the best player of Power Grid is almost certainly going to win.
I’ve just noticed that the people in the above image have lackadaisically laid half their wooden power stations on their sides and now I’m REALLY ANNOYED. Who does that?!
Survive: Escape From Atlantis
Paul: Hang on. You put Survive in here? Have you even played it?
Quinns: No, but you have, right? And it’s meant to be amazing?
Paul: Well, it’s a pretty great family game, yeah. You’re all trying to fumble your men and women off a slowly-sinking city of Atlantis, filling up lifeboats, steering sharks into your sister’s placidly bobbing survivors. Spooking your dad with a wooden sea serpent.
Quinns: And it has whales, too?
Quinns: Best game ever!
Paul: OK. Well, that’s it for this year, everybody! An honorary mention goes to Dixit, which we didn’t include because Quinns is bored of it and because I think it’s a tall order to ask certain Dads for prose accompanying abstract art.
Quinns: Ooh, and my One To Watch for next year is Going Going Gone, which is a live-action auction game that we’ll be reviewing as early as I can manage it.